Can you name five 20th century American pop composers more important to the growth and development of popular music-as-high art than Brian Wilson? Probably not, and with good reason.
The man is a genius and he’s coming to the Palace Theatre on the April 26, playing the Pet Sounds album in its entirety. In 1966, few anticipated Pet Sounds would still resonate over 50 years later. Even Wilson himself is a little surprised.
“I didn’t know it would hold up 50 years,” he remarked. “Back then, you hoped it would hold up a few months.”
Now, of course, Pet Sounds is considered a pop masterpiece, withstanding group infighting during recording and an initially poor reception upon original release. Not that Wilson is keeping score or keen to say, “I told you so.”
“The satisfaction was in the recording,” he decisively said.
He does warn, however, to eschew the massive box sets that cover the lengthy, legendary in their own right recording sessions and listen to the finished album, adding, “Stick to the finished version. It’s easier to listen to.”
The upcoming Palace show is a continuation of a tour started last year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Pet Sounds.” Backed by a band that includes former Beach Boy Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin, a member of the ’70s Beach Boys and current back-up singer/rhythm guitarist for the Rolling Stones, Wilson and band play Pet Sounds in its entirety.
“The band knows it very well. They play it like the album,” Wilson said. “Al Jardine is great; he still sings as good as he did 51 years ago!”
Wilson cites the album’s eponymous title cut as the most difficult to prep for the stage, taking the band three days to master, since “the chord pattern was rough.” Now the band and its interplay is tight, nailing the songs with a note-for-note perfection that takes Wilson back in his mind to their inception and the people who are no longer with him to share in the music.
“I remember recording it,” he exclaimed when asked what goes through his mind while his seminal work unfold on-stage.
“’God Only Knows’ is the high point,” Wilson continued. “It’s a very big moment for me. When I sing it on stage I remember Carl (Wilson, Brian’s late brother).”
During the show, Wilson and the gang also play approximately 2 dozen other Beach Boy hits. Fans will hear “California Girls,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and the other tunes synonymous with the surf rock era and the group’s underrated late-1960s and 1970s output.
“Blondie sings ‘Wild Honey,’” he added. “I like when we do ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and ‘California Saga.’”
The most current song in Wilson’s setlist is “Love and Mercy” originally penned in 1988. His most recent album is 2015’s “No Pier Pressure,” the product of a few years’ worth of work. In that time, he hasn’t been working on new material, but asking him about it does lend insight into his songwriting approach.
“I haven’t written anything for about 5 years,” Wilson said. When he does feel the urge to write, he asks himself, “’What kind of song do you like? Would I like to make a rock ‘n’ roller or a ballad?’ I haven’t decided yet.”
“Love and Mercy” is also the name of a 2014 biopic. In it, Paul Dano plays young Wilson, leading the Beach Boys through Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile sessions. John Cusack plays middle-aged Wilson, pilled out and overseen by Paul Giamatti’s domineering Dr. Eugene Landy. It covers some pretty heavy shit, from an abusive father to mental breakdowns, emotional abuse and eventual redemption when Wilson meets the woman who eventually helps him escape Landy’s clutches and becomes his wife, Melinda Ledbetter. In conjunction with last year’s autobiography, “I am Brian Wilson,” both brought back a rush of memories and served as a lesson for Wilson.
“It was kind of an emotional experience,” Wilson recalled of seeing the flick for the first time. “Actually it was a learning experience, to not take a lot of drugs – I used to take a lot.
Still, Wilson sees both as a positive experience. When asked if it was good for him, he said, “Actually it is. I’m 74 – it’s good to remember those good memories.”
Between the movie, book and scores of materials outlining his past and infamous excesses, there’s a lot of both fact and fiction about Wilson as a person out there. Since having the chance to talk to a true legend is so rare, this conversation was a great opportunity to ask the man himself what he would like more people to know about him.
“That I’m a nice guy and I’m easy to talk to,” he said.
And he is.