Tuesday, 28 January 2014



Towards the end of 1996 and in Los Angeles I had the most surreal day of my music fan/journalistic life - breakfast with Iggy Pop at the Chateau Marmont, lunch with Neil Diamond at his studio, a phone interview with Jeff Buckley and then in the early evening I was in a taxi to . . . Brian Wilson's house. This is my original account of the experience which appeared in various forms in The Melbourne Age and other publications. And yes, I still have the tape of Brian at the piano and I haven't copied it for anyone.

The strange and sorry saga of Brian Wilson is one of the most intriguing and bizarre stories in the history of popular music. Is Wilson completely crazy - or one of the towering figures of rock and pop music, a figure to rival Bob Dylan, Phil Spector and Lennon & McCartney? Is he both? These are questions that have obsessed both fans and rock critics for the past two decades.

For many years Wilson was the creative genius behind the Beach Boys, the American surf music band who rivalled the Beatles in terms of popularity and chart success with songs like Surfin' Safari, Surfin' U.S.A and Surfer Girl.

During the early to mid '60s Wilson composed, wrote, arranged and produced some of the best known and most sublime pop records ever recorded - In My Room, Don't Worry Baby, The Warmth Of The Sun, Fun, Fun, Fun, Help Me, Rhonda, California Girls, Good Vibrations and dozens of others. 

Put simply, the other Beach Boys were little more than a medium for Wilson - something that's obvious when one listens to the turgid records they've made in periods when he has not been working with them. They recorded Kokomo without him. I rest my case.

The Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds album was essentially a Brian Wilson solo project and almost 20 years later was still voted number 1 last year in a poll of the best albums ever made conducted by influential English magazine Mojo. 

By the time of Pet Sounds' release Wilson was starting to go more than just a little crazy. Increasingly estranged from his fellow Beach Boys, who wanted to continue with the surf sound that had made them household names and immeasurably wealthy, Wilson pursued work on a  projected album entitled Smile, a truly adventurous, mind bogglingly complex album that was totally unlike anything the Beach Boys could contemplate recording.

Legend has it that at one point Wilson burnt the tapes of Smile and the album has still not been released in its entirety, although various 'versions' are widely bootlegged. (NB: This was the case at time of writing - SC)

From this point Wilson's life became the stuff of legends. For starters he decided he didn't want to tour with the Beach Boys any more. Increasingly obese there are stories of him buying his own supermarket so he could shop at any time of the day or night. Other stories had him writing and recording with his feet in a sandpit constructed in front of his piano. There were addictions to alcohol, cocaine, amphetamines, sleeping tablets, heroin and serious intakes of marijuana and LSD. Nervous breakdowns, paranoia, hallucinatory visions . . . basically Brian Wilson was a physical and emotional mess for the best part of the next twenty years and rarely sighted in public except for the occasional disastrous tour with the Beach Boys, preferring to spend most of his time in bed.

Then there was the famed intervention of therapist Dr Eugene Landy, and on-again-off-again relationship with the Beach Boys, and ongoing legal brawls with his brothers and cousins who still functioned as 'the Beach Boys'. 

Eventually, and most people believe it was for the best, Landy was removed from Wilson's life and rumours began circulating that the pop music genius was finally starting to return to some sense of normalcy.

Whether that was true or not was something I was destined to discover for myself early one evening a few days before Christmas as a taxi drove me up into the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles where I'd been granted a rare audience with Wilson. Interviews with Wilson are scarce - let alone an invitation to visit him at home.

Home for the last seven months has been inside an enormous estate full of houses worth at least several million dollars each, entrance through massive gates only being granted after security guards have checked the occupants of each car and cleared admission through the particular house owner.

Wilson, 52, lives in a massive white two story mansion with his new wife, Melinda Ledbetter, a California girl five years his junior. The door is opened by an assistant who points me to a room on the left where Wilson is sitting in a large armchair. Nearby is a giant white grand piano.  He says hello, shakes hands and motions for me to sit on some cushions, literally at his feet. 

Glancing around the opulent surroundings it's impossible to ignore the fact that each visible room has at least one, often two, floor to ceiling Christmas trees.

