No matter how famous an artist becomes, no matter how many times the word "genius" appears alongside his name, there's always at least one or two older artists who can turn him into a quaking, screaming teenager.
Even Brian Wilson is no exception
"Chuck Berry and Phil Spector taught me rock 'n' roll," said Wilson, the creative soul of the Beach Boys. "I learned how to write rock 'n' roll songs from Chuck Berry, and then I learned how to produce records from Phil Spector."
Wilson is calling on a day off from his new tour, which comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday. It is a sprawling show, with two sets and multiple encores, that sees Wilson backed by a band that reviews have called "impeccable" and "spectacular." The two-hour concerts are peppered with some 40 songs, from the Beach Boys' biggest hits to cuts from Wilson's 2010 tribute to composer George Gershwin.
Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is the first of two albums he's releasing via Disney Records (the second, a collection of cover songs from Disney films, is done and could be released this year, he said). "We tried to do the best justice we could to all the songs, for the younger generation."
In addition to Gershwin, Wilson has found inspiration in another legend in recent years: Paul McCartney.
Pop folklorists have heard this one before. It was the Beatles' Rubber Soul that inspired Wilson to write his mad-genius masterwork Pet Sounds, which in turn inspired the Fab Four's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Wilson doesn't go to many concerts, but he has seen McCartney a few times, most recently about a year ago in California. Like Wilson, McCartney these days has taken to performing blockbuster, marathon concerts full of his oldest, greatest hits.
"They're fantastic concerts. Unbelievable concerts," Wilson said. "I met up and talked with him before and after. I'm a little scared of him, but I like him a lot."
I'm a little scared of him. It's a funny little phrase. And when Wilson says this, in his tender, weary murmur, you can't help reflecting on the fragility of his mind and persona. At age 69, he can still sound like a gossamer young man overwhelmed by drugs and the burden of his own creative genius. He said he remains deeply affected by the 2006 death of his longtime therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. "He was my life's teacher, my manager and my friend all in one," he said. "So it just devastated me when he died."
I ask Wilson if his songs have a different meaning today than when he wrote them, especially since he now sings all lead vocals, and not one of his former Beach Boys bandmates. Like God Only Knows: Originally sung by Wilson's younger brother Carl, who died in 1998, it is now a highlight of Brian's live shows.
"When I do God Only Knows, it takes me back to the day that I recorded it," he said. Asked to explain, he only says, "It's a sentimental song about my brother."
Though pressed to explain further, Wilson doesn't really turn reflective during the conversation, resulting in a 10-minute string of clipped, vague answers. But he seems hopeful that his music and concerts can still help fans understand who he is.
"It's hard to explain, you know?" he said. "I try to sing it the way that I think people would want to hear it. I hope that the audience can appreciate where they're coming from."
Wilson is not a sonic sentimentalist, preferring ProTools and digital recording over the analog tapes used in the '60s. "All things in their right time, you know?" he said.
Though his production methods have changed, Wilson said his songwriting process has remained about the same — aside, he said, from the pace at which he writes.
"The '60s songs came faster," he said. "Today, the songs don't come quite as fast. Now, it takes two weeks to a month to write a song."
That still seems pretty fast.
"I do it until it feels right," he said.