R.E.M. – You hated them first b/c I never did

All you guys who hated them first, who wished they all could have OD’d after that first Hib-tone outtake of “Radio Free Europe” (not the one that came out, and not the cliched first outtake where they play the whole song in the guy’s bathroom with his little brother in the tub, but the one BEFORE that, where they’re not even playing and the tape’s not even on? I bet you never heard of it but that was fucking GENIUS, and if you don’t own it (in the original imaginary sleeve that doesn’t even EXIST) then just piss off right now) I’m like: Really?

They were never my college heroes. I didn’t pick up on their indie stuff and ignored the first few WB albums too, figuring….well, not much. None of my friends were into them and they weren’t on the radio in Oregon ’til “The One I Love” so, y’know. otras cosas.

But somehow it turned out I HAD heard all that early stuff, it drifted into my ears when I wasn’t paying attention, and when someone played “Eponymous” I thought, I know nearly ALL of these songs and I’m psyched to hear the other ones, too, and damn, these are beautiful-sounding, intriguiginly worded (if mysteriously uttered) songs. And the hits…I loved “Out of Time” and never actively disliked “Shiny Happy People,” b/c I love the Beach Boys too, and a hook’s a hook and sometimes who gives a shit about the lyrics? I always thought that tune was about taking ecstasy, anyway…and is there a better audio equivalent of that? (tell the nearest person you love them & hit the jump)

I thought “Out of Time” was full of great and often beautifully weird songs. Lovely instrumentals! Great, yearning harmonies! And “Belong”. What’s that even about? I don’t care, I just love how it sounds and how it makes me think about something different every time I hear it. Then 18 months (if that?) goes by and boom: “Automatic”! Even BETTER songs, the slight zing of early autumn, the insanely beautiful “Nightswimming,” the truly amazing (esp before your 100,000th listen) “Man in the Moon.” I’m in love — what’s that song? Oh, yes…”Try Not to Breathe” (remember the AIDS crisis?), and how about “Sweetness Follows.” 

“Monster” was a disappointment by comparison (but WHAT a great single in ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and how strangely erotic is “Tongue”?)  but I thought that tour kicked ass, and then “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was probably 20 minutes too long, but had an LP’s worth of cool-to-fantastic music on it (just check out the chords on the chorus of “Be Mine,” I bet Buck STILL plays that on his guitar every day, just to remember how awesome he is). And if the albums became less consistent after Berry’s departure I made myself an album called ‘Assorted’ featuring my faves from the post ‘Hi-Fi’ albums (plus some rarities from the early ’90s) , it’s like an hour-plus and it’s one hella-fuckin great album. ” “Lotus,” “Frequency…”, “Wall of Death,” “Imitation of Life” (the BEST single they ever did, I think most days), “The Wake-Up Bomb,” “E-bow the Letter,” “Ascent of Man,” “Daysleeper,” (beautiful song), “Electrolite” (the perfect kiss-off to the 20th century) and “How the West Was Won”, and more. “Tongue,” “Be Mine.” Nothing from “Accelerate” because that’s just a great album, front to back, and there’s no need to cherry-pick. 

I already miss R.E.M. I wanted to see them play live at least once more. I really wanted them to uncork one last stone-cold brilliant album, possibly with Bill Berry onboard to stir up the original four-way chemistry. But I think they’d had enough. Even when they were good/great in the last decade or so it seemed clear that they just had….other stuff on their minds. Greatness hurts. They did it for a long time. The good news is, they’re back together with Berry again. So that vibe is back. Only it’s going on in the drummer’s barn, where they can drag out some amps, guitars, a cooler full of beer and fill the empty sky with music. I’d love to listen in, I’m sure we all would, but R.E.M. belongs to R.E.M. again. They deserve it.

So do yourself a favor and find that non-existent perfect moment version of “Radio Free Europe.” You’ll have to snatch it from the glowing hands of the Buddha (and watch yourself because he just LOOKS fat, he’s a tough little fucker), but it’ll be worth it. It’s perfect.

The Beach Boys’ "Smile" Sessions Part III: Aboard a Tidal Wave

BUT HOPE LIVES ON, if only because by the ’90s Wilson’s life seemed to become less awful. Years of terrible consumption, followed by nearly a decade of abuse at the hands of a live-in psychologist who bullied Wilson with bodyguards and a dizzying array of psychotropic drugs, had given way to something closer to stability.

