Posted: June 20, 2012
The release last fall, after 44 years, of the Beach Boys' abandoned masterpiece Smile is a milestone of American popular culture. Rolling Stone has called it "the most famous unfinished album in rock & roll history." But Smile is also something much bigger. It is the pinnacle artistic achievement of a lost civilization, the middle-class, baby-boom, sun-soaked, clean-cut, work-hard-play-hard, bungalow-and-car culture of post-war Southern California. It was a paradise for the common man, one that produced legions of loyal and productive citizens, developed the modern aerospace industry, helped the West win the Cold War, and exported an attractive and fundamentally decent (if often vapid) vision of American life to every corner of the globe.
To understand Smile, you have to start by understanding the Wilsons, which requires understanding Hawthorne, California, circa 1961. In 1922, Murry Wilson arrived in Los Angeles at age five from Hutchinson, Kansas. His family was part of what journalist Carey McWilliams described in his classic 1946 study Southern California: An Island on the Land, as one of Los Angeles's frequent "quantum leaps, great surges of migration"—in this case the 1920s oil boom that flooded L.A. County with white low-church Protestant burghers and strivers (mostly the latter) from the Plains and the Midwest.
They came for the jobs but soon learned to appreciate the region's many other charms. McWilliams, who migrated west the same year as Wilson, was struck immediately by the landscape, "above all by the extraordinary greenness of the lawns and hillsides. It was the kind of green that seemed as though it might rub off on your hands; a theatrical green, a green that was not quite real." Of course, it wasn't quite real. At least, it wasn't natural. That green was the product of William Mulholland's "rape of the Owens Valley," the massive project to irrigate the bone-dry Los Angeles Basin later immortalized in Robert Towne's screenplay for Chinatown. L.A. in its natural state, as God intended, is the color of straw eleven months of the year.
And then there was the weather: mild, dry, predictable, and clear 329 days a year. Angelinos worshiped the sun with a fervor not seen since the Temple of Ra. Novelist Eugene Burdick—yet another member of L.A.'s class of '22—described that beneficent god thusly: "This is not the almost tropical sun of Hawaii or the alternately thin and blistering sun of Arkansas or the moderate bourgeois sun of France. This is a kind sun, a boon of nature, a sun designed for Utopia."
In a classic essay penned to explain to mystified (and horrified) eastern academics the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California in 1966, political scientist James Q. Wilson contrasted the manufacturing middle-class standard of living for New Yorkers versus Southern Californians. The former lived mostly
in a walk-up flat in, say, the Yorkville section of Manhattan or not far off Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Given their income in 1930, life would have been crowded, noisy, cold, threatening—in short, urban. In Long Beach or Inglewood or Huntington Park or Bellflower [or Hawthorne!], by contrast, life was carried on in a detached house with a lawn in front and a car in the garage, part of a quiet neighborhood, with no crime (except kids racing noisy cars), no cold, no smells, no congestion.
He adds, just to rub it in, "[t]he monthly payments on that bungalow...would have been no more than the rent on the walk-up flat in Brooklyn or Yorkville."
What was true in 1930 was exponentially truer in 1960. Indeed, historian Kevin Starr subtitled the seventh volume of his epic history of the state, which covers the postwar period, California in an Age of Abundance.
Plenty of jobs, plenty of space, plenty of sun, plenty of everything—that was the environment in which the Wilson brothers grew up. Three boys sharing one bedroom might not sound like abundance in the age of the McMansion but that was also an era in which a machinist without a college education, moonlighting as a musician, could comfortably if not lavishly raise a family on one income. It sounds idyllic, and for those who lived it, it was. Tom Wolfe made his career on noticing what was going on in Southern California before anyone else: "Suddenly classes of people whose styles of life had been practically invisible had the money to build monuments to their own styles. Among teen-agers, this took the form of custom cars, the Twist, the Jerk, the Monkey, the Shake, rock music generally, stretch pants, decal eyes...."
And the Beach Boys. Murry Wilson always wanted to be a songwriter. He scored a few minor successes on the side but never hit big. Success would come vicariously. The three sons whom he taught to play piano and guitar began by singing doo-wop songs (with a first cousin and a classmate) in impromptu sessions at Hawthorne High School and moved on to concerts at high schools and teen hangouts throughout the L.A. Basin. They were popular enough that in 1961 Murry was able to get the boys an audition in front of some music publishers, who unfortunately weren't interested in another cover band. Show us some original stuff, they said, and...maybe.
Middle brother Dennis was getting into the growing nascent SoCal surfing craze and was pushing big brother Brian, leader of the group, to incorporate beach themes into their music. Brian had been working on just such a tune but it was far from finished. That didn't stop Dennis from offering it up anyway. Now they were on the spot. One weekend, the parents took off for Mexico City and left the boys enough money to feed themselves. They took the cash, rented a bunch of instruments and equipment, and practiced for three solid days. They had a tape of an original song ready when mom and dad returned. "Surfin'"—a crude but catchy doo-wop with a bluesy bassline number—blanketed the Los Angeles airwaves and cracked the national top 100.
