by John Lane
The history of Smile is fraught with inconsistencies, contradictions, and incongruities in the telling. The album and the tale of its rise & fall has been compared to a grail quest in the hunt for its many pieces, but in the actual charting of its chronology and accompanying reasons for why It did not happen, one is looking at a Rashomon-esque affair.
With every passing year, it becomes clearer as to who cleaved the Smile project to their hearts & still exhibit a particular grief when recounting its abortion, and it also becomes clearer as to who refuses to discuss "the matter" for reasons unknown to the audience craving insight. What one is left with, aside from the handful of famous people still willing to express their reminisces, are a roomful of fans who resemble cartographers, trying to plot the coordinates as a little more of the landscape is revealed to them through a passing quip or a newly-discovered track. Or to use another metaphor: when was this glorious ship built? And when & where did it exactly sink? The reticent captain remains mum on the subject.
A certain emotional toll had been exerted upon Brian Wilson during the making of Pet Sounds, the album prior to the would-be Smile. The ethos of Pet Sounds, while self-evident in the tracks as a whole, can be summed up in the tales that were told afterwards:
Marilyn & Brian listening to the album in their bedroom and crying from the emotional weight of it; Tony Asher recalling the heart-to-hearts between Brian & himself; and the oft-quoted statement that so much of the artistic success of Pet Sounds was foundationally-rooted in "prayer" and "God". A sweet story with a perfect ending.
Where does one find such soothingly definitive statements like that when discussing Smile?
The answer is, one doesn't.
In May of 1966, the world was presented with a Beach Boys that had seemingly abandoned its old image of surf and cars. Like Rubber Soul was for the Beatles, this was the Beach Boys' first "heavy" album. And it probably jarred the group (barring Brian) more than anyone else. Such a question may have been rolling through the collective consciousness of the others: How does one bare their soul (i.e. sing those lyrics) for an audience who had up to this point took you for a stalwart individual with the looks of a clean-cut astronaut?
But Brian Wilson didn't concern himself with such a question, this much we know for sure. Undeterred by accusations of writing "ego music", Brian willingly stepped through The Looking-Glass in May of 1966 and returned sometime in the late-spring of 1967.
PART II: THE BRIDGE
In the midst of the myth-making and enigma-manufacturing, however, there was the birth of a certain million-selling hit single. Depending on where one is situated on the landscape, "Good Vibrations" is either entrenched in the lingering mood (emotion) of the Pet Sounds period OR it is actually the rockets'-red-glare signaling the advent of the Smile period. The song that technically "beats out" the Aquarian ethos inherent in the Beatles' own offering of the "Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane" single. By contrast, the Beatles had in some senses both figurative & literal just come off the road and they were just getting their surreal act together. Brian, on the other hand, was announcing to the world that the party was in full swing in his neck of the woods and it would be just a matter of time before everyone was invited inside his tent.
In October of 1966, one got a very full and vivid glimpse through a keyhole when looking into Brian's world. "Good Vibrations", at its most basic, is simply a love song; but at its most complex, it is a declaration that the Beach Boys were moving into entirely new terrain that almost made Pet Sounds seem unsophisticated. For sure, Brian was having a good hearty laugh -- that drive of a million-selling chart-topping single in the country was guided by the supposedly-eerie sound of a theremin. If he could turn a machine capable of emitting bad vibrations for horror films into a thing of beauty that had people dancing and gasping, then there were no limits. No limits, no barriers. Less than a year later, others would be echoing those sentiments perhaps more passionately, vocally, and even more ludicrously (e.g. Timothy Leary, All-You-Need-Is-Love Beatles, and the in-bloom Flower Children), but for now a giant leap had been taken just through the simple manipulation of the 3-minute pop song.
PART III: THE SMILE ERA
For the captain or king to forge ahead with his plan, he needs an entourage to bolster his self-confidence, to reassure him that his plan isn't as crazy as it sounds.
Derek Taylor likened the scenario to the "Mad Hatters Tea Party", which may be simplifying the matter too much but may also have a hint of truth insofar as this plan wasn't articulated but it was imperative that everyone stayed the course. It is only years later, after the fact, that the fans have tried to act as archeologists and identify the nature of the plan: did it pertain to The Elements? We see the ashes left over from the "Fire". Or was this a "pan-patriotic" and "trans-presidential" attempt (to paraphrase Van Dyke Parks) at usurping The System from within -- using the very model of uniformity in America to creat anarchy? Or was it a spiritual Zen statement, wherein every musical flourish is supposed to convey a koan? And if we've exhausted ourselves in analyzing the music, we then analyze the proposed cover art -- what does this Pop Art simplicity mean? Is it a naive Warholian statement? And the back sleeve -- just why is Brian missing? Where was Brian?
Brian was in the studio.
