The landscape of this planet is constantly changing. Cities sprawl further into what was once a wilderness shaped by climate change, convection currents, polar wandering and the like. The town where I grew up has shifted and changed over the years as well, but the 76 Station that is now a Speedway and the Brown’s Drugs that is now a Rite Aid are still commonly referred to as the 76 or Brown’s by long-time residents. The signs outside may have changed, but the stores are more or less as they always were. I can’t say the same, though, for the pool hall that used to be first an ice cream store then a Chinese restaurant.
I once read that Vladimir Nabokov outlined his novels on notecards that he kept in a box near his desk. When he sat down to write each day, he reached into the box and looked through the cards until he found a scene that he felt like working on—once he’d completed the work outlined on each notecard, Nabokov merely assembled the novel together and it was done.
In 1966, when Brian Wilson first set to work on SMiLE, his goals were to surpass the musical territory he’d explored in Pet Sounds and to create pop music’s first masterpiece. During the recording process, he did such things as install a sandbox in his music room so he could feel the sand under his feet while playing the piano. Wilson wanted to respond to the freewheeling creative spirit of the time: like Nabokov, he composed the songs in pieces, which he intended to later arrange together to create a symphony. But when the album was shelved, the songs that Wilson had produced were left abandoned.
Taken as a whole, SMiLE is a quintessentially American composition that tells the story of a man who rides a flying bicycle across the country across different periods of history. It is also quite possibly the most exciting and successful pop album released in nearly forty years. It’s more than a concept album, though; it’s the Great American Rock ’n’ Roll Album, or, as Wilson described it in 1966, a “teenage symphony to God.”
I was lucky enough to witness Brian Wilson’s performance of SMiLE at Carnegie Hall this past October. Before “Surf’s Up,” he flashed us an A-OK sign, and it was. It was better than okay.
“Surf’s Up” is one of the songs—like “Good Vibrations”—that slipped out into the world to promote the genius of SMiLE while the album was still being recorded. Brian performed “Surf’s Up” on Leonard Bernstein’s TV show, after Bernstein called him one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century—the first of many critical accolades to come from outside the rock press.
The praise didn’t prevent SMiLE’s collapse. The album fell apart as a result of drugs, Wilson’s mental instability and the creative tension between Wilson and the Beach Boys, who wanted to do more conservative music. The Beach Boys heaped derision on the work that Wilson and collaborator Van Dyke Parks produced in their absence. Due to Wilson’s modular style of recording, much of SMiLE was left in a semi-completed form, but various tracks popped up on subsequent Beach Boys albums, in particular on the album Smiley Smile (in a much abridged form).
But the real power of the SMiLE mythology came from bootlegs of the SMiLE sessions. Where these bootleg versions have an eerie and incomplete quality about them, embodying as they do the potential for an alternate musical history, the official album no longer carries that strange weight. As a whole, SMiLE evokes the structure of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and the freewheeling pop inventiveness of Sgt. Pepper’s. The Beatles’ musical masterpiece is part of what drove Brian Wilson mad: with SMiLE, he was trying not only to expand upon the sounds he’d created in Pet Sounds but also to one-up the Beatles, with whom he had a friendly rivalry.
During one of his many sweethearted introductions at Carnegie Hall, Wilson pointed out that “God Only Knows” is Paul McCartney’s favourite song. McCartney made a cameo appearance on the SMiLE album—or at least he did on the bootlegs and Smiley Smile—chomping on a carrot during “Vega-Tables.”
Despite such aural innovations, the SMiLE tapes sounded incomplete, lacking as they did the harmonies of the Beach Boys. And Wilson was in no state to attempt to complete his work on his own. This is an album burdened by a great sadness.
It is also a mirror into a gentle person’s insanity. Consider the instrumental “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (originally titled “The Fire Suite”), which tells the story of the cow who knocked over a lantern and caused the Great Chicago Fire. On the one hand, the piece is a brilliant composition; on the other, it is a bizarre and frightening song that sounds exactly like what it is—a Beach Boy going mad. When the song was first recorded, Wilson made his musicians wear plastic fire helmets. On that same night, a fire broke out in Santa Monica. Fire alarms sounded throughout the city as Wilson led his musicians through the song, and he feared that the energy he’d conjured up in the recording studio caused the fire. Shortly thereafter, SMiLE was abandoned. (During the live performance of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” at Carnegie Hall, the orchestra section wore helmets and mimed putting out a blazing inferno with a fire hose. This added a certain levity to the piece—perhaps to dilute the power that Wilson has attached to it. Or perhaps to prevent him from freaking out.)
After SMiLE fell apart, Brian Wilson went into a virtual exile of manic depression and substance abuse, unable to translate the sounds in his head into music. He refused to discuss SMiLE during interviews and often brushed these questions aside by saying he’d destroyed the tapes. This, of course, wasn’t true; his devoted fans continued to trade the bootlegs and attempted to reconstruct the album themselves, never sure if they were putting the pieces together correctly.
After decades of incompleteness, Wilson re-recorded the songs this year, following a successful live performance in February at London’s Royal Festival Hall—the first ever public performance of SMiLE. The kind praise and accolades from fans and critics have done much to relieve the pain he must have felt after failing to complete his magnum opus. Or at least I hope so.
The crowd at Carnegie Hall was certainly overwhelmingly supportive of Brian Wilson. I’ve never been in a room full of so much goodwill. People passionately wanted to see him succeed and to experience the complexities of SMiLE performed live.
Before the show began, Van Dyke Parks received a standing ovation as he strolled in to take his seat. He waved shyly to the crowd. Parks, a poet, wrote the majority of the lyrics for SMiLE, just as Tony Asher had written the majority of the lyrics for Pet Sounds. In both cases, Parks and Asher helped Brian to verbally express the emotions with which his music yearned to deal on deeper levels than he had previously been capable of. And like a conductor, Brian guided them in crafting the lyrics to match the music. Prior to Pet Sounds, the material that the Beach Boys performed was largely about teenage concerns. As Brian moved into adulthood, though, he found himself wanting to express those new concerns, but he needed help from someone (like Van Dyke Parks or Tony Asher) who worked with a wider lexicon.
The night began with an a cappella set, with Wilson and his musicians gathered in a circle on a corner of the stage. It was the group’s first trip to Carnegie, and they seemed as surprised as anyone else to be there. After running through a smattering of material covering Wilson’s career, they left the stage for twenty minutes, leaving the audience to congregate in the bar and chatter excitedly about the performance so far. Moments later, we were all back in our seats as the house lights dimmed and the harmonies of “Our Prayer” filled the hall. As the band launched into “Heroes and Villains,” the audience began to really make some noise and then continued to cheer until “Good Vibrations” signalled the closing of SMiLE. Throughout the concert, Wilson stood in front of his keyboard, directing the musicians and bathing in the music.
After an unbelievable performance of “Good Vibrations” that matched the 1967 version, Wilson scurried away and the musicians took their bows. Minutes later, they returned for the third set of the night, comprised of one Beach Boys hit after another: “Surfin’ USA,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and many more. These were songs to which Wilson’s father had sold away the rights, which were later acquired by Beach Boy Mike Love. Where the first set of the night was the standard fare of new and old material and the second set was a reverent performance of SMiLE, the third set was where Wilson seemed the most relaxed and confident. The hard part was over, and the remainder of the evening was a pure celebration of Brian Wilson’s music that had the entire house standing and singing. I even saw Van Dyke Parks dancing.
A few days after the concert, I was driving around San Antonio with a friend, discussing the enduring quality of sixties pop music (okay, basically we were singing along to the Monkees on the car stereo), and I realized that the reason why these songs have lasted is because their harmonies compel you to sing along and then to pass the songs along. The mythology of SMiLE began with people sharing bootlegs; had Wilson never returned to it, the music would still endure. But SMiLE was not meant to be pondered over by music geeks—it was meant to excite and entertain people, to make them smile and to compel them to sing along.
In an editorial for the New York Times prior to SMiLE’s release, Verlyn Klinkenborg essentially blew off the new recording, saying that Brian Wilson had “become a Brian Wilson cover band,” that “the younger artist—the original art itself—still possesses greater authority.” This is fine. It’s no lie that the younger Wilson had a greater vocal range and that his lacklustre solo albums have done little to live up to his mythological stature. It’s also true that without the harmonies of Wilson’s bandmates in the Beach Boys—his departed brothers Dennis and Carl as well as Al Jardine and Mike Love—the music is missing an essential ingredient of what made it so beloved. Yet casting SMiLE aside, deriding the music because Brian Wilson is old and alone, is utterly ridiculous; it seems Klinkenborg would almost prefer that the music exist solely in her own collection of battered cassette tapes.
The Beach Boys lost their chance to produce serious work years ago, choosing instead to exhaust their formula to make money on nostalgic tours. Not only did they let the chance slip by, but they also pointedly rubbed salt in Brian’s wounds. Mike Love at times even used physical threats to force Wilson to write music for them. They watched as Wilson’s mental illness and substance abuse consumed his life. The story of SMiLE is more than the “therapeutic tale” that Klinkenborg dubs it—it is proof that a man can finish something that those closest to him went out of their way to prevent him from doing because they were so afraid of change.
With the love and support of his family and his musicians (specifically Darian Sahanaja who organized the sessions on his computer like a musical secretary), Wilson was able to oversee the recreation of SMiLE and to finally hear all of the voices he needed singing along with him. Time changes everything, especially our landscape, and the monuments of our past rarely remain stagnant, but it’s unusual for progress to feel good. For thirty-seven years, SMiLE existed only in notecard form, yet it was as if Brian Wilson hadn’t missed a day.SMiLE now succeeds at what Wilson wanted it to do—it made a packed house at Carnegie Hall not only smile but tear up a little as well.
This edition of The Score is brought to you by guest columnist Frank Smith. Be sure to visit Maisonneuve.org tomorrow for Paul Winner's take on TV Eye, Frank's regular column. The Score appears every second Monday.