Johnston has a way with words – he calls the Beach Boys reunion the "When Surf Freezes Over" tour – and sometimes his lack of a filter gets him in trouble, like when a reporter taped him telling autograph seekers that Obama is a socialist and an "asshole." But he also has a lot of nice things to say, especially about Wilson. "I have the best seat in the house every night to watch my hero, Brian Wilson," he says.
An hour before showtime, Johnston is in his dressing room, ironing his jeans. "I don't put those Seventies creases in them anymore," he says.
When I ask if it feels sentimental to be onstage together, he laughs. "This is what we do," he says. "It's not exactly business as usual, but it's friendship as usual. It's friendship defrosted. Seriously, everybody is/was/is friends, no matter what silly lawsuits or whatever those guys did. With these guys, it's like taking a coat out of the closet after 20 years – and it still fits! It's totally wonderful. It's like freeze-dried food."
Then, like everyone else, Johnston shares his views of Wilson. His analysis doesn't involve health concerns or a sensitive GPS system. Instead, he sees Wilson as an astronaut who may have ventured too far into space, but still checks in with those of us stuck on planet Earth.
"Did you see 2010?" he asks, referring to the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. "Remember Dave Bowman, the astronaut? That's how I see Brian. He's way up in space, floating around. He was real successful, hitting home runs like crazy. But somewhere between Pet Sounds and Smile, it kind of sucks him in, and no one can understand quite what he was doing. Brian appears, then he disappears. In the film, Dave came back on a television screen and talked to his wife and said, ‘I'm going to some incredible place,' then he was gone. I see Brian that way. He's been chosen to do incredible things. We just have to wait for them.
"When I listen to Brian talk now, I kind of get it," Johnston continues. "He probably has more things going inside that head of his – whole records that he's made up there – but he's one of those guys that doesn't need to talk that much. I listen to him closely. I love having the chance to be around him. It's not going to last very long, he's not going to do 170 concerts a year, that's not what he is. I think he's come back on the screen for a little bit, before he goes back, getting ready to go to Jupiter, and start life over."
Thirty-six minutes before showtime in Tampa, Brian Wilson sits in a chair alone on the dark stage, just out of view of thousands of people filing into their seats, some wearing Hawaiian shirts, a few older women carrying pompoms. Wilson seems oblivious to the rumble of excitement on the other side of the curtain. His eyes are closed, hands resting peacefully on his knees.
"I like to meditate before we go on," he says. "It gets busy backstage, so I come out onstage, where it's quiet." Wilson says he uses the time to "pray a little."
"I think about how I'm gonna sing, and how the boys will sound."
He'd told me this earlier, sitting in his dressing room before soundcheck. "Cool dressing room," Wilson noted, even though it was just a tiny beige cubby with one fabric chair, two plastic folding chairs, a mirror, a jar of nuts and some potato chips.
We had just arrived from Fort Lauderdale, a four-hour drive. I planned to use the time to interview Wilson about the tour. Instead, he rode up front with his driver, Glenn Jones, white Nikes perched on the dash, staring straight ahead. The only times Wilson spoke were to place a McDonald's order (vanilla shake) and to ask Jones to switch the satellite radio from "Malt Shop Oldies" to the Forties music station. When I turned on my recorder and started asking questions, Wilson cut me off after a minute and six seconds.
Now, in his dressing room, Wilson's in a more talkative mood. "We scored a concert, man!" he says. It's not clear exactly what that means, but it sounds like a good thing. "I hope it's a good one. I'm hopin'!"
I ask if it's getting easier each night. "It's leveling off, I guess," he says. "I'm getting used to playing piano – I didn't used to play this much."
Wilson sits back, twists his spine, winces. He's struggling with back problems. He can't walk too far and needs help getting on and off the raised platform where plays his white piano onstage. "I can't exercise, really. So I have to sit around a lot."
Wilson is quiet for a while, then out of nowhere brings up one of his favorite Pet Sounds tracks. " ‘Wouldn't It Be Nice' had that Phil Spector Wall of Sound feeling to it," he says. "We cut it at Gold Star. Spector was around when we cut it. I think he produced it indirectly. Not actually produced it, but indirectly produced it. The spirit of the Wall of Sound."
