Q&A: Brian Wilson On His Gershwin Influences, Working With Van Dyke Parks, And The Smile Reissue


Below are more excerpts from my late May interview with Brian Wilson that served as the basis for this week’s cover story. We talked about his thoughts on this year’s release of the long-delayed Smile, the unpleasant memories of its creation, reuniting with collaborator Van Dyke Parks after 40 years, and the much-rumored Beach Boys reunion.

You’ve talked about listening to “Rhapsody in Blue” as a child, and last year you released your album of Gershwin standards. What is it about Gershwin’s music that has proven so impactful throughout your life?

Well, his harmonies I like a lot. I learned a lot about music from him.

What specifically in the harmonies is so resonant with you?

His violins.

Your love of Gershwin certainly answers the question from “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)”: “Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?” What else from your childhood do you still love today?

Chuck Berry. Phil Spector.

For your Gershwin album, you were allowed to access Gershwin’s estate and select two unfinished piano pieces. How did you choose the ones you did, and how did you approach finishing them?

We found the harmonies—the ones that had the best harmonies. We put the melodies to the harmonies.

How did that writing process feel to you?

Good, it was good. I was nervous.

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, you know?

Have you had any shows, recently or in your lifetime, that you remember as a special concert?


The debut of Smile?

Yeah, yeah.

I saw the documentary Beautiful Dreamer. It looked like a powerful performance. How was it, debuting that music?

It was a kick. I loved it.

Was there any song in particular you played and were very happy with?

Just all of them. All of them were good.

There’s been talk about possibly reforming the Beach Boys next year to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know.

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 for the 50th anniversary?

Right. No.

Are the original Smile studio sessions still coming out later this year?

Yeah, they are.

How do the original studio sessions 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.

Is there anything on there you’re looking forward to the public hearing for the first time?

Not really, no.

Are you excited to release it?

Yeah. I think people will like it.


How did you feel about releasing Smile in 2004?

I thought it was a kick. I was thrilled.

The other Beach Boys’ initial dislike of Smile led to a troubled period in your life. How does it feel to hear those initial studio recordings today?

Well, it kind of brings back a bad memory because I like the music but we took drugs during those times, and that’s the bad memory of it all.

A bad memory? How so?

It made my head feel cloudy, you know? Dizzy. As I was taking them.

Your friend, journalist Michael Vosse, said that he thinks your drug use has been wrongly blamed as a main reason for your post-Smile nervous breakdown. Do you agree with that?


You do think your drug use has been misunderstood?

Yeah. I don’t know, I can’t really answer that question.

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.

When you come to New York, are there any places you’re looking forward to visiting?

Central Park.

What can we expect from your concerts in New York?

Gershwin songs and Beach Boy classics.

In the documentary Beautiful Dreamer, you said that you were worried about how Smile would be received, just as Gershwin was worried about “Rhapsody in Blue”‘s debut in Paris. Do you still have those concerns for Smile’s release?

Yeah, yeah I do. I feel nervous. I’m not sure, I don’t know if it’s going to sell or not. I really don’t know if it’s going to sell or not. If it sells good, I’m hoping people like it. That’s all I can say.

Have you talked to the other Beach Boys about its release?

No, not at all.

Was it your decision to release it?


Smile, of course, has been a long time coming since you recorded it. Why did you decide to finally release those sessions this year?

Ah, I don’t know. I just thought it was time to do it, you know.

Pet Sounds was inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was inspired by Pet Sounds. Which artists have inspired your recent works—the Gershwin album, That Lucky Old Sun?

No one’s inspired it. We inspired ourselves to do it.

And you worked with Van Dyke Parks for That Lucky Old Sun.

Right, I worked with him. He’s a great writer. Great.

How was it to work with him again after some time apart?

It was quite a thrill. It really was. I had a good time.

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