Sing It That Way, Suzanne
Thoughts on Creativity and the Broken Brain
I recently watched “Love and Mercy,” the biopic on Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys, and last week took a look at “The Imitation Game” with Benedict Cumberbatch.
I am reminded how torturous it is to watch people who are inherently genius, yet are so deeply troubled that they have to suffer for it their whole lives. I am also reminded of a conclusion that I’ve held for years:
Maybe this is an intrinsic part of being brilliant.
Maybe you have to have a few things missing from your brain in order to have quite enough flexibility for all that cool stuff to happen as it does. Maybe authentic creativity requires a brain that does not function like a normal person’s. Creativity is in fact a side-effect of impairment.
Not to categorize myself as Miss Brilliant, but I’ve always had an affinity for the tortured artist type. I’ve felt my brain on occasion go to off-beat places because it had to, because of aberrant dyslexic flashes where I can’t put two and two together. The signals in my brain don’t make the jump from one synapse to another like a regular Joe’s. It skips over the traditional thought process and crafts a new way to interpret stimuli.
I’ve sometimes remarked that all my creative impulses may be one big, undiagnosed dyslexia symptom.
Scary thing is, my brain is so good at compensating that there have been times I have surreptitiously seen and heard and things that weren’t there. (Or sometimes didn’t see something that was there.) Usually I hear something musical, or narrative, where a story or a melody start running in my head.
There are scenes in Love and Mercy where Brian Wilson lies down and hears things… people talking, melodies and harmonies singing, sounds in the background. I’ve had instances of that. I’ve lain back, or dropped half-asleep, and heard songs playing or people speaking dialog that I’d never heard before. I hit a state where things start writing themselves, and I sit back and listen. It’s a weird and beautiful experience. It is magic. But sometimes it is spontaneous enough that it takes you by surprise and makes you wonder about your reality.
My husband insists I fabricate these kinds of things to position myself as special. It’s not true. I’ve walked through my life seeing certain things backwards or further away or closer than they are. Or sometimes I don’t see an object in front of me at all—it blanks-out and fades into the background. Yet my brain bridges the gap.
No one has ever really asked me, but this is my life:
Have you ever had that moment when you pick up a glass, and you think it’s full but you’re mistaken?
You lift it, and the glass goes flying and you spill water because your muscles were bracing for a different level of heaviness. You were fooled. Your brain misperceived it.
That’s my existence. I walk past a door jamb or a coffee table, and my brain tells me it is twelve inches from my body when it is actually only three inches away. I smack my shin on the table or bang my shoulder against the molding. I have dealt with unjustifiable bumps, bruises and scrapes my whole life. I am a grown woman who walks into things.
One day when my brother and I were in a band together, we were practicing in his room. He played the bass line to The Police’s “Roxanne.” I said, No, Jim, wait—you’re missing a couple of cool notes here, that’s not how it goes. Where are those two other notes?
“What two other notes?”
I mouthed the bass line. “You know, DAT DAT – dat dat… DAT DAT – dat dat… Loved you since I knew ya’…”
He said, No, what are you talking about? That’s not how it goes.
I said, oh please, I’ve listened to this song a thousand times.
I sang it again, and he argued. Finally he sat me down with my ear next to an enormous speaker and played the record. He turned up the bass on the equalizer. He said, “I want you to take a deep breath and listen.”
Wait, I said, where did those other bass notes go? I swear they’ve been there all this time.
He said, “YOU WROTE THEM.”
“You wrote them, Sue. You hear them in your head because you wrote them into the song.”
And then there was the day I sang in my high school talent show. A fellow theater student played piano behind me … and then he just stopped. I kept singing, because that’s what they teach you to do when something screws up on stage. You keep going. The piano kicked back in.
After the number I went to the accompanist and said, What happened?
He said, “What do you mean?”
“You stopped playing. In the middle of the song.”
He gave me the face. The expression people deliver when I inadvertently admit I’m not experiencing quite the same world as they are.
“I never stopped playing,” he said.
I asked another friend in the show, What did you hear? Did he stop playing?
There was the look again. The tilted head and squinty eyes. “Of course he didn’t stop playing,” she said. “He was fine.”
I thought to myself, Jesus, it’s me. My brain stops perceiving things sometimes. Yet I always push on.
Flash-forward to the few weeks I tried to learn piano. A friend in a band gifted me his cast-off Moog keyboard. I commandeered some rocker guy with long, carbon-black curls to give me keyboard lessons at Focus II Guitars in Babylon, NY. He made me practice scales, and sent me home with a few measures to learn.
Next lesson, I swung open my workbook and banged out the piece. It was a lovely bit of music.
Rocker guy scratched his head. “That was nice,” he said.
“What was it?” he said.
I pointed to the sheet music. “It was this.”
He tried not to do the face, because he otherwise kind of liked me. “No,” he said. “It was pretty and all. But that wasn’t the music I gave you.”
He stood behind the keyboard and played the measures as they were written.
A whole different piece. I had developed my own version.
I never did learn to play keyboard.
There was also a rehearsal for “Godspell,” the first show I ever did outside a school production. I was eighteen. The cast sat around a table so Eddie the director, who also played Jesus, could teach us the harmonies to “Prepare Ye.”
“Do you know how they go?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah.” I had in fact had been listening to the original Broadway soundtrack on vinyl since fourth grade.
He said, “Okay, Kerry, please sing the melody and Suzanne, you sing the harmony.” I sang it the way I’d been doing since I was 10 years-old.
“Cool,” Eddie said to me. “Where is that from?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who taught you that part? Is that from the movie soundtrack?”
I shrugged my shoulders. No one taught it to me. “I just thought it was pretty. Isn’t that what’s on the album?”
“No,” he said. “This is what’s on the album.” He and Kerry sang the harmony that was written for the show. Which completely diverged from what I’d been singing half my life.
He said, “Now you sing your part with us,” and I chimed in. It was gorgeous. Suddenly, we had three different parts going, one of which had never appeared in any other production.
Eddie said, “Sing it that way in the show, Suzanne.”
Way to make dysfunction work.