Talk turns to other old colleagues, like Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton, a friend from wilder days in the Sixties L.A. rock scene. "I haven't talked to him in a long time," Wilson says. "I wouldn't know what to say. Some of my old buddies are just gone from my life."
He tells me that he always found Hutton's singing "scary," which for Wilson can mean one of two things: good-scary, in the sense that it challenges you, like the Beatles album Rubber Soul, or bad-scary, in the sense that you get frightened and want to hide.
In Hutton's case, he says, "His voice is just so resonant." Good-scary. Another group he mentions is the Doobie Brothers. Bad-scary. " ‘What a Fool Believes' scared me a lot. Michael McDonald. I can't handle that."
I ask if the Beach Boys ever scare him. "Not scary, we are just so into our harmonies."
He gets quiet for a while. "I wouldn't have thought we would all be together again," he says. "I never thought it would happen. But when we sing, those feelings go away. We sound good."
'Those are nice pants," says Brian Wilson to a woman sitting next to him on the flight from Tampa to New York. "Are they cotton or something?"
"Cotton blend, I think," the woman responds, hesitantly.
"What are you drinking?"
"Vodka? Is it good?"
"A little strong."
Wilson laughs, a little too loudly. "That's good," he says. "Those are really nice pants."
Then he closes his eyes and munches some nuts. After a while, he tries to pick up the conversation.
"You keep stirring it!"
"It's too strong if I don't."
"How you feeling? A little woozy?"
"It takes more than one. Do you drink?"
"Not really. Do you feel relaxed?"
Then, after another long pause, Wilson says, "What day is it?"
"Sunday. [Laughs] Have you been flying a lot?"
"Yeah, we're in a band. We're called the Beach Boys."
In first class this afternoon are four of five principal Beach Boys (Love flew earlier) and "vice principal" Jeff Foskett. Flying makes Wilson anxious. "It's so cumbersome," he says. "You gotta take your shoes off, put your shoes back on, you gotta bend over." When he flies, Wilson has to be first on the plane and the first off. "That makes it easier," he says. "But still not easy."
The trip is nerve-racking for the other guys as well: There is a lot of pressure on two New York shows at the Beacon, plus an intense schedule that includes Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Charlie Rose. "I have so many memories of coming to New York," Johnston told me. "Playing our shows, getting dressed up in our suits, women everywhere, nightclubs." He pauses. "You have to wonder, how many more times are we going to get to come to New York?"
There are also still questions about the set list. Since Wilson proposed adding "Marcella" and "Add Some Music to Your Day" in Fort Lauderdale, not much has happened. During soundcheck in Tampa yesterday, Wilson pushed the issue.
" ‘Marcella,' please," he called out to the band.
"We can't do it," responded co-musical director Scott Totten, Love's guitar player. "We don't know it yet."
"My guys know it," Wilson replied. "We can do it."
Instead, they take a stab at "Add Some Music to Your Day." But Totten cuts it off in the middle of the first take, because no one remembers the words.
So, the first night at the Beacon, no new songs are added. To make matters worse, at least to those who want the Beach Boys reunion tour to differentiate itself from Mike Love's tour using the Beach Boys name, John Stamos is in the house and jumps onstage for several songs – including one awkward moment when he pulls a petrified-looking little girl from the audience and dances with her on his shoulders. Later, several band members mull around glumly at the afterparty. One calls the show a "travesty." He says, "If they want theater, we can do theater. But I thought this was a rock & roll show."
The next night, the bandmates manage to get together a gorgeous version of "Add Some Music to Your Day," which they sing standing around Wilson's piano, and Wilson finally introduces a rocking version of "Marcella."
With or without those two new songs, and with or without Stamos, watching the Beach Boys perform in 2012 is a rare thrill. Each of the three shows I see is filled with fun and joy and something deeper, too. In the best moments, when the group harmonizes on "Please Let Me Wonder" and "Forever" and "I Get Around," or when Wilson sings his fragile, prescient "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," it's impossible not to be moved by these guys who, night after night, put aside huge personal differences and ancient hurts to create music full of radiance and hope – music no one else but them can create. "We took a risk trying to pull this off," says Love, riding through New York in the back of a black SUV the day after the Beacon shows. "And I think we proved the mathematical equation: The whole really is worth more than the sum of its parts."
This story is from the June 21, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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