August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
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.
This is “Surfin’ Safari,” one of the first songs the Beach Boys recorded, in 1962. Compared with the glossy, sex-drenched pop music of the twenty-first century, it sounds impossibly naive, a rattling contraption of tip-tap drums, rudimentary bass, wacka-wacka guitar, and hokey surfer slang. And yet, something vital radiates across the decades.
You can hear it in the music and you can glimpse it on the cover of the album Surfin’ Safari. There you see a cluster of mostly teenage Beach Boys—the brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and their neighbor David Marks—perched on a vintage yellow pickup truck that has come to rest on a California beach at dawn, looking toward the horizon. Yes, it’s corny with their matching blue Pendleton shirts and khakis and the awkward way Brian Wilson and Mike Love grasp a board to their sides. But you can feel the anticipation. Something’s coming with the morning.
For the Beach Boys, that dawn held stardom. “Surfin’ Safari” climbed to number 14 on the national singles charts, clearing the way for dozens of bigger hits, “Surfin’ USA,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and other paeans to sun, fun, and romance. And that was just the beginning. In the second half of the 1960s the musical vision of Brian Wilson, the group’s chief composer, producer, and arranger, took on extraordinary sophistication. Even now his most richly melodic, intricately structured songs —“God Only Knows,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Heroes and Villains,” to name a few—touch the horizons of popular music. They also touch the heart of the American dream. Imagining a place where “everybody has an ocean,” “the kids are hip,” and “the girls on the beach are all within reach” merely puts it in the hedonistic terms of teenaged baby boomers.
Which isn’t to say that the Beach Boys have spent their lives fulfilling the promise of their songs. In fact, they spent decades wandering a morass of family dysfunction, mental illness, drug abuse, and money-fueled power struggles. Brian Wilson was usually at the center of the mess. The chief Beach Boy went from creating one of the rock era’s most acclaimed albums (1966’s Pet Sounds) to shelving its much-anticipated follow-up ( Smile, recorded in 1967) and then spending decades as a virtual recluse, haunted by his early success and tormented by subsequent failures. In his absence, the other Beach Boys used his lovingly crafted songs to stoke a touring nostalgia machine.
Yet the decades-old “Surfin’ USA” still brings a charge to the air, and the ambitious Pet Sounds sounds as glorious as the absence of the even more revolutionary Smile has been deafening. Now Brian Wilson’s late-life renaissance has led to his finishing Smile, one of the most hotly anticipated pop albums of 1967 and 2004, a complex, symphony-length ode to America.
“I just got hungry to get better,” Wilson says. it’s early last May, and the founding Beach Boy is sitting in a Beverly Hills deli speaking about Smile and a life that has veered between the magical and the horrific. We’re talking in late afternoon; the dawn ended a long time ago. But as Wilson recalls the standing ovation his long-lost masterpiece received at its live debut in London this past February, his lined face takes on the same wide-open expression it has on the cover of Surfin’ Safari . For a moment his watery blue eyes catch the light through the window, and it’s as if he’s back on the beach, looking out.
He’s not the first in his family to look past the horizon. His forebears sailed to America from England just after the end of the Revolution, then moved to Ohio, where the first American-born Wilson—named, in the spirit of the times, George Washington Wilson—was born in 1820. The Wilsons were farming people, but as with so many citizens of the young nation, their eyes had a habit of wandering in the direction of the setting sun.
George Wilson’s son, William Henry, migrated to Hutchinson, Kansas, where he gave up farming in order to open a plumbing-supply company. Then, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, he headed off for what Stephen Foster, whose melancholic life and timeless body of work bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Brian Wilson, had called “the land of glittering dreams/Where the yellow dust and diamonds, boys/Are found in all thy streams.” In 1904 William Wilson bought 10 acres of vineyard in Escondido, a rural village southeast of Los Angeles. This particular dream lasted a little over a year. The work was harder than he expected, and he missed his friends back home. But his son, William Coral (“Buddy”) Wilson moved back to the Golden State in the early 1920s. However, he was forced to scratch out a living as an oil-field steamfitter. This disappointment, coupled with the pressure of supporting a wife and eight children on blue-collar earnings, would come to darken Buddy’s eyes and harden his heart. And the pain would ripple out to his children.