Murry assumed duties as manager of the band without asking, or explicitly gaining, anyone's permission. He was a tough taskmaster and stories of serious abuse emerged later—including smashing a 2x4 into Brian's head causing him to go deaf in his right ear. As Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain had already taught us, not everything happening under that beneficent sun was as pretty as the surroundings. But Murry was effective—at getting bookings, at forcing the boys to practice and write more songs, at placing their singles on the radio, and eventually at landing their career-making deal with Hollywood's Capitol Records. Brian took the lead in firing his father in 1964 but his filial affection never quite died. In liner notes written in 2011 for The Smile Sessions box set, Brian credits Murry's perfectionism for inspiring his own.
The band racked up a string of big hits in its early years—enduring classics from "California Girls" to "Surfin' USA" to "Fun, Fun, Fun"—that define their time and place. The British Invasion ended the Boys' dominance of the U.S. charts but as popular as the Beatles became stateside, the Beach Boys were doing just fine, thank you, in Old Blighty.
The rivalry between the two bands is the underappreciated spring that produced Smile. With at least two world-class songwriters, the Beatles had a definite edge. For deep thoughts and profound inspiration, the Boys had only Brian—but that would be enough, for a while.
Emotional problems began to take their toll in 1963 and the following year Brian stopped touring permanently to focus on studio work—two years before the Beatles' final concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park. The Fab Four's first true studio album, Rubber Soul, represented a great leap forward not just for the lads from Liverpool but for pop music. Darker, more thematic, far more inventive than anything they or their peers had hitherto attempted, the album was not a mere collection of singles, with A songs and B-side fillers crammed together haphazardly, but an organic whole with a beginning, middle, and end. That, in any case, was the way Brian Wilson heard it—over and over and over. He determined to strike back.
The result was the harmonic and melodic masterpiece Pet Sounds, certainly the Beach Boys'—and arguably any American band's—first successful "concept album." With the nearly-forgotten 1965 single "The Little Girl I Once Knew"—a song John Lennon called "fantastic" and "all Brian Wilson"—Brian had already begun to stretch his wings beyond the bubble gum pop that made him rich and famous. Pet Sounds was a continuation of, and departure from, all that came before. There are no surfin' or cruisin' lyrics, but one paean after another to the perils and pains of young love. The rest of the Boys returned from an Asian tour to find the album written and ready to record; they were nonplussed by Brian's new direction. Superficially, the sounds are the same—five high male voices slipping in and out of falsetto—but there is more harmonic interest, more instrumental variety, or—when the moment requires—no instruments at all. Every track flows inexorably from the prior one and as such the album had no stand-out hit, though Paul McCartney proclaimed "God Only Knows" the "greatest song ever written" and Pet Sounds "a total, classic record." Legendary Beatles producer George Martin would later say of the Fab Four's most famous album that "Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened.... Pepperwas an attempt to equal Pet Sounds."
A Strange Time
Before Pet Sounds was even finished, Brian dragooned the Boys into attempting their most ambitious project yet. More than even Pet Sounds, Smile was from the beginning a virtual Brian Wilson solo project with the other Boys serving essentially as back-up singers and session musicians. The entire concept and all the compositions were Brian's.
Except for the lyrics. Brian's most artistically ambitious collaborations to date had been with Tony Asher, who penned most of the words for Pet Sounds and also for the single "Good Vibrations." Brian described the latter as a "pocket symphony" in three movements. It took 90 hours in the studio to record and was, at the time, the most expensively produced song in history—indeed it cost more than most albums—and became the Beach Boys' first million-seller.
But for the new project Brian wanted something even more different. He turned to a little-known Southern poet, musician, singer, and former child actor named Van Dyke Parks. As a young man, Parks wandered the country like a troubadour, scratching out a subsistence strumming chords on a guitar while intoning Beat-inspired poetry in smoky coffee houses. The problem was, by the mid-1960s, the Beats were so over. So, at age 21, Parks arrived in Hollywood determined to make it ... as something or other.
It was a strange time in California. The shiny surface looked more or less the same as it had for 20 years: buzz cuts, button downs, tail fins, palm trees, and plenty of prosperity. But things were changing. Up north, young wastrels from all over the country—differing from Parks only in being more overtly unkempt—were flooding into the broken-down, half-abandoned, dirt-cheap old Victorians in the Haight-Ashbury. The Black Panther party was founded in Oakland that fall. The Summer of Love (1967) was a year away. Down south, the Sunset Strip was hopping like it hadn't since Mickey Cohen was shipped to Alcatraz—the honky-tonks and gambling dens replaced by hip nightclubs like the Whisky a Go Go, where the Doors were the house band and during breaks the tunes were spun by a mini-skirted D.J. in a cage hanging from the ceiling. Statewide, the old order was reasserting itself in the form of Ronald Reagan, whose promise to "clean up the mess in Berkeley" would help him ride the Hawthorne vote to a historic demolition of incumbent Governor Pat Brown. The Beach Boys embodied both the new and the old, and also the transition.
