"Iknew that we were finally ready in 2004," says Brian Wilson. "My wife convinced me that the world was ready for 'Smile,' so we smiled and did it."
It sounds so simple for something so complicated.
Because if ever there was something to wipe away smiles, it was the Beach Boys' "Smile," an album that tantalized pop fans in 1967 before disappearing into legend, only to resurface 37 years later as Brian Wilson's "Smile," which is what it should have been all along. It's also a concert, which is what brings Wilson to the Warner Theatre on Sunday after a performance Saturday at Washington-based XM Satellite Radio.
There's more to the "Smile" saga than a lost treasure recovered. In the end, this is a story not about delayed gratification for pop fans but about resurrection and the redemption of a man's spirit.
For rock music, the mid- to late 1960s was a moment of extraordinary creative ferment. "Smile" was meant to one-up the Beatles' "Revolver," which had one-upped the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds," which had one-upped the Beatles' "Rubber Soul." Intended for release in January 1967, "Smile" would establish Wilson, leader of the Beach Boys, not simply as one of the most prolific songwriters in rock but as a genius, "one of today's most important musicians," in the words of composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Paul McCartney had already dubbed "Pet Sounds" "the classic of this century," and knowing Wilson was at work on "Smile," the Beatles realized they would have to raise their game. They started working on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." As an opening shot, Wilson conjured the single "Good Vibrations." With its four movements and frequent changes of key and tempo -- all in 3 minutes 35 seconds -- "Good Vibrations" was the most complex pop single to date. The Beatles would counter with the two-sided single "Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane."
Even as the Beach Boys toured without Wilson (who'd left the road after suffering a nervous breakdown two years earlier), he was in the studio, toiling on what he would call "a teenage symphony to God," something so ambitious and audacious that it would redefine the possibilities of popular music. When Wilson sang a haunted solo piano rendition of one of its songs, "Surf's Up," on a television special hosted by Bernstein, the maestro warned that the song was "too beautiful to get all of the first time around."
"Smile" was going to change music history. Certainly it would change the way people viewed the Beach Boys.
It did neither because it never came out.
Unfinished after eight months of increasingly chaotic recording sessions, "Smile" was shelved by Wilson in March 1967. So many things were going against it. For one, the other Beach Boys hated it, saw it as a threat to the Wilson-driven gravy train of happy hits about girls, beaches and cars. Most of the "Smile" songs eschewed the verse/chorus straitjacket of the Beach Boys' hits for idiosyncratic compositions. The band mates felt the new music was too weird, too complicated, couldn't be replicated live. And they couldn't understand the obscure lyrics of Wilson's new collaborator, Van Dyke Parks. Mike Love dismissed "Smile" as "Brian's ego music" and "a whole album of Brian's madness."
For sure there was madness. Pulling the plug on "Smile" would leave Wilson drained for much of the next three decades, the victim of internal demons, depression and, for a decade, the controlling influence of a psychologist who was eventually ordered by the courts to stay away from Wilson.
A few tracks made it out of harbor: "Heroes and Villains" and stripped-down versions of "Wonderful" and "Vega-Tables," on the rushed album called, as if it were a ghost of the original project, "Smiley Smile." The wordless "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence" appeared on 1969's "20/20" album, "Surf's Up" on the 1971 album of the same name. A few more tracks appeared on 1993's box-set retrospective. But they were rarely what Wilson had envisioned. What remained largely unheard were the original studio fragments, the sonic puzzle pieces that eventually became the property of bootleggers and obsessives, the source of fanzine and Internet speculation about the album's creation and demise.
So "Smile" became the most famous unreleased album in history. Until it resurfaced in February as an acclaimed concert piece, led by Wilson, that London's Guardian newspaper dubbed "one of the greatest of American symphonies." And now it has been released as "Brian Wilson Presents 'Smile.' "
According to David Leaf, a Wilson biographer, Beach Boys historian and director of a documentary now airing on Showtime, "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'Smile,' " "There's never been a situation where an artist created something at the peak of their powers, abandoned it and returned decades later to finish it spectacularly. Usually those things kill people; usually they don't survive it."
