If you’re like me, you have some childhood and early adolescent memories of listening to certain songs that gave you a magical impression of seamlessness ... Read More
Four years ago I wrote a song about The Beach Boys’ legendary lost album, Smile, as part of an assignment for a writing group I was in along with the Proprietor and a few other familiar Rabbit Roomers. At the time I knew very little about Smile, but I happened to be in the thick of a Pet Sounds renaissance, so I was already wading in the right waters for Smile to come wash over me. Back then, getting into Smile required fanaticism, a good deal of research, and possibly a little piracy. To be legal, I bought everything I could buy (Brian’s 2004 re-recordings of the material and some original Smile tracks released on the Good Vibrations box set) and then I scrounged for every bootleg of the famed 1966 sessions I could find. The melodies, sounds, forms, chord progressions, and lyrics turned my brain inside out. Smile was a completely different way of thinking about composition and recording. I had never heard anything like it. Poor Andrew Peterson had to listen to me go on and on. But it was the story of Smile that really opened my heart to the music and made it resonate. The story of the album is one of creation, fall, and redemption. It’s a tragedy about a brilliant kid who wanted to make something beautiful, but who couldn’t face the fierce resistance he met within and without. Or at least he couldn’t face it alone.
For years I have prayed very sincere prayers that Capitol Records would finally release the Smile sessions, and on November 1st of this year, 45 years after Brian Wilson began work on the album, they did. In celebration of this momentous (to me) occasion, it seemed fitting that I should distill the talk I gave on Smile at Hutchmoot 2011 into a Rabbit Room piece. It’s my hope to give you, dear reader, a means to approach the demanding musical oddity that is Smile, and also to recount, in brief, the great tragedy and triumph of one of my musical heroes.
Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy genius, is deaf in his right ear. Many people believe his deafness was caused by a blow to the head from his father, Murry Wilson. Abused at home, Brian says that as a boy he walked around with one hand covering his soul. But for a cowering kid, he was also paradoxically powerful–a star athlete and an ambitious musician. As a teenager, Brian started the Beach Boys along with his brothers, Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. Due in part to self-appointed manager Murry Wilson’s ambition, the Boys quickly rose to the top. But it was Brian’s ear that made them great. Already a fine writer, he took quickly to the recording studio. Before long he was writing and producing for the Beach Boys as well as other artists. But recording and touring with the Beach Boys soon proved too stressful for him—and Brian’s inner landscape was no sandy beach to begin with. In 1964, he had a nervous breakdown on an airplane. After that, it was decided that he should stay home in LA and concentrate on writing and producing.
Historically, it was the perfect moment in time for a talent like Brian to be set loose in the studio. In December of 1965, when Brian heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, he ran to his wife in the next room, shouting, “Marilyn, I’m going to do it! I’m going to make the greatest rock and roll album of all time.” But the Beatles didn’t only inspire Brian, they also made him see the writing on the wall. If he didn’t act fast, he realized, the Beach Boys were one day going to be remembered as that silly band that sang about cars, girls, and surfing.
So Brian made Pet Sounds. Collaborating with lyricist Tony Asher, he wrote a cycle of songs that has been aptly described as “a plea for love and understanding.” In early 1966, while the Beach Boys were away in Asia, he recorded the backing tracks. The harmonies and melodies are stunning. The arrangements are lush, intricate, and unconventional, ornamented with harpsichord, bass harmonica, bike horns, strings, winds, and surfy guitars. The lyrics are plain-spoken and vulnerable. In short, Pet Sounds is serious music.
When the Boys returned from the road and heard what Brian was up to, their jaws dropped. But it wasn’t the kind of jaw‐drop Brian was hoping for. Mike Love’s famous response was “Don’t f___ with the formula.” Brian’s band and his label were equally unenthusiastic about Brian’s self-exploration, especially at the expense of a commercial sure-thing. And indeed, Pet Sounds flopped. The public didn’t know what to make of it. Where were the cute girls and sandy beaches? Brian had poured out his soul and now he had to watch as the contents were judged only on their commercial value. He had made a great record, maybe one of the greatest records ever. But it wasn’t a consumer’s record. It required something of the listener, which makes for great art, but poor sales.
