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


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.”


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.


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

Happy Birthday, Brian Wilson!: An extra-bonus interview with a man made for all times.

Dateline: Beverly Hills, July 20, 2010. 

Brian Wilson stands on the porch of his house, watching his guest climb awkwardly from the rental car and limp/gambol up the walk. “Hey, Brian!” the guy calls. Brian waves. “You better come inside,” he says. “It’s a hot one.” 

The subject of the moment is his about-to-be-released album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” which paradoxically sounds more like Brian than a lot of his more recent records of original songs. He’s always excited to sell his new work, but this time he seems extra-proud of himself. Unsaid, but real: He didn’t dog it this time. He threw himself into the project, really put his own, personal, 21st century stamp on the arrangements and, particularly his vocals, which aren’t perfect, per se, except for that they’re so tuned in; so full of emotion; such a vivid representation of his quirky, tormented, beautiful mind. 

Brian points to his teleivision. “Have you ever seen this show?” he asks. “This stuff is amazing. I love this how.”

Point of fact: The screen is black. 

But so what?: He’s listening to one of those cable music stations, this one is all oldies from the ’60s. Unlikely shit, too, like Paul Revere b-sides, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, on and on. When Brian tunes into the sound – as he will occasionally, holding up a finger to stop the conversation — he stares fixedly at the black screen while the music plays. What’s he seeing? We’ll never know. Something beautiful, I suspect.

(Hit ‘Read More’ to follow the jump!

Brian Wilson doesn’t think like you and I do. This has caused him great pain over the years. And yet it has also allowed him to create majestic works of music, many of which define the American experience of the mid-to-late 20th century. You see a black screen, he sees the face of God. It’s the music that matters. 

Here’s part of what he had to say that day.


 Q: So tell me a little more about your first memories of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

I was listening to it, but I couldn’t think. I was like, ‘Hey I love this!’ after I grew up I remembered that. And then when I was much older I learned how to play that pretty part, you know the part with the violins? I learned how to play that on the piano. I didn’t listen to it that much growing up. Just when I was two, and then about 20 years went by, and when I was 28 I learned how to play it. My best friend was a total Gershwin fan, Tandyn Almer, he wrote ‘Along Comes Mary,’ by the Association. My parents didn’t own that record. But there was like a ton of songs to do, and we had access to 104 unfinished songs, played by George himself. We narrowed it down to 2 out of 104, so we wrote two original songs inspired by those songs. We went through all of them, and slowly narrowed it down.

Q: Do you feel haunted by your own past? (in attempts to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)

I think I’ve come quite a ways. I didn’t really like that ‘Imagination’ album (1998 comeback recorded during his brief stint in the Chicago exurbs, with country/adult contemporary Joe Thomas co-producing) as much as I did some of mine. Some of it was alright, though. Some of it is okay. I like ‘Cry,’ I like ‘South American,’ that’s the one I wrote with Jimmy Buffett. “Lay Down Burden,” I like that, too. (Successfully dodging attempt to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)

Q: And that clarinet section in the middle of “She Says That She Needs Me,” I love that. Is that your arrangement? 

Oh yeah, that was me. He (talking about the clarinet player/section leader, I think. Or Joe Thomas? Who knows?) took it down verbatim and did it right there.

Q: Are you surprised that you’ve turned into such a road warrior after all those years? I saw you do a lot of shows with the Beach Boys in the ’70s and early ’80s and you always looked like you were miserable, frankly. But now you seem to love it up there in the lights…

We’ve d toured our asses off for 12 years. Not sure we’re gonna do it this year, tho. I took to it pretty quickly. All that showmanship stuff, like saying, ‘Hello, hey, how you doing!’ and ‘Okay, now we’re gonna play ‘row, row, row your boat,’ with the audience singing back to me. I took to touring really easily, like a second nature or something. My favorite part is istening to my band play. They’re the best musicians I’ve ever known. They learned all my songs before I met ‘em, even. They had them all learned. That was wonderful when I met the Wondermints. I went up to them and said, ‘Would you ever consider backing me up?,’ and they said, Sure! So we got those four and rounded up a bunch of other people from Chicago and so on, and we had ourselves our group. They stuck together longer than the beach boys. The Beach Boys are about done now, without Carl. When he died that was it for the Beach Boys.

