Brian Wilson talks about 'Love & Mercy,' concert tour
Watching "Love and Mercy," the film that depicts former Beach Boy Brian Wilson's famously difficult life, actor Paul Dano's emotionally raw portrayal of the young Wilson has prompted many of his fans to tears, at times.
So how difficult it must have been for Wilson himself to watch scenes in which he becomes unglued from emotional distress, drug abuse and the unending pressure from his father and the record company for more songs, more hits. Some of the pressure was self-imposed, from his drive to equal or better his peers, the Beatles, with every album.
"It got me in touch with what I wanted to remember," said Wilson, 73, talking by phone from his Los Angeles home in advance of his Sunday concert at the Fox Theatre with Rodriguez (who, coincidentally, will be 73 on July 10).
"As a matter of fact, I hadn't remembered some things until I saw the movie. Then I remembered what I went through. It was rough. It was tough."
Wilson said the hardest part of the movie to watch were the scenes with psychotherapist Dr. Eugene Landy. "He had me medicated, on drugs, he wouldn't let me talk to my family, had me locked up. It was terrible. It was horrible.
"When I got out of the program I started to feel better, then I started writing more songs, doing some albums and stuff."
The program he's talking about is a 24/7 regimen devised by Landy to bring the inactive, drug-addled and emotionally spent musician out of his self-imposed isolation and back into the world. From his teenaged years, Wilson had been driven musically by his father, Murry, who punched him on his ears to get his attention, permanently deafening him in one ear.
In the early '80s, Landy had been hired by Wilson's family, who were desperate to bring him back into a normal life, if not back to being a writer and performer of pop genius.
The regimen worked at first — a "new" slim, handsome Brian emerged to hit the talk-show circuit and talk up the great Landy. But at a certain point, Landy became yet another controlling power figure who wouldn't allow him any freedom.
On a 1991 visit to Detroit to promote his autobiography "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Wilson was accompanied by Landy and a crew. He sat for an interview with The Detroit News but was visibly anxious to get away from his handlers. He visited a hotel bar with a journalist and scarfed down several "forbidden" diet Cokes in several long gulps. He was clearly more relaxed away from Landy.
Wilson has since distanced himself from the 1991 "autobiography," which Landy reportedly had a hand in writing. A new autobiography was reported to be coming out in the fall, but Wilson said "That won't be out till next year, we haven't done much of it yet."
'I was never afraid'
Much of the film "Love and Mercy" relates to wife Melinda Ledbetter's struggle to get Brian out of Landy's control, which she finally did after enlisting the help of his brother Carl. (Landy's son, Evan, has done interviews insisting that his father has been unfairly portrayed, and that he saved Wilson from an early death. Landy died in 2006).
Wilson and Ledbetter have been married now for 20 years and have five adopted children (Wilson has two daughters by his first marriage to Marilyn Rovell — Carnie Wilson and Wendy Wilson.)
Because "Love and Mercy" uses a lot of Beach Boys music (from the original masters), some of it stripped down to basic tracks, the effect is of being inside his head when so much music and beauty, and horrific images were channeling through him.
At the beginning of the movie, Dano plays a distraught Wilson worrying that the music coming through him might stop someday. Did he worry about the music stopping?
"Yeah, well, I was never afraid the music would stop," said Wilson, unfiltered as always.
He did say that watching Dano in the film helped him with his own performance. "When I watched the movie, I got in touch with my voice through Paul Dano's voice. That's how I got in touch."
And yes, that's Dano singing those choir boy leads as Wilson, not lip-synching to a track.
"He actually sang like me. He practiced for a while to sing like me and he sang very, very much like me," Wilson said.
He says he talked to Dano and John Cusack, who played him in his 40s, when he was in crisis and under Landy's care.
"I talked to them for about a week and they got familiar with my mannerisms, and so they took it into the movie and portrayed me very well."
There is a scene in the film that's both funny and sad. Dano as Wilson is sprawled in bed, post-LSD, escaping from the endless anxiety attacks. At one point he "becomes" himself as a child, then becomes an older man (Cusack) as a number of people important in his life troop by, some compassionate, some not so much. Firmly in the latter camp is his father, Murray, who stands at the foot of his bed, peers over his glasses and yells "GET OUT OF BED, BRIAN!"
Was his father's needling a good thing, at times?
"Well, he was like a coach to me; he'd push me to produce records," Wilson said. "He'd say 'Get in there and kick butt!' like a coach — and it worked."
Anyone who's had interaction with Wilson over the years knows how unguarded emotionally he is, without any slick musician-interviewee patter. It can be both delightful and unnerving.
Asked what music he's listening to at the moment, he says quickly, "Switched-On Bach!" That is a 1968 album of Bach's music played on synthesizers by Wendy Carlos. Ask him which of his songs tells the story of his life, he says "Good Vibrations."
Has he ever been to Motown? No, but he drove by West Grand Boulevard on a recent tour stop and saw the outside of Hitsville.
And yes, he saw Paul McCartney crying in the audience at his "Smile" show in 2004, "at the Royal Festival Hall," Wilson recalled. He stops in the middle of answering another question to deal with what sounds like a pack of feral dogs barking, then comes back and finishes the thought.
He insists again that he never worried about the music stopping. "It came naturally," he said. But, asked if he's working on any new music at the moment, he says he isn't.
"I had music in my head for about a year before I recorded my 'No Pier Pressure' album," Wilson said. "I listened to the radio and I heard Nate Ruess and Kasey Musgraves and Zooey Deschanel, and we had them come down and sing on my album. I wrote songs for them."
The album, his 11th solo studio album, came out in April and features him singing with Deschanel and M. Ward of She and Him; Ruess of fun.; Musgraves and his old Beach Boys mates Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin.
Wilson admits he doesn't know much about his opening act Detroit's own Rodriguez, but "I heard he's pretty good."
In the new show, he performs "mostly Beach Boys classics" with about three or four songs from "Pier Pressure," Wilson said. At the June 26 Atlanta show, he performed some 33 songs.
He's accompanied on this tour by many of the musicians he's toured with for years, with the addition of Jardine and Chaplin. According to tour reports, Jardine's son, Matt, is handling the high tenor vocals that Wilson and brother Carl provided in the '60s.
Did Wilson think much about his younger brothers Dennis and Carl anymore? Dennis died tragically in December 1983, drowning after diving to retrieve some of his belongings, while Carl died in February 1998 of complications from lung cancer.
Carl particularly comes to mind when Brian sings "God Only Knows," a vocal Carl handled on the original with his even more-angelic tenor.
"No, I had to let them go because they were gone — they died. I couldn't hold on to them, so I had to let them go."
Brian Wilson's "Pier Pressure Tour," with Rodriguez opening
8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $39-$100 at Ticketmaster.com
Brian Wilson's "No Pier Pressure" album trailerhttp://smarturl.it/NoPierPressure
"Love and Mercy" movie trailer