Brian Wilson, Reconstructed

For his first solo album in a decade, the creative force behind the Beach Boys recovers both himself and his music (sort of)

"That [line] was mine," he says. "That's my favorite line." His original lyric for the song -- later rewritten in parts by Wilson and Thomas together for Imagination -- was intended as a sort of editorial about Wilson's image in the '90s. "Originally," Dahl says, "I had it a bit more cathartic. What I was trying to go for in that lyric was the fact that a lot of what you think he should be is your imagination. I guess one of the biggest things that Brian has to overcome -- personally, he's overcome quite a bit, since the first time I met him 10 years ago, he's almost a totally different person -- but professionally, he still has to live up to Pet Sounds, which ... how do you ever do that? There tends to be a freaky element of Brian Wilson fans who almost don't want him to succeed. They want Pet Sounds to be it. They've stayed in this place in the past, and he's moved through that."

Wilson hasn't completely ignored his past. Imagination has two Beach Boys covers: the graduation-day hymn "Keep an Eye on Summer," originally written in 1962, and the classic "Let Him Run Wild," which Wilson rerecorded because the vocals on the original were, he says, "too girlish and whiny." Those were the only older songs he was interested in revisiting. Indeed, Wilson says he won't listen to Beach Boys songs today. "If I ever have a radio, I play the oldies-but-goodies stations. I don't really play it too much though. I don't really like to wallow in the mire. I never play the Beach Boys stuff in my house. Never, never play our stuff. Because I think that if you do that, it's like sitting around masturbating all over your own stuff" -- here, he makes a jerking-off motion with his fist -- "We're great, we're great. Skip that, you know?"

In the last year, Wilson lost both his mother, Audree, and his brother Carl, the guitarist behind the Beach Boys' early surf-rock hits and the lead singer on perhaps Wilson's most touching and beautifully crafted ballad, "God Only Knows." Written in a similar vein, the ballad "Lay Down Burden" addresses Carl's battle with lung cancer; Wilson declines to speak about him, except to express sadness that Carl won't be a part of the remaining Beach Boys. Wilson's emotional energies are focused instead on his two adopted daughters, 19-month-old Daria and 6-month-old Delanie. Melinda Wilson notes that in light of Brian's drug- and Landy-polluted past, a number of doctors and associates "had to go to bat" to prove that Brian is a man fit to adopt children. "I'm still OK," Wilson says. "I'm still able to function and talk and carry on. After all I've been through, this would have to be bordering on a miracle. It would have to be a miracle that I could still be around." It's something that he'd like to write a song about: "I'd like to write more about what I'm really going through," he says. " 'Happy Days' is the closest I've come, but I think that I can beat 'Happy Days.' "

But he's stingy on the details. "It would just be a song that takes, spells out what happened in my life ...." He pauses, laughs quizzically, and then cops out. "And I just think that people would really dig it." But that past -- "the ups and downs," as Wilson puts it -- is also why he refuses to read the reviews and interviews about Imagination. "I have bad habits," he stresses, in fear of revisiting somebody's retelling of his history. "I'm not reading stuff about me."

Yet he is curious about how the general public views his work. He asks about how well last year's Beach Boys Pet Sounds Sessions box set sold, and Melinda notes that he's paying close attention to how Imagination is performing. "He wouldn't call up Irving [Azoff, the Giant Records owner who signed Brian] and say, 'What's the album at today?' But he does it to me the minute he gets up. 'So what did it do? Where is it?' " In its first week of release, Imagination did decent if unspectacular business, selling approximately 18,000 copies and entering the Billboard album chart at No. 88. The following week, sales dove to 9,000 and the record fell to No. 146, though the single has hovered in the mid-20s on the Adult Contemporary airplay chart. It's also sold better overseas, moving 60,000 copies in two weeks.

But neither record nor single seems to be catching on. "It's in a weekend rotation for us," says Gary Michaels, program director for Modesto light-rock station KJSN, the only Bay Area station playing the single. "We've not had any requests for it. We have it in a minimal rotation. We took a shot on this song. It's not helping us, it's not hurting us." In the fall, Brian Wilson plans to perform live to promote the record, hitting approximately 30 cities in America, with tentative plans for European dates. Wilson already did a dry-run solo performance at a high school auditorium in St. Charles on May 9 -- the show was taped for a VH1 special slated to air in August. Ironically, Wilson will be on the road competing with his old band, the remaining Beach Boys in perhaps their most pathetic incarnation yet -- without a Wilson in the group and billed as "Mike Love and America's Band." A further irony is that while Brian Wilson has spent the past two years trying to escape his past, the Beach Boys have done brisk business cannibalizing it, licensing songs heavily, offering weak-kneed versions of the group's '60s hits onstage, and coughing up worn self-parodies like "Kokomo." The last time the Beach Boys played the Bay Area, at the Concord Pavilion last August, Mike Love made idle threats that the band wouldn't do any of their car songs -- "409," "I Get Around," and so forth -- because they didn't want to perform tunes that celebrated "gas guzzlers"; the group had inked a deal to promote the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Fine, but earlier this year the band put its name on Salute to NASCAR, a collection of those same car songs, assembled to celebrate the stock-car racing organization's 50th anniversary. The record was sold exclusively at Union 76 gas stations.

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