The impending release of The Smile Sessions box set (in November 2011) was the impetus for starting writing Smile : My First 25 Years last September. Its portentous and pompous title was meant as self-deprecating (‘who the hell are you?’)
In doing all this, my intention, if I had one, was to get a 25 year on-off preoccupation (with an unreleased pop record from the 1960s) out of my system. Owning a deluxe, authorised, definitive set of these recordings (previous available in many unauthorised versions over the years) would surely put an end to this obsessive pursuit. The next 25 years would be fulfilled by the longevity and the legacy of The Smile Sessions box itself.
Its release would also end speculations – and Smile obsessives quickly get caught up in ‘what if?’ scenarios.
Anything I have written here is thus without any ‘authority’ whatsoever; there are Beach Boys fans with real access to Beach Boys Corp., and these people seem to post regularly to Beach Boys bulletin boards. They know way more than I could.
And because this was an exorcism rather than an exegesis, with The Smile Sessions available, packaged, contained, and contextualised, there should be little more to say, because the texts accompanying the release would say it all: ‘definitive essays’ would make up the bulk of the ‘deluxe book’, as they did with The Pet Sounds Sessions in 1996 1997.
The huge Smile Sessions box set, with the 3D diecut Smile shop lid, the 5CDs of audio archive, reconstructed Smile album, 2LP gatefold sleeve set, two 7″ picture cover imagined-up Smile singles, poster, booklet repro…for any self-made, self-accredited Smile scholar, all of this, fantastic as it is (and unbelievable that it should exist at all), should all be tied together with a thesis.
Charles L. Granata’s 2003 book I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – Brian Wilson and the Making of Pet Sounds observes that
the meticulous work reflected in the Pet Sounds box set and the dedication of professionals such as David Leaf and Mark Linett has helped to create an unprecedented awareness in Brian Wilson’s music, and has pushed Pet Sounds to the forefront of our musical consciousness.
(I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, p. 224)
Granata’s book is probably the best of three ‘critical studies’ published post-1997 (the others being Kingsley Abbott’s 2001 tie-in with the live performances, and a 33 1/3 title I’ve yet to read; there are also ebooks and fake books) – and is a great accompaniment to the extensive notes that come with the Pet Sounds Sessions box.
I don’t need anybody to tell me what Smile might have been, or was intended to be. And, to the credit of those working within (presumed) extraordinary legal limitations, the essays that are included give as good an overview as any Smile neophyte might need. And, for a neophyte, the opinion of surviving Beach Boys will offer crucial insight: they were there. It’s their voices you hear.
The two deceased Beach Boys obviously could neither write their own text, nor choose from anything they might have said before their deaths (in 1983 and 1998).
Brian Wilson’s memory has been compromised somewhat – ‘legend’ says that ‘it was the drugs’; but it’s probably more likely to be over-medication by his psychiatrist.
Van Dyke Parks, as Brian’s collaborator and lyricist, is, in essence, absent. He could as well be dead, along with Dennis and Carl.
There is no ‘thesis’, however. Or at least nothing in any way comparable to The Pet Sounds Sessions.
The above is pages 38 & 39 (they’re unnumbered) of the Smile Sessions book, alongside pages 6 & 7 (of 126 numbered pages) of The Making Of Pet Sounds (one of two books in The Pet Sounds Sessions box set). The latter is mainly text; but the Smile Sessions book, despite its large format, has only 12 pages or so of words. Some of this is large-print comments from Beach Boys alive and dead; Tom Nolan also speaks up (sort of) for Van Dyke Parks on one page; there is a four page Sessionography which is dense definitive data, heavily-researched, and in tiny print; and there are a couple of pages of (fascinating) Producers Notes.
Peter Reum writes a two page essay, Lost and Found: The Significance of Smile; Domenic Priore has a one page timeline, and a one and a half page essay, The (Original) Teenage Symphony To God; Frank Holmes gets in (a dense) 700 words, which prefaces the lyrics and his own illustrations.
And there are three and a half pages of recollections and reminiscences, printed in largish type: 1500 words approx from Marilyn Wilson, Brian’s wife at the time; 1000 words from her sister Diane Rovell, 600 from (of Jan and) Dean Torrence, same from Mark Volman, and then 1000 words or so, in total, from Michael Vosse, David Anderle and Danny Hutton.
The heading on page 7 of The Making Of Pet Sounds (pictured above) says
For this book, almost all the living participants shared their memories of the making of Pet Sounds. What they have to say significantly deepens our appreciation of the confluence of people, experience and creativity that was necessary to bring about the birth of this album.
Asking mostly the same people about Smile (especially the older players still living) for the 2011 release might have just been overkill.
In the Smile box, commentators reiterate theories and histories that can be read elsewhere, in far greater depth, dotted around innumerable publications, books, messageboards and websites. But there is none of the cohesiveness that ‘pushed Pet Sounds to the forefront of our musical consciousness’ in 1997.
The Anecdotes in the 2011 Sessions book say little about either the birth, or the death of Smile. These recollections are illustrated by one of Guy Webster’s group photos from Los Angeles Airport:
the airport photo (at right) was an interesting one. Brian was coming back from a tour with the guys. He called Diane and I and told us who to invite to come to the airport and participate in a photo session. He told us to invite some relatives and some friends too…Brian thought it would be fun. Anything extreme, different or excessive, that was the way he thought. It actually was a lot of fun and Brian was fully amused by it.
(Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, The Smile Sessions book, p. 38)
Quite a few pictures were taken that day. A variation is reprinted in Domenic Priore’s 2005 Smile book; there’s another in the 2004 Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE Tour programme. There are no Beach Boys there but Brian.