Certainly there had been irreversible tragedy along the way. Wilson’s brother Dennis, the only Beach Boy who really surfed, had fallen into a consumptive alcoholism that led to his drowning death in 1983. Baby brother Carl, the band’s onstage leader for more than 30 years, died of cancer in 1998.

But even in the shadow of those tragedies and his own continuing psychological problems, Wilson launched a solo career. He sang the vocals for Van Dyke Parks’ album “Orange Crate Art,” which reached back toward “Smile’s” old ideas about American history and California.


Did this mean “Smile” was around the corner? Each time Wilson reappeared, the murmur would start again.

The only problem was that Brian Wilson wanted nothing to do with “Smile.”

You learn this the hard way that day in 1998, when you finally raise the “Smile” question, smiling conspiratorially to let Wilson know that you get it, that part of you lives on the same horizon where “Smile” exists. What he says nearly capsizes you.

“That was just a bunch of fragments that didn’t even add up to songs,” he says dismissively. “I hated it. It was just, you know, inappropriate music.”

You are so flabbergasted that even Wilson seems to feel sorry for you. “You know what album I do love?” he continues, more cheerfully. ” ’15 Big Ones.’ That’s when it all happened for me. That’s where my heart lies.”

Which is extremely weird because that record is a notorious array of half-baked ’50s covers and generally substandard originals that represents one of the band’s lower creative points.

Is Wilson being perverse, ironic or just crazy?

Or maybe he’s just tired of being reminded of the moment when he gave up on his ambitions. Maybe he’s still torn by the currents of love and hate surrounding his (now dead) father, and rent by the resentment and guilt that go along with having a needy family that rarely hesitated to tell him exactly how he let them down.
If so, Wilson wasn’t the only “Smile” architect who radiated a certain emotional ambivalence through the years.

Van Dyke Parks, the Los Angeles songwriter/musician Wilson had tapped to co-write “Smile” in 1966, felt exactly the same way.


“That was just a few months of work I did as a contract employee many, many years ago,” he says when you first meet him in 1998. “Life goes on. I had other opportunities and I took them. Really, I think it means a lot more to other people than it does to me.”

This is understandable. For while Parks is extremely genial, a true gentleman of the Southern fashion with elaborate manners and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he’s also a hardworking musician, producer and arranger who might not appreciate how his decades of work could still reside in the shadow of something he never quite finished in 1967.

And maybe something else is going on, too. Maybe Parks resents how some of the songs he co-wrote with Wilson eventu
ally appeared without his name on them. Maybe he feels guilty about abandoning his “Smile” partner just as the going was getting tough. Or then again, maybe he believes that Wilson’s surrender, followed by decades of near-complete withdrawal, amount to an even greater betrayal?


You’d guess that all these impulses have long since blended together into something so hard to talk about that Parks just doesn’t even try anymore. But then again, you wonder aloud during a long dinner conversation this spring, how can he say “Smile” means nothing to him when he keeps lithographs from the original “Smile” booklet framed right above the keyboard where he works every single day?


For a moment Parks is silent. He starts to open his mouth, but his wife, Sally, interrupts him.

“He’s got you there, Van.”

7. 

REMEMBER THE ANGELS BRIAN WILSON said he could see when he was writing “Smile”? Well, eventually the angels came back.


This time they were entirely terrestrial, of course, in the form of those people who had been so awestruck by “Smile,” or what they’d heard about it, that they had been compelled to track Wilson down and ended up becoming a part of his life.

First there was David Leaf, the New York fan who had written about Wilson, then became one of his most reliable friends and advisers. Darian Sahanaja’s “Smile”-inspired band actually did become the core of Wilson’s 10-piece band and, starting in 1999, helped the no-longer-quite-so-reclusive musician present his best, most complex songs to audiences around the world.

Slowly, the “Smile” stars began to align. In 2000, Wilson and band started playing the entire “Pet Sounds” album in concert. Wilson still balked at playing anything from “Smile,” but as he held forth at the piano at a Christmas party, Leaf’s wife, Eva, convinced him to run through a verse or two of “Heroes and Villains.” Wilson relented, finally, and was so pleased by the response that he agreed to play the entire song at a tribute concert held the next March in Radio City Music Hall in New York. Later that summer Wilson’s band worked a few other “Smile” songs into their playlist.

“It was like little baby steps the whole way,” Sahanaja says. “Then we were looking for something that could follow the ‘Pet Sounds’ show, and one day we just looked at each other and said, ‘How about ‘Smile’?”

