Buzz Knight 00:00:01
Taking a walk with Buzz Knight. Author David Leaf. How, a first class writer, producer, director continues to celebrate the genius of Brian Wilson. On this episode of Takin A Walk we welcome Peabody and writers guild award writer, director, author, UCLA professor and author of the new book” God only Knows: the story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and the California myth”. Hello, David. Welcome to taking a walk.
David Leaf 00:00:37
Hey, Buzz, it’s great to be with you, and I sure wish I was out there right now with you. I can see the foliage and everything. It looks pretty terrific.
Buzz Knight 00:00:46
Oh, so nice having you on. What is it like being the authority on someone considered a genius by fans and a massive music community?
David Leaf 00:01:00
I think Brian Wilson is the authority on Brian Wilson through his music. I believe that everything we really need to know and feel about Brian Wilson, we can get from listening to his enormous body of work. And I’m really just an obsessive fan who wanted to know more, who wanted to kind of know everything there was to know about him, so I could share those insights with similarly obsessed fans, what we’re often referred to as Brian eastas..
Buzz Knight 00:01:34
You’ve spent a vast amount of your life being close to this amazing man and his music, and then your approach with this new project and with the new work associated with the past work is really quite intriguing, and it’s filled with so much love and passion. What drove you to take on this chapter, if you will?
David Leaf 00:02:04
Well, you know, when I wrote the original book and thank you for what you said about the new edition, the original book was written by a 25 year old journalist who was obsessed at both getting at the truth and kind of grabbing the world by the collar and saying, hey, would you pay attention to this guy, Brian Wilson? He’s really important because I felt that the Beach Boys image had subsumed him. He had been caught up in this kind of fun in the sun, car, girls and the beach, and it had nothing to do with really why he mattered to the world of music and why he matters to the world in general. This new edition came about, in a sense, almost by accident, because I wasn’t planning on writing it. I wanted to really do an anthology of everything I had written on the subject, including the original book, but the publisher wasn’t interested in that. He said, we’d love to bring out your original book if you’ll do what they referred to as a massive update, so that people would feel who had the book from would feel they were getting something worth buying. It, in a sense, two books for the price of one. And what I was able to do. I think. In the new addition is look back as an elder statesman on the journey I had gone on with Brian since the book had come out and give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be inside his world. To not just be the fly on the wall. But a participant in a lot of it from the point of view of both a friend and sometimes a collaborator.
Buzz Knight 00:03:49
Talk about the friendship aspect of it, which is so significant and so beautiful that you write about and obviously as part of your life, and you obviously had some business sort of relationships in that regard with Brian as well. But can you talk about the difficult balance around the friendship and the fact that when writing this, you certainly have to be careful about not betraying that friendship?
David Leaf 00:04:21
The friendship was, like Brian’s life, a roller coaster. He went through some extraordinarily difficult times during the first decade or so that I knew him. He was under the control of a so called doctor. When that period ended, brian refers to it as if I was in prison for nine years. So when a friend of yours is in prison, it’s pretty difficult to maintain the friendship and at the same time try to help promote who he is in the real world. Stockholm syndrome. A little bit of a very difficult maneuvering to put the friendship first and foremost. And that’s really been what it’s all about. The times that he and I have worked together. My late wife was very smart. She said you can never work for Brian Wilson. Everyone who goes to work for him eventually no longer becomes his friend. They’re an employee. So I never worked for him. A record company might hire me, or I might get a television network or a studio to finance a film or a project about him because for some reason, it became my mission in life to promote his genius.
Buzz Knight 00:05:49
And you’re talking about that era around Dr. Eugene Landy?
David Leaf 00:05:54
Buzz Knight 00:05:55
Which, my God, we had known about it to some degree. There was some writings about that when that emerged around that time, certainly, and it was quite shocking then, but then going deeper and understanding it certainly through your lens. What a terrible time for him.
