There's a directness about Brian Wilson that can be alarming. He doesn't mince words. Like he'll walk into this really posh Chinese restaurant, wave aside the niceties of cocktails or menus and simply ask, "Ya got any shrimp?" He's not being rude or childish, just getting the job done and the food there faster. And that's how he conducts interviews — dutiful, businesslike, wasting no time with small talk or unnecessary emotion, often prefacing his answers with the last words of your question, like some kind of oral exam. Sometimes you think he's joking because he says outrageous things from the corner of his mouth like Buddy Hackett. But usually he's quite serious. I think.
We were at the restaurant because Dr. Landy had set up a luncheon interview between me and Brian, which was nice of him except that he invited all these extra people — Marilyn, Audree, Dr. Landy's friend Alexandra and another shrink, Dr. Arnold Horowitz. Things looked bad for the interview, but Brian, in a remarkable act of quick thinking, solved the problem. Dr. Landy suggested we all move to a quieter table in the back. Everyone peeled off one by one, then Brian suddenly announced, "I think we'll stay right here." At first Landy was pissed. "Fine — you can pay your own bill," he snapped. Later, however, he told me on the phone, "That was tremendous, Brian really asserted himself. I thought that was marvelous."
At any rate, it allowed us to do the interview in relative privacy, away from family and shrinks and bodyguards. As it turned out, Brian may have had his own reasons for wanting to be alone.
Why don't we talk a bit about "Good Vibrations."
BRIAN: That would be a good place to begin. "Good Vibrations" took six months to make. We recorded the very first part of it at Gold Star Recording Studio, then we took it to a place called Western, then we went to Sunset Sound, then we went to Columbia.
So it took quite a while. There's a story behind this record that I tell everybody. My mother used to tell me about vibrations. I didn't really understand too much of what that meant when I was just a boy. It scared me, the word "vibrations." To think that invisible feelings, invisible vibrations existed, scared me to death. But she told about dogs that would bark at people and then not bark at others, that a dog would pick up vibrations from these people that you can't see, but you can feel. And the same existed with people.
And so it came to pass that we talked about good vibrations. We went ahead and experimented with the song and the idea, and we decided that on the one hand you could say, "I love the colorful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair. I hear the sound of a gentle word on the wind that lifts her perfume through the air." Those are sensual things. And then you go, "I'm pickin' up good vibrations," which is a contrast against all the sensual — there's what you call the extrasensory perception which we have. And this is what we're really talking about.
But you also set out to do something new musically. Why this particular song?
BRIAN: Because we wanted to explain that concept, plus we wanted to do something that was R&B but had a taste of modern, avant-garde R&B to it. "Good Vibrations" was advanced rhythm and blues music.
You took a risk.
BRIAN: Oh yeah, we took a great risk. As a matter of fact, I didn't think it was going to make it because of its complexity, but apparently people accepted it very well. They felt that it had a naturalness to it, it flowed. It was a little pocket symphony.
How come you used four different studios?
BRIAN: Because we wanted to experiment with combining studio sounds. Every studio has its own marked sound. Using the four different studios had a lot to do with the way the final record sounded.
Did everybody support what you were trying to do?
BRIAN: No, not everybody. There was a lot of "oh you can't do this, that's too modern" or "that's going to be too long a record." I said no, it's not going to be too long a record, it's going to be just right.
Who resisted you? Your manager? The record company?
BRIAN: No, people in the group, but I can't tell ya who. We just had resisting ideas. They didn't quite understand what this jumping from studio to studio was all about. And they couldn't conceive of the record as I did. I saw the record as a totality piece.
Do you remember the time you realized you finally had it?
BRIAN: I remember the time that we had it. It was at Columbia. I remember I had it right in the sack. I could just feel it when I dubbed it down, made the final mix from the 16 track down to mono. It was a feeling of power, it was a rush. A feeling of exaltation. Artistic beauty. It was everything.
Do you remember saying anything?
BRIAN: I remember saying, "Oh my God. Sit back and listen to this!"
At that time did you feel it was your most important song? Did you think in terms like that—reaching a new plateau in music?
BRIAN: Yes, I felt that it was a plateau. First of all, it felt very arty and it sounded arty. Second of all, it was the first utilization of a cello in rock & roll music to that extent — using it as an up-front instrument, as a rock instrument.
Not to mention the theremin.
BRIAN: It was also the first use of a theremin in rock & roll.
By the time you did "Good Vibrations" you had matured your artistic concept far beyond the sort of thing you were doing, say, in "Surfin'." Was there any particular time period when you realized that you now were totally into creating music on your own terms?
BRIAN: Yes. Pet Sounds would be that period when I figured that I was into my own... via the Phil Spector approach. Now, the Phil Spector approach is utilizing many instruments to combine for a single form or a single sound. Like combining clarinets, trombones and saxophones to give you a certain sound, rather than hearing that arrangement as "oh, those are piccolos, oh, those are trombones."
How much was Spector an influence on you, artistically and competitively?