"Smile" started out as a grand ambition -- to create something quintessentially American, something that Charles Ives or Aaron Copland or George Gershwin might have come up with, had they been rock-and-roll adepts with access to state-of-the-art recording technology. Doo-wop, American popular song, jazz, spirituals -- everything filtered through the work. The album also provoked a revolutionary reimagining of the studio: Wilson was the first to work in what he called a "modular" style, recording myriad bits and pieces and later mixing the complex sections -- stacked voices, ornate instrumentation, dense orchestral arrangements -- into multitrack coherence.
Wilson had always known his limitations as a lyricist. For "Smile" he approached a free-thinking 22-year-old whom he'd met at a party a year earlier.
Van Dyke Parks came aboard for a simple reason.
"My role, and my aspiration, were to be a part of Brian Wilson's reemergence with another mega-hit," Parks wryly says. "I wanted to hang around for another 'Help Me Rhonda.' I did. I'm a vulgarian. Whatever this man had done, I knew he was the biggest provider of music on the world stage in terms of tonnage and I had no dispute with his leadership."
But "Rhonda"-style lyrics seemed beyond or beneath Parks. His tended to be abstract, oblique, allusive, elliptical, impressionistic.
"You must remember that the words chased the music," Parks says. "Brian made music requiring a certain number of syllables. If you think the lyrics are dense in 'Heroes and Villains,' what would you do with those syllables [he mimics the cascading melody line]? You either tell the man to stop playing like that or you follow suit with the devotion of a dog, and I did."
The Beach Boys, however, found Parks's lyrics simply incoherent. When Love demanded that he explain such lyrics as "over and over the crows cries uncover the cornfield" and "columnated ruins domino." Parks refused and quit the project.
The album would drag for months past its due date, with Wilson obsessively tweaking tracks, canceling recording sessions at the last minute because of bad vibrations. A year before, Wilson had taken LSD for the first time, and although it opened him up in some ways, particularly spiritually -- the intended effect -- it also accelerated a paranoia lurking in an already precarious temperament. He became convinced that "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," the wild instrumental segment meant to signify fire in an "Elements" suite, had caused an outbreak of fires near the recording studio.
After Parks's departure, there was no one to fight on Wilson's behalf. Overwhelmed by unrealizable ambitions, undermined by band arguments, his mental stability eroded by drugs, Wilson crashed. He aborted the project -- but did not, as legend had it, destroy the master recordings, such as they were. Over the years, Wilson would answer inquiries about finishing "Smile," or releasing what was there with statements like "you might as well try and raise the Titanic."
Throwing Back the Covers
As it happened, Van Dyke Parks would be part of Wilson's rebirth. In the mid-'90s, he enlisted Wilson to sing a collection of Parks's songs. "Orange Crate Art" featured complex art songs with dense, poetic lyrics. (Parks has never really changed his approach over the five albums he has made in 37 years.)
The motivation for the collaboration was simple, Parks says. "I saw that Brian was doing nothing. He was indigent, he was in a very bad social situation with all kinds of sorcerers. I saw him lying face up in a bed during the day with the surf behind him, and I thought there was something terrifically wrong with that picture."
There was another crucial change. Wilson had first met Melinda Ledbetter in 1988, when she worked at a Cadillac dealership; in 1994, he reconnected with her and a year later they were married. They now have three adopted children. It's Melinda who has provided the emotional anchor in Wilson's life and much of the encouragement to reclaim his legacy. It was she who persuaded him to embark on his first solo tour, in 1999, and to eventually re-address "Smile."
"There's no doubt in my mind that the reason we're talking about this today is because of the life that's unfolded for Brian in the last decade," says biographer Leaf. "Around the time of the release of 'Orange Crate Art' and the soundtrack to [a documentary about Wilson] 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times,' a reporter asked Brian, 'Why are you stepping out all of a sudden, why this burst of activity?' And Brian said: 'I have emotional security.' When Brian needed allies the most, he had none. Now he's surrounded by them. It's as simple as that."
The final piece of the puzzle was finding musical security.
