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Brian’s back! A conversation with music legend Brian Wilson

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Brian’s back! A conversation with music legend Brian Wilson (photo by Brian Bowen Smith)

BANGOR - Brian Wilson is about to bring his 11-piece band to Cross Insurance Center in Bangor for one of the final performances of The Beach Boys’ classic album “Pet Sounds” – among the most beloved recorded works in pop music history.

In an interview with The Maine Edge, Wilson says that concertgoers will hear classic hits and fan favorites from his Beach Boys years and songs from his solo career. “Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds: The Final Performances” is set for Saturday, October 27, at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re looking forward to getting back out there,” Wilson said about launching the next leg of his tour in Bangor following a two-month break. He last appeared in Bangor with The Beach Boys during their 50th anniversary tour at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion on June 22, 2012.

Over the last two decades, Brian Wilson has been remarkably active both in the studio and onstage.

As the musical mastermind of The Beach Boys during the peak of their 1960s success, Wilson was considered a tireless and endlessly prolific component of the group until he retreated from the public eye following a series of creative setbacks fueled by band resistance, legal problems and escalating drug use.

With a few notable exceptions, Wilson largely stepped away from the spotlight throughout much of the ‘70s and ‘80s. His first official solo album – 1988’s “Brian Wilson” – was released to widespread acclaim.

Surrounded by a band consisting of top-flight musicians weaned on the Wilson songbook, they have backed the once-reclusive auteur for two decades of acclaimed thematic projects, including 2004’s “Brian Wilson Presents: SMiLE,” – the first official release of the unfinished planned successor to “Pet Sounds.”

Since 1998, he has released eight studio albums – the latest being “No Pier Pressure” in 2015.

Prior to the late 1990s, it was almost unimaginable to think that Brian Wilson would one day willingly undertake a touring schedule like his global treks of the last 20 years.

A world tour commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Pet Sounds” was launched in New Zealand in 2016. Initially comprised of about 100 dates, overwhelming audience response, glowing reviews and ticket demand contributed to the tour being extended for another hundred shows last year.

Wilson’s schedule has been a bit lighter in 2018 which has given him time to recuperate from the global traveling and to heal from invasive back surgery in May. He has been plagued with back pain for much of his life - a genetic condition that was shared by his brother Carl. In a statement released in 2012, Wilson announced that he had undergone a “cutting procedure” to address “lower back issues.” When the problem resurfaced later that year, he went through the surgery a second time.

When Wilson’s back problems worsened earlier this year, doctors ordered emergency surgery that he believes was finally successful.

“I’m fine today,” Wilson told me when I asked if the surgery had been a success. “My legs still feed bad but I’m OK. I wear a knee brace and that helps.”

I caught an early show on the “Pet Sounds: The Final Performances” tour with my friend and fellow Brian Wilson-ophile Freeman Saunders of Bull Moose Music in Bangor. It was a night of music that neither of us will forget.

We sat spellbound as Brian and the musicians, including former Beach Boy Al Jardine, his son, Matt Jardine (who deftly delivered some of the trickier falsetto parts) and guitarist Blondie Chaplin, took us on a three-hour trip through the Wilson song catalog, dating back to the early days of The Beach Boys.

We heard Brian’s indelible songs of summer fun at the beach like “Surfer Girl,” “All Summer Long” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” They nailed iconic hot rod songs like “Shut Down,” “Little Honda” and “Little Deuce Coup.”

Number-one hits like “I Get Around,” “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” were executed with the same precision as songs once thought implausible to ever hear from Wilson again, like “Our Prayer” and “Heroes and Villains” from the “SMiLE” project.

When I told Wilson how blown away Freeman and I were by that concert in Portland on June 15, 2016, he was grateful but humble, preferring to give the credit to his band.

“My band means the world to me,” said Wilson. “They’re all great musicians.”