David Leaf 00:06:15
It was a terrible time for a lot of reasons. But I think that now that we can look back on it, Dr. Landy did two things that no one would have anticipated. When he was hired, Brian was in a death spiral when Dr. Landy was hired. The second time, something had to be done. I was not a family member. I was not in a place where I could do anything. So the Beach Boys hired Dr. Landy and gave him total control. The first time he had been hired, he didn’t have total control. This time he was given total control, and he was indeed able to save Brian’s life. Could someone else have done that? I believe so. But that’s as Brian’s late brother Carl said, when the prayer went out, dr. Landy’s the one who answered it. So he saved his life. But then he did something that The Beach Boys were not expecting. He took Brian into a solo career. And I don’t think that would have happened with under any other circumstances, because The Beach Boys business up until that time depended upon Brian Wilson being part of The Beach Boys. When they signed a contract with the Columbia Records in the late 70s, it specified that a certain number of songs on each album had to be Brian Wilson songs. So he was crucial to the ongoing business. When Dennis Wilson died, they needed a Beach Boy on stage. And there’s Brian. They needed Wilson Brothers on stage to call it the Beach Boys. So he was part of the family business. Dr. Landy took him away from that. He did it terribly. I mean, he was just impossible to deal with. And we all did our best to get past this. He wasn’t a snake in the grass. He was a snake in plain sight. But Brian is really the ultimate survivor. If you ask him, where does he get the strength to do what he’s done? Because he’s now 80. He says, My last name is Wilson, so I guess I have a lot of willpower. And to create great art, it doesn’t come out of happiness. And so Brian, from the time he was a child and was abused, he’s gone through this terrible emotional beating, if you will, and he’s expressed it in his music. And he created these beautiful melodies and harmonies that we get to enjoy. And the depth that’s in them, that makes them timeless, comes out of the pain that he’s experienced.
Buzz Knight 00:09:08
You know. I was thinking of another artist. Rick Danko from the band. Obviously the subject of the song Stage Fright. And thinking of Brian’s difficulties. Obviously. Around that. And then thinking of both of their genius. Really. In terms of. Just as you said. The pain coming out in such beauty. It’s just striking. Really. The detail that you back up here into the storyline in terms of those challenges.
David Leaf 00:09:42
Thank you. I really was careful not to exploit those difficulties, but only give the reader just enough so they could understand the challenges he was facing as an artist. One could write an entire book, and entire books have been written about The Beach Boys and Brian that do go into kind of the National Enquirers aspect of it. That was not my interest. My interest was in providing insight into this great artist.
Buzz Knight 00:10:16
Can you tell the story of that famous first meeting that you had with.
David Leaf 00:10:21
Brian, the one on the basketball court?
Buzz Knight 00:10:25
David Leaf 00:10:26
So I moved to California, and about eight months after I’d gotten here, I was at the YMCA with a friend from college shooting baskets. My friend Barry and two guys walk onto the court. One of them is about six foot seven, had just retired from the NBA. A guy named Stan Love, who was the brother of Beach Boys lead singer Mike Love and the father of NBA superstar Kevin Love. With him was Brian Wilson. And to say, as the British would say, godsmacked. It was like, of all places to meet Brian Wilson, this was the least likely place, because the legend was according to legend, he never left his bedroom. And here he is at the Y shooting baskets. And more than anything, I couldn’t wait to tell my friends back east, you’ll never guess who I met and how I met him. There was nothing really memorable other than the fact of it, except that he really wasn’t all that interested in playing team basketball. As soon as he got the ball, he shot it. He played no defense. He was all offense, no D. The Celtics would not have been happy with him.
Buzz Knight 00:11:44
But did you think that there were going to be other times you would meet him after that?
David Leaf 00:11:49
Well, I had no idea. Six months or so prior to that, I had run into his brother Dennis on the streets of Santa Monica and walked up to Dennis with great overconfidence and said, hi, Dennis, my name is David Leaf. I moved to California to write a book about your brother Brian. And I think I can still hear the echo of his laugh, because it was an absurd notion, and he just said, Good luck. He didn’t offer to introduce me to Brian or take me to his house or anything like that, because Brian is a notoriously bad interview, and so how was I going to write a book about him? But through a remarkable series of circumstances, within three years of my meeting Dennis on the streets of Santa Monica, I had a book in the stores.
Buzz Knight 00:12:45
Now, when you in 2021 reread your original work for, I think, the first time, tell me how difficult that was.
David Leaf 00:12:57
It’s really difficult to reread the book from the point of view. The book is intense. It’s also dense with information. You wouldn’t call it a breezy read, but it told the story. I was really pleased that I didn’t feel the need to change anything. And I wanted the reader of this new edition to see what I had written back then when I was 25. And bookended with the new material that I wrote last year. The original book. There was one chapter I wasn’t thrilled with. A chapter called Codeta.Which was just kind of just the facts. Ma’am kind of chapter about some Beach Boys history in the late 70s. But otherwise, I felt that I had told the story the way I had wanted to and that it held up. There’s a gigantic author’s note in the new edition where I look back on that 1978 book and talk about things I might have done differently, because there is a tone of kind of righteous indignation, maybe selfrighteous indignation in the original book. And I had to ask myself the question, who was I to say this? Who was I to make these judgments? So I think that the new material is first of all, the new material is more personal. I didn’t have to really interview anybody for the update because of what I lived with Brian. But the original book, and this is really self righteous, I think of it as kind of my Old Testament about Brian, and it has the book of Audrey Wilson and the book of Gary Usher. And all the people I interviewed told me they’re Brian stories. And I was kind of the faithful scribe bringing it all together. This new edition is myself and a few close friends talking about what’s happened since we all got to know Brian and become his friend.
