Brian Wilson doesn't remember much about visiting South Florida with the Beach Boys in the 1960s, before physical and emotional distress forced him to stop touring with the band he had formed with his brothers, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine. One incident stands out in his mind, and while the details escape him, the story, brief as it may be, will resonate with anyone who's familiar with the Beach Boys' triumphant and tragic history, the Wilsons' rocky relationship with Love or what it's like to go anywhere with family.
"I remember it vaguely," Wilson says in a recent phone interview from his home in Beverly Hills. "Dennis and Mike had a fight when we were there. I just saw them fighting and said, 'What the hell is going on here?' "
Wilson's return to the area this week should be more harmonious. On Friday, Sept. 27, at Hard Rock Live, he'll kick off a national tour co-headlined by guitar god Jeff Beck and featuring a band that includes former Beach Boys Jardine, Blondie Chaplin and David Marks. The appearance will come nearly 16 months after Wilson performed with Love at the venue as part of the Beach Boys' 50th anniversary tour, which ended abruptly and unhappily when Love announced the tour's London shows would be the last for Wilson, Jardine and Marks. "It sort of feels like we're being fired," Wilson told the Los Angeles Times.
The new tour comes as Wilson is recording his first album of original, non-Beach Boys material since 2008. Wilson considers the as-yet-untitled album the third chapter in a story that started with the masterpiece "Pet Sounds" and its intended, troubled follow-up, "Smile," begun by the Beach Boys in 1966 and completed by Wilson in 2004.
"When we started working on this thing, he was calling it his life's suite," says Joe Thomas, a recording engineer, songwriter and producer — "I'm kind of his Guy Friday" — who has known Wilson for 20 years. "He looked at life as three different movements. One was 'Pet Sounds,' the other was 'Smile' and then, he wanted to go out with a bang and have a look back at life from an adult. 'Pet Sounds' was when he was just a kid. 'Smile' was when he was a little more savvy and in the business awhile. And now, this is a guy looking back at life and where he is now, which is in a much happier and less chaotic state."
The album will revisit many of Wilson's favorite themes ("summer and love affairs and stuff like that," he says) and involve several of his favorite musicians (Beck, Chaplin, Jardine, Marks and others to be named). "Some of the stuff is very mellow," he says. "You're going to like it very much."
In conversation, Wilson can be aloof and distracted, providing terse — but not ungracious — responses to inquiries about his life, music and health. At 71, the man who crafted "In My Room," "Girl Don't Tell Me" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" has little use for small talk, if he ever did. He can also be enthusiastic, as when discussing the music of Paul McCartney and Phil Spector ("that's about my listening enjoyment"), the album of Disney songs he released in 2011 ("the Sherman brothers were really great writers") or an oldies radio station in Los Angeles ("I can't get enough of it"), on which he'll sometimes hear his songs ("it's a thrill").
"One thing about Brian that I've learned," Thomas says, "for all his perceived eccentricities, he's really the most practical guy I've ever met. His yeses are yeses and his noes are noes. He doesn't play the passive-aggressive game."
"He is really honest," adds Chaplin, who sang lead on the Beach Boys hit "Sail On, Sailor" and until this summer, hadn't seen or heard from Wilson since 1974. "He has such a quick head. You have to hang on, because he's very fast. He's got a very, very sharp mind."
The new album and tour mark the first collaboration between Wilson and Beck, another famously enigmatic rock icon best known for his 1960s bands the Yardbirds and the Jeff Beck Group, the latter of which featured Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. In 2005, at a celebration of Wilson's career hosted by the recording-industry charity MusiCares, Beck surprised him with a tender performance of the elegiac "Surf's Up" and a rocked-out take on "Surfin' U.S.A." Even though Wilson has seldom given the electric guitar a starring role in his music, he knew immediately that he had to work with Beck.
By all accounts, their first recording session this summer was awkward, with Beck confused by Wilson's timid demeanor and Wilson too awestruck by the guitarist to speak. Told Beck had admitted to being intimidated by him, Wilson counters that the feeling was mutual.
"I was intimidated to record with him, too," he says, his voice leaping. "But we both got over it and got busy."
Thomas says he, too, was anxious that first day in the studio, though he offers that Beck and Wilson make a more natural partnership than their respective fans may believe, and describes the songs they recorded as "fusion jazz rock with Brian singing, 'oohs' and 'aahs.' "
"It was two guys who shared a lot of mutual respect for each other, a ton. They were equally as reverent and equally as nervous. We were all nervous. You're working with one legend and another one comes in, that doesn't always go well," he recalls.
"I think that Jeff was amazed that Brian wouldn't say a lot, but when he would say something, it was right on. He'd have his eyes closed, and he'd be listening, and I could see that Jeff would look over at Brian and go, 'Is he listening or is he sleeping?' And Jeff would maybe pull a string a little sharp or something, and Brian would go, 'Hey, you got a better one in you, Jeff. That one was a little sharp.' And Jeff would go, 'Well, OK, of course he's listening. This is the way he does it.' "
Thomas says Wilson has so far recorded 25 songs for the album, and the sessions will resume after the new year. With the wound of Love's "firing" of Wilson from the Beach Boys still raw, the songwriter is moving forward, and with a sense of determination he hasn't felt in years.
"He likes being in a band, and right now, it doesn't look like it's possible that he can have his band [the Beach Boys]," Thomas says. "So he has Alan, David, Jeff and Blondie Chaplin. I think he's concocting in his head, 'I want to take this opportunity to play with all these people I've never got the chance to play with before.' ... He's in a much more comfortable place in his life, where he trusts people, and he's happy."
He's also busy. Wilson recently supervised the soundtrack for "Love and Mercy," a biographical film due out next year in which he'll be played by Paul Dano and John Cusack. He's planning to release a new memoir in 2015 (he largely disavows the 1996 autobiography "Wouldn't It Be Nice"), and is already thinking about the album he wants to record after he finishes the current one.
"I would like to do a rock 'n' roll album, the Phil Spector type of rock 'n' roll," he says. "I'm interested in doing a rock 'n' roll album, something that would make people clap and be happy."
Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27
Where: Hard Rock Live, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood
Contact: 800-745-3000 or MyHRL.com