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Brian Wilson Finds a Mellow Groove on New Gershwin Disc

Remakes ‘Summertime,’ ‘I Got Rhythm’ with classic Beach Boys sound

rsiwebadmin Oct 10, 2010
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Gaye Gerard/Getty Images Entertainment

Two days before the release of his new album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, the 68-year-old Beach Boy digs into a turkey Reuben at his favourite LA deli. “Are people going to like it?” he asks. “Is it gonna be a hit?” He takes a sip of his diet Dr Brown’s soda. “I can’t know any of that for sure, but I know I’m proud of it. I poured my whole soul into this record, and it came out in such a warm, mellow way. My voice sounds good, and the whole thing is just incredibly”¦ mellow. That’s where I’m at right now. In a mellow place ”“ which is pretty rare for me.”

Wilson begins to sing one of his favourite Gershwin tunes, ”˜I Loves You Porgy,’ quietly at first, then loud enough that a couple at the next table stop talking and lean in to listen. He hits the high notes perfectly, and taps a gentle rhythm with his palm on the wooden table.

The album, recorded last winter at Ocean Way Recording ”“ the LA studio where Wilson cut parts of ”˜Good Vibrations’ in 1966 ”“ features Wilson’s take on George and Ira Gershwin standards including ”˜Porgy,’ ”˜Summertime’ and ”˜Someone to Watch Over Me,’ recast with Beach Boys-style arrangements and lush sunshine harmonies, plus two new tracks he built from fragments George Gershwin left unfinished when he died in 1937.

Wilson remembers first hearing ”˜Rhapsody in Blue’ when he was three or four years old. “I’ve never gotten it out of my head since then,” he says. But when Disney approached him about doing a Gershwin record, he was apprehensive. “For a long time I didn’t know how to approach it,” he admits. At an early session last fall, Wilson didn’t seem the least bit intimidated. He was on fire that morning ”“ leading his longtime band through take after take of ”˜’S Wonderful’ and ”˜They Can’t Take That Away From Me,’ at times sprinting between the control room and the studio as he pushed the group to try new rhythmic approaches and added layer after layer of instrumental flourishes.

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“Guys, we don’t have to copy Phil Spector on this,” Wilson shouted over the studio monitor during an early take of ”˜Take That Away From Me.’ “It’s too monotonous, come on, now. I don’t want to hear boom-bam-boom-boom. Make it interesting. Get some guts into it”¦ Don’t let me down.”

In less than an hour, ”˜They Can’t Take That Away From Me’ morphed from a gentle love song into a rowdy party track, punctuated by a horn-propelled breakdown to which Wilson later added ”˜Help Me, Rhonda’-style vocals. “Sometimes the sort of brilliant and unexpected simplicity of the way he thinks about music is what’s cool,” says Paul Von Mertens, Wilson’s longtime horn player, who co-arranged the album. “Really, if he lifts a finger, something very cool usually happens.

“I couldn’t see this being a standards album like Rod Stewart or someone would do,” Von Mertens continues. “That stuff is fine, but it’s not what Brian does. I think we can only play how we play as a band.”

Wilson has plans to tour in 2011, but he’s currently taking some time off. “I’m laying low a little bit right now,” he says. He’s spending time writing new songs and working with a vocal coach. “I can go up pretty high now,” he says. “I really have to work on it or my voice just locks up.” In the afternoons, he enjoys listening to SonicTap’s 60’s Revolution on DirecTV. “It’s all hits of the Sixties ”“ CSN, the Supremes, some Beach Boys like ”˜I Get Around,’” he says. “The Doors ”“ man, they were incredible. I wish I got to see them live. I had the chance. But I didn’t go.”

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The other day, Wilson heard the Beatles, which made him think about the historic Beach Boys-Beatles rivalry. “Sgt Pepper ”“ what a record!” he says. “People say that record was influenced by the Beach Boys, but I do not hear one single note of the Beach Boys on Sgt Pepper. Not one single note. Inspired, maybe. Influenced, no.”

Wilson says he stays in shape by eating right and exercising six days a week: “They say if you eat a lot of blueberries, you’ll stay healthy, so I’m doing that ”“ I’m doing whatever it takes.” Still, he admits, approaching 70 worries him, and he’s been thinking about what happens when you die. “I don’t know why,” he says, “but my feeling is that you just come back again. And you live exactly the same life.

“You can’t even really fix things you did wrong the first time,” he says. “You do everything exactly the same. So it’s a good idea to enjoy your life now.”

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