Anyone who saw the Brian Wilson biopic “Love and Mercy” this year starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, already knows the story.
A pop visionary from the ‘60s achieves fame and fortune with the Beach Boys, writing a string of early hits and helping define the California sound. Shy and not interested in touring, Wilson becomes one of the first pop musicians to utilize the studio as its own instrument, creating brilliant work including “Pet Sounds” and “Smile.”
After struggling with an abusive father and manager and his own insecurity driven by an artistic competition with the Beatles, Wilson succumbs to drug abuse and begins a harrowing descent into mental instability. By the early 1970s he’s an alcoholic recluse living on acid and five grams of cocaine a day. He doesn’t leave his bed for three years, ballooning to over 300 pounds. Then somehow things get stranger.
An unscrupulous therapist swoops in, nurses him back to physical health while commandeering his life and music, milking his wealth and burying him under psychotropic meds that leave him in a near vegetative state. It isn’t a pretty character arc, but during this period Wilson also manages to meet a woman, now his wife, who rescues him and helps revive his career for a third act.
At least, that’s how the official Hollywood story goes.
Wilson, now 73, still deals with mental issues. He’s been diagnosed as a manic-depressive with schizo-affective disorder, meaning he hears voices. Talking to him on the phone for a 10-minute interview, he seems lucid, friendly and sincere – almost childlike though unable or unwilling to elaborate his answers. It would seem one of the only ways to know Wilson more deeply is through his music, and maybe that’s best.
Fittingly, some of the film’s best scenes take place in the studio, meticulously re-creating how Wilson crafted symphonic pop with rooms full of musicians. But Wilson says the scenes didn’t conjure anything specific for him: “No, not anything particular. Just the general vibe,” he says. “Paul Dano’s acting was really great.”
Since the film came out, Wilson says others who have suffered with mental illness often approach him with gratitude and personal stories. So he and his wife, Melinda, created the Campaign to Change Direction to educate the public. “Yeah, I’m glad I could get involved with that trip,” he says. “Because it helps people identify with me. And helps them get through the bummers.”
When asked musical questions about the past — for example, if he remembers how the lovely opening melody of “Good Vibrations” first came to him — Wilson gets a little rattled while remaining polite. “No actually I don’t. I can’t,” he says. “I can’t really answer that question because it’s too confusing.”
He says that “Good Vibrations” and “California Girls” are his favorite Beach Boys songs to hear on the radio, and that he never sings in the shower — ever.
A bandmate once speculated in a Rolling Stone article that when Wilson meets someone the first thing he does is read his or her vibrations. “Yeah I do,” Wilson admits. “I try to spread the energy and the good love wherever I go.”
He’s currently working on an autobiography (“I Am Brian Wilson”), but says his goal is not to correct information in other books about him, adding that his favorite part so far is interviewing old friends. “It’s coming along slowly but good, yeah,” he says. “I’m just trying to get it factual and accurate, you know?”
He gets the most animated when I bring up an old live version of his brother Dennis Wilson’s singing the Beatles “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” — agreeing wholeheartedly that he likes Dennis’ version better too: “Yeah me too! It’s great! Was that on the Party album?”
Regarding the rumor that he once met John Lennon at Mickey Dolenz’s house, and under the influence of some drug, wound up plinking one note at the piano for six hours while Lennon sat motionlessly staring into the pool, Wilson nixes it. “I never met John,” he says. “I wish I had because I liked him a lot, you know?”
Wilson adds if there was one musician he could record an album of originals with today it would be Paul McCartney (a huge Wilson fan). “We’ve talked before, but never about working together,” he says.
For now, he’s just enjoying his new hits-packed tour with fellow former Beach Boys Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin. Wilson has never played Richmond before, not having toured with the Beach Boys when they performed here in the ‘60s at the Mosque and other venues. He says he likes when his solo tour brings him to new cities.
“Yeah, I always anticipate the audiences, you know?” he explains. “I’m more interested to see how the audiences like the concert.” His “big favorite part” of the show is the five-song encore of hits, because that’s when the crowd is happiest, he says.
Running out of time, I ask if there’s anything else he’d like people in Richmond to know? “Only thing I can say is I hope they like harmonies and my vocals,” he says wistfully. “I hope they like ‘em.” S
An Evening with Brian Wilson takes place at the National on Thursday, Oct. 22. Tickets are $50 to $75. Showtime is 8 p.m. thenationalva.com.