Brian Wilson and the Foundation of A Song

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

I’ll be the first to admit I was a little slow in developing my musical tastes.  I saw the Beach Boys in concert in 1986 but did not fully appreciate their place in music history or Brian Wilson’s role in the group.  Only later, particularly after the All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson held at Radio City Music Hall in 2001, did I begin to understand Wilson’s significance (if you can find a recording of Good Vibrations performed that night by Ann and Nancy Wilson, Jubilant Sykes, and the Boys Choir of Harlem, listen to it.  Then listen to it several more times.).  The 2008 documentary The Wrecking Crew describes the contributions this stellar group of studio musicians made to classic rock recordings of the 1960s – of all the recording artists the Wrecking Crew worked with, only Brian Wilson came into the studio with entire song arrangements already worked out in his head.

After reading Wilson’s 2016 memoir I Am Brian Wilson, there are a few passages I really wanted to share here.  I feel these are especially relevant to anyone interested in understanding the creative process.

The first passage describes a moment in the 1960s when he composed his first song:

But then one afternoon I was in my car and I thought of a piece that grew into a longer piece. It started out with me humming a Disney song, When You Wish Upon a Star, which Dion and the Belmonts sang. Their record was red like the Harry Belafonte album with Jamaica Farewell. I started humming that, but it changed in my head. It combined with other songs I know, like the Four Freshmen’s Little Girl Blue, and eventually it didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. It sounded like maybe it was my own. I wrote part of it in my head in my car, and then I finished it when I got back to the house. That song ended up being Surfer Girl. It was a slow ballad. The harmonies I heard in it were sort of like the harmonies I heard from the Four Freshmen, but they were only a foundation. I built something on top of that foundation, and it was sort of my own house.

It’s been more than fifty years now, and I wonder all the time about what let me think I could write something of my own, that I could build something on top of the foundation I got from other singers and groups. What made me think I could have my own songs? There must have been something deep inside me, another kind of foundation. Part of it came from my dad, who also loved music and who also wrote songs. Part of it came from all the people around me who loved music and wrote songs. Al wrote songs. Mike hummed things he heard and tried to make them into something. But there was something deep down in there that wasn’t in other people.

“What made me think I could have my own songs?” -Brian Wilson

Another passage, earlier in the book, is something I found especially moving.  It’s almost a call to arms for all of us who feel the creative urge:

Those melodies I’m working with sometimes stick around for a while and become songs. Even if I have a title or some lyrics, I like to bring them to a collaborator to finish. But that first part of the process, the part where I’m at the piano just playing and listening to what I’m playing – that’s the way I discover new songs. What is a song, exactly? It’s something that starts as an idea and becomes more than that. It becomes physical and emotional and spiritual. It comes out into the world. It can soothe you when you’re feeling at your worst. It can make you happy when you’re sad.

But if you spend your life trying to find songs, you realize pretty quickly that you’re not the first. People have been doing that as long as there have been people. And if there are periods in your life when you stop doing it – because something distracts you or makes you weak – you realize how important it is to jump right back into the game. Songs are out there all the time, but they can’t be made without people. You have to do your job and help songs come into existence.

That’s a powerful sentiment.  It’s as thought we not only have a responsibility to ourselves to express our own creativity, but a responsibility to the very thing that will go unexpressed if we don’t.  Imagine if Wilson had tuned out his creative impulses and never written a song.  Imagine if Dorothea Lange had never pursued a career in photography.  Or if James Michener had never written his classic novels.  Or if Brian Wilson had never written his extraordinary songs.  The world would have survived without those works, but it sure wouldn’t have been as beautiful.

Going further, maybe we have a responsibility to a larger community.  In channeling our energies creatively, we can give beauty and inspiration to those around us.  That means you have the ability to lift up yourself and others with your own creative energy.  I can ‘t think of a more compelling reason to pursue your own creative life adventure.

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