The shifting sands of time

He heard voices, did drugs, and fell apart. Can the Beach Boys’ 50-year reunion tour put Brian Wilson back together again? Andrew Romano reports

BRIAN WILSON, the lumbering ‘savant’ who wrote, produced, and sang an outlandish number of immortal pop songs in the 1960s with The Beach Boys, is swivelling in a chair, belly out, arms dangling, next to his faux-grand piano at the cavernous Burbank, California studio where he and the group’s surviving members are rehearsing for their 50th-anniversary reunion tour, which begins this week.

At 24, Wilson shelved his most avant-garde album, Smile, and retreated for decades into a haze of drug abuse and mental illness; 45 years later, he has reemerged, stable but somewhat screwy, to give the sun-and-surf thing a final go.

Before that, the reconstituted Beach Boys have to learn how to sing That’s Why God Made the Radio, the first new A-side Wilson has written for the band since 1980. So they have gathered, once again, around his piano. I’d like to imagine that this is how it was when they first accustomed their vocal cords to, say, California Girls. Except it’s not, exactly: back then, Wilson was the maestro, conducting each singer as his falsetto floated skyward and his fingers pecked out the accompaniment.

Now, he stares at a teleprompter and is told when to sing, ceding his bench to one member of the 10-man backing band that will buffer the Beach Boys in concert, and looking on as another orchestrates the harmonies and handles the loftier notes. At first, the blend is rough: Wilson strains to hit the high point of the hook; frontman Mike Love and guitarist Al Jardine miss their cues. But after a few passes, the stray voices begin to mesh. They begin to sound like the Beach Boys. Close your eyes, shutting out Wilson’s swoosh of silver hair and Love’s four golden rings, and 1965 isn’t such a stretch.

Or it isn’t until someone’s iPhone rings. Jardine’s. He turns away from the piano and presses the phone to his ear. “I’m going to have to call you back, because — wait, what?” He shakes his head, then hangs up. “Dick Clark just passed away,” he says. The room begins to murmur; people cover their mouths with their hands.

As each Beach Boy absorbs the news, I watch Wilson — always the conduit, the live wire, the pulsing limbic system of the Beach Boys. He says nothing. Then I overhear him talking to Jardine. “We’re 70 fucking years old,” he says. “You’ll be 70 in September. I’ll be 70 in June. I’m worried about being 70.”

“It’s still a few months off,” Jardine says.

“That’s true,” Wilson says. He pauses for a few seconds, looking away from his bandmate. “I want to know how did we get here?” he finally says. “How did we ever fucking get here? That’s what I want to know.”

It’s not a bad question. I have other questions, too, which is why I flew to Los Angeles to meet the Beach Boys, then continued on to their concerts in New Orleans and New York, then spent weeks listening to their new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio (out Jun 5).

Why did we care enough about the Beach Boys to buy more than 100m of their records? Why do we still care enough to buy $70m in reunion-tour tickets? Should we still care? Or is nostalgia all that’s left? Also: what is it like to be America’s first 50-year-old rock-and-roll band? Is it morbid, or is it inspiring? Cathartic or embarrassing? Or is it something else entirely?

But “how did we ever fucking get here?” — that’s the place to start. As a lifelong Beach Boys fan, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me “What’s wrong with Brian Wilson?” The suspicious eyes. The slack expression. The mirthless laugh. The slurred speech. They assume he’s had a stroke.

I respond by reciting Wilson’s clinical diagnosis: he suffers from schizo-affective disorder — sometimes, he hears voices — and mild manic depression. Still, after years of studying his past and obsessing over his music, I can’t help but think that psychiatry and chemistry don’t explain why Brian Wilson is the way he is. My theory is that he was never able, never quite allowed, to become an adult — and that this, more than anything else, has been the story of his life, and of his band.

Set aside the childhood of father Murry’s relentless verbal and physical abuse, which left emotional ‘scars’, and start, instead, with the just-as-formative musical adolescence that Brian lives through and mines, in real time, with the Beach Boys.