Buzz Knight 00:15:09
Brian has a quote that he gives to his friend Jerry Weiss. I give thanks to every day of life which is so simple and so stunning and so beautiful. Can you talk about things that maybe folks may not know about Brian Wilson?
David Leaf 00:15:29
Absolutely. I think the first thing to know about him that matters is he is the sweetest and most sincere person one could ever meet. There’s not even a mean half of a bone in his body. When he says something, he means it at that moment. And Brian lives in the moment. That’s one of the things that’s unusual about him, is his moods are mercurial. As a person, I think he suffered so much abuse that he just almost like a dog that’s, you know, been rescued from a shelter. He loves kindness, and it’s been very difficult for him to trust people because from the very beginning of his career, there have been people who have worked hard to make money off of Brian. He’s had a lot of disappointments in the people who has known some who’s related to some who he’s loved, who did not put his interests first, put their own interests first. And so he’s definitely been wounded the nine years in prison with Dr. Landy being both the worst emotional wounds, but also Dr. Landy was dosing him with medications that caused incalculable damage to him. But he is intact. He is still Brian Wilson. He knows how much the music has affected the world. He loves how much his music has impacted people. He really appreciates the feeling that he gets back from the audience. He doesn’t always show it in concert, but he loves that vibration. And he’s kind of like a tuning for what is he tuned to? He’s tuned to the station of unconditional love. So he responds to that. His music is filled with that for us, the listener. But when he’s in front of 3000 people and he feels it from them, it’s as great a feeling as he gets, perhaps with the exception of a good piece of cheesecake.
Buzz Knight 00:18:09
And there’s a beautiful picture of you guys at a birthday party. Was that cheesecake?
David Leaf 00:18:16
Actually, it was my 70th birthday party. He and four of his children took me, myself and my fiancee out to dinner. And that was birthday cake in the picture. But he had his own cheesecake for dessert that night as well.
Buzz Knight 00:18:33
I love it. You and I share a mutual friend, the late Pete Fornatale, who I worked with while I did parttime at WNEW FM in New York. Can you tell me what you think, Brian? And certainly The Beach Boys music meant to radio then and now.
David Leaf 00:18:57
In the 1960s, The Beach Boys string of hits, right through Good Vibrations was America’s musical answer, if you will, to the British Invasion and it spread around the world. I’ll never forget there’s something in that music that connects with people who don’t speak English. And we were backstage at a concert in Tokyo and a man said to Brian in very, very broken English, your music makes my heart soar. And I think that’s what his music, the Beach Boy sound, those beautiful harmonies and melodies did for everybody. Their image, the Beach Boys images, is very separate from what the music is. So the music was a mainstay on radio for four or five years in the 60’s then in the early 70s, people like Pete Fornatale were great champions on FM radio of the music The Beach Boys were making as a group, their best albums as a group, which included Brian. But starting with Sunflower Through Holland, FM radio discovered The Beach Boys because they were making FM style music, if you will. And ironically, I started working at WNEW FM in the summer of 1973. I was a desk assistant and it was three or four days after Brian had shown up and been interviewed by Pete. And I remember I was driving in my car and I love to record stuff off the radio and television. And I remember Pete born to say something like and I’ll do a bad impression. Those of you who are regular listeners to the show know what a thrill it is for me to say, welcome, Brian Wilson. And I was like, how could Brian Wilson be on his show? And I spent home and I got a cassette in the recorder and tape the interview and listen to it. And it was just like unbelievable that Brian was there. Now, why was he there? His father had just died and he couldn’t deal with it. So he had gotten on a plane and flown to New York and then three days later, I started the station. I mean, there are a lot of serendipitous moments in my story, for sure, and in my friendship and work with Brian.
Buzz Knight 00:21:38
it’s so funny. So we were both members of the NEW staff. That’s awesome.
David Leaf 00:21:48
It was a great place to work.
Buzz Knight 00:21:50
Oh, my God. And guys like Pete and certainly Scott Muni, the art of the interview, really, they understood it and appreciated it and they created this respectful environment, as you know, with the artists. The artists could feel very comfortable. They could let their hair down, obviously. There’s the famous interview with John Lennon dropping in to see Dennis Elsas. So that was part of a magical period and Pete was a sweetheart. And at the foreground of that, for sure.
