By Michael deMartin
It's not often that one gets to hang out with Brian Wilson at his house one afternoon and discuss Pet Sounds and other cool stuff. But that's what happened to me last week and I have to say it was pretty cool. Here's the story:
I arrived at the WIlson's home precisely at 1:30 with Joe, a friend of mine. Their house is in an absolutely beautiful area high atop the hills of Southern California. To my surprise, Brian came out to greet us enthusiastically. The Wilson's had just returned from vacation from Hawaii, and Brian looked good. Tan and in good shape for a man his age – and he still has that full head of hair. I thought, despite it all, we should all look so good at 64.
When we walked in, the house was beautifully decorated, neutral colors with elegant furnishings. A far cry, I'm sure, from Brian's place in Bel Air on Bellagio, a mansion he once painted purple, with a grand piano in a big sandbox.
Melinda was sitting on the bottom step of the beautiful staircase, and she looked great. No makeup at all – just a very attractive woman and very warm and inviting. Very relaxed with a smile on her face. Their housekeeper came in and Melinda introduced us. I reminded Maria that we met at Brian's 60th birthday party – and sat at the same table – at Brian's favorite restaurant on Mullholland Drive.
Joe and I followed Brian through the house and upstairs to the music room. I saw an open closet of God only knows how many Hawaiian shirts – obviously a favorite of Brian's.
The music room was cool, but certainly no recording studio. It was filled with gold records sitting up against couches and chairs, fan paintings of Dennis and Carl sitting on an end table, and his Grammy award on a desk next to a neat stack of sheet music. I looked closely at the top sheet and saw Brian's handwritten lyrics to a new song with the word "Chorus" above it. The lyrics were cool and it was exciting to see that Brian was working on new music.
Brian and I chatted about Hawaii. The Wilson's went to Kawai, and Brian sounding like a kid, proudly exclaimed that he walked every day for five miles. I told him he looked great. I told him my wife Melissa and I had spent part of our Honeymoon in Kawai and that we loved it too. We talked about the Island a little bit and how good the meals were.
I asked Brian about the brief reunion of the surviving Beach Boys on the top of the Capitol Records building last month. He said he had a good time and he proudly told me that the "Sounds of Summer" release sold over two million copies. As an aside, I heard from someone at Capitol Records that there have been exactly 58 Beach Boys compilations just in the United States. I can't think of another act – other than maybe Elvis – who have hat that many. It's just staggering.
We started talking about Pet Sounds and its upcoming 40th Anniversary CD/DVD release. I told Brian it would be cool to reach out to a new generation of kids, many of whom don't buy physical CDs anymore – much less cassettes and LPs. A Pet Sounds podcast series would reach that market of kids as well as adults who now download music onto their computers and iPods. I asked him if he knew what an iPod was, and he said he didn't. This surprised me a little: I wouldn't expect him to have one, but I figured maybe Melinda – or certainly one of their daughters would. In any case, I showed him my iPod and I told him there were 500 record albums on it. He said he couldn't believe it – I mean it is kind of a hard concept to get after you've grown up with LPs most of your life.
We started talking about each song on Pet Sounds and it was fascinating to say the least. Brian got warmed up and to hear him talk about it was out of this world. Being a student of Brian's and Pet Sounds in particular, I was hoping to hear a few things I had never heard before but I really didn't expect to.
Brian started to open up quite a bit and I think that this was partly due to the smile that was frozen on my face. I really got a kick out of him and I think he appreciated this and the fact that I wasn't just another dry journalist who maybe didn't have the same enthusiasm for the task at hand.
I asked him where he came up with the utterly cool arrangement to the track "Pet Sounds," and he thought for a second and just said "I can't put it into words." A completely honest answer – the art speaks for itself. But, he was very insightful about some other tracks, and here are some interesting things he had to say about Pet Sounds.
Talking about "I Know There's An Answer," I told him I believed that he was the first to use the bass harmonica, because shortly thereafter, Simon & Garfunkel used it in on "The Boxer" and then the Beatles on "Fool On The Hill." Brian agreed and I brought up the musician, Tommy Morgan, who played it. Brian said Tommy tood this big thing and Brian startled me when he let out a big WONK! sound demonstrating how the instrument sounded. It was one of the more funnier moments we had.
I asked Brian if he still listened to Pet Sounds, and in fact, he said, he hasn't listened to the album in ages. And I suppose that's pretty normal. It must be kind of strange for someone at 64 to be asked about something they did 40 years ago. How much would anyone remember? He's an artist and he moves on – unlike us fans who continue to revel in this work of art and will probably continue to analyse it until we're 64 – and beyond.
Here are a few more tidbits:
Was "Pet Sounds" ever going to be called "Remember The Zoo?" Brian laughed and said of course not, and that he hadn't heard that one. I told him there are a lot of intense fans who actually care about these things (including me), but he just shook his head and laughed "No."
