Brian Wilson takes on Gershwin

The Beach Boy talks about the band, his new life and 'Rhapsody in Blue'


True music?.?.?.?must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.

The quote is from George Gershwin, but those words might well have been spoken by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. The two men’s bodies of work are characterized by a similar specificity of time and place—the fantasies and reality of Jazz Age and Depression-era audiences in Gershwin’s case, 1960s southern Californian adolescence in Wilson’s. Yet both have proven timeless and universal. Any indie band today worth its amplifier can talk breathlessly about the Beach Boys’ influence—the layered productions, unorthodox song structures, and, of course, those harmonies. And Gershwin’s musical legacy needs no introduction.

Wilson certainly felt a kinship to Gershwin. In fact, it was the composer’s symphonic jazz masterwork, Rhapsody in Blue, that awakened his own musical consciousness. “I was two years old when I first heard it,” he said, speaking to Maclean’s on the phone last week from his Beverly Hills home. “To me, Rhapsody in Blue is the song of my life.”

Pop experts hear Gershwin in the melodies and in Wilson’s piano playing on the early Beach Boys surf albums. Wilson even produced a version of Summertime for singer Sharon Marie in 1963. But it was in the early 1970s, when he was housebound and suffering from depression, that he set out to deconstruct Rhapsody. “I learned how to play the pretty part—you know, the violin part—when I was 28 years old,” he recalled. “I had a copy of Leonard Bernstein’s version. I went from the record to my piano—back and forth. I learned two bars at a time until I had that whole centrepiece down.”

So it seems apt to see the two giants of American music paired on Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, released Aug. 17 by Walt Disney Records on its Pearl imprint. On it, Wilson tackles standards by Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira. “Isn’t it a nice album?” he enthused. “It’s very simple but direct, you know?”

It’s also apt Wilson is getting buzz for his new disc just as Paul McCartney—his friend, and the Beatle with whom he has most closely identified, since they are both bass players known for their melodic ballads—wraps up a tour that sold out arenas all over the U.K. and North America. The Beach Boys and the Beatles vied for pop supremacy in the ’60s. “I was envious as hell,” he recalled, “because they eclipsed everybody. I loved their music. Paul and John’s voices put me into a good thing, and their songs were so unique.” Each group’s albums would influence the other, but he insists it was not competition so much as mutual admiration. “I hoped they liked Pet Sounds as much as I liked Rubber Soul.”

These days, Wilson is enjoying a creative renaissance. Six years ago, he recorded a complete version of his aborted magnum opus Smile, which the Beach Boys started and then shelved in 1967 amid internal conflict. Its long-awaited release was met with big sales and euphoric reviews. His follow-ups have included 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, a well-received suite of new songs, and live performances with the first-rate band he put together after his official departure from the Beach Boys, which followed the 1998 cancer death of his youngest brother, guitarist Carl. (The Beach Boys’ lineup in the group’s formative years also included middle brother Dennis, who died in 1983, the Wilsons’ cousin, Mike Love, neighbour David Marks, and high school friend Alan Jardine.) With the involvement of his wife of 15 years, Melinda, and his manager, Jean Sievers, Wilson has an active presence online, with a constantly updated website and regular posts on Facebook and Twitter. “Great dinner out with the family last night at Arnie Morton’s. LOVE that Cajun Ribeye!” read a recent tweet.

The productive new phase comes amid renewed interest in his old band. Dennis will reportedly be immortalized on the big screen in The Drummer, a dramatization of the fast-living Beach Boy’s final years, from the recording of his lauded 1977 solo album Pacific Ocean Blue to his drowning death six years later.

The film will go into production in January, and is just one event planned around the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary next year. Capitol Records is also mulling over archival music releases.

For now, Wilson is busy enough with new projects. The Gershwin album, for one, had been on his mind for years. When Disney approached him a couple of years ago to lend his signature sound to an album of songs from Disney movies, he agreed to do it—and sold them on his Gershwin idea as well. Disney gave him a list of 25 songs it felt would be appropriate, and he selected 11, including such usual suspects as ’S Wonderful and Love Is Here to Stay, popularized by such artists as Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Kelly.

The real coup came when he was offered access to more than 100 unfinished Gershwin compositions by Warner/Chappell Music, working with the Gershwin family. He picked Will You Remember Me?, an outtake from the 1924 musical Lady, Be Good!, and a 1929 fragment. Working from piano demos, he had Scott Bennett, his lyricist and a multi-instrumentalist in his band, write words. Given total artistic freedom, they crafted a pair of original songs: The Like in I Love You and Nothing but Love.

“I felt so thrilled to think that I was going to ‘work’ with George Gershwin. I blew a gasket in my head. I couldn’t believe it,” Wilson said. As he spoke, his kids could be heard in the background. Wilson, 68, and Melinda have adopted four children, including a boy, Dash Tristan, who joined the clan last year. (His first marriage, to Marilyn Rovell, yielded daughters Wendy and Carnie, chart-toppers themselves in Wilson Phillips.)

Wilson isn’t the first rock star to put a new spin on the Great American Songbook. But this isn’t just another covers record. The Gershwins have been Wilson-ized. A big chunk of the album is made up of a four-song suite from the landmark 1935 African-American opera Porgy and Bess. Orchestral arrangements by Paul Mertens, his woodwinds player, play up the sinister subtext in Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So. Then there is I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’, stripped of its words and remade as a harmonica-driven jaunt to 19th-century America. “That was my wife’s idea to make it an instrumental,” Wilson said. “We tried to make it interesting with a Little Deuce Coupe-in-California shuffle beat. We tried like hell to get it to work.”

What really sets the album apart is the idiosyncratic flavour Wilson’s vocal arrangements bring to numbers traditionally sung solo. The mood is apparent right from the album’s opening snippet—“the pretty part” of Rhapsody in Blue, in which violins are replaced by Wilson’s wordless vocals, stacked as high as the Empire State Building. “I did that so that I could show off my voice. I have a very good harmonic voice,” he points out—as if we didn’t know.

These days, of course, the trademark falsetto of long ago has given way to a gruffer set of pipes, frayed by past smoking and substance abuse. That said, he is in good vocal form, and chose songs based on his current register. He has been taking that voice on tour as well, which is surprising given his notorious stage fright. “For about an hour before I go on stage I feel all nervous as hell,” he admitted. “Then, as soon as I hear the first note the band plays, I’m okay.” So, will he tour behind the new release? “We don’t know yet. We’re thinking about it,” he said.

Meanwhile, speculation grows about a Beach Boys anniversary reunion. Repatriating Wilson is the key to any celebratory plans, but he remains non-committal. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen with that one. I don’t think anything,” he said. There may be a studio project brewing, however. Mike Love, who continues to front Beach Boys shows, told Maclean’s he and Wilson have had a couple of conversations about a project. “But he’s been busy and we’ve been touring,” Love said. “So getting together would probably have to wait until the fall.”

Few would have expected the return to mental and physical health Wilson has enjoyed, although he has to keep working at it. “I walk at a park down about a mile from my house almost every day,” he said. “But I gained 25 lb. over the last two months. I have to get on a good diet.” He still has the Disney movie songs project. He adds he’d like to make “a really good rock ’n’ roll album sometime.” You could say he took his retirement when he spent years in bed alone with his demons. “I don’t plan on retiring. If I retire, it’s kind of like saying I’m getting lazy. And I don’t think I want to be lazy.”

Mark Dillon is currently writing a book, 50 Sides of The Beach Boys, to coincide with the band’s 50th anniversary next year.

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