Teenage Symphony to God
At the time of their auspicious meeting, Brian Wilson was 24 and already a huge international star. Van Dyke Parks was a year younger and basically a nobody. He lived above a garage at La Brea and Melrose, in a single room without plumbing, and had to use the pay toilet at the nearest gas station, which was his only reason for going as he had no car. Wilson by contrast lived in a Beverly Hills mansion. "Mansion" may have been an accurate description structually, but inside the decor was more Little Rascals than Architectural Digest. One gained access via a tree house out front, there was a massive tent in the dining room, and the living room was made into a home studio—replete with a grand piano nestled in seven tons of sand so Brian could feel the beach between his toes as he composed.
His initial investment in Parks amounted to one used car, $5,000 in cash, and $2,000 worth of Afghani hash, which they smoked together in Brian's indoor sandbox as Brian wrote the music and Parks the words. In a 1966 interview, Brian famously described Smile as a "teenage symphony to God." All other attempts at brief description fail; that one is actually not bad. The album is certainly as complex as any symphony—Wilson claims Rhapsody in Blue as a great influence—yet the teen appeal is evident in the music's youthful sense of slapstick. At times, it plays almost like the soundtrack to a Saturday morning cartoon. And Wilson's heartfelt if nebulous spiritualism suffuses every track from the opening "Our Prayer"—a contrapuntal, a cappella hymn written not for the cathedral but for the Manhattan Beach pier—to the encore "You're Welcome," which is structured monophonically, like a Gregorian chant.
Instead of a series of discreet songs of more or less the same length, the longer tracks on Smile are interspersed with snippets, instrumental bridges, and goofy, near-throwaway vocals—techniques the Beatles would not utilize (and even then not fully) until three years later with their last album, Abbey Road. Brian was also experimenting technologically with tricks well ahead of their time and that contemporary audio equipment could scarcely handle. He borrowed from the movies the technique of cutting and splicing tape, something hardly ever done in music before "Good Vibrations" and usually only to cover up mistakes. Brian elevated "modular recording" to an art form, allowing the music to turn on a dime in ways impossible to achieve if the songs had to be played straight through in one take. Sgt. Pepper—with its array of jump cuts, sound effects and multi-track overlays that could only be accomplished in a studio—has gone down in rock history as the first album to blast away the boundaries of traditional stage pop in ways that made it absolutely unperformable in a live act. Smile, which was written and recorded earlier, was even more sonically inventive. Had it been released on schedule, undoubtedly Wilson's masterpiece would have earned that honor.
That's not to suggest that the genius of Smile is merely in the inventive use of gimmicks. There is real musical greatness here, and lots of it. "Heroes and Villains," the lynchpin of the album, is a psychedelic epic that either introduces or recapitulates themes that unify the whole work. "Surf's Up," the album's best song, so impressed Leonard Bernstein that he included, in his December 1966 CBS television special, a lengthy segment of Brian alone at the piano playing the tune. The voiceover was rhapsodic:
There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today's pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today's most important musicians, sings his own "Surf's Up." Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, "Surf's Up" is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future.
Rebellion and Loss
As to the lyrics, that's where the trouble really hit. Parks's idiosyncratic and whimsical words fit the overall tone perfectly even if they don't always—or often—make sense. The overarching theme is America, a deliberate reaction or response to pop music's then-reigning British Invasion. The lyrics cover the nation geographically from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, and historically from the Pilgrims through the Chicago fire, the Wild West, the railroads, and the Gilded Age. Snippets of standards from the Great American Songbook are woven in throughout, as are various pop culture jingles and theme songs. The words don't so much tell a story as set a mood, one that is often just plain silly. "I'm gonna be 'round my vegetables / I'm gonna chow down my vegetables" isn't exactly "Fall in love—you won't regret it / That's the best work of all—if you can get it."
Yet despite their incomprehensibility, the lyrics for Smile remain fresh because of the music's optimism and exuberant innocence. That beneficent Southern California sun shines through in every word. Though penned in the mid '60s, there is scarcely a trace of the America-bashing then sweeping the intellectual and artistic classes. The Boys—and especially Brian—certainly succumbed to the carnal temptations of the time. But they never bought into the dystopic New Left vision of "AmeriKKKa." In 1983, President Reagan's buffoonish Secretary of the Interior James Watt canceled a planned Beach Boys concert in Washington, claiming that the Boys drew "the wrong element." Both the president and the vice president publicly demurred; Watt was forced to relent. President and Mrs. Reagan warmly received the Boys at the White House. They later performed—gratis—before more than half a million fans on the National Mall. Front man Mike Love described singing on the Fourth of July in the heart of the nation's capital as the greatest moment of his life.
