Brian Wilson is sitting in his favorite local diner. He orders tuna salad. A woman walks by, stops dead in her tracks and gushes, “Oh, my God, I saw you play at Disney Hall, you were amazing!” He smiles at her and jerks his head to the side in a half nod. “Thanks a lot!” He promptly returns his full attention to his food. The former Beach Boy is an intense man -— he limits his speech and movement to the bare necessities to get his point across. Unless he’s talking about music —- then his words come in bursts.
His reaction to the woman who complimented him is typical; Wilson ingests accolades with a bit of humor and awe, as if he still can’t believe people like and respect him. He is still amazed that he will be feted as MusiCares’ person of the year Feb. 11 at the Palladium in Hollywood, Calif.
“I’m very excited to be honored. It makes me feel very important and very good,” he says, then smiles shyly.
The MusiCares accolade is bestowed on a member of the music community who has achieved greatness as an artist and a philanthropist. Wilson gives generously of his time to the Carl Wilson Foundation for cancer research (his younger brother died of the disease in 1998) and has lent his musical talents to such causes as the Adopt-a-Minefield benefit and Neil Young’s Bridge School.
On hand to pay homage to Wilson during the MusiCares gala will be Michael McDonald, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Earth, Wind & Fire, Jeff Beck, India.Arie, Jamie Cullum, Barenaked Ladies and Neil Young, among others.
The honor caps a stunning year for Wilson, who released his re-recording of the Beach Boys’ “SMiLE” album to critical acclaim and staged a worldwide tour chock-full of standing ovations. The original “SMiLE,” recorded more than 37 years ago, was never released officially. Wilson calls the project a “nice, happy, jovial teenage symphony to God.”
The Nonesuch Records release bowed at No. 13 on The Billboard 200. The set, whose full title is “Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE,” has sold more than 300,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and has been nominated for three Grammy Awards, including best pop vocal.
Wilson is already writing songs for his next opus. “I think it will be a rock’n’roll album,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be great? ‘SMiLE’ was a pop album. We need rock’n’roll for sure. We just want to try to make something that makes people get out of their seats and dance.”
He laughs heartily just musing about his new rock tunes, yet his eyes can turn to shadows quickly. Wilson has long received treatment for mental illness, and he says he still battles mood swings.
“SMiLE” was scrapped in 1967 as Wilson neared a mental breakdown. Drugs, pressure from the other Beach Boys —- especially Mike Love, who reportedly harshly criticized the “SMiLE” songs —- and Wilson’s weak mental state doomed the project. Though the album was shelved, a few original “SMiLE” tracks -— “Wonderful,” “Heroes and Villains” and “Surf’s Up” —- found their way onto subsequent Beach Boys releases.
The new “SMiLE” sessions were not all easy. Wilson admits he feared that the bad memories of 1967 would haunt him. “I had some of that,” he says. “But I got through it… It brought back a lot of memories of when we were on drugs, stuff like that. And it brought back good memories because of all the creativity that went into it.”
The demons, however, are never far away. “I’ve overcome a lot of them,” he says. “Not all of them, but some of them… Most people don’t understand my moods.”
Wilson credits his perseverance largely to his wife Melinda, as well as the prowess of his publicists-turned-managers Ronnie Lippin and Jean Sievers and a dedicated band led by Darian Sahanaja.
“I found the spirit,” Wilson says. “[Melinda] inspired me. She gave me a solo career. It was her idea. I owe my life to her.”
Wilson adds that his current band is better than the Beach Boys. “I’ve never played with a band so good in my life.”
With his career on an upswing, a new album on the way and more tour dates in the wings, Wilson has no intention of hanging up his musical gloves. “I’m not going to retire soon at all,” he says.
Excerpted from the Feb. 12, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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