When I recounted some of specific moments of greatness from the show and commented on the fact that his band is a powerhouse of heavy hitters, he answered with a simple “I know. That’s why they’re in my band.”

Brian Wilson’s upcoming Bangor performance of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” will be one of the final performances of the most highly-rated album of all time, according to website Acclaimed Music, which statistically aggregates musical rankings based on data compiled from thousands of published lists.

Regarding “Pet Sounds,” Brian told David Leaf, co-producer of that year’s commemorative “Pet Sounds Sessions” box set: “I wanted to create something that I thought would bring an adequate amount of spiritual love to the world. And there was a lot on my shoulders back in those days, you know. Life was tough. It really was. But I did it. We did it. I guess you can be proud of yourself.”

Wilson did have a lot on his shoulders in those days. It couldn’t have been easy to be popular music’s first all-inclusive artist, which he was.

With The Beach Boys, Brian became the first artist to write, arrange, produce and tour the music he created. The work was relentless, but his fire and passion to keep writing and recording hit material was seemingly boundless.

Something had to give, however, and Brian reached his breaking point in late 1964 after three all-consuming years. His compromise was to send The Beach Boys around the world to perform while he devoted all of his time to writing and recording.

The band and Capitol Records label execs were worried until they heard some of what Brian had been cooking up at home and in various studios around Los Angeles and Hollywood.

The seeds for “Pet Sounds” can be heard in the songs “Please Let Me Wonder” from “The Beach Boys Today” and “Let Him Run Wild” from “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” – two of three albums Wilson produced for The Beach Boys in 1965.

Further evidence of Wilson’s growing confidence as a writer, producer and arranger can be heard on the groundbreaking “The Little Girl I Once Knew” - a non-album single released the same year.

After hearing The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” LP, released in December 1965, Wilson says he felt inspired to create its equal.

“Listening to ‘Rubber Soul’ didn’t clarify my ideas for ‘Pet Sounds,’ exactly. But it inspired me. When we were listening to it that night I said to myself, ‘Now I’m gonna make an album just as good as ‘Rubber Soul’...so the next morning I went to the piano and wrote ‘God Only Knows’ with Tony Asher,” Wilson told author Peter Aims Carlin.

Wilson met Asher, an advertising jingle lyricist and copywriter (and a fan of The Beach Boys) at United Western Recordings studios in Los Angeles. Looking for a new songwriting partner, Wilson invited Asher to his home for a trial session. The pair clicked immediately and Asher ultimately cowrote eight of the 13 tracks on the “Pet Sounds” album.

It seems almost superfluous now to write about the greatness of “Pet Sounds” as an album. Interest in the record has generated books, films documenting its creation, tribute albums and reverent homages from other artists, including R.E.M., Flaming Lips, NRBQ, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Fleet Foxes, Lindsey Buckingham and French singer-songwriter Any Version of Me to name just a few.

To phrase it simply, “Pet Sounds” is one of popular music’s relative few flawless recordings. Sonically transcendent and emotionally soul-searing, it’s an album that seems to never grow old. A product of its time, it still sounds somehow timeless today. I most recently listened again last evening and was reminded of just how far ahead of its time “Pet Sounds” really was. In some ways, pop music still hasn’t quite caught up with the lightning in a bottle captured by Brian Wilson in 1966.

Despite the fact that the album generated four hit singles (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows” and “Caroline No”) it would seem that Capitol Records was less than enthused about Brian’s new direction for The Beach Boys as heard on “Pet Sounds.” During my conversation with Wilson, I asked about the label’s apparent indifference in properly marketing the record.

“It was a top-10 album with four hits, but seven weeks after Capitol released it, they rushed ‘The Best of The Beach Boys’ compilation into stores. Do you think it was because ‘Pet Sounds’ was so advanced, they didn’t know how to sell it?” I asked Wilson.

“Yeah, that’s probably so,” he responded. “I don’t think they knew what to do with it because it was different than what they were expecting. They know what to do with it now.”

