This is one of my most favourite pictures of Brian Wilson. For any consideration of a post-Smile Brian, this photo is a bit of a surprise: is it posed? Did he pick up Psycho-Cybernetics randomly, or worse, for photographic effect? Can Brian Wilson even read? And even if he could and did when this was taken (1965/66), surely he had since switched off his brain when he had switched off Smile? There’s a vaguely-amusing near-anagram of ‘Brian Wilson’, being ‘brain in slow’ (not unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s almost-reversal of the author of The Wasteland into ‘toilets’). Was this always the case? Was Brian’s purported ‘genius’ really some kind of idiot-savantism, if not purely the construction of wiley ex-Beatles publicist Derek Taylor? One of the opening scenes of Don Was’ I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times documentary has Brian Wilson expounding upon the Humour-Discovery-Art triptych of Arthur Koestler’s Act Of Creation,
(‘first published 1964’, says my charity-shop UK Pan paperback copy)
whilst not even mentioning the book by name. Is this an affectation? Was Brian’s appropriation of intellectualism a pose to corroborate a PR campaign? Was its reiteration by a 1995 version of Brian Wilson a further affectation, encouraged by director Don Was? I don’t think it was. No. In fact, of course it fucking wasn’t. To suggest of anyone that their choice of reading matter is ‘to look good’ is an unfounded insult (unless it is true – but there are other, better, easier poses to adopt than ‘reading the right book’ – ‘owning the right records’, for instance). I’ve known people who use their forearm as a bookmark in public, and it’s done so unselfconsciously that others might take it as a conscious gesture – but that’s the observer’s problem, not the bookmark’s. Nick Kent’s three-part 1975 NME article The Last Beach Movie is the source for one (of many) ‘Brian Wilson is mad’ stories – this is the ‘Brian gets onstage at the Troubadour with Larry Coryell’ tale, often repeated, but always without one particular detail from the original article. Brian is described as
an overweight, somewhat clumsy figure complete with heavy beard and stringy unwashed hair. Even stranger is the character’s get-up which, on close inspection, is revealed as bright red pyjamas plus a heavy Terry-cloth bathrobe and bedroom slippers. Last but not least, on his back is suspended a large rucksack full to overflowing with innumerable volumes of books.
The emphasis is mine. Wouldn’t It Be Nice – My Own Story (by Todd Gold), Brian Wilson’s 1991 ‘autobiography’ is a weird mixture of first hand memoir and cut-and-paste reconstruction, and has many errors; the Smile section lists tracks recorded for the album, including ‘Been Away Too Long’, which isn’t a Smile recording (it’s from 1968), and is Way Too Long – as if Brian Wilson’s own memory of Smile came to him retrospectively, and via a bootlegger’s erroneous tracklist…but there are some personal details in the book that haven’t appeared anywhere else, and thus must bear some resemblance to Brian’s own version of the truth. One of these is in Chapter 15:
Several days before Christmas 1965, I pulled my Corvette out of the garage, wound down Laurel Canyon, and, twenty minutes later, parked in front of Pickwick Bookstore in Hollywood. In the parking lot, I found myself unable to remember how I had driven there. I couldn’t remember what songs had been on the radio. I couldn’t even remember why I had gone to the store. It was spooky.
Old, detailed photographs of bookshops and record shops are always fascinating – you can scan the shelves and racks, and often find the most incredible things. Wouldn’t It Be Nice reprints the bookstore photo above, with the caption
in 1966, checking out some hip titles at the bookstore where I later suffered an LSD flashback.