Initially Wilson appears perfectly ordinary, a big man who looks healthy and acts congenially. But why is he clutching this big pillow over his stomach which he never removes? And why, every six or seven minutes, does he stop mid-sentence and stare at the ceiling for thirty seconds or so before regaining his concentration and asking me to remind him what we were talking about? Is it something to do with the cans of Diet Cherry Cola (yes, you read that right) that he slugs on throughout the conversation. These are little mysteries that are never answered.

Aside from these minor aberrations, couple with a rather tangential response to questions, Wilson seems in good shape - and certainly in one of his most creative periods of recent years. Last year saw the I Wasn't Made For These Times documentary and the astonishing accompanying soundtrack album with Wilson and co-producer Don Was brilliantly re-recording versions of many of Wilson's pop gems. Then there's Orange Crate Art a collaboration with the equally eccentric Van Dyke Parks, which is a  truly strange and beautiful record that seems to come from another time and place.

"He wrote all the songs and he arranged all of it and produced it - and I sang it," says Wilson of Orange Crate Art, the first time he and Parks have worked together since the days of the Smile album some two decades ago.

"He was very happy with my vocals," Wilson continues. "He said, 'you're the greatest singer in the world,' and I went 'WHAT, WHAT . . . the greatest singer in the world . . .no way . . I can't sing for shit.' I have a good voice but I don't sing very well. That's okay - that's something I've lived with for a long time. I'm sure nobody would give a shit anyway."

When we met Wilson had just returned from Chicago where he's been reunited with the other Beach Boys and working on a new project - a Beach Boys country album.

"It's the Beach Boys backing up twelve different and separate country artists," Wilson says whilst I'm wondering what a 'separate country artist' is. 

"We recorded eight background things in Chicago - In My Room with my daughter Wendy singing lead, The Warmth Of The Sun with Willie Nelson singing lead, I Get Around With Travis Tritt. Kenny Rogers is going to do Caroline, No. 

"It's the most fantastic album idea that's come along in a long time. It's a very heavy conceptual album that's kind of like bringing people together. That's the power of music. It's also very frightening for me. I've never done anything like this in my life and I wouldn't know where to start."

This new album is scheduled for release mid-year, but Wilson reckons it might even be finished earlier. Before then there's a few other guest vocalists they want to enlist.

"We're going to try and get Dolly Parton who I adore," Wilson says before articulating exactly what it is that attracts him about Dolly.

"I think Dolly is one of the greatest . . . of course, very big breasts . . . very alluring . . . she's a very alluring girl. And maybe we'll get Julio Iglasius."

What about George Jones, I venture.

"Who . . . maybe . . . is he a country singer?"

Informed that The Possum is in fact probably the greatest living country singer on the planet Wilson goes, "Oh yeah, right, right . . . and what's that guy's name who was Entertainer Of The Year for two years . . . Garth Brooks. We're going to try and get him too. Can you imagine us with all those country people? CAN YOU IMAGINE IT? It's almost impossible to understand. I think it'll be wonderful."

Indeed it might. After the interview, whilst Wilson is in the next room banging away on the piano, his wife takes me into a music room to play me the Willie Nelson contribution which is truly breathtaking. As are a bunch of rough demos of new Wilson songs that she puts in the tape machine before explaining that this year might also see a version of Smile, interpreted by a symphony orchestra, released. She also tells me that in the New Year the Beach Boys are going to Europe to record a version of Fun, Fun, Fun with Status Quo. Go figure.

Wilson seems genuinely excited about working with the Beach Boys again - something that seems all the more remarkable when you consider they're probably the most litigious and, at times, downright nasty family in popular music. Christ, the make the Jackson's seem positively fun lovin'.

"Yeah, yeah, yes, YES, it's very good," gushes Wilson about the reunion. "The guys were all just very good and practised and they knew all the songs because they'd been doing them on the road for 33 years.

"It was basically a test to see if we could still hang together - and we passed the test. We passed with flying colours. I'm cool . . . I'm in one piece. . . I've been around. It was tough for me to be with those guys. We've got a lot of memories, a lot of bad memories of course . . . we never broke up but we might as well have broken up, the way we got along with each other. But that's all in the past. I was happy to go back there and work."

