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It Wasn't All Fun, Fun, Fun

A Life in Measure

Lunchtime at the Beverly Glen Deli in a Hollywood Hills strip mall. It's gray and gloomy outside, not one of those splendid, sun-kissed Southern California days the Beach Boys liked to sing about. Wilson has taken over a back booth and asked you to sit to his left; he can't quite hear if you're on his other side. "I was born deaf in my right ear," he says.

Yet another cruel irony: Somebody who has composed, produced and performed so much superlative music -- all those shimmering songs with stunning chords and heavenly harmonies -- can't fully hear his own work. Very, very Beethoven. (Except that Wilson is more like the Mozart of pop, and openly admits to having borrowed from Bach in crafting the opening bars to one of his signature Beach Boys songs, "California Girls.")

Wilson is slurping down tomato juice and ignoring his single scoop of tuna salad. He knows the deli's staff by name because this is part of his daily routine. He's a complicated man trying to lead an uncomplicated life, which makes it easier to cope with both his illness and the immense pressure that comes with being Brian Wilson. "I feel like I have to keep proving myself," he says. "I find that to be one of the biggest challenges in my life, trying to keep living up to my name."

So. There are walks in a nearby park; sessions at his Yamaha keyboard; visits with his vocal coach; rides in his Mercedes -- sometimes to pick up his children at school (he and Melinda adopted two girls and a boy). "There's really only five or six things in my life that I do every day," he says.

There's something unnervingly childlike about Wilson. He seems to be 65 going on 12, particularly when he laughs. It's the uncontrolled cackle of an adolescent: loud, excessive and unbridled, without the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

He can be every bit as uninterested in self-reflection as a child, too. There are, apparently, topics that interest Brian Wilson (cars, chords, British concert audiences) -- and then there is everything else. Discussing his own life and emotions, he can be stingy, even cagey, his answers terse and evasive. He blames it on his inherent shyness. Plus, he's still learning to communicate after growing up in a family that didn't do it particularly well.

Q: Do you feel like you missed out on your childhood?

A: Oh, no. I had a good childhood -- except for my dad beating me up all the time.

Q: When you started out and were writing those happy-sounding songs, was that some form of emotional escapism, given the difficult relationship with your father?

A: Possibly. Partially in some ways, yeah. Maybe.

Q: How so?

A: Yeah.

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