Lying in Bed, Just Like Brian Wilson Did

Photo by Richard King.
Photo by Richard King.

I heard it again, I don’t remember where: isn’t amazing how the Beach Boys could make all that beautiful, harmonious, uplifting music while their front man was so depressed?

Wilson’s mental illness is legendary. The Barenaked Ladies famously penned a song about his breakdown: three years in bed gaining weight and doing drugs, possibly being exploited by his therapist. The exact meaning of the song escapes me now although it is playing nearly constantly in my head, especially the refrain: lying in bed just like Brian Wilson did, lying in bed like Brian Wilson did. Is Steve Page admitting to some melancholia, some distress, or just a bleak period in his writing? Or is he trying to say something about Wilson rather than himself, or even about the culture at large?

This is not my immediate concern. What I am thinking about right now is the idea that Wilson was brilliant despite his psychological problems. What if his widely acknowledged brilliance is less in spite of his depression and purported mania than part of the whole package? His suffering, his internalization, made him a mind-blowing composer and writer and an innovative producer; they also made him self-destructive and prone to dangerous melancholy. Like Don MacLean says of Van Gogh: “I could have told you, Vincent, this world was never made for one as beautiful as you.” I suppose it is possible to create beauty by contemplating happy thoughts and being straight laced and stable, but the best art, the most profound art, seems to come from this other place.

A hurt, heartfelt, suffering, lonely, reaching-out, isolated, unique, universal place; a place where love and pain are one thing; a place where we ache to die because living makes us ache. Wilson’s subject matter was about girls, sunshine, surfing, blue skies, innocent love. But listen to the haunting harmonies and melodies and hear him crying, crying out. Pain and beauty are not mutually exclusive. They are practically the same thing.

How many of our favorite artists experience “mental illnesses” like depression or bipolar disorder? And how many cannot work if they are treated or “cured”? Art is a razor. On the one side is the expression of what is important, of what the rest of us cannot see without the artist. And on the other side is death. How many have cut themselves?
When somebody makes beautiful things—or ugly ones that call out to us—should we worry for them? Should we try to hear the pain behind the melody, entwined in the harmony? Or should we just accept the gift of beauty we have been given? What would be the cost to us if we intervened and cured our artists of their hurts, those who are hurting? What would be the cost to them?

— Jason Dias

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