Some days are just too good to be true. When Brian Wilson gets on the phone to talk about “Pet Sounds,” in the background are his new pet sounds: dogs barking. It’s no wonder – he has 13.
The once-beleaguered Beach Boy, a much-heralded musical genius felled by drug abuse, psychotic withdrawal and other mental illnesses, is now in a happy place, about to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary.
“It’s quite an event because it’s the best album the Beach Boys ever made,” Wilson tells The New York Post.
While critically lauded – Paul McCartney said it influenced “Sgt. Pepper” – “Pet Sounds” wasn’t well received by the American pop-buying public when released.
But decades later, the new CD/DVD set (with the tracks in their original mono and remixed stereo formats) hit No. 8 on Billboard’s Pop Catalog charts and debuted in iTunes’ Top 100.
The Beach Boys’ music and Brian Wilson are both having a sun-kissed comeback. 2003’s greatest hits compilation “Sounds of Summer” went double platinum, and in 2004, Wilson, working with Van Dyke Parks and Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints (which essentially became Brian Wilson’s backing band), recorded and performed “Smile,” finishing the legendary aborted Beach Boys project.
And on Tuesday and Wednesday, Wilson performs the complete “Pet Sounds” at the Beacon Theatre in New York City.
Looking back on making the album, Wilson says, “We took our time and recorded it on a four-track machine, and we had a good time working with so many wonderful musicians.
“The beautiful ‘God Only Knows,'” he adds, “is a very sentimental song because of my brothers’ deaths.” (Dennis Wilson drowned at 39 in 1983, and Carl Wilson died of cancer in 1998.)
But he doesn’t time travel too much. “I like to think about [those days], but I think about today more.”
Even though fans adore him when he plays, an insecure Wilson still suffers from stage fright. “I get very nervous before a show, real nervous,” he admits.
But Sahanaja, Wilson’s bandleader, says it’s fleeting: “Once we hit stage and he feels the love from the audience, the fear seems to just slip away.
“Without sounding too corny,” he adds, “I really do feel that the best medicine is the music.”
Wilson, 64, says he continues to perform to support his wife, his three adopted children (ages 9, 8 and 2) and himself, but it’s clearly not just about the money.
“I need to be in front of people and I need to express myself artistically,” he explains. “I was going to retire because I was tired of the business, but when ‘Smile’ came along, I couldn’t because I liked it too much. Same with ‘Pet Sounds.’ I’m very proud of it, so I can’t stop working.”
He was richly rewarded when he overpowered his stage jitters at the 2004 “Smile” concert debut in London. Wilson is still thrilled by the experience.
“I got standing ovations that you wouldn’t have believed – people standing and clapping for five and 10 minutes. They loved it,” he says with childlike wonder.
“I almost cried, I was so darn relieved. I just knew the record would be great based on their reaction.”
Despite the nerves, performing does give Wilson a high. And a low.
“You know when you take an upper pill, you feel fantastic for hours and all of a sudden you start to come down?” he says. “It’s just like that at a concert. As soon as the concert’s over – pssshhhhew, dip, dip, way down there.”
Sahanaja recalls worrying about Wilson when he played with him at that first solo show eight years ago.
“I’d be thinking that each next song would be the one where he’d bolt off the stage from stage fright. But he never did leave the stage, and I could see that each performance would help build that comfort zone,” he says.
Some of the last 40 years have been hard on Wilson, whose childlike happiness and directness is apparent even over phone lines. And even more apparent, of course, when you work with him.
“He’s incapable of being phony in any way. Whatever he says at any given time will be the absolute truth at that particular moment, which by the way may change within the hour,” says Sahanaja, who calls him the Chauncey Gardiner of rock ‘n’ roll.
Ironically, the scene at a British Awards event could’ve been straight out of “Being There.”
“U2’s Bono got down on one knee to express how much Brian had moved and inspired him,” says Sahanaja. “Brian’s reply was ‘Thanks. Can you get me a Diet Coke?'”