March 28, 2005

SXSW 2005: BRIAN WILSON

SMiLE.jpg

Getting through a SMiLE discussion

Brian Wilson makes engaging music, but he's not the most engaging public speaker -- even when the subject is the completion of perhaps the most famous and most talked about unreleased album in rock 'n' roll history.

Brian Wilson.jpg

The former Beach Boys leader was in Austin, Texas, on March 18 during the South by Southwest music festival/conference for a panel discussion about SMiLE. Originally intended as the follow-up to the 1966 Beach Boys disc Pet Sounds, SMiLE (previously spelled Smile) was shelved circa 1967 due to Wilson's increasing depression and other issues.

Out of the blue, Wilson decided in 2003 to revise and re-record SMiLE as a solo album featuring his 10-member band, and the finished product was released in September 2004 on Nonesuch Records to much critical acclaim.

Joined by Tracks editor in chief Alan Light, Rolling Stone assistant managing editor Jason Fine, TV producer/director David Leaf and SMiLE lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson sat poker-faced throughout moderator Light's introductions and offered short, quick and sometimes stock replies to his early questions.

Light said to Wilson, "Tell us about the moment when you realized that you wanted to get back in and finish SMiLE."

Wilson, talking over the end of Light's statement, replied, "My wife, Melinda, told me . . . that the world was finally ready for SMiLE. And I said, 'I agree with you.' . . . We listened to the old recordings. We didn't use any of the old tapes. We took it from scratch."

Light: "What surprised you, going back to listen to the old tapes?"
Wilson: "I was amazed by how creative the songs were and how Americana they were."

Light: "Could you immediately see what it would take to get it finished as soon as you went back to the stuff?"
Wilson: "No, it took me about a month."

More in-depth answers and explanations came from the other panelists. According to Leaf, the director of the documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and The Story of SMiLE, Wilson's May 2003 announcement in London that he would perform SMiLE, which at the time of the statement wasn't finished, was a high point in the evolution of the album.

"But then there were months [of Wilson saying], 'My goodness -- what have I done? I said I'm going to finish SMiLE and perform it? How am I going to do that?' " recalled Leaf.

WILSON PHONES PARKS

A Wilson phone call to Parks in November 2003 about a lyric that was on the shelved Smile was a turning point in the project, effectively reuniting the two creative forces.

Parks, who "abhorred any thought of Smile for 38 years," said he was able to get back into SMiLE mode "with equal oblivion to what words mean, what lyrics could do, but only with my trust in Brian and my realization that it was a very courageous thing to do. . . . It touched my heart in a wonderful way, and I just went ahead and finished my job."

Drama surrounded the making of the new SMiLE, much like it did the version that Wilson abandoned.

"It was tense, really tense when this all began," said Leaf. "By legend and by fact, we all knew that the Smile era between '66 and '67 had been such a painful time for Brian and Van Dyke, and [there was an] endless black cloud over their joint artistry. The idea that Brian was going to tackle this and bring Van Dyke into the challenge as well -- we were all wondering what was going to happen."

The album's three-part structure was finished around the end of November/beginning of December 2003, according to Leaf.

"Smile was a record that people looked forward to and were waiting for, and it never came," said Fine. "And 37 years later, to have it finally be realized -- and not only that, it's very current and very vital and very dynamic -- and I think it's one of the great accomplishments in rock."

SMiLE's LONDON PREMIERE

Wilson and his band premiered the work on Feb. 20, 2004, in London -- a nerve-wracking experience for Wilson.

"About an hour before the show, I was so nervous I could throw up," he said. "I was so darn nervous. Then when we finally got on the stage, about two seconds after we started playing, I was OK."

The shows after that, he added, were "a breeze." As for the rest of the SMiLE panel on March 18, it was rather choppy, with Wilson telling a brief version of the well-known tale dating back to the original Smile sessions in which musicians wore fire hats at his suggestion for inspiration.

AUDIENCE INVOLVEMENT

Light later opened the floor to questions, and early on Wilson managed to crack a rare grin, saying he hopes SMiLE is performed by other musicians so he could "make some money."

But in fielding questions from other audience members, Wilson was just as brief, guarded and obvious as before with many of his answers.

Asked to explain the creative process in the studio, Wilson said, "Well, it starts with the chord sheets and the musicians. We give the musicians chord sheets, then we do what they call trial runs -- we make a run-through. And then I'll go out and say, 'No, you have the wrong note here.' . . . We take it as a slow process."

Wilson was quite Yogi Berra-esque when asked what late brothers Carl and Dennis would think of the new SMiLE: "Well, I think if they were alive, they'd probably be thrilled to death to listen to it."

One fan wondered what he thought about the current Beach Boys playing a summer festival in Japan, and Wilson either didn't understand the question or politely dodged it, saying, "The Beach Boys have been to Japan three times, and each time they were there, they got standing ovations."

SOME SURPRISING STATEMENTS

Wilson surprised Light, among others in the room, by announcing his plans to make a Christmas album featuring eight standard Christmas songs, two Wilson originals and two Beach Boys Christmas songs.

Wilson also said that he's talked with Paul McCartney about a collaboration.

"He said he doesn't want to work with me quite yet," said Wilson, "but he'll let me know when he wants to work with me."

Following Parks' story about how "Surf's Up" got its title, Wilson admitted that the song was his favorite on SMiLE, which he predicted would make people forget about Pet Sounds.

The final audience question for Wilson had to do with what he thought of the successful acts that have been influenced by his former band. With the noncommittal air of a politician, Wilson said, "Well, I think all the young people who latched onto The Beach Boys -- I think they're on the right path."

With that, the panel concluded and the audience stood and clapped. Wilson took a quick bow and, despite having the longest walk to the stage exit, was the first panelist to depart, undoubtedly taking with him enough stories to fill a dozen additional panel discussions.

-- By Chris M. Junior

Brian Wilson - SXSW 2005.jpg
Brian Wilson
Austin, Texas
March 18, 2005
Photo by Chris M. Junior

Posted by medleyville at March 28, 2005 06:52 PM
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