Is Brian Wilson a Genius?

Is Brian Wilson a Genius?
Photo by Miguel A. Amutio / Unsplash

The iconic artist and musician from Beach Boy fame Brian Wilson turned eighty. I’m astonished with the longevity of many of these artists from the 60s and 70s. Think Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young still rocking well into their 70s and 80s. Despite all the drug use and hard living in their younger years, these musicians continue to make art and share it with the world.

Back to Wilson. My obsession with the Beach Boys started at a young age. A Beach Boys best-of album spent many years spinning in my Walkman. Something about growing up in southern California surf culture and the rich harmonies and surf guitar of the Beach Boys drew me into their orbit. The sound of the Boys was the sound of summer. I can’t explain why these simple pop tunes hang around thirty-five years after encountering the boys from the beach. Until a PBS documentary on the life of Brian Wilson helped make some connections.

In the documentary, the word genius was often used to describe the ability of Wilson to write such great harmonies and arrangements. Much of the genius talk focuses on two realities. Wilson wrote most of the lyrics and arrangements for the Beach Boys music. These songs have stayed steady in the American Rock and Roll canon for sixty plus years. And second, after Wilson created their unapproachable album, Pet Sounds, people wondered, even the Beatles, if anything like this iconic collection of songs could ever be replicated. Genius status.

Wilson left touring with the Beach Boys in the early sixties to focus on songwriting and studio work. He had social anxiety and some other mental health issues that made touring exhausting and unattainable. Wilson believed his gifts were better suited for writing and arranging for the rest of the band and making albums. This appears to be a good choice. What came out of Brian during these years is Pet Sounds, and many songs that will stick around for hundreds of years.

So is Brian Wilson a genius? I know the term gets thrown around in our day. What defines a genius? How do we know? I will leave that up for debate, but there is a genius thread running through Wilson’s work. The ability to speak to the longing of the human heart.

While many want to call Brian Wilson a genius, he wanted to do what he loved, make music, and share it with others. Is this a genius? Perhaps. But the true genius is the ability to write songs that speak to the desires of every human longing. Things like love, fitting in, loss, and heartbreak. And even superficial things like going to school, surfing, and cars. Here’s a couple samples from Pet Sounds:

“Wouldn’t it be Nice”
Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up
In the morning when the day is new?
After having spent the day together
Hold each other close the whole night through

A song about finding love. That feeling when you find your person and all you want to do is spend every moment with them. Who doesn’t want someone to hold through the night?

“God Only Knows”
If you should ever leave me
Well, life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me?

Another brilliant take on the heartache associated with losing the ones we love. Who hasn’t had their hearts broken by a girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse or friend? Who hasn’t wondered for a minute if life was worth living? Wilson taps into the very human desire for love, even with the possibility of having our hearts trampled on the floor.

“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”
I keep looking for a place to fit in
Where I can speak my mind
And I've been trying hard to find the people
That I won't leave behind
They say I got brains but they ain't doing me no good
I wish they could
I guess I just wasn't made for these times

One of my favorite Beach Boys tunes. We all are looking for our people and a place to fit to land and experience acceptance. Sometimes we wonder if we even belong to these times of history. Who hasn’t felt out of sorts and misunderstood, which leads to a great lyric later in the song:

Sometimes I feel very sad

The genius of Brian Wilson and his songwriting is expressing the longings of his heart, and the longings of every human heart. Brian had all the same feelings and frustrations we all face. But he had a genius way of expressing what we all feel without mincing words. Maybe you don’t like the surf guitar or poppy hooks. But the core of the songs will last well beyond our years because of what they say. True genius.

And don’t think the music of the Beach Boys hasn’t inspired countless artists over the years. REM, Fleet Foxes, Weezer, the Beatles, Elton John, and countless others credit Wilson for inspiring them in their work.

Brian Wilson may or may not be a genius in the music pantheon. But what we can draw from Wilson and the Boys from the Beach are the simplest of expressing the longings of the heart. Helping people not feel alone in their fight for love and belonging. I wonder if our art needs to work harder at being more obvious and less subversive. We have to say what we mean and not mince words. Much like Brian Wilson.

God only knows what I’d be without you.


"Sloop John B" - one of my favorites