The Beach Boys’ new album: Neither as good nor as bad as they say

So the dogs have laid down with the cats, the sun rises in the west and Brian Wilson has rejoined the Beach Boys to make a new album. Then it gets interesting.

The new album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” turns out to be not horrible. To be, in fact, pretty good,  and in places, a lot better than that.

That’s what it is. What it isn’t, I’m sorry to say, is a return to the Brian Wilson-led band’s classic form, where BW reiigned as writer, arranger, producer, vocal arranger, lead performer, mixer and more. Consider the vast teams of songwriters hovering over the tunes with B. Wilson’s signature at the top of the credits. And how did they get those weathered voices to sound so perfectly boyish? I’m not exactly sure, but here’s a video of the late Mister Rogers apparently singing (and occasionally harmonizing with himself two times over) in a song constructed from a lot of unrelated clips of him talking.

What can’t audio technology do these days? Nearly as much as musically elite Brian Wilson aficionados can do when they need to make a record sound just like Brian had actually produced it. Or so I hear.

So why do I keep listening to it? And why do so many of the songs — Four of them. Okay, five of them. Okay, possibly six) sound so moving to me?

Because some of these songs are really good. And even the ones that top out, writing-wise, as only sort of not as awful as they could have been, come with twists — a perfect melodic hook, an irresistible tangle of hamony, however it’s created, that grab on and won’t let go. (follow the jump!)

And then you’ve got four, arguably five, songs that really do seem drawn from the most hidden recesses of Brian Wilson’s spirit. The dark, tender places where the unsinkable young man wanders, wounded and sad, but still drawn to the lights in the distance.

Buy this album. Ignore the songs about doin’ it just like yesterday; skip past the ones where sun rhymes with fun; where baby is implored to come back; where new generations are being made to feel the, ahem, good vibrations. Listen for the place where melancholy blossoms into harmony. Where the wordless sighs on the “Our Prayer”-like intro piece, “Think About the Days,” shine down like sun through the bowers, only to reveal the great distance between a young man’s dreams and the older man’s reality. The more you know about the ugliness looming just beneath the Beach Boys’ relentlessly sunny exterior the more heart-rending it becomes.

How does such an emotionally dysfunctional, at times murderously bitter and litigious crowd even begin to make it through half a century of very public horrors without people getting hip to them? Get into the swing of the title track, wait for the chorus to hit and…oh, yes. That stunning colliision of spiraling melody, unlikely modulations and harmonies so elegant that the light behind the dial does take on a divine sort of glow. And then the lyrics’ worshipful take on pop music and the medium that made it a world-changing force: “It’s paradise when I/Lift up my antennae/Receiving your signal like prayer…” Nothing cynical or phony about that. Especially when you remember the weird beauty of Brian’s “Mt. Vernon and Fairway” suite in 1973, and all those chants about the magic transister radio. Then you’ve got that waltzing rhythm, and the Four Freshman-style vocals. . .if we’re not listening to primo Brian Wilson right here, then we’ve got one of the best simulations. Or perhaps best expansions upon his original germ-of-an-idea. (I’m not crazy about that bullshit key change that comes at 2:20 (right at the “whole new generation” part, of course), nor the anti-climactic synth drum thud that coulda been a real climax if they’d rolled out the timpani or even a fucking Sparklett’s jug (calling Hal Blaine, stat!)

Wait, am I beginning to contradict what I said earlier? Er, well…fuck it. Because now “Isn’t It Time” is playing, and that simple, upbeat melody (written by Brian? Mike? Co-producer Joe Thomas or the mysterious J Peterik and/or L Mills?) has moved into my head, where it will remain forever. See what I mean? You want to hate this song, from its millionth-rewrite-of-“Do It Again” lyrics to the really amateurish attempt at auto-tuning that is only too screamingly obvious, even to my not-all-that-sensitive-to-these-things ears. Is it that hard to get it right, mysterious digi-manipulators? I don’t think it is. But if there’s another hallmark to the Beach Boys (from 1976 onward, anyway) it’s the shamless cuttting of corners. And yes, Brian can be a lazy, naughty boy, too.

