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Rock's reclusive genius returns to center stage with a 'Smile'

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004


  Brain Wilson performs the song "Heroes and Villains" during a rehearsal at a sound stage in Burbank, Calif., Sept. 22, 2004. Wilson, who was the guiding force behind the Beach Boys at a time when the Beach Boys mattered as much to music as the Beatles did, is back in all his creative glory. AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

Brain Wilson performs the song "Heroes and Villains" during a rehearsal at a sound stage in Burbank, Calif., Sept. 22, 2004. Wilson, who was the guiding force behind the Beach Boys at a time when the Beach Boys mattered as much to music as the Beatles did, is back in all his creative glory.

AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian

LOS ANGELES -- If Brian Wilson could change just one thing in life, it wouldn't be the legendary emotional traumas, the insecurities, the drug abuse, the battles with weight or the endless legal conflicts that nearly destroyed him.

''I would have made the rhythm of 'California Girls' a little better,'' Wilson deadpans. ''That,'' he adds with the slightest of smiles, ''is my only regret.''

Were Wilson not shy and extremely modest by nature, he'd probably be wearing a bigger smile these days. The genius who was the guiding force behind the Beach Boys -- at a time when the group mattered to music as much as the Beatles -- is back in all his creative glory.

The proof is ''Smile,'' a 47-minute rock opera in three movements that, when the composer first envisioned it in 1966, was to have been a ''teenage symphony to God.''

He was 24 then. He is 62 now. Except for a slight paunch and the gray overtaking his wavy brown hair, Wilson's appearance has changed little from the gangly, cherubic-faced youth who captivated the world with such songs as ''Surfin' Safari,'' ''Little Deuce Coupe,'' ''Surfer Girl,'' ''Catch a Wave'' and ''Fun Fun Fun.''

Though much of the public may forever associate him with the Beach Boys' three-minute odes to sand, girls and cars, Wilson grew to be one of pop music's greatest composers.

After the Beatles stunned the pop music world with the release of the elaborately produced ''Rubber Soul'' in 1965, Wilson one-upped them with ''Pet Sounds.'' The Beatles, in turn, responded with ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,'' a work still regarded by Rolling Stone magazine as the greatest rock album ever made (''Pet Sounds'' is No. 2).

'''Rubber Soul' was such an experience for me to hear that I went to my piano and I started writing 'Pet Sounds' right away,'' Wilson, dressed in blue jeans, a pullover shirt and tennis shoes, said recently during a break from rehearsing ''Smile'' for a concert tour.

It was while the Beatles were in the studio putting together ''Sgt. Pepper'' that he and longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks were working on ''Smile'' for the Beach Boys.

Those who heard early tapes predicted it would be the greatest rock accomplishment ever. But it was not to be, and the reasons why quickly became the stuff of legend.

Among the stories that spread over the years: Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown. He realized he couldn't top the Beatles again, and it drove him over the edge. His fellow Beach Boys -- in those days Wilson's cousin Mike Love; his brothers, Carl and Dennis Wilson; and Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine -- couldn't understand, let alone begin to play, an album as complicated as ''Smile.''

So in frustration, it was said, Wilson set his studio on fire, destroyed all the ''Smile'' tapes, then locked himself in drug-addled seclusion in his room.

Indeed, his subsequent battles to overcome drug abuse and other problems would be well documented.

''The pressure of trying to live up to my name was a little hard for me, so I had some difficulties, some mental difficulties,'' he acknowledges now. ''But I worked through it.''

The reason he gives for shelving ''Smile,'' however, is much less intriguing.

''I don't think it would have been a hit album,'' he says matter of factly. ''I think it would have been a big bomb.''

''It was too advanced music. It was avant-garde music and it was too ahead of its time,'' he adds, noting that even after his wife, Melinda, persuaded him to finish it this year he still had doubts that it would be well received.

Fueled by sometimes-drug-induced visions, ''Smile'' sought to create a sprawling musical landscape of mid-America, one that extended across the 20th century and from the Midwest to Hawaii. Lushly orchestrated and vocally challenging (a 22-piece band and a dozen voices are needed to perform it in concert), it clearly would have been the ultimate Beach Boys album.

Instead it has become Wilson's long-delayed masterpiece, a symphonic work bookended by two of his most-heralded pop songs, ''Heroes and Villains'' and ''Good Vibrations.''

''It's pretty much like if Frank Zappa and Mozart got together,'' is how his current drummer, Jim Hines, describes it.

Wilson himself shuns comparisons to Mozart, Beethoven or other major musical figures. He cites his influences as his contemporaries the Beatles and, before that, producer Phil Spector, who created rock's ''Wall of Sound.''

''I don't consider myself to be a genius,'' he says. ''I consider myself to be a clever songwriter.''

He acknowledges that ''Good Vibrations'' and ''California Girls'' are masterpieces, but he can't begin to explain how he created them.

''He says he is a conduit for God, and I really believe that's true,'' says musician Jeffrey Foskett, a friend and collaborator of more than 25 years.

Foskett was witness to some of the dark years, and he says Wilson's reputation then, as a tortured, reclusive genius, was not off the mark.

''At some point in his life, he suffered greatly,'' Foskett says. ''But in the last 10 years ... Brian has really had a turnaround.''

Wilson broke with the Beach Boys years ago amid the band's many legal squabbles. He has outlived both of his brothers and broken off contact with the group's two veteran members.

''Mike Love and Bruce Johnston are out of my life,'' he says, making it clear he doesn't wish to discuss them further.

He abandoned touring with the Beach Boys in the mid-1960s, although he says his well-known battles with stage fright weren't a major reason.

''I just didn't like the road,'' he says. ''I liked to stay home and write songs. And when they'd come off the tour, they would record the songs I wrote.''

As for the stage fright, musicians who work with him now say Wilson appears to have gotten over it.

''Oh, no. No, no, it's not gone at all,'' he says with a chuckle. ''I still have stage fright all the time. Before every concert, I do about a half hour of stage fright. But then, as soon as we hit our first notes and the band starts to play, and I start to sing, my fears go away. My fears and phobias just dissolve.''

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