Some of my biggest epiphanies about life, love, art, and commerce have come from arguing with friends about rock & roll—and whether my favorite bands are more influential or accomplished or talented or original or innovative than their favorite bands!
An old college buddy from Connecticut, David Sewall, used to visit me on occasion when I lived in Southern California many years ago. Dave was and is the world’s biggest booster of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, while I am among the world’s biggest fans of Lennon-McCartney and The Beatles. Though we’ve expressed great admiration for each other’s favorite, we’ve strongly disagreed about which band is ultimately God’s gift to the world. One summer night in my home along the canals of Venice Beach, we finally had it out.
We were listening to an early Beach Boys album and I dropped the casual comment that as brilliantly constructed as the BB’s music was their lyrics were banal and sophomoric. Even worse, I thoughtlessly characterized the band’s whole approach as “limited.” Dave, for the first time ever in my presence, lost it. “F*#% the limitations,” he roared, and proceeded to school me (loudly) on the richness of their four-part harmonies, the sophistication of their key switches, the charming innocence of their lyrics, and much, much more. He pounded home the point that I could dwell on “limitations” all I wanted—on what the Beach Boys were not doing—or I could dwell on the celestial sounds they were creating. The monologue continued long into the night until Dave, the Music Theory major, knew I was appropriately chastened for my glib dismissal of his band's greatness.
I realized something that night that I, the Philosophy major, never grasped before. (Pretty obvious in retrospect.) Everything in creation—anything that exists in the physical world—is limited. If it has no limits it is by definition everything, and therefore nothing. (You might have to chew on that one for a minute.) Whether we’re talking about a human being, an organization, a business, or an institution—it has limitations. Artistic and commercial products have limitations too. But within the boundaries of those limitations the question is: what can we create? We can dwell on what isn’t there or what IS there. Also, in our creativity we can be expanding those limitations.
Then there’s the whole interplay of creativity and constraints—and how creativity requires limits and constraints—which we have discussed before and which we will again.
Not to mention the fact that comparing, evaluating, and judging artistic and commercial genius has its limitations!
After all is said and done, I would have to admit that the music I would like to be listening to on headphones when I eventually shuffle off this mortal coil would be the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, the most uplifting and sublime piece of popular music I’ve ever heard.
But until then I continue to gasp in wonder whenever I hear “A Day in the Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “In My Life,” “Across the Universe,” or a dozen other musical jewels by you know who.
Wishing everyone an expanded New Year.