I asked him if there were lyrics to "Let's Go Away For Awhile." He said no, and I asked him about the title – did he actually feel the need to get away at the time. He said, yes, he did – it's just a beautiful arrangement that makes you feel good.
I asked him if he was recording any of the "SMiLE" material concurrently with "Pet Sounds" (as some people have written) and he looked at me as if I had two heads. I guess the answer to that one was no.
I asked him whose idea it was to put "Sloop John B" on the album and he said it was his. I recounted the story that Capitol wanted it on the album to have a sure-fire it, but he said no, it was his idea. He then talked a little about the track and called it one of his favorites. In fact he mentioned Carl Sanburg as the writer, which surprised me. He said he loved the arrangement and sang parts of it. Brian Wilson singing parts to me was pretty cool.
I asked him if "Good Vibrations" was ever supposed to be a part of "Pet Sounds" and he said no. He talked about being a kid and going to the market with his mother and a dog barked at her. Brian aske her "why did that dog bark at you, Mom" (saying it just like a kid). His mother told him dogs pick up vibrations from people. If they don't like you they bark. Or, they "pick up good vibrations" if they like you.
I told him that one of the Capitol guys discovered Dennis' name on a track list as singing lead on "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." Brian was genuinely surprised about this and while I told him he did a great job on it, Dennis would have sung the heck out of it. This may have been the most animated Brian got: he said, "yeah, Dennis would have sounded GREAT on that track."
I asked Brian what his favorite albums were and here they are:
1) Phil Spectors' Christmas Album
2) Sail Away by Randy Newman ("a landmark recording")
3) Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hears Club Band by the Beatles ("an incredibly great album")
4) Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd
(Later that day, I downloaded "Sail Away" by Randy Newman on iTunes, and I can see why Brian loved it. The arrangements are stunning and the song "Lonely At The Top" could very well describe Brian Wilson. I'm sure he relates to this song very well. If you haven't heard this stunning album, you've got to pick it up – or download it).
I told Brian I was a big Frank Sinatra fan and I asked what he thought of him. He said he loved Sinatra's voice and his whole personality. He was a big fan of the records, especially the ones with arranger Nelson Riddle. He said he loved Riddle's arrangements – they were as good as it gets – and that even indirectly, he was influenced by those records – how could he not be? For those who haven't listened to Sinatra's concept albums with Riddle on Capitol Records in the 1950s, you're missing out big time.
Brian talked about Caroline, No, and how it had a Glen Miller vibe , and I told him I also felt the Miller vibe on "You Still Believe In Me" with the clarinets. He agreed and said that when he was young he was open to – and listened – to everything and "Pet Sounds" was the culmination of that.
Brian told me there was a definite Bach influence on "Here Today" with the organ break and leadup to the chorus at the end. I could kick myself for not asking how often he listened to Bach and specifically what. He then told me something I didn't know: I asked him about the orchestration for Pet Sounds: did he write it all down – was it in his head – how did it get to the musicians? He proudly told me that he wrote it all down himself – every note. I asked him how he learned to write music and he said from his uncle. I asked on his father's side or mother's side. He said it was his mother's brother.
I asked him he if ever had designs on scoring movies after Pet Sounds since that would appear to be a natural progression. He said he never did and that he always wanted to be with the Beach Boys.
I told him I thought "Let's Go Away For Awhile" had a Burt Bacharach kind of sound and he said Bacharach was influential on it. To do some things that went beyond standard arrangements was the goal for that track. He then excitedly told me that he was working with Burt Bacharach on some new music. I told him that I had read that he did a song with Bacharach and Brian told me that was right and gave me the song title (which I forgot). The collaboration went so well, that Brian and Bacharach (how's that for the name of an album?) are now working on more material which is enticing to say the least. I asked what might come of it, but he didn't say. Let the rumors fly!
Brian's got a nice piano with a small two-track mixer. Next to that he has a cheap RadioShack tape recorder which he probably uses when he's got something good on the piano. On an ottoman he's got an electronic keyboard. I then spotted a cool double gold record for both "Pet Sounds" and "Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band").
Brian told us he had a fun time and I believed him because we had some laughs and Brian really cracked us up here and there. I told Brian that my twins – both 6 1/2 – love his music and he signed their names and his on two Pet Sounds LP covers. Collectors items to be sure. Something hopefully they'll always have. Music their dad loved signed by the man who made it. A real keepsake to be sure.
Before you know it – POOF – Brian was gone. When Joe and I got out to the car, I had to run back and find my glasses. I looked here and there and finally found them. I wanted to say goodbye to Melinda, so I looked to the side of the house and she was in the garage on the treadmill – I suppose another ordinary day in the life of the Wilson household.
Joe and I had a great time: Brian couldn't have been nicer – he's a humble guy who likes to have a laugh. It's great to see him happy, healthy, working on new music and just enjoying life. I think the question "wouldn't it be nice" can be definitely be answered in a single word: yes.