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.”
WILSON’S PARADOXICAL FEELINGS about his father — which you can still hear in the way he uses the words love and fear almost interchangeably — fueled “Smile,” both in its lofty ambitions and the deeper meanings behind its celebration/critique of American history and the conflict between innocence and cynicism.
Eager to find a lyricist with the verbal acuity to translate his feelings into words, Wilson turned to Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi-bred songwriter and musician whose intricate, pun-filled lyrics matched the increasingly abstract music Wilson heard in his head.
Parks, in turn, shared Wilson’s visceral sense of both the promise and deterioration of the American dream. For while Parks was well aware of the nation’s darker side — one of his brothers had died mysteriously while in the employ of the State Department in Germany — this tragedy, along with his distaste for the war in Vietnam, only fired his passion for its most fundamental beliefs.
“I was dead-set on centering my life on the patriotic ideal,” Parks says. “I was a son of the American revolution, and there was blood on the tracks. Recent blood, and it was still drying.”
The first night they worked together, Parks crafted lyrics for “Heroes and Villains,” a hurtling country ballad whose impressionistic portrait of a frontier boomtown became the stepping-off point for a series of vignettes tracking westward migration through the prairies to the far shores of Hawaii. Some were full-fledged songs while others were chants or single verses that served as transitions to the climactic piece, “Surf’s Up,” an impressionistic portrait of a crumbling, decadent society.
The piece’s other sections explored the cycle of life and the pursuit of God, but even these digressions were part of the larger American story.
“The whole record seemed like a real effort toward figuring out what Manifest Destiny was all about,” Parks says. “We’d come as far as we could, as far as Horace Greeley told us to go. And so we looked back and tried to make sense of that great odyssey.”
Once the evening writing sessions began to bear fruit, the pair began to spend their days in recording studios, where Wilson spent hours honing vivid soundscapes from the layers of percussion, traditional symphonic instruments, electric guitars and keyboards and more folksy banjos, harmonicas and fiddles.
BUT AS PRECISE AS WILSON’S THINKING in the recording studio may have been, his life beyond the acoustic walls was growing increasingly odd.
And here you come to another facet of the “Smile” legend: the part about the piano-in-the-sandbox; the hashish-smoking tent; the expensive recording time sacrificed for want of a better “vibe”; the obsessions with astronomy, pingpong and macrobiotic diets.
This, for better or worse, is a large part of what makes “Smile” seem so otherworldly to you and everyone else: that in their pursuit of inspiration, Wilson, Parks and all their intimates ceased abiding by pretty much every rule of logic, sanity and societal order. They were intellectual renegades, pursuing nothing more or less than the far horizons of possibility.
Or maybe they were just insane. With Wilson, you could never be sure. And as work on “Smile” dragged into the winter and spring, it began to seem as if the darkness on the edges of Wilson’s consciousness was beginning to gather force. First it had all been creativity and magic. Then one of Wilson’s accountants discovered that Capitol, apparently in league with Wilson’s father (once the band’s manager), had bilked the band out of more than $10 million in royalties. Enraged by the corporate betrayal — to say nothing of the paternal one — the band filed a lawsuit, which sucked up more of Wilson’s emotional energy.
Wilson’s drug use escalated, and the trips turned darker, often terrifying. Already losing momentum, Wilson grew even more anxious when the other Beach Boys (who had toured without Wilson since his first emotional breakdown in 1964) came home from Europe and gathered to record their vocals.
Their reaction to the music, perhaps influenced by their alarm at their leader’s increasingly eccentric behavior, was at best muted and sometimes downright hostile. Carl Wilson, the group’s onstage leader, couldn’t imagine how they could play “Smile” onstage.
Lead singer Mike Love, who would always be the chief proponent of the surfin’/cars/girls playlist, didn’t think it was commercial enough. Once Wilson’s chief lyricist, Love was so flummoxed by the esoteric poetry Parks had written for “Cabinessence” he chased him down outside the studio and demanded an explanation: What does “Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield,” mean, anyway?
Parks refused to explain (“I have no excuse, sir,” he reputedly snapped), then figured the time had come for him to go.
“Basically, I was taught not to be where I wasn’t wanted,” he says now. “It was sad, so I decided to get away quick.”
What Parks either didn’t comprehend, or didn’t want to face, is that the same spiritual corruption he and Wilson had wanted to critique in “Smile” — the commodification of the American dream — had risen up to destroy their own work.
Parks would go on to a storied career in and around the music and film industries of Hollywood. But for Wilson, the loss of his masterwork dealt a profound blow to his psyche. He began to fret about “mind gangsters” he believed were trying to destroy him. Convinced his house was bugged, he would only discuss business while floating in the deep end of his pool. Wilson’s angels had already deserted him. Within a few years the music would all be gone, too.
Published originally in The Oregonian, 2005