Thursday, September 12, 2013

Review - "The Wilson Project (2013 Edition)"

As briefly mentioned earlier, I had been meaning for years to read Stephen J. McParland’s “The Wilson Project”, but it was always an expensive proposition (while at other times it was out of print). A new relatively affordable 2013 edition available through made this an easy decision to finally make.

The book is the latest updated version of McParland’s work which previously had been published in several permutations over the years (detailed in an introduction in this new edition).
Simply put, this book is a tantalizing read. If you’re a Beach Boys/Brian scholar, it obviously holds plenty of interest. But even outside of that realm, it’s an intense look at elements of show business, the music business, and good old fashion human drama.

“The Wilson Project” is composed largely from a series of audio diaries (later transcribed) recorded by Gary Usher concerning his work with Brian Wilson in 1986-87. The diaries are both directly quoted from as well as used to inform a running narrative of events. Usher had of course collaborated with Brian in the 60’s on some key early hits. Usher went on to produce and record in the 60’s and 70’s before semi-dropping out of the music scene. By the mid 80’s, Usher had delved back into music and had a small functioning studio adjacent to his home. After pretty much being estranged from anybody related to the Beach Boys for a couple of decades (save a few exceptions, such as producing Bruce Johnston’s “Going Public”, a debacle detailed in this book as well), Usher found himself in 1986 working with Brian Wilson again.
Ostensibly, the idea was to work up to finally launching Brian as a solo artist. Brian had at this stage been under the care of Eugene Landy for over three years, and his estrangement from the Beach Boys was growing as Landy continued to control Brian’s life and career. Landy obviously had less control when projects involved the entire group, so it was for that reason and numerous others that he was seriously pushing to get Brian’s solo career going, while simultaneously keeping a tenuous connection to the Beach Boys due to the prestige and financial support the band and its name still lent Brian.
Simply put, there may well not be another tome relating to Brian or the group that is this detailed about a short period of time. The book basically serves as an extremely detailed biography for a year-long period in Brian’s life. Usher details every session, as well as every phone call, conversation, and social gathering he attended relating to Brian. While the reader of this book is obviously getting Usher’s perspective on events, his perspective seems to be about as objective as one could be when intimately involved in this project. Usher seems to be almost comically level-headed and kind. That is, he contrasts the craziness of the music business and the Landy operation so much, it seems almost farcical. Usher gets involved in the project by writing, recording, and producing demos for Brian, the idea being to work up to actually recording an album. Usher learns how to navigate the minefield of the Landy regime as best as one can, but it is a constant struggle to deal with Landy and his associates, not to mention cajoling Brian into being productive. Usher describes Brian’s condition in detail, and seems very empathetic and even-handed in describing the ups and downs of Brian’s condition. Usher accurately describes that Brian is not the crazy, fully damaged person some seemed to think he was at the time, nor was he a fully-functioning artist with his wits about him 100%.
Usher’s work with Brian intersects a few times with the other Beach Boys, with odd and again nearly comical results. The episode with Usher and Al Jardine regarding a 20-year-old alleged debt comes off like something out of a Spinal Tap movie. When Usher not only has to navigate the minefield of Brian and Landy, but also the other Beach Boys, their manager (Tom Hulett) and producer (Terry Melcher), things get rather interesting.
Those who know Brian’s career but who haven’t read this book will still know how the basic story ends; nothing much came of the Usher project despite all the work done. A few of the written songs were reworked on subsequent projects (“Walkin’ the Line”, “The Spirit of Rock and Roll”), and one actual recording with Usher was released (“Let’s Go to Heaven in My Car”). That leaves the majority of the songs, and nearly all of the recordings made with Usher, as completely unreleased. A good hunk of the material has “circulated” among fans for years, and I hadn’t given this material much listens in years until I got into this book. Listening to the actual material is perhaps one of the only things in all of these episodes that doesn’t paint Usher in the best light. Usher goes to great lengths to describe in the book how Brian’s writing, while showing flashes of excellence, wasn’t at full force, and his commercial instincts for what could be a hit in 1986 were virtually non-existent, and it was in this area that Usher felt he was most helpful. Usher seems to be as proud if not more proud about his writing prowess than his production talents. The recordings we have access to, while demos, do not bode well for endorsing Usher’s abilities. Many of the songs are pure cheese 80’s, both compositionally and certainly in terms of production. Usher seems to be immensely proud of his electronic programming prowess, touting his expertise with the Linn 9000 machine and all the time spent programming sequencing the drum machine parts and synth parts. While the mid 80’s was ripe with this odd fascination with new gadgetry, one is left wondering how anybody felt a cheap-sounding drum machine sound was preferable in any way to using a real drummer. Further, one has to wonder why they were so fixated with spending so much time programming these machines instead of just employing a real drummer playing real drums. As for the writing, some of the material that Usher seems hottest on, such as “Heavenly Bodies”, is not lyrically and certainly not musically interesting. It sounds like a bad 80’s movie theme, complete with era-appropriate saxophone noodling. At one point in the project, Usher is tipped off by an acquaintance about Brian’s 1976 unreleased track “Still I Dream Of It.” Usher loves the song, but wants to re-record it and re-write nearly all of the lyrics. The idea to resurrect the track seems spot-on, but Usher’s lyrics as reprinted in the book are puzzling to say the least. Usher is super well-intentioned, but musically, lyrically, and production-wise, things don't pan out well once you start examining the material.
But I digress. This book is a must-own for fans and scholars. It's also a highly entertaining and intensely interesting read. Brian or anybody for that matter should be so lucky to have someone as apparently kind and level-headed as Usher looking out for their best interests, questionable musical taste aside.

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