“Spring Vacation” is one of those less-said-the-better deals, while “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” a not-quite-where-it-needs-to-be satire of reality shows boasts an opening couplet that I’d bet anything popped straight out of Brian Wilson’s prankish-but-guileless mind: “The private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?” And the thing is, you can dig it. Or at least I can, because that’s exactly how he talks in real life. I can’t vouch for the rest of the song, especially its Jimmy Buffet-like Caribbean overtrones, up to and including steel drums. Steel drums. And then another Brian-like lyric pops up: (“Sometimes life can be strange/Maybe we’re just looking for a change”) and then I’m tickled again and feeling that much more pissed off about the fruity rum-and-umbrella concoction this beautifully quirky song fell into. Yuck.

So some songs suck. No surprise.

What is surprising, however, is the last four songs of the album. All Brian Wilson songs, with only Joe Thomas as co-writer (except for one, which also features Jon Bon Jovi, of all New Jerseyans), these tunes probably date back a ways — maybe all the way to the Thomas co-produced “Imagination” sessions in 1997 and 1998. The final three are intended as a mini-suite, with little interstitial musical threads to tie them together. But really, the mood begins with “Strange World,” a sweet, very Brian set of observations on life that begin with a sad glance at the homeless gathered on Santa Monica pier (“The uninvited who lost their way. . .“), then drifts through the county fair, a lazy bike ride (Ching-ching! goes the bell, a nod to “You Still Believe in Me”) and simply in being with someone you love. The simple moments where the meaning resides, where the strange world noted in the title begins to makesome sense. “It’s a strange world, there’s nothing to it,” Brian sings. “A strange world, I’m getting through it.

See where this is headed? Days spin from one to the next, the years melt away, and suddenly you’re 70, and the sun is fast fading into the horizon. Brian’s next song, the gorgeously arranged “There and Back Again,” (great harmonies, those moody guitar runs, a nice four-beat pause, etc) digs deeper, so what starts as a plea to resume an old love affair (“Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore?…”) follows Brian to the core of his existence (“Back where you belong, our favorite song/Won’t you listen?”) before acknowledging, finally, that time takes things you can never get back. “Through the common sense of it all/We had a lot to live, we gave it all.”

“There and…” takes one last spin through past — via an upbeat  Bachrach-like coda of harmony and whistles, then a lucious tide of voices descend to the opening note of “Pacific Coast Highway,” in which Brian, drivin
g alone down the California shore, owns up to who he really is: An aging loner who knows his best days are gone. “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say,” he admits, and yet what could be the darkest kind of realization instead ends up feeling bittersweet. The “strange world” ends up being pretty logical, once you set yourself in the context of nature’s irrefutable patterns. “Driving down Pacific Coast out on Highway One, the setting sun/Goodbye.”

Then comes the final word: “Summer’s Gone,” A gentle meditation on life, aging and acceptance. Compare it to “Caroline, No,” if you focus on the harpsichord, flutes, percussion and sad lilt in the music. If this is to be the Beach Boys’ last song, it would be the perfect final word. For no matter how spare the lyrics might be, it’s the feeling in Brian’s voice, and the elegant backing voices (however they’re constructed) that tell you everything you need to know. “Old friends have gone,” he sings. “The nights grow cold/It’s time to go.” The signs are everywhere: in the end of the day, in the blanket of rain covering the beach, in the waves that seem less like a call to adventure than pages turning, the final chapter leafing steadily to the end.

Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.”

Fifty years later, it feels just about right. Forget about the terrors and the horrors and think only about the music. No deaths, no lawsuits, no fighting, no impossibly awful records. Just the sound of those voices, the darkness just behind but the light bursting through. They’ve created a lot of it over the decades, most of the best of it straight from the heart and soul of Brian Wilson. He paid a steep price for the priviege, but somehow came out as the last man standing; the beacon that had sent them on their way, and reappears at the end of the line to guide the band — his band — back home.

We laugh, we cry/We live then die/And dream about our yesterdays.”

He’s got that dreamy tone in his voice again, his cousin steps up with his reassuring baritone,  the music fades and all that remains is the rain on the beach. The forces of nature, the voice of God. On the radio, and everywhere else, too.

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

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.)