Buddy’s second-oldest son, Murry, born in 1917, inherited his father’s ambition, along with a family passion for music. He dreamed of becoming a professional songwriter, but as a high school graduate in the depths of the Depression, he was realist enough to pursue a career in local industry. He hustled his way into lower management at the Southern California Gas Company. Later he got a job with Goodyear Tire & Rubber. Married in 1938 to Audree Korthof, a sweet-natured baker’s daughter, he settled in Hawthorne, a modest suburb on the southwest fringe of Los Angeles, a few years later.
Murry and Audree’s first child, Brian, came in June 1942. He was sensitive, tall, athletic, and friendly, with a preternatural ear for melody and harmony. His father said that 11 months into his life he could hum a note-perfect “Marine Corps Hymn.” At five, he was spending hours listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue . His brother Dennis, born in 1944, had blond hair, freckles, and a restless, prankish energy; his neighbors called him Dennis the Menace. Carl, the youngest, came at the end of 1946. Soft-eyed and pudgy, he had a feathery voice and a sweet, accommodating personality to match.
Along with his father’s ambition, Murry Wilson had inherited Buddy’s self-pitying rage. After losing an eye in an industrial accident at Goodyear, he turned his discontent on his sons, taunting them mercilessly, demanding impossible levels of perfection in school, on the baseball diamond, in keeping the house tidy, and he was quick to assert his authority with his fists. When physical violence seemed to lose its efficacy, he would pluck out his artificial eye and force the children to stare into the empty socket.
Even as adults, Brian, Dennis, and Carl had trouble assessing the emotional effect their father had had on them. “In some ways I was very afraid of my dad,” Brian told me in 1998. “In other ways I loved him, because he knew where it was at. He scared me so much I actually got scared into making good records.” But Murry may have had a more brutally damaging effect on his son’s ability to make music, for the architect of so much intricately crafted songs is deaf in one ear, and Brian links his lifelong disability to a blow delivered by his father just before his third birthday.
The loss did nothing to diminish the boy’s appetite for music. Singing and playing became the teenage Brian’s most potent form of expression and most reliable avenue of escape. He spent hours alone in his bedroom, electrified by the rhythms of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, or riding the harmonies of the Four Freshmen. He could toss off graceful melodies and then arrange multipart vocal arrangements. Later he’d get Audree and Carl to sing with him while he perfected the blend.
Dennis would sing too, if you could ever manage to make him sit still long enough. More often the Wilsons’ middle son preferred going to the beach, drawn to the surfers who were beginning to take over L.A.’s shoreline. In the summer of 1961, when he heard Brian musing about writing some rock ’n’ roll and putting together a band to play at dances, Dennis offered a suggestion: “Why don’t you write a song about surfing?”
That was the beginning. Brian’s first thought was to call his cousin Mike Love. A year older than Brian, Mike was a tall, sharp-tongued jock whose indifference to school had left him, after graduating in 1959, with no real prospects for college or a career. He’d been thrown out of his parents’ home after they learned that he’d gotten a girl pregnant. Convinced that the fastest, easiest road to economic security led through the entertainment mills of Hollywood, he was only too glad to merge his own pop ambitions with those of his talented cousin. Working together one summer afternoon, the boys composed a shuffling R & B—style song they called, simply, “Surfin’.” It pivoted on a chanted chorus that echoed the thoughts of every teenage surfer in Southern California: “Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me/Now surf! Surf with me!”
Eager to put together a band to perform the song, Brian called in Al Jardine, a music-loving Hawthorne High classmate who had long pursued Brian about forming a folksinging group. Fourteen-year-old Carl came next, adding his sweet, smooth voice and the growing catalogue of Chuck Berry licks he was learning to play on his guitar. Dennis was the last addition, mostly at the insistence of Audree, who didn’t think it would be fair to leave him out, especially since he’d thought of the whole surfing-tune idea in the first place. The boys rented microphones, drums, amplifiers, and a standup bass and recorded a living-room demo over the Labor Day weekend. The tape impressed Murry enough for him to proclaim himself their manager. Soon the group was in a storefront studio on Melrose Avenue, recording their song for professional release.
