This article was written in 2002 after I was requested to document a trip I took to Los Angeles in September, 1999, to meet with the legendary leader of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson. What follows is all true – honest.
Steve Mayhew – February 2016.
If somebody had said to me one day I’d find myself driving a convertible down Hollywood Boulevard beneath a clear blue Californian sky, palm trees waving lazily in the cool Pacific breeze and Brian Wilson singing ‘Imagination’ on the car stereo whilst on my way to meet the legend himself in his Beverly Hills home I’d say… yeah, why not? I mean it was almost 11 years to the day – back in 1988 – that my wife had tentatively suggested I consider taking her out to celebrate our wedding anniversary rather than attend the annual Beach Boys Stomp convention in Harrow. When I got to work on the following Monday I found out a certain Brian Wilson had dropped in to promote his solo album as a surprise guest – and I had missed it. I figured, therefore, that it was only right I finally got the opportunity to meet the great man himself and even more satisfying to know I’d get to meet him on his own home turf.
But first let’s rewind a little and set the scene.
Back in 1996 I suggested to a writing friend of mine that we write a musical play about Brian Wilson. After numerous rewrites and false starts with various producers and directors the property was optioned by a West End producer who, for legal reasons, cannot be named in this article. He spent two years of our life and over £40,000 of someone else’s money only to reveal he hadn’t managed to get the rights to the music of The Beach Boys from the publishing company as required. We were forced to abandon the original version of the play and rewrite it to make it more of a story on the group rather than centred entirely on Brian Wilson. After extensive rewriting and with the blessing of a group of new investors I found myself flying over to Los Angeles in September 1999 to discuss the details of the play with the great man himself.
I was accompanied by the manager of Status Quo, David Walker (now sadly deceased) and Neil Warnock, European agent for Brian Wilson (now a solo artist) and The Beach Boys. It was agreed we would take Brian through the play page by page and make notes of any changes he might suggest, the object of the exercise to ensure there was nothing contentious that might encourage matters of a litigious nature further on down the line.
I met my fellow travellers at the Four Season’s hotel from where we were transported up into the Hollywood Hills in a very large black automobile. After half an hour we arrived at the gates to a large housing estate surrounded by brick walls and a high tech security system with a breath-taking view overlooking Los Angeles below.
The car meandered down the hill and dropped us off outside an unassuming house in a cul de sac with children’s toys in the driveway. Brian Wilson’s wife, Melinda, warmly welcomed us into the house, my attention being immediately drawn to a large piano in the music den to the left (no sandbox though).
The piano was covered in photographs of assorted Wilson family members and a lifetime achievement award from the American Music Society. Then without any warning there stood Brian Wilson in the flesh. I’d obviously never met him before but I knew it had to be him as it said ‘Brian Wilson’ on his t-shirt. And then suddenly it hit me with a force so intense my carefully prepared air of nonchalance disappeared in tatters. I’M IN BRIAN WILSON’S HOUSE FOR CHRIST’S SAKE AND NO ONE’S CALLED THE POLICE YET TO HAVE ME REMOVED! What the hell am I doing here?! I mean this is the man, the one and only, the guy who wrote (cliche number one coming up) the soundtrack to my life, genius composer of ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ and ‘California Girls’ and ‘Heroes And Villains’ and ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’ (one of my particular favourites) and ‘Warmth Of The Sun’ and ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and he’s holding his hand out to shake mine. Reality eventually settled in – this was after all a business meeting, not a hero worship session.
For a moment we all looked at each other trying to figure out who was going to do what when Melinda casually suggested that she drive everyone to the nearest deli and bring back some lunch so that STEVE AND BRIAN CAN SIT TOGETHER IN THE MUSIC DEN AND GO THROUGH THE PLAY IN PRIVACY WITHOUT ANY INTERRUPTIONS and I’m thinking this is starting to become very unreal again when David Walker volunteers to sit with us as well. This turns out to be a good thing otherwise I’m sure there was going to be a danger of me turning from wannabe writer into a quivering obsessive Beach Boys fan asking Brian what his favourite colour was.
Brian sat down in a large leather chair next to his piano while David and I perched on a couple of stools either side and then proceeded to go through the script. Now as we all know the impression one has of Brian Wilson from numerous interviews and articles over the years is of a man confused and bewildered when it comes to dealing with the real world, a shell of his former self living on the edge of reality. As far as I’m concerned the man I met bore absolutely no resemblance to that image at all. He was concentrated, articulate, comfortable in our presence, interested in what we had to say about the play and genuinely happy to discuss his past. The first thing that hit me was his power of recall. One instance of this was when he put me right about a scene early on in the play when the young Beach Boys record ‘Surfin’, reminding me that it was he and not his younger brother, Dennis, who played drums on that first session.
Occasionally he would say things that surprised me especially when it came to the subject of his father, Murry, suggesting we beef up some of the language so that it was more like the real thing. Overall Brian’s contribution was positive and very encouraging. In fact throughout the hour or so we spent going over the play there was only one time when I felt something Brian said might not work but apart from that it was all very encouraging.
Inevitably when it comes to Brian Wilson some of the famous eccentricity of his character will eventually come to the surface. So it was that, after handing over a CD of some of the demos a very talented musician by the name of Sean MacReavy had recorded for us, David Walker and I found ourselves sitting on the edge of Brian’s unmade bed listening to the music while Brian rocked back and forth congratulating us on the quality of the music versus the original tracks. Then suddenly it was time to say goodbye and with a shake of hands, a request for a few autographs – I stupidly didn’t take any photographs – and wishes for all the best, Brian was out of the door to get his lunch. Before he left I gave him a copy of a Glen Miller CD I’d picked up with a recording of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, a song I had read somewhere he used to play all the time as a child on his father’s record player.
Finding myself alone for a few moments I walked nervously over to Brian’s piano and quietly played the opening chords to ‘California Girls’, all the while waiting for a large disembodied voice from the heavens to tell me to stop taking liberties.
Both Brian and Melinda Wilson were very gracious in their opinion of the play and we went away full of hope that the project would now finally move ahead. Unfortunately, despite being given a verbal thumbs-up from all concerned it turned out that the publishing company Rondor had already assigned the music rights to another producer in New York. Apparently there is a move to put on a play that is not actually about The Beach Boys but that will use the music in much the same way as ‘Mamma Mia’ uses the music of Abba.
Two years on from the meeting with Brian Wilson I caught him and his band on stage at the Royal Festival Hall performing numerous Beach Boys hits and ‘Pet Sounds’ in its entirety. It took the concert to finally dispel the disappointment over the play not happening. As one music writer once said, the most important thing is the music. Everything else just fades into insignificance.