He Can’t Suppress a ‘Smile’
There’s no surf, no sand, no little deuce coupes and only a couple of California girls in sight of the North Hollywood recording studio. Inside, the 61-year-old architect of “Good Vibrations,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” sits stoically at his keyboard, surrounded by a small army of musicians, and stares into one of two video monitors.
Song lyrics crawl across the screens as the other performers, most of whom weren’t born when Brian Wilson’s songs topped the charts four decades ago, serve up the densely layered vocal harmonies and rainbow of instrumental colors that his compositions require.
Wilson frequently looks away from the monitors and occasionally switches them off, but likes them nearby as a safety net.
Who can blame him? The songs he’s working on aren’t the familiar rock hits he created with the Beach Boys, those relentlessly sunny tunes that painted a fantasy of Southern California life as an endless summer of perfect waves, hot rods and blond beauties.
Instead, he’s putting the finishing touches on a work he dreamed up 38 years ago, at the height of his creative rivalry with the Beatles.
After years of wrestling with depression and drug and alcohol abuse, after half a lifetime of trying to forget his fabled lost masterwork, Wilson can smile again.
“This feels so good,” he says to a reporter when the session is over. “So good I can’t believe it.”
Tonight, he’ll unveil “Smile” at a concert in England, where fans have long accorded him the heroic status that Americans reserved for the Beatles. Paul McCartney is expected to join him on stage during at least one of six sold-out shows at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Over the next three weeks, Wilson will give 16 “Smile” concerts in Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. He plans a U.S. tour in the fall to coincide with the CD release of the newly recorded work.
To tens of thousands of pop fans, Wilson’s completion of “Smile” is no less exhilarating than the discovery of a completed manuscript for Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony would be to classical music scholars.
“I can hardly wait,” says Rick Rubin, a producer who has worked with acts ranging from Johnny Cash and Tom Petty to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys.
Wilson, his hair now streaked with gray but still thick and full, has been touring regularly since 1998, something many pop fans never thought they’d see, given his history of emotional instability.
Now they’ll get the music that most never dreamed they would hear.
The Beatles’ Rivals
Wilson was 24 when he went to work on the album he conceived as “a teenage symphony to God.” Originally to be called “Dumb Angel” to reflect its themes of humor and spirituality, it was retitled “Smile.”
It was 1966, and a string of more than two dozen hit singles and 10 hit albums had made the Beach Boys, a band from Hawthorne, the most popular American group and the Beatles’ chief rivals atop the sales charts. Pop music was going through a transformation in which the album was supplanting the three-minute single as the dominant format.
Wilson has long said he felt a sense of artistic competitiveness with the Fab Four. Each group has acknowledged the influence of the other.
The Beatles’ 1965 album “Rubber Soul” inspired Wilson to move beyond the teen simplicity of the Beach Boys’ early work to the musical maturity and emotional expressiveness of 1966’s “Pet Sounds.” The ambitions of “Pet Sounds” helped spur the Beatles to new heights in their next album, “Revolver.”
Wilson was determined to top his rivals again with “Smile.” He promised it would be as much of a progression over “Pet Sounds” as that was over its predecessor, “Beach Boys Party!”
“Smile” was expected at the end of 1966 -- while the Beatles were working on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Immediately after “Pet Sounds,” Wilson created the band’s most intricately crafted recording, “Good Vibrations,” a song intended for “Smile.” It became the Beach Boys’ biggest hit up to that time, proof that there was a market for Wilson’s increasingly sophisticated music.
Wilson’s further evolution with “Smile” stemmed from his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi-born singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and producer who had moved to Southern California in the 1950s.
Parks brought a strong literary sensibility to the lyrics he wrote for “Smile,” which he and Wilson envisioned as a work rooted in American history, culture and musical vernacular. It was to contain doses of comic-book humor reflecting the whimsicality of the dawning psychedelic age. (Jimi Hendrix once described what he’d heard of “Smile” as the music of “a psychedelic barbershop quartet.”)
But Parks’ impressionistic lyrics led to dissension among the Beach Boys. Mike Love, the band’s front man during concerts, was particularly sensitive to pleasing fans and found Parks’ lyrics obscure.
Other band members worried that “Smile’s” musical sophistication wouldn’t translate into radio hits. By then, Wilson had left behind the simple three-chord pop song in favor of careening melodies, unconventional chord progressions and shifting sonic textures.
Complicating the picture, the group was attempting to start its own label, Brother Records. As part of that move, the band sued Capitol Records.
Capitol printed nearly half a million “Smile” album covers, anticipating the arrival of a master tape in fall 1966. But Wilson, working in the studio while the other Beach Boys were on tour, missed deadline after deadline as he continued polishing his work.
Lack of support from his band mates was a factor in the delay. But he also was feeling stress from the lawsuit and the weight of his responsibility for ensuring the livelihood of the ever-expanding Beach Boys family -- on top of an ongoing struggle with his domineering, abusive and jealous father, Murry.
