THE SPIRIT OF ROCK AND
an interview with BRIAN WILSON
by Robert Silverstein
This article first appeared as the cover story of the December 1998
issue of 20th Century Guitar magazine with the title Brian Wilson
And The Spirit Of Rock & Roll. Ten years to the month, the
December 2008 issue with Dion on the cover turned out to be the final
issue of the magazine. Looking back on the history of the Brian Wilson
cover story / interview, when the Imagination CD came out in the summer
of 98, no one could have predicted just how far Brian Wilson
would grow musically in the 2000s.
Produced by Joe Thomas and featuring a number of Wilsons finest
songs and performances, Imagination was the key that unlocked Wilsons
desire to bring it all back home again. While following Wilson's studio
work in the years before Imagination, I had acquired an impressive
range of unreleased Wilson bootleg recordings with highlights including
an incredible sounding Sweet Insanity album, another unreleased album
with Andy Paley and the original 76 minute Beach Boys Smile album
from 1966 / 1967. Its been a very rewarding decade watching
Brian release a number of classic albums in these early 2000s topped
off by his fantastic reinvention of Smile in 2004, Getting In Over
My Head (with McCartney and Clapton + remakes of the Paley sessions
and Sweet Insanity) up to and including his 2008 album That Lucky
Old Sun. As the year progresses and we gear up for a new decade, the
2010 & preteens, it soon will be summer and as always that means,
the sounds of the Beach Boys and the songs of Brian Wilson, forever
the spirit of rock & roll.
(The following article / interview first appeared
in the December 1998 issue of 20th Century Guitar - editor May 9,
What an amazing year its been for Brian
Wilson! The innovator of the classic California pop sound made popular
by The Beach Boys during the 60s and 70s, Wilson returned
with renewed vigor in 1998. Moving on following the tragic passing
of his brother Carl Wilson, Brian dealt as best he could with this
sorrowful occurrence then rallied his many fans with the release of
his second solo album entitled Imagination, issued on June
16, 1998 by L.A.-based Giant Records. The album is Wilsons first
official solo album in ten years. During the ten years
prior to Imagination, fans had to seek out hard-to-find bootleg
CDs in order to hear Brians genius at work. It is further evidence
that the past ten years are considered a very productive time for
To fully appreciate the significance of Wilsons dramatic return
as an important solo artist a little history is in order. Following
the release of his first solo album, 1988s Brian Wilson on
Sire Records, Wilson again pushed on with (then) therapist/producer
Dr. Gene Landy, and by early 91 they had just about finished
what was to be Brians second solo album entitled Sweet Insanity.
In an ironic twist of fate, the album was incredulously deemed
unacceptable for release by Sire president Seymour Stein, who simply
refused to release any of the new music Brian was making with Landy.
Imbued with Landys healing vibes, Sweet Insanity
turned out to be a most entertaining and thoroughly rocked out set
with the definite highlight being Brians (still) unreleased
rock anthem entitled The Spirit Of Rock And Roll. With
walk-on vocals by the great Bob Dylan, the final available Sweet
Insanity take of The Spirit Of Rock And Roll still
remains a seminal rock and rock moment.
Following the lamentable shelving of Sweet Insanity by Sire,
Wilson stayed close to his studio, recording gem after musical
gem mostly on his own or with producer Andy Paley. A majority of these
tracks have never been officially released, although a few years ago
some of Wilsons home recordingsas well as various incarnations
of Sweet Insanitybegan turning up on imported bootleg
CDs with names like The Wilson Project and Come Back, Brian.
After further regaining his mental and physical strengths, Wilson
eventually parted ways with the spry Dr. Landy. During the 94-96 period,
revitalized by a new found musical motivation, Wilson employed album
producer Don Was for the making of a well-received video-biography
on his life story (and the subsequent soundtrack album on MCA Records)
called I Just Wasnt Made For These Times. Following the
movie, Brianfor the first time in the capacity of lead vocalistteamed
up with former musical confidant Van Dyke Parks on Parks 1995
Warner Bros. Records album Orange Crate Art. In the wake of
these recent samples of Wilsons still-tremendous talents, fans
of Brians years in The Beach Boys were treated to a pair of
98 releases on Capitol Records, which reexplored a variety of
vintage tracks Wilson wrote and recorded for Beach Boys in the 60s
and 70s. Supplying a wealth of outtakes and rare cuts, both
the soundtrack CD from the Endless Harmony documentary and
The Beach Boys Ultimate Christmas albums are imperative
purchases for Wilson and Beach Boys fans.
