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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

We want as many people as possible to see and hear Pet Sounds performed live: Brian Wilson

Ahead of his first-ever show in the UAE, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, the creator of legendary album Pet Sounds, tells us about the highs and lows of his career, and why he has no plans to stop touring.
Singer Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Getty Images
Singer Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Getty Images

In the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll – a giddy world defined as much by its subjectivity as anything else – one of the most uncontested truths, held by critics and fans alike, is the overarching supremacy of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.

The 1966 album is held up as one of the era’s defining, most influential works, loaded with generational anthems – from the joyfully juvenile Wouldn’t It Be Nice to the sun-kissed profundity of God Only Knows.

These seminal 36 minutes of music were the vision of one mind: composer, producer and arranger Brian Wilson, who oversaw the album almost single-handedly, directing superior session players while his bandmates were on the road.

To mark the record’s 50th anniversary – and perhaps pre-empting dwindling health – 74-year-old Wilson is performing the entire album in cities around the world, ostensibly for the last time ever, alongside former bandmates Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin. Tonight, he visits the UAE for the first time to perform at Dubai Tennis Stadium.

“I really don’t know what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

After emerging from decades of mental health-induced isolation to re-embrace music in the late 1990s, Wilson is notorious for being a reluctant, mono-syllabic interviewee. So it was with some surprise that I opened my inbox to find he had taken the time to answer a few emailed questions posed to him in the run up to the gig.

Any fears that these might be the words of a PR stooge in Wilson’s team were quickly laid to rest – his answers were littered with idiosyncrasies and typos of the kind no media type would make.

First up, he says, he is not retiring. There have been loud proclamations that this will be his final tour of Pet Sounds, an epic 100-date-plus jaunt that began in March, and was recently extended with a new batch of shows running until May. But while the record is taking its final bow, he is not.

“We want as many people as possible to see and hear Pet Sounds performed live, but after a while it’s time to move on to other things,” says Wilson, who previously toured the album extensively in 2000 and 2006. “I’m not stopping touring. I love touring, so I look forward to the future with old and new material.”

Few would try to argue that Wilson ever bettered Pet Sounds – but the more interesting question is whether he might have. His planned follow-up, Smile, was cancelled in 1967 amid his worsening mental health, as he suffered repeated nervous breakdowns as a result of drug abuse.

In the 1970s, Wilson’s contributions to The Beach Boys dwindled to a trickle, while his erratic behaviour – showing up at parties in a dressing gown, digging his own grave – became the stuff of legend, memorably captured in journalist Nick Kent’s 1975 long-form portrait, The Last Beach Movie.

This was the same year Wilson’s family enlisted the services of Eugene Landy, the infamous radical psychologist who, throughout much of the 1980s, took almost complete control of the musician’s life, supplying a mix of heavy medication and 24-hour therapy, dominating everything from financial decisions to song lyrics.

In 1992, following a lengthy legal battle, Landy was discredited, stripped of his medical licence, and served with a restraining order. This period was brutally retold in the 2014 movie biopic Love & Mercy, with John Cusack starring as the floundering Wilson of the 1980s. The songwriter is, perhaps, surprisingly, a fan of the film, calling the account “very actual and factual”.

 “It was tough at times to watch but I got through it,” he says. “John Cusack blew my mind with his portrayal of me.We met a few times because he wanted to get to know me. He’s a very cool guy. Lots of energy. I could tell he was studying me, and he caught my mannerisms and sensitive nature spot on.”

Wilson’s refreshing willingness to confront his demons is perhaps the product of writing his autobiography, I Am Brian Wilson. Published last month, it was narrowly beaten onto the shelves by Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy, written by Mike Love, a former bandmate who holds the exclusive co-rights to The Beach Boys name and has twice sued Wilson.

Wilson hasn’t read it. Of his own book, he says, he hopes that people can learn from his mistakes.

“It was very rough to talk about the negative parts of my life, but I’m glad I did because it tells people what I went through, and my message of hope,” says Wilson. “Not to do drugs is so important for people to know and learn about. It felt good to get it out and open up.”

These days, Wilson enjoys a unanimously warm and fuzzy critical embrace. The one niggle, which all but the bravest of gig reviewers politely gloss over, is that after years of chain-smoking and abuse, Wilson’s vocals – never the best in The Beach Boys to begin with – have not stood the test of time.

Which is why it feels particularly poignant that when answering one final question – how would you like to be remembered? – Wilson does not mention his game-changing contribution to pop songwriting, or the dazzling sonic architecture of Pet Sounds.

He simply says: “I’d like to be remembered as a good singer.”

• Brian Wilson will perform Pet Sounds at Dubai Tennis Stadium tonight. Doors open at 7pm, tickets start from Dh225 at tickets.virginmegastore.me or at the door

rgarratt@thenational.ae