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Learning to Smile Again 

Brian Wilson finishes the legendary Smile album, almost 40 years in the making.

Brian Wilson has very good posture. He's a member of a panel at the South By Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, and when he sits down, he's almost unnaturally upright. As the audience gives him an ovation, he swivels his chair to face the crowd, his hands on his knees. He doesn't, however, look happy. His face seems relaxed and his mouth settles glumly. His expression doesn't change much as the audience continues to clap, though he raises a hand a time or two in acknowledgement. He briefly forces a wide grin, then his face returns to sternness.

The question on everyone's mind -- "How's Brian doing?" -- isn't answered definitively in the next hour, though it becomes clear he has a little palsy. When he talks, he speaks out of the side of his mouth. He isn't grumpy; his face just settles that way.

When interviewer Alan Light asks him questions, Wilson looks at him intently, then blurts out his answer in 25 words or less. When asked why he remade Smile, he answered simply and quickly, "My wife told me about midway through 2004" -- more likely 2003 -- "that the world was finally ready for Smile, and I said, ŒI agree with you, I think the world is finally ready.'"

Later, during a phone interview from his California home, he's asked why he thought the world was ready. "I knew people love television which is very fast moving," he said, "and Smile moves pretty quickly."

Not the definitive response people might hope for after 40 years.

CONCERN ABOUT WILSON is understandable. A nervous breakdown in 1965 led to his retirement from touring with the Beach Boys for years, and insecurities -- combined with experiments with LSD -- led to a legendary instability that has become as much a part of his story as his music.

The 1965 breakdown was also the start of the most remarkable phase of his career as a Beach Boy. The time off the road allowed him to work on the highly acclaimed 1996 album Pet Sounds, which expanded pop instrumentation and orchestration far beyond anything the Beatles or Rolling Stones had recorded to that point. On the heels of that artistic (though not really commercial) success came 1966's aborted attempt to record Smile.

Working with the expanded musical palette he explored on Pet Sounds, the 23-year-old Wilson endeavored to make what he called "a teenage symphony to God," with impressionistic lyrics by a then-unknown Van Dyke Parks. The studio musicians were impressed by the music, and the press was starting to throw around the word "genius." Composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein spoke glowingly about him on television. From almost every corner, Wilson was feeling admiration and love.

While he pursued what he saw as the natural direction for Beach Boys, the band returned from a British tour. Singing songs about cars and girls made them bigger than ever, so they didn't see any need to evolve. They certainly weren't sure about Wilson's new direction. Mike Love in particular didn't make any secret of his skepticism. In David Leaf's Beautiful Dreamer, a new DVD about the making of Smile, Wilson recalls that when Love heard the Smile tracks, "He hated it a lot."

Even though his brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson expressed confidence in Brian and his vision, the trouble they had singing their parts made Brian wonder how completely they believed. After all, Parks conceived of Smile as a bicycle trip from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, a celebration of Americana at a point when it was easy to feel negatively about the country. No matter how loyal they were, even Brian's brothers had a hard time figuring out how to sing lines about "the church of the American Indian."

The sessions ended after an attempt to record "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," an instrumental titled after the cow legendarily responsible for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. According to Wilson, "Van Dyke and I bought some fire helmets for the musicians and we put a bucket of fire in the middle of the studio and I started a fire. The fire and the helmets got us really in the mood."

Myth has it that Wilson believed the session caused a fire that started in a nearby building, which scared him into leaving the track unfinished. Whether that was the case, or if he just got tired of fighting family, friends and an impatient Capitol Records eager for more hits, Wilson shelved Smile after working on the album for almost a year.

Remnants of Smile came out as Smiley Smile, but the album was disjointed, with odd fragments of song that felt more like part of a Frank Zappa album. The songs "Cabin Essence" and "Surf's Up" were later released on 1968's 20/20 and 1971's Surf's Up, respectively. The liner notes to a 2000 reissue of Surf's Up report that Wilson fought including "Surf's Up" on the album.

Today, Wilson says he had no problem with those bits of Smile coming out piecemeal.

"I loved those songs and I am glad we put them out," he says.