At first Wilson didn’t even want to try. But with the urging of his wife, Melinda, he allowed Sahanaja to come to his house with the original studio tracks from 1966-67 loaded on his laptop. Once Wilson got over his initial anxiety about playing the music onstage, the work started to flow. Wilson, who hadn’t heard most of the “Smile” music for more than 30 years, even started to enjoy himself.

One morning, as they played the original instrumental track for “Do You Like Worms,” whose words and melody had never been known, Sahanaja finally got to pose the question every “Smile” freak had wanted to ask for more than 35 years.

“I said, ‘Brian, was there anything else that was supposed to happen here?’ “

After thinking for a moment, Wilson started humming a melody. Then, consulting a photocopy of some original lyrics handwritten by Parks in 1966, Wilson started to sing. When he couldn’t read Parks’ writing of one word, he picked up the phone and dialed his old collaborator. They hadn’t spoken in years, but Wilson got right to the point.

“Hi Van Dyke, it’s Brian. Do you know that song ‘Do You Like Worms’?”p>


Here things could have gotten unhappy. Parks, after all, had been as surprised as anyone to hear that Wilson was planning to dust off their old collaboration. “I didn’t want to hear about its re-emergence from the press,” he says. “But of course I did.” When Wilson’s wife called one day to invite him to the “Smile” premiere in London, Parks refused. This clearly wasn’t his project anymore, he said.

Still, Parks told Wilson to fax the “Worms” lyric sheet over, and called back a few minutes later to decipher his original handwritten word as “Indians.” The next morning Sahanaja drove up to Wilson’s house and found the musician standing on the doorstep, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“Van Dyke’s gonna be here in 15 minutes,” he said.

Then Parks was a part of “Smile” again, recalling the lyrics that hadn’t been written down, composing new ones to fit holes he hadn’t quite filled in 1967 and adding his part to the new melodies Wilson was composing.

Gradually the old and the new folded together so effortlessly even Sahanaja couldn’t tell where one began and the other left off.

8. 

A FEW DAYS AFTER the “Smile” premiere in February you manage to download an MP3 of one of the London “Smile” shows. You listen eagerly, but also apprehensively. Will it work? Will the filled-in pieces increase its magic, or compromise it? You have good reason to fear the latter, if only because Wilson’s career has for decades been dominated by wasted potential, blown opportunities and abject failure.

You press play, and what happens is this: It works.

All those disparate chunks of music from the bootlegs — the stray chants and odd little musical digressions, the seemingly random quotes from rock, jazz and folk standards — have been woven into a coherent three-movement cantata.

It’s a daring piece of music, and of musical storytelling. From Plymouth Rock to prairie, to the driving thunder of the railway to the clamor of the boomtowns to the splendor of the golden coast to the exotic islands beyond the horizon. It is hopeful and sad, lush and thundering, funny and tragic. It is plaintive melodies of Stephen Foster mixed with the urban symphonics of George Gershwin with a touch of Charles Ives’ antic musicianship tossed in to weird things up.

Which means that as unlikely as this sounds, “Smile” is everything it was ever been rumored to be.

“Smile” exists. And a tiny piece of American tragedy has vanished.


Surf’s up! Aboard a tidal wave/Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave/I heard the word, wonderful thing/A children’s song. . .

9. 

LET’S SAY YOUR LIFE IS GOING OK. You’re older now, settled in to your place in the world along with all the usual emotional baggage. There is always something to worry about, something to regret, something to mourn. Then when you least expect it, something magical happens. A call from out of the blue. A perfectly sunny afternoon. The sound of your children playing in the back yard.

One day in May you’re sitting with Brian Wilson in a hillside deli in Beverly Hills. He seems as tentative in the world as ever, but when “Smile” comes up, he puts down his barbecue beef sandwich and speaks excitedly.

“I was worried it wouldn’t go over,” he says, recalling the first night he played “Smile” to a living audience. “But I got a 10-minute standing ovation. Ten minutes! I mean, I got bored after a while. I said, ‘OK, that’s enough!’ but they wouldn’t shut up. It’s almost scary.”

What was scary?


“That I couldn’t believe they could like it so much.”

But wasn’t that also exciting?

“Being afraid is like bordering on excitement,” he says, pausing to think for a moment. “It’s good scary.”

But “Smile” used to summon the bad kind of scary, right?

“Yeah, I had a negative attitude about it.”

What changed, exactly?

“I don’t know. I just got hungry to get better.”

Finally, it’s time to ask the big question. The sum-it-all-up, now-your-masterpiece-is-painted question that only a 61-year-old veteran of seven kinds of personal hell can truly answer.