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More with Brian Wilson

The Maine Edge: You and Paul McCartney have such a great history together – beginning with the fact that you were born two days apart. It’s so great that you are both still making music and still touring. Do you remember the first time that you and Paul met?

Brian Wilson: I first met Paul in 1967 but I don’t remember exactly what the circumstances were.

The Maine Edge: Was that when he visited you in the studio during the recording of “SMiLE” when you recorded him crunching some celery for the song “Vegetables?”

Brian Wilson: Yes, that was it. That was the first time we met.

(Note: Brian has probably forgotten but as Paul McCartney told Marc Maron for his podcast last month, he and Brian first met in late August 1966 during The Beatles’ final US tour. During that meeting, Brian played for Paul an unfinished version of the forthcoming hit single “Good Vibrations.” “It was a magical moment,” McCartney said.)

The Maine Edge: I read an interview with you last year where you spoke about your plan for writing songs for a new rock album. Have you written those songs yet? I’m hopeful that we will soon hear a new Brian Wilson album.

Brian Wilson: I haven’t written any new songs for a while, but I plan on writing again soon.

The Maine Edge: I have been playing your music on the radio for many years. Do you remember the first time that you heard one of your songs on the radio? What did that feel like?

Brian Wilson: I remember it was in 1961 but I can’t remember which song it was, but I know that was in 1961.

(Note: Brian is probably remembering the first time The Beach Boys heard their single “Surfin’” played on the radio. The song was released by Candix Records, a small indie Los Angeles label that ceased to exist shortly after The Beach Boys signed with Capitol Records in 1962.

In David Leaf’s 1978 book “The Beach Boys and the California Myth,” Dennis Wilson remembered the moment that he, along with his brothers Brian and Carl, and then-Beach Boy, David Marks, heard themselves on the radio for the first time: “We were all in Brian’s 1957 Ford. They said “Here’s a group from Hawthorne, California; The Beach Boys, with their song “Surfin.’” We were screaming in the street…that was the biggest high ever. Nothing will ever top the expression on Brian’s face. Ever. That is the all-time moment.”)

“That was it,” Brian said today when I remind him of the title of the song. “It was a great moment and very exciting for all of us to finally hear ourselves on the radio for the first time.”

The Maine Edge: If you had a day to yourself where you could do anything that makes you happy, what would that day look like? What would you do? What makes you happy these days?

Brian Wilson: I’m pretty much always at my house and I watch the news on TV. I stay up to date on everything that’s going on.

The Maine Edge: Much of the news seems pretty dark these days.

Brian Wilson: I know. I take a break from it to get something more positive in my life. I also watch “Wheel of Fortune.”

The Maine Edge: I love the fact that you have Al Jardine and his son Matt in your band. You and Al have a lot of history together. What is your favorite memory of working with Al back when you were both in The Beach Boys?

Brian Wilson: My favorite memory of working with Al Jardine in The Beach Boys was when I produced him singing the song “Then I Kissed Her.”

The Maine Edge: You turned me on to the music of The Four Freshmen. I listen to them sometimes and I can hear how you were inspired to create some beautiful and complex harmonies for your songs.

Brian Wilson: The Four Freshmen were a big influence on me. I listened to their records over and over again and I learned how to sing by listening to them. And I brought that to “Surfer Girl” for The Beach Boys.

The Maine Edge: When you meet people who tell you how your music has impacted their lives, what does that mean to you? Your fans love you and your music the way you love the music of George Gershwin. Does that make sense to you?

Brian Wilson: It does make sense. It makes me feel very proud and it gives me a warm feeling. Gershwin turned me on very much to music and I feel proud if my music does that for other people.

(Tickets for “Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds: The Final Performances” range from $39.50 to $79.50 and are available at www.WaterfrontConcerts.com, www.CrossInsuranceCenter.com, by calling 800-745-300, in person at Trusted Choice Office at Cross Insurance Center and at Mark’s Music in Brewer.)

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