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.
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.