Saturday, 3 September 2011
Brian Wilson at The Sage - interview by Terry Kelly
But it was an accolade conferred on Brian Wilson more than 40 years ago. Wilson, now 69, has faced many personal and professional issues in the intervening years.
Speaking to Brian Wilson is rather like trying to catch a genie in a jar. In between staccato replies, long pauses and one-word answers, Wilson gives just brief glimpses of the man behind the musical legend.
The Californian musician, who created such pop single classics as California Girls and Good Vibrations, plus album masterworks Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile, will appear at The Sage in Gateshead on September 10.
Almost exactly a year since the release of the album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, the concert will be split equally between reinterpretations of the earlier American songwriting genius and Wilson's own unique, sunshine-splashed back catalogue.
I start our conversation with what I think is an easy opener, asking Wilson if the tour with his extensive band is going well, adding that I believe he's speaking to me from Saratoga, in his native California.
"Yes, the tour is going fine. I've got a gig tonight."
Pressing quickly on, I ask if his concert at The Sage will be split between his recent Gershwin album - which includes new versions of unfinished songs - and Beach Boys and solo numbers.
The man who helped mastermind the timeless Californian pop sound agrees, but makes no further comment.
Eventually, Wilson, the lynchpin of one of America's most influential bands, which started life in a Los Angeles suburb in 1961, along with his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, opens up when I ask about his first contact with the music of Gershwin.
"When I was three years old, I was taken to my grandmother's house and heard his Rhapsody in Blue for the first time."
Wilson opens up even further when I ask him when he was first able to play Rhapsody in Blue on the piano. He said: "I was about 28 years old and I always loved the violin section in the middle."
The man behind the international surf sound then proceeds to sing down the phone from California, creating a vocal version of the violin part in question: "Da, da, da, da, daaaa..."
Asked for his own personal favourite from his Gershwin album, he chooses They Can't Take That Away From Me.
Wilson has never been a lyrics man, instead collaborating with several people over the years - Mike Love included - to create some of rock music's most cherished songs and albums, from Pet Sounds to Surf's Up. He admitted he felt closest to the lyrics of his long-time musical partner Van Dyke Parks.
It was the latter who provided the weird words for Smile, a work abandoned in the 1960s as too avant -garde and not commercial enough for Beach Boys' fans.
But when I ask about the forthcoming release of the original sessions, Wilson seems hesitant.
"There's about 70 minutes of original takes on the album, but I wasn't really involved."
However, just days after our chat, Wilson's own website carries a detailed press release about the new Smile album, mentioning detailed liner notes by Wilson and the two remaining original Beach Boys, Mike Love and Al Jardine.
Mentioning that my favourite Beach Boys track is The Warmth of the Sun elicits a more positive response.
"I wrote that with Mike Love at Brian Wilson Productions. President Kennedy had just been shot and everyone was very sad. You like the ballads, huh?"
Wilson faced a gruelling regime as main writer and producer for the Beach Boys in the 1960s and many commentators believe this pushed him towards drug addiction.
In a more reflective mood, Wilson commented: "Capitol Records kept pressing me all the time, but I was young and energetic."
Wilson has publicly admitted that his songwriting muse has deserted him recently.
Asked how long it is since he has written a song, he tells me: "Five years. But Joe Thomas is producing another record with me, which may be some Beach Boys songs and other material."
Before I have a chance to thank California's most famous musical genius for our chat, Wilson interjects.
"Thank you very much for the interview." The phone line from Saratoga goes dead.
Brian Wilson will appear at The Sage on Saturday, September 10.
Tickets are priced £50, £45 and £40. Call the box office on 443 4661 or visit http://www.thesagegateshead.org/