By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
When the Beach Boys returned from their successful tour for Pet Sounds, Wilson presented them with the ideas for the band’s new album, tentatively called Smile. He’d paired up with a brilliant young lyricist named Van Dyke Parks to create an ambitious suite of songs that would tell the story of a journey across America, through eras and historical events, via Parks’ poetically ambiguous words and Wilson’s ever-advancing mutation of traditional song form and recording-studio technology.
But the band was not thrilled with what they heard. Brother Carl Wilson and boyhood friend Al Jardine were open to it, but brother Dennis was leery, and cousin Mike Love, in particular, thought the new material was just a load of weird shit that would alienate the band’s audience and possibly damage its commercial future. So they went along with Wilson begrudgingly, and fought him all the way.
For his part, Wilson did feel perhaps too much responsibility to his clan, and the prospect of loosening the foundations for the hordes of family, friends and record company execs who depended on him for their livelihoods hit him hard. And Wilson, already a bit weak and paranoid due in part to his growing dependency on heavy drugs, was becoming more and more fearful about his new musical concepts — as if he himself was inadequate to the task of manifesting the strange and wonderful new sounds he heard in his mind.
“We were taking LSD and marijuana and amphetamines,” he says. “So our heads were, like, spaced, and we got into some very advanced, avant-garde music. And we started creating some of the songs for Smile, and we got about two movements done, and then we decided to junk it, because we thought it was too advanced for people. And it was painful, it was emotionally painful for Van Dyke and me both.”
So Wilson gave in, to forces outside and in, and put Smile on the shelf, where it sat for 37 years. Though bits and pieces of it (including “Good Vibrations,” “Cabin Essence,” “Heroes and Villains” and “Wonderful”) were heard on subsequent Beach Boys albums, Smile as Wilson’s planned multipart “rock opera” was dead in the water.
Which only, of course, ignited its mystique among hardcore Wilson-o-philes. Unable to persuade Wilson to unearth and complete his grand opus, record-collector dweebs, as they are wont to do, somehow got their hands on bootleg tapes of some of the original Smile studio tapes, and widely distributed numerous versions of proposed ideal and correct versions of the album.
For 37 years, however, Wilson could not be persuaded to resurrect and finish Smile. Indeed, he was afraid of it, still sincere in his lingering belief that one particularly creepy track, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” was evil enough to have caused fires to break out in Los Angeles.
That piece is “kind of the feeling of being insane,” Wilson says. “We wanted to create the illusion that there was a fire, through music. It was insane music, music that comes from the insanity of your mind. It’s a real . . . real — I don’t like it. I never did like it. It’s scary music.”
Says longtime Wilson biographer and friend David Leaf, “Brian had enormous evidence of the power of his music. Because he’d started out at his piano in a little home in Hawthorne, and after recording his songs, they carried all the way around the planet. In the wake of ‘Good Vibrations,’ he was creating music that was enormously powerful. Having created ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,’ music that had such an unhappy sound to it, he would think: Why wouldn’t this discordant music have the power to create something ugly?He not only believed it, he had evidence of it.”
Given Wilson’s oft-reported hypersensitivity to intrusive vibes, it’s easy to assume that he’s more fragile than most, and he is, but only so much. I was hesitant to ask him whether “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” still causes him trepidation about having to deal with his old frame of mind again.
“No, not at all,” he replies, semi-casually, though it’s as if he’s drilled himself on this point.
For whatever reason, however, a year ago, Wilson suddenly felt that the time was right for Smile’s rebirth. With the encouragement of his wife, Melinda, and his current musical director, Darian Sahanaja, he set about rebuilding it from scratch. Sahanaja, who’s played a huge role in Wilson’s re-emergence in public life in recent years (and who’d coordinated and arranged Wilson’s hugely successful Pet Sounds performances four years ago), Wilson and Van Dyke Parks pulled the old tapes from the shelf, dusted them off, and listened to them. Figuring out a proper sequence for the songs, writing a few new ones, then fashioning musically logical transitions between the parts, all the while vowing to remain true to the spirit of the original instrumentation and recorded sound, the team created a three-movement suite that was then performed live to tube mike in the studio (just as the original tapes had been done). Then, with the aid of Sahanaja’s computer and ProTools, they edited, rearranged and enhanced it, and pushed Wilson’s baby out the door to survive on its own.
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