Put out in early December, “Surfin’” became a hit in Los Angeles, and equipped with that small triumph, Murry took the band to Capitol Records, which in May 1962 released “Surfin’ Safari,” a more melodic, vividly worded version of “Surfin’.” A pop guitarist named Dick Dale had earlier pioneered instrumental surf music, capturing the energy of the waves in lightning-fast guitar arpeggios and wails, but the Beach Boys were the first band to spin beach life into song.
“Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari” took a nearly journalistic approach, describing beach life from the morning’s first surf report to the late-night dance parties on the sand. Later tunes celebrated the scene in greater detail, yet surfing was only one part of the Beach Boys’ California story. The group also produced car songs with a near-erotic level of specificity (“Everything is chrome, man, even my jack.... I’ll let you look, but don’t touch my custom machine”) and songs that made high school a place of personal, romantic, and political drama.
From 1962 through 1965 the group was constantly on the radio—from “Surfin’ USA” to “Fun, Fun, Fun” to “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and on to “In My Room” and “I Get Around” and “California Girls,” all sparkling songs with a rich vocal blend. On television they were the very image of American youth: clean-cut, vigorous, tanned, ready to take on whatever the world had to offer. “You gotta be a little nuts / But show ‘em now, who’s got guts,” they sang. “Don’t back down from that wave!”
For a nonsurfer like Brian Wilson, who usually relied on lyricists to translate his feelings into words, the beach and the highway served as metaphors for both the pleasure and the fear he felt. Only a very few decades had passed since California’s beaches had been the only home available to penniless immigrants like the Wilsons’ grandfather Buddy and his family, who spent their first weeks in the state huddled in a tent pitched on the sands of Cardiff-by-the-Sea. That Murry’s children could now spend their summers cavorting in the waves testified not only to their own vigor but also to the strength of the society around them. Those neon-lit tales of cars, girls, and sand spoke of a distinctly American Utopia and the endless promise of transformation: “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.”
Still, even the most triumphant Beach Boys songs had their undercurrents. In “Don’t Back Down,” big waves “sneak up like a ton of lead,” and cold-hearted women “dig the way the guys get all wiped out.” The ballad “The Warmth of the Sun” (reputedly written the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination) concedes that “I cried when she said, ‘I don’t feel the same way.’” Brian Wilson’s dream of the West glimmered as not just a possibility but an absolute necessity. “My dad blew my mind,” he said to me a few years ago. “In a very positive way. As a matter of fact, so positive that it scared me to death. If you have a little bit of fear in you, you push harder.”
As the band’s sole composer, arranger, and producer, Brian pushed nonstop to assemble the Beach Boys’ output of up to three original albums and half a dozen singles a year. His strong, bell-like falsetto crowned the group’s vocal blend, and he served as bandleader and bass player on the concert tours. Eventually these pressures—along with the gloom lingering from his childhood—led to his first nervous collapse, at the end of 1964. Delegating tour duties to Brace Johnston, a Los Angeles musician who would remain with the band for most of the next four decades, Brian focused entirely on writing and recording.
Now limited by nothing but his imagination, he crafted pop songs that borrowed as much from Bach and Charles Ives as from Chuck Berry and Phil Spector. “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” featured a harpsichord as its lead instrument, while “California Girls” began with an orchestral prelude as spare and stirring as anything by Aaron Copeland, and “The Little Girl I Once Knew” incorporated a calliope-style organ and, more daringly, four-beat pauses that had no precedent in pop music. “Brian was way advanced of what anybody was doing at that point, and I think the Beatles recognized that,” Graham Nash recalled in the mid-1990s, thinking back to his days as a member of the British pop band the Hollies. David Crosby, his future band mate in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, reached the same conclusion. “I thought, I give up. I’ll never be able to do that,” he said. “Brian was the most highly regarded pop musician in America, hands down.”
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.”
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.”