Q: Are you surprised by how much you’ve achieved in the last 12 years?

I don’t know. I just got back into writing songs, I guess. I had a creative explosion a couple of years ago, just before ‘That Lucky Old Sun.’ I wrote 18 songs in two months. I couldn’t believe it, the songs kept coming and coming and coming. ‘Midnight’s Another Day’ is a very good song, I sang it very beautifully, too. I knew it was gonna be the best song on the album once I wrote it.

Q: Do you think that finishing ‘Smile,’ and having it be such a huge hit, was career changer for you?

Not really, it just seemed like one more second. It did feel good to get it out of my hair. People loved it, though. Having it out was a real mind-blow. 

Q: How did you go about recording all those Gershwin songs? Was it intimidating to take on songs by one of your biggest heroes?

Well, we had a ton of songs to do. Paul Mertens, one of my band members, arranged the orchestration part of it. We took it one day at a time. Two songs a day, and within a week we had all the orchestrations down pat. Then we said, Oh my God, we’re gonna need some backing vocals! So I arranged the backing vocals, and that took about a week or two. And finally the leads started happening. It was a monster of a project. I would sit and sing for 8 hours a day. My wife produced my vocals.“You Can’t That Away from Me,’ does have the ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ sound.

Q: And yet, you’re not as much of a white boy musician as people think…I really love your vocal on “I Loves You, Porgy,” (Hey reader – Remember what I said earlier about the vocals on the Gershwin record? Exhibit ‘A’ – check out how vulnerable and bewitched he sounds on this track…so swept up in feeling that the cracks near the top of the melody actually ADD to the listener’s pleasure, b/c vulnerable people are by nature a little cracked, and plus also he’s singing in the voice of a woman, one accustomed, it seems, to totally fucked-up relationships, and you you know who else is familiar with similarly fucked-up relations? Brian Wilson, that’s who, and so here’s a cover version, borrowed from an African-American woman, that is somehow one of the most haunting autobiographical songs in BW’s hauntingly autobiography catalogue!)

Well, I was always inspired by that Chuck Berry song. He taught me how to write songs.  And I learned how to play boogie-woogie on the piano when I was 12. ‘Shortenin’ Bread’ had that boogie-woogie beat. I knew some of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ by heart, but then I learned the rest of it. My buddy Paul Mertens taught me how to do it.

(Starts to sing) ‘I loves you, Poooorgg-eeee! ’ I had a natural feel for it. I loved the tune. I instantly had a natural feel for it. And it does have that sweet yearning sound to it. And man, that whole ‘Porgy & Bess’  part of the record is my absolute favorite part on the whole record. It all just fits together. 

Q: The ‘Rhapsody’ melody flows throughout the whole record…it kinda makes me think of how ‘Rhapsody’ itself has flowed through your life and career…

Yeah, sure. It flows and flows on the album, sort of like a river. The album is loaded with good melodies. Gershwin’s melodies are like, great. When we finally came to the one tune, ‘the like in I love you,’ I thought that was a beautiful tune, a really beautiful tune. That line, ‘the pain in painting,’ Scott wrote that, I love it. A little bit of pain in the edges, just like life. It makes the rest of it more sweet. 

Q: So you don’t sound the least bit intimidated about collaborating with George Gershwin.

No, not really. I was beyond myself with like being proud, you know? And of course I was in awe of Gershwin himself. Someone gave me a book called ‘Gershwin,’ written by someone very close to the Gershwins. I’m gonna read the book. I’ve never read anything about him before.

Q: Well, what are you up to now? Melinda and the kids are out of town, you’re sort of doing your own thing here in the city. So are you writing new tunes?

Naw, I haven’t b
een working for a while, I’ve run dry. Totally dry on concepts for songs, you know. Can’t get a melody written, can’t get a chord pattern written, nothing at all.

Q: But Brian, you’ve been telling me that for ten years, and then there’s another album of new songs coming…

Yeah, I know. I guess it goes in cycles. 

What are you listening to now?

