Smile Again

The remarkable fall and rise of former Beach Boy Brian Wilson — and the story of how he finished the most renowned unfinished album of all time

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Rock's most famous walking casualty says he's feeling better these days, even if he says it cryptically, via e-mail. Brian Wilson, the reclusive and mentally fragile former leader of the Beach Boys, is doing extensive interviews to support the release of the CD Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch). In the mid-'60s, Smile was the heavily buzzed project pegged to follow up the masterpiece Pet Sounds. Wilson's goal at the time was simple: he wanted to redefine rock music. But in 1967, after months and months of highly experimental recording sessions, he scrapped the endeavor, his mind in shambles. So Smile sat, decade after decade, the most renowned unfinished album of all time.

He returned to Smile last year, faced down his demons and finished it. Once a near-mystical artifact, Smile has kicked its way into the baby-boomer zeitgeist.

So here's Brian Wilson, not a loquacious fellow in the first place, promoting a tour and his first-ever solo CD that's legitimately hot. It can't be easy for him, but he's jumped (or been pushed) into the media fray.

I ask him via e-mail:

You have spoken of finishing Smile as confronting some of your biggest fears. You thought about quitting the [current] project, but never did. You pushed through the fears. Now that you have some hindsight, what therapeutic benefit did you get from finally finishing it?

And Brian Wilson answers: "I felt like a musician who had made his dream come true. It was a weight off my shoulders."

Do you think it has benefited your overall health?

"Yes it has, I got in a frame of mind to exercise again."

Are you happier from finishing it?

"Yes, very much."

Smile is getting the Big Push. Tour, promotion, advertising, gobs of mostly adoring press, a Showtime film documenting the odyssey, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. While no masterpiece (see review, page 29), the disc is an admirable achievement, and the hype looks to be paying off. The disc recently entered the Billboard album chart at No. 13, the highest ranking for any of his four solo albums. The Smile tour is doing brisk business.

You're a guy who's made a lot of hit records, although not lately. What commercial expectations do you have for Smile?

"I feel it is appropriate for this year and people will really pick up on it."

In late 1965, dissatisfied with the sun 'n' surf formula of the Beach Boys, Brian Wilson wrote and recorded a passel of new songs while the rest of the band went on tour. Using a stable of ace L.A. session musicians, he meticulously orchestrated the parts and conducted the ensemble through a series of lush, symphonic instrumental tracks. When the other Beach Boys returned, he directed them through their vocals. The resulting Pet Sounds is one of the most revered albums in rock annals, a damn near perfect record that includes such polished gems as "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Caroline, No" and "You Still Believe in Me." In England, the Beatles heard its clarion call and took it as a challenge. The Beach Boys — no, Brian Wilson — had raised the bar.

For his next endeavor, the 24-year-old Beach Boys auteur envisioned creating "a teenage symphony to God."

"One day I will write songs that people will pray to," Wilson allegedly said.

He enlisted a young wordsmith named Van Dyke Parks and together they cobbled a lofty, oblique concept: an American travelogue, flying from Plymouth Rock to Diamond Head in Hawaii.

Instead of making his new music song by song, Wilson took a modular approach, writing and recording snippets to be assembled later. The music conveyed a sweeping sense of Americana with a grandeur that recalled Gershwin and Copland. "If Pet Sounds was his 'blue' period, Smile was his cubist period," says friend David Anderle in the Showtime documentary.

Despite his ambitious artistry, Wilson's emotional state was beginning to fray. For the cacophonous interlude titled "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," meant to evoke fire, he had musicians wear firemen's hats in the studio. After a spate of blazes broke out in the surrounding areas over the next few days, Wilson panicked, thinking they were his fault.

Making matters worse, the other Beach Boys, back from the road, didn't understand the music; Mike Love, the group's effervescent frontman, despised it. He refused to sing Parks' lyrics — elliptical at best, arguably nonsensical ("Columnated ruins domino!") — unless he was given explanations. The wordsmith refused.

One night, Wilson was driving his car, buzzed on Secanol, when the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields" came on the radio. Overwhelmed, he pulled to the side of the road and thought, "They did it already. Maybe it's too late."

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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