Interviews with Brian Wilson are notorious for not going smoothly. The songwriter and universally acknowledged creative genius of the Beach Boys has variously walked out on journalists in mid-interview, asked them for drugs and displayed other eccentricities like monosyllabic answers.
His problems with drugs past and no longer under the controlling influence of clinical psychologist Eugene Landy, Wilson still has the propensity to answer questions with a curt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that is the bane of any journalist’s life.
In this case, things did not start too badly. How many songs does he write per week these days? “Probably about none,” Wilson says in a recent phone interview. “One song a month. I have writer’s block and it’s hard to write new songs. I get in little ruts where I can’t write.”
Question two, however, elicits the agitated response: “I can’t hear you!” It is arranged for Wilson to call back on a hopefully better line, which he thankfully does.
The artist’s new solo album, “Gettin’ in Over My Head,” assembles tracks from different sessions as far back as 1998. Nonetheless, it boasts a lovely, life-affirming tone missing from 1988’s antiseptic solo debut, “Brian Wilson.”
“Over My Head” features guest appearances from superstars Elton John, Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, who Wilson says are his favorite artists.
As fellow 1960s legends, the appeal of Clapton and McCartney to Wilson is obvious. But what is it that he likes about Elton John, who — some great records notwithstanding — some do not consider to be on his level?
“I like his singing” is the guileless answer.
“City Blues,” a Wilson lyric accompanied by some typically coruscating Clapton guitar, is interesting because the Beach Boys have never really been associated with the blues nor any other black music. Wilson acknowledges this but says it is a misapprehension, citing Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson as artists who had an influence on him.
The duet with Paul McCartney on “A Friend Like You” is interesting on another level. In many ways, Wilson’s and McCartney’s lives seem intertwined. The ’60s had seen the two bassists and composing geniuses developing at an incredible rapid rate while keeping a keen eye on each other. A good-tempered rivalry? “It was,” says Wilson. “Now we’re just friends.”
Perhaps just as well: the start of Wilson’s well-documented mental problems has been attributed to his feeling that the Beatles continually topped even his best work.
Nowadays, Wilson says he wants to make an album with McCartney. When asked when this might happen, he says, “January.” However, fans should not get too excited about the prospect: Wilson admits he hasn’t yet approached Sir Paul with the idea.
There is another duet on the album, one that Wilson admits he finds rather spooky. On “Soul Searchin,” he sings alongside the taped voice of his brother and ex-Beach Boys colleague Carl, who passed away in 1998. Elsewhere, members of Wilson’s band quite uncannily replicate — or at least simulate — the Beach Boys’ multi-part harmony sound of yore.
Did he deliberately try to make this sound like a Beach Boys album? “Yes, especially on ‘Desert Drive’,” Wilson says, referring to a track that sounds like a not-too-distant cousin of “Fun, Fun, Fun.” In a comment that will no doubt make many Beach Boys diehards gnash their teeth, Wilson avers that it was “very easy” to imitate the Beach Boys’ vocal stylings.
The album’s final track, “The Waltz,” was co-written with Van Dyke Parks, Wilson’s collaborator on “Smile,” the Beach Boys’ mythical follow-up to the landmark album “Pet Sounds.” Originally set for a 1967 release and intended as the group’s magnum opus, the project fell apart during the recording process as Wilson’s mental condition worsened.
“Smile” will finally see the light of day in September, albeit in a newly recorded version credited not to the Beach Boys but to Wilson. The intended original track listing has been pieced together as far as memory allows, although Wilson reveals, “We’ve added a new movement.”
And what of the Beach Boys today? Wilson: “After Carl died, we all went our separate ways. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston now own the name. They are the Beach Boys.”
Wilson admits he doesn’t know whether a reunion between he and the other surviving original Beach Boys would mean anything. He doesn’t speak very often with Love, his one-time lyricist and creator of so many of the band’s trademark sea-and-surf vignettes, but says it is not inconceivable that they will work together again.