You see this show? (he points to the black TV, with that ‘San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ song playing in the speakers) That’s a tv program called ‘Sixties Revolution,’ and I listen to it lot of the time. I thrive on music, I need music to live. Because without music I would not be alive. Doesn’t it feel therapeutic to you? What kind of music do you like? (blah, blah, blah, blah, Beatles) Well, obviously the Beatles, I mean obviously. And Bruce? Oh wow, he’s great. He’s just a wonderful singer. And I’ve been listening to Elton John, Marvin Gaye, who is absolutely one of my favorites. Also Elvis Presley, the Doors, and. . . What’s that song? (sings -‘She came from somewhere back in his long ago…) Who’s that? Oh yeah, the Doobie Brothers. So I like that, and Van Morrison, too.I’m really familiar with all that stuff again, because I’ve been spot-checking the radio stations lately, and so I can tell you what’s what.

Q: Are you a Stevie Wonder fan?

Have you heard ‘Superwoman’? When I heard that I thought, that guy’s really got it on the ball! And ‘He’s Misstra Know It All?’ Oh my God! When I heard that I thought to myself, how in the world can Stevie Wonder write that kind of music? In the early-to-mid 80s I bought that album with ‘Superwoman’ and I said – what am I listening to!? That Moog synthesizer, ‘I think I can deal with that, is what went  through my mind. . .’ then he goes into the synth thing and I thought, I’ll never hear anything that good again in my life.’ (made to love cover): I like Carl’s version, too. They’re both good. But Stevie is a fabluous singer, a really good singer.

Q: I’m a big fan of Wilco, too. Have you heard them?

Wilco? Huh. Is there something to it that I might like? For instance, what is it about them that you really like? (blah, blah, melodic, blah blah experimental, electronic noise, great songs, kind of spooky…) I will definitely check it out. And the guy does ‘Love and Mercy’?’ Okay, I’ll check it out.

Q: Yeah, you should. I can make you a CD, if you want…and you should really check out the albums they made from Woody Guthrie’s old lyrics…this one called “My Flying Saucer,” it’s so not what you expect from the “This Land is Your Land” guy…

Do you think there’s anything real to UFO’s? Or is that just something people say? In general, have they established that there are really UFO’s? They have pictures, don’t they? Is that stuff real, or do they know for sure? (John Lennon said he saw one over New York City in the ’70s…)  No kidding!!!! He said he saw a UFO? (throws back his head and guffaws really loudly) Maybe that thing liked the Beatles! They wanted to get his autograph. Jesus, there are so many things out there people don’t understand, it’s a weird trip.

Q: Do you feel like you’re in a mystical trip when you’re writing; like when it feels like the music isn’t coming from you, but THROUGH you?

It’s like you can’t put your hands wrong, it just falls into your lap. And it’s like, what is this? What the fuck is this? We wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. That one came faster than any song we ever did. Then McCartney told me it was his favorite song. That’s when I said to myself, ‘My God! Paul McCartney who wrote ‘Let It Be’? I’ll tell ya what, though. Every time I listen to that song, ‘Let it Be’ I turn the damn thing off. I can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too scary. Not too powerful, just too…whatever. Too gospelly, too something, I can’t tell what it is. But I can’t listen to it anymore.

Q: I’m totally confused right now.

Years ago I used to rely on it to help me live my life. When things happened I’d tell myself, ‘it’s okay, just let it be, it’s going to be okay.’ I did that for years, and it would help me just let things go. But now I’m scared of it. Songs do that. They carry you from one trip to another, like a meditation. 

Q: I know you think music is totally spiritual. It has the power to soothe you, and freak you out.

Absolutely. It is a way to connect to a higher force. Spector did it, and the Beach Boys did, too. We all put our heart and soul into the vocals. Like when we did, what the hell, ‘Dance Dance Dance?” the vocals bounced between the bass and the high part – Dance/dance, dance/dance, that was cool. (It’s that surfin’ singin’ sound…) Yeah! 

Q: Your brother Dennis was a big inspiration, and a great songwriter too. But sometimes it seemed like the Beach Boys didn’t want to do his tunes, even when they were getting so good…

Yeah he was an idiot. We all had to kind of tame him down. We used to have corporation meetings, and Dennis would start yelling. He’d walk around the room  yelling, ‘You guys are a bunch of idiots! You don’t know what’s going on!’ And Mike would go, like, ‘What the fuck?’ And he’d go on and on for like 10 or 20 minutes, circling the table. He did that a few times. And after he did that a few times we didn’t like him anymore. He was being such an asshole about everything. I hung out with him in the early ‘80s for a while, but not much. It was a happy time, in the ‘80s, though.

