Surf's up

Brian Wilson's new Smile turns pop's greatest myth into a reality

A few years ago, Billy Corgan described Brian Wilson's unfinished 1967 Beach Boys opus Smile as an attempt to bring Mark Twain to music. With a pained look of frustration crossing his face, Corgan concluded: "He nearly made it."

Many Wilson devotees have shared Corgan's pain over the years, but, heretical as it may sound, Wilson really didn't get all that close to fulfilling his vision for Smile back in 1966-67. Bootlegs over the years have revealed Smile to be a huge jigsaw puzzle with way too many pieces. Those pieces fell into three categories: a handful of fully realized masterpieces ("Heroes And Villains," "Surf's Up,"), a couple of good songs that were poorly executed ("Wonderful," "Vega-Tables"), and beaucoup stillborn fragments in search of a context. You could hear the gorgeous hints of a masterpiece here, but you could also detect the seeds of an erratic mess.

For 37 years, fans have filled the gaps between what Smile was and what they hoped it would be. They've treasured the myth of the record's innovative greatness and contemplated the way it would have transformed the pop landscape of the '60s.

Wilson and Parks envisioned a poetic exploration of Manifest Destiny that would serve as an elegy for America's lost innocence.
In the last year, however, Smile has made the scary leap from myth to reality. In the fall of 2003, Wilson and his lyrical collaborator Van Dyke Parks listened to the shelved Smile tapes and proceeded to complete the project's unfinished songs. In February, Wilson and his expert backing band, the Wondermints, performed Smile at London's Royal Festival Hall. On September 28, Wilson and the Wondermints' studio-reconstructed version of Smile hit record stores, followed closely by the Showtime debut of a film called Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, which documents Smile's tortured history.

At first blush, the idea of re-recording the entire album sounded like a major blunder. So much of Smile's allure rested in the specifics of its exotic sound, alternately symphonic and rustic: Banjos mingled with harpsichords, Hawaiian guitars bumped up against timpani, and tack pianos gave way to cellos. It also employed tape editing in a way never before attempted in pop music: as a compositional technique. Applying the lessons he learned from recording the hit single "Good Vibrations" (which he reluctantly agreed to include on Smile), Wilson developed a method of recording short snippets and cutting them together to build song montages. The result was a hash-fueled collison of Stephen Foster, George Gershwin, and John Cage. How could anyone recreate something so elusive?

Yet Wilson had little choice. Releasing Smile in its old fragmentary form might have pleased cultists, but wouldn't have made for a satisfying record. Tampering with the original tracks by overdubbing new parts would have been even dodgier. Starting from scratch presented the only viable option.

A Smile-era Brian Wilson, in a still from Showtime's Beautiful Dreamer.
The resulting album lives up to all but the most inflated expectations for Smile, duplicating the sonic architecture that made the original so compelling and adding a new level of thematic coherence. It's not an insult to Wilson to say that the Wondermints are the true stars of this album. Simply put, no other band on the planet could have pulled off this daunting task. They recreate the complexities of the original Smile with astonishing precision, right down to the inflections of the choral intro "Our Prayer" or the guitar timbres on "Barnyard." More suprisingly, the 62-year-old Wilson rises to the band's level with the best vocals he's put on record since his bedroom-hibernation period of the mid-'70s. You might miss the youthful Wilson falsetto from the original "Windchimes," but otherwise you'll hardly notice the difference.

In its original form, Smile juggled several agendas. Above all, Wilson and Parks envisioned a poetic exploration of Manifest Destiny that would serve as an elegy for America's lost innocence; Wilson also famously talked of wanting the record to be "a teenage symphony to God"; at other times, he described it as a celebration of the therapeutic powers of humor. For no discernible reason, he and Parks also grafted onto this tableau a suite devoted to the four basic elements.

Despite such lofty ambitions, much of Wilson's music for Smile did not easily accommodate lyrics. This, as much as the disapproval of his bandmates, thwarted the album's completion. Wilson conceded as much a few years after the original Smile sessions: "We got off on bags that just fucking didn't have any value for vocals! A lot of tracks just weren't made for vocals, so the group couldn't do it!"

It's always been too easy to blame the other Beach Boys for Smile's disintegration. The notion that the mid-'60s Brian was a fragile deer crushed by any hint of negativity has always been hard to swallow. Studio outtakes from that period show how tough Wilson could be. When his father made critical comments during a March 1965 recording session for "Help Me Rhonda," Wilson coldly dressed him down: "Are you going now? Are you going or staying? I want to know." A year later, when Capitol Records executives expressed reservations about the artsy Pet Sounds, Wilson stood firm. Wilson showed no such confidence in Smile, at least partly because he didn't know how to finish it.

Brian Wilson
(Nonesuch Records)
Parks' new lyrics supply essential color to tracks such as "Roll Plymouth Rock" and "Barnyard," but Smile remains dominated by instrumental passages and wordless vocalizing. Its sense of thematic grandeur comes not from the lyrics, but from Wilson's music, which repeats crucial melodic motifs ("child is father of the man," "in the cantina," "roll Plymouth Rock") with great dexterity. The new Smile also works because it either deletes or trims dubious material such as "He Gives Speeches," "I Love To Say Da Da," and the caterwauling "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."

Smile concludes with "Good Vibrations," a Wilson classic smothered to death by its overexposure on soft-drink commercials and Beach Boys nostalgia shows. Here, Wilson pointedly incorporates some of the lyrics Tony Asher wrote for the song, before Mike Love changed them. It not only gives a tired song fresh life, it also emphasizes that Wilson's greatest work had little to do with the Beach Boys.

What's most gratifying about Smile's release is that it forces listeners to contend with Wilson's creation as a finite reality, rather than a cultural what-if obsession. Those who prefer myth to reality might wish Wilson had left Smile alone. The rest of us will be too busy listening to notice. •

By Gilbert Garcia