This week I watched the 2014 film about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys – “Love and Mercy”. I had only been peripherally aware of the story and found it fascinating. Wilson was the creative leader of the band behind such great pop tunes as “Surfin’ USA”, “California Girls” and “Fun, Fun, Fun”. Then in 1964 he had a nervous breakdown and stopped touring. He concentrated on working in the studio and wrote & produced the “Pet Sounds” album, generally recognised as one of the greatest records ever made. He then started on what he saw as his legacy – “Smile”. It was never finished as a Beach Boys album. His mental illnesses and use of drugs had caught up with him and his genius had turned to madness.
Wilson is now diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, an illness that amongst other things, gives him auditory hallucinations (voices in his head) . He also used a great deal of psychoactive drugs. He credits his illness and these drugs for helping him write great music. He is famous for long, complex sessions in the studio where he would bring together arrays of musicians to build the layered sound that became his trademark. If you listen to “God Only Knows” for instance, you can hear such weird instruments as orange juice containers, and Wilson uses two different musical keys at the same time. Without much doubt he is a musical genius.
But I also listened this week to his 2004 version of the “Smile” album he never finished with the Beach Boys. It received great critical acclaim, but I found it hard to listen to. Lots of great musical ideas mashed together. Like eating ice cream, a curry and pasta all at the same time.
During my life I have only a few times worked with creative geniuses. And each time I have found their strong emotions to be unnerving. Perhaps because as a white middle class Brit, my own emotions are so stunted. I could never allow myself to get that close to mental fragility to release the best of my creativity. That is certainly a gain for me. I wonder if it is also a loss.
What do you think? Do you need to be at least a little mentally unstable to create great beauty?