Prior to the making of Imagination, Brian once again teamed
with producer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Paley, recording a number
of tracks which still remain unreleased.
Paley claims, It was really fun and very productive, inspirational
and I hope someday all that stuff sees the light of day. A lot of
good stuff happened but people havent heard it yet, thats
all. Paley was also around during the making of Sweet Insanity
and remembers that I worked on that. I sang on it, I played
on it and I remember it very clearly. Paley looks forward to
one day recording with Wilson again adding, I think his relevance
is very great and that Brian Wilson is a fantastically
gifted songwriter, arranger and producer with a fantastic ear for
harmony. Asked to compare his recent work with Wilson and Imagination,
Paley states I think that the music is very, very different.
Lets put it this way...what he and I did is not an album. First
of all, its way more stuff than you can put on an album, its
probably more like four albums. It was something we enjoyed doing.
All of Brians diverse activities during the 90s set the
stage for his critically acclaimed 98 comeback solo album.
Up there among his major musical accomplishments since the heyday
of the 60s, Imagination is clearly one of Wilsons
best sounding and most fully realized projects ever. A treasure of
fresh-sounding musical maps, Imagination was recorded at Wilsons
home away from home outside Chicago and is greatly enhanced by the
sonically-splendid co-production of Brians most recent musical
collaborator, Joe Thomas. Imagination is propelled by a crew
of veteran studio musicians including guitarists Jim Peterik, Brent
Rowan and Greg Leisz as well as drumming ace Eddie Bayers and producer
Thomas who effortlessly back up Wilsons complex, one of a kind
vocal arrangements. Completed at the start of 98 and released
this past June 16th, Imagination was instantly hailed as one
of the great summer albums by Wilson fans everywhere, including up-and-coming
pop rookie Sean Lennon and guitarist Peter Buck from R.E.M, both of
whom queued up for a chance to do print interviews with Brian.
I recently spoke with Imagination producer Joe Thomas and upon
hearing how much I enjoyed the album replied, Thank you so much.
Its good to hear that kind of stuff. Weve had kind of
a groundswell of support about it. Critically at least its been
a big success. I then asked how he actually got to meet Brian
Wilson. Actually, through Mike Love. We were kind of working
on an idea for an album to have some other artists record Beach Boys
songs. Love and Thomas lined up country icon Willie Nelson,
which then sparked the interest of Brian. Thomas reflects, So
when I arranged for Brian to meet Willie, he flew into Dallas and
then we had a bus ride for about three hours from Dallas down to Austin
where Willies ranch is. And, I dont know what happened,
but we just really hit it off. So, we went down there and worked with
Willie and recorded an album called Stars & Stripes, and
I just started hanging out with Brian during the making of the album.
We co-produced it together. I was just amazed by his memory of the
arrangements. It was nice to see the guys work with him again. I think
he really turned The Beach Boys around in that album. They really
believed in him after that.
Thomas was also with Brian when they soon after found out about his
brother Carls serious health problems. Joe recalls, I
was at Brians house when he heard that Carl had cancer. And
in fact, Lay Down Burden, one of the songs on the albumwhile
I dont think we wrote it specifically about Carlit was
about the feeling you get when youre hit over the head with
some news like that. We just couldnt believe it. We were talking
to Carl about singing Lay Down Burden with us on the album,
or maybe another song. He was into it and we actually had a recording
session scheduled for January. He never got to record with us.
