Thursday, April 7, 2011

Celebrating Brian Wilson's 2004 SMiLE

Well, it's been a few weeks now, and "The SMiLE Sessions" hasn't been cancelled! Don't laugh -- for a project that has been announced, and cancelled, in 1966, 1967, 1972, 1988 and 1995, this is indeed a victory of sorts. While we wait for more substantial news (a release date, a track list), I think now might be the best time to revisit the SMiLE that already HAS been released -- namely, 2004's Brian Wilson Presents Smile (BWPS).

I really hope that the release of "The SMiLE Sessions" doesn't convince scores of SMiLE fans that they never need to listen to BWPS ever again. Brian's reimagining of the project (I hesitate to assert that he "finished" or "solved" it) will still be a remarkable achievement, and without the catharsis achieved by completing BWPS, I don't believe he ever would have authorized the project we're looking forward to now. In 2004, USA Today asked him about releasing the original Beach Boys SMiLE tapes, and he said "Never. Those are gone forever. I don't want those made public because they bring up bad memories. I don't think about the old days anymore. I never do." I think he needed to make peace with SMiLE via BWPS and then let it sit for a few years before "The SMiLE Sessions" would ever have been even remotely possible.

So let's step back for a second and appreciate what we HAVE before we resume fantasizing about what we MIGHT get in the new box. Songwriting for Brian Wilson Presents Smile was undertaken, after a 36 year pause, in late 2003 by Brian and SMiLE's original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. Darian Sahanaja, one of Brian's band members and long-time SMiLE geek, put together a bunch of vintage bootlegs for Brian to listen to, and together they stitched together a program -- not the original 1966/67 SMiLE, but rather a setlist of SMiLE music suitable for live performance. Tossing aside the restrictions of a 1960s LP, they came up with a three-movement song cycle that incorporated all the well-known SMiLE pieces and flowed like a real album.

After touring BWPS to rapturous audiences in early 2004, Brian and the band ventured into Sunset Sound in Hollywood -- the site of some of the original "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains" sessions -- to record the "album" version. Just as he did during the original SMiLE sessions -- and just as NO ONE does today -- Brian recorded the instrumental tracks in "modular" parts, with the entire band playing live in the same room. Some fans have mentioned the lack of "darkness" in the BWPS tracks, and while I don't disagree, I don't think it means that the new recordings are "softer" or "lighter." Several instrumental versions were released with BWPS, between the LP's 4th side and several CDs, and when I listen to those (without the distractions of Brian's modern voice and the not-the-Beach Boys backing vocals) I'm just as stunned as when I listen to the 1966 tracks. For those who want to track them all down, the available instrumental BWPS tracks are:

Heroes And Villains (LP side 4)
Cabinessence (LP side 4)
On A Holiday (LP side 4)
Wind Chimes (LP side 4)
Roll Plymouth Rock (giveaway CD from fanzine Endless Summer Quarterly [ESQ])
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (ESQ giveaway) [same as album, but clean intro/outro]
In Blue Hawaii ("Good Vibrations" CD single b-side)
Surf's Up (Beautiful Dreamer Bonus CD)

Anyway, I think the reason we're sensing this lack of "darkness" is relatively simple -- and it's not because Brian necessarily tried to make it to sound "happier." In 1966, the Wrecking Crew (et al.) had to CREATE this music under the watch of an intensely inspired Brian Wilson, and they were expected to nail their parts quickly so they could move on and not waste studio time. The Wondermints (et al.) only had to learn to PERFORM the music, and they had all the 1966 tapes to refer to, and as much time as they needed to learn it, and they probably didn't have Brian hanging over them every minute.

Not only that, but the BWPS album was recorded AFTER they completed the SMiLE tour -- meaning they had not only rehearsed the songs extensively, they were completely comfortable playing them by the time they approached the album in the studio. I think this is why we feel they are "lighter" or "happier" or that "something" is missing -- but when you listen to the instrumental tracks, the musicianship is still there, and the magic of the compositions still glows.

Which brings me to one other thing I've been thinking about lately: Let's not be too cavalier about the "darkness" that Brian Wilson has had to live with for most of his life. It's easy to chatter about Brian's failure to finish SMiLE in 1967 and how great it is that it's going to get "finished" now, with or without him, but I wouldn't take his authorization of this project as a signal that all his demons have been slain. He may be happier than he's been in decades, and he may be getting the best medical and psychological care of his entire life, but I think most of us suspect that Brian is still an incredibly fragile person, much more than he or his camp would ever let on. He himself hints at his continuous battles, and I was surprised to re-read some of the things he said in 2004 while promoting BWPS.