So you ask: After all these years of heartbreak and broken promises, what would you change if you could go back and do it again?

Wilson looks down at the table. He gazes out through the window. Finally, he looks back into your eyes and lays it all on the line.

“You know the end of ‘California Girls’ when it goes, ‘Girls, girls, girls, yeah I dig the girls’?” He sings this last part. You nod. “I wish I had made that louder. Like when David Lee Roth did it, and he goes, “Ah dig GUUUURLS!” (He’s singing again, loudly.) Man, we shoulda done it like that.”

He gets up to pay the check.

A woman sitting alone in a booth nearby leans over.

“That man’s a genius. I hope you know who you’re talking to.”

Actually, I don’t think I do. But that’s exactly how both of us want it.

The Beach Boys’ ‘Smile’ Sessions – Part II

You discover ‘Smile’ in 1976, in the middle of a Rolling Stone profile pegged to a Beach Boys revival that includes the first of Wilson’s many comebacks. He is 34 then, and yet still adolescent in his shyness, his deceptive wit, the contrasting currents of brilliance and self-doubt. . . . . .follow the jump to read more, friends and neighbors….

On a larger scale, Wilson’s is a cautionary tale about the fragile nature of genius and the limitless power of cynicism. Wilson was a modern Icarus, done in by his own beautiful ambitions. It is a story tailor-made for your average self-pitying adolescent (ahem), or anyone who might look at the cruel world around himself and conclude, as Wilson had done so plaintively on “Pet Sounds,” I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.

And while the facts seemed to defy even the limits of fiction, say, it certainly invited more than its share of journalism, even as the album was still being created. For while Wilson sat at his piano communing with his angels, another flock of more earthly conspirators were working to prime the market for his group’s next album. Led by Derek Taylor — once The Beatles’ publicist — the wave of publicity started rolling in the summer of 1966.

“This is Brian Wilson, he is a Beach Boy,” one typical piece began. “But some say he is more. Some say he is a Beach Boy and a genius.”
Writers with access to Wilson’s studio emerged with vivid descriptions of the revolutionary happenings within. Then in May of 1967 Wilson performed a solo rendition of “Surf’s Up” for famed conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein’s music special, coming away from the show with high praise from the maestro himself, who described the song as “poetic, beautiful in its obscurity” and termed Wilson “one of today’s most important musicians.”

“Smile’s” demise did nothing to end the wave of stories. Paul Williams, one of the first serious rock critics, produced a multipart interview with Wilson intimate David Anderle in 1968, and each time a new “Smile” track turned up on a Beach Boys album in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the “Smile”-is-finally-coming rumor mill would crank up anew.

But no “Smile” emerged, and Brian Wilson sank even deeper into the psychological purgatory he would be stuck in for so much of his adult life. The other Beach Boys pressed on through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, their success founded almost entirely on the strength of Wilson’s indelible ’60s songs.

Occasional surges in popularity would inspire a new fusillade of media attention, and each time there would be at least one lengthy recounting of the “Smile” saga. And each time it passed you could sense another few thousand converts getting sucked into the gravitational pull of the “Smile” legend.

Eventually, “Smile’s” nonexistence would seem to be the point — not just of the album, but of the people who had tried and failed to bring it into the world. For years, decades even, they would be subsumed by the shadow of what never was and what so many people had expected it to be.

Then, nearly four decades later, a shaft of light fell across “Smile’s” shadow. And something inside gleamed back.


5.

It is the spring of 1998, and you are driving up the rural Illinois road that leads to Brian Wilson’s house.

What is the famously troubled visionary behind the Beach Boys, the very inventor of the California sound, doing in a subdivision of McMansions an hour outside Chicago?

Excellent question, and only one of the many questions you are planning to ask this man whose brilli
ant work and calamitous life have inspired so many currents of awe, joy, sorrow and pity in the past 35 years.

You are a journalist now, in the employ of a magazine that expects you to return to the office with a vividly reported, economically written story about a once-troubled celebrity making a comeback.

But what you really want to talk about is “Smile,” the legendary psychedelic musical masterwork Wilson began, but could not finish, in 1966 and 1967. Just as word began to spread that Wilson had discovered a new kind of rock ‘n’ roll radical enough to transform all of popular culture, he was overtaken by the internal demons that would haunt him for decades.



“Smile” was never released. But the few tracks that did surface spurred a legend that has only grown with the years, gradually transforming the lost record into a kind of modern folk legend, a cautionary tale of ambition and failure, genius and corruption. It is a metaphor for every American utopia gone bust, and it must be discussed.

