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: 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