BRIAN: Well, I didn't feel I was competing as much as I was emulating, emulating the greatness of his style in my music. We have a high degree of art in our group. We've come to regard Phil Spector as the greatest, the most avant-garde producer in the business.
Yet he's not really a composer of songs.
BRIAN: Well, I'm a firm believer that he wrote those songs and gave the others credit. In order to produce them the way he did, he had to write them.
Mike Love mentioned the time you composed "The Warmth of the Sun" within hours of the John F. Kennedy assassination and how it illustrated that even during a very negative time you could come up with a very positive feeling.
BRIAN: Yeah, it's a strange thing, but I think we were always spiritually minded and we wrote music to give strength to people. I always feel holy when it comes to recording. Even during "Surfer Girl," even then I felt a bit spiritual.
What's the nature of your spiritual outlook today ? Does it present you with a kind of attitude toward the world?
BRIAN: No, not really. I'm not as aware of the world as I could be.
Is that necessarily a bad thing?
BRIAN: Yeah, because I think if I became more aware, I could structure my lyrics to be a little more in tune with people.
Are you working on that process right now?
BRIAN: Yes, I'm working on that right now, I'm working with people who I know know where it's at. Like Van Dyke Parks — he's a guy who's a link to where it's at for me. He keeps me very current on what's happening.
At one time you and he were working on a revolutionary album called Smile, which you never released.
BRIAN: Yeah, we didn't finish it because we had a lot of problems, inner group problems. We had time commitments we couldn't keep. So we stopped. Plus, for instance, we did a thing called the "fire track." We cut a song called "Fire" and we used fire helmets on the musicians and we put a bucket with fire burning in it in the studio so we could smell smoke while we cut. And about a day later a building down the street burned down. We thought maybe it was witchcraft or something, we didn't know what we were into. So we decided not to finish it.
Plus I got into drugs and I began doing things that were over my head. It was too fancy for the public. I got too fancy and arty and was doing things that were just not Beach Boys at all. They were made for me.
Ever consider doing an album just on your own?
BRIAN: No, I haven't considered that because I didn't think it would be commercial if I did.
Well, so what?
BRIAN: Well, maybe I could do that then. I think I might.
What's this program with Dr. Landy and his team designed to do?
BRIAN: Well, it's basically designed to correct me from taking drugs.
You've had a problem with that?
BRIAN: Yeah, I had a problem taking drugs. Up until four months ago I was taking a lot of cocaine. And these doctors came in and showed me a way to stop doing it, which is having bodyguards with you all the time so you can't get to it.
What do you think of that approach?
BRIAN: That approach works because there's someone right there all the time — it keeps you on the spot. They catch you when you're ready to do something you shouldn't do. It works until you have finally reached the stage where you don't need it anymore.
Why did you consent to this program ?
BRIAN: Because my wife called the doctors and legally she had the right to call them.
In addition to guarding you all the time, what else do Dr. Landy's people do for you?
BRIAN: They teach me socialization, how to socialize. They're just teaching me different social graces, like manners.
Didn't you at one time know those?
BRIAN: I did, but I lost them. Drugs took 'em away.
How could that be?
BRIAN: It just was. Drugs took 'em all away. I got real paranoid, I couldn't do anything.
Were you unhappy then?
BRIAN: I was unhappy as all heck. I knew I was screwing myself up, and I couldn't do anything about it. I was a useless little vegetable. I made everybody very angry at me because I wasn't able to work, to get off my butt. Coke every day. Goin' over to parties. Just havin' bags of snow around, just snortin' it down like crazy.
But aren't drugs just a symptom? There must be something else. Carl said that at some point you looked at the world and it was so messed up that you just couldn't take it.
BRIAN: I couldn't.
But the world is messed up. How do you deal with it?
BRIAN: The way I deal with it is I go jogging in the morning. I goddamn get out of bed and I jog, and I make sure I stay in shape. That's how I do it. And so far the only way I've been keeping from drugs is with those bodyguards, and the only way I've been going jogging is those bodyguards have been taking me jogging.
So in one sense you're not yet fully committed to the idea.
BRIAN: It's just that once you've had a taste of drugs, you like 'em and you want 'em. Do you take drugs yourself?
Yeah, I experiment.
BRIAN: Do ya? Do ya snort?
BRIAN: That's what I thought. Do you have any with ya?
BRIAN: That's the problem. Do you have any uppers?
I have nothin' on me.
BRIAN: Nothing? Not a thing, no uppers?
I wouldn't lie to you. I wish I had 'em, but I don't.
BRIAN: DO you have any at home? Do you know where you can get some?
See, now I guess you gotta get to the point in the program where you're not going to ask me questions like that.
BRIAN: That's right. You just saw my weakness coming out. Which I don't understand. I just do it anyway. I used to drink my head off too, that's another thing. They've been keeping me from drinkin', taking pills and taking coke. And I'm jogging every morning.
Had your wife not gone to see Dr. Landy and got him to work on you ...
BRIAN: I'd have been a goner. I'd have been in the hospital by now.
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