- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2001

Brian Wilson'sre-embrace of his music is a rock 'n' roll love story of spiritual dimensions. This only is fitting for a man whose art again and again affirms love, music and their healing power.
The former leader and creative engine of the Beach Boys is here today because of the determined love of a new wife; a circle of supportive friends and musicians; and devoted fans who waited a generation for him to step firmly out of the shadows inside him.
And perhaps because God, to whom he credits his gifts, is not done with him yet.
To see and hear Mr. Wilson these days is to sense him gathering formidable inner strength.
"I think Brian at this point in his life has everything in place when he decides to be Brian Wilson again," wife Melinda Wilson says, referring to his willingness to create music but also to shape his recordings as he — not the latest second-guessers — sees fit.
For two years now, Mr. Wilson has assumed center stage in a series of increasingly accomplished concert tours that friends and family say not only emboldened him to reclaim his music, but brought home to him its deep impact in America and around the world.
This is a man who was hailed as a musical genius in his early 20s and then written off for nearly 30 years as a hopeless burnout of the '60s. Drug-addled, they said. A fat, chain-smoking recluse. Paranoid. Even insane. Incapable of living a normal life, let alone making vital music or performing in public.
Yet on a rainy night in New York City three months ago, Mr. Wilson casually blew away one more audience with yet another personal triumph that would have sounded unimaginable two short years ago.
In front of 5,000 onlookers at Radio City Music Hall, he deftly sang his way through a full-tilt rendition of one of his most intricate compositions, the densely worded "Heroes and Villains."
"I've been in this town so long … ," he sang, and the SRO crowd assembled for "An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson" (taped for an edition of TNT's "Masters Series" that premieres at 8 p.m. on the Fourth of July) seemed to hold its breath.
For those familiar with his struggles, it was like an answer to a prayer for Mr. Wilson to pluck this particular jewel from a rich body of work that spans the Beach Boys' "Surfer Girl," "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations" through solo excursions such as "Love and Mercy" and "Lay Down Burden."
Seeming to defy age and time, he didn't miss a beat. He authoritatively barreled through this song that was to have anchored "Smile," the 1967 album for which he again would rewrite the rules of pop music before the Beatles could respond with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Instead, the composer abandoned the work he had called "a teen-age symphony to God" and withdrew into himself.
But here he was, all these years on, crowing between numbers: "The stage is on fire."
Answered prayers — what one old friend calls "the miracle of the present and the promise of the future" — are getting to be a fact of middle age for Mr. Wilson, who turned 59 on June 20.
Last summer and fall, he amazed fans night after night by performing all of "Pet Sounds," his 1966 masterwork, as the centerpiece of a show that stretched to more than 30 numbers.
It was his turn to watch excitedly from the wings March 29 at Radio City as such time-tested pop icons as Paul Simon, Elton John, David Crosby, Jimmy Webb, Carly Simon and Billy Joel interpreted his songs and acknowledged the artistry of how he made us feel good with unexpected chord changes and soaring vocal harmonies. To say nothing of Sir George Martin, revered producer of the Beatles' recordings, whose onstage remarks likened Mr. Wilson to a modern-day Mozart who embodied the talents of John, Paul, George and Ringo as well as Mr. Martin's own mastery of the recording studio.
Also performing was a pack of younger stars, among them Vince Gill, Aimee Mann, Ricky Martin, Darius Rucker and Matthew Sweet, all backed by Mr. Wilson's crack 10-member band.
Before the evening was through, the guest of honor had ignited the crowd with the exuberant "Do It Again" and slung on a bass guitar and leaned into a mike for an all-star finale of "Barbara Ann," "Surfin' USA" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" that had Mr. John and Mr. Joel twisting the night away together.
Now Mr. Wilson talks about being ready to refocus on composing and recording. "I'd like to make some rock 'n' roll if I could," he says in characteristic understatement.
He expects to go into the studio this fall with his new band to follow up "Imagination," his often-breathtaking 1998 album, after a summer tour opening for Mr. Simon (it reaches Nissan Pavilion on July 21) and his own shows in Japan and Europe.
