Brian Wilson has fought back from decades of mental illness. His newest recording, That Lucky Old Sun is a marvellous testament to his musical genius, but especially his ability to come back. Stuart McLean, host of the popular weekly CBC Radio program Vinyl Café was kind enough to share some of his views about Brian.

In 1961, a group of middle-class teenagers from Hawthorne, California recorded a song that would establish a completely new style of vocal harmony in popular music. Carl, Dennis, older brother Brian Wilson, Cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine recorded a song that Brian had written – Surfer Girl. It was Brian’s first song, and it became a world-wide hit for The Beach Boys, the name the fellows chose as a reflection of the Southern California culture of surfing.

Brian would go on to pen dozens of hit songs for the group, initially around the theme of surfing, cars, and beautiful sun-tanned California girls. It was music that especially resonated with middle class youth. The introspective In My Room dealt with teenage angst, and was perhaps a precursor of the troubles that lay ahead for Brian.
Surfin’ USA quickly followed, and was joined by other Brian Wilson compositions; The Warmth of the Sun, Don’t Worry Baby, Help Me Rhonda and California Girls. Brian has stated that California Girls is the embodiment of the Beach Boys sound.

Brian began spending more time writing, and performing less frequently with the group, before stopping altogether in 1965. He was replaced on bass guitar and vocals by a young studio musician named Glen Campbell. His music was getting more sophisticated, the themes more mature, but the group continued with their trademark harmony. Beach Boy songs continued to be favourites for ‘the last dance’. One of Brian’s great joys was teaching his brothers Carl and Dennis their parts, and singing for the joy of singing.

Brian conceived one of the first rock ‘n’ roll theme albums in the late 60’s, and Pet Sounds is still considered a milestone in popular music, similar to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.

“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life …
I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album …”
Sir Paul McCartney

Brian became less stable, increasingly reclusive and his behaviour more bizarre. He stayed in bed for weeks at a time. His weight ballooned to over 300 pounds, and it was painfully obvious that he was not well. The records were fewer, and the Beach Boys had only occasional hits. They became something of a living museum piece, playing songs that were now 25 or 30 years old.

Tragedy struck in 1983 when Dennis drowned while swimming off his boat in Marina Del Ray. Carl, the youngest brother and the peacemaker in the group succumbed to cancer in 1998.
After a few false starts, Brian began recording again in 1995. In 1998 he released an album of mostly new material called Imagination. He overcame his stage fright, and began touring again, performing the entire Pet Sounds album as part of the show. At Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee, Brian Wilson was the only American artist invited to perform. He was so honoured that he arrived on stage wearing a suit and tie!

In 2004, Brian was able to properly finish an album called Smile, a concept album that had been conceived 37 years earlier and was a critical if not a commercial success. A tour was scheduled to support the album, beginning with a series of performances in London. Brian had slimmed down, assembled a band of crackerjack musicians, (most young enough to be his sons and daughters). The core band was augmented with brass and violin sections. Virtually anything recorded in studio could be reproduced on stage. In addition to performing Smile in its entirety, Brian performed a wide cross section of the hits he had created for The Beach Boys – the concerts were a celebration of his body of work.

The audiences gave standing ovations, and there was a deep appreciation for Brian’s music, and admiration for his comeback. Fathers and mothers took their teenaged children to see Brian play “their music”. They were young again, full of hope and anxious to share their youth with their kids. At his Place des Arts concert in Montreal, Brian and his band received a five minute standing ovation – and this was before they even took the stage or played a note! The band was enchanted and their performance that evening was inspired.

Brian has continued to write, record, and perform. A lovely Christmas album titled What I want for Christmas in 2007.

In 2008 he returned to Capitol Records, the company that first recorded The Beach Boys in 1961.

Somewhat quietly, Brian’s newest album, That Lucky Old Sun was released in the fall of 2008. Another concept album that has been promoted as a salute to Los Angeles and Southern California. However, it’s much more. There are significant autobiographical aspects to the recording, including his mental illness.

