Home > Articles > M&M > When Brian Wilson Smiles Part 3


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The melodies arc, soar and ache throughout, no matter what tempo paces them; and by the time we hear “God Only Knows,” we break heart with the composer, knowing that life deeply felt is life lived in all its majestic highs and eventual lows. Brother Carl’s breathtaking, clear-headed vocal reveals the divinity of talent possessed by the Wilson brothers.

The songs are about wishing, hoping, knowing, believing, answering, waiting, and being present. Tony Asher’s words invite us to move beyond adolescence, from bliss and ignorance to knowledge and certainty. But his narrative also acts as a trip-wire for our suspicions about the perils of growing up. The lyrics place us in some middle Earth of self-discovery:

Maybe if we wish and hope and pray it might come true…
I try hard to be strong, but sometimes I fail myself…
I’m a little bit scared ‘cause I haven’t been home in a long time…
Let’s not think about tomorrow…
I’m waiting for the day when you can love again…
The world could show nothing to me…
I know there’s an answer, but I have to find it by myself…
Love is here today and tomorrow it’s gone…∆
I guess I just wasn’t made for these times…
It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die…
(All lines from Pet Sounds by Brian Wilson & Tony Asher, ∆ lyrics by Mike Love)


When “Caroline No” fades and we hear Wilson’s own dogs barking at the decaying sounds of a departing train, we are utterly alone, and the only constant in our lives are the thoughts we use to trespass upon the sweet melancholy that gives substance to our doubts, but also to our revelations and knowledge of where we’ve been and where we are going. Asher, Wilson and the Beach Boys do nothing less than reveal the possibilities of pop music.

Musically, Pet Sounds is the work of a young man unburdened by the very nature of the song cycle. The real emotional truth of this music moves from words to the music itself. In the realm of the studio, Brian is peerless here, as he breaks the long narrative history of pop music formula, reassembles its fragments into a kaleidoscope of sound that genuflects to celestial melodies and arrangements that have entirely shed the constraints of surf combo, frat boy harmony, and Chuck Berry outerwear. Writer Timothy White says that Pet Sounds reveals “Brian’s unconscious trust in the loving power of music…; [his] unswayable belief in the enduring power of one’s better self.” Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s belief in absolution as well as his grasp of what was beyond him. Until Smile

“Smile, never completed, never released, has become the most enigmatic project in Rock history. What it was, what it could have been, is left to legend and speculation. What it did become was an everlasting musical albatross for Brian Wilson as well as for the Beach Boys’ career. In Smile, Brian was creating his own American gospel from a Southern Californian point of view. When his dream was shattered, so was his artistic raison, d’etre, and he embarked on a retreat into battle with his own personal demons that has lasted to this day”

(David Leaf, 1977)

When Brian Wilson dies…
California will fall into the sea—
Surf’s up for you and me.*

A choke of grief, hard-heartened I;
Beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry.
(“Surf’s Up” by Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks)

So now Smile has been released on Nonesuch records—imaginary music on an imaginary label. Perfect. For Beach Boys fans this has been an interminable wait; for others it has hardly mattered. Pop music has eaten itself a thousand times over. The myth is too large to tell here (but do see Dominic Priore’s “Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!” for the brilliantly collected galactic account). For the uninitiated, here are some essential Smilisms:


     Smile was Brian Wilson’s musical elixir—“the idea of making music that could make people feel better…”
(Carl Wilson).

     Smile music is the aural equivalent to Walt Disney’s Fantasia
(Domenic Priore).

     Van Dyke Parks, one of Southern California’s great artists in his own right, was brought in by Brian to write the lyrics that would eventually evolve into an often abstract, but endlessly fascinating narrative triptych of American humor and history, using abundant allusions to the gothic underpinnings of the lost, forgotten, found and remembered. His work was poetically unapologetic, and yet, it would be a warm-hearted reflection of American sentiment in the same way that the refined music of the Beatles and Ray Davies (Kinks) was a loving meditation on what was distinctly British about England.

     The musical palette of Smile was writ early by the example of “Good Vibrations,” and would largely build upon the experimentation refined in Pet Sounds.

     The songs of Smile were often simple and sublime, deeply intuitive and hilarious, confounding and contagiously eccentric—some were simply heartbreaking.

     A prolonged, unchecked period of unfocused artistic excess, drug abuse, superstition, and the clashing of egos saturated the production and sabotaged the process which was required to make concrete the inspiration and complete the masterwork.

     Key Beach Boys rejected Smile, as did figures at Capital Records, calling Parks’ lyrics “unfathomable” and Wilson’s music fatally uncommercial.