The final blow came in June 1967 with the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Wilson had been bested by his rivals, and he scrapped “Smile.”
The band later came out with a watered-down version called “Smiley Smile,” a faint echo of Wilson’s original vision.
Myth Versus Fact
The fate of “Smile” has become legend. Although most of the world never heard the album, several influential musicians and journalists were allowed into some of the recording sessions in late 1966 and early 1967.
The idea that rock music might be considered art rather than merely entertainment was in its infancy. Yet no less an authority than Leonard Bernstein expressed admiration for the sophistication of “Surf’s Up,” one of “Smile’s” cornerstone tracks, played for him as part of a CBS News documentary about a new generation of musicians.
Unlike the guessing game often played with legendary rockers who died prematurely -- what music might Hendrix, Buddy Holly or Jim Morrison have made had they lived longer? -- the fantasizing over “Smile” is based on more than wishful thinking.
Most of the album’s songs had been recorded by the time Wilson abandoned the project. For years they lay dormant; reel upon reel of tape waiting to be stitched together and brought to life by their creator. Eventually, tantalizing bits and pieces surfaced, officially and unofficially.
Books and countless articles have been written about Wilson’s masterwork, and the theorizing has raged on via the Internet. One enterprising group in Europe came up with “Project Smile,” a CD-ROM containing all the existing bits and pieces of the work, circulated for free among users worldwide. That do-it-yourself approach had been the closest possibility to a completed version, because Wilson long refused to even discuss it.
“Until about three years ago, you couldn’t even mention ‘Heroes and Villains’ to Brian,” Wilson biographer David Leaf said, referring to another key song from “Smile.” Leaf is making a film documentary about the completion of the album.
But Wilson’s attitude changed after the enthusiastic fan response to his performance of “Heroes and Villains” at a 2001 all-star tribute to his music in New York.
He has not simply dusted off songs intended for “Smile.” He has reunited with lyricist Parks to structure the disparate pieces into a fully developed three-movement pop suite and craft a few new lyrics and musical links.
Out of the Darkness
Wilson says he was able to revisit perhaps the darkest chapter of his past because “I have emotional security.”
He gets it from his wife of nine years, Melinda, the three children they’ve adopted, a team of doctors from UCLA that has diagnosed and helped him manage his depression, and a sympathetic group of musicians whose goal is to aid Wilson in realizing his musical vision.
After failing to deliver “Smile,” the Beach Boys continued to produce acclaimed albums, but ceased to be a commercial force in pop music.
Wilson retreated from the world, and his musical output slowed to a trickle. Melinda Wilson believes that he was in the grip of a depression that went undiagnosed and untreated.
“Like many people with depression who don’t get proper treatment, he tried to medicate himself with drugs,” she says.
His first wife, Marilyn, brought in Hollywood psychologist Eugene Landy to help Wilson in the 1970s. Landy lived 24 hours a day with Wilson, recommended medication (provided by one of Landy’s associates who was an M.D.) and interceded in the Beach Boys artistic and business decisions.
The band members and Wilson’s relatives grew alarmed when Wilson rewrote his will to make Landy the main beneficiary. They filed suit against Landy, contending that the psychologist had taken over Wilson’s life. In 1991, a judge put the songwriter’s affairs under the control of a court-appointed conservator.
Melinda describes her husband’s path back to “Smile” as consisting of many “baby steps.” It started with his resumption of concert appearances in 1998, followed by a more ambitious tour in 2000 in which he and his new band performed “Pet Sounds” in its entirety.
Now, he says, at least privately to Melinda, the album he had formerly written off as “a mistake” is “the best work I’ve ever done.”
It’s not intended as a reconstruction of the album the world should have heard 37 years ago. “It’s the way I feel about the music now,” Wilson says.
And how does he feel about it now? “I think it’s perfect.”
Wilson talks about his music haltingly, at times giving clipped responses of “yes,” “no” or “I can’t answer that question”; at others offering simplistic-sounding explanations. (Asked how he and Parks composed “Wonderful,” a “Smile” song that dazzles musicologists because it abandons the conventional notion of key signature, he says, “We did it through concentration.”)
Such comments reflect his inherent shyness, Melinda says. But the impression that develops over the course of two interviews is that what he feels about his music is the music and that verbal explanations are, for Wilson, redundant.
Wilson doesn’t appear concerned, nor does anyone in his entourage, that after 3 1/2 decades of analysis and debate, rumor and speculation, the myth will overshadow the music.
“It’s so far beyond what I would have imagined it could be,” guitarist Jeffrey Foskett says after a complete run-through of “Smile” at rehearsal.
“The way I see it is that the Beach Boys’ first 10 albums made them stars, ‘Pet Sounds’ made them great, and ‘Smile’ made Brian Wilson a legend. I just hope that in completing this, it gives him peace and lets him put this behind him after all these years.”
In one of “Pet Sounds’ ” directly autobiographical songs, Wilson sang, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”
Now, he says, “I think the time is right.”