Brian Wilson's Songs

A brief conversation with the reclusive musician and a changed path

So I wrote back to Melinda, raw in my exhaustion. What did it matter, anyway? I retracted my tone and explained my concern for my father—that, I would not apologize for. And then I began walking home, letting myself sob messily in defeat. I called my parents, selfishly wanting consolation. My father interrupted my unintelligible wail.

"Brian Wilson just called!"

Confetti should have rained from the ceiling after the phone rang—innocuously, twice. Instead, my father gasped and greeted his caller. Brian began a clearly rehearsed monologue about the fundraising challenge and its triumph, then offered to answer a question, if my father had one—and his rapid, monotone delivery suggested that this hard-won chat was rapidly concluding. Which, to my father, was no deterrent— his unstoppable charisma, muted by his brain tumor, had returned. In seconds, he shifted the conversation fluidly into his work as a public schoolteacher with disadvantaged children who had been displaced much like those affected by Katrina. With no objective, he chattered on amiably as Brian listened mutely—God, I wish I'd heard that nervy monologue. And then Brian cleared his throat and they just . . . talked. Casually, openly, for half an hour.

Courtesy Brian Wilson

My father later recalled that Brian's most striking aspect was his childlike enthusiasm, comparable to that of his students. It was in that tone that Brian held his receiver away from his mouth, eagerly asking his wife if he could hear my father's music ("Can I listen to it? Can I?"). Melinda took the phone and warmly provided a mailing address, breaking staunch policy.

After a few more minutes, they said farewell—and my father hung up and vaulted around our small house, howling with disbelieving joy.

He and I stayed on the line for hours that evening. I shut my eyes and basked in the tone of his voice—a euphoria I had not heard in years.

I cannot imagine my father today without the resonance of this encounter. I still see it daily; my mother and I agree that it was the moment that caused a seismic shift in his outlook—not because anything changed spectacularly in his life (my father did send Brian his music, though there's no way of knowing if he ever heard it), but because he seems genuinely at peace. He is no longer haunted by his unreached musical goals; he distills his love into charitable musical work. I don't believe he could have reached that realization without Wilson's kind outreach; he needed to be inspired again, by someone who truly understood the perils of artistry, to continue living bravely in uncertainty, as he had before.

Rock fans revere Wilson, but they also must confront him individually, because he once surrendered wholly to his creativity and exposed the terrifying prospect of being ruined by it. He wrote some of the most beautiful music in history, and suffered personally in its pursuit—and he still fights those mental battles daily. And he took time to direct my father from a similar path.

I clutch the phone. I tell Brian Wilson much of this, breathlessly. He seems startled yet gracious. And when I tell him that I have his gorgeous song—my father's favorite, and my own, too—branded on my body, a mark as indelible as his actions, he sounds the happiest he will in our entire interview. "All right!" he says. Which it is, and in one day, what he made it all.

Brian Wilson plays the Wellmont Theatre on June 9 and Highline Ballroom June 11 through 13

Q: You told the Evening Standard earlier this month that you may retire from touring next year. Are you still considering that?
Yeah, I probably will, yeah. I dunno, I'm just getting older. If it feels good, I'll probably keep going for another two or three years.

Do you have a relationship with the other members right now?
No, I don't. Not really, no. I'm not really interested in them.

So you don't have plans to reunite [the band] for the 50th anniversary?
Right. No.

How do the original studio sessions of Smile (coming out this year) differ from the Smile album you recorded in 2004?
They're not quite as good. They're just little bits, fragments, shorter pieces, 20-second pieces and 30-second pieces.

What song in your career left you feeling most satisfied after you had written it?
"God Only Knows." It's just a good love song. I like it.

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