Hanging ten or hanging on?

Brian Wilson: Dead on survival
By GREIL MARCUS  |  November 14, 2006

This article originally appeared in the April 26, 1977 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

Brian Wilson is a survivor.

According to contemporary usage the phrase I have just employed should be understood as a highly approbative pronouncement denoting that its subject is (a) over 30 years old, (b) white and middle-class, (c) at least one step removed from absolute catatonia, and (d) not legally dead.

If one is an artist, to have achieved the status of survivor is to have accomplished something so remarkable that the quality or even the absence of what the artist produces is irrelevant to – or, rather, sanctified by – the fact of survival itself. These days it is far higher praise to call a singer a good survivor than to call him a good singer. Furthermore, it goes without saying (at least I have never seen it said) that those for whom survival in its old-fashioned sense – enough food, a place to live, decent medical care, enduring brutal tyranny, etc. – is a real issue are no longer worth considering as survivor, because the circumstances which force them to struggle for existence on a day-to-day basis are beyond their control. Thus (so goes the implicit logic) their struggles are without a compelling moral dimension. Just the opposite is true in the case of middle-class survivors: what they survive is nothing so pedestrian as hunger or torture, but the abyss of the modern world itself or the trackless wilderness of the psyche. This kind of survival, as opposed to the prosaic sort, is seen as heroic.

Which is to say that people with access to print media have discovered a way to congratulate each other regardless of whether any of them has achieved or even participated in anything of merit or value since any of them can remember. So when critics confront a well-traveled singer’s new album and praise that singer as a survivor, it is important to understand that they have set in motion a process whereby they also praise themselves (they too must be survivors, since they share the world with the singer and have retained at least enough of their faculties to complete their critiques) and the reader as well – assuming the reader remains either conscious or alive long enough to finish the reviews. And though in order to bring this off it is necessary to go on heavy on the Angst, to stress the pain, and to make the world appear a much more evil and dangerous place than it really is (or, more commonly, to inflate mild dangers while evading concrete evils), the end result makes everybody feel better.

Few have benefited more from this degraded state of mind than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Because the survival mentality legitimizes a lack of ambition and first-rate work by positing the substitute accomplishment of regular breathing, in the past years Wilson has been able to rely on just this subversion of critical perspective. No one with any interest in the Beach Boys can forget the countless stories last year which trumpeted Brian’s return to music-making after who knows how long a period of vegged-out schizophrenia – a period during which, every story lovingly detailed, Brian never left his bed, let alone wrote a song.

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