Former Velvet Underground founding member John Cale and the great mastermind behind The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, are two of the most treasured souls that we need to protect at all costs. This message is a motion that Cale firmly got behind when he paid tribute to his fellow pioneer on the aptly titled, ‘Mr. Wilson’.
The track appears on Cale’s fifth solo album, Slow Dazzle, following his departure from the Velvet Underground a few years earlier. There was no doubt that Cale had indeed come into his own as a solo act and was flexing his songwriting muscles. Lyric-writing opportunities were rare in the Velvet Underground due to the sheer brilliance of Lou Reed. But, within his own canon, Cale demonstrated a deft touch when it came to poetic penmanship.
Some songs are subtle, but there’s no doubt that Cale wrote this one for Brian Wilson. He remains a character that Cale is full of admiration for, but the song is both an ode about his greatness and an exploration of his well-documented flaws. Wilson has been open about his issues surrounding substance abuse and how that scarred his creativity, on the track, Cale is crying out from a fan’s perspective for his hero to make some music as it’s one of the ways he Cale can brighten up his day.
Although the song deals with some of Wilson’s more problematic facets, Cale’s opinion on his peer is as loving as one could get: “What Brian came to mean was an ideal of innocence and naivety that went beyond teenage life and sprang fully developed songs. Adult and childlike at the same time. I thought how it was difficult for me not to believe everything he said. There was something genuine in every lyric. That can be a very heavy burden for a songwriter,” Cale once commented.
On ‘Mr. Wilson’, Cale sings: “Take your mixes, not your mixture, Add some music to our day, Don’t believe the things they tell you, Don’t let them get in your way”. Despite the track being utterly gorgeous, lyrics like that didn’t sit well with Wilson according to Cale, who later revealed that the former Beach Boys man’s opinion on the song got back to him and the tone of ‘Mr. Wilson’ didn’t sit right with the ‘God Only Knows’ singer.
“Slow Dazzle sold best of my solo albums until then. Most of it was written in the studio. My Beach Boys records were my personal soundtrack,” Cale later recalled before discussing the controversial track. “Somebody told me later that Brian Wilson heard ‘Mr. Wilson’ and thought it was ‘sarcastic’, which I can’t really say I understand. I’ll concede a healthy dose of irony, but it’s still a tribute to him.
“Brian Wilson wasn’t too pleased with ‘I believe you, Mr Wilson, I believe you anyway’. But the thing is, it’s about him and the former prime minister Harold Wilson. So either way, I lose with him. He doesn’t want to share a song with Harold Wilson.” Whether the peculiar interpretation came after the word from Wilson isn’t known.
The song came from a loving place, and the last thing that Cale wanted to do when he wrote it was upset one of his great heroes but, it remains a rich piece of Cale’s canon. Although it does seem peculiar to write a song about both of these two disparate characters purely because they share the same surname, the mind of a genius like Cale can, on occasion, be impossible to comprehend.