Good golly, Wilson's not even dismissing the possibility that he might perform live again as a Beach Boy. but there's something about his manner that suggests it's a long shot.

"Oh yeah . . .depends how it feels. If it feels lousy I probably won't but if it feels good I'll do it."

Does he miss the onstage experience?

"No," he laughs. "No.  I never did. Mike (Love) always scared me. I've always been afraid of Mike. He's good at it. He scared me. I think I'm better off at my piano than I am onstage because at my piano I can write a song and keep busy and keep my head into something."

I remind Wilson of the last time I saw him in Australia. It was 1978 and I'd gone to the airport in Adelaide to see the band arrive - but really only to get a glimpse of one of my heroes.

"It was very weird," he says softly. "I had a nervous breakdown on the airplane. I felt like I was falling through the plane . . . I was thinking, 'my head is gone here', but I got through it and that was 17 years ago. How old were you then."

Wilson explains that he's writing a few new songs. There's one called Turn On Your Lovelight and he's working on a version of Proud Mary, the Creedence Clearwater classic.

"We're doing a version of it," he says. "The boys haven't put their voices on it yet. It's going to be like . . . I'll show you. Bring your tape recorder over here."

Wilson walks to the piano, plonks my tape recorder on it and starts hammering the keys and singing "rolling, rolling down the river . . ." If there's a heaven I'm at least temporarily there. Finishing the song Wilson gently reminds me that he woudn't like to think that I'd sell that tape. He's as aware as anyone of the amount of money that can be fetched for something like an intimate home recording of his.

Throughout the conversation there are the occasional glimpses that things are still not exactly wired up correctly in Wilson's head. At one point he asks me if I smoke cigarettes. Telling him I do and that I have a packet in my bag if he'd like one he looks furtively around to the other rooms with the panicked look of a 12-year-old caught with their first Playboy. "I'd really like one," he whispers. "But I'd better . . . I'd better not . . . I've given up."

Later, when asked whether he thinks the reason he and the other Beach Boys have had so many problems over the years had something to do with them starting at such a young age and having little protection from the star making machinery, Wilson drops his voice so it's almost inaudible. Demons from his past are obviously flooding back, even after more than four decades, as he recalls he and his brothers being beaten by their father Murry.

"Yeah," he says. "I was a little insecure when I was younger. My  Dad knocked the hell out of me so much. He used to whip me. He would take his belt and we would have to drop our pants down to our shoes and then bend over the bathtub and he would wack the hell out of us. He'd start with me and then he'd go to Dennis and then he'd go to Carl. 

"When it came to Dennis he whacked the hell out of him . . .he whacked me real hard but he killed Dennis, whacked him harder than us. He's barely wack Carl. He hated Dennis the most, and he hated me second, and he hated Carl third. But once in awhile he'd really lay on me strong and he'd take that strap and he'd wack the hell out of my arse and, man, it hurt and I cried and cried. It was like the scenes in our house, they were so terrible and we couldn't do anything about it. We were all getting all beat up and getting knocked around."

After that we keep talking for another half hour and then I bring up the 'great lost' Smile album. Wilson says he doesn't know exactly what's going to be done with it. "They'll fix it up."

So he didn't, as legend has it, burn the tapes? Wilson becomes very quite.

"No . . I wanted to . . . but I didn't."

Then, even more subdued. "I'm going to have to say that this is about as much as I can do . . . I gotta . . . I need to make some calls" he says before getting up and walking from the room. A minute later, having obviously not been on the phone, he reappears, seeming more cheery, and asks if I'd like a drink. An affirmative is greeted with him yelling to someone in the kitchen, "GET THIS GUY A DIET CHERRY COLA."

Later, whilst I'm sitting listening to the new material, Wilson's again banging out Proud Mary on the grand. He walks in at one point and I remark that I've never seen so many Christmas trees in one house. Wilson looks at his wife and smiles. "We've still got one to put up in the bedroom tonight," he says, before strolling out and returning to the piano.

I remark to Melinda that it must be disconcerting trying to listen to music with Wilson playing piano so loudly in the next room.