Luckily, Brian had an ace up his sleeve: a song that he had pulled from the Pet Sounds sessions, bookmarking it for a later date when he could spend more time on it. The song was “Good Vibrations.” Over the spring and summer of 1966, Brian threw all he had into the recording, and he went about it in a manner no one had done before. Working with LA’s famous “Wrecking Crew,” he recorded over 25 minutes worth of musical vignettes, studio-composed variations on a theme. Then he meticulously pieced them together into what he described as a “pocket symphony,” a four-minute song that feels like a complete musical journey. And, to everyone’s relief, it was a huge success. In fact, it made the Beach Boys the number one band in the world.
The success of “Good Vibrations” bought Brian a little more trust and a longer leash, and he knew just where to spend the creative capital. He wanted to write an entire album after the pattern of “Good Vibrations.” And with the Beach Boys away again, he enlisted the help of lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who had impressed him at a party with his conversational eloquence. Brian was thinking of calling the project “Dumb Angel.” It was to chronicle a bicycle rider’s journey from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head in Hawaii, touching on the great themes of American history (the plight of the Native American, westward expansion, the railroads, etc.) along the way. Brian wanted the lyrics to be oblique but winsome and funny, utilizing Parks’ gift for wordplay. And he wanted to make people laugh because he believed that when you laugh you lose control and let down your guard. There were to be two, perhaps three suites of songs: one about America, one about the loss and regaining of innocence, another about the ancient elements (fire, earth, water, air).
Sitting at a piano in a giant sandbox in Brian’s home, he and Van Dyke quickly got on a roll and wrote some of my favorite songs in the world, referred to by many as “The Sandbox Songs.” Brian hurried to the studio to record the songs and, with the help of LA’s “Wrecking Crew,” to spin off a myriad of musical variations, which he planned to piece together later into his “teenage symphony to God,” which he was now calling Smile. To give you some idea of the scope and ambition of the concept, “Heroes and Villains” was the “Good Vibrations” of the Smile era, and Brian recorded over 50 minutes of musical sections and takes for it.
In the beginning, Smile was a joy. In the Beach Boys’ absence, Brian had assembled a new team and found a new set of friends. He and Van Dyke were having a blast, and the studio musicians that made up the Wrecking Crew were more than capable of realizing whatever wild musical fantasy Brian invented. At the end of the day, when Brian played rough mixes of the music for friends, they wondered at the beauty of it all and imagined with him how it might all be pieced together.
But the joy didn’t last. Brian was moving at breakneck speed and keeping insane hours, which was dangerous to his emotional state. Van Dyke and the other collaborators saw the first signs of paranoia on November 28th, 1966, on a tracking session for the fire component of the elements suite. He and the players wore fire hats that day. Fine. But Brian also brought a barrel of wood into the studio to burn in order to create the right ambiance for fire music. Maybe not fine? And afterward, when Brian heard on the news about a fire that started that night just down the street, he worried that somehow the music they were making had caused the fire.
Then the Beach Boys came home. They found Brian surrounded by a new set of friends who were all excited about this music, but when they heard the material they didn’t get it. It was even weirder than Pet Sounds. They didn’t understand Van Dyke. What did lyrics like “columnated ruins domino” or “over and over, the thresher and plover, the wheat field” mean? They started working on the vocal tracks with Brian, but nobody was having a good time. Mike Love was always after Van Dyke to explain the lyrics. Van Dyke found this incredibly tedious and quit more than once. Brian was increasingly paranoid, calling secret meetings in his swimming pool because he believed his house to be bugged. His drug use had been a point of contention on Pet Sounds, and now the band (Mike Love in particular) seemed to feel drugs were behind Brian’s erratic behavior and probably the whole bizarre aesthetic of Smile.
In early 1967, with Smile already past due, the Beach Boys filed suit against Capitol. This brought morale down even farther. In the spring of 1967, when Van Dyke finally quit the project for good, Brian decided to hang it up. He says that he ultimately gave up on Smile because Mike Love didn’t like it, because he thought the fire tape was too scary, and because he didn’t believe the world would understand it.
But too much of Brian was tied to Smile. Hanging it up felt like leaving his soul unfinished and his heart broken. He disappeared to his room and pretty much stayed there for the better part of 30 years. He was in and out of radical therapies, on and off of controversial drugs. He gained a great deal of weight and grew a great deal of facial hair. There’s the famous Rolling Stone cover where he stands on a Beach in a bathrobe, holding a surf board. He looks like Moses come down from the mountain with the ten commandments, his face radiant with a weird light. But I don’t think Brian had seen the Lord. I don’t know what he saw. I know he heard voices. Brian had started taking LSD before Pet Sounds, back when it was legal. People told him it would broaden his consciousness and shatter his ego. It may have done that for him, but it also gave him auditory hallucinations, cruel voices that told him they wanted to kill him.
