Jun. 21, 2011 - Issue #818: Brian Wilson
Wilson on Gershwin
Brian Wilson returns to a musical innocence
It starts with a slow, quivering scale of notes. Then, gradually, it expands, and the sounds of a sustained rushing chaos emerge, of some bustling, early-morning freeway of a 20th century city starting yet another morning of well-worn bee-like rhythms, as transmuted into tumbling piano and striking orchestration by, really, one with an unparalleled gift for jazz composition.
Its composer, George Gershwin, called "Rhapsody in Blue" "a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness." And in two smaller fragments of the original's nine-minute runtime, "Rhapsody" bookends Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, an album where one musical genius meets another in the posthumous realm of a studio recording, where former Beach Boy Brian Wilson channels Gershwin's jazzy, beautiful compositions through major key harmonies and that timeless, innocent sense of early rock 'n' roll. "Rhapsody in Blue" is not a pop song by any measure, but Wilson digs for the hooks, pulls out a beautiful harmony, and turns it into one. Elsewhere on the album, Gershwin's towering tumbles of jazz become soaring, pure harmonies above sunshine instrumentals in the style of his former Beach Boys' pop, jazzy adult contemporary and shuffling doo wop.
But "Rhapsody" in particular holds as somewhat of an influential honour for Wilson, who turned 69 this week while in the midst of his first Canadian tour: it's one of the first songs he can recall hearing, in his grandmother's living room when he was about two years old.
"I liked the violin section a lot," Wilson says, in an even voice, about hearing "Rhapsody" for the first time. That's the extent of his response; when asked about its impact, he adds, "Well it taught me how to write harmonies."
None of Wilson's answers take more than a few seconds of time, and rarely does he elaborate. He's somewhat of a notoriously difficult interview, somewhat closed-off and agreeably curt, perhaps now moreso than ever before. His publicity people had kindly offered a warning about asking him "yes or no" questions, because, if given the chance, he would give yes or no answers. And that's exactly he did.
It could possibly be a result of the years of battling mental illness that kept him off the stage and out of the studio for a decade—he became an increasingly reclusive figure from 1968 to 1988, when he finally resumed a somewhat consistent solo career—or the compounding effects that drug usage had on that fragile state of mind (today, he's pretty staunchly anti-drug). Having weathered the life he did, that he managed to not only survive, but also find stability and return to crafting technicolour pop music of quality is a true wonder. Still, Wilson's a man of few words these days.
And so our interview goes in short, somewhat perplexing bursts. Wilson doesn't listen to modern pop music because "I don't like the sound of it." The Gershwin album came about when Disney approached him to do an album of Disney covers. The Disney album is in the can too, due for release, and Wilson tells me his favourite song on it is "When You Wish Upon a Star," though I've also read him say the same for "Stay Awake" (from Mary Poppins). I ask about the weather in Califonia, its balmy sun a constant source of inspiration to his music, and get a curt reply of "about 75."
Like Gershwin, whose brother Ira wrote the words to his compositions, Wilson's frequently worked with lyricists. His thoughts on the matter are simply that "I like to inspire someone with my melody so they can write good lyrics. It's a good collaboration." On Reimagines Gershwin, Wilson likes "Summertime" best. And overall, on approaching Gershwin's catalogue, Wilson "Just wanted to do him a justice, that's all. Just wanted to do him a justice." Is there more to any of those questions than that? Almost certainly. But that's all he has to say about it today.
His songs, though, are a little more telling. Wilson still commands a simple but tremendously beautiful mastery of harmony and song. And while older albums like the contemplative compilation I Just Wasn't Made For These Times deal with his struggles far more explicitly, those darker years still inform his work, if only by virtue of how he's looking beyond them, reaching into nostalgia musically but lyrically concentrating on the sunnier sides of his life. His most recent original work, 2008's effervescent That Lucky Old Sun, was essentially a love letter to California weather and innocent love.
It's here in the music that you get a peek into the mind of one of the founding forefathers of modern pop: Wilson's current output feels more like a return to musical innocence. He isn't interested in dwelling on the darker days. He wants to make pop music like it used to be, and so that's what he's doing. It's really probably as simple as that.
A late-career bloom was the release of Smile in 2004, the long awaited, once abandoned album he'd previously called a "teenage symphony to God." Its eventual cancellation was a contributing factor to Wilson's detachment with the world at the end of the '60s. But 30 some years after Smile was conceived, is music still comparable to spirituality for him?
"Well, yeah," Wilson says. "I still feel the spirituality in music quite a bit when I make music. Yeah."
Does it change when it's a cover song, like these Gershwin compositions? "Yeah. A little bit, yeah." How? "I can't explain it."
Two tracks on Reimagines walk a middleground between cover and original creation: "Like I Love You" and "Nothing But Love" were both fragments of unfinished compositions culled from the Gershwin estate archive, which Wilson and bandmember Scott Bennett, handling lyrics, took to task.
"Well, I was proud to work with [Gershwin], indirectly," Wilson says, of completing the compositions. "And we wrote the melodies from his harmonies."
Why these two songs, out of the hundred or so songs in the vault? "They were just nice harmonies."
Inevitably, most answers to questions about music come back to either harmony or melody.
"I guess It's expressive," he says, of his own unmistakable emphasis on melody in his work. "It expresses love and joy, you know?"
I do. And it's there, within the melody of a song, where Brian Wilson forever remain an iconic figure, one of pop music's most compelling, if most unusual, elder statesmen. God only knows where we'd be without him.
Sun, Jun 26 (7:30 pm)
Jubilee Auditorium, $67 – $97
Six facts about Brian Wilson
1) Wilson is deaf in his right ear. The reason isn't clear: it's been attributed to being born that way or a blow to the head, which, in turn, has had blame cast on both his father and a neighbourhood bully.
2) He's covered the Barenaked Ladies' "Brian Wilson" live, and once visited the band in the studio to play them his version of their track. They called it a "surreal" experience.
3) The Beach Boys still tour today. The only classic-era members involved are Mike Love and Bruce Johnston.
4) Wilson married Melinda Ledbetter in 2005. The couple have adopted five children, and Wilson also has a pair of daughters from his first marriage with Marilyn Rovell, who found a career in music themselves as two parts of the vocal group Wilson Philips.
5) One of the rumoured reasons Wilson shelved Smile during the '60s was Paul McCartney playing him a tape of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" which later appeared on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
6) The original Smile sessions, the massive collection of fragments of songs recorded in the '60s then shelved, are due for a late summer release in a box set format.vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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