I always thought Brian Wilson was an interesting character. His music was eponymous with a certain era of American sensibilities, and was even ahead of the Beatles in terms of his studio prowess. Yet he’s also a classic example of a man driven to madness from substance abuse after being fractured by a well-meaning friend.
Imagine if you will that you have a very close friend. Others could describe you as rivals, but it’s friendly. You’re buddies and you work in the same field, trying to poke each other to work better. You’ve just done a bit of that one-upmanship, and you’re both working on your newest work. One day, your friend comes over to your house and shows you a copy of his newest work – and it blows you away. It’s just that good, and you look at what you’re doing, and all the trials and tribulations, and wonder – were you beaten?
That’s basically what happened to Brian Wilson when Sir Paul McCartney played a tape of A Day in the Life for him. McCartney and Wilson were friends, and Wilson was already having issues at the time. Smile, his latest album, was falling apart, there were tensions in his band and family, and creatively he was on shaky ground. The tipping point was Paul, which I always thought was quite fascinating.
I think it was Wilson’s realization that he could not beat The Beatles at their own game anymore. The Beatles had four musical geniuses, and The Beach Boys had one. The Beatles were all on board with the direction of the band (for the most part), while Mike Love resisted and sent Smile into an abyss as a Beach Boys project. Brian had a Herculean task to try and match the Boys from Britain. The Beach Boys sunk into nostalgia, while the Beatles went on to become perhaps the biggest act of all time. I always wonder what would have happened if Brian had finished Smile in the 60s and how much the landscape of music would have changed.
Creative processes are a funny thing. Some seem to just be able to crank out work consistently well, and others burn out and fade away. I’ve always had a kind of respect for both types. It takes a lot of talent to put out consistently good work, yet there’s a very fine line between being perfunctory and genuinely good over long periods of time. On the flipside, you can have a high peak and be done without anything else to tarnish your legacy. If you can have one solid, focused work, and it’s some of the best work ever done, how would you top it? Fail, and you tarnish your original work and yourself.
I think, in the end, whether you fail or succeed, it’s important to put your creativity out there to be tested by others. It’s easy to make something and just say “it’s great” to yourself, but that’s not what creates true greatness. Even if you’re bad at what you do, I do have some modicum of respect for people who put themselves up for criticism. Just be sure you can take said criticism, or you’ll lose that ounce of respect I had.