Counting last year's captivating "Live at the Roxy Theatre," a new album could be his third release in four years.
He's no longer hung up on the idea that he has to have hits on the radio. "I like to make music that my fans appreciate," he says.
The reality is that even Sir Paul McCartney, two days older and an admirer who last year inducted him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, can't crack today's video-driven playlists.
"He's a real survivor, and it's a very touching thing to see," says Tony Asher, the lyricist for "Pet Sounds," a joyful and melancholy coming-of-age chronicle that has only grown in esteem over 35 years.
"I think right now he's more confident than he's ever felt," says Mr. Asher, who several years ago wrote lyrics for six new Wilson songs. "He's worrying less about what people are going to think and whether or not everything is a smash."
"Brian has forgotten more about producing than most people will ever learn," says Carol Kaye, who played the innovative bass melodies he composed for the classic Beach Boys records of the '60s. "He can do it again. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people."
He already has, in no small part because of his wife, Melinda.
Mrs. Wilson helped her husband escape from entrenched patterns of abuse, get proper medical treatment for his mental illness and seek to make amends with his estranged daughters, Carnie and Wendy — of the pop trio Wilson Phillips — as well as become independent from his Beach Boys family. She provided what he has described as "emotional security," including two adopted daughters.
"She came up with the idea to put me on tour," Mr. Wilson says. "At first I didn't like the idea. I said it wouldn't draw any people. She said, 'Let's play smaller venues.' So we did — and it's been working ever since.
"It's a fantastic feeling," he adds. "We get standing ovations everywhere we go. I get off on the audience when they get off on me."
Mrs. Wilson says it took many "baby steps" to reach this point. She saw a return to the stage as a necessary big step in his recovery.
"I kind of pushed him. And the reason that I did was I understood he didn't have any idea of the impact that he had made on people. I think it was a confidence builder," Mrs. Wilson says. "And not only did it work, he's just loving it."
Among steadfast friends, two proved critical to this re-emergence. One is David Leaf, a television writer-producer and author of the definitive 1978 biography, "The Beach Boys and the California Myth." The other is Andy Paley, a multi-instrumentalist and record producer who first wrote and played with Mr. Wilson on his 1988 solo debut.
Mr. Leaf, 48, doesn't hesitate to put Mr. Wilson in the company of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington among the century's great American composers.
"What he is getting is recognition for what he has accomplished," Mr. Leaf says of the tours. "They're applauding for him and his music, what those records mean to them … for having persevered through everything that we think we know happened to him, and still being willing to come out onstage and share himself with us. The only word that I can use that I think accurately sums it up is 'miracle.'"
Mr. Leaf, who scripted and served as a producer of the tribute, wanted to celebrate the scope of Mr. Wilson's music and enable a wider audience to view him as "artist, not artifact." Recruiting admiring stars of Mr. John's magnitude helped ensure that.
"I owe a debt to Brian," Mr. Crosby says at dress rehearsal, explaining how Wilsonian harmony gave flight to the Byrds and later Crosby, Stills and Nash. "He changed the face of pop music. All of us owe a debt."
"I've always admired Brian, and he's been a kind of friendly rival for many, many years," George Martin says, when asked why he crossed an ocean to be part of the tribute. "He's an incredibly talented man. He does everything."
Imagine, then, how it touched Mr. Paley to be introduced by Mr. Wilson as "a genius" when he came out to play piano on "Caroline No" that night.
Mr. Paley, 49, studied Beach Boys records as a boy in much the same way Mr. Wilson had dissected Four Freshmen harmonies. During the '90s, he served as a spark plug to restart the engine of Mr. Wilson's imagination. The two swapped lyrics, melodies and "hooks," co-writing more than 50 songs and committing many to tape. About 20 have surfaced on unauthorized "bootleg" CDs.
