Letter to Brian Wilson
A music timeline
Today I’m introducing my music timeline. Music that played a formative role in my childhood and beyond. I’m a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s and I grew up in a tiny village far away from any metropolitan excitement, fashion or thinking. We had the radio, the TV without a remote control, cassette tapes, the occasional LP, and then — pop magazines. That was it.
Well, not quite. I also grew up with church hymns, classical music, and traditional songs for children and adults. We sang a lot in school and most people knew how to read sheet music at least to some degree. Finnish and Swedish folk songs were commonly sung and known by most in my village. Music was part of life and it was common to know how to play at least one instrument.
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So how did we build our musical timeline?
Sometimes we’d hear older kids play music or refer to bands they liked. I had a “My Friends” book (pre-Facebook you actually collected friends in a book) and my older cousin wrote that her favorite band was ELO. It took me years before I heard a single song from them but I remembered that name forever. It sounded mysterious.
Once a week, on Finnish television, they would have a show for the top hit music videos. That’s how we were exposed to new hits. Billy Ocean, David Bowie, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and many more would flash across the screen. Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Limahl, Modern Talking, Cyndi Lauper would bop to the beat in their flashy ‘80s style. We viewers couldn’t fast forward or skip. No, you just had to endure all of it. And hope and wait for the good song.
Only families with a satellite dish later on got access to MTV. My family didn’t prioritize that so we kids were left with scrolling through radio stations with a tape recorder ready when the good song came on! Ironically my grandpa had MTV (which he didn’t watch) so we’d be glued to it every time we visited.
When someone bought a new album we all gave them an empty cassette tape so they could record the album for us. This was standard procedure, and extremely economical. If you ever got a mixed tape it was very special because that required a lot of “production” time. I still have a couple of mixed tapes that my husband sent me while we were long distance dating in the ‘90s!
I looked for new and interesting music. One night in perhaps 5th or 6th grade I was scrolling through the AM bandwidth on my boombox. I came across Casey Kasem! No idea who he was but as the reception went in and out I listened to his smooth voice and found some great music. A new world had opened up. I had somehow leveled up.
I also listened to the more obscure music programs on the Finnish radio stations and was exposed to world music. I still enjoy a wide variety of music and am glad I was a curious child.
By the way, something happened in ‘90s and onward, for a very long time. I cannot quite explain it but I rarely, if ever, fell in love with albums or even artists. Something stopped me from allowing myself to enjoy one entire artist. I felt a slight annoyance with friends who obsessed over music stars. I couldn’t.
But instead I loved and enjoyed songs as separate units. It’s in recent years that I again have returned to appreciate an entire album and series of albums from the same group or artist. I sometimes wonder what caused it and I think it has to do with my affection for such a wide range of music. I refuse to limit myself.
But it had to begin somewhere.
Forget lullabies! I fell asleep to the sweet sweet voices of ABBA on a cassette tape. I was around six or seven. By the time the tape had run out on one side I was either asleep or begged mom or dad to come and turn the side. It made a loud sharp sound when the tape ended.
I found the cover of the “Arrival” album deeply disturbing. It was much later that I understood that they’re sitting in a helicopter! Somehow this cover had become associated with the arrival my little sister and my mom’s hospital stay. All this was somehow tangled up in my brain and created an unsettling feeling. A fear of hospitals. This album cover increased that feeling! But I loved the music.
ABBA influenced my love for the English language. They and Galactica on TV!
My first self-discovered band love. It was the perfect band, the perfect voice of George Michael and the perfect mood! In 5th grade I memorized every song on the album and I never grew tired of Wham. I still like them. George Michael had one of the best voices of any modern singer. I will always love his music!
Somewhat proud I managed to like “Like a Virgin” before it really took off! Complicated appreciation for Madonna’s work but I liked her music much more in the early stages of her career. Again, something resonated with her music that I, a tween in a faraway village, could grasp. A friend and I would dress up like Madonna and sing and dance to her songs. Just like millions of others I’m sure! This is when I started show an interest in bracelets. Bangles galore!
My taste in music is and has always to some degree, been weird. David Bowie. Noone in my friend group liked David Bowie. But I did, and on my 11th (or 12th?) birthday I got a David Bowie album as a cassette tape! I sensed that I was on to something. Something beyond the average pop band. His voice was quite unattractive and at the same time intriguing! I decided I enjoyed it.
Well, speaking of sugar pop bands! This German band drove me to purchase German pop magazines which I couldn’t understand a word of. But they had pictures of the beautiful (just look up the lead singer with the long dark hair) Thomas Anders! It mattered not that their lyrics were so simple that even I thought it a bit pitiful. The reassuring synthesizer convinced us all that we truly were his heart and soul.
Now it gets interesting. In our home stereo system was a collection of LPs. My guess is that dad got the LPs along with the stereo system as some type of deal when he bought the system. In one of the collections was a Diana Ross song that was among the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It is and was this song. I sometimes would play it again and again when I was home alone. Recently I saw “Mahogany” on TCM and realized of course the background of this song.
Powerful and everlasting pop song. I still love this intro so much that I get goosebumps! Back then you only heard songs by chance, unless you owned the record. Sometimes you had to wait weeks before you heard a song again, and then usually the last 30 seconds. Befor the DJ talked over it.
