Jesse Jarnow

i know there’s an answer: passing the turing the test with brian wilson (greatest misses #1)

The following Brian Wilson interview (the most frustrating I’ve ever done) was supposed to have been published in December 2005, around the time of the release of Brian’s What I Really Want For Christmas holiday LP. It didn’t, and — as soon as the New Year rolled around and the album’s press cycle ended — it became instantly unsellable. Here ’tis.

I Know There’s An Answer: Passing the Turing Test With Brian Wilson
by Jesse Jarnow

Brian Wilson has a mindblowing deadpan. At least, that’s the most reassuring explanation.

Having unexpectedly returned to the critical and popular limelight last year with his resurrected 1966 masterwork Smile, the 63 year-old Wilson and his associates seemingly achieved the impossible. As if to affirm that assessment, Wilson has followed the final realization of his greatest accomplishment with its polar opposite: an infinitely unassuming, shinily packaged holiday CD titled What I Really Want For Christmas.

While it’s hyperbole to say (as Wilson’s website does) “that it’s not hyperbole to say that [Wilson's new songs] are destined to become instant Christmas standards,” What I Really Want For Christmas — which includes a title collaboration with Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin — is a must-have for anyone who thinks that both Christmas albums and the Beach Boys are pretty nifty ideas. (Others might need more convincing.)

When Wilson led the Beach Boys through the 1964 recording of the #6 charting Beach Boys’ Christmas, it was totally natural. For starters, they were family. Wilson co-founded the band with brothers Dennis and Carl, first cousin Mike Love, and neighbor Al Jardine. What’s more, they were an American family.

“We used to Christmas carol to our neighbors,” Wilson says simply.

What songs did they sing?

“I just remember singing Christmas carols.”

And who was there?

“My family.”

Any particular memories?

“No, we just had a lot of fun doing it.”

“The relationship between the Wilsons and the Loves was very similar to the Hatfields and McCoys,” Love reflected in 2000′s Endless Summer documentary, recalling the legendary Southern families who’d feuded so long that they’d forgotten the origins.

“But there was one time of year [our] families would get together and there was sort of a truce,” Love continued, “and that was Christmastime, when we would do all our Christmas carols and get together musically. After the carols were done, we’d segregate into age groups and do music that was of our time.”

Nowadays, remembering the causes of the Wilson/Love feud isn’t so tough. The Beach Boys’ decades of hits gave way to — like Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums — “decades of betrayal, failure, and disaster.”

The tension has never been far from the surface. During the ’60s, the two went face-to-face over the contents of the original Smile, and by the mid-’70s Wilson abandoned his band amid drug abuse and depression.

There was late brother Dennis’s marraige to (and child by) alleged Love daughter Shawn Marie Love, and the remaining Beach Boys’ 1991 battle to remove Brian from the care of svenghali psychiatrist Eugene Landy. And there was Love’s late ’90s squabble with Wilson over “Good Vibrations” royalties. Just in time for the holidays is Love’s latest lawsuit, this one over Smile (with some nasty words about Brian’s management on the side).

It’s no wonder that Wilson doesn’t want to speak of Christmases past. Is he going to revive the tradition for Christmases future with his family, which — in addition to grown daughters Carnie and Wendy — now includes three adopted daughters with wife, Melinda?

“No.”

Any reason?

“No, no reason, we’re just not going to.”

At its best, What I Really Want For Christmas evokes Christmas in southern California, plastic reindeer strung afront low-slung bungalows, tinsel wrapped about the drive-through at the burger shack. As he has the since ’60s, Wilson faces down pain with elaborately layered harmonies and bouncy organs.

Christmas — his third album in under two years — is the latest in Wilson’s most productive period since his prime. Besides constant touring, Wilson recently offered to personally telephone any fan that donated $100 or more to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Did he have funny conversations?

“No.”

How many people did he talk to, anyway?

“About 10,” Wilson replies earnestly, with what one strongly hopes is extremely dry wit. (According to Wilson’s office, the pledge drive raised $210,000 in donations via over 500 phone calls by Wilson.)

Those tempted to apply British mathematician Alan Turing’s famed test to determine the difference between human and artificial intelligence would be frustrated. Publicly, anyway, Wilson has long championed harmony over intellect. But who needs to answer questions over the holidays when he can just sing, anyway? Surf’s up, mmmhmmhmm.

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