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COVER STORY

The Last Brother

He's Known as a Genius and an Eccentric. Call Brian Wilson Whatever You Like,but Remember This: He's a Survivor.

July 12, 1998|ERIK HIMMELSBACH | Erik Himmelsbach is a contributing editor for Spin magazine

All of St. Charles is racing to eat before the sun sets and the kids melt down. At 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday, a time when many Angelenos are just rolling out of bed, the locals of this Illinois city are pouring into the La Za Za Trattoria, a family-friendly kind of place. A sentry of highchairs lines one wall, and the occasional shriek of a cooped-up child provides dissonant harmony to the clanging of silverware against plates and the chorus of disjointed conversations. The racket at La Za Za is music to Brian Wilson's one good ear.

In the center of the dining room, the Wilson party of seven--two sets of parents and their young kids--crowds around pushed-together tables, enjoying a big night out. By 7, it'll be time to pop a movie into the VCR, maybe crash by 9. In Wilson's slo-mo state of mind, dining out ranks among life's great pleasures. "I love going out to eat," he says earlier in the day. "The process of being served--the whole thing just blows my mind."

Significantly more mind-blowing is the picture of Wilson, landlocked, whiling away the bulk of the last few years in a sleepy burb with endless winters, far removed from the California myth that he and the Beach Boys had a large hand in creating. But what better, safer place to regain his emotional footing and musical balance, to escape the straitjacket of expectations that has confined him since he wrote those timeless anthems of sun, surf and innocence in the early '60s.

The release of "Pet Sounds" in 1966 certified its musical composer, who recorded in mono because of nerve damage to his right ear, as a genius. Paul McCartney lauded the record as the inspiration for the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And so, anxious to top himself as well as the Beatles' then-current "Revolver," Wilson embarked on an ambitious follow-up with lyricist Van Dyke Parks that he described at the time as a "teenage symphony to God." Though the "Smile" project would eventually succumb to drug excess, intra-band scuffles, record-company lawsuits and other assorted nonsense, bootleg tapes circulating among the faithful confirmed the brilliance of Wilson's compositional innovations. But the genius, the creator of three-minute pop miracles, went into hibernation after his failure to complete "Smile" and has emerged only sporadically over the last three decades.

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About an hour's drive west of Chicago, heartland icons such as Dairy Queen and a General Mills plant pave the way into St. Charles. In the quaintly Midwestern downtown, antique shops and restaurants with self-parking surround historical landmarks sturdily built of brick--reminders of a tough 1920s heyday when Al Capone supposedly chilled out here. Through it all runs the Fox River, a thoroughfare for paddle-wheel riverboat tours. Brian Wilson's new family is tucked away in a wooded subdivision on the fringe of town in an almost-new country-French home strewn with pets and baby paraphernalia. Judging by his well-documented past in Los Angeles--where he still maintains a part-time home--excessive stimuli never suited Wilson anyway. And here in St. Charles, a self-contained picture postcard of a town, little opportunity exists to screw things up--things like the just-released "Imagination" for Giant Records, his first solo album of new material in 10 years.

On a Saturday afternoon in April, Wilson leans against a mixing board inside the state-of-the-art home recording studio in his dimly lit basement. Assembled over eight months at a cost of more than $1 million, the facility feels utterly unused, antiseptic even, with rows of shiny knobs, puffy microphones and the stiff chill of air conditioning. Off in the shadows, ostensibly out of earshot, "Imagination" co-producer Joe Thomas talks with a few of Brian's people, a publicist and a studio assistant.

In previous solo encounters with the press, Wilson has been prone to soul-baring, stream-of-consciousness rants. In a 1995 interview at his L.A. home following the release of "Orange Crate Art," a Van Dyke Parks record on which Brian sang virtually all the vocals, he said: "I wouldn't lie to myself and say that I didn't feel a little bit of pressure on my soul, but I live this way. I live in a state of scared."

Today he speaks in seemingly rehearsed nervous bursts, without introspection. As he describes his "easygoing" life--making music, playing with the kids, walking a treadmill--one foot taps like a metronome gone berserk; his blue eyes fidget, unwilling or unable to lock onto a target. The man can't wait for this to be over. "His favorite thing in the world is not talking to the press," his wife, Melinda, later confirms.

The topic shifts quickly to his partnership with Thomas, with whom he would later dine at La Za Za. "It's probably the best collaborative effort that I've done in my life," Wilson says.

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