Brian Wilson's Songs
Illustration by Johanna Goodman
I have one tattoo: the five-note melody line to "God Only Knows," splayed conspicuously across my right shoulder. I've worn it long enough that I often have the luxury of forgetting its presence, the proximity of something so beautiful.
One afternoon in May, I have a handful of minutes to interview Brian Wilson, the brilliant, troubled recluse who wrote that Beach Boys opus and so many more. But as he waits politely for my questions, it seems far more urgent to explain why I have his notes printed on my body—how they honor his act of kindness many years ago, one that changed my family forever. I will stutter onward, because I have waited six years to thank him.
My parents are very much the modest, proud working class of rock lyrics. They live in Northern California and were devoted public school teachers; my father led his district's underfunded bilingual language department, teaching English to impoverished Mexican immigrants. He used rock music— especially his lifelong favorites, the Beach Boys—as a crucial part of his program, often transforming stodgy school assemblies into sing-along spectacles. His wide-eyed students learned Chuck Berry and English sentence construction in equal measure and flocked to him for further rock tutelage long after leaving his classroom.
Music also served as his great bond to his only child. Hours of shared guitar and trumpet practice in the living room, interspersed with listening sessions fueled by his John Peel–worthy scholarship, kept us close—especially when he suffered a near-fatal brain tumor in 1993. We passed the months of sterile hospital hours comparing '60s rock trivia with forced levity. He would emerge from those surgeries in full remission, although the altered alchemy of his brain left him susceptible to fits of severe depression.
For decades, he also worked as a singer/songwriter; he'd toured the West Coast festival circuit and self-released albums of his sweet folk rock (including one that inexplicably featured Tommy Lee). Around 2003, he had been signed to an independent label and received radio airplay across America, and his artistic goals seemed realized. But the label's actions eventually turned dishonorable—and in the fall of 2005, he only had a few weeks left in his contract, which was triggering the very worst of his depression.
"If this attempt fails, too, I'm done," he said tearfully as I listened silently down a phone line. "I lose. I won't try again."
Our talks had evolved into this dismal routine, and these comments had become repetitive but no less distressing. His misery, and the artless reality of failed dreams, was frightening. I wasn't ready yet to view my parents as unrealized, much less as defeated.
One October evening, I had a response for my father. The day before, I had read about a Hurricane Katrina relief challenge under way on Brian Wilson's website. The premise: Donate to the national relief effort, and in return, Wilson would make a personal phone call—a noble, bizarre invitation from a deeply sheltered musician. Perhaps he'd been buoyed by the recent completion of Smile, his long-delayed "teenage symphony to God" that prompted his late-'60s nervous breakdown.
I suggested to my father that he participate—in this nadir, he needed a resilient artistic spirit, a few words of encouragement. He'd identified with Wilson all his life, having grown up in a Southern California town neighboring the Beach Boys' Hawthorne, and shared his isolation of having a father disapproving of his creative accomplishments. We submitted a donation and, as requested by Wilson's coordinator, specified times spanning 20 hours over two weeks. He called me every evening to inform me chipperly that Brian hadn't called yet, but he certainly would tomorrow.
But time passed, and our spectacular plan became a failure—my father had been let down by both his record label and his hero. He tried to shield me from his sharp disappointment, but his blue period was palpably worse than ever. And the latest letdown had been triggered by my idea.
Miles away, in my college radio station's workroom, I investigated. According to a triumphant press release from the Wilson camp, he had completed all calls. I sent a missive to the only e-mail address I had, writing abrasively, tripping over my fingers' furious pace as I demanded an explanation; in coda, I belittled Brian and the program organizers' professionalism. It served a bitter resignation of my futility, and that which I'd caused my dad to feel more deeply.
Two nights later, I discovered a response from Brian Wilson's wife, Melinda. With a verbosity to rival mine, and shreds of text highlighted in red, she called my letter "nasty," insisted that her husband had indeed tried to call, and declared that my behavior had marred his sincere attempt to help in a national crisis.
In that horrible moment, the whole series of events felt hopeless, and I felt culpable. Brian hadn't called, and I'd added a poisonous dimension to his charitable efforts. And though he didn't know about this exchange, my father was no better for it.
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.
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?
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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