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On writing drunk and getting fit, Brian Wilson charms with nostalgia at the Grammy Museum

January 16, 2009 |  9:45 am

When it comes to living rock 'n' roll legends, few hold as much allure as Brian Wilson. The pop hits, the grand orchestrations, the battles with drugs and mental health issues, the lost albums and the recent career rebirth all make for a compellingly colorful narrative.

None of it was probed too deeply in a Thursday evening discussion and performance at the recently opened Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. But this wasn't a night built to debunk myths. In a swift chat before a brief, 25-minute performance, marked by competent renditions of "God Only Knows," "California Girls" and "Surfing U.S.A.," Wilson had no trouble amusing an intimate crowd of around 200, not to mention moderator and museum Executive Director Robert Santelli.

When asked about the warming synth-pop song "Love & Mercy," a cut from his 1988 self-titled comeback album, Wilson offered a detail about his songwriting at the time. "I had just drunk a half a bottle of Champagne, and I said, 'Hey, I feel like writing a song,'" Wilson said. "So I wrote 'Love & Mercy half-drunk."

Wilson later assured the crowd that such methods hadn't been employed since. But for much of the night, Santelli's questions came fast, and Wilson's answers came quicker. Six decades were covered in a little under 40 minutes, which included a brief time for an audience Q&A with the artist. As for the latter, despite a stern Santelli warning to ask "insightful" questions, the obligatory reveal-the-contents-of-your-iPod inquiry was still raised. But Wilson didn't miss a beat: "About 500 songs."

Indeed, Wilson's answers were direct -- often charmingly literal -- and usually under 20 words. Asked, for instance, to describe his day as a child, Wilson responded with a course itinerary rather than his interests. "I went to school," he said. "First I had Spanish, then I had English, then I had history and physiology and then finally I had physical education, where I could practice football."

In what was the first major public event at the Grammy Museum (a discussion was held last week about the opening of the facility), Santelli worked to keep the conversation centered on how Wilson was absorbing and interpreting the culture that surrounded him at each point in his career. Some moments were more insightful than others. Asked if he took anything from the success and music of Bob Dylan, Wilson was succinct: "Not really."

But Wilson was eager to talk about harmonizers the Four Freshmen, a vocal group formed in the late '40s. Santelli offered to give audience members a quick history lesson on the act, but Wilson cut him off, claiming his fans were familiar with the group, and then credited the Four Freshmen for inspiring the Beach Boys' "In My Room."

The tone was light, even when serious subjects were broached. When discussing the landmark orchestrated pop album "Pet Sounds," which Wilson said was named using Phil Spector's initials, Wilson talked more about the time it took to write the songs than the process itself. About 45 minutes for "God Only Knows," and "four or five hours" for "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

As for his years outside the pop landscape, Wilson said, "I spaced out from drugs that I took." Santelli jumped to Wilson's return to recording in the late '80s: "My wife told me that I had been laying around every day and gaining weight and I had to lose some weight and get back into music. So I did."

Such a simple straightforwardness was reflected in the new songs Wilson performed -- "Midnight's Another Day" and "Southern California," in particular, both from last year's "That Lucky Old Sun." But they weren't necessarily as engaging as Santelli's interview.

Even in the stunningly clear Grammy Museum theater, Wilson was often hidden in the backing vocals of his six-piece band, making him seem like a bit player in his own songs. Rather than swelling to a harmonic showcase, it seemed as if Wilson was singing to a Broadway choir in "Southern California." The lyrics ("Surfers in the West / Sun ran into the sea") and the palpably melancholic keyboard don't help. It's less a song, and more a piece for a theatrical production about Wilson's life.

But perhaps that was to be expected. Santelli, a former journalist, couldn't really get at what continues to inspire Wilson to make music. While Wilson talked about "wanting to keep good music alive," when asked what he still "wants to accomplish as an artist," the musician had nothing to expound upon. "Not really anything," Wilson said. 

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times