Brian Wilson’s pursuit of the frontier was suddenly being opposed by the very corporate structure it had created, and at the hands of his family too. Moreover, he discovered that Capitol Records, apparently in league with Murry Wilson, was cheating the band out of a significant percentage of its royalties. The group, then in the midst of setting up its own music imprint with Capitol, filed a lawsuit, which drained energy and time from the Smile sessions. To make matters even worse, Carl Wilson, who had just turned 18, was being prosecuted by the government for evading the draft. And Dennis Wilson, in the throes of his first divorce, was diving headlong into a swamp of women, drugs, and alcohol. All these worries strained Brian’s fragile psyche. Earlier displays of eccentricity that had seemed harmless—placing his piano in a sandbox so he could feel the beach while he worked, insisting that business meetings be conducted in his pool—took on the cast of paranoia. He became convinced his house was bugged, and when the recording of a Smile track titled “Fire” coincided with a rash of real fires in downtown L.A., he decided his music had somehow been responsible.
In June 1967 he pulled the band out of its Saturday-night spot at the Monterey Pop Festival, originally planned as the live debut of the new Smile material. Jimi Hendrix, whose electrifying performance cemented his reputation, declared at the climax of his show, “You’ll never hear surf music again!” A few weeks later Brian Wilson threw away his set of Smile tapes and swore the album would never be released.
As the pop culture followed Hendrix’s lead toward the dark and dissonant in the late sixties, the Beach Boys found themselves adrift, divorced from both their audience and their increasingly reclusive leader. Brian Wilson still wrote and recorded—he composed the majority of the songs on the band’s next five albums—but now his songs played like miniature versions of what had come before, simply wrought tunes about going to the park, listening to the radio, or, as one 1968 track put it, being “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”
The touring Beach Boys updated their clean-cut image with beards, long hair, and some of the peace-and-love verbiage of the moment, but underneath it all they remained uncomfortable with the political and social counterculture. Dennis Wilson fell into a brief friendship with Charles Manson, then an aspiring L.A. songwriter, whose tune “Cease to Exist” ended up uncredited, and much revised, as the Beach Boy’s “Never Learn Not to Love.” And the group even took up with the Beatles’ discarded guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. “The Beach Boys are just one prominent example of a group who got hung up on chasing the Beatles,” Jann Wenner wrote in Rolling Stone. “It’s a pointless pursuit.”
Still the band persevered. When the Grateful Dead invited them to join them onstage at New York City’s Fillmore East in 1971, under the gaze of Bob Dylan, the event had a Malcolm X meets Martin Luther King type of pancultural significance. For the moment, at least, the two California bands that had defined the leading edge of West Coast music in the last decade could stand on the same stage, look out at the world around them, and sing the same song.
This popular rebirth didn’t brighten Brian Wilson’s own malaise. Married unhappily and feeling unequal to the task of raising his two daughters, he retreated into drugs, cigarettes, and gluttony. As his musical contributions ebbed in the early seventies, songs such as “Til I Die” limned his descent into depression. “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floating over a raging sea,” he sang in 1971. “How deep is the ocean?/I lost my way.” The man who had celebrated the Pacific as a sea of limitless possibility was being sucked beneath its surface.
But even as his own condition worsened, the Beach Boys’ commercial prospects improved. Two new, if temporary, band mates, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, added soulful textures to their early-seventies sound, and their commercial fortunes took a dramatic shift skyward in the summer of 1974 when a two-album repackaging of their biggest hits, Endless Summer, rode a wave of Watergate-era nostalgia to the top of the Billboard charts. Now their concerts, anchored by the sterling musicianship of Carl Wilson and the gleeful showmanship of Mike Love, could fill baseball stadiums. As anticipation for a new album rose in late 1975, Brian’s family figured he had spent long enough time nursing his psychic wounds. They hired Dr. Eugene Landy, a pugnacious Hollywood psychologist famous for his 24-hour intervention therapy, to help him get back on his feet and, more important, back into the recording studio.