But back in 1966, Love objected to Brian's abandonment of the "fast cars, cute girls, and sunny beaches" formula for Pet Sounds—a commercial disappointment though a critical favorite whose reputation has only risen. He rebelled over Smile. During a recording session for "Cabin Essence," whose lyrics are esoteric even for Parks, Love lost it. He unloaded on Parks, demanding that he explain what the hell the words meant. Parks instead walked out—and soon withdrew from the project.
It all fell apart quickly after that. Brian's drug use intensified. The pressure to best the Beatles ate away at him. One night in February 1967, while driving home, he heard "Strawberry Fields Forever" on the radio. He was so overwhelmed he had to pull over. Lavishly produced, the song was a harbinger of what was to come from the Fab Four. Brian heard it as a challenge he could not meet, a sign that he had already lost.
He was wrong, but the damage was (almost) done. The last blow came when The Beach Boys released "Heroes and Villains" as a single. Brian hoped that it would top "Good Vibrations" (it's a much more sophisticated composition) and reestablish the Boys as the Beatles' creative peer. It peaked at #12 on the Billboard charts and then sank fast. Brian spiraled into a serious depression from which it would take decades to recover fully.
Smile was officially shelved in May 1967. To meet their obligations to Capitol Records, the Boys slapped together the most polished tracks and banged out some filler. The result was Smiley Smile, an album youngest brother Carl aptly described as "a bunt instead of a grand slam." It bombed.
The Beach Boys churned out a lot of mediocre, and some almost good, work over the following half-decade. The 1974 release Endless Summer—a compilation of pre-Pet Sounds "fast cars, cute girls, and sunny beaches" classics—not only sold millions, it established the band as the one of the first Boomer nostalgia "oldies" acts, less than 15 years after their debut. From that moment on, they would never lack for bookings, even if creatively they were all but finished.
It would be only a mild exaggeration to say that Brian lost three decades of his life to mental illness and drugs—illicit and prescribed. It's no exaggeration at all to say that the failure of Smile was the reason why. "As the years passed, Smilebecame this legendary thing, this giant weight on my shoulders, around my neck. It just choked me to death," Brian wrote. In the midst of all that haze and pain, he made a few desultory attempts at creative and even performing comebacks, with the Beach Boys and solo. They all went nowhere, or close.
What Might Have Been
The fog in Brian's brain was fully cleared by around 2000. In 2003 he reconnected with Parks and the two of them set about exorcising the Smile demon. First, they finished the writing, ensured that each song was a completed whole, and put together a coherent track order. Then Brian assembled a new band. No other Beach Boys—his brothers Dennis and Carl had died years before—were included. Various disputes over the intervening years had soured his relationships with his former band mates—and the wound of Mike's Love intense opposition to the original project hadn't healed.
Smile was premiered live in London on February 20, 2004—with Paul McCartney and George Martin front row, center. The 45-minute concert garnered a 10-minute standing ovation. Later that year Brian recorded the work, which was released to exuberant critical praise and solid sales.
But the demon wasn't fully gone. Capitol Records began gingerly approaching the four surviving Beach Boys in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of their first hit to see if they could be cajoled into doing anything together. Brian demurred but floated the idea of putting out the Smile recording sessions and packaging them into something close to how a finished version might have sounded in 1967. It was a project long intensely desired by the fans (and the record company) but one that was impossible without Brian's full cooperation and attention. After 44 years, he finally gave both.
The 2004 release is better than good. As a composition, Smile has few if any peers in pop. But the original sessions are magic. One should not presume to explain magic, so I won't, except to say that Brian's voice circa 1966 is positively angelic compared to the smoke-and-booze-cured version of 2004. And it doesn't hurt that of the six voices harmonizing on those old tapes, four are related by blood. The similarity of the tones at once enhances the harmony and highlights the subtle differences.
The tragedy is what might have been. Brian Wilson was one of those rare composers whose work only got better and deeper as he matured. In this, it's fair to compare him not just to the Beatles—"Surf's Up" is at least as far beyond "Surfin'" as side 2 of Abbey Road is from "Love Me Do"—but also to Beethoven and Verdi. Every song and every album was better than the one that came before. Until he imploded. We'll never know what else might have emerged from his fertile, functioning brain.
Brian himself has mused, "Probably nothing I've ever done has topped the music I made with Van Dyke, my old crew in the studio and the voices of my youth—me and The Beach Boys."
Not probably. But that's okay. It's enough.
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For Correspondence on this essay, click here.