Brilliant music genius as far as I’m concerned. I instantly loved everything he created and I still do. I don’t think my friends were into Prince but I was again an odd ball. I instinctively knew he was brilliant.
“Back to the Future” was one of the first movies I saw in the movie theater as a tween. It was magical! Loved Michael Fox! No, adored him! Him and his American jacket and white sneakers. And skateboard! And the gorgeous soundtrack. I still love this song! Once I got the courage to call the Finnish national radio to request this song. I managed to stutter through the request and remembered the DJs being somewhat impressed by my wish!
The first time I heard this song was not on the radio or even by the band. It was sung, absolutely beautifully, by a classmate as our class was practicing for an end of school year graduation. We were spellbound, all of us who heard her sing. She played the piano while singing and it was the first time I almost cried while listening to music. It was that beautiful and moving. I had not heard of Chicago or Peter Cetera before.
I think it was the last show on TV on Saturdays. Usually I would fall asleep but I always tried to catch it. I adored “Miami
Vice”! Everything about it was amazing. The colors, the characters, the music, the setting. Even the bad guys were fascinating. But mostly Don Johnson and the music. He driving through Miami at night with that melancholy synthesizer music twisting and turning into all kinds of emotions. Gorgeous stuff!
Then, the most peculiar timeline item. The one that still perplexes me and fills me with regret. This is what happened. I used to look for interesting looking LPs in the sale bins. That’s how I discovered Mr. Mister, Robert Plant, Mike Rutherford and more. I bought this enigmatic looking album because I liked the name Brian Wilson.
There he was, looking at something off the album cover. A handsome and no longer young man. It had a beautiful blue color and I loved the look of it. And it included the lyrics. I loved it when albums included lyrics. I enjoyed sitting and following along to the music. It helped me learn English.
I immediately discovered that this album resonated with me. I was perhaps in 8th or 9th grade but I understood I had hit something deep. Something I couldn’t quite grasp yet but something important. This Brian Wilson was in pain. Something tragic had happened to him. I had never before heard that in any songs or albums I had ever listened to.
I studied the lyrics for clues. I forced myself to listen to all songs, even the ones I didn’t like. And that’s how I learned you can grow to appreciate a song by listening to it repeatedly. But I couldn’t stop wondering what had happened in Brian Wilson’s life. I got a few clues from the album sleeve where he thanked some doctor named Eugene. Perhaps he had been sick, I thought. Perhaps he had been alcoholic or on drugs, I thought with my 8th grade brain. Perhaps he had gotten a divorce and needed to process it through music.
“I wonder why nothing ever seems to go my way…” and “Meet me in my dreams tonight…” and “Love and mercy is what we need tonight…” I understood what he meant even though I was experiencing life in a teenage body in a tiny Finnish village. I understood what it felt to feel that nothing ever went my way, because it didn’t. I also saw meaning in the deeper messages about things that hadn’t happened yet in my life, but one day would.
Time went on and this record wouldn’t leave me. No one else seemed to care about it or like his music. One day I wrote a letter to him. I never write letters to artists or beg them for autographs. I sort of hate that whole idea. This was a thank you letter. It was my duty, I felt, to this Brian Wilson, to let him know what a tremendous impact his music has on this girl in Finland. That he reached someone who grasped the meaning of his music. I finished the letter and saved the paper until I figured out where to send it so he would receive it. This was way before internet.
Soon after I was informed, and I wish I still could remember how it happened, who Brian Wilson is. The feeling of utter shame still reverberates through me. How did I not know? How did I not know the name of one of the most famous musicians in the world?
A feeling of dread came over me. I would have come across as a complete idiot if I had sent the letter! And yet, I was filled with disappointment. Incredible disappointment in myself and how uneducated I was about music. Clearly I knew Beach Boys! I just didn’t know their names…
I couldn’t send the letter. I simply couldn’t. I looked back at my honest words and my completely innocent and unknowing message to Brian Wilson. And I never sent that letter to a broken man who might have loved hearing from a pitiful teenager that his music matters. That his music reached. That someone understood. That music carries life.
Lesson dear reader: always. Bloody always send that letter!
In fact, I might try sending this memory to Brian Wilson. From my 8th grade me.
Gosh, I’m still not over it!
“Love and mercy that’s what you need tonight…”
What in here resonated with you? You have your own timeline and I am so curious what it looks and sounds like. Please do share a few in the comments below. You can also link to YouTube videos.
This article was typed on my cellphone so please forgive formatting errors. My old laptop died. I’m waiting for my new laptop so in the meantime I would truly appreciate all your support. If you enjoy what I write and want to support me, do this:
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This article was inspired by listening to Alex & Sigges podcast episode #532.
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As a person who grew up in the eighties, much of this resonates with me!
Minna, this sure was a walk down the memory lane for me. Maybe it had something to do with us beeing peers and growing up in the same god forsaken village, or maybe we just happened to like the same kind of music. I don't know. But for instance Everything she wants by Wham and just about everything Prince ever sang, also were my favourites as a kid. May George Michael and Prince still be grooving in the afterworld!