Those who knew Brian best -- or rather, empathized with him best -- testified to the fact that Brian during Fall of 1966 to Late Spring 1967 was a man in control. Carol Kaye, renowned bass guitar session player and a perceptive & kind soul, remains steadfast in her memory that Brian Wilson was the consumate professional throughout the sessions. In fact, so little had changed in the work atmosphere (aside from the music) that some players have gone on record as saying that they can't perceive where Pet Sounds ended and Smile began. In her effort to debunk the mythology of craziness that has permeated and perhaps sullied a creative peak in history, Ms. Kaye has also gone on to note that the craziest it ever got was the child-like request from Brian that everyone wear plastic fire helmets.
The proof of Brian's drive and professionalism is a matter of public record, waiting to be found by the listener on the "Heroes and Vibrations" bootleg and The Sea of Tunes "Smile Sessions" bootleg set. History shows thus far that Brian's mind, in the studio atmosphere, was focused and sharp. Unfortunately, outlandish tales -- though more infrequent and often fabricated from the mundane -- make better copy.
To be sure, however, Brian could be a self-indulgent artiste caught up in the trappings of wealthy excess and ego-massaging as many of his contemporaries were (does Lennon's psychadelic Rolls ring a bell?). But Brian's excesses, aside from the occasional LSD trip and love of marijuana, tended to be the product of a youth who had never left the suburban way of life too far behind. His ideas of fun were almost typical of what a young man from Hawthorne who had witnessed the erection of DisneyLand in his home state and spent countless hours at icecream stands as a teen would be. In short, it was just more make-believe, now seen in hindsight as perhaps more outrageous than it really was. A Sun King who didn't want to hurt anyone.
So he set his piano in a sandbox in the middle of his living room. So he'd wiggle his toes in the sand while he was composing tunes.
So he set up a tent in a meetingroom in his house, filled it with throw-pillows for the baked and contemplative alike to relax upon. According to one account, the only light emanating from within was derived from a traffic meter with a lightbulb that one had to keep feeding with coins in order to sustain the light.
There were also the display-store dolls still kept in their box-wrap, stacked in columns, in the same piano room.
There were the windchimes inside the house.
There was the small 3-dimensional picture of Jesus in which the eyes seemed to move depending on your angle.
And there were copious amounts of Reddi-Whip to be consumed, cans littering the house. Brian purchased the stuff for the high inherent in the almighty "whip-it", but he obviously enjoyed the creamy contents as well.
Good clean fun, with a little mind-enhancement thrown in to elevate the juvenile to the collegiate and philosophical.
Of course, in order to sustain such a fun, fairy-tale existence on the side -- while also working diligently on a mural-in-progress, one needs people around him to reassure him.
So Brian, separated from his clean-cut alter collective alter ego that was out touring for most of the time during the Smile period, decided to hang out with the gang that he'd never really hung out with in high school. Keep in mind, however, that he wasn't just hanging out -- he was purposefully surrounding himself with people who would maintain that he was on the continued road to success with Smile.
The Players, In No Particular Order were as follows:
David Anderle became head of Brother Records at Brian's behest when it became known that Anderle was a sharp L.A. wunderkind who had helped to woo Bob Dylan from his label to another. It was Anderle's El Greco-style portrait of Brian that may have contributed to Brian being thrown from his horse, but nothing's certain in this tale.
Together with Paul Williams (then editor of the up-and-coming hip underground music magazine, Crawdaddy) they contributed a Waiting-For-Godot-style discussion to the history of Smile in the aftermath. Paul Williams spent a week or so in the presence of Brian Wilson in December of 1966, and Brian held court for the young kid, playing him acetates of the various tracks-in-progress; from one week of privileged listening came a lifetime of inspired writing by Williams.
Both men were awed by Brian Wilson's capabilities, and still speak 30+ years later with an almost-hushed reverence about what they witnessed.
Jules Seigel was a writer for the Saturday Evening Post who couldn't find a home for a seminal essay, so placed it in his self-published and ill-fated magazine Cheetah. The then-EastCoast denizen spent time with Brian trying to chart the trajectory of this flying star called Smile. The piece that resulted (titled "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God") is the only lasting literary fresco of that period -- that is, the most detailed and revealing. David Anderle felt years later that Seigel may have taken some creative license in his portrayal of the king and the members of the court.
Derek Taylor was the hot English commodity that everyone in the music biz wanted in their court in the mid-60s, having spent considerable time working as a publicist for the Beatles. Since the Beatles were seen as the epitome of cheek and wit in the rock world, who better to hire than Derek Taylor who had effortlessly served as spindoctor, giving 4 scousers a certain sheen and polish that never really existed? Once put on the payroll, Derek Taylor set his mind to delivering grand statements just as Brian was doing in private conversation with him. And so "Brian Wilson is a genius" became the catchphrase attributed to Taylor.
