Despite his inarguable merited status as a living legend, Brian Wilson’s perception of his own invaluable contribution to rock and roll’s history is one wholly based in simplicity. As the founding member and longtime vocalist for The Beach Boys, Wilson’s influence as a songwriter over the last half century has become synonymous with the rarity of true musical genius. Though as if not more deserving of the universal acclaim he’s received, the story of Wilson’s life has followed rock and roll’s familiar narrative of addiction and loss, with the positivity of his contributions inextricably and oftentimes dismissively linked to the reality of his personal struggles.
For all it affords those who make their indelible mark in its timeline, rock and roll’s memory is nothing if not arbitrarily selective, seemingly only offering its rewards at the cost of devastation. In the 54 years since the band’s inception, the price for Wilson has included the premature deaths of his two younger brothers and fellow bandmates, Dennis and Carl. Along with what’s become a well-documented ongoing struggle with mental illness, Wilson’s personal demons have become as nearly well-known as his invaluable work as an artist.
Foregoing the “mad genius” trope in any art form is difficult enough. Deconstructing the misconception within the context of pop culture is damn near impossible. The examples are plenty but the discussions of the stereotype are few when considering the skewed perspective of what if any impact mental illness has on the artist’s work as opposed to what’s long been a resignation to simply embrace the mythos rather than delve into the stark actuality of the human condition. Though his mental illness has no doubt had an effect on Wilson’s art, the credit of his or any other artist’s brilliance should not be instinctively relegated to the random context of disease.
Talking to Wilson involves an immediate kind of mutual understanding that time and experience has simplified what was for so long an invariably complex life. In talking about this month’s release of his 11th solo album, No Pier Pressure, Wilson is unabashed in his excitement as he speaks to the differences with the record as opposed to others he’s released in what’s been an incredibly successful solo career, saying: “From my perspective, the difference is that [No Pier Pressure] has a lot of ‘60s kind of harmony to it. It’s a very harmonic album.”
It makes sense that Wilson would reference the decade and era on which he had such an overwhelming impact. When asked about what that kind of influence and longevity represent for him, he laughs before continuing, “Well, it’s because I’ve had a lot of practice. I have half a century of practice. With [The Beach Boys], it started back when we were like 19 or 20 years old, and we practiced every day for 50 years.” While sticking around is certainly not a lost art in the once-lucrative music business, the ability to still hold creative sway over artists and musicians new and old alike is something else entirely. For Wilson, though, his own inspiration remains largely the same as he says, “Well, it’s the same. Different songs but the same kind of inspiration.”
In the pop music realm, Wilson’s name reigns alongside the likes of other names such as Jackson, and while modern music offers a variety of its own interpretations of originality, the song remains largely the same for the 72-year-old musician as he says in the same matter-of-fact tone: “Songs today are simpler. They’re not as complex. I think the young artists [today] like the ‘70s music better than they do the music from the ‘60s, although they like the ‘60s too. I think it’s the lyrics they like better.” When asked if he constantly hears his own work and influence channeled through those same artists, Wilson is quick to continue, “Oh yeah. I hear that all the time.”
Wilson doesn’t expect the creative well to dry anytime soon as its beginnings suggest a kind of interminable wealth of new ideas on an old theme. Speaking to his own creative origins, the possibilities are limitless for Wilson thanks in large part to his own influences as he remarks with a near youthful kind of eagerness, “Well, I look back to when I was like 14 years old, and I could play a little piano—not a lot, though, but I could play a little boogie. As I grew older, I learned how to play piano from those sorts of records, but it was really Chuck Berry. His music blew my mind and taught me how to write a rock and roll song. He’s in his 80s, and he’s still goin.”
The future is perhaps brighter than it’s ever been for Wilson. “I have a tour coming up in June, and I’m gonna make a rock and roll album later this year,” he says proudly as we wrap up our conversation. For all the lore his life so far has suggested, the reality for Brian Wilson has come full circle to the youthful simplicity of his beginnings with both his music and his personal perspective originating from a place of genuine curiosity and wonder at the world around him. Though the man behind “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is certainly older now, the enthusiasm for what the future holds is no less exciting for him than it’s ever been.