(Absolutely no clue what he means by this. The years he and Dennis hung out were dismal and awful for both of them; Dennis was addicted to everything bad and Brian was trying to smoke, drink and drug his way out of his hellish psychiatric problems, which were then undiagnosed, untreated, unsympathized with, etc., basically the most un-fun experience anyone could have. The songs they wrote together were pretty awful, too. Sorry, but it’s true.)

Q: I know you were crushed when Dennis died. Then Carl died. Gershwin died young, too. Like, really young. Some guys just don’t make it to the end of their story…

Yeah, Gershwin had that brain tumor. Brain cancer, right? The same thing? (You’re like a horse, tho…you survive everything) no, that’s not true. Some of these radio stations play these advertisements that just drive me crazy. They’re just crazy, you know. Totally far out. So that’s it? We’re done? Thank you man. I’m gonna go to the park and take a lap.

(He gives his guest a hug, walks him outside and waves goodbye. And….scene.)

The Beach Boys in Concert program, 1964: A chronicle of death, hate, tragedy and litigation foretold

Oh, the Beach Boys of 1964. So young and carefree. So sunny and guile-free. All harmony and sweet, beaming faces.

Your summer dream, times five. And they made it look so easy, too!

“The most beautiful part of this whole story,” Brian Wilson, 22,  gushed to the unnamed author of the text inside the program sold at the group’s concerts that Beatle-fired year, “is the way this musical (sic) awkward squad pulled together to form a team and the significant part each one played in building the organization.”

Oh, it was pretty to think so. But just wait a few years. Months, really. Then cue the demons, jealousy, booze, drugs, spooky murderous cults, wacko psychologists and on and on and on. . .

And the weirdest thing? It’s all right there in the ’64 tour program. Read a little further, into the individual profiles of the boys in the band. Don’t bother reading between the lines. It’s all there in the text.

Shall we?

BRIAN WILSON – He has the magic touch that turns wax to gold. . .The other four boys generally accept Brian’s judgments and decisions but they sound off loud when they don’t see eye to eye with him. He readily gives in when a better idea is presented….peace in the family and harmony in the group are more precious than rubies. . .He has a sense of humor that ranges from the whimsical to the way-out.

MIKE LOVE – Mike Love, 23, has a complicated and dual personality. He is both kind and sarcastic, neat and scruffy, carefree and cautious. . .if he can’t make like an expert, his inferiority complex shows up like a walrus in a goldfish bowl. . .”Friends tell me my humor is is often sarcastic but that stems from impatience, I think…the Beatles are okay but I like girls better.”

(click read more to. . . well. . .)

ALAN JARDINE – Although he and Mike both live in Manhattan Beach, they never see each other outside of work. . .loves liver.

CARL WILSON – Carl is generous, kind, affectionate, conscientious, cooperative and stronlgy attached to his home and family, especially to big brother Brian, whom he worships. . .”without the Beach Boys I’d be nothing.”

DENNIS WILSON – The group’s glad-hander, good-timer, mad-mixer and sex-pot. . .he loves to run barefoot through the fields of flower-eating starlets. “Three of us are brothers and we naturally get into some pretty good scraps which blow over soon. . .they tell me I’m the guy with the quick temper and far-out temperament. When I look into the big baby blue eyes of a long-haired girl I can agree with anything she says. . .”

Brian Wilson Reimagines Brian Wilson: America’s native tormented musical genius keeps it as real as possible

(A version of this story was published originally in the Times of London on Friday, August 13. I haven’t seen it yet, but here’s the version I sent to them last Thursday)

Brian Wilson calls it his first musical memory. A flashing image of himself as a toddler, maybe two years old, lying on the floor of his grandmother’s living room.

Music was playing, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The spiraling clarinet, the start of a 17-minute musical journey through the rush and crash of modern urban life.

Listening in the working class suburbs of Los Angeles, young Brian lay alone on the rug, completely enthralled.

“I was like, ‘Hey, I love this!’ But I was too young to express it in words,” Wilson says. He’s sitting in his own living room now, his dark eyes alight with a memory that has followed him throughout his life.