The book’s authors have their chronology awry – Brian suffered the flashback either earlier or later than the date the photograph was taken. With time thus temporarily out of joint, I would like to imagine that the photo was taken ‘several days before Christmas 1965’…
Moving slowly into the aisles, I concentrated on reading the book titles and their authors. In the philosophy section, I paged through books by Sartre, Camus, Kant. I picked out one title called The Door To The Future from a lower shelf, then moved to the religion section and picked up The Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the I Ching. I stared at the pages, tried to read, but then the letters all vibrated on the pages and I couldn’t make sense of anything. I then opened The Door To The Future. Suddenly, the inside of my brain undulated and sent a wave-like shiver through my body. A tremendous rush of anxiety poured through me. Paranoia. An attack of some kind. I freaked out as the vibrating letters formed new shapes on the page, and the book I had opened became the entire story of my life, now and into the future. The whole thing was on the page. My whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. It had been months since I’d taken acid. But I was having a flashback. Or rather, a flash-forward. I read part of my biography:
Brian Wilson in his naive and humble ways was horrified and affronted, and failed to show up on the day Smile was due to be mastered. He dropped all projects and refused to cooperate with The Beach Boys further. Then suddenly, due to a particularly undiplomatic comment from the band, Brian fled with the Smile tapes. The Beach Boys were in an uproar, especially when they figured out that Brian had fled to England. Once again the story bogs down in conflicting testimony, but it was reported in the UK music press that Brian sought counsel with Paul McCartney, who had sat in with them on the Smile sessions. ‘Stay calm’, he told Brian. Meanwhile, back in the US, The Beach Boys were frantic. Their empire was crumbling before their eyes, and it was the fault of one moody, ungrateful, paranoid artist who had been nurtured along for years like a premature infant who puked on mother’s milk. In desperation The Beach Boys released Smiley Smile (recorded quickly in Brian’s absence) in order to remain solvent. They eventually contacted McCartney, who served as a go-between for the warring bodies, and somehow The Beach Boys managed to regain Brian Wilson’s trust. A few transatlantic phonecalls later all was patched up. How and why and what are unknown, but in the end David Anderle and Van Dyke Parks, who had gone to England to find the missing Brian, retrieved the tapes of Smile from McCartney, and when Brian returned, The Beach Boys surprised him with a brand new recording studio. In celebration, Brian went on a composing rampage, and did further tinkering with Smile. The Beach Boys were back, the ball was rolling. It was a symbolic break with the past. Anything is possible, and now anything could happen…
There was another account of the same period:
Paul McCartney, who played percussion on some parts of the album, took the masters to a bank vault and calmed Brian down enough for him to remember that the album resulted from his decisions and a belief in the self is imperative, not the concerns of what others might think. Paul arranged for the masters to be returned and the album eventually came out. The album tells a story, without relying upon narrative, about the assimilation of ritualistic societies into a consumer society. The story unfolds as Cowboy tales and American Indian fables, as a lived experience, are set to sound effects and music. It is a mind movie rich with detail. It is, quite simply, a unique experience.
And a review of the record The Beach Boys hadn’t made yet:
I’m not sure quite how to convey the magnitude of Brian Wilson’s achievement with this album. What I am sure of is that it’s without doubt one of the most important albums ever made, if not the most important, and that its implications are of such an unprecedentedly revolutionary nature that the weak-minded polemical posturing of purportedly ‘political’ artists are positively bourgeois by comparison.
Plus a description of that same record:
It is perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of all of their albums…the lyrics are heavily veiled in an acoustic and linguistic gauze. Sometimes there is rhyme, and sometimes there is reason. There are times at which we catch glimpses of these lyrics through the veil, however their meaning tends to speak more directly to the soul, and for the most part are not available to the anaytical mind. The music is full of many rich and varied themes. Its juxtaposition of the sad, the beautiful, and the unusual, creates deep emotional currents that with proper navigation will lead you to interesting places. There is an innocence about this album that lays aside all pretense and bears open their soul. We hear a hypnotic mesh of percussion, strings, horns and voices. We find ourselves carried upon waves of unfamiliarity which lead us to seductive places where voices and pianos sweetly wonder. There are always places of loneliness as felt in the words
coming into column nation is a gracious thing
a stirring and a whirring and a broken widow’s pain
it’s causing easy out to just leave a lust alone
but when a friend has shrunken skin
where do you throw the bone?
(the matter that’s been spoken to is a fragrant little thing)
(it’s open and was known to need a token diamond ring)
I didn’t get home until dark. Avoiding Marilyn, I went straight to my office and locked the door, still high and panting with fear. As the buzz subsided into a manageable burned-out sensation, I remembered Loren [Schwartz] once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning. What had mine meant? I had driven to the bookstore, looking for what? Inspiration? Instead I’d seen a future history of The Beach Boys. If that was a riddle, I wanted to know the solution. Can the future be foreseen? Whether what I saw was real or not, I realized that I had left the bookstore with a renewed strength, and a resolve to write about the spirituality I felt in my heart.