by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Like a lot of people, I admire Brian Wilson, the soul of the Beach Boys. Over the years, I’ve had chances to speak with him. When he releases a new CD or comes through town, we’ll do an interview. We did one just recently, for radio.

Now, I know Wilson’s music backward. I have memorized the lush harmonies of “In My Room,” the ahead-of-its-time variations of “Good Vibrations,” the seemingly million things that are going on in the background of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Armed with such loving research, I figured I could draw something new and special out of Wilson.

I was wrong.

My first clue came in our first interview, a few years back. I asked Wilson, for all the happy, surf’s up, engine-revving music he’d written – and here I went again, thinking myself clever – what was the saddest song he’d ever composed? He answered quickly. “Caroline, No.” And I had it ready. I played it for him down the telephone line:

Where did your long hair go?

Where is the girl I used to know?

When it finished, I said yes, that’s a heartbreaking song.

And he said, “I wish you hadn’t played it. I’m kind of depressed now.”

It went downhill from there.

The songwriting process

Wilson’s story is familiar. A troubled genius whose experiments with drugs in the late ’60s led to long, mysterious absences, shady “advisers,” and a reclusive, almost childlike personality. The death of two band-mate brothers contributed to his depression and hermitage.

But recent years have drawn him out. Solo albums and the reworking of Beach Boys classics like “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” have returned him to adoring fans. He tours. He records. He is willing – almost eager – to promote his music.

So we keep talking. In subsequent interviews, I have learned that he never learned to surf. (Interesting, for a Beach Boy.) And that when he writes, it’s “the rhythm, then the melody, then the lyrics” and that he mostly writes on the piano, although “sometimes I use a guitar.”

He is always pleasant. And even though his speech is a bit jumpy, he seems anxious to please. But none of his answers have ever yielded the satisfaction I was yearning for, the “ah-ha!” insight into the innocence of his music or its inspiration.

Then, in our most recent talk, I asked him about the Beatles.

A meeting of the lyricists

The Beatles, particularly Paul McCartney, were fascinated by the Beach Boys. Supposedly, “Sgt. Pepper” was inspired, in part, by “Pet Sounds.” Wilson and McCartney had collaborated on a recent project. So I quizzed Wilson about their meeting, certain it had been the Yalta of pop music creators.

“Oh, it was great,” he said.

What did you talk about?

“Just small talk. How you doing? What’s your next tour?”

That’s it, I said? Didn’t you want to exchange big ideas on music, harmonies, the untold secrets of the Beatles and Beach Boys?

“Oh, no, no. Just casual talk.”

He laughed a little. And that’s when it hit me. If Brian Wilson, alone with Paul McCartney, mostly talked about small stuff, then maybe music is not designed for verbal deconstruction. Maybe it’s the hubris of writers to think everything can be broken down into adjectives.

The fact is, we often think conversation with a beloved artist – singer, actor, painter – will yield untold secrets, draw us closer, put us in his creative space. More often than not, you talk about the weather.

I realize now that I enjoy my talks with Brian Wilson, because I like what he does and he’s a sweet guy. But anything more – any magical insight – is unlikely to happen, because by the time we speak, he has done his important talking. It wasn’t with me. But I can get it anytime.

Just hit “play.”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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