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.”
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.
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. . .
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.