But you have been told that Wilson will not answer “Smile” questions. Push him too far and the notoriously sensitive musician will freeze up, or even leave the room. At which point the interview, your story and perhaps your career will come to a quick and catastrophic end.
You have much to lose. But you have also anticipated this moment for years. And now that it has arrived, you cannot resist the temptation to try. You must ask about “Smile.”

Now you are in Brian Wilson’s basement recording studio. He is standing in the control room, a tall, burly man in his mid-50s, with slicked-back hair and watery blue eyes that reflect all the sorrows in his life. He greets you shyly and says he’s having a tough day. “I’m a bit low because of Frank,” he says, referring to Sinatra, who had died the day before. “I didn’t know him, but I really loved his singing a lot.”


He stares silently for a moment, then shakes his head. “I guess I’ll be OK,” he says quietly, as if convincing himself of something. Then he says it again, slightly louder. “Yeah, I’m OK!”

You sit down, turn on your tape recorder and get started.


AND YOU’RE NOT THE FIRST to feel this call to action. Not even close.


In the mid- ’70s, a New York-based fan named David Leaf picked up and moved to Los Angeles, where he started a Beach Boys fan magazine, met Brian Wilson and wrote a book called “The Beach Boys and the California Myth” that contained a vivid, emotional recounting of the “Smile” story. A few years later another L.A. fan, Domenic Priore, working with a few other Brian Wilson fanatics, compiled a slew of period magazine articles, official documents and self-penned essays into a book called “Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!”
Meanwhile, in L.A. in the early ’80s, a young musician named Darian Sahanaja silk-screened a homemade “Smile” T-shirt that would lead a mutual friend to introduce him to Probyn Gregory, another “Smile” buff with whom he would eventually perform in the Wondermints, a band whose sound absorbed Wilson’s “Smile”-era productions. And when a “Smile” bootleg reached the ears of superstar record producer Don Was in 1989, he swooned immediately.

“Like a musical burning bush, these tapes awakened me to a higher consciousness of record making,” Was declared. “I was amazed that one single human being could dream up this unprecedented and radically advanced approach to rock ‘n’ roll.”

So amazed, in fact, that Was temporarily abandoned music to make a filmed tribute to Wilson, the award-winning documentary “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

More bootlegs emerged, and in 1993 a Beach Boys box set included about 30 minutes of “Smile” material — finished versions of “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes” and the strange, loping backing track for “Do You Like Worms.”

Other musicians adapted Wilson’s “Smile”-era techniques into their own work. R.E.M., Fleetwood Mac and Wilco recorded homages. Younger bands such as the High Llamas and the Wondermints recorded entire albums that could be outtakes from “Smile.” One night in the mid-’90s the Wondermints performed at a Wilson tribute show in L.A., and their rendition of “Surf’s Up” impressed the man of the hour so much he turned to a friend and observed, “If I’d had those guys in ’66 I could have taken “Smile” on the road.”

At the time it seemed like a joke.

The Beach Boys’ “Smile” Sessions: Why the Album Never Came Out, And Why It Now Will – Part 1

LET’S SAY YOUR LIFE IS A MESS.

Or maybe not a mess, exactly, but not quite what you imagined. You’re 22 years old and living at home, with a stupid job, no prospects for anything better and, it all but goes without saying, no girlfriend.

It is the winter of 1985. The world around you doesn’t look very encouraging either, tangled as it is in economic recession, Cold War saber-rattling and a popular culture that is defined increasingly by the Twin Dons of the Apocalypse, Henley and Johnson.

This is when some people turn to religion. Others study philosophy or punt everything and apply for law school. You, on the other hand, decide to go to a record store.
(follow the jump, yo)


You meet a clerk named Ken, and when casual conversation about coming releases indicates that you have a fairly serious jones for the Beach Boys, his eyes light up.

“Have you heard of ‘Smile’?” he asks, flashing a small, cryptic grin.
He is referring to the Beach Boys’ unreleased 1967 album, an avant-garde masterwork that has for years been considered the holiest grail of rock ‘n’ roll: a record so brilliant and innovative it could not draw breath on this planet.

Most people don’t think of the Beach Boys in these terms. But as you and Ken know, this is largely because of what didn’t quite happen in 1967 and all that did happen afterward. For while the group continued, at times to great public acclaim, it was with an ever-diminishing commitment to its art. This collapse was due largely to the gradual retreat of band visionary Brian Wilson, whose fragile muse had been damaged severely by the repudiation of his masterwork.