"Oh, it's okay tonight," she smiles. "Usually he has the jukebox going at the same time."

Welcome to Brian's world. He's trying but obviously wasn't really made for these times.


Thursday, 2 January 2014


The first time I set eyes on Allen Ginsberg was in the basement of the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco in the early 1980s when I was on tour with the Hoodoo Gurus. I thought of saying hello but figured he must get tired of that so in the same way that Jim Carroll used to follow Frank O'Hara around the streets of Manhattan during O'Hara's lunch break, trying to see what the great poet saw, I kept a distance as I trailed Ginsberg around the shop, looking at the books he was looking at. Early in 1997 I finally had the opportunity to interview Ginsberg. As it turns out it was shortly before he died so this is one of the last interviews he did. This is the full, unedited version of the piece which later appeared in various publications.

"He died several years ago, but I had a very interesting dream, a very brief dream," says Allen Ginsberg when asked about his early mentor, Carl Solomon, the man to whom his most famous poem, Howl, was dedicated. Solomon originally wanted to publish the works of Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac before his New York publishers told him he was crazy. Like the young Ginsberg, Solomon was no stranger to the inside of a mental hospital.

Ginsberg was happily chatting at his New York apartment less than a month before his sudden, but not totally unanticipated, death aged 70 on Saturday April 5. He had suffered from chronic hepatitis that eventually led to cirrhosis of the liver.

A diagnosis of terminal liver cancer was made eight days before Ginsberg's death, with initial media reports suggesting that the poet and activist had between four and twelve months to live. Ginsberg slipped into a coma the day of the news. The day prior he had written about a dozen short poems, one of the last being entitled On Fame And Death.

Ginsberg was no stranger to the media circus but had done few interviews with the Australian media over his career and had only visited the country once. In this encounter what had started out as a brief twenty minute interview to coincide with his musical performance The Ballad Of The Skeletons, which had recently been voted number 8 on the Top 100 songs of the moment as voted by listeners to youth radio network Triple J, turned into an hour and a half encounter with Ginsberg ranging over his poetry, the infamous Beat Generation, contemporary poetry, his feelings about Buddhism, Aboriginal musicians, Chinese politics, blues music and his love life.

"I met him in the afterworld and I said, 'well, how is it there?'" Ginsberg continued, speaking about Solomon in a manner which, in hindsight, seems rather prophetic. "And he said, 'it's OK, you get along just like in the mental hospital if you obey the rules' and I said 'what are the rules?'. He said there are two rules: ' First, remember you're dead; second, act like you're dead.'

"And I woke up laughing. He said two days before he died 'I have life insurance but I'm dying'. It was a very courageous death, I must say. He was very much with it, even with his cancer. So we had a memorial service for him.

"The funny thing is that most of us are all together after thirty years. I see Gary Snyder, who has just finished a huge project that he'd begun working on some 30 or 40 years ago, so we had a big banquet together in San Francisco. I saw McClure and Philip Whalen and I see Diana DePalma at Naropa, and Gregory (Corso) here and Kenneth Copeland and I have John Ashbury's job at Brooklyn College. Peter Orlovsky is just around the corner. We have supper every three nights. (John) Giorno is further downtown."

Aside from a vigorous social life, right till the end Ginsberg maintained an astonishing work schedule. A volume of Selected Poems was released earlier this year, as was his The Ballad Of The Skeletons which was recorded with a variety of musicians including Paul McCartney and Philip Glass. This year has also seen a book called Illuminated Poems, Ginsberg's mid-1950's Journals and at the time of the conversation he was working on a book of essays from the '60s through to the '90s and was about to edit a collection of selected interviews. And as if that wasn't enough Ginsberg was planning an MTV 'Unplugged' musical performance to capitalise on the success of The Ballad Of The Skeletons.

"Next year they're bring out The Lion For Real from 1990," Ginsberg continued. "Then I have a book of photographs over the last ten years. There are a whole bunch of photos from India in 1962, the negatives of which were lost for many years and have now been returned to me. There's also a lot of '50s and '60s photographs that have never been seen. There's quite a lot of stuff to do. I'm working with Philip Glass. We had an opera out you know called Hydrogen Juke Box. There's also a new version of Howl coming out with classical music accompaniment."