Michael Vosse's role/presence in the Smile court is difficult to ascertain, whether or not he was there for journalistic purposes or just enjoying the ambience. The same uncertainty surrounds the presence of writer Paul Robbins. One gets the feeling that certain people were there on the scene to bear witness, but did not know how to or maybe even care to discuss the aftermath.
Van Dyke Parks in some respects has sadly been reduced to Sancho Panza to Brian's Don Quixote. But the notion that the two of them were just chasing windmills is one of the worst perpetuated myths associated with Smile, as the body of work is quite complex and above all accessible. Parks has asserted that he "worked for" Brian, an ersatz internship or a willing servitude. Conversely, some Smile scholars believe that Parks was actually a collaborator, stressing that the lyrical involvement (which was why Van Dyke was hired) is just as significant as the musical content that Brian had devised. While Van Dyke Parks has spoken about his involvement and subsequent exit from the Smile project, his answers have seemed somewhat oblique (e.g. the offensive sight of Brian's sandbox and the garish tent-in-the-house). The most revealing insight one has gleamed about his departure concerns the infamous show-down with Mike Love over the lyrics to "Cabin Essence", whereby Van Dyke (obviously lacking support from Brian) chose not to qualify his artistic contribution and abandoned the scene completely. Some say that the loss of Brian's Intellectual sidekick and supporter marked the end of Smile. The non-verbal Brian may have lost his mouthpiece.
PART IV: RANDOM SNAPSHOTS OF THE END
The disintegration or evaporation of interest and desire to complete Smile remains the greatest mystery, when one tries to point to the exact moment.
Again, depending on where one is situated on the landscape, Brian's famous filmed appearance by David Oppenheim and CBS-TV in November of 1966 symbolizes one thing or another: The glorious announcement to the world that Brian Wilson had entered that Pantheon of timeless artistic greatness and was about to grace the world with a monumental achievement that would surpass everything done by anyone up to this point in American contemporary music (to lift a bit of Brian-esque bravado)...OR a musical message-in-a-bottle to the world, lamenting that he has seen the bleak future and the demise of his hard work, and therefore he offers a solo goodbye (him and his piano) before blending back into the fold.
In late 1966, Brian returns from having prepared the Boys for a concert at Michigan State University and for a subsequent brief British tour, and arrives at Los Angeles International Airport. From the plane he made a symbolic S.O.S. call (or maybe just the caprecious whim of a rich disturbed young man) and made sure that his Smile posse would be waiting for him there. Ready and waiting with a photographer to capture the group in one place before everyone would go there own way. Was this Brian having pictures taken of his "summertime, camp friends" before heading back to school with The Beach Boys?
"I promise I'll call you. Let's stay in touch. I'll write you. I promise."
To Brian's chagrine, David Anderle actually assumes the role of businessman that he was originally hired to do. He loses a latenight-swimmingpool partner and confidante, probably his most sympathetic male companion during the Smile period.
In the interim, Brian finds himself wrangling with Capitol over royalty issues. Financial realities intrude upon a self-created fairyland. The routine of creating by day and mind-expanding by night is disturbed.
Carl Wilson's draft problems are also a matter of considerable distraction. Surely the U.S. Government doesn't need a Beach Boy in the dense jungles of Asia, right? Haven't we performed our patriotic duty to this country with everything we've done so far?
Then a call from Derek Taylor perhaps: have you considered playing the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival? After all, you Boys have been the unofficial diplomats of the state of California since 1962. A pause. A reply: They'll laugh at us.
Goodbye, Laurel Way. One can almost hear Marilyn, I don't care what you do with that sandbox. Give it to a charity, for all I care,but just make sure all the sand is vacuumed out of here. As she talks with the movers and cleaning crew, Brian deposits all of his scratched Smile acetates into a brown cardboard box and seals the flaps with duct tape.
Marilyn calls upstairs, Bri? Honey? I'm going to make a run over to Bellagio, you wanna come with me? I got a few boxes here and I could use your help. Brian?
But while shuffling newspapers and magazines beside the bed, he comes across one particular publication and flips through it and reads something Derek Taylor has written,
"In truth, every beautifully designed, finely-wrought in- spirationally-welded piece of music made these last few months by Brian and his Beach Boy craftsmen has been SCRAPPED. Not destroyed, but scrapped. For what Wilson seals in a can and destroys is scrapped."
A quick toke on a joint left by the side of the nighttable, now devoid of its odd assortment of books and just holding an ashtray, and then Brian chuckles to himself, Yeah, okay, sounds good.
Marilyn calls upstairs, Honey? You coming already or should I go by myself? Diane's waiting there and I gotta let her in, so if we're going, we're going now.
Brian steps outside the bedroom door into the hallway, smiling. Yeah, just hold your horses. I wanna put some stuff in the trunk. Y'know, junk for posterity. Picks up the cardboard box, and leaves.