NEITHER WILSON NOR PARKS listened to the Smile tapes again for years. According to Parks, "It was just a very painful thing for me to not finish something that I had started" -- particularly an album that had come over time to be associated with indulgence and failure. In 2003, though, Wilson had been married to his second wife for eight years, and had a better handle on his mental illness, which included previously undiagnosed depression. Feeling stronger, he surprised the music world by announcing that he would not only revive Smile, but he would perform it in its entirety live in London on Feb. 21, 2004.

He had performed Pet Sounds in London the year before, but everyone around him knew this was different. Darian Sahanaja, musical director for Wilson's band, knew how uncomfortable Wilson was with the Smile period: "He associated all of that with a bad time and rejection and anger and frustration, drugs."

"There were a lot of sentiments involved," Wilson says. "It brought back the memory of drugs, but it also brought back the memory of creativity."

What exactly was on the session tapes isn't clear. Rumor is that Wilson had destroyed some tapes, and no one is sure if any of the tracks were final mixes. Working with Parks and Sahanaja over a two-week period, Wilson figured out how to seam the songs together into the movements he envisioned.

He also finished Smile's third movement, which contained the most experimental music and was the part Wilson thought was most unfinished. While they worked, Parks strongly believed that he shouldn't touch the lyrics he had already written. He did, however, add four lines to "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" that evoke rebirth.

"I put in those words, ŒIs it hot as hell in here or is it me?" Parks told the SXSW audience. "That has to do with the real hell the individual went through who was making this music." Considering the nightmare the song represented for so long, it's ironic that "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental.

The only other song to undergo lyric changes was the best-known piece on Smile: "Good Vibrations." With trademark directness, Wilson says his wife suggested it. "She likes Tony Asher's lyrics better than [Mike Love's]."

Though the writing excited Wilson, the Beautiful Dreamer DVD shows the stresses of preparing Smile for performance. Footage of vocal rehearsals in a living room show Wilson slumped down in a chair, looking blank, distant and old. He soon after suffered a brief breakdown brought on by pressure and fear.

After that interlude, though, Wilson returned stronger and more active in the project. That meant shaping and reshaping parts, often on the fly. While rehearsing, he would ask players to try new parts to hear how they'd sound.

"I think a lot of people like to think he has it all in his head and he goes to the studio and he is all prepared," Sahanaja says, "but even if you listen to sessions from back then like Pet Sounds, a lot of it is him interacting with musicians, a lot of it is him wanting to hear sounds like at that point. Very immediate."

As the show approached, Wilson was comfortable enough to do press interviews. When one disc jockey asked Sahanaja about what to expect, he cautioned that Wilson wasn't Mick Jagger onstage. When a DJ at another station asked Wilson himself about the upcoming shows, he said, "It is important that the music be really, really of high quality and the focus is going to be about the musical arrangement. It's not about my performance. I have never been a great performer; I am not Robert Goulet."

Finished, Smile is something no one could imagine. Though many of the pieces had been heard before, they flow together, with themes running through the movements. It opens with the a cappella "Our Prayer," which becomes a cover of the Crows' doo-wop "Gee." The phrase "heroes and villains" is inserted under the doo-wops, leading directly into a full length "Heroes and Villains," including a passage excised when it was released on Smiley Smile. That segues into "Roll Plymouth Rock," whose title phrase and the "Heroes and Villains" chorus become the themes that binds the next three songs together. Wilson's attention to the minutest melodic, dynamic and textural details makes Smile the rare case when a legendary album lives up to its billing.

ENDS with the live debut of Smile in London. After the show, Van Dyke Parks is overcome, slumped down in his chair, openly weeping. The music he and Wilson believed in almost 40 years ago was vindicated, and for all his fragility, Wilson radiated warmth, sincerity and innocence onstage, charismatic in a way no one could expect after years of reading about the mythic rock 'n' roll casualty. In his music and his life, Brian Wilson strung pop fragments together to make something unabashedly beautiful.

Editorial assistance on this story was provided by Ian Manheimer.

click to enlarge For Brian Wilson, listening to the abandoned Smile tapes in 2003 "brought back the memory of drugs, but it also brought back the memory of creativity." - MELINDA WILSON
  • Melinda Wilson
  • For Brian Wilson, listening to the abandoned Smile tapes in 2003 "brought back the memory of drugs, but it also brought back the memory of creativity."


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