For almost four years now, as I’ve completed a second book, 1966 has weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe you were born that year, or one of your siblings was. Maybe you got married then, or your parents did. Perhaps you graduated, or got drafted. Maybe you lost someone—to distance, disease, or drinking; to random violence or Vietnam.
In May that year, The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, an album that received some critical acclaim despite mostly popular failure. Love and Mercy, a stunning biopic about Brian Wilson released last weekend (starring John Cusack and Paul Dano), devotes an amazing amount of detail to the creation of songs for that album. It wasn’t an easy process.
In one telling moment during the drafting stage, Wilson tests out “God Only Knows” on the piano and sings for his father in the living room. “It’s a love song,” Wilson says, only to hear his father spit back, “It’s a suicide note.”
How wrong his father was. Pet Sounds was certainly a far cry from the sugary surfer tunes of earlier Beach Boys records, but that’s what made (and makes) it so compelling. There is a counterpoint of notes in major and minor keys, an unpredictable instrumentality, the interplay of mournful phrasing and affirmative refrain—shadow and brightness—as if attuned to the year, and perhaps the decade, itself:
“Each time things start to happen/I think I got something good goin’ for myself/But what goes wrong/Sometimes I feel very sad/Sometimes I feel very sad…/I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”
Three months after Pet Sounds was released, Charles Whitman wrote actual suicide letters that would become part of public record. But they were a prelude to multiple murders, not just self-destruction. He took a trunk of weapons to the top of the tower at UT Austin, where he spent ninety-six minutes shooting at, wounding, and killing strangers from hundreds of feet above the city streets. And before that, he killed his mother and his wife. Maybe you remember it all from TV. Maybe you were there.
Whitman had a horribly violent, dominating father, and his writings (along with the testimony of many people) reveal that he experienced deep insecurities, anxiety, rage, and violent tendencies. During the last four years of his life, he had been prescribed Librium. He also used amphetamines. While he could play “Clair de Lune” on the piano, in the end, he left behind nothing but a reproduction of his own misery and a horrible trail of blood.
Wilson and his music ultimately tuned into something beyond his darker impulses and his toxic parent—who, the film suggests, beat Wilson so severely as a child that he became completely deaf in one ear. The film shows how physically and emotionally confusing it can be to tune out cruelty and disorienting influences, to make music or records or love or buildings rather than to destroy things or simply implode. We get a premonition of Wilson’s instincts underneath all this when he has a panic attack on a plane ride and collapses in the aisle, clutches his chest, and repeats, “I don’t want to die.”
In the decades after Pet Sounds and following his father’s death, Wilson himself almost did not survive. After an intense period of seclusion and heavy drug use, he was misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and treated (some say abused) by a “doctor” who over-medicated and isolated him for many years.
Far from repeating the caricatures that demonize, romanticize, or abbreviate a marketable version of mental illness, Love and Mercy does a thoughtful job translating key elements of Wilson’s anxiety, depression, and sensory overload. He self-medicates. He behaves erratically, worrying people who love him. He loses his bearings. But he also keeps reaching out, at one moment even scribbling a note to the woman who is selling him a Cadillac, the woman he will eventually marry: “Lonely. Scared. Frightened.”
In the film, when Wilson “hears voices,” we experience them, too, as the sounds he struggles to make sense of: his father’s derision, his band-mates’ chatter, fragments of rehearsals, the doctor’s mantras, water in his ears, even the click/scrape of knives and forks on plates–all unsorted tracks colliding together in one mind.
These sounds and voices are real things. (At one point, Wilson tells his cousin, “They’re part of the music.”) I have my own, sometimes on rewind, sometimes on a long loop. That’s not something I usually share, and I sometimes struggle to talk back or to drown them out. But there is also Brian Wilson’s big heart in my mental queue, too, and I’m grateful for that.
From Pet Sounds to Smile, from 1966 to 2015, the trajectory of any whole life does not trace a singular path, “straight as a die” (a saying attributed to Wilson’s father in the film). And the path won’t have the speed or misguided certainty of the sniper’s bullet, either.
To go forward, we have to experience our own brokenness. It’s hard to sort out. There may be people in our lives who won’t help. That doesn’t mean we have to stay broken, or to direct our wounds at anyone else. It’s not so easy. Wilson’s lyrics and melodies seemed to know how, even when Wilson the man lost his way. “Sometimes,” he says in the film, “your soul comes out to play.”
Brian Wilson’s music brings us back–not just to ourselves and to the mess, but to each other: “I was lyin’ in my room and the news came on TV/A lotta people out there hurtin’ and it really scares me./Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight.”
If only Charles Whitman–and so many others since–had gotten the message.
PS See this movie. Hats off to Cusack and Dano, who do great, great work here.