Last year, Brian Wilson told Rolling Stone managing editor Jason Fine that it felt like he had about “15 years left.” Yet, for a guy who has now effectively put a timeline on his own mortality, Wilson, 74, hasn’t given much time to thinking about legacy or how he wants to be remembered when his time on Earth has expired.
“Never thought about that.”
That’s all Wilson has to say on the subject when queried about it on the phone by CL. The Beach Boy mastermind comes to St. Petersburg’s Mahaffey Theater on Tuesday in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds, the 1966 masterpiece that so many artists still strive in vain to match. The album was, and remains, revolutionary. (Paul McCartney and John Lennon began working diligently on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band after hearing it.)
Wilson is a famously short interview, and this one is no exception. It barely cracks the 10-minute mark, but much like Wilson’s music, not much time has to pass before you feel like you know something about the voice on the other end of the line.
In spite of his brevity, a tangible warmth emanates from Wilson when he talks about Pet Sounds, the album he made mostly alone and at least intermittently under the influence of psychedelics. Then 23 years old, Wilson was chasing the voices and sounds swirling around in his head and looking for answers to questions about art, life and love. He used unconventional instruments — think bike bells and horns, theremin, Coke cans and orange juice jugs — as well as members of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew ensemble to perform the compositions and bring those sounds and voices to life. Unfortunately, the same voices, berating him one moment and then inspiring him the next, would lead to nervous breakdowns which eventually derailed the completion of Smile, the follow-up to Pet Sounds. Decades later, after finally finding the right treatment regimen, he was well enough to perform and record again.
When asked whether he feels inspired to write new material these days, all that Wilson can talk about is playing Pet Sounds with his band, which includes Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine. Guitarist Blondie Chaplin, who appeared on two LPs — 1972’s Carl and the Passions “So Tough” and ’73’s Holland, as well as Wilson’s 2015 album No Pier Pressure — is also on this tour.
“It brings out the memories of when we made the album,” he says. He sounds pleased about that, and it’s a testament to how much happier Pet Sounds made Wilson, who once admitted that he was “scared of Smile” because he “thought it was gonna bring back feelings” of failure and not being good enough.
Content and onstage is a good place for Wilson to be during this anniversary run, which ends next month in Oslo, Norway. He says that the pre-show discussions with his band are quite inspiring, and the performances distract him from the rigors of traveling, since his routine at home in California consists of trips to the deli plus a stop at the park to walk and think under a favorite tree. Being on the road lends itself to more of the inner turmoil and angry voices, and he tells us that he tries to go to parks on tour, but mostly watches TV on the road. He doesn’t read newspapers. There’s got to be some things about the world today that feel like real ball-punchers, though, right?
“The election,” he says plainly. “It’s quite hectic — but that’s about it.”
That’s all Wilson can conjure up about the most polarizing presidential race in modern history, and it makes sense. For all his lack of thinking about a legacy, Wilson still does a lot of internalizing. But where he might have lived in himself decades ago, he now has a family — and band members — who are the beneficiaries of his wisdom. He loves music of the 1950s and ’60s, but knows it’s different for everybody.
So his advice? Pay careful attention to the sounds that come to your ears; they’re the gateway to your mind and body, making what you hear of the utmost importance. Wilson will turn his own attention to what he’s hearing onstage come Tuesday, but know that in the quiet, between songs, he’ll be looking around at his surroundings and taking it all in.
Most everyone who has the privilege to talk with Wilson face to face mentions that he’s always looking just above their heads instead at their faces. We ask him about that.
“Each person has their own aura,” he explains. “I see different auras for different people in my life, in my band.”
Wilson says he likes Paul Von Mertens’s aura the best. Von Mertens plays saxophone and harmonica for Wilson, and is the bandleader. In July he told NPR that his band’s very difficult job is not to bring albums as recorded to the stage, but to make them come alive and take them to a place where “the really magical stuff happens.”
And that’s the magic of Brian Wilson. He might be one of the most enigmatic and seemingly insular figures from the 1960s, but today, 50 years after the greatest achievement of his own career, all he has to do is look into someone to inspire them to be the greatest they can be night in and night out.
Brian Wilson performs Pet Sounds at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater on Tuesday September 13. Doors are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the show are $55.50-$88.50. More information is available at CL's events calendar and themahaffey.com.