The Kennedy Center

Brian Wilson


Brian Wilson (Composer, singer; born June 20, 1942 in Hawthorne, California)

He is rock and roll's gentlest revolutionary, and the songs he wrote for The Beach Boys have been among the most joyfully influential and exhilarating vibrations in the history of music in our time. There is real humanity in his body of work, vulnerable and sincere, authentic and unmistakably American.

"What Brian came to mean," said the Velvet Underground's John Cale, "was an ideal of innocence and naivety that went beyond teenage life and sprang fully developed songs-adult and childlike at the same time. There was something genuine in every lyric." The long-lingering effects of his music have been as varied as they have been surprising. "Brian Wilson is one of the greatest innovators of my decade or any decade," said Burt Bacharach. The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan praised Wilson's "idealized pop utopia that widens the senses and soothes the ears." Leonard Bernstein once singled him out as "one of today's most important musicians, a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future."

That future arrived in all its sunny California splendor with The Beach Boys, the group Wilson co-founded and for which he created the bulk of his music. It arrived with Pet Sounds, an unexpectedly ambitious album that at its heart revealed a heartfelt coming-of-age elegy for lost innocence as well as a stubborn refusal to be jaded. Nothing like this had ever been heard before in American pop. Long after Brian Wilson and his brothers started jamming out the definitive sounds of surfing, fellow American composer Philip Glass looked back at Wilson's historic significance: "Pet Sounds became an instant classic when it first appeared," said Glass. "Listening to it today, it is, perhaps, easier to see why it was one of the defining moments of its time, along with the music of The Beatles, Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead: its willingness to abandon formula in favor of structural innovation, the introduction of classical elements in the arrangements, production concepts in terms of overall sound which were novel at the time-all these elements give Pet Sounds a freshness that, 30 years later, is immediately there for the listener." It always will be, it seems.

Wilson's pocket symphony "Good Vibrations" frequently has been hailed as the greatest single of all time. "Smile," which began as Wilson's self-proclaimed "Teenage symphony to God" emerged as a mature and complex artistic statement of existential uncertainty in today's world. The ineffably moving "God Only Knows," recently revived as the theme for television's hit "Big Love," fused love and spirituality with unembarrassed ease. "California Girls" remains decade after decade the happiest of West Coast teen anthems. "Fun Fun Fun," "In My Room," "Surfer Girl," "I Get Around," "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" and many more all written by Brian Wilson are simply timeless.

Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys were the happiest bulwark against the cultural onslaught that was the British Invasion, not only holding their own on the charts but also making sure that the influence went both ways: The Beatles' Rubber Soul may have provided the impetus for Pet Sounds, but Paul McCartney himself has acknowledged that it was Pet Sounds that "was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper." At the ceremony inducting Wilson into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame, McCartney called Wilson "one of the great American geniuses" and paid succinct tribute to his friend by saying "Thank you, sir, for making me cry."

Brian Douglas Wilson was born on June 20, 1942 in Hawthorne, California. On Labor Day weekend in 1962, with their parents away on vacation, Brian and his younger brothers Dennis and Carl used the $250 the parents had left them for food to rent music equipment; and they tried out recording an original tune with their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine. They got busy with "Surfin'," making history by singing the musical praises of America's newest teen craze from California. The sound was unique: equal parts of Chuck Berry's assertive bounce and The Four Freshmen's seductive and intricate harmonies, woven into a colorful tapestry of youthful sounds the likes of which the world had never heard. It is one of music's most fascinating ironies that Brian, unlike his bona fide surfer-dude brother Dennis, was in fact not a surfer-he was scared of the water.

A local independent hit soon led to a Capitol recording contract and a frenzy of releases, as The Beach Boys became America's band. And even when The Beatles released their landmark, pensive Rubber Soul-signaling a new seriousness in pop music-Wilson and The Beach Boys came up with Pet Sounds in 1966 and ushered in a new era of their own. This was the living soundtrack of the transition from the Kennedy era through the Vietnam War, right through the trials and triumphs of an entire generation.

Album after unique album, from group miracles to the later splendid solo efforts, from Surfin' Safari, Little Deuce Coupe and Pet Sounds right through Surf's Up, Smile, What I Really Want for Christmas and 2007's That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson has stayed true to his calling. Now, as surely as in his 1962 Surfin' Safari, he remains a charismatic troubadour singing out the meaning of being young in America. "We wanted to bring some love to the world," remembered Brian Wilson. "I thought we were good at doing that." God only knows, that's true.

September 2007
Brian Wilson