Brian Wilson sounded enthusiastic, cheery, happy even.
Wilson never sounds happy — except maybe when he’s singing certain Beach Boys songs.
If you saw “Love and Mercy,” Minnesotan Bill Pohlad’s acclaimed 2014 biopic of Wilson, you know he’s a tortured soul, a musical genius troubled by depression, drugs, mysterious voices in his head, bad therapy and an abusive, demanding father. When you read his new memoir, “I Am Brian Wilson,” due Oct. 11, you’ll get an even deeper exploration into the mental illness and the rebound, the villains and heroes in his life. But if you talk to him by phone, he can come across as happy — even if only for a few minutes.
On a 10-point scale, how happy is he?
“I’m at 10,” Wilson said without hesitation.
He’s happy because he’s on tour making music (with a concert Sunday at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis). His shows include a re-creation in entirety of the album “Pet Sounds,” his masterwork from 1966.
“It’s a very sentimental experience,” he said of playing “Pet Sounds.” “It’s probably the very best achievement I ever did. So I’m very proud of it.”
“Pet Sounds” is one of the most acclaimed albums in popular music history. In 2012, Rolling Stone ranked it at No. 2 on a list of the 500 greatest albums. After “Pet Sounds” was released, John Lennon phoned Wilson to say how much he loved the album. Paul McCartney has often stated that “Pet Sounds” inspired the Beatles’ ambitious 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
One of rock’s first concept albums, “Pet Sounds” is a symphony on loneliness and alienation, employing an innovative-for-its-time wild array of instruments, including theremin, harpsichord and barking dogs, and a variety of styles such as classical, jazz and psychedelic rock.
In 2000, Wilson performed “Pet Sounds” on tour with a different large orchestra in every city. He thinks the current tour is better.
“This one is more polished,” he offered. “The musicians are more accustomed to the music.”
Still has stage fright
Even though he started performing in high school, Wilson still gets stage fright before every gig. It starts about two hours before showtime. He tries to occupy himself by talking to people, eating dinner and doing vocal warmups.
When does he get over it?
“I don’t,” he said. “Till the music starts. As soon as I hear the band, I’m good.”
Wilson speaks in short, simple, declarative sentences. He speaks haltingly. He rarely elaborates. He seldom gets up enough steam for a full paragraph. We breezed through about 35 questions and answers in 15 minutes on Sunday before his sound check in Easton, Pa. He can seem flat, like someone who has had a stroke. He is obviously damaged. The details are in “I Am Brian Wilson.”
The book reads like he talks.
“Many of my worst memories are from being nervous [onstage], and many others are from the things I did to keep myself from being nervous up there. Some of the drinking was because of that. Some of the drugs were because of that. Some of the voices in my head I heard just before I went onstage, and they didn’t have anything good to say about me.”
There have been many books written about the Beach Boys and some specifically about Wilson. He decided to do his own book “because I wanted people to know about my life. People are interested in some good trivia.”
The success of the “Love and Mercy” film certainly made writing the book easier, he said. “It got me inspired to tell my life story.”
Lauding the movie for being “brilliant, very factual” and well acted, he acknowledged that “it was a heavy-duty experience to see it” — but he didn’t cry at all.
Book by phone
For the book, Wilson worked with New York author Ben Greenman, who has collaborated on memoirs with Gene Simmons, Questlove, Simon Cowell, George Clinton and Mariel Hemingway.
The process, according to Wilson, involved countless telephone interviews over the course of eight months. Each interview lasted about 40 minutes. Then Greenman put together the book.
Wilson said he has no regrets about anything that’s in the book, which details his insecurities, feuds and dark days, including how his father abused him mentally and physically. However, one can sense that Wilson is reluctant to do a tell-all, refusing to address certain topics, such as his fractured and litigious relationship with his cousin Mike Love, who performs under the Beach Boys name.
Wilson said he will send Love a copy of “I Am Brian Wilson” and that he plans to read Love’s own “Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy,” which was published last month.
How would he characterize his relationship with Love?
“Nonexistent,” he said succinctly.
They haven’t talked for four years — since the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary tour ended in acrimony and Wilson resumed performing under his own name, with fellow original Beach Boy Al Jardine, among others.
The Beach Boys were a family band — brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, their cousin Love and neighbor Jardine, all managed by Murry Wilson, the boys’ father.
By all accounts, Murry was tyrannical. He hit Brian in the head, a blow that coupled with a kid hitting Brian with a lead pipe rendered him deaf in one ear. Brian’s life was filled with issues, including more than 15 years of therapy with a control-freak shrink named Eugene Landy who even insisted on writing songs with Wilson.
Many times, the memoir references Wilson’s anxiety attack on a 1964 airplane flight to a Beach Boys concert in Houston. After that, he pretty much retired from touring, though he continued to write and record with the group into the 1970s. In 1999, with both of his brothers deceased, he returned to the road to promote his fourth solo album, “Imagination.” He’d stopped seeing Landy in 1992, thanks to the help of his second wife, Melinda, a central character in the film “Love and Mercy.”
“I’ve been seeing this one psychiatrist for 23 years,” the pop maestro explained. “We don’t meet quite as often now.”
What would the 74-year-old Wilson advise the 24-year-old Wilson?
“My advice would be to not take quite as many drugs,” he said. “And if you start a song, finish a song, you know.”
Wilson has long been saddled with the label “genius.” Even if he doesn’t always wear it well (his 11 solo albums have been hit-and-miss), he accepts it.
“I don’t mind. I’m very proud,” he said. “I don’t know what genius means.”
Never one to totally rest on his laurels, Wilson talks about making a rock ’n’ roll album next year. He has ideas for a couple of new songs, and he plans to also include some of his favorite rock classics including “Rock Around the Clock,” “Johnny B. Goode” and “Gimme Some Lovin’.”
With the memoir about to be published, maybe it’s time for Wilson to assess how he wants to be remembered.
“As a great singer,” he said in his typically understated, simplified manner.
Then he sounded all anxious because he had another phone interview to conduct. However, when I told him that I looked forward to seeing him in Minneapolis, the anxiety evaporated and he volunteered something.
“Hey, Minneapolis, that’s where my mother was born,” he said enthusiastically. “Audree Korthof.”
Does he have any relatives in Minneapolis? Any Minneapolis roots?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I never found out.”