And what a strange, wonderful and awful life it has turned out to be. The founder and musical visionar of the Beach Boys has veered from the heights of pop stardom to art-rock innovations that altered the horizons of popular music to a series of mental breakdowns, years of isolation and abuse to one of the least expected creative comebacks in rock ‘n’ roll history.

Throughout, “Rhapsody in Blue,” along with a widening array of Gershwin’s music,, echoed in Wilson’s mind. Now Wilson is projecting that inspirational sound into the world in the form of ‘Brian Wilson Reinterprets Gershwin,’ an album-length tribute that weaves Gershwin’s songcraft together with Wilson’s ear for quirky textures, sweeping harmonies and the intricate tangle of love, fear, anguish and undying optimism that has long fueled his own work.

‘’Wilson Reintreprets,’ to be released in America on August 17, is already causing a stir among American critics and music industry figures who eye the album as a prime candidate for sales charts and next year’s Grammy awards. But as ever in Wilson’s star-crossed life, controversy persists.

Is this album, or any of Wilson’s recent work, truly a product of the artist’s creative vision? Why does this famously tormented musician — those physical survival is miraculous, given all he’s been through in life — spending his golden years touring and recording at a pace that rivals musicians half his age?

“Well, It’s better than sitting on my ass doing nothing,” Wilson says. “I just got back into writing songs, I guess.”

A few minutes later he says something else altogether.

I’ve run dry,” he declares. “Totally dry on concepts for songs, you know. Can’t get a melody written, can’t get a chord pattern written, nothing at all.”

It’s a remarkably grim assertion for a songwriter to make. But, I can’t help pointing out, didn’t he tell me exactly the same thing during a telephone conversation we’d had in 1999?

“Yeah, I know,” he says with a shrug. “It goes in cycles.”

Wilson lives at the apex of Beverly Hills, just off of Mulholland Boulevard in a gated hillside neighborhood of mansions that all have sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley, and beyond. Wilson’s home is large, but feels cozy, with comfortable sofas and plenty of evidence of Wilson’s new, settled life. An existence he’s enjoyed since marrying former model Melinda Ledbetter in 1995. Melinda serves her husband as a kind of chief exectuvie, keeping a sharp eye on his business career and creative decisions. The couple has four young children, al adopted. Daughters Daria and Delanie came in 1998, sons Dylan and Dash joined the family in 2004 and 2009, respectively. The daughters from his first marriage, Carnie and Wendy — who had their own run on the pop charts of 2/3 of Wilson Phillips (the latter being Chynna, the daughter of chief Mama and Papa John Phillips) in the early 1990’s — are adults with families of their own.

In the summer of 2010 Wilson seems more or less comfortable in his own skin. His silvery hair is longer than it has been in a few years, and while his untucked button-up reveals a bit of a belly riding above his waistline, Wilson has found a healthy balance between the whittled-down physique he displayed in the mid-80s  and the bouts with obesity he, like so many Wilsons, has struggled with over the years.  The man’s eyes are clear, his gaze is strong, he’s singing snatches of the songs popping up on the speakers of his TV, tuned currently to a cable music station called “Sixties Revolution.”

“I watch this show all of the time,” he says, though the screen itself is dark, save for the logo bouncing across the expanse of black. It’s odd  to hear him describe himself watching an all-but-empty screen. But who knows what visions the melodies evoke?

Wilson is a notoriously difficult interview, prone to yes/no answers, cheery obfuscations and a reflexive tendency to agree with whatever his visitor says, the better to get out of the room as quickly as possible. But if he’s relaxed, and a thought captures his fancy, Wilson is also capable of uncorking observations that reveal more of his soul than you’d ever expect to hear from the mouth of a celebrity.

“I thrive on music,” Wilson says, as he takes his place on the sofa closest to the huge flat-screen above his hearth. “Doesn’t it feel therapeutic to you?  Without music I would not be alive. I listen to it all the time.”


“‘Kick ass!’,” that’s what my dad used to say,” Wilson recounted to me in his recording studio in 1988. He’s talking about Murry, the equipment shop owner whose fierce love and fiercer ambitions still loom at the headwaters of his eldest son’s consciousness. “In some ways I was very afraid of him, but in other ways I loved him because he knew where it was at.” Wilson laughed out loud. “I’ve never said this before, but it’s true: My dad scared me into making great records.”