At 19, he writes his first song, ‘Surfer Girl’, a kind of inverted doo-wop hymn full of major sevenths and passing sixths that culminates in a swooning falsetto coda a half-step up from the original key.

Over the next few years, Brian churns out more than 20 top-100 singles. Many feature lyrics by Love, Wilson’s cousin, and adhere to a simple formula: cars, girls, surf.

But the pace and pressure of producing and performing begin to wear on Brian. He wants to grow. On a flight to Houston, he suddenly starts to cry; soon he is “screaming and yelling” into a pillow. Days later, he decides to stop touring with the Beach Boys.

Subliminally, Brian has always channelled his apprehensions into his music. But, now, he starts consciously to write songs about the changes he’s going through. In time, the Beach Boys will come to appreciate Brian’s new, grown-up music, but they worry, at first, about its commercial appeal: Pet Sounds, for instance, is the Beach Boys’ first proper studio LP since 1963 not to go gold. And yet, Brian forges ahead. His next project is Smile, a symphonic suite of interlocking songs about manifest destiny.

The music is weirder than before, and so is Brian’s behaviour. One day, he transforms his living room into a Bedouin tent; the next day, it is an exercise studio. The voices get louder: both the ones in his head telling him he’s “going to die” and the ones in his band saying Smile won’t sell. “Don’t fuck with the formula,” Love reportedly said.

Increasingly paranoid and insecure, Brian decides that it would be safer to shelve Smile than to knit its scattered threads into a coherent whole. And so Brian Wilson’s Sgt Pepper — the album that would have established him as an adult composer — is locked in the vault, seemingly forever, and Brian himself is suspended between who he was and who he wanted to become.

He will never be the same again. The next few decades are a blur of cocaine, overeating, and reclusion.

A ‘psychiatrist’ doses Brian with anti-psychotic drugs and writes himself into his patient’s will. In Brian’s absence, Love seizes control, transforming the Beach Boys into a pep-rally nostalgia act — a simulation of endless adolescence. They accept an endorsement deal with Chevrolet and record Good Vibrations for a Sunkist commercial.

And then, miraculously, Brian regains his footing, releasing several albums of original songs and performing Pet Sounds live with his crack new band.

In 2004, he finally completes Smile. It is hailed as a masterpiece. “I swear you could see something change in him,” his engineer will later say.

Wilson’s original plan was to reassemble in the studio rather than on the road, and here, in Burbank, I sense that he’s not quite used to performing with the Beach Boys again. I ask if he had any apprehensions about the reunion. “That I might not know how to talk to the guys,” he says.

In what sense? “It’s just a whole thing being with the Beach Boys,” he says. “It’s a whole trip.” By the time I leave LA, I understand what he means. The Beach Boys can still hit most of their notes. But they are tense enough when they’re together, and inconsistent enough when they play, that you’re always afraid they’ll fall short.

The following weekend, I fly to New Orleans to see the band play at JazzFest, where I strike up a conversation with Pat ‘Estelle’ Ritter.

“I wouldn’t have come if Brian wasn’t involved,” Ritter, 55, says. “Otherwise, it’s just a Beach Boys cover band. Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys.” It’s a nice sentiment, but over the next 90 minutes, Ritter and I watch, increasingly uneasy, as Wilson limps through the set.

Giant video screens show him in various stages of distress or disengagement: kneading impassively at the piano; closing his eyes and swallowing between lines, as if continuing is a chore; sitting stone-faced through an entire verse of Radio . When Wilson sings the famous “I want to go home” line from Sloop John B , Ritter leans over and taps me on the shoulder. “Well,” he says. “That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it?”

After watching the Beach Boys flounder in New Orleans, I start to wonder: is it enough for rock legends to be in the room with us, alive, while we enjoy a familiar soundtrack? Or should we expect to be moved in ways their recordings can’t move us? If you know the Beach Boys’ story, then you want them to be more than a human jukebox. You want them to be a band again. And if Wilson isn’t there — if he’s off in his own head somewhere — then they can’t really be reunited, can they?

