Smiling liberated Brian Wilson.
The act of completing his pop opus “Smile,” 37 years after he’d abandoned it, suddenly reopened the creative floodgates for the reclusive Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and he wrote 18 songs in a month.
“I had a creative explosion a couple of summers ago,” said Wilson, the guiding light of the Beach Boys and rock’s most famous living casualty. Victimized by parental abuse, drug abuse, depression and misguided therapies (he has schizoaffective disorder), the 66-year-old Californian resurfaced this year with those new songs on “That Lucky Old Sun,” a love letter to Los Angeles.
For many, “Sun” will recall the halcyon days of the Beach Boys. “The concept is poetic images of L.A.,” said Wilson.
His vocals haven’t sounded so confident in years, and, of course, the harmonies are luscious.
The album was sparked by Louis Armstrong’s 1949 recording of “That Lucky Old Sun,” he said from his Beverly Hills home. “I wanted to use it as the theme of my album, so I went and bought Louis Armstrong’s version and learned it, rearranged it and updated the chords, and that was that.”
The enigmatic Wilson also addressed some of his well-documented personal issues on this autobiographical project.
“How could I have got so low,” he sings on ‘Oxygen to the Brain.” “I’m embarrassed to tell you so/I laid around this old house/I hardly ever washed my face.”’
Wilson wrote some of those lyrics. “It’s about how I laid around and didn’t do anything for 10 years,” he said, “and finally I started bathing and doing exercise and getting myself in shape.”
His musical director and lyricist, Scott Bennett, felt “it was invaluable to have him address those lost chapters,” he told USA Today. Bennett, a member of the Wondermints, has been in Wilson’s band for 10 years. “Scott’s a genius at lyrics,” said Wilson, a man of few words. “It was an autobiographical thing, and he wrote for me.”
“That Lucky Old Sun” was released in September on Capitol Records, the Beach Boys’ label in the 1960s. Wilson even recorded in the Capitol studios.
“It was a bit of a sentimental experience for me,” he said. “I felt proud to go back to my parent company. We released ‘California Girls’ on Capitol. It was a nice, good-vibe studio.”
Wilson recalled the 2004 Minneapolis concert where he gave “Smile” its U.S. premiere: “I was very happy that night. I sang off-key on a couple of songs but I quickly got back on key.”
How happy, on a 10-point scale, is the notoriously unsunny Wilson these days?
“I’m 9 happy,” he said enthusiastically. “Just breathing oxygen makes me happy.”
What’s the hardest part of being Brian Wilson?
“Doing my concerts and trying to sing on key. Not to be afraid of people. I still have stage fright, believe it or not.”
In concert, Wilson said, he’ll perform “That Lucky Old Sun” in its entirety and then “some Beach Boy favorites.”
Each day, even on tour, the pop genius tries to spend 90 to 120 minutes at the piano. He’s started work on a new concept album, he said: “It’s called ‘Pleasure Island, a Rock Fantasy.’”
He also hopes to squeeze in some outdoor exercise while in town. Typically, he ‘fast-walks’ around a Los Angeles park every day - ‘six big rounds, almost four miles,’ he said. ‘On the road, I take little half-hour walks. In Minnesota, I’ll bundle up. My God, if we’re snowed in - no exercise.’
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