But while Brian was lying half-dead and tormented in the dark, Smile was becoming legend. Rumor was that, had it been finished, Smile would have dwarfed Sgt Pepper. The Smile story had a pathos and a mystique about it for having been so ambitious and, ironically, for having failed. People were drawn to the music. And the fact that the music was so hard to find made it that much more alluring. Bootlegs circulated. Fans began editing the pieces together to express their own visions of what Smile might have been.
So when Brian had given up hope for himself, others were hoping for him. One was Darian Sahanaja, a skinny Indonesian kid who got picked on at school for listening to Beach Boys records. Instead of changing to try to fit in, he went back to his room and listened that much harder. Another was Nicky Walusko, who drove a hundred miles to a bootleg record store to buy a copy of the Smile bootlegs. The air conditioner in his car was broken and the vinyl warped on the way home. When he got back he was so desperate to hear the music that he attempted to iron the record flat.
In 1995, Brian remarried and, maybe for the first time ever, he felt emotionally secure. It wasn’t long before he was ready to make music again. He hired a new band. Among them were Nicky Walusko on guitar and Darian Sahanaja on keyboards. This time around, it was the reverse of the Beach Boys. With the Beach Boys, Brian was always trying to drag a whole crowd of doubters around by the strength of his brilliance and ambition. But now it was Brian’s band who carried him. While Brian stared blankly at the wall, they rehearsed in hopes that the music would coax his soul back into his body. They gathered all around him on the stage, stepping up to the mic whenever Brian grew too weary or worried to sing. Together they even performed Pet Sounds live from beginning to end. Audiences flipped for it. Brian was ecstatic to find that Pet Sounds wasn’t a failure after all. It wasn’t obtuse and inaccessible, it was honest and brilliant and people loved it.
But even with this new leaf turned over, Smile was still a dark chapter looming in Brian’s past, and he was afraid to open it again. If anyone were to bring it up, Brian would say, “It’s inappropriate music. I don’t want to talk about it”–end of conversation. So loving Brian Wilson meant making room for his old anxieties; it meant setting places at the table for his unfriendly ghosts. But the new cast of Brian’s story believed in him and gave him that kind of grace every single day.
That’s why, when Brian and his wife Melinda arrived at guitarist Scott Bennett’s Christmas party in 2000, Scott invited Brian to just sit and play the piano for a bit. “We’ll be in the other room,” he said. “Join us when you’re ready.” So Brian sat down and started playing. And of all things, he played “Heroes And Villians.” A week before, you couldn’t even mention that song, and now here he was playing it like it was nothing. His friends rushed into the room, laughing and incredulous. The next thing they knew, Brian had agreed to perform the songs with his band at an upcoming tribute show. The audience was stunned to hear it and roared their approval. Also that night, Brian heard other Smile songs like “Our Prayer” and “Surf’s Up” performed by Vince Gill, David Crosby, and others. The songs were received with joy and enthusiasm. With the support of his wife and his band, and now with the positive reception of the music for the first time by the public, the lie that the world wouldn’t understand Smile was beginning to lose its hold on Brian.
Next, to everyone’s shock, Brian announced that he and his band would perform Smile in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall in London on February 20, 2004. The trouble was, there was no “entirety” to Smile. Even Brian didn’t know what that was. Whatever wind had been in Brian’s sails was now pushing him too fast toward the edge of his known world. He was scared to fall back into the abyss of Smile. The voices came back.
But the saving grace in this situation was that Brian didn’t have to finish Smile alone. He had Darian Sahanaja, an angel with an able ear. Darian helped Brian to confront what he called “a stack of dirty dishes,” acting as a musical secretary to sift through the piles of music to find a continuous musical thread and to compose little bits of new music where sections were missing. Van Dyke showed up too, as kind and believing as ever. But even with good morale and a supportive cast, Brian was barely staying afloat. There was at least one episode that began with Brian becoming hysterical, throwing stacks of sheet music across the room and yelling, “Darian! They’re trying to kill me!” The session ended with a trip to the hospital.