His comeback album, 15 Big Ones, was a half-baked effort consisting largely of covers of fifties rock hits, but it made the Billboard top 10 and led quickly to a more satisfying, albeit highly eccentric, collection of Brian Wilson originals titled The Beach Boys Love You . He lost weight and managed a return to the road as a touring member of the Beach Boys. Rolling Stone headlined a November 1976 cover story THE HEALING OF BROTHER BRIAN, but the healing seemed tenuous at best, and the piece emphasized some of Brian’s most traumatic moments: Murry’s death in 1973, Brian’s drug use, the collapse of Smile, his alienation from his wife. Landy would be gone by the end of the year, dismissed less for his bullying ways than for his exorbitant fees. Though Brian would have other therapists, none seemed able to keep him pulled together.
To see Brian Wilson performing with the Beach Boys during the late seventies and early eighties was to watch one of the most distressing contradictions ever on an American stage. While his band spent hours playing his stirring celebrations of “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Good Vibrations” to crowds of cheering fans, the man who had dreamed it all up sat motionless behind his piano. When the time came for him to sing a line or two, his once-crystalline falsetto came out as a baritone croak.
With his energies obviously ebbing, the rest of the Beach Boys struggled to grasp the golden thread that had run through their earlier work. But new songs about the beach, school, and cruising had none of the emotional fire of Brian’s early work, let alone his propulsive musical energy. And all the Beach Boys suffered. Split between an artistically ambitious, if party-hearty, faction (Dennis and Carl) and a more market-conscious but abstemious set (Mike and Al), and with Brian unwilling to weigh in on either side, the group fought so bitterly that at one point a restraining order was required to keep Dennis Wilson and Mike Love from attacking each other. (In the early eighties Dennis would find a new way to torment his cousin when the then-38-year-old drummer impregnated and then married Mike’s teenaged illegitimate daughter, Shawn Love.) Dennis Wilson, once the sun-kissed personification of the band’s Southern California of the mind, had by 1983 become bloated and rheumy-eyed from alcohol and cocaine. By the end of the year he would be dead, drowned in the ocean that had once inspired him to suggest a song topic to his older brother.
Brian Wilson, increasingly obese and strung out, was clearly miserable and seemed to be heading toward death too. As a last resort, the band in late 1982 called again on Dr. Landy. And again Landy’s round-the-clock method appeared to have a good effect. Forced onto a rigorous diet and exercise regimen, Brian shed weight quickly. Told to write songs, he composed a handful of cheerful, if simple, ones for the 1985 comeback album, The Beach Boys. When word arrived that he had been signed to produce his first-ever solo album, expectations soared.
The resulting album, 1988’s Brian Wilson , featured some of the best songs he had written in two decades. One of them, “Rio Grande,” was an eight-minute suite whose structural daring and narrative sweep approached Smile ’s terrain. That Brian could produce such stirring music at such a late date was incredible enough. It seemed nearly miraculous when you began to realize what had happened to his life. For Landy had strengthened his hold on his client. “We’re partners in life!” he liked to tell reporters. Indeed, he had taken control of Brian’s finances and career and had even added his name to the credit line of many of Brian’s new songs. Wilson was forbidden to see virtually any of his old friends and family members. Even his daughters suspected that the messages they left at his house in Malibu never ended up in his hands.
Van Dyke Parks was invited to contribute lyrics for Brian’s new music, and he recalls that he was instructed to begin the process by making an appointment with Dr. Landy, who expected to be paid his hourly rate for the visit. Parks refused but was eventually allowed to see his old collaborator anyway. “Brian was medicated, Landy was voluble, and two assistants videotaped everything,” he says. Another old friend, Michael Vosse, tells a similar story: “He had one of those red White House-style phones he had to sit by so the doctor could call him. And he was supposed to call that number when he was thinking impure thoughts. These guys came in three times in less than two hours, with paper cups to hand him pills.... I’m surprised he didn’t nod out.”
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.
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?”
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.
“Being scared has probably been the most driving force that I have,” he said to me in 1998, “because I’m so afraid of life and the people in it.” This year, with the cheers for Smile’s debut still in his ears and recording sessions for a resulting album well under way—a disk is planned to be released in September by Nonesuch—he extended the thought. “The audience liked Smile so much it was almost scary,” he said. “But fear and excitement kind of go together.”
He said the same thing standing on the beach in 1963: Don’t be afraid to try the greatest sport around. Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.