Esquire's What I've Learned interviews take the established form of presenting a famous subject's thoughts and opinions without any narrative intrusion from the interviewer on the page. It's simple: we ask a series of personal yet incisive questions and let the answers flow. Unless, of course, our subject happens to be the flawed-genius chief Beach Boy. Hands up — what were we thinking?
"How long's this gonna take, about 15 minutes?"
Not the most promising start to an interview, admittedly, but then it's Brian Wilson. He's been known to leave after five if the mood takes him, and not because he's "difficult", either. Brian just isn't like regular folks. He doesn't mean to be rude, his publicist explained, as she walked me up the stairs to meet him. "He's just not really a words person."
It's an odd experience. We're in the music room of his Beverly Hills home, off Mulholland Drive, and he's sitting on the couch before me, a big man, 6ft 3in, with swept-back silver hair and a loud Hawaiian shirt. Every question I ask is batted back with the briefest of replies — less a conversation as a tennis match — and then he looks at me, waiting for the next one. It's an unwavering look, a little disconcerting but also open and simple, no menace in it at all. He's not annoyed, this is just his way — curt, childlike answers, often no more than an enthusiastic "Yep!" or a "No!" or an "I don't know!"
Writing his autobiography he says was "fun".
Fun in what way? "It brought back memories."
Was there a period you especially enjoyed looking back on? "No!"
Maybe fatherhood is a better topic. Wilson's late father Murry propelled The Beach Boys to Sixties fame as their first manager, but he also beat Brian as a child, arguably causing the deafness in his right ear, and ultimately sold The Beach Boys' publishing rights for a comparatively trifling amount ($700,000 in 1969), denying his children tens of millions subsequently. How does he think of his father now?
"He was a good coach. He said, 'get in there and kick ass!' Yeah."
What about the conflicts, do you think about those? "No!"
What have you learned about fatherhood? "Fathers should take care of their kids."
And so the interview proceeds, in this staccato fashion, awkward pauses and all.
This is how the upcoming I Am Brian Wilson was written — through two years of interviews with ghostwriter Ben Greenman — all of it in Wilson's idiosyncratic voice. But what a story! The sensitive genius from Los Angeles, who at 23 overcame his many insecurities — and opposition from his band and Capitol Records — to compose, arrange, produce and perform one of the most enduring albums of the Sixties, Pet Sounds. And then in the late Seventies and for most of the Eighties, Wilson disappeared. He'd started to hear voices, and fallen under the sway of a sinister, controlling psychotherapist, Dr Eugene Landy, a story best told in last year's movie Love & Mercy. He was the lost icon, a cautionary tale, a tragedy no doubt. But he returned to recording in 1988 and in 2004 finally delivered a rerecording of the shelved (and legendary) 1967 Beach Boys album Smile. This later flurry of musical productivity has seen him release nine albums in the last 15 years. He's still as busy as ever.
But talking about it is not his forte. Here's what I learn. If he had his time again, he'd avoid drugs.
"LSD made me more creative," he says. "It helped me write Pet Sounds. But the voices started after LSD, too."
He still hears the voices. That faraway look he sometimes has isn't because he's stoned, it's because of the schizo-affective disorder – the voices are screaming at him, even while he's on stage.
"They say different things," he says. "Like 'we're going to hurt you'. It's crazy! But not all the time, yeah. Like every other day." Not today, he assures me.
He's happiest at the piano. Music, he says, is joy. It's love. The thing he likes most about dogs is their bark – "it's just such an interesting sound". And the English appreciate his music more than Americans do – "you can tell by the way they clap". He doesn't know what "genius" means. He doesn't know how he lost his fear of flying, either. And don't ask him how he feels about how the world has changed since he was a kid. "I can't answer that!" He doesn't listen to modern music. The Eighties is about as modern as he gets. But he loves Los Angeles, he's never lived anywhere else. What does he like best about it? "The restaurants."
It's easy to feel sad for Brian, the exploited artist, the sensitive boy who, like Michael Jackson, was so traumatized by a violent stage dad that it left him in a state of child-like naivety for the rest of his life. But Wilson isn't fragile or bitter. While so many Sixties icons have gone, he's thriving. "Seriously tough" is how John Cusack described him, when making Love & Mercy.
The one thing he loves to talk about is his daily routine. "I have my breakfast. I comb my hair. And I go to the park and I take walks. And then I come home and watch television. Like the news or Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune."
And then he plays the piano, which "keeps me happy." That's his secret, he says. "My secret is that I don't use drugs and I play the piano."
With that, he puts his hand out. "Want to help me up?"
We've spent 40 minutes together. "I enjoyed this interview very much," he says.
I tell him I'm surprised. People think he doesn't like interviews.
"I love interviews, are you kidding?"
What does he like about them?
I Am Brian Wilson: the Genius Behind The Beach Boys (Coronet) is published in October