Indeed, the records were great. “Surfin’ USA,” “Shut Down,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls.” Right up through Wilson’s epics: the intricately orchestrated song cycle, “Pet Sounds,” which led to the pop-art masterpiece single, “Good Vibrations,” and then to the production of “Smile,” a full-length psychedelic symphony Wilson co-created, though never quite finished, with Van Dyke Parks. “Smile”’s 1967 collapse took Wilson’s musical ambitions with it. His emotional stability frayed, too, and then he was gone, seemingly for good.

Wilson made occasional comebacks over teh next three decades, but none stuck until 1998, when his second solo album, “magination,” kicked off a spurt of activity that has yet to slow donw. Not all of his new work has earned raves — particularly when Wilson’s creative attentions either ebb, or are (allegedly) undermined by the other, more market-driven voices in his camp.

Wilson shrugs off such complaints. “I worked my ass off on this album,” he says proudly of his Gershwin project. But he also dismisses some recent projects, particularly “Imagination,” whose processed sound owes as much to co-producer Joe Thomas’s easy listening productions for Peter Cetera as it does to the ‘Smile’ creator’s.

“I didn’t really like that album,” Wilson says.

Another thing Wilson doesn’t like: Any talk about him reuniting with surviving Beach Boys Mike Love (Wilson’s cousin) and Alan Jardine to pay tribute to the group’s 50th anniversary in 2011. The 1983 drowning death of middle Wilson brother Dennis, the group’s drummer and a fine songwriter himself, was bad enough. But losing youngest brother Carl — the lead guitarist and on-stage leader — to cancer in 1998 marked the e
nd of the band Brian formed when he was still a teenager.

“I don’t think I’d get involved in a tribute,” he says. “It’s like, let the past be.”


Once again, Wilson is talking about music. Certain songs get into his soul, their rhythm merging with his heartbeat, their melodies and words weaving into the fabric of his own thoughts. Phil Spector’s thunderous “Be My Baby” has been an obsession since the Ronettes’ version appeared in the summer of 1963. The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ had a similar grip in the early ’70s, until he realized he never wanted to hear the song again. If it comes on the radio now Wilson either flips the dial or turns the whole thing off.

“It’s too scary, too powerful, too whatever,” he says. “Songs do that. They can carry you from one trip to another, like a meditation.”

Gershwin, and particularly “Rhapsody in Blue,” is a part of his past Wilson has never wanted to abandon. He recorded an a capella arrangement of the work in the late ‘80s, and though it was never released he held onto a notion that he might some day complete a full album of Gershwin songs. But when? The time, and the marketplace, never seemed right. Then in 2009 an executive from the Disney Pearl label called to offer Wilson a contract to record his own arrangements of songs from Disney movies. Wilson agreed, but with a caveat: he wanted to do his Gershwin album first.

“At first blush you go, huh,” says Disney label chief Jim Weatherson. “then you realize it’s Brian Wilson, one of the three or four greatest American composers ever. So you have to go with it.”

Adam Gershwin, a grand-nephew who helps run the Gershwin Trust, loved the idea too, so much that he agreed to let Wilson sift through the 100-plus unfinished fragments Gershwin had left behind, in search of one or two to finish as a collaboration.

Wilson, with an assist from Brian Wilson Band sax player and orchestrator, Paul von Mertens, started working on the record at the start of 2010. This time around no one had to cajole Wilson to keep his focus. Even Melinda was surprised by her husband’s renewed ambition and enthusiasm, and it’s all but impossible to get anyone who was involved in the project to disagree. And though Von Mertens wielded the pen that sketched the album’s striking arrangements, he says his greatest responsibility as Wilson’s collaborator was to “get out of the way so Brian so Brian can do his thing.”

As in his heyday, Wilson came to the studio without written arrangements, letting the band invent their own parts until he liked what he heard, or came up with another idea, which he would sing for them, note for note. Certainly Mertens’ musical hand can be heard — particularly in the sleek textures of the Gershwin-Wilson-Scott Bennett collaboration “The Like in I Love You,” which also contains bandmate Bennett’s wonderfully Gershwin-esque lyrics on the chorus, “The pain in painting/the muse in music/the like in I love you.”