As he has done with all of his recordings, Brian states that he misses singing with his brothers. In Southern California, he writes:
“I had a dream, of singin’ with my brothers,
In harmony, supporting each other…”

In Forever, She’ll Be My Surfer Girl Brian sings a moving salute to his first song Surfer Girl that will break your heart with its simple beauty and truth.

As Stuart McLean beautifully describes, Brian Wilson’s comeback is more than a musical resurgence. He has overcome major obstacles to claw his way back to being able to work, to create, to perform before huge audiences, and meet the day-to-day challenges of being on the road – performing in different cities every night. While he’s had tremendous support, it has taken a great deal of personal courage to take those steps… because ultimately they have to be taken alone.

And now, over to Stuart McLean….

Stuart McLean from the Vinyl Café…

Ever since Christmas, I have been listening, more or less obsessively, to Brian Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun. The album came out this past autumn… but I only found it when I was trolling record stores, looking for presents, in the days before Christmas. I bought it of course. A present to myself. And now I get up every morning and I put it on, and that is more or less as far as it goes musically for me these days. These days, at my house, it is all Brian Wilson, all of the time.

I am not entirely sure I understand what has happened to me … though I recognize it happens from time to time. From time to time I get completely taken up with, and over by, an album and I am compelled to listen to it over and over until I can listen no longer.

I was never a big Beach Boys fan in my youth. So it’s not that. It’s not nostalgia. I liked them enough. Who didn’t? I danced to them and knew all the words to their hits. But I never bought a Beach Boys album when I was a boy.

Part of it is the music. There is no question that Brian Wilson is a genius. And was the undisputed genius behind the Beach Boys. You can hear echoes of Aaron Copeland and Gershwin on this record… and of course of the Beach Boys… that alone would be enough to delight.

But there is something more sublime going on.

You have to be moved that, That Lucky Old Sun, is a record written and recorded by a 66 year old man who, Uncut Magazine reminds us “not so long ago, could no longer utter coherent sentences.” And who, in my opinion, sounds stronger than ever right now.

So it is in part the music, and in part the musician… but there is another part too. And that is what the music is all about. Rolling Stone magazine, says this album is a musical love letter to Wilson’s native Los Angeles.

I hear something more deeply personal.

Wilson writes about his dark years of mental illness with heartbreaking honesty…

“I lost my way,” he sings. “At twenty-five I turned out the light, ‘cause I couldn’t handle the glare in my tired eyes”

He became in his words, “a flag without the wind”

He was “Swept away in a brain storm”
To lead a life with “chapters missing” and “pages torn.”

For me the album is remarkable for its confessional tone.

“How could I have got so low
I am embarrassed to tell you so
I laid around this old place
I hardly ever washed my face”

“Took the diamond from my soul and turned it back into coal”

These are not lyrics that a twenty five year old surfer boy could ever write… and you can’t help thinking as you listen how sad it is that we lost John Lennon … who often wrote just as close to the bone… It would be just as good to know what he would have to say about growing old.

So yes, I find this album moving… musically but also on this other level which I can’t clearly articulate yet. It has to do with connecting (or reconnecting) with an artistic vision I connected with in my youth.

Listening to That Lucky Old Sun is like running into an old friend who tells you he has been in pain… it is about the ultimate sorrow of life, of growing old.

But it is also about the redemptive power of art and the healing power of music.

At the end of the album …after all his pain, “I wasted a lot of years” he sings.

After the death of his brothers, Carl and Dennis “I miss you every day of my life” he writes in the album’s dedication.

After all that, there is the final song
And what does he say?
How does he sum it up?
He says he is glad it all happened.

“Oh it’s magical” he sings.
“I’m glad it happened to me
Nodded off in the band room
Woke up in history”

There is something so guileless and vulnerable to that chorus that it is almost too painful to listen to.

So this is a record about pain yes … but it is also, and ultimately, about the beauty of life.

Stuart McLean is a former Montrealer, host of the Vinyl Café on CBC Radio One on Sundays at noon and Tuesdays at 11:03pm; Saturdays at 10:03 on Radio Two. Stuart tours Canada extensively, and has published a collection of Vinyl Café books and recordings.

Related Posts