Many years ago I said that “Music is God’s Voice.” I’ve often felt that I was on a musical mission, to spread the gospel of love through records. – Brian Wilson
When Brian Wilson did the unthinkable and revisited/reassembled his long-lost masterpiece SMiLE in 2004, it was touted as a major personal breakthrough. To the wider public, the project represented a mythic highwater mark (pun intended) of American pop music, synonymous with tragic too-beautiful-for-this-world genius, but for Brian himself, what had begun as his “teenage symphony to God” clearly had a different association: pain, defeat and more pain. It was “inappropriate music” (his own words) that took on a life – and death – of its own. Bad vibrations, in other words. It is not stretching things, theologically or otherwise, to say that SMiLE embodied the Law to Brian, its incompletion casting a shoulda-woulda-coulda judgment/shadow over the rest of his career, an indelible testament to failure and weakness. For pop music fans, SMiLE came to serve as shorthand for a different kind of Law: the standard by which all other avant-pop records would be measured, its beauty made all the more exquisite by virtue of its intangibility, the bits that leaked out on Beach Boys albums and boxed sets providing just enough glorious evidence to justify the hype.
The SMiLE legend, for me, was a key part of the Wilson allure from day one. I remember hearing the Smiley Smile version of “Vegetables” that appeared on one of their umpteen compilations when I was a boy, and recognizing even then that this was something… special. One of these is not like the others! Piecing together the SMiLE recordings one by one, the silhouette of a fallen genius emerged, and to say that it was intoxicating to my youthful sensibilities would be an understatement. The story of an artist whose spirit was as sensitive as his talent was irrepressible, a man who retreated from the world at the height of his powers, who couldn’t bear the pressure and competition of a ruthless industry – it’s romantic stuff, is it not? Young Werther with a surfboard. Of course, it’s also only half-true. Drugs and mental illness played an enormous part in the whole mix, and 1966-67 California wasn’t exactly devoid of self-indulgent/-destructive nonsense masquerading as wisdom. Brian was no saint and no victim. At least not more than anyone else. Well, maybe a little more than everyone else..
I was loathe to admit it at the time, but the 2004 re-constitution of SMiLE was a tad underwhelming. Brian’s battered voice, which could still work wonders on his more modest solo records, distracted from the baroque grandeur of the SMiLE tunes. The transitional pieces were pretty revelatory, but the newly “completed” songs, like “Roll Plymouth Rock” and “On a Holiday,” while charming, could never have lived up to the missing vocal melodies in my head. And the instruments, recorded on vintage equipment perhaps, still sounded like 2004, unintentionally making 1967 look a bit, well, corny in the process. I missed Carl and Dennis, I missed Al, I even missed Mike. Perhaps there was also some uncomfortable dissonance about an aging maestro playing songs he had intended for much younger vessels. So while I was proud of Brian (such is my identification with the guy), I suspect I was not the only diehard fan to listen a few times and then shelve it in favor of my tried and true SMiLE bootlegs and self-made compilations. Truth be told, I sort of put SMiLE aside, period. The bloom was off the rose.
Then, two weeks ago, The Beach Boys stopped suing each other long enough to put out the original sessions, and I take it all back. SMiLE is a masterpiece. Even in its final incomplete form, it’s a stunning piece of music. And despite the generations of imitators at this point, it still sounds like nothing else: Brian’s longtime obsessions with Gershwin and Disney were very much germinating, mix in some LSD and Surfin’ Safari, a dash of Mozart, a pinch of Roy Rogers, some Spectorized sea shanty, a hint of Liverpool, even Gregorian chant, and you’re almost there. But no description can really do SMiLE justice – this was Brian’s vision, not someone else’s. The best songs on it (“Cabinessence” “Heroes and Villains” “Surf’s Up”) outstrip the best songs on Sgt. Peppers, its most obvious reference point, by a significant margin. What’s more, the production is a genuine step forward, tempering the Pet Sounds melancholy with whimsical left-turns galore (and thankfully little psychedelic noodling).
SMiLE isn’t nearly as bogged down in California zeitgeist as one might have suspected; despite a few flowery passages, Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics are, by and large, distinguished by their wordplay rather than their trippiness. The themes and content are exactly what they had long been rumored to be: the American frontier, the natural world, childhood, physical fitness, humor – you’d be hard pressed to find another record with similar thematic breadth. Yet somehow it works, and the feeling, which Brian focused on above all else, is indeed a smiling one. (Much to my surprise, echoes of the 2004 version even enhance the listening experience.) Had he been able, in the summer of love, to stare down the Law of the Beatles and put the record out, Brian would have indeed set a new bar…
Which brings me back to God. Listening again this past week, I was still stumped as to how SMiLE, beyond its sheer beauty (and incompleteness), could be heard as a “symphony to God,” teenage or otherwise. The Lord gets a mention in “Wonderful” but mainly as a somewhat creepy device to deal with adolescent sexuality. Then there’s the vaguely trinitarian Wordsworth quote about child being the father of the man, which pops up numerous times and dovetails nicely with the inner child theme. No, the answer, it turns out, comes in the album centerpiece “Surf’s Up.” The liner notes to the new release include an explanation of the lyrics that Brian gave at the time of the recording, which, in all my Beach Boy reading over the years, I had never encountered. Far from the gibberish that some (ahem, Mike Love, ahem) accused the song of being, Brian’s explanation actually makes sense, albeit in a 1967 kind of way. You even “get” why he would have taken such care with his vocal performance, which is incredibly reverent. Brian Wilson, whose gifts have always been so utterly out of proportion with his ability to account for them, so ridiculously generous and beyond deserving, never sounded more angelic than he does here. One could argue that the inspiration is so pronounced that the proceedings take on a Galilean aspect when you consider the rejection they/he were met with (maybe SMiLE is as romantic as I’d initially thought…).
All this to say, if the grace on display in this here symphony – the almost brazen, semi-conscious upward pointing – doesn’t make you smile, well, maybe you too need to go chow down on some vega-tables.
Here’s Brian’s explanation. The final line/detail, added by the interviewer, ranks way up there in the not inconsiderable annals of Wilsonness:
“It’s a man at a concert,” [Brian] said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life. Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn. The music begins to take over. Columnated ruins domino. Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes. He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. The music hall a costly bow. Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is.
“‘I heard the word of God; Wonderful thing; the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song! And then there’s the song itself; the song of children; the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children.”
The record was over. Wilson went into the kitchen and squirted Reddi-Whip direct from the can into his mouth; made himself a chocolate Great Shake, and ate a couple of candy bars.