Elsewhere, the album rings, rumbles and sings with Wilson’s quirky sonic touches: The twangy guitars that make “Summertime” a kind of noir surfin’ number;  the chugging, banjo-harmonica-electric bass led instrumental take of “I’ve Got Plenty Of Nothin” that stomps its way to a sweet marimba-led climax.

“I’ve Got Rhythm” and  “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” hit the highway like Beach Boys classics (think “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” respectively), while “Someone to Look Over Me” becomes a great lost classic from “Pet Sounds,” a gentle construction of harpsichord, clattering percussion, acoustic guitars and the sweet breeze of clarinets, all nestling around Wilson’s tender, yearning vocal.

Which nods toward another sore subject in Wilson’s recent albums; his raw, often sloppy singing, all too often covered by profligate layers or, worse, computer-driven auto-tuning. And maybe this is where “Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” reveals the depth of the artist’s commitment.

“He’d spend eight-hour days in the studio, sitting alone in this big room, working painstakingly to get it all right,” von Mertens says. “My head was hitting the faders, but he kept going and going.”

When Wilson finally felt comfortable enough to invite the Disney executives to listen to the all-but-finished album this spring, their reaction was so positive he wept with relief. “We realized instantly we had something very special,” Weatherson says So special, in fact, that Weatherson decided to pay vaunted engineer Al Schmitt to re-mix Wilson’s original finished tracks.

Whether you read that as corporate generosity or interference in Wilson’s artistic intentions depends on your worldview. Wilson, for his part, insists he was as happy to have Schmitt’s help as he is thrilled by the tribute he and his collaborators have made for his original musical inspiration.

“I’m just so proud of it, you know?” Wilson is sitting forward now, drumming on the coffee table and singing his favorite songs from the album. “I loves you, Porrr-geee!” It’s the sweetness in the words, you see. “Don’t let him take meeee/Don’t let him handle me/and drive me maaad….

Wilson seems most alive when he’s talking about music. When a song takes root in his imagination nothing else can come close to rivaling its pull.

“It’s a way to connect to a higher force,” he says. “Spector did it. Gershwin did it. The Beach Boys did it.”

He continues, his eyes locked on his tv’s dark screen, and the Gary Puckett song spinning from its speakers.

“Music is spiritual. It can carry you from one trip to the next, connect you to something mystical. You know?

His life, his music, it’s all the same thing.

“There are so many things out there people don’t understand. It’s a weird trip.”

Music of the Moment: Brian Wilson and the Avett Brothers

I spent too many years neck-deep in the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, both for professional purposes (maybe 10 percent of the time) and weird personal ones (the other 90). You already know what you know about the music itself, the harmonies and the lush instrumentation, etc. etc. I was walking the dog the other day with this newish Purple Chick bootleg of “Smile,” pulling together as much original ’66-’67 ‘Smile’ tracks, with an emphasis on the original vocals (one or two of which I’d never heard before, e.g. Brian’s original vocal on “Child is the Father to the Man”) and what sounds like (am I dreaming?) a Dennis Wilson vocal on an original verse or two of the “Roll Plymouth Rock” verses. (beaded cheering Indians behind them….) Check it out, it’s a free download right here. Some parts of this re-imagining grate on me just a bit (the random puzzle work in the third movement, with the “wind chimes” bits) but it got me going again on “Smile,” and then into the late ’60s BW and BB stuff, right up to the sizzling medley of “Wonderful” and “Don’t Worry Bill” from ’72 (Carnegie Hall, I think), which made me yearn again for the artsy days. Ah, gee.

Only now I’m also listening to this new album by the Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You,” which a colleague hipped me to a couple of weeks back. And so I’ve got it on the band’s website player (right here) and as Brian is my witness I’ll run off to Music Millennium before the day is done and have the actual product right here and into my iTunes. It feels lovely right now, sweet and heartbroken and full of imagination and off-kilter images and ideas. Raw and beautiful, understated and right on.

So it’s a good morning so far, with a lot of work ahead and some cool new music to contemplate while I do it all. Writing at its best is an out of body, other-worldly experience….losing your shell and drifting off somewhere else. These Avett boys did it on this new album, just as Brian and Van Dyke did it on “Smile.” Everyone in their own way, to their own end.