By 1985 the group is a hollow nostalgia act, and Wilson, off in his own loopy, unproductive orbit, is everyone’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll casualty.
And yet some people can’t stop thinking of “Smile,” and for reasons you haven’t even started to ponder you are one of them. What Ken tells you next makes your heart leap in your chest.

“Come back next week,” he whispers. “I’ll hook you up.”

You come back the next week bearing a six-pack of beer and leave holding your own pirated copy of “Smile.”

Except of course it’s not the finished “Smile,” just a few finished songs and many more half-completed fragments, connected arbitrarily into a running order. But even in pieces it is breathtaking. No pop music has ever sounded like this — the banjos, harmonicas, harpsichords, strings and woodwinds colliding with distorted guitars, early synthesizers and those sweet, clear voices. The lyrics, by writer/ musician Van Dyke Parks, are both psychedelic and nostalgic, using impressionistic portraits of barnyards, railroad beds and lavish opera halls to describe the advance and decline of American civilization, the circle of life and the pursuit of God. It’s all very lovely and mysterious and you spend hours listening and pondering.

You are not the only person thinking about it, either. Books about “Smile” will be written. Feature-length documentaries produced. When the Internet comes into being, a surprising chunk of it will be taken up by people endlessly discussing and sometimes arguing bitterly about “Smile” and its song titles, true running order, the reasons and circumstances of its demise and what it would have, could have, should have been.

Eventually you begin to suspect that they aren’t really talking about “Smile” as much as their own collections of fragmented dreams and broken ambitions. You like to think your ongoing interest is more intellectual than emotional.

You may be kidding yourself here. Bu
t fortunately you have chosen to become a journalist, a pursuit which not only gives you license to turn your fixations into assignments but also actually encourages you to do so.

Years pass, life twists and turns. You get married, have success and failure, fun and angst, houses, apartments, jobs and children. You also get to meet and interview Brian Wilson and his “Smile” co-writer Van Dyke Parks. What you come to understand is that they both hate “Smile.”

Wilson in particular turns stony and weirder than usual when the topic comes up. Parks, who is remarkably sweet and patient in most respects, tosses his hands in the air and sighs loudly. You learn to talk about other things when in their company.

Then one day in 2003 you hear something astonishing.

Brian Wilson has decided to finish “Smile.” He and his new band will debut the completed work in London in February 2004, then record a studio version to be released in the fall.

Could it really be true that rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest myth is becoming a reality? And could it also be true that some of the world’s biggest “Smile” freaks are incredibly dismayed by this news?

Yes, it could. And if there is ever a time to turn a personal fixation into grist for the old journalism mill, this is it.

IT IS MAY 2004, and you are standing in a Los Angeles recording studio with Mark Linett, who is engineering the new “Smile” sessions. You have been talking for a while, and now that he knows the extent of your interest in the subject he opens a drawer, pulls out a dark metal container about the size of a small pizza box, only thicker, and lays it in your hands.

“You’re gonna want to hold that,” he says. “Those are master tapes from the original ‘Smile’ sessions.”

Look at the yellowed index card Scotch taped to the top, and lo, the handwritten label reads: “Beach Boys: ‘Tones,’ ‘Wind Chimes.’ “
You feel the weight of it in your palms while the wheels in your brain spin, trying to factor this moment into the years “Smile” has lived in your mind. It’s wonderful to hold something so historical and mysterious. But in all these years you’d never really thought of “Smile” as something that could exist in the physical sphere you inhabit.

When Brian Wilson was writing “Smile” in 1966, he told his friends that he could see angels floating in the air above his piano Something magical was happening to him, something he didn’t understand and couldn’t begin to control. All he knew was that the years of hit songs and pop star fame hadn’t been enough. The move toward more sophisticated music — first with the thematically linked song cycle “Pet Sounds” and then the stunning pop art single, “Good Vibrations,” was just the start.

Determined to go even further, Wilson started work on a new album that would combine his earliest musical influences — the 19th-century Americana of Stephen Foster and the 20th-century urban symphonies of George Gershwin — with hippie-era spirituality, linking them in a wholly modern symphonic work that would not just revolutionize popular music, but also attain a near-religious kind of perfection. “It’s going to be a teenage symphony to God,” he declared.

Beneath the bravado, however, lurked a hint of desperation. For even if Wilson had long since become the central provider for his extended family, he still lived in fear of his domineering father, a frustrated songwriter who had abused his sons both physically and mentally..
“In some ways I was very afraid of my dad,” Wilson told you in 1998. “In other ways I loved him, because he knew where it was at. He scared me so much I actually got scared into making good records.”