A week later, the Beach Boys arrive at New York’s Beacon Theater. I’m not sure what I’m expecting to see. Not much, at this point. The same cardboard nostalgia I saw at JazzFest; the same sad void where Brian Wilson should be. I’m quickly proven wrong.

For the first few songs, Wilson looks as inscrutable as ever. But then, on Surfer Girl, something shifts: for the first time, he nails every note of that longing solo. He doesn’t sound 19, but he comes closer, at 69, than anatomy would seem to allow. The crowd leaps to its feet. Wilson beams.

But the high point of the show is I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times: not because it is perfect, but because it isn’t. When Wilson wrote the song in 1966, it was about his budding ambition (“to look for places where new things might be found”) and his fear of letting himself down (“each time things start to happen again ... what goes wrong?”) But now, 46 years later, the song sounds more ragged than before, and in its fragile beauty, it seems to be saying something new: that even when things do go wrong, when your youthful ambitions don’t pan out, you can still find your way back. The applause begins before the last note fades away. “Thank you,” Wilson says, laughing. “Thank you. That’s enough.”

I still don’t know what happened between New Orleans and New York. But Brian Wilson was there at the Beacon. And so were the long-lost Beach Boys.

That night, I return home and put on the new album. For some reason, I’ve been reluctant to listen. Perhaps because none of the Beach Boys seemed very invested in the thing. They’d recorded all of their parts in separate sessions; no huddling around the microphone, 1966-style.

But then Think About the Days begins, with its melancholy a cappella prelude and arching falsetto line. It’s gorgeous. Apparently, when co-writer Joe Thomas showed Wilson the piano chords, he devised the entire vocal arrangement on the spot. “I could have played those progressions for 500 other people and nobody would have come up with that melody,” Thomas says.

Like Think About the Days, much of the first side of the record is tinged with nostalgia — a nostalgia that owes a lot to Love’s influence. Isn’t It Time exhorts listeners to “dance the night away ... just like yesterday,” while Spring Vacation declares that “we’re back together,” “singing our songs” and “having a blast.” Love wrote both lyrics. The rest of Radio, however, is largely Wilson’s work, and it’s almost entirely in the present tense. His most striking songs close out the second side.

According to Thomas, they’re supposed to form a suite of sorts: a “reflection of California from the standpoint of a guy who’s almost 70 years old, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and thinking about his life.” As I listen, I hear echoes of vintage Brian, but more than anything else, this is Brian Wilson now: “realis[ing]” his “days are getting on”; “thinking ’bout when life was still in front of” him; acknowledging that “old friends are gone”.

Wilson’s suite is so strong that it’s tempting to dismiss the earlier, Love-inflected beach songs, and many critics will. But this is a Beach Boys album, not a Brian Wilson solo project. More than four decades ago, the band splintered because Wilson wanted to engage with adulthood and Love wanted to keep on celebrating adolescence. By doing both, and doing them well, Radio may be a deeper reunion than anything we’ll see on stage.

And it may not be the end. When Wilson wrote Summer’s Gone in 1999, his plan, says Thomas, “was to make that the last song on the last Beach Boys record.” He even wanted to call the album Summer’s Gone, in case anyone missed the point. But Wilson “had so much fun with Mike and the guys,” Thomas says, “that he insisted on changing the title. He didn’t want the stigma that this had to be [the final LP].”

As I restart the record, I’m reminded of something Wilson once said about the voices in his head. “I can still hear things like, ‘I’m going to kill you’,” he said. “Just usually negative thoughts or negative ...”

The interviewer cut in: “Ever hear them while you’re singing?”

“No, not when I’m singing, no.”

“When you’re writing?”

“No, not then, either.”

“When, then, would you hear them?”

“When I’m not singing or writing.”

If only he never had to stop.

* (c) 2012 Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC. All rights reserved.

More in this section

#ChoosetoChallenge

Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan