As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Oct. 8, 2004
The great ethereal art-rock Philosopher’s Stone, The Beach Boys’ fabled “teenage symphony to God” known as Smile is finally a reality -- though now it‘s a 62-year-old man‘s symphony to eternity.
Brian Wilson Presents Smile, released last week, is nothing less than an artistic triumph, an eccentric, often-emotion trip through American history as seen through the drug-addled eyes of youth in the late ‘60s. There are stretches of intense melancholy, moments of sheer silliness, tears, smiles, banjos, theremins, French horns, Beach Boys-style harmonies, barnyard noises, fake Hawaiian music, orchestral flourishes, crow cries uncovering the cornfields, columnated ruins dominoing, fresh, crispy vegetables …
As the Bioneers would say, it’s all alive, it’s all intelligent, it’s all connected.
A little history for those not versed in Smilelore:
It was Wilson’s friendly -- but very serious -- rivalry with The Beatles that led him to start the album that he first called “Dumb Angel,” but later became known as Smile.
Teaming up with then-unknown songwriter Van Dyke Parks and the best studio musicians in L.A. Wilson recorded untold hours of sessions for the album, intended to be even more artful than Pet Sounds and more cosmic than “Good Vibrations.”
But Wilson‘s increasingly bizarre behavior during these sessions showed that his mental state was slipping into the abyss.
Capitol Records, which back then was cranking out two or three Beach Boys albums a year, kept pressuring Wilson to finish Smile. The company even printed covers for the album for an early 1967.
There were other pressures as well. The other Beach Boys, especially Mike Love, hated the strange music, hated the weird lyrics by Parks and hated what Brian Wilson had become. And Wilson’s already fragile psyche wasn’t helped by the amount of LSD and speed he was consuming.
By the time The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Wilson cracked. It was the start of a decades-long exile in Banana Land for Brian. The group did a half-hearted salvage job on the shambles that was Smile with Smiley Smile, which was released in late 1967.
A few stray Smile tunes popped up through the years on Beach Boys albums. And of course there were jillions of bootlegs of the Smile sessions in various forms.
In 1993, the Beach Boys’ box set Good Vibrations contained a generous suite of Smile material. Still, this was only a hint of what Smile could have been. It left a fan only wanting more.
For years Wilson has expressed reluctance about revisiting Smile. Nothing but bad memories from a terrible period in his life, he’d say. But with the steady goading of his wife and members of his latest touring band The Wondermints, Wilson finally agreed to finish what he’d started all those years ago.
I had hoped that one day Wilson would go to the vaults and finally patch together a definitive version of the album. Instead, Wilson and The Wondermints recorded entirely new tracks. And, with the help of Parks, Wilson even wrote some new material for the project.
I was disappointed with the new live version of Pet Sounds Wilson released a couple of years ago. It gave me little reason to hope for the new Smile. Plus, I was one of those jaded rock ‘n’ roll cynics who feared that remaking the lost masterpiece would ultimately cheapen the mystery and mythology of Smile.
I was in for a fantastic surprise.
First of all, there are some first-rate songs here. I always thought “Heroes and Villains” was musically stranger -- and stronger -- than “Good Vibrations.” It tells a vague story with the historical backdrop of the western migration of this country. It’s done here complete with the “in the cantina” bridge that was missing from the original single.
And the melody of the chorus is hauntingly reprised in various points in the album, most noticeably in “Roll Plymouth Rock,” (originally titled “Do You Like Worms/“) which deals with the European conquest of America from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. To the “Heroes and Villains” melody, Wilson sings, “Bicycle rider, just see what you’ve done to the church of the American Indian.”
There’s “Cabin Essence,” a wistful meditation on frontier life accented by a lone plunking banjo, a sad harmonica and a weirdo chorus chirping “doing doing doing” The scene is pastoral until the last when ominous visions of the railroad crossing the country and the Grand Coulee Dam spring forth.
And perhaps the grandest Wilson song of them all, “Surf’s Up” is the album’s centerpiece. It’s one of the saddest tunes Wilson ever wrote: “A choke of grief, hard-hearted I/Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry.”
“Surf’s Up” is preceded here by two cuts that seem to serve as introductions, “Song For Children” and “Child is Father to the Man,” playing not only with the background vocal part in final refrain of “Surf’s Up” but with a melody line from “Good Vibrations.”
There’s even snips of cover songs that crop up on Smile. There’s a verse of Johnny Mercer’s “I Wanna Be Around,” (best known in its Tony Bennett version) hiding between “I’m in Great Shape” and “Workshop.”
But the best of all is “You Are My Sunshine.” This country classic is recast with some of the saddest chords ever played by man, sung by Wilson backed by weeping strings and clicking percussion. The depressing mood is broken by a cheerful honking sax.
Perhaps Smile isn’t the ultimate pop album of all time as some of the hype that surrounded the great lost work implied. It’s often disjointed and if you’re like Mike Love and want song lyrics to always make literal sense, this album will only frustrate you.
But for me Smile is pure pop pleasure and ultimate proof of Brian Wilson’s crazy genius.
For more information on Smile, CLICK HERE
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