To many devotees, the unfinished Wilson-Paley tapes sound more like the creator of old and capture some of his most personal, charming and potent work since the Beach Boys' "Sunflower" album in 1970.
"Gettin' in Over My Head," "This Song's Gonna Sleep With You Tonight" and "Chain Reaction of Love" are highlights. Some songs were intended for a Beach Boys project in the mid-'90s that stalled for disputed reasons after the group recorded the R&B; rave-up "Soul Searchin'" and the gorgeous "You're Still a Mystery."
"We have some of those songs on hand," Mr. Wilson punts, when asked about revisiting them with Mr. Paley. The prospects improved just weeks after the tribute was taped, when Mr. Wilson recruited Mr. Paley for his band on the joint tour that Mr. Simon proposed in New York.

Melinda Ledbetter Wilson, who is in her early 50s, uses words like "humble," "naive," "sweet" and "unpredictable" to describe her husband of six years.
"Those are four main ingredients. If you listen to his music, it's all of those things."
They met in 1986, when she was a saleswoman at a Cadillac dealership in Los Angeles and he came in to buy a car. The deal was struck by the man with him pop psychologist Eugene Landy, whose "treatment" of his 44-year-old patient combined heavy medication with 24-hour control of diet, exercise and all other activities.
Mr. Wilson's nervous manner and tremors unsettled her. He was slimmed down and handsome, yet haunted. He left her a note in which he had scrawled words like "scared" and "frustrations."
About a week later, Mr. Landy called to arrange a date on Mr. Wilson's behalf. Her first impulse was to say no. But something about her strange customer moved her to accept. It turned out to be a double date to a Moody Blues concert with Mr. Wilson's one-time lyricist Gary Usher and his wife plus several Landy aides as chaperones.
She knew Mr. Wilson was one of the Beach Boys, whose music she enjoyed growing up in Whittier as the kind of wholesome California girl conjured in his early songs about the beach, school and cruisin'.
But the only Beach Boy she could have identified was younger brother Dennis, the girl magnet — not Brian, youngest brother Carl, first cousin Mike Love or friend Al Jardine. Her father owned a wholesale meat company, and her family was "idyllic," decidedly more of an "Ozzie and Harriet" existence, she says, than what the Wilson brothers knew as boys.
Like many casual fans, she didn't know Brian was the Beach Boys. That as a suburban Los Angeles teen he invented their "California" sound by merging the Four Freshmen's vocal stylings with Chuck Berry's rock rhythms. That he composed and arranged their ever more intricate songs and harmonies. Or that he crafted their chart-topping singles and albums, surpassing his hero Phil Spector as a record producer in a staggering artistic evolution over six short years.
She also didn't know about his life-threatening slide into an abyss of drug abuse, obesity and emotional and mental illness that would consume not only his first marriage (which ended in divorce in 1979) but the music he otherwise might have made for most of his adulthood.
She would learn that his withdrawal was rooted not only in constant pressure to top himself, in LSD and other drugs, but also in physical and emotional abuse by his domineering father, a frustrated songwriter. Murry Wilson introduced Brian to music, yet one of his blows was suspected of causing the deafness in his oldest son's right ear. The trauma of that twisted language of love echoed in Brian Wilson's later relationships.
She continued to go out with Mr. Wilson as "choreographed" by Mr. Landy, she says, and the two drew closer month by month. But, in 1989, the therapist abruptly forbade her to see Mr. Wilson anymore.
"And that's when I went to his family and told them that I felt there was really something bad going on and they needed to get involved," Mrs. Wilson recalls. "I didn't do it with the intention of doing anything other than getting Brian out of a horrible situation, much as you would do with an abused child."
Her inquiries became part of tangled legal proceedings that eventually forced the controlling psychologist out of Mr. Wilson's life and, in 1992, brought the musician under the care of psychiatrists at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Within two months, doctors accurately diagnosed his illness and he began using the proper medication, she says. He stopped living like a hostage or prisoner of war who sympathizes with his captors.
The couple were reunited that year when she nearly ran him down as he crossed a street to his recording studio after sneaking a cigarette. "I think it was fate," she says.
