My afternoon talking “golden oldies,” giving Brian Wilson a music award

Thinking of day with troubled Beach Boys singer as family enacts conservatorship

I’m saddened but not surprised to hear well-meaning members of Brian Wilson’s family have successfully created a court conservatorship to manage the affairs of the Beach Boys singer, who has a history of mental health issues. I was reminded of the two remarkable afternoons I spent in his orbit at NXNE in 2011.

One of those days, I presented Wilson with a NOW Magazine Special Achievement Award (it ended up being the only one we ever gave out), and the next day I saw him masterfully function as a band leader at a Massey Hall rehearsal on show day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Beach Boys lately, having previewed the upcoming Disney+ doc, The Beach Boys, as well as having interviewed Mike Love this week in advance of the series release. (NEXT Mag story coming next week.)

Wilson was playing Massey Hall the same June weekend as NXNE in 2011 and, eager to link the star with the festival, we concocted the award hoping to make a connection — and it worked. Wilson’s team agreed to have the singer accept the award on the Friday afternoon at NXNE’s headquarters at the Hyatt  Regency ballroom the day before his Massey show.

I convinced Jim Cuddy to present the award, and we all eagerly headed to the Hyatt to meet the singer before the event. Cuddy’s entourage grew to include his son, Sam Polley, as well as Blue Rodeo guitarist Colin Cripps. Meanwhile, NOW’s entertainment editor, Susan Cole, tagged along with me.

As we entered a backstage area, off the maze of hotel conference rooms, Wilson was seated at a table with a guitar player from his band and a Massey Hall handler. My friends hung back. Wilson greeted me warmly and politely as “Mr. Hollett,” the way he would refer to me the entire time.

He had a red Sharpie in his hand and was consumed printing on a massive sheet of paper, the kind a primary school teacher might use on a pad in front of a class. I would later grab a better look at the masses of printed words, all caps, and see that they were addressed to me, “Mr. Hollett,” and appeared to be remarks or a thank you note — though the note was never read and the remarks were never given.

He spoke patiently and seemed engrossed by the answers of others. We were all somewhat timid, not wishing to scare “the deer” back into the woods, and I was left to do most of the talking. Wilson’s warm responses eventually emboldened others to join the conversation.

Wilson spent time talking about California, his favourite cars to drive and how he was enjoying his current tour. It became clear the guitar player was also “a handler,” closely watching Wilson for clues of an unspoken need, offering a name or a detail in the conversation when Wilson would be briefly stumped.

As we listened to Wilson describe driving around L.A., he suddenly barked the word “scratch.” Wordlessly, the guitar player moved behind Wilson and started to scratch his back, continuing to participate in the conversation with no acknowledgement of his current extracurricular task.

“Down” Wilson would bark, continuing his comments while the scratcher adjusted his scratch. “Middle” came another command, and all assembled carried on the conversation, no one acknowledging the psoriasis-relieving session in progress.

When asked what his favourite music to listen to was, Wilson instantly answered, in a serious tone “golden oldies” and listed his favourite L.A. stations to hear them.

When it was award time, I and a handler led the way through the catacombs toward the rear entrance of the hall we would be presenting the award in. Wilson chatted with Cuddy and crew as I piloted the way through twists and turns. As we arrived at the edge of the backstage area, we confronted a mildly big step, about 18 inches.

“That’s going to be a problem,” the handler declared, and my stomach sunk, had we hit the dreaded roadblock?

“Can we just each take an arm and give him a little boost?” I asked hopefully as the entourage started to catch up, and I surveyed what seemed like a modest “climb.”

“Nope, he won’t do it; a problem,” he repeated his warning. My eyes darted around, and I saw some newspaper bundles, my old friend! I quickly grabbed the blocks of print and crafted a make shift additional “step” to reduce the hike up for Wilson.

“That’s okay,” I was told, just as Wilson caught up and stepped up onto the stage, all of us still behind a curtain.

I stepped out in front of the podium, making a few remarks to the dozens of people in the room, including explaining that I couldn’t really predict what was coming. I introduced Cuddy, who made a few respectful comments about Wilson and how much his music meant to him. Then Wilson came out from behind the curtain to rapturous applause. He stepped towards Cuddy, grabbed the award, muttered words that were probably, “Thank you,” turned and left.

That was it. I made a pathetic joke about Wilson being “as advertised.”

The next day, NXNE responsibilities meant I couldn’t spend Saturday night at Wilson’s Massey Hall show and was kindly invited to soundcheck that afternoon. And it was magnificent. I got to see Wilson at the height of his competence, and confidence, as a band leader. He was running the band through Wouldn’t It Be Nice when I entered the hall. He was demanding and clear in his direction to the band and singers, forcing them to work on the song through numerous takes. He was behind a keyboard, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, all the time playing chords and giving orders.

Wilson switched to working on Good Vibrations with his band, and I felt as if under a spell. And “Mr. Wilson” was totally in command — in his happy place, for sure. Wishing Brian Wilson and his family the best during these challenging times.

— Look for Michael Hollett’s interview with Mike Love and review of the documentary The Beach Boys next week at