But somehow, February 20th came and Smile was ready. If you watch the documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, you can see footage of Brian walking up the stairs to the stage that first night of the premier. Understanding that this was a moment 38 years in the making and knowing the great deal of courage it took that night for Brian to face the audience, his demons, and Smile itself brings to mind the words of Philo of Alexandria (or some say Plato said it) which I’ve often heard quoted by Andrew Peterson: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” It’s remarkable how many years of struggle and turmoil can finally be consummated in a few small steps. Also in the film, you can see footage of Darian Sahanaja weeping with pride and relief for his friend. It’s beautiful to see.
Smile was a great success. On the heels of the debut, Brian and his band completely re-recorded the album in 2004, using nothing from the original sessions. I think you should listen to those recordings the way you’d watch a film with the commentary on. It’s not the same as watching the film, but you’ll learn something. There are moments I think are brilliant. There are moments I find a little awkward. Brian’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but it carries the weight of his years with humor and grace, the way I suppose it already did when he was twenty years old, emerging from an abused childhood. All in all, Brian Wilson Presents Smile, as it’s called, is worth hearing. More on that in a moment.
A month ago, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions in a number of configurations. The most basic is a two-disc version. The first disc contains a piecing together of Smile in mostly the same sequence as Brian’s 2004 Smile, but this time using only the ’66 and ‘67 recordings. No new recording was done, and therefore the album still feels incomplete, though every song is present in some form. The balance of the first disc features some pieces that were left out of the final Smile, as well as some demos and rarities. The booklet contains a beautiful essay by Brian (much better than the one you are reading at the moment) as well as a great piece about Van Dyke Parks. The second disc provides a fly-on-the-wall’s insight into the recording sessions, featuring multiple takes of a number of songs with studio banter in-between. The boxed-set (which I do not have…yet) also has the “completed” sequence of Smile, and a greatly expanded sessions portion, weighing in at five discs if I remember correctly. It also contains a book and some LPs and a few other joyous tidbits.
If you’re completely new to Smile and find any of this fascinating, may I suggest a plan of attack? First of all, I think you need to hear Pet Sounds. Or at least you need to hear “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “You Still Believe In Me,” “God Only Knows,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” I’ve heard it said that Pet Sounds is Brian’s blue period (a new take on traditional forms), while Smile is his cubist period (throwing traditional forms out the window). Or you could think of Pet Sounds as OK Computer and Smile as Kid A. In short, Pet Sounds is a step along the way to Smile. Then, as you listen to The Smile Sessions, I think you need to focus on the sandbox songs: “Heroes and Villains,” “Cabinessence,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Wind Chimes.” They are the real treasures of Smile. The series of vignettes that form the sequence of the album is what it is–it might be brilliant or it might just be scatter-brained. But the sandbox songs (and for my taste, especially the middle three) are beautiful and incredibly complex in their composition. They are pop music believing it can be art. And if the hodge-podge of sections is overwhelming and you feel lost (especially in the 2nd and 3rd movements), I think it’s worthwhile to reference Brian Wilson Presents Smile, because it fills in some of the missing melodies and vocals that simply weren’t ever recorded in the sixties, especially on songs like “Do You Like Worms,” “Child Is Father Of The Man,” and “Holidays.”
Some of my favorite musical moments on Smile:
-‐Wonderful: Notice the way the melody jumps up and down. Try to sing along with this melody–it’s no Mary Had A Little Lamb! Also, the form is only 16 bars long and it changes keys five times without the listener even noticing.
-‐Surf’s Up: In the B section (“dove nested towers, the hour was strike”), Brian sings a chromatic melody and then repeats the same melody at half speed, getting every last bit of emotion out of it. And, of course, the “columnated ruins domino” melody is stunning.
-‐Holidays: The whispering wind vocal section at the end could go on for about 45 minutes and I’d be perfectly happy, especially with that little harpsichordy sound in the background. I have a bootleg of this section that’s dry as a bone and it’s even better that way.
For all the writing I’ve done on the story of Brian Wilson and Smile–a song, a short essay for the Cymbal Crashing Clouds book, a Hutchmoot talk, and now this–you might be surprised when I tell you that Smile is probably not my favorite record of all time. It’s not really a record, after all. But I listen to it all the time and wonder what it could have been had Brian completed it in 1967. I’ll never know, and in a way I’m glad, because the story of Smile’s creation, fall, and redemption has been with me in moments of fearless creation and in moments of deep anxiety. So I think of it as my favorite idea for a record. And I love Brian Wilson for his fear as well as his courage.