Inside Brian Wilson’s Autobiographical Song for the Doc ‘Long Promised Road’

TheWrap magazine: Co-writer James explains how he based the lyrics to ”Right Where I Belong“ on old interviews Wilson had given

A version of this story about “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The documentary “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” is structured around a series of interviews in which the legendary Beach Boys songwriter talks about his life, so it makes sense that the film would include a new Wilson song that has the feel of autobiography. And “Right Where I Belong” has that feel, with richly textured music as Wilson sings lyrics that seem to reflect on his younger years (“They said go out and get a steady job/That was the worst idea”) and his current days (“I get anxious, I get scared a lot/That’s what I live with”). 

But initially, the idea wasn’t to write an autobiographical song for the film. Director Brent Wilson (no relation) wanted scenes in the recording studio, so he set up a session and asked Brian what he wanted to record. “A rock ’n’ roll album,” said Wilson, who cut oldies like “Honeycomb” and “Little Honda.”

At one point, Wilson began to play a melody he’d written, and his band recorded it as an instrumental, which Brent Wilson planned to use as part of the score to the film. Asked what he recalls about writing the music, Wilson frowned and said, “I don’t remember” — but the director said he loved it so much that he was afraid that using it as an instrumental wouldn’t do it justice. So he approached My Morning Jacket singer Jim James, who had sung with Wilson in the past.

“They told me that Brian was looking for someone to help finish a song he was working on and asked if I was interested… which of course I was!” said James, a Beach Boys fan since he was a kid. “I remember being a kid and hearing the Beach Boys a lot when we would go on vacation, and they always spoke to my heart. It’s forever music.”

It was James’ idea to make the song autobiographical. “It was strange,” James said via email. “It all happened in one night. I was writing and singing along to the guide piano for the track when I had the idea to look at interviews Brian had done and use things that Brian himself had said, while adding some of my own thoughts and words here or there. I wanted to help tell the tale of Brian’s life in a short story within the song, and I thought, ‘What better way than to use some of the things that Brian himself had said.’

“I didn’t know if it would work or not until I heard Brian sing it himself, (but) it brought me to tears the first time I heard his vocals on this song.”

The most intriguing lines in the song suggest that music wasn’t Brian’s first love: “To be the greatest ever center fielder the Yankees ever seen was my ambition,” he sings, “but I got sidetracked into the music biz.” Asked if that’s true, Wilson responds with a quick, “No” – but, in fact, it did come from a 2015 Rolling Stone interview in which Wilson said, “I could run the bases in 44 seconds and throw the ball from center field all the way to the catcher. I wanted to be a center fielder for the Yankees. That was my ambition, but I got sidetracked into the music business.”

But the sidetrack worked out for him. Wilson, whose struggles with schizoaffective disorder and auditory hallucinations are documented in the film, said that he still hears fully fleshed-out vocal and musical arrangements in his head when he goes into the studio, and that recording is something he still enjoys. “I do,” he said. “I sure do.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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