Today is Brian Wilson’s seventy-fifth birthday. I’ve talked about him often enough on this blog that it almost seems a ludicrous understatement to say I’m a fan.
But I’d like to explain, since it’s his birthday, what it is that makes him important to me. This is going to be a bit rambling, I’m afraid.
I’d like to say first off that I don’t claim any special insight into Brian’s personality or life — I’ve met him twice in my life — for minutes one time and seconds another — and while I’ve had longer conversations with people who know him, I’ve never enquired about his personal life because that is absolutely none of my business.
But the Brian Wilson who is revealed by his art — who may or may not be anything like the real man — I know him very well. Very well indeed.
My dad has, in his own mind, a special relationship with John Lennon. They’re both from the same city, they both had fathers who abandoned them when they were very small and re-entered their lives in their twenties, and who died without re-establishing much of a relationship. Both their mothers died when they were seventeen. Both were highly intelligent but probably dyslexic, and dismissed as troublemakers at school. And so on.
They’re probably not really anything alike, but there were enough similarities in their lives (apart from the whole being in the Beatles thing) that my dad thinks of records like John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band almost as being expressions of himself. They speak to him on a very personal level that very little else does. And Lennon’s speech patterns were close enough to my dad’s that my wife sometimes gets freaked out hearing him in interviews or session recordings because he sounds so similar to her.
And this brings me back to Brian Wilson. When Holly and I went to watch the film Love and Mercy, a rather wonderful biopic based around Wilson’s life, she got *seriously* freaked out during the scenes where John Cusack was playing the older Wilson. “He’s playing you!” she kept saying.
Now, I share no life experiences at all with Wilson, and have very little in common with him as a person as far as I can tell. There’s not the same parallel there as there is with my father and Lennon.
But there’s *something* similar there. A certain way in which the world has damaged both of us. Possibly a similar neurological condition. A certain view of the world.
Whatever it is, there’s a connection I feel with Brian Wilson’s music that’s deeper than I can express verbally, though I’m trying here. A wounded innocence, an almost childlike attempt to take joy in things that you know will hurt you. A deep lack of self-worth, almost a disgust at oneself for existing. A howl at the injustice that permeates the world. A sense of definite wrongness.
Some writers or other artists have work I can experience and think “yes, this person thinks like me”. Wilson, almost uniquely, has the ability to make me say “this person *feels* like me”. And the music of his I like the most is often not the exquisitely perfect, crafted, music which has gained him critical acclaim — Pet Sounds is an incredible album, of course, but I’d take Smiley Smile or The Beach Boys Love You, or the hissy bootlegs of fourth-generation tape copies of his 1977 demos, over it.
But that’s not to treat him as some sort of instinctive primitivist, an outsider artist. Wilson is often treated that way by the kind of people who want to mysticise mental illness, but while his illness has obviously affected at least some of what his music says (and probably that’s at least in part what I’m responding to) it doesn’t affect how his music says it.
As a composer, arranger, and (at least until the mid 1980s) a singer, Wilson is a consummate craftsman. He is someone who has studied popular music of all styles — doo-wop, jazz harmonies, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, George Gershwin — and created his own vocabulary from those things in a very deliberate, determined manner. He famously said “I’m not a genius, I’m just a hard-working guy”, but he’s both.
What he has to communicate — the particular emotions his music, and only his music, conveys — is innate, and not something that can be learned. But producing something like Good Vibrations isn’t innate. That’s something that requires hard work. And without that hard work, he wouldn’t be able to communicate the emotions in that way. Millions of people undoubtedly feel the way Brian Wilson does, but only he made “God Only Knows” or “Surf’s Up” or “A Day in the Life of a Tree” or “Still I Dream of It” or “Where Is She?”
So… well, I can’t express what Brian Wilson’s music means to me, because I’m not as good at my art as he is at his. But what I can say is that literally nothing in my life for the last twenty-two years, since I first properly listened to Pet Sounds as a teenager, would be the same without his music.
He still tours, and still has the best touring band in the world, but he’s been noticeably frailer for the last couple of years. I’m going to see him again in Liverpool next month, and these days I always wonder if it will be the last time — not because I expect him to die (he’s someone who’s far stronger than he appears — he’s had to be, to survive at all) but because he’s seventy-five, and has more than earned retirement if he wants it.
But selfishly, I hope he doesn’t want it. He still seems to get some joy out of performing, in a way he didn’t before the late 1990s, and his performances definitely bring joy to the audiences.
I’ve been critical, over the years, of a lot of his work — he’s as capable as anyone of turning out a bad or lazy album — but I’ll never be able to criticise him as an artist. For Brian Wilson the artist, and to the extent I can care about a man I’ve never had a proper conversation with for Brian Wilson the man, I can only feel love and mercy.
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