And it didn't stop there. After the interview Ginsberg was heading out to sign copies of his astonishingly large photo collection. In fact Ginsberg maintained arguably the most comprehensive literary archive of at least the last fifty years with some millions of photos, letters, journals, poetry and paraphernalia sold two years ago to an American university for in excess of $US2 million.

If Ginsberg knew that his days were numbered it wasn't obvious. Certainly he'd had periods of illness over recent years but aside from his myriad of projects he was already committed to returning to Australia early in 1998 for the Adelaide Festival Of Arts.

His last visit to this country had been for that festival in the early '70s when he did a variety of readings and performances including the one he recalled most where he appeared at the Adelaide Town Hall with a group of Aboriginal singers and musicians, something he appeared to remember with absolute clarity some 25 years later.

"I met (Russian poet) Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Adelaide and there were other poets from around the world but they had ignored completely Australian Aborigine's songmen," he said. "Some professors in Australian Aboriginal lore had invited a few Aboriginal song men to the university to sing in their class, to sing to the children and to see if the children would respond to the songs that they sang. But then the Aborigines didn't have enough money to get back home. So I said that I was happy to share my evening session at the Town Hall and they could have my receipts. That was so successful that we did another one at Port Adelaide Town Hall."

Surprisingly these readings were amongst the few things that weren't preserved in Ginsberg's archives, the poet being delighted when I offered to send him copies of the tapes I had of these occasions. There was a genuine delight that, albeit rough, these recordings existed and could be added to his collection.

It's an understatement to suggest that Ginsberg was the most influential American poet of his generation, possibly of the last century, but something that separated him even further from fellow wordsmiths was that, like Burroughs, he was an astonishingly accomplished and powerful reader of his work. That's best heard on the four CD collection Holy Soul Jelly Roll - Poems And Songs 1949 - 1993 which was compiled by Ginsberg and producer Hal Willner and released in 1994.

The collection contains many of Ginsberg's classic readings, but peppers them with lesser known performances, particularly a reading of Howl that, whilst suffering in quality by comparison with the original, completely impassioned version released in the late 1950s on Fantasy Records reinforces that Ginsberg was frequently very, very funny, something that's often not so apparent on the printed page.

"I don't read it that often, maybe one or two times a year when there is a special occasion," Ginsberg explained of his most famous work. "I have developed a certain technique and dynamics for its intonations so it's pretty interesting."

Equally amusing are early readings of such landmark poems as Supermarket In California and America.

"Those are the very first readings of America and Sunflower Sutra," Ginsberg said of the performances on Holy Soul Jelly Roll. "And it's the very first reading of the complete Howl. It's from a Berkeley reading just a few months after the first reading. The first time I read it I only read Part 1. Then we got together the same poets in Berkeley in a little theatre and (Beat Generation historian and Kerouac's first biographer) Anne Charters was Peter Orlovsky's date. While there she met (blues historian) Sam (Charters). They got married after that. So that was a big day in our minds."

So, did Ginsberg perceive the poem's as being humorous?

"I thought America was humorous," Ginsberg continued. "Well, there is a kind of exuberance in poems like Sunflower Sutra. When you say 'the cunts of wheelbarrow's and the milky breasts of cars', I mean, it's funny. It's sort of verbally surrealistic. But it has an exuberance and a kind of joy in it. The whole thing is about joy, about self recognition. . . 'You were never no locomotive, Sunflower you were a sunflower'. The critics of the day dismissed it because they were so busy nit-picking about dirty words. And Howl itself is very funny.  You know, there's this kind of racid impetuousness. Also again that hyperbolic: 'Starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked.'"

At the time when Howl was written Ginsberg was, with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, a third of the unholy trio that became known as the Beat Generation. They were intertwined with the likes of Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Hal Chase, Lucien Carr, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McLure and an array of fellow travellers, some of them phenomenally talented, others grabbing on the coat-tails of what was not then but later to be perceived as a significant sub-genre of American poetry and prose of the late 1940's and '50s.

