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The return of Brian Wilson

By Brett Milano

JUNE 14, 1999:  The first thing you hear when you get Brian Wilson on the phone is also the last thing you heard on Pet Sounds: a big dog (one of five he now owns) barking at full throttle in the background. Talking with the former Beach Boy requires a certain amount of patience. It's not unlike being a fan of Wilson's music -- you know you're not going to hear the long-lost Smile album, so you take what you can get.

Over the past decade, the elusive mastermind behind the Beach Boys has scrapped more music than he's released. He spent most of 1996 collaborating with pop scholar (and former Bostonian) Andy Paley on a set of demos that amounted to his best work in decades, then wound up shelving them in favor of the likable but lightweight Imagination (Giant) last year. Thank God for bootlegs. A long overdue tour in support of Imagination has finally materialized and will bring Wilson to Symphony Hall on June 21. But since he's never toured solo before and has turned up only sporadically with the Beach Boys, one has to be glad that someone -- in this case his wife -- talked him into hitting the road.

"It's an honor and I can almost cry when I get a standing ovation," Wilson acknowledges from his home in California. "I'm so proud of myself when that happens. They go bananas. I had no idea I was going to be received so well, so I'm a pretty lucky guy. I had a long talk with my wife and my co-producer one day, and they really believed in their heart of hearts that I could do some successful tour. I said, 'I disagree, I'm a has-been and nobody's going to care.' They said I was wrong, and I said, 'How do you know my tour would even sell at all?' They said, 'You watch.' "

It was also his wife who talked him into completing Imagination. "Those songs were all squeezed out of me, like squeezing juice from an orange. It wasn't that much like hell, but once you're committed to doing something, you're better off going ahead than you are backing out."

Perhaps the best news Wilson has to report is that he's planning a "rock and roll" album as a follow-up, and that it may include some of the tracks he worked on with Paley. Advance word from the tour is also promising. The back-up outfit is the Wondermints, a Wilson-obsessed California pop band who are probably still pinching themselves to make sure it's not just a dream. The sets Wilson has been playing include some familiar Beach Boys hits, but he's also been performing a number of fan favorites that the group seldom did, with considerable attention paid to the revered Pet Sounds album. He's been encoring with the sublime "Caroline No," and his live intro to that song -- "Here's a song I sang like a girl" -- may be the most irreverent thing anyone's ever said about it.

"It's true, I was trying to sound like a chick," he reveals. "I mean that in a nice way -- I was trying to put a lot of love in my voice, and I really got off on that one. Pet Sounds was a very loving album. It was my way of putting love on the map. I can't believe that people are still into it. I know it's good music, but I didn't think it was that current. But somehow people seem to think it's still current music. That must mean that it was ahead of its time."

Wilson's tour is getting some competition from the Beach Boys camp. At the moment there are two groups of ersatz Beach Boys touring the country -- one led by Mike Love, the other, which features Brian's daughters, by Al Jardine. But with founding brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson now deceased, Brian doubts he'll ever rejoin the group.

"I would say no. Losing Carl [in February of 1998] shook us up enough to screw that up for good." That would leave 1996's country fiasco, Stars & Stripes Vol. 1, as the Beach Boys' swan song. "I thought it was a good idea for the Boys to put their voices behind those country singers. But you know what the problem was? The goddamn thing didn't fuckin' sell." That about sums it up.

Wilson's return to the stage was prompted in part by Don Was's 1996 film I Just Wasn't Made for These Times -- still the most revealing portrait of him. One of its highlights is a reconciliation between Wilson and his estranged daughters that takes place during a performance of "Do It Again." "That healed some emotional wounds for me," he admits. "It was the first time I'd really worked with my daughters since they were born, because I wasn't a really good dad. I thought that film was a pretty good exposé of who I was. A lot of that stuff was hell for me to talk about. It was necessary, but a little embarrassing in a way. Because you know, I've led a really crazy life."

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