2. 

WILSON’S PARADOXICAL FEELINGS about his father — which you can still hear in the way he uses the words love and fear almost interchangeably — fueled “Smile,” both in its lofty ambitions and the deeper meanings behind its celebration/critique of American history and the conflict between innocence and cynicism.

Eager to find a lyricist with the verbal acuity to translate his feelings into words, Wilson turned to Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi-bred songwriter and musician whose intricate, pun-filled lyrics matched the increasingly abstract music Wilson heard in his head.

Parks, in turn, shared Wilson’s visceral sense of both the promise and deterioration of the American dream. For while Parks was well aware of the nation’s darker side — one of his brothers had died mysteriously while in the employ of the State Department in Germany — this tragedy, along with his distaste for the war in Vietnam, only fired his passion for its most fundamental beliefs.

“I was dead-set on centering my life on the patriotic ideal,” Parks says. “I was a son of the American revolution, and there was blood on the tracks. Recent blood, and it was still drying.”

The first night they worked together, Parks crafted lyrics for “Heroes and Villains,” a hurtling country ballad whose impressionistic portrait of a frontier boomtown became the stepping-off point for a series of vignettes tracking westward migration through the prairies to the far shores of Hawaii. Some were full-fledged songs while others were chants or single verses that served as transitions to the climactic piece, “Surf’s Up,” an impressionistic portrait of a crumbling, decadent society.

The piece’s other sections explored the cycle of life and the pursuit of God, but even these digressions were part of the larger American story.

“The whole record seemed like a real effort toward figuring out what Manifest Destiny was all about,” Parks says. “We’d come as far as we could, as far as Horace Greeley told us to go. And so we looked back and tried to make sense of that great odyssey.”

Once the evening writing sessions began to bear fruit, the pair began to spend their days in recording studios, where Wilson spent hours honing vivid soundscapes from the layers of percussion, traditional symphonic instruments, electric guitars and keyboards and more folksy banjos, harmonicas and fiddles.

3. 

BUT AS PRECISE AS WILSON’S THINKING in the recording studio may have been, his life beyond the acoustic walls was growing increasingly odd.

And here you come to another facet of the “Smile” legend: the part about the piano-in-the-sandbox; the hashish-smoking tent; the expensive recording time sacrificed for want of a better “vibe”; the obsessions with astronomy, pingpong and macrobiotic diets.

This, for better or worse, is a large part of what makes “Smile” seem so otherworldly to you and everyone else: that in their pursuit of inspiration, Wilson, Parks and all their intimates ceased abiding by pretty much every rule of logic, sanity and societal order. They were intellectual renegades, pursuing nothing more or less than the far horizons of possibility.

Or maybe they were just insane. With Wilson, you could never be sure. And as work on “Smile” dragged into the winter and spring, it began to seem as if the darkness on the edges of Wilson’s consciousness was beginning to gather force. First it had all been creativity and magic. Then one of Wilson’s accountants discovered that Capitol, apparently in league with Wilson’s father (once the band’s manager), had bilked the band out of more than $10 million in royalties. Enraged by the corporate betrayal — to say nothing of the paternal one — the band filed a lawsuit, which sucked up more of Wilson’s emotional energy.
Wilson’s drug use escalated, and the trips turned darker, often terrifying. Already losing momentum, Wilson grew even more anxious when the other Beach Boys (who had toured without Wilson since his first emotional breakdown in 1964) came home from Europe and gathered to record their vocals.

Their reaction to the music, perhaps influenced by their alarm at their leader’s increasingly eccentric behavior, was at best muted and sometimes downright hostile. Carl Wilson, the group’s onstage leader, couldn’t imagine how they could play “Smile” onstage.

Lead singer Mike Love, who would always be the chief proponent of the surfin’/cars/girls playlist, didn’t think it was commercial enough. Once Wilson’s chief lyricist, Love was so flummoxed by the esoteric poetry Parks had written for “Cabinessence” he chased him down outside the studio and demanded an explanation: What does “Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield,” mean, anyway?
Parks refused to explain (“I have no excuse, sir,” he reputedly snapped), then figured the time had come for him to go.

“Basically, I was taught not to be where I wasn’t wanted,” he says now. “It was sad, so I decided to get away quick.”