     Smile was shelved, Van Dyke Parks went home, and Brian went to bed for three years—defeated, dejected, and betrayed by many of the people he unselfishly made very wealthy.

     The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was released to unprecedented popular and critical acclaim while Brian Wilson disappeared into himself. The ghost-monkey on his back that was Smile scratched at Brian and haunted the Beach Boys and eventually destroyed the group and nearly killed Brian.

     Brian would wake up long enough to participate in three flawed, comparatively minor, and criminally neglected gems (Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, and Friends); two superior efforts (20/20 and Sunflower), and one fragmented group effort, containing one track from Smile—a finished, quite majestic LP title piece, “Surf’s Up,” and a short song-of-songs, written as an epitaph and penned entirely by Wilson, entitled, “’Til I Die.” Gorgeous, but sad beyond definition, this is Brian’s summary of his life, wrought through an ironic return to pure metaphor, and possibly and impossibly his greatest song:

I’m a cork on the ocean
Rolling over a raging sea—
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?
I lost my way—hey, hey, hey.


Smile is the most bootlegged record of all time, though few versions are credibly intact or effectively arranged in the proper sequencing. Quite a bit of Smile has been released in various and often bizarre incarnations on post-Smile recordings—including a large bewildering, but fascinating chunk on the Beach Boys Good Vibrations boxed set. With Brian Wilson’s prolonged good health, the wildly successful tour of Pet Sounds with the Wondermints, and his personal belief in Smile restored, Wilson brought back Van Dyke Parks to help him finish the missing transitions for the long-form Western ‘operetta’, “Heroes and Villains,” and to complete the many fragments that left the original Smile questionably scant. Smile toured with enormous success in England last spring, and it is making its way through America as I write this.

Sadly, the Beach Boys’ Smile will remain in the vaults (unless Wilson is not revealing the fullness of his cherubic grin). This Smile is newly recorded from top to bottom, properly sequenced, lovingly Wonderminted, and, according to my ears, beautifully accomplished—even with the faded beauty of Brian’s now autumnal voice. It’s no matter. Brian still stands.

He is the ravaged son of an abusive father. He has buried his mom, Audrey, and his two Beach Boy brothers—Dennis, who was Brian’s surf and motor muse and the original inspiration for Dumb Angel, Smile’s working title; and Carl, the purist vocal extension of Brian’s music and the peacemaker in an otherwise long family feud. Both brothers delighted in Brian’s Smile, yet his cousin, Mike Love, will forever be blamed as blind to its possibilities. Brian was a mentor to the Beach Boys David Marks, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnson; to journeymen contributors Glen Campbell, Billy Hinche, The Flame and Daryl Dragon; and is still held in awe by such classic pop stalwarts as Eric Clapton, Keith Richard, Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds, Paul McCartney and Andy Partridge. We call him Brian, Mr. Wilson, and genius. All that he ever cared about was the work it took to practice the love of making epochal music.

The workbook that was the Beach Boys’ Smile can now be put away. With the new Smile, Wilson emerges with a different kind of masterpiece, giving us a timeless, complete and loving view of America. Brian shook the ghost monkey off on his own terms, and there’s justice all around. Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics deserve a full listening. What Mike Love and the folks at Capital Records could not understand in this poetry has more to do with Love’s lack of education and Capital’s regrettable lack of faith in an artist whose own faith in the power of music shames those who live for the bottom line. It’s a good thing Brian Wilson is all about love, mercy and forgiveness, because the kind of censorship imposed by stupidity and greed is hard to reconcile with any grace.

Yet, it is the abundance of grace that is at the very heart of Smile. It is Van Dyke Parks’ romantic vision of America, his Wordsworthian evocation of humility, and his love of words themselves, used in contexts and combinations in pursuit of external and internal discovery, that conjures us to wonder: Farther down the path was a mystery / Through the recess, the chalk and numbers / A boy bumped into her… / Wonderful (from Smile).

If Smile proves anything beyond its narrative ingenuity, it is that Brian Wilson represents authentic progression in popular music. Honoring his past, his muses, his collaborators, and the iron horse of his own work ethic, he has shaped in Smile a truly original vision of music we can all enjoy. He was always more than a clearinghouse of ideas, sound and vision. He now humbles himself by acknowledging a past made present. What was once sent has now returned.


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Edward Morneau is a freelance writer who currently teaches film and literature and composes music for the Flying Fan Modules and Million Headed Child. His poem, *“When Brian Wilson…” is © 2000 by Heartstrings Music. This article is © 2004 by the author and is used here by permission. All Rights Reserved. Contact the author at emorneau@bostonbeats.com.

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