STORY WRITTEN BY DUTCH GODSHALK
@dutchgodshalk on Twitter
It’s a Thursday afternoon in early May, the Beach Boys’ seminal album “Pet Sounds” is days away from turning 50 years old, and I’m on the phone with Brian Wilson, the onetime wunderkind who created it.
At the risk of seeming unprofessional, I admit I’m awestruck.
It’s not that Wilson’s saying anything remarkable — he really isn’t. He’s barely saying anything at all. In fact, when our conversation ends, I’ll feel kind of deflated, like the interview was a total bust. For the moment, though, I’m discreetly fanboying.
For my money, and I’m far from alone on this, Wilson is the Beach Boy who matters most. He’s the band visionary, the prodigy, the troubled genius.
He’s the guy who wrote “Pet Sounds” in his head when he was 23 years old and then produced it himself, conjuring a wall-of-sound masterpiece, a sonic tapestry of pop-heartache that would become a mile-marker in the lives of so many music lovers, like me.
In my life, I’ve listened to “Pet Sounds” more than any other album, without question. I’d listen to it while writing papers in college and while walking home from the library at night. I’d lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, my headphones boxing out all outside sounds, listening to “Don’t Talk” and “You Still Believe in Me,” and I’d calmly consider my life and what I’d do with it.
To be honest, that never really stopped. I still do that sometimes.
Wilson’s magnum opus, “Pet Sounds” turned 50 on May 16, but the celebration is going on all year, with a massive world tour of 70-plus shows, including a stop at The Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Sept. 23.
Rumors suggest the anniversary tour is the last time audiences will be able to hear Wilson perform “Pet Sounds” in its entirety. Over the phone, however, he isn’t quite willing to confirm this.
“It might be. It might be the last round. If [the tour] goes like we think it will, we might consider doing it again sometime,” he says.
It’s worth noting here that the above quote is just about the longest response Wilson offered during our interview. In all, the conversation amounted to roughly 15 minutes of “Yes” and “No” answers, and more than a few painfully awkward, lingering silences.
I can’t say I blame Wilson for being tight-lipped during our conversation. How many interviewers have asked him about “Pet Sounds” over the years? More than anyone could count. Masterpiece or not, it can’t be exciting to speak ad nauseam about an album you made half a century ago. I get mildly agitated if I have to repeat my order at the drive-thru.
Despite his — let’s call it brevity — my co-interviewer, Reporter staff writer Brian Bingaman and I press on. We keep tossing questions at Wilson, some broad and some laser-focused on a specific detail from the album, hoping that one of them piques his interest and makes him at least halfway chatty.
The songs on “Pet Sounds” are famously difficult to recreate, with odd key changes and time signatures, meticulous arrangements, and textured vocal harmonies. Has it been at all challenging adapting the album for a live performance?
“It’s been great, because my band members are very good musicians and they know how to reproduce the album on stage,” he says.
Does revisiting the album for this tour bring back any memories?
“It takes me back to when I produced it,” he says.
The conversation continues like this, which is to say, like pulling teeth. Wilson has an autobiography coming out Oct. 11, titled “I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir,” and it covers “my whole life — birth to death,” he says. He also says he hasn’t actually listened to “Pet Sounds” in 20 years.
And then, as if it occurred in an instant, the interview is over, with very little said.
I hang up, head back to my desk, and spend the rest of the day in a strange daze. Though it was an exciting opportunity, the conversation made for a mostly uncomfortable 15 minutes. I’m not sure what to make of it. I guess I feel let down.
After an hour or two, I put my earbuds in and listen to “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” perhaps the most confessional song on “Pet Sounds,” an anxious and haunting lament. I sit back in my chair and close my eyes. And there it is — the chill the song always gives me.
Fifty years later, this song, and the album as a whole, remains as potent as ever. There’s an arresting honesty running through “Pet Sounds,” a timeless vulnerability that listeners old and young continue to relate to, and respond to, and cherish. To this day, there’s nothing like it.
As I’m sitting here listening to the music, it becomes clear to me that whether or not Wilson gives a good interview is utterly trivial.
To that point, I think my friend Mike Morsch, who is the author of “The Vinyl Dialogues” and who has had similar experiences with Wilson in the past, says it best.
“The bottom line is that he is Brian Wilson,” Morsch says over Facebook later that night. “He’s given us so much and he really doesn’t have to give anymore.”
IF YOU GO
What: Brian Wilson presents “Pet Sounds” — Celebrating the 50th Anniversary
When: Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m.
Where: The Tower Theater, 69th and Ludlow streets, Upper Darby.
Tickets: $45 to $125.