In which some old, old feelings meet new context
Maybe it was the gummi bears.
When I sat down with a bag of Haribo Goldbären to Love & Mercy, the biopic covering (in)famous periods in the life of Brian Wilson and the career of The Beach Boys, I thought about how this piece of work had eluded me for almost seven years until my family absolutely insisted I see it. And it may have been the childlike choice of snack, or the memories it evoked of my own growing-up with an equally musical sibling and some dark nights of the soul, that made sure the film hit me as hard as possible. Like, walloped me.
It was the kind of pain you don’t feel at first; there was an initial surface sadness, but the real ache set in over a couple days and has stayed. An ache for the suffering I saw depicted and for a lot more besides. An ache tinted with rage. I’ll explain as I go.
I don’t even usually cry at movies. In fact, I take issue with the supposedly tear-jerking elements in a lot of movies (don’t get me started on The Fault in Our Stars). But this was a different beast.
First off, I was once again reminded of that phrase from Ecclesiastes that I’ve always held true—to everything there is a season—by a current of events that had borne me to this emotional moment. A mere forty-eight hours before my movie night, I’d had a phone conversation with a friend who shares my interest in the theories and practices of mental health. She and I often parse the philosophies we’ve picked up, the benefits and drawbacks of therapy, and so on. But this talk was particularly intimate. We both cried. I marveled at my luck to have such a stable, patient, and healing influence in my life. I very nearly called my mom afterward to declare that her once socially-maladjusted daughter had ‘made it.’
My watch history was also on trend. Between this film, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, and the historical drama The Danish Girl, I had inadvertently crafted a syllabus of multigenerational mental-illness studies. These protagonists—only one of whom is fictional, and even then semi-autobiographical—perceive themselves to be psychologically divergent or disturbed, and have that self-image affirmed by certain external forces. They battle disbelief, gaslighting, neglect, and even a simple unfamiliarity with what they are and what they need. They win out, but almost necessarily at great personal cost.
If nothing else, this blog has been known to platform the intersection of music and mental health. Which doesn’t hurt.
While there is much I could say about Love & Mercy itself, I’m more interested in talking about the broader picture it paints regarding both this individual and the wider problems he encounters. If I tried to say everything I want to about both, we’d be here all day. Basically, we observe Brian in two different stages: younger, creating Pet Sounds with his highly insular family (plus a coterie of confused and probably exhausted session musicians) and still trying to please his unreasonably threatened dad; and several years on, finding new love with Melinda Ledbetter but having swapped out his dad for the equally controlling yet uniquely horrible Dr. Eugene Landy. Landy has misdiagnosed his patient with schizophrenia—he actually suffers from schizoaffective disorder, which incorporates key aspects of bipolar disorder—and severely over-medicated him.
Relationships with authority/parental figures are complicated, as real-life Brian has demonstrated. Nothing is necessarily entirely forgiven or entirely resolved. The film makes it seem a little more cut-and-dry than I think it was, because films do that. From whatever angle you look, there’s a whole lot to unpack.
I started from a personal place, because that’s the only place I can start. Even if I’ve never experienced symptoms of either of the above disorders (voices, dissociative episodes, identity-based illusions), I can understand why the people who had watched me grow up might think of me when they saw this. I’ve always been more neurotypical than neurodivergent, but with enough anxieties of an intense enough pitch to feel set apart. In my childhood these anxieties manifested externally in matters of friendship and acceptance and internally in patterns of extreme perfectionism; and, facing these demons in a school environment that lacked the resources to handle them, I suffered. I could tell you some things that teachers and classmates said to me. But this isn’t really the place.
I’ll also note that one’s parent need not be a deadbeat like Brian’s for one to be obsessively interested in impressing them.
As I grew and appeared to mellow out (and practiced crafts that responded to these insecurities, such as music, theatre, and writing), I took the criticism leveled at me throughout my earlier years and internalized it. I learned to cherish a destructive narrative that I was broken. That—having once been high-maintenance from a physical standpoint, when I was so small that I could not possibly have fended for myself—I was now high-maintenance from an emotional standpoint, struggling with seemingly basic interactions and juggling my own and others’ disproportionate expectations in social situations. I thought no friend or romantic partner would have reason to stick around for the long haul, after my charms wore off and they witnessed the less palatable parts of me, parts for which I could not forgive myself. I told myself these things up until quite recently, and I have been in some form of therapy pretty regularly since I was ten.
All that said, there has never been a pharmaceutical component to my therapy, nor have I ever been diagnosed with a clinical condition. I know many people, from friends and acquaintances to favorite podcasters, who do live with conditions that necessitate medication, and who sometimes fear that these medications (often depressants) will kill their creative spark. They believe, to speak in very reductive terms, that their illness breeds their genius, and that feeling balanced or regulated or ‘okay’ will inhibit their artistic productivity. The crazy informs the work. Art is pain, and pain is art. Right?