For example, in the audio interview with David Leaf (on the same CD as the instrumental "Surf's Up"), Leaf asks Brian to clarify the story about how he believed that his song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (aka "Fire") had caused actual fires around Los Angeles. Brian confirms that he DID really believe that, but admits (paraphrasing), "That's silly, because there's no way that me recording a song about fire could cause a fire somewhere else." I thought, OK, sounds a little like he's reciting what a therapist told him, but fine -- he got over it. But then Brian added, "I got over that a couple of years ago," and I was taken aback. A couple of YEARS ago! Meaning that as late as 2002, Brian Wilson still feared that he caused fires in Los Angeles because he recorded "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."

In the USA Today interview, Brian reminds us that his mental breakdowns didn't end in the 1960s, or the "bed years" of the 1970s, or the coke years of the 1980s, or the post-Landy years of the 1990s. He told Edna Gundersen that "I had a pretty good nervous breakdown a few years ago [i.e., in or around the early 2000s], where I felt emotionally broken down, and I've slowly been repaired from it. I still have moments where I think I have it, but it goes away. Music's been part of my salvation." Far from the general public perception that Brian was "unhealthy" a long time ago, and is "recovered" now, the truth is that every day is a probably struggle for him -- at least compared to those of us who don't have similar problems.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm ecstatic about "The Smile Sessions" too, but I think we should all reflect on what an epic struggle this project was for Brian, and still is. The press release may say he's "thrilled" about it, but even if he is, it's a relatively recent change of opinion. The Orange County Register asked him in 1999 if he would ever allow a Smile box similar to the Pet Sounds box, and he flatly rejected the idea. When asked why, he said, "Because I hate that [expletive] album." Personally, I hope that all the praise "The Smile Sessions" will undoubtedly receive will help Brian finally put SMiLE to rest -- but I also fear that it would break his heart if his fans tossed BWPS aside because of the "real thing" being released.

Brian Wilson Presents Smile will stand the test of time, in my opinion, simply because it contains music and lyrics that don't exist on the 1966 tapes. While I don't love all the new lyrics in BWPS, and I don't think the "three movement" structure has any basis in history, the album still holds up for me, as I play it along with all my vintage SMiLE stuff (officially released and ... otherwise). It may or may not be historical, but the BWPS transition from "Wonderful" to "Song For Children" to "Child Is Father" to "Surf's Up" is still spine-tingling. The way "On A Holiday" uses the "whispering winds" chant (as found on the Smiley Smile album) to link to "Wind Chimes" is brilliant. The music is expertly played and the sound is crystal clear in a way that the original tapes simply will never be.

"The Smile Sessions" producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have indicated that they will use BWPS as the "template" for their version of the Beach Boys SMiLE "album." They may think they're honoring it by doing so, but I think the effect would be the opposite. If they succeed TOO well, then many fans will decide that they simply never need to listen to Brian's version again, because all the stuff they liked can now be heard using the "real" tapes and Beach Boys harmonies. I hope they try to piece together the best possible "1967 version" of SMiLE -- 12 to 14 tracks, probably not linked or segued together, with no additional recordings AT ALL, and sequenced like a two-sided LP. This will allow BWPS to retain its status as a unique and compelling version of SMiLE.

Coming soon: An appreciation of Brian Wilson's "wilderness years" (1967-1977)


  1. Good article! I want to add some thoughts I have about the "darkness" in 66/67 Smile. I think it's mostly the instrumentation that makes it darker than BWPS. The use of fuzz bass for example, which wasn't used at all in BWPS. The dark, sinister bassline in Fire is almost impossible to hear in BWPS, which was disappointing. The sound is more digital, more polished and bright overall in BWPS which makes it sound happier. The piano part in CITFOTM is another example. It's pretty creepy in the original version compared to BWPS.

  2. Thanks, John -- and I think you have a point there about the way some of the BWPS tracks were recorded. But I still think the musicianship is brilliant, and comparable to the 1966/67 tracks, especially when you can listen to the instrumental versions. A couple of times I've tricked myself and forgotten whether I was listening to a BB track or a BWPS track!