I send the same question to my best bud, a musician, at least once a year:
“After spending so much time and emotional energy on the masterpiece that is “Good Vibrations,” do you think Brian Wilson hates performing it, or worse, seeing it performed live?”
Usually something witty follows – like “…seeing it performed live at 1.5x with a band of Hawaaiin shirts (and sometimes Uncle Jesse) so that they can get to “Surfin Safari” quick enough to appease the white zinfandel drunk aging out of middle age ladies dancing in the audience?”
Honestly, I have asked him this question no less than six times over the years. Maybe now it’s become kind of a joke. But in reality, it’s something I think about a lot.
I really started thinking about it after I watched “Love and Mercy” (which you should watch twice in a row if you haven’t seen it yet) and watched Paul Dano recreate the orchestration of “Good Vibrations” in a way that made me excited and nervous and sad all at once – and just weeks later watched Mike Love slither through the same song on a trembling pier on the Atlantic in front of hoards of Chardonnay soaked, sunburnt women in poly blends.
The whole sequence of events really made me think a lot about how upsetting the process of creating can be, about how upsetting the process of living can be. And why sometimes the most creative people are also the saddest.
If my parents did one thing well (they did a lot of things well) it was to instill in me a great love and knowledge of music. I don’t think they did it on purpose – they weren’t the kind of parents who pulled out an album and explained the detail of the recording, of the history. But my mom’s love for disco and show tunes was contagious and my dad’s early onset hipness and eagerness to listen to and share anything birthed from the industrial folk complex and/or a product of growing up in the Mid Atlantic during the 70s was unmistakable.
Both of my parents are very cool and their musical tastes reflect this. The best compliment I’ve ever received was from a gentleman in Ogunquit Maine, where we both sat around a piano drinking cocktails singing along with the pianist. He said “I’ve never seen anyone who knew the words to as many songs as you do.” So maybe by accident, but thanks to my dad’s 6 CD changer full of Wilco, Pearl Jam, The Pulp Fiction Soundtrack, John Hiatt and Bruce Springsteen and my mom’s vinyl collection defined to me by the Cats original broadway recording, Donna Summer, Bette Midler and of course the entire Beatles Catalog, I’m pretty well versed in the music of the past 75 years. And for that I will be forever grateful.
Oddly, I don’t have very much recollection of The Beach Boys or Brian Wilson growing up. To grow up in such a musically inclined (dual) household and nary a peep about Brian Wilson until I found the 1996 CD cover of pretty much universally loathed “Imagination” on the floor of the back seat of my Dad’s car is kind of weird. Now I understand why no one liked it, but in 1996 when we listened to it in my Dad’s red Honda Civic, I was really taken by the oddities of his voice. It was akin to the first time I heard Chrissy Hynde on the radio. “I’ll Stand by You,” is in no way the best Pretenders track, but it will always be my favorite because it was my first. Everytime I hear “Lay Down Burden,” I get a little teary. Judge me, please.
As an aside – This was before the time of instant gratification in music. So at ten, instead of asking any questions about where else I might enjoy this new voice in my life, I used my allowance to buy “Pocket Full of Kryptonite” and the single cassette of “Mister Boombastic.” But, like Edith Piaf, Je ne regrette rien.
My mom as I recall, hated The Beach Boys, a feeling that was I’m sure a product of her alternative high school education, the abyss of mind alterers available to her and a great distaste for anything “conventional.” I have a pretty clear recollection of being at a fourth of July party early, early on in life – lots of red, white and blue, maybe some Zima (not for me, I was like 4) and my mom saying something to the extent of “ugh, the Beach Boys.” I don’t know that my dad ever really had any opinions. So I asked him.
He said “I don’t hate The Beach Boys. I think over the years they became kind of a joke. IMHO Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys and the various incarnations without him were a joke. Pet Sounds is a great album and, if you get the chance you should listen to The Smile Sessions.” Which of course, duh, Dad.
One of the albums that did get a lot of play on that 6 CD changer was “Rock Spectacle” by The Barenaked Ladies. It opens with “Brian Wilson,” which as a kid was a fairly benign track about a name that I knew I should know but didn’t know why – with a catchy opening and a reprise full of percussion that could get a minivan full of kids engaged and excited before there were individual screens to take care of that. Also say what you will about the Barenaked Ladies, but I love them, I danced at my wedding with my dad to “If I had a million dollars,” and like The Counting Crows, I will defend them to the death.
But now, as I think back, I believe the first time I was exposed to depression as I would experience it later in life. Depression in the context of culture, of having to keep moving until you are drowning, of having to drag yourself out of bed in the morning so you can fulfill obligations, so you aren’t lying in bed like Brian Wilson all day.
I have dealt with sometimes crippling anxiety for my entire life, but recently my new therapist made the suggestion that I am severely depressed and remarked that I very well may be in the midst of multiple existential crises. Darlings, I can tell you that it is a truly terrible feeling to have so much but still feel like you need to achieve so much more to live up to your own expectations of yourself, all the while feeling sad, fatigued and unable to thrive in any kind of meaningful way outside of true obligations.
One of my favorite coping mechanisms is thinking about other people’s state of emotions. Mostly it’s because I don’t want to deal with my own, but I also think that sometimes it’s easier to think about my own in the context of successful people dealing with the same things I am.
Brian Wilson is potentially the greatest musician of our time. Fame. Success. Innovation. But he still ended up obese and horizontal. For a long time.
Lately, it’s been harder than usual for me to get out of bed, to write anything, to cook, to do anything that has at anytime defined me, or to think in any kind of linear way. I don’t really know who I am, and am feeling a profound loss of identity, creative and otherwise. And so while I would never compare myself on as a creative person to Brian Wilson, I do think about him a lot. And I wonder if maybe he stayed in bed because he didn’t know who he was when he got out of bed? Maybe he was scared that when he got out of bed he wouldn’t be able to match what he had done before he got into bed? Sometimes I think about Brian Wilson and if he felt like I feel now. And I think that he probably felt worse. And sometimes I think about Brian Wilson and how he feels watching his precious memories become obtuse reflections in the distance. And sometimes I think about Brian Wilson and wonder if he still feels like life is hard enough that maybe some days he’d rather stay in bed.
Most days I try to talk myself out of all this, and most days it has nothing to do with Brian Wilson. Most days, it’s just me, wondering how to reconcile my minor successes in life with my constant conflicting desires to lay flat and look up at the ceiling and push myself to produce anything creative, even if it’s just a blueberry pie. What does it take to feel good about what you’ve done and not overwhelmed by what you haven’t? And when does the desire to strive outweigh the inability to?
You guys, mental health is no joke. There are a lot of words above, but I want you to know that if I’m struggling in this way and still have the ability to post photos to social media about how great my life is – there are others in your life who are struggling too. It’s not an easy world to live in today. And I hope that if you’ve made it this far you might call a friend, or give someone a hug and not wait for them to ask you to do it.