More on that in a minute.
On a brighter literal note, I did discover that I know Pet Sounds as if the sheet music were in front of me. (Sheet music? For a Brian Wilson composition? LOL, you fool.) Over something like a decade and a half of listening, having been given it for Christmas at an age when my music-appreciation brain was more Hilary Duff than Harry James, I’ve absorbed the placement of each instrument and voice with a level of accuracy that it took this film to highlight. Not that I could even name all the instruments there—session drummer Hal Blaine plays finger cymbals at one point??—but I could tell you the pitch they’re playing!
Talking about Pet Sounds is, to some degree, like giving a shout-out to the sun. I return to it with ever-intensifying interest to the point where its innovation-yet-accessibility and complexity-yet-simplicity honestly fucking enrages me (in a good way). Its atmosphere is so exuberant, one of such chiaroscuro, that it’s all the more jarring to juxtapose against the pain its creator was only just beginning to contend with. It goes to show that you never can tell what’s happening beneath the surface.
Which brings me to my other overarching point: the myth of the tortured genius.
Nowadays the term ‘genius’ may be applied too liberally for its own good (let me call out my dad for his sneering at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s MacArthur Genius Grant). But Brian, I think, possesses an incontrovertible genius. His ability to conceive and arrange amazingly layered music without so much as writing it down really has made him a modern-day Mozart. Or Tchaikovsky. And Pet Sounds is at the center of the discussion, for nowhere (except “Good Vibrations”) is that genius on more complete display.
Ironically, at the time the record celebrated its half-centennial a few years ago, I was in Salzburg visiting the homestead of the actual Mozart. Thankfully Brian has stayed with us longer than Wolfie.
Although the compositional process isn’t portrayed in the film, we know that Brian sought lyric-writing assistance from an adman named Tony Asher; it’s his words we hear on songs like “God Only Knows,” in addition to contributions from regular lyricist and irritating cousin Mike Love. Asher would later remark that his impression of Brian was of “the single most irresponsible human being [he’d] ever seen,” with his house in disarray and other indicators we’ve been taught to attribute to those types. Brilliant people aren’t good at ‘normal’ things, and so they neglect them. Right?
Asher also referred to himself as the mouthpiece through which the ideas of Brian Wilson found voice. In other words, it may be his text, but they’re Brian’s thoughts. Hardly surprising. What wrecks me about the album from a textual standpoint, though, is that its lyrics (“That’s Not Me,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” etc.) suggest a writer who has already had a reckoning with himself—when in fact the writer’s big reckoning was just around the corner. How comforting to know that you can feel yourself at rock bottom with the worst still yet to come. *eye twitch*
I identify with Brian’s fixational nature. He allegedly listened to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” a hundred times a day upon its release, trying to puzzle out Phil Spector’s production technique. (Is Brian Wilson a classic culture slut? My theory is proven!!) My inner circle, if that’s the term, knows when I’m into something because it’ll be all I talk about for a while. I once delivered a kitchen-table lecture on the Beatles and was asked, good-naturedly but in these words exactly, to shut up.
Oh, and I identify with him on two further points: 1) the at-least-occasional wearing of glasses; 2) the decided lack of cheekbone definition. Soft-faced nearsighted artists of the world, unite!
When a brilliant person gets into the ‘zone’ like that, they need to be left alone to follow their latest thread of greatness. Think of 1945’s Rhapsody in Blue, in which Robert Alda’s George Gershwin has two relationships which end because the women believe they are only standing in the way of his full potential (not because maybe his sexuality doesn’t accommodate them, but that’s another story). Against this standard, a girl can’t help but feel that she had better have something to show for her kitchen-table rambling, had better transform it into evidence of her own brilliance, or else she doesn’t deserve to take up that space in the world. Right?
If these scenarios strike you as increasingly irrational, there’s a reason. I have been mulling over how to express my views on these subjects for several weeks now, and I fear the presentation is no less jumbled out here than it is in my head. All of this is to say that Brian’s story infuriates me on behalf of everyone who has ever been told what to feel, how to feel it, or that their feelings are illegitimate. It also drives home to me the idea that we as a society glorify the myth of the tortured genius to the extent that we reject concrete forms of help in the hopes of shooting for that abstract glory. While awareness of mental health and illness is widespread in a way it was not fifty years ago, we have a long way to go in terms of how our systems—medicine, finance, the workplace—address and treat it.
Oh God, now I have to go listen to the album again. In spite of everything else, it makes me bizarrely happy.
Image: Vox—either poor Al grew a few inches or (my guess is) they made him stand on a box