Forming a New Band
As California teenagers in the '80s, Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko discovered a mutual passion for the Beach Boys. When the first "Smile" bootlegs surfaced in 1982, Sahanaja made a silkscreen T-shirt of the album cover, which drew the attention of a local guitar player, Probyn Gregory. Eventually they became the Wondermints, a power-pop trio that managed to sound vanguard and retro at the same time. Wilson first heard them at a 1994 concert when they played "This Whole World" from the Beach Boys' "Sunflower" album. Wilson, zoned out backstage, reportedly perked up, asking, "What was that?" He thought it was a great song. Somebody had to remind him that he'd written it.
A deeper connection was made a year later when Wilson sat in with the Wondermints at a club and they began moonlighting as his band for still-rare live appearances. When Wilson began touring in 1999, they became the core of a 10-member band that for the first time was able to perform Wilson's most ambitious songs the way he'd written them. That included "Pet Sounds," which they started performing in its entirety in 2001, to great acclaim.
Last year, Wilson decided it was time to revisit "Smile."
Sahanaja, modestly credited as "secretary," began by downloading all the studio tracks from the vaults -- both complete and fragmentary pieces -- into his laptop and playing them for Wilson. Both men were nervous, says Sahanaja, since they knew these were the very recordings that had begun Wilson's downward spiral. But according to Sahanaja, Wilson seemed genuinely turned on by what he was hearing and began asking how the band could pull off certain things live. He began to remember old harmonies and unwritten transitions. And when Wilson couldn't understand a particular word on an old tape, he called Parks for help.
"It was 'Indian,' " recalls Parks. "I had tried to bring into focus the power and impact of manifest destiny on the Indians -- that was a fashionable concern in the counterculture of the '60s -- so we had Indians in this quiltwork of American idioms and references. Then the next morning he called me and asked me if I would come out. Well, I'm a man with a flexible agenda, and I hopped right in the car."
Parks ended up contributing lyrics that might be new, might be old, but are clearly cut from the same cloth. Sahanaja smoothed transitions and tempos so that the songs fit together better, gradually sequencing and arranging the finished project. By December, "Smile" had taken shape in three movements (Americana, childhood and innocence, the elements), and rehearsals began in earnest.
The Roar of the Crowd
"Smile" premiered Feb. 20 at London's Royal Festival Hall, with the band and the Stockholm Strings 'N' Horns donning firefighter's hats during "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," just as the studio musicians had in 1967 -- an act then interpreted as a sign of Wilson's encroaching madness. The current version includes the song's first lyric, with Wilson singing, "Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? It really is a mystery." Only he knows the answer.
"I was real nervous before the show, but we got a 10-minute standing ovation," Wilson says. "It went over fantastic."
Where "Smile's" complexity had overwhelmed Wilson in 1967, the new recording of "Smile" took only three weeks. It was recorded live, with minimal overdubs.
It wasn't all smooth, as Leaf's documentary shows. Wilson had seemed enthused in his archival digs with Sahanaja and songwriting sessions with Parks, but four days into concert rehearsals, he once again seemed brooding, partly bored, partly burdened. One sensed a demon Wilson wasn't yet ready to exorcise: at one point, he bolts for the bathroom but ends up in the emergency room, apparently coming apart at the seams once more.
"For a couple of weeks, when we were learning 'Smile,' I was a little depressed, so I had a tough time," Wilson admits. "But after about two weeks, Darian convinced me I was going to be okay and I did it. I sing the best I can for them and they play their best for me, so together we make a great team."
Over the phone, and in the Showtime special, you can sense the enormous progress Wilson has made since his breakdown in the mid-1960s. Even in performances as recently as last year, he seemed scared, tentative, unsmiling as he focused on his lyric prompter. His voice has coarsened in age, but in his singing there's a grace and wisdom, and a pathos, that has been hard-won, to say the least.
"It seems so obvious, almost cliched, the idea of music as a healing process, but it's so true in this case," Sahanaja says. "I never would have thought I'd witness what I did between the beginning of this year and now. Just the mountains Brian's had to scale, and yet he does it every time -- and when he gets to the top, he puts his arms up in victory. It's great."
As for Wilson, he's finally smiling for real, secure in the work, the family, the band, the friends. The burden of expectations has been lifted, the mantle of genius is no longer crushing him.
"I'm at peace with it," Wilson says. "I don't think of myself as a genius. I think of myself as a clever songwriter, but not a genius. I'm humble to God, believe me."
leader of the Beach Boys and one of rock's most prolific songwriters.