- 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
In public Brian claimed to be happy. “Dr. Landy saved my life,” he said repeatedly. But the deep shadows around his eyes and herky-jerky facial expressions told a different story. Sometimes he hinted at a darker truth, telling reporters that he heard voices that didn’t exist (including that of his dead father) and that he had tried to commit suicide at least once during his time with Landy. In the early nineties Carl Wilson, together with his mother and Brian’s daughters, sued to gain control of Brian’s estate. California authorities meanwhile pursued Landy for illegally prescribing medication for Brian and others. Eventually the doctor agreed to leave the state and keep his distance from his patient. Soon after, Brian picked up the phone and called Andy Paley, one of his collaborators on the solo album. “He said, ‘I can do whatever I want now. Let’s make some music!’” Paley recalls.
The touring Beach Boys had continued on their own. They even scored a surprise hit in 1988 with “Kokomo,” a song Mike Love cowrote with a handful of other California music pros. It was an echo of Brian Wilson’s early sound. The real creative energy in these years seemed to be spent in the courtroom, where various Beach Boys took turns suing one another over artistic credit, money, and real and imagined slights. In 1998 Carl Wilson, long the band’s onstage leader, died of lung cancer. Mike Love took the opportunity to solidify his power after Al Jardine, the other remaining original Beach Boy, left. He hit the road with a crew of anonymous session musicians.
As the years passed, it grew easy for people to look back at Smile as a work so audacious it had single-handedly made its high-flying creator into a modern Icarus, and it took on the weight of mythology. But had it been done in by corporate malfeasance or drug-laced hippie arrogance? Was it a missing monument of popular culture or just a mirage of media hype and California pipe dreaming? For years it was impossible to tell for sure. And like all great myths, Smile inspired other flights of creative fancy. Lewis Shiner’s novel Glimpses tells of a man who learns to go back in time to help Brian Wilson complete his lost work, and hundreds or even thousands of articles used Smile as the central illustration in the tale of the decline and fall of Brian Wilson.
Fragments of the work kept emerging. a few songs, including “Heroes and Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Cabinessence,” turned up on Beach Boys albums in the late sixties and early seventies; others appeared on bootlegs, and about 25 minutes of completed or nearly completed material appeared in a 1993 box set. But those glimmers only seemed to enhance the rumor and speculation that surrounded the lost album.
“It was all anyone wanted to talk about!” We’re back in that Beverly Hills deli, and Brian Wilson is shaking his head. “I started saying I had junked the tapes, and that I didn’t want anything to do with it. But that didn’t matter.” Wilson regards interviews with all the enthusiasm you might have for root canal surgery and has for years been even less enthusiastic when it comes to talking about Smile . When I asked him about the album in 1998, he dismissed it reflexively. “It was all just weird, crazy music, and I didn’t want anything to do with it anymore,” he said. Still, he seemed ambivalent, to say the least. When I told him how much I liked the segments I’d heard, he shrugged and allowed a small smile. “Well, I don’t know.” He sighed. “Maybe we did it pretty good.”
Mostly he did everything he could to distance himself from Smile and all it represented. But looking back now, it appears that Smile ’s stars were aligning themselves, slowly but surely. Remarried in 1995 to Melinda Ledbetter, a former car saleswoman whose business acumen was matched by her warmth, and then revived by a less destructive diet of medication, Wilson has grown steadily more active. In 1995 he teamed again with Van Dyke Parks, singing most of the parts on Parks’s album Orange Crate Art , which was inspired by the history of California. Wilson’s second solo album, Imagination , came out in 1998, followed by his first-ever solo concert tour. Sessions for a third solo album filled 2003. And yet one horizon remained.
Brian Wilson’s road back to Smile finally began at a 2000 Christmas party, when an old friend asked him to liven up the evening with an off-the-cuff rendition of “Heroes and Villains,” the first song he and Parks had written for the album. “It was like, whoa!” recalls Darian Sahanaja, a member of Brian’s band who was there that night. “A few months earlier you couldn’t even mention the song to him. But people gathered around, he got a big hand, and it was a little turning point.” Brian agreed to perform the song a few months later at a Radio City Music Hall tribute to him. His next series of shows grew to include two more Smile songs, “Our Prayer” and “Surf’s Up.” A few others sneaked onto the playlist, and then the last hurdle came into view. In the summer of 2003 his management announced that in early 2004 he and his band would present all of the Smile music in a series of concerts in England and Europe.