What Parks either didn’t comprehend, or didn’t want to face, is that the same spiritual corruption he and Wilson had wanted to critique in “Smile” — the commodification of the American dream — had risen up to destroy their own work.

Parks would go on to a storied career in and around the music and film industries of Hollywood. But for Wilson, the loss of his masterwork dealt a profound blow to his psyche. He began to fret about “mind gangsters” he believed were trying to destroy him. Convinced his house was bugged, he would only discuss business while floating in the deep end of his pool. Wilson’s angels had already deserted him. Within a few years the music would all be gone, too.

Published originally in The Oregonian, 2005

Ralph Berkowitz and the artist’s command, and dilemma

 When my grandfather, Ralph Berkowitz, died today, less than a month shy of his 101st birthday, He took his leave in exactly the way he had arranged.

He was in his home. His friends were in the other room. His doctor monitored his vital signs and eased his way to, and then through, the last threshold. In the dining room his trusted lawyer played stage manager, guiding the players through their roles in precise accordance to his client’s instructions. His daughters, their children and every other member of the family were thousands of miles away.

Ralph slept quietly, then became still. And then when everyone was looking the other way, he drifted off. No muss, no fuss, no histrionics.

Not in an old folks’ home. No life support. No beeping and whirring. And did I mention that he had the whole operation purring along to his precise plan? Nice job, sir. If there’s a better way to go I can’t think of what it would be.

Also worth mentioning: The guy had quite a life. Check out his Wikipedia entry here. Realize also that he started out in the Bensonhurst corner of Brooklyn. The son of an immigrant auto detailer, (who knew they even had auto detailers in 1910?) the boy had the piano chops to earn private lessons in Manhattan, then won a highly-prized slot in the first class ever admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He joined the faculty after graduating, passing along what he’d learned to an ambitious young Lenny Bernstein, among others. In 1940 the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky tapped Ralph to be his full-time accompanist, and he spent much of the next 30 years performing duets with the master in halls all over the world.

(light a stogie and follow the jump…)

Watch the guys go at it here and here and here. Note the high-strung woman keening after Gregor (Grisha to his friends) then ask yourself: What the hell am I watching?  Essentially a pre-tread of “A Hard Day’s Night.” in which a great musician attempts to perform on a radio show, and certain amounts of hell break loose during rehearsals. Ralph has a line of dialogue, which boils down to a solitary word: “Yes.”

More cool stuff: He spent five years as Serge Koussevitsky’s administrative assistant in the academic center of the Tanglewood Festival. When Koussevitsky died in 1951 Ralph took the top job, overseeing a faculty that included a grown-up Lenny B, A. Copland, Z. Mehta, and more. In 1961 he moved to Albuquerque, NM to become the manager of what would become the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Somewhere he found the time to tape 63 episodes of a local educational series called “The Arts,” and entertained himself by painting (pretty well, I think), reading voraciously, drinking good scotch and smoking cigars. Stogies, he told me a few years ago, were his favorite vice. “It’s a filthy habit,” he said. “But it’s worth it.”

He was funny and charming and called everyone sweetie. Which was fortunate because he was also emotionally distant and mind-bendingly stubborn.

Family was more complicated to live with. Maybe it was all that time spent in trains, on ships and on the far side of the footlights. Or maybe an existence splayed between the rigid bars on the musical staff and the Delphic spirits swirling behind and through the melody. The discipline required to learn the notes, and the artistry it takes to locate the music hiding within.

It takes drive and focus to become a professional, and then even more of the same — along with a willingness to abandon virtually every other aspect of your life — in order to make it your life. Other things go by the wayside. A marriage, say. Quantity time with the children. There would be another, more successful marriage later in life, but when it came to family, the top of his Steinway grand told the story: Lovingly arrayed pictures of Ralph with Lenny, Aaron, Grisha, Zubin and Yo-Yo. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren…not so much.

There’s more to tell — whatever became of the long-planned 100th birthday party that he cancelled with less than week’s notice? — but not tonight. This night is for scotch and cigars, a tip of the proverbial hat and the sound of my son preparing for his weekly piano lesson. His first instruction came from his great-grandfather Ralph, when he was four. We’ve got that picture up on the wall.

Just as I keep a version of his quest, and his failings, hidden inside. I think of him when I’m flying off into the night, frantic to find the spirit inside the story I’m chasing. I think more when I’m too preoccupied to speak at the dinner table, and when I realize I’m not watching my son play the piano as much as hearing the music come down through the ceiling. I’m writing, is the thing. Writing about Ralph, and in my own watered-down way, walking the same path.