They married in 1995, when Mr. Wilson began to be heard from on new recordings — including a reunion with "Smile" lyricist Van Dyke Parks — for the first time since the dazzling solo debut in 1988 on which Mr. Landy claimed songwriting and production credits.
The Wilsons adopted newborn Daria in 1996, and two years later — in events she describes as miraculous — adopted a sister, Delanie, by the same unwed parents.

Brian Wilson, survivor, can appear awkward and unsettled when he hits the stage. He is no Bono-esque smoothie. His idiosyncratic authenticity rings closer to that of Bob Dylan, and the power of his performance tends to build.
He looks and sounds far more at ease than in an initial string of shows two years ago, when he battled what one band member calls "deep stuff" to hold the stage. This reinvention as live performer at age 57 was all the more dramatic considering that he had not toured regularly since a nervous breakdown at the end of 1964.
Beach Boys sets in 1962-64 clocked in at less than half an hour. Throughout them their bass-playing leader fought stage fright and sang lead on a few songs such as "Surfer Girl," "In My Room" and "Don't Worry Baby." By contrast, Mr. Wilson last year took the spotlight as frontman for more than two hours. His once effortlessly angelic voice is deeper and rougher, but he sings at least sections of all the leads.
Band members playing with him, most of whom sing and handle multiple instruments, have studied his music and lock into his sensibilities.
"They're No. 1 in my book," Mr. Wilson says. "I have never played with a better band in my whole life, bar none."
They're led by guitarist Jeffrey Foskett, who met his musical mentor in 1975 as a 20th birthday gift to himself after buzzing Mr. Wilson's front-door intercom. (Five years later, he joined the touring Beach Boys.)
The Wondermints, L.A.-based pop rockers whose albums reveal Mr. Wilson's influence, supplied keyboardist Darian Sahanaja, guitarist Nick Walusko, guitarist-horn player Probyn Gregory and percussionist Mike D'Amico (whom Mr. Paley replaced for the new tour).
Also aboard are saxophonist Paul Mertens, keyboardist Scott Bennett, drummer Jim Hines, bassist Bob Lizik and the only woman, singer Taylor Mills.
What Mr. Wilson will choose to record with this band — and to what extent he will collaborate — is a delicate subject.
"I'd like to do it myself," he says of the production reins.
But the maestro has no problem admitting that it's been difficult lately to finish songs by himself.
"I don't know if it's writer's block or what," he says.
It might be best if all involved resisted the temptation to insist that the man must be Mr. Everything. He proved what he can do long ago. And he created the bulk of his lasting work in willing experimentation with musicians and lyricists whose ideas provoked him.
"He doesn't have to write 'God Only Knows' every time he sits down," Mr. Paley says. "If he wants to play boogie-woogie piano and rock 'n' roll, that's fine with me."
With Mr. Foskett joining in, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Paley recently reteamed one day to cut a fun, driving number they wrote years ago — a comical salute to veteran L.A. disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer titled "Rodney on the ROQ." It apparently is the only track completed since the lovely "On Christmas Day," which Mr. Wilson wrote, arranged and recorded last fall.
There is talk that producer Phil Ramone (who helmed the tribute's music and whose credits include albums with Mr. John, Mr. Joel and Mr. Simon) may be brought in to oversee the next studio effort.
Mr. Foskett flat out states that Mr. Wilson doesn't need "one of these 'hip' guys to bring him into the '90s or 2000s," although he understands why the seasoned Mr. Ramone could be a smart choice.
"I think Brian is perfectly capable of producing his own record the way he wants it," Mr. Foskett says.
In the past, no good has come of speculating about the next recordings of pop's most beloved troubled genius. The present seems blessing enough, given what's gone before.
"These are happy times to be a Brian Wilson fan," as Mr. Leaf says.
Or, as Mr. Wilson himself put it on stage in New York: "Now that we've cried and had some sorrow, it's time to rock a little bit."

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