February 2013 Update:
A chunk or what follows originally depended upon the site smileriddle.com – which disappeared temporarily (see comment at bottom); however Bill Tobelman’s assiduous research is now back online as The Good Humor SMiLE Site, and the original post below has had links updated to reflect this.
Thanks to Bill for getting this back up – this newest version of an ongoing investigation into Smile‘s function and ‘meaning’ is now presented chronologically, with a new essay, The Creative Consistency Of SMiLE ‘coming soon’.
Any ‘Smile debate’ just has to be informed by the original thought, and persuasive conclusions, offered therein. And be sure to click on the picture of Alan Watts’ book The Way Of Zen!
I mean everything you can write about [Smile] – and every fantasy that people have – has been written
(Danny Hutton, in conversation with Richard Henderson, 33 1/3 Song Cycle, p.45)
1: an absence
And so, following on from this post – who does have the authority, in order to speak authoritatively, about Smile and The Smile Sessions, post November 2011?
Maybe it has all been said, and, across all extant published books, interviews, articles, board postings and websites…but Domenic Priore’s Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, originally published 20-odd years ago, is still the definitive published collection of writing about Smile. But LLVS has in many ways created a Smile ‘status quo’ which has stymied further speculation. The 2011 Smile Sessions release should have been a ‘paradigm shift’; that doesn’t appear to have happened.
David Toop‘s Wire Magazine piece from last year, A Grin Without A Cat was, I imagined, the start of considered mainstream debate, about the value and function of what Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were working towards with Smile – and what that might mean now, decades later. Toop writes with authority, and a personal fascination with Brian Wilson’s ‘lost masterpiece’ that I’m sure long predates my own.
However, in 2012, less than a year after the momentous release of The Smile Sessions, serious journalism about The Beach Boys will be about their reunion.
The Beach Boys’ Crazy Summer by Andrew Romano (from Newsweek, via The Daily Beast, May 27th) is a fascinating – and ultimately quite depressing – recent example of this. The author, ‘after years of studying [Brian’s] past and obsessing over his music’, meets The Boys in rehearsal, and doesn’t see love, or the joy of reunion, just discomfort and non-communication.
And, as a fan, Romano also fails to even mention that The Smile Sessions was released last November.
Smile was the past; That’s Why God Made The Radio is the present. Smile might have been about Art, but the reunion is about success: money, and adoration, presumably. The author talks with ‘a member of Wilson’s band’:
“When my friends hear I’m touring with the Beach Boys, they’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re doing fairgrounds and stuff?’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘No, we’re with Brian Wilson.’ But, you know, when we performed Pet Sounds and Smile, that was art. That was Brian. Now we are kind of at the fairgrounds.”
There’s an NPR article (from May 11th) by Bob Boilen, with a forward-looking title, Beach Boys 2062:
[The 2012 Beach Boys] secret weapon — actually, their two secret weapons, are those arrangements of Brian Wilson and the decision to allow others to enrich and carry on the tradition…It’s with their tender care that I can imagine The Beach Boys performing in 2062.
Yeah, but, FOR FUCK’S SAKE, isn’t that what Brian Wilson c.2003 was? The same band and vocalists that impressed Boilen so performed Brian’s work then, and in the presence of its composer…remember Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE? Unless of course his vision of the future has a still-living, still-cruisin’ Mike Love:
Mike Love in 2062: 121 years old, but still with an eye for the ladies (more here)
And he’s retained his looks AND his charm:
In actuality, come 2062, this Beach Boys rebranding will be long-forgotten. But, in 2012, as this tour continues, Mr. Mike Love now seems to have become the custodian of everything Brian and his band clawed back over the last decade – and with the New Beach Boys album like ‘1965 all over again,’ Mike Love says (according to Fox News):
“With all of us, there is a breadth and depth we’re able to do from our catalogue that’s unique. It’s really a complete and comprehensive show.
“We are trying to not only satisfy the casual fan who know the hits, but we want to please the hardcore followers who probably know more about us than we do.”
(quoted by Fox from Surf’s up! The Beach Boys are back, The Sunday Telegraph, June 3rd)
But no Surf’s Up in the set – just some concocted ‘California Saga’, with songs from Friends. So it’s like 1965 all over again, and then 1968 all over again. But 1967 drops off Mike Love’s calendar. It’s actually much more like 1987 all over again…
And James Ellaby ponders: Is It Time for a Mike Love Revolution?
In the pieces I’ve written about the Beach Boys for my website, I’ve certainly been accused of having an ‘anti-Mike’ agenda by his supporters, and I can certainly see their point. But isn’t it time we gave him a break?