Stephen Gaines, in 1986’s Heroes and Villains: The True Story of The Beach Boys, puts a rather more dramatic slant on the significance of this photo opportunity:
when the plane landed, nearly twenty of of Brian’s friends were waiting at the terminal. Guy Webster lined the large group up against the white-tile wall of the terminal, and photographed them with a wide-angle lens, like an eerie graduation photograph. For the next few months a giant blowup of the photograph hung on Brian’s living room wall. In just as much time, all the people in the photograph would become strangers.
(Heroes and Villains, p.149)
(the photograph hung on Brian’s living room wall, ‘published here for the first time’)
These pictures were taken on Saturday the 22nd of October 1966, ‘just before Brian’s total retreat from the world’.
Joining the dots between various sources, one could try to ‘read’ the events of that day. The Beach Boys’ Definitive Diary provides most of the detail – The Beach Boys played two shows at University of Michigan, Lansing MI:
This pair of performances marks the first time the group plays Brian’s musical masterpiece Good Vibrations in concert. Fearing that his colleagues will be incapable of reproducing the song onstage, Brian accompanies the group to Michigan to oversee a lengthy and arduous day-long rehearsal for the song.
Good Vibrations had been released as a single 12 days earlier. The 1993 Good Vibrations box set has a recording from one the two performances.
Disc 5, Track 23. Good Vibrations (Live 1966) :
The minute or so spoken intro:
Mike: What’s the right note?…
Bruce: Play it!
Mike: Easy, I haven’t learned it yet…(to audience) hey man, they expect me to play this woo-woo machine (audience laughs). This is ridiculous!
Carl: It really is
Mike: Give me…a note
Piano and organ cacophony as Mike tunes the woo-woo machine
Al: We aren’t too nervous for this song, it’s the second time we’ve tried it…if the light man could dim the lights a little – in fact turn them out, I’d like to go look for a fire hydrant (much audience laughter)
They play the well-rehearsed song, and then seem genuinely surprised at the audience’s positive response .
Before returning to LA, Brian phones his wife to get everyone to meet at the airport, because ‘Brian thought it would be fun’ – or (if you believe Gaines) to prepare a momento mori for Smile. Or both. Or neither. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Stephen Gaines attributed far greater significance to Guy Webster’s photographs in 1986 than Marilyn does in 2011. To Brian Wilson, the event must have had some significance at the time, otherwise he wouldn’t have instigated it. But who can say?
And, while Van Dyke Parks is pictured in the one photograph that Brian Wilson hung on his wall, the alternate shot (in the Smile Sessions book) has Van Dyke (and Durrie) Parks absent. For whatever reason. Maybe they had to leave. One could believe that they weren’t even invited, were it not for the pic above.
Obviously it’s the music that matters – and, despite session edits and omissions, there is probably little missing across the 5 CDs of The Smile Sessions that might shed any further light on proceedings in the studio in 1966 and 67. Some Surf’s Up sessions (instrumental and vocal) are lost; outtakes from the Inside Pop filmings could be revealing; and if Mike Love is on tape unwilling to sing ‘uncover the cornfield’, it’s never been bootlegged.
I’m sure that some audiophiles have issue with the 2011 mixes (modern compression and digital reverb especially), but what I know from bootlegs has never sounded better than on the official release. The sheer mechanics of transferring all of this from tape to digital would have been a massive undertaking (and this is covered in the Producers Notes, but I could have read much more).
The packaging is mostly flawless – a gloss finish to the box itself would attract less dirt, and the CDs themselves sit better separate from their folder…but you’ve gotta be some kind of utterly ungrateful idiot to gripe about this.
But any new context or thesis…this is utterly absent in the box set’s book. And, surely, this Definitive Authorised Release (there won’t be another in our lifetime, unless a new digital format is invented) would be the place for something comparable to what Pet Sounds received in 1997?
Hopefully someone somewhere is working on a definitive Smile book, along the lines of Granata’s I Wasn’t Made For These Times, using all the same source material I have access to, plus the patience to monitor messageboard observations, as they happen, in real-time – and documentation and research that involves leaving the computer. Only thing upcoming that I am aware of is a book called I Can Hear Music, by a Mike Eder, which argues that ‘Brian Wilson killed Smile – absolutely’. An endorsement from Mike Love will undoubtedly adorn its dustjacket.
Eder’s book probably won’t include the analysis that Smile deserves, post-2011.
I was talking to a friend on Saturday (while watching Eurovision) about everything I have written and am yet to write, and he says he only reads new posts sporadically: ‘I don’t know that much about the Beach Boys, and I think I need to know more to follow all of this’. Which is probably true, and would probably put most casual readers off – by the volume of posts, and by the analysis of varying perspectives on Smile. Isn’t one perspective enough?
I really don’t know who any of this is for. It’s certainly for myself – and having an outlet for it, just by dumping it all on the internet, means that I can say stuff that might be read by someone with the same background, foreknowledge and exposure to Smile, in its myriad forms, and maybe say one or two things that they might have thought but not read. And a few people have read on this basis, and have offered me in return their own personal insights, which have enhanced my own understanding of Smile.
But, despite the portentous and pompous tone, I take finishing this more seriously than I take myself. And Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ work will ultimately speak for itself, regardless of who says what, now or in the future. This is not music that will get either ignored or forgotten.
And this is just a blog; none of it will become a book. Nor was this written to sell, at a later date, as a self-mediated Kindle edition. I’m sure I’d get destroyed on Amazon.
But, because of the laxity of the internet, I’ve gotten away with this for months, and so I’ll finish off with some wayward speculations that would probably never get past an editor.
Next: a Cabinessence conclusion; following that, an annotated timeline. Then some extended notes upon spirituality, empathy, humanity (and inhumanities)…which will be followed by a conclusion, of a kind.
And then I can stop thinking about all of this.