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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
Still, no one knew what shape the shows would take. Van Dyke Parks, in particular, was mystified by the news and not a little miffed that Wilson hadn’t consulted him before deciding to resurrect their old collaboration. “I didn’t want to hear about its re-emergence from the press, but of course I did,” he says. And as Parks knew, no matter how lovely Smile ’s fragments seemed, they were still disconnected pieces of a puzzle that its designers hadn’t pondered in nearly four decades. What sense could they possibly make in 2004?
Sahanaja wondered too. Hoping to help Wilson reconnect with the work, he went back to Smile’ s original masters, still shelved in Capitol’s vaults, loaded the music onto his laptop computer, and took it up to Brian’s house in Beverly Hills. At first Brian was anxious. “He kept saying, ‘How are we gonna do this? Darian, how the hell are we gonna do this?’” Sahanaja recalls. But the duo began their quest for the pieces that had vanished into the fog of time or had never emerged from the creative mists of 1966 and 1967. Each day Brian would pick a previously unheard melody or lyric out of his memory. Then one day, when he couldn’t make out a word in Van Dyke Parks’s handwritten lyrics, he picked up the phone and dialed his old collaborator. The next morning Parks came by to hear Smile for the first time in more than 35 years. Then he was back on the project too, filling in the gaps with new lyrics, making suggestions. After a few weeks the work was finally ready to be heard in its entirety.
As performed before a rapt audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall on February 26 (there were different versions on different nights that week), Smile turned out to be a 46-minute cantata in three sections. The first section, which includes most of the Americana pieces, begins with “Our Prayer,” a choral invocation that travels wordlessly through a series of complex harmonic modulations, eventually resolving on a stirring major chord. Four raps on the drums introduces the hurtling country ballad “Heroes and Villains,” a gothic tale of a lawless Western boomtown that could be Deadwood in the nineteenth century or Hollywood in the twentieth. “Heroes and villains/just see what you done done/Bicycle rider just see what you done done/To the church of the American Indian,” frets a chorus whose melody and words will reprise several times in other songs.
The first of these is the next song, “Plymouth Rock,” which in a gently rocking rhythm describes the progress of immigrants to the New World. A vocal “whoo-whoo” shifts the beat to the chug of a railroad, its cars rocking westward, and then a nostalgic glance at a love left behind (with a brief snippet of “You Are My Sunshine”) builds to the symphonic “Cabinessence,” in which placid descriptions of frontier life give way to a thundering chorus describing the thrum of approaching civilization with chants of “Who ran the iron horse?” and “Have you seen the grand coolie working on the railroad?”
Smile inhabits the same Western horizon its composer explored in all of the Beach Boys’ best work.
The second section focuses on love and innocence. It begins with the delicate “Wonderful,” a harpsichord-led minuet about a young woman’s progress through childhood, love, and the first pangs of disillusionment. “Just away from a nonbeliever/She’ll sigh and thank God for won-won-wonderful,” it concludes, before ambling off into a jangling instrumental and then into the pensive spiritual declarations of “Father of the Sun.” The second section ends with the darkly stirring “Surf’s Up,” which ties back to the first section by juxtaposing a description of spiritual decay of a fallen city (“Columnated ruins domino”) with a paean to the joy of childhood. “Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave,” Brian sings. “I heard the word/Wonderful thing/A children’s song.”
The final section begins with a brief frontier vignette titled “I’m in Great Shape” and moves on to a dreamy ode to wind chimes, which builds slowly toward the anarchic scream of “Fire,” in which pounding drums, screaming strings, and a wailing siren seem almost to herald the end of the world. The lyric (“Is it hot as hell in here, or is it me?“) suggests the travails Smile ’s creator endured in the years between 1967 and 2004; then a Hawaiian idyll settles the mood, and a brief reprise of “Our Prayer” modulates into “Good Vibrations,” which brings the entire work full circle, back to the ebullient moment in 1966 when work on Smile had just begun.
And so Smile returns to the same Western horizon its composer explored in all of the Beach Boys’ best work. As his life makes clear, that frontier is not an easy place to inhabit. But even at 62 years old, and no matter how scarred and scared, Brian Wilson can’t resist the urge to keep looking beyond the shore.