- Historic Sites
Brian Wilson’s Wave
For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Wilson’s reputation grew even brighter in 1966 with the release of his album Pet Sounds. Written as a song cycle, Pet Sounds follows the arc of a romance from innocence (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”) to disillusionment (“Caroline, No”). His melodies spin through the sky to alight on a cushion of harmony. His instrumental tracks meanwhile construct textures using instruments as unlikely as theremin, clarinet, and water jugs, played with a mallet. Pet Sounds tells a bleak story, but the sound of the music is rapturous. “Good Vibrations,” an elaborate pop-art single in the fall of 1966, flowed from one unrelated section to the next, borne along by the low, percussive grumble of cellos and the high, ghostly wail of a theremin. It was an international smash, selling 400,000 copies in four days, en route to worldwide sales of more than a million copies.
Now fueled by the success of “Good Vibrations,” Brian found himself celebrated as one of America’s reigning rock ’n’ roll visionaries, on a par with Bob Dylan. He decided to turn his muse to the spiritual heart of America itself. “A teenaged symphony to God” is how he first described the project he called Dumb Angel. Later he settled on a different name, the more upbeat Smile , and found a new collaborator in Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi-bred musician he’d met at a party in West Hollywood. A classically trained pianist, Parks had also mastered the works of Edith Piaf and Mexican huapango musicians. His delicate yet playful lyrics seemed a perfect match for Brian’s increasingly freeform music. And perhaps most important, Parks shared Brian’s fascination with America and the spiritual implications of its growth.
“We’d both come as far as we could, as far as Horatio Alger had told us to go,” Parks recalled this spring. “This whole record seemed like a real effort toward figuring out what manifest destiny was all about, this thing that existed since Jeffersonian times. So we looked back and tried to make sense of that great odyssey from Plymouth Rock to California and then Hawaii.”
As an impressionistic, vaguely psychedelic reflection on American past, Smile vanishes into the wide-open horizon the Beach Boys described in their earliest songs. Composed in the modular form Brian had used in “Good Vibrations,” it consists of musical vignettes portraying American history from Plymouth Rock to the “columnated ruins” of modern society. Along the way the music and words adhere to no rules whatsoever. Verses clash with choruses, which vanish only to reappear as codas in other songs. Stylistically, the numbers veer from formal waltzes to Hawaiian chants, from folksy songs about barnyards to symphonic pieces about high society. Parks’s lyrics pirouette from oblique puns about vegetables to vivid images of railroads and a prayerlike celebration of innocence that serves as the climax to the album’s keystone, a two-part piece Parks titled “Surf’s Up”: “I heard the word, wonderful thing/A children’s song.”
As fall 1966 turned to winter 1967, word of the wonders of Smile spread from the L.A. rock elite to the New York offices of CBS News, which asked Brian to appear on a Leonard Bernstein special about contemporary music. Sitting alone at his piano, he played “Surf’s Up” and left even Bernstein sounding awed. “Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity,” he decreed, calling Brian “one of today’s most important musicians.”
The music for Smile left Leonard Bernstein awed—and the record executives at Capitol anxious.
But the executives at Capitol noted the relatively humble sales of Pet Sounds (it had stalled at number 10 among albums) and heard Brian’s new sound as a threat to the Beach Boys industry. The Smile work-in-progress only made them anxious. Where were the good-time songs, the pitch-perfect odes to young love, the hits? Mike Love, always the most market-conscious Beach Boy, expressed contempt for the abstruse lyrics that had replaced his simple teen narratives. “You’re blowing it, Brian,” he said at the end of one contentious recording session. “Don’t f___ with the formula.”