David Leaf 00:22:27
Absolutely. Well, the artists understood that the people who were playing their music, and in many cases the only people who were playing their music, were doing it at a genuine passion. They weren’t doing it for ratings, they were doing it because they loved the music and wanted to spread the gospel of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys or John Lennon or whoever it might be. And so there was a response from the artists because they appreciated that their music was being heard.
Buzz Knight 00:22:55
On a previous episode of Taking a walk. a gentlemen, I’m not sure if you know him you probably do, but you may not. Named Bill Poricelli
David Leaf 00:23:03
Oh, I know, Bill. Sure.
Buzz Knight 00:23:05
Yeah. Bill was on Taking A Walk and Bill described this magical scene of observing Brian Wilson in a studio. Can you describe your view of seeing Brian in a studio?
David Leaf 00:23:22
Well, first I got to tell you that Bill Porricelli and I have been friends since 1990, and it was Bill who arranged for me to interview. He wasn’t yet. Sir Paul McCartney. But I interviewed Paul McCartney for a half hour, just about Brian’s Pet Sounds album. So Bill and I have been pals forever. Brian in the studio, he is very calm, he’s a leader, he’s in control. He knows exactly what sounds he wants and how to get them. He knows which instruments he wants to hear, he knows what he wants them to play. He has the record in his head when he walks in there. And now he needs to extract those sounds from the musicians first and then through the vocals. And it’s a fascinating thing to see because it’s a secret nobody knows until he tells you what he needs. And I was having dinner last night with two of Brian’s band members, darryl Sahanaja and Proban Gregory, and we were talking about one of those recording sessions where Brian was telling Proban what he wanted him to play, and Proban gave him two choices and he said, I like the first one. And he knew what he wanted. He’s a master of sound, he’s a master of vibration, and it comes from spending his whole life obsessed with music.
Buzz Knight 00:24:56
How is Brian today these days?
David Leaf 00:24:59
Brian today, he’s 80. What would Frank Sinatra say September. November. He’s certainly in the autumn of the late autumn of his years. He still loves music, he still loves food, he loves Jeopardy, he loves to tour, which is the most surprising thing of all to say, because up until he started touring as a solo artist in 1999, he did not like to go on the road. But he loves to be with his musicians who are really his family. He loves hearing his music played with the heart and feeling and perfection with which they play it. He loves the crowd’s response and he loves ordering a good room service steak.
Buzz Knight 00:25:52
It’s great. You know, he has a great quote about music is God’s voice. And we frequently, with guests on this podcast, talk about why music is so special and what it means and how incredible as a gift it is to us. Talk about it from your perspective on music and obviously the music of Brian Wilson and what it means.
David Leaf 00:26:22
Well, for me, music has always been my secular religion. It’s the place where I went as a little kid with a transistor radio, with an earplug in my ear, to my first record player, to my first records. Music has always been the thing that evoked the most emotion from I knew nothing about Brian Wilson until I read an article in 1971 in Rolling Stone and I was a young journalism student. I had been reading about Edward R Mussrow and was like, I’m going to make it my mission to tell his story. And the reason was the music was so powerful. My first favorite Beach Boys song was in my room. There’s a melancholy to that. And so much of my favorite Beach Boys music now, why that appeals to me. I guess we need a psychiatrist couch to figure all that out. But there’s something in his high falsetto the wine of it, the melody, the harmonies, the way he puts them together, something in all of that that touches my heart like nothing else does. And as I’ve gotten to know Brian through the years, and he’ll say things like, sometimes I sit down on the piano and I feel like, you know, it’s God’s placing my fingers on the keys to place certain notes in making the song. And, you know, when he started work on the once infamous and now famous Smile album, he said, I’m writing a teenage symphony to God. Brian Wilson believes, as you said, that music is God’s voice. And if she believes it, who am I not to go along with that belief? I mean, he knows. I once said, God whispers. And the great, alltime great songwriters, they hear those whispers. Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, so many of the people of our generation, we were lucky to come along in this amazing time of a musical renaissance. And Brian Wilson is right up there with all of them and many of them admire him beyond all measure. And what’s the explanation for it? Well, it’s a gift. Where that gift came from, God only knows. Which is one of the reasons that’s the title of the book.
Buzz Knight 00:29:01
The book is a chronicle of the decade, the people, the emotion and one man’s journey followed brilliantly by David Leaf. Thank you so much for being on Taking a Walk.
David Leaf 00:29:14
Thank you, Buzz. My pleasure. Happy to take a walk with you anytime.
Buzz Knight 00:29:18
Taking a Walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, Fi, Apple Podcast, or wherever you get your podcast.