Is it? If even writers with a proper understanding of Mike’s dynamic in reanimating the corpse of this revival band feel that,
given Wilson’s continued fragility, you’d imagine that if Mike Love was the overpowering boorish ogre of legend, he could have forced his hand and made the Beach Boys deliver another tired collection of nostalgia songs apeing their 60s heyday
and suggests That’s Why God Made The Radio is in some ways not, at its worst, a retrograde step in the wrong direction for Brian Wilson’s musical legacy – that
sure there’s plenty of nostalgia on TWGMTR, but it’s no Summer In Paradise
and thus lapses into the same Beach Boys fan apologies…
No one mentions Brian’s own hugely successful solo tours, or That Lucky Old Sun, or Reimagines Gershwin, or even Songs In The Key Of Disney (released late October 2011) – it’s as if this dignified reinvention happened in a parallel universe, or that these albums hold the same status as Mike Love’s risible self-released (or unreleasable) ‘outsider’ outings…
Does it matter a jot that different flavours of Smile are available in every remaining record shop in the world? Amazon presales for the deluxe Smile box pushed it into their Top 20, but That’s Why God Made The Radio reached number 19…
But back to Brian Wilson’s true legacy.
To look to a magazine like The Wire and a writer like Toop for insight is only to look a bit past rock journalism on the same shelf at WH Smiths; I imagine that Endless Summer Quarterly has some fascinating essays post-Smile, but Smiths don’t stock ESQ. And The Wire itself seems only too keen to undermine its own insights, with drivel like We Are All David Toop Now (April 2012, p.36-43) by Simon Reynolds, who deifies the author of A Grin Without A Cat into a universal prophet of music consumption theory, and a model for ‘us’ all…pure bollocks.
Real pop music study is always taking place in academia, but Popular Music Studies is a rarified world; its Journal has only one published piece about Smile, from March 1994. Looking at recent issues, Stunde Nult: Postwar German Identity in the Music of Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger (Ulrich Adelt, March 2012) looks fascinating; Fan Discourse and the Construction of Noise Music as a Genre (Chris Atton, September 2011) likewise; and the same issue’s The Historical Consciousness of Sunshine Pop (by Keir Keightley) may offer some crossover into Smile…but only abstracts are available online, and an annual subscription is close to 300 quid (for print and online).
Where are The Facts About Smile?
Simon Reynolds’ enervating lecture on our current collective Toopness does make one (and only one) broadly-valid observation: something in music consumption and appreciation has changed.
When Smile was being recorded in 1966, there was far less pop music in the world, and The Beach Boys’ forthcoming album was as anticipated as whatever The Beatles might do next; in the 2011 Mojo Reissues Of The Year list, Mickey Newbury’s An American Trilogy beat The Smile Sessions to the top spot – and despite Newbury’s albums themselves being readily available for years (picked up Frisco Mabel Joy only the other day for two quid off the market).
The internet has facilitated the availability of mostly all music, whether legally or otherwise, as purchasable (or free) data; and there are ‘legacy’ CD reissues of just about anything; get your 180gm vinyl re-re-rereleased repro editions of ‘lost psych classics’ (how many versions of Oar have there been?!?), or original vinyl issues, through ebay etc. And, of course, new music is added to myspace, soundcloud, youtube or bandcamp by the minute.
And, on the internet, anybody can say anything about anything. There are no editors yet. And thus print sources, as mediated by an editor, are being supplanted by much more immediate opinions and observations, via messageboards, wikipedia, wordpress, wherever.
Despite all of this, I do not feel that I have The Facts About Smile. And when Brad Elliotts’ piece of that title was published (and reprinted in LLVS), the details he uncovered were an extraordinary revelation. But that was 30 years ago.
And the Smile puzzle continues to puzzle: why, after finally being released, is Smile immediately relegated to the past, in favour of a Beach Boys reunion that no one actually needs – Brian Wilson least of all? Does this idiosyncratic composer, with his artistic reputation salvaged (from a decades-long dismissal by his own band) really now need to appear ‘at the fairgrounds’?
These answers are not in The Smile Sessions book.
And was Mike Love’s pre-2012 ‘Beach Boys’ any more valid a representation of The Beach Boys’ legacy than this:
as lead by this guy?
she may be rusted iron
but to me she’s solid gold
and I just can’t hold the tears back
cos betsy’s growing old
With the Beach Boys 50 Year Celebration now officially underway, and where Surf’s Up is not (as yet) performed, but, for instance, the poignant Ballad Of Ole Betsy (from 1963) is in recent setlists (June 12th 2012) – and where, of that the lyric, Mike says
it just gets me. It’s so descriptive and so beautiful,
(Mojo interview, June 2012)
I’ve now come to realise that, from the start, I’ve been under some kind of misconception about Brian Wilson’s artistic reputation: many Beach Boys fans just don’t care about any of that. And never did. And neither does The