God and Brian Wilson
In preparation for my last Sunday at University Christian Church, I was asked if I had any particular requests for music in our worship planning. Immediately, I proposed Our Prayer by Brian Wilson. The following is the reasoning and rationale behind that request – I hope you get a chance to study this song (here’s a live version to get you started) in advance of Sunday’s worship!
Between 1966 and 2004, a fair amount changed in our country. The It’s a Small World ride opened in Disney, Mao Zedong began China’s Cultural Revolution, and Charles Whitman killed 14 people from atop the UT Tower. We landed on the moon, ushering in a new era of technological advancements, disco, for whatever reason, was a thing, and Nixon shifted from asking for universal incomes and healthcare to courting the segregationist in the South. There was Vietnam, the women’s liberation movement, the rise of Reagan, the advent of AIDS, America got more conservative, the Berlin wall fell, the Soviet Union broke apart, most of the Star Wars movies were released, rap became a thing, we faced the Columbine shootings, and the internet emerged and took over daily life. Those 38 years might have reason to claim they were among the most volatile and fast-changing years our country has ever seen.
And bookending these rather arbitrary years, are two of the greatest albums of all time. Now, I know music is subjective and open to everyone’s personal preferences, but on this matter, I am simply right. You’ll just have to accept that.
In 1966, Brian Wilson penned perhaps the most iconic account of high school optimism and angst with the unbelievably intricate Pet Sounds. On it, you’ll find the best of 1960’s pop, like Wouldn’t it Be Nice, gorgeous arrangements like Caroline, No, and Paul McCartney’s personal favorite song of all time, God Only Knows. Rolling Stone magazine went as far as saying this album literally created an entirely new identity for rock music.
Fast forward to 38 years to 2004. Brian Wilson, for all of his musical genius, had fallen into the same spiral that so many creative types gravitate toward – drugs, leading to mental and physical health problems, leading to being taken advantage of by those close to him. If you get a chance to watch the biopic “Love and Mercy,” I highly encourage it. It shows the level of depth Wilson sank to, as well as his astonishing recovery. Through much of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Wilson’s life was marked by those who kept him drugged, pacified, and compliant. He was depressed, addicted to opioids and psychotropic drugs, and generally personified the idea of a living death.
That began to change in the 90s, with help from addiction recovery specialists. Much like how the University High School here, which uses our second floor as a school space, offers not just support and education, but along with it a formerly lost access to a full life, Wilson began actually living again. As we learned in our panel discussion this week (hosted under our “Serve. Love. Grow.” campaign), drug addiction prevents people from experiencing the same joys they had before, limiting what their life looks like. Wilson sought help to overcome his stage fright, which Sam and I were able to witness last year as he performed at ACL, and started writing again. The result, in 2004, was a long-lost project Wilson had shelved when his mental health and drugs problems became too difficult to work around – the SMiLE album.
The first time I heard it, I thought, “this is terrible. It’s like children’s music, but weirdly dark, and it fluctuates between all kinds of themes with basically no lyrical continuity.” The second time I heard it, I thought, “wait, I think there’s something here.” And on the third time, I saw the face of God.
The short song the choir will perform on Sunday (not coincidentally, my last Sunday at UCC), Our Prayer, is the start of that album. It blows me away every time. And it isn’t just that it’s pretty. An early version was included on a 1969 album, and that one is nice. But the version which kicks off Wilson’s 2004 masterpiece is something otherworldly.
In an interview released earlier this week, Wilson sat down and talked about writing some of his music, and shared this simple, but profound quote: “I believe God is music.”
Not, “music is God,” as if listening to music was some idol worth all our time and attention. Not, “God speaks through music,” like we might say in worship. But “God is music.” “God. Is. Music.”
For someone who has been through so much, from drug addiction, strokes, abusive therapists, quote unquote friends taking advantage of him, to a physically and emotionally abusive father, constant friction with his brothers and bandmates, and a record company which cared more about his money-making ability than his songwriting, it would be pretty understandable to let bitterness turn into disdain for a higher power.
But what we hear instead is that in his innermost being, connected to the thing that brings Wilson alive and gives him cause to keep going, he sees God in the music.
Wilson had earlier written songs that illustrate how he had respect for using music to find God. God Only Knows is an obvious example, but my favorite would be 1963’s In My Room, clearly hearkening to his desire for a sanctuary apart from his world, where his abusive father couldn’t beat him and where his harmonies with his younger brothers could be honed as a spiritual practice, of sorts. The gentle climaxing of the verses into the beginning of the chorus, fixated on the word “in,” showed the sense of safety, and the longing for that relief in a beautifully subtle way. I wonder, do our sanctuaries illicit as much in us today?
But Our Prayer is different. It is no longer using music as a tool to find, or somehow understand, God. It is seeing that God is in the music itself, that the connection between our senses, our emotions, our study, our inspirations, our spirituality, and our experiences, all of it which makes up “music,” that is God. If there is something that takes us outside of ourselves, even when we can dissect it and understand each of the functions separately, that extra feeling, that extra bit that makes our heads and our hearts tingle – that’s God.
Wilson makes this claim out of his own life experience. Is God in the institutional Church? Somewhat. Is God in other people? Kindof. Is God in music? No – God is music. Music is what Wilson lived for, what he created, and what he was built for. His life, his ears, his brain, even his family, all of it came together to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s no wonder his music, sometimes lyrically problematic the way 1960’s pop music often is, still resonates so strongly even today. When the image of God is revealed, creation responds. And if one person could harness the joyous shouts of the people with the worship by everything in nature, it would be Brian Wilson.
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