Kerouac died in 1969, Corso's output is increasingly sporadic, Snyder became a committed Buddhist and maintained a low profile whilst the majority of others are notable predominantly for their presence in photos with The Big Three. Now, with Ginsberg gone, only Burroughs remains of the essence of the Beats. Until the end the two maintained an enduring friendship.

"I was with Burroughs a couple of times this year," Ginsberg said." I stayed with him in his house. I cooked breakfast for him. We'd talk over the newspapers. Sometimes I'd take a lot of pictures of him and keep the tape recorder on for a couple of hours at a time. I see him all the time."

Given Ginsberg's candid approach to the conversation I decided to take a chance and ask about whether he thought Burroughs deliberately shot his wife Joan in the head in Tangiers in the mid 1950s. This infamous incident involved Burroughs supposedly displaying his marksmanship at a party, putting an apple on his then-wife's head, William tell style - but ending up shooting her through the head.

"I don't know," Ginsberg hesitated when asked about Burrough's possible pre-meditation in the killing. "It was just the gun shot - but she was very suicidal. I had been with them, with her, maybe ten days before. I spent about ten days with her and she was in a bad way, drinking and driving cars in a way that scared the kids and me in the back because we were all there, so there was already a kind of dread there."

Then there's Corso who I'd spoken to a year before in a belated attempt to get him to tour Australia with poet Anne Waldman. Corso was frightened about the length of the plane trip to Australia and wasn't in possession of a current passport. I'd suggested to him that I'd try and get Ginsberg to accompany him on the trip if it would make him more comfortable but even that wasn't enough to drag him out of his shared lower-East side abode in Manhattan.

"Oh, he's very busy," Ginsberg said. "He's been writing all these years but is neurotically refusing to clean it up and prepare it. I think he's the poet's poet."

In some ways, despite his lack of literary output, the other famous member of the Beats was Neal Cassady, a veracious writer of sub-Kerouacan prose (little of which has been published) and at various times the lover of both Kerouac (who made him, as the character Dean Moriarty, the hero of On The Road) and Ginsberg.

At the time, thinking about Cassady's personality and Ginsberg's ongoing involvement with rock'n'roll (he recorded or performed with Bob Dylan, The Clash, Leonard Cohen, Phil Spector, and obscure punk band The Gluons, to name but a few), I posited that there was possibly some implicit connection between the Beat Generation and the punk and post-punk generation that Ginsberg realised and had tapped into. I suggested that maybe there was a comparison between the restless spirit of Cassady (who died from heart failure alongside railway tracks in Mexico in 1968) and the suicidal Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Ginsberg didn't totally buy the idea.

"I don't think that Cassady was a suicide," he said. "And I don't think he was so pained as Cobain. Cassady was very exuberant and had a good time. The problem was towards the end . . . the L.S.D. didn't do him any harm. He smoked grass very strongly but I think with all his all-night cross country driving with the psychedelic bus - (Ken) Kesey's (Merry) Pranksters - that he took a lot of amphetamine and he went down to Mexico to calm the nerves and went out walking. I think he passed a Mexican wedding where they plied him with some other things and the combination did him in. He was quite vigorous guy but not so neurotic really.

"But Cobain was a marvellous singer. I hadn't heard much of him until towards the end of his life. I heard his unplugged version of that Leadbelly song and it was such a perfect vocal that I was really moved. It's one of my favourite songs but I only knew Leadbelly's version."

Ginsberg went on to reminisce about hanging out with Bob Dylan,  meeting Phil Spector at his home in Los Angeles on a visit with Lenny Bruce and teaching the producer the Hari Krishna song which later evolved into George Harrison's My Sweet Lord and spending time with jazz great Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot club in New York. Throughout Ginsberg was totally unpretentious. His was simply a life lived in the spotlight and these were his friends, acquaintances and inspirations. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the conversation Ginsberg welcomed the option of continuing talking. We exchanged addresses and he asked how my love life was. I told him it was okay, thanked him for asking, and questioned how his was.

"My love life is OK too," he laughed. "I can hardly get it up but when you're 70 it's hard . . . unless you have somebody being helpful."

So was Ginsberg in that situation?

"I've found some younger chaps or lads quite helpful," he laughed. "There is life after 60."