The conversation turned to how he and Brian wrote the song Your
Imagination and he enthusiastically recalled, We had this
great chorus, but we tried probably 50 different verses and nothing
seemed to match the chorus. We had a dinner with Steve Dahl, whos
a DJ in Chicago, and Jim Peterik, another friend of ours there, and
we were just talking about how frustrating it was. The chorus had
become legendary among musicians by then, because they all heard it,
but nobody heard any other parts of the song. So were eating
dinner, and Brians singing in the restaurant really loud, and
finally Peterik and Dahl start throwing like ideas at us.
Steve asked Brian, Arent you frustrated sometimes that
youre not the boss anymore?, which Brian came back with,
I miss the way that I used to call the shots around here.
And then we go, all right, this is it!, this is what the song
is going to be about!. We would take little bits and pieces
of everything and finally the verses came about. Brian came up with
the another wave at the pier line, which kind of has that
double entendre. We were thinking about surfing, he was thinking about
a guy on the pier, waving to you. It was really cool, so the song
just then came together. It was the last song we did on the record.
Theres like seven different songs in there if you listen to
it. I think for him it was a little cathartic because it kinda brought
him back to the beginning of Pet Sounds, and in the way Happy
Days ends the album and Your Imagination begins
the album, I think thats kind of his reminiscing of Pet Sounds.
His 97 or 98 version of it.
When asked to compare his style of producing Brian to that of Andy
Paley, Joe Thomas responds, I think that Andy more comes from
that historical perspective than I do. I mean he knows a lot more
about the way Brian recorded stuff back in the 60s. I
know they use a lot of the same musicians like Carol Kaye and Hal
Blaine. When I listen to the stuff that Andy has done with Brian in
the past, I think theres more of that group mentality. Ive
got my guys that I really like. And the fact is that right now, I
also dont like to record with a lot of people in the room at
the same time. My reasoning is that I just cant keep track of
whats going on. I think its a different way of recording
that Brian likes this time around. Brian thinks very conceptually
and hes definitely thematic. I think hes on one tangent
and I think the course thatll probably happen is that hell
go through a Joe Thomas phase and maybe well do one more album
or two more albums together and... God bless him. Im just proud
to be part of this phase.
When told about Brians interest in doing a rock and roll record
next time around, Thomas replied, Oh yeah, we came up with about
3 or 4 real rockin things.
He likes that really crunchy guitar and the big heavy moog bass. So
weve got a couple of things down. Weve got 2 or 3 gems
there that are really uptempo and slammin. We recorded like
20 songs for Imagination, and I think he feels kind of guilty
that some of the songs didnt make it. Theres so much stuff
that we recorded, and I really have to convince people that the reason
some of the songs didnt get on the album werent because
they werent as good as the songs on the album. They just werent
conceptual, they werent as thematic. So weve got a good
kick start. Theres eight songs recorded and Id say four
of those songs would fit easily on a new Brian Wilson album. Its
funny too, when we did Imagination, Brian was thinking with
the Beach Boys in mind. Even though it was a solo record, that could
have easily been a Beach Boys record. Asked what his favorite
Beach Boys album is, Thomas gladly offers, Surfs Up
was a gem. I gotta tell ya, as much as everybodyand
Im one themloves Pet Sounds, my favorite Beach
Boys album of all time is Surfs Up. I just was
blown away by it, I couldnt believe it. Sunflower is
another one of my favorites.
With the sounds of Imagination still ringing out its
summer harmonies at years end, lets hope that it wont
be long before we once again hear new music from one of Americas
most imaginative living songwriters. Willing to speak to one
of his long time fans and supporters, Brian Wilson took the time to
speak with 20th Century Guitar and (then also) Time & A Word Music
News editor Robert Silverstein for the following interview which took
place by phone on Tuesday, October 27, 1998.
Robert Silverstein (RS): Hello Brian! I just wanted to tell
you that your new album Imagination is without a doubt the
best album of the year.
Brian Wilson (BW): Thank you.
RS: I know its been a challenging year for you and I really
appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
BW: Well, lets go!
RS: The leadoff track on Imagination, Your Imagination
is one of the catchiest songs ever written. How did you write that
BW: My collaborator Joe Thomas and I were playing around at the piano,
and he said, Why dont we just try to let it ramble. Just
ramble, yknow? And we wound up with Imagination.
We just let it ramble, it just went off the top of our heads.
RS: I hope you agree when I say the album is the culmination of your
career till now?
BW: Yes, absolutely.
RS: The song, She Says That She Needs Me features some
beautiful orchestral touches. Is working with strings and brass a
direction youd like to further explore?
BW: Yes, I would like to get try to get into more strings and brass,
absolutely! I love strings and brass, I think theyre very vital
RS: I was wondering why you chose to call the album Imagination.
Was the album recorded at your house in St. Charles, Illinois?
BW: Irving Azoff (owner of Giant Records) came up with the title.
Yes it was recorded in St.Charles.
RS: The interplay between the players on Imagination is brilliant.
Who put all the musicians together?
BW: I used the same players that Joe and I used when we produced The
Beach Boys Stars & Stripes album (Nashville players).
RS: The song Sunshine is a good example of the upbeat
nature of the new album.
BW: I was going through a sun worshiping trip and wrote that one.
RS: Happy Days is a great album closer.
BW: Its my favorite song on the album. Its my life on
RS: The Imagination track, Where Has Love Been
is another favorite of mine. A colleague from your 1988 solo album,
Andy Paley is one of the songs co-writers. How is working with
Andy Paley different than working with Imagination co-producer
BW: Well, Joe is not quite as intense. Andys very intense. Andy
kinda like, really gets it on pretty strong. And Joe is a little more
laid back. He doesnt come on quite as strong. So Id have
to say, yknow, Andy would be the stronger one.
RS: Prior to the making of Imagination you wrote quite a few
new songs with Andy Paley, including an instrumental called In
My Moondreams. Will those tracks ever be released on CD?
BW: We think so. We think the next record is going to be a little
more hard rock. And Andy wants to join in. Weve got about 35-40
(songs) we wrote that we havent done yet. So our problem now
is to try to figure out which ones to do.
RS: Speaking of instrumentals, your song Pet Sounds is
one of the coolest guitar instrumentals ever written.
BW: I know, it was great wasnt it?
RS: How do you feel about recording guitar-based instrumental music?
BW: Well, it depends on what kind of mood Im in. If Im
in the mood for a hard jam-rock, yknow a jam? Then I like to
jam, if not, I like to play like...the introduction to California
Girls, like a nice soft guitar like that or a hard rocking guitar.
RS: The album you made back around 1990, Sweet Insanity has
some great songs. The album was never officially released. Is there
a chance it will ever come out?
BW: We dont know where the tapes are! Someone made off with
our tapes. Somebody made off with the masters. We cant find
RS: So the bootleg is the only way to hear Sweet Insanity?
RS: From that album, The Spirit Of Rock And Roll stands
out as one of the most inspiring songs ever written.
BW: Why, thank you.
RS: Is there any chance you will ever rerecord it?
BW: We might. We might put a little harder beat to it. Thats
a good idea. I never thought of that! Id like to put a better
beat to it.
RS: The final Sweet Insanity version of Spirit
featured a guest appearance by Bob Dylan. What was it like recording
it with Dylan?
BW: Well, it was quite an honor. I mean, he came in and it took him
ten minutes to get his part and he split. But he did a really good
job, very good job.
RS: Do you have any reflections about the Sweet Insanity album?
BW: I like Rainbow Eyes the best of all the cuts. And
Smart Girls too.
RS: Whats the most memorable part of the movie, I Just Wasnt
Made For These Times for you?
BW: The most memorable part was when I was in the car, when we went
to my old school yard. The was the funnest part of it for me.
RS: I really liked the movie quiet a bit.
BW: Its real spine-tingling. I agree, I think its great
RS: Your vocals on the 1995 Van Dyke Parks album Orange Crate Art
were stellar. Do you have any favorite tracks from the album and
is there any chance of writing new stuff with Van Dykes lyrics?
BW: I loved Palm Tree And Moon. I would love to work with
Van again. Hes a brilliant guy.
RS: Do you miss playing bass? Would you ever consider picking it up
BW: No I dont miss playing, but I may play on my tour.
RS: Last year guitarist Tim Weston released a jazz tribute to your
music on Blue Note Records called Wouldnt It Be Nice - A
Jazz Portrait Of Brian Wilson. What did you think of that album?
BW: I loved hearing my songs in the jazz format. It was a thrill.
RS: Have you heard Bruce Johnsons new Beach Boys symphonic album?
BW: No, I havent. Actually, I have not.
RS: Would you ever consider producing a rock symphony album of your
BW: Well, I dont know...not really, no. I dont think so.
RS: I think a theme and variations of Heroes & Villains
could take up a whole side!
BW: Right, thats true!
RS: I really enjoyed the Endless Harmony soundtrack. Its
a little like The Beatles Anthology series. How do feel
about letting fans hear your works in progress?
BW: Im proud, because I think Im a very creative genius
and Im proud to share with people.
RS: From Endless Harmony I really enjoyed the long, ambient
version of Til I Die.
BW: Right, that was one of my favorites.
RS: Also the track Soulful Old Man Sunshine was great
BW: Thank you very much!
RS: Did you like making the VH-1 Endless Harmony movie?
BW: No, it was hard for me actually, cos I was in a bad place
in my head. And I had to put on extra makeup. I couldnt stand
all that makeup and goop they put on my face! I was just in a bad
mood for about two or three weeks, yknow, but I got out of it.
RS: What was it like working with Ringo on his Vertical Man album?
BW: Well it was a kick, because, yknow of course, hes
one of my idols. The Beatles are like my idols. Theyre one of
my great idols and heroes in life. And I think he did a really good
job as far as like helping me put my part on his record.
RS: You have a new magazine called Breakaway. How did it start?
(ed.-for info: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
BW: It started with my secretary. She created it. She created the
RS: I want to ask about some of my favorites songs by you and The
BW: One of my favorites of course is Good Vibrations.
It took us six weeks to do it. We did it in three different studios.
It was a very hard job to get that all produced, yknow? And
of course, Surfin USA was our first really hard
rock record. I like that a lot. And, California Girls
which I think is our anthem, I call it our anthem, because its
a very Beach Boy-ish kind of record, with Mike Love singing
RS: Id like to know about a bootlegged song you made back around
1990, called Save The Day.
BW: I dont know, I cant remember the song. Do you know
anything about it?
RS: I remember the words, Lennon said it best, Lets give
peace a chance.
BW: I remember that! Yeah, I thought that was a very brilliant idea
to put on record.
RS: It just got right into my soul.
BW: Good! Im glad it did! Great!
RS: How about the song you recorded on your 1988 solo album called
Let It Shine?
BW: Yeah, that was written with Jeff Lynne from the ELO.
RS: Was Lynne singing on that one?
BW: I dont think he was, no. I think I did all the background
parts on that. He wrote the lyrics. I didnt write very much
of that song. He wrote most of it.
RS: Right now Im listening to the song you did on Sweet Insanity
called Someone To Love.
BW: I love the chorus (sings) Someone, oh someone oh someone
to Love. I remember that. I loved it!
RS: Its a great rock and roll song.
BW: I know. Thank you very much. I appreciate that!
RS: The song you wrote for the Beach Boys Love You album, called
Solar System. Thats another favorite of mine. Are
you interested in astrology?
BW: Astrology? Not really. I used to be, but not any more.
RS: Do you remember anything about that song?
BW: I thought it was a very creative idea for a song. And I thought
that, Solar System, brings us wisdom...I just thought
it was clever lyrics. Did you think so?
RS: I thought the lyrics to Solar System were really cosmic.
BW: They were clever, werent they?
RS: The song you wrote on 15 Big Ones called Back Home.
Its such a great rock song.
BW: I call it a country song. I dont know about rock. I call
it a country-rock song. I think it had great lyrics. In the very first
part where I go, A yeah, yeah, yeah!...I thought that
RS: In retrospect I think its the best song on the album.
BW: Thank you.
RS: What about another obscure song called Lazy Lizzie?
BW: Lazy Lizzie was cut...I cant remember, in the
70s? Im not sure who did it. I remember that from a long
time ago. It was one of the best things we ever did. Was that a bootleg?
RS: Yeah, I have it on the In My Room bootleg. How about the
song which just came out on the new Beach Boys Ultimate Christmas
CD, called Winter Symphony?
BW: Yeah, that was written by me and Al (Jardine). It is a good tune,
isnt it? I forgot all about that tune, yknow? All of a
sudden I remember it again.
RS: How about a song called This Isnt Love that
came out recently on the Windham Hill album called Songs Without
BW: Oh, that one! That was written in 1979.
RS: Another rarity called, That Special Feeling.
BW: Where was it from?
RS: I think it was one of the outtakes from The Beach Boys Love
BW: Maybe, I dont know that one.
RS: You know, where you sing, Here it comes, that special feeling.
BW: Oh! I remember that. Yeah, that was a cute song.
RS: One song that stands out in my mind from the Surfs Up
album is, A Day In The Life Of A Tree. Its probably
the ultimate ecology song. Its a really special song.
BW: In some ways it was. I remember doing it. I remember how we used
that pipe organ. Actually it was called a pump organ. That was one
of the more special songs that we had. It was a good record.
RS: One of my favorite songs by the Beach Boys is Our Sweet
Love, from the Sunflower album.
BW: Oh yeah, I remember that. Carl sang that, I think.
RS: Did you write that whole melody?
BW: Yeah. I think so yeah. I think I wrote that tune.
RS: How about your version of This Could Be The Night
from the 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute album called For The Love Of
Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson.
BW: Andy Paley asked me to do it with him.
RS: Another favorite of mine is Make A Wish from Sweet
BW: Im considering rerecording that one too. Great song,
RS: Anyway Brian, can you give us any ideas as to what your next album
will sound like?
BW: Well, its gonna have that Phil Spector type beat. With a
little bit of the Four Seasons kinda vocals, and a good Beach Boys
vocal. And hopefully, at least half of it will be hard rock and get
it on with some rock and roll. I hope we can! I mean the Boys
were big in the 60s yknow? And theyre still big
in the 90s.
RS: I know you live part-time in Chicago. Will you be going back there?
BW: I dont know. Maybe in January?
RS: How do you like living there?
BW: I dont like it. I like it here in L.A. better.
RS: So youll go on tour with the music?
BW: On February 11th were gonna cut out on a tour.
RS: So youre gonna come to New York I hope.
BW: Maybe, we might, yeah.
RS: Id love to see you do a show at Carnegie Hall!
BW: Oh, thatd be great!
RS: I remember all the Beach Boys shows at Carnegie Hall right after
Surfs Up came out. I remember they even played songs
like Cool, Cool Water.
BW: They couldnt reproduce the record on stage, like it was
in the studio. But, they got pretty close to it.
RS: Actually, the first concert I ever saw was back in 68 when
the Beach Boys headlined a show in Miami Beach with The Buffalo Springfield
and The Strawberry Alarm Clock.
BW: Oh! no kidding, I didnt know about that!
RS: So the next album will sound different than Imagination?
BW: Its gonna sound more like...you like to hear rock and
roll? Well I think its gonna have some good rock on it. Like
with the Phil Spector type of rhythms. I think his rhythm is good.
RS: I hope that your new record company, Giant Records gives you the
support you deserve.
BW: Yeah, I hope so!
RS: Maybe I shouldve written a longer interview. But this seems
BW: I think so too! I think youve got most of it together!
RS: Brian, thanks a million for speaking with me!
BW: Youre Welcome!
Special thanks to Brian and Melinda Wilson, Andy Paley, Joe
Thomas, David Leaf, Jean Sievers and Les Eisner of The Lippin Group
and Irving Azoff of Giant Records
Essential books used while researching this article include: Brian
Wilson & The Beach Boys-How Deep Is The Ocean? by Paul Williams
(Omnibus Press), The Complete Guide To The Music Of The Beach Boys
by Andrew Doe & John Tobler (Omnibus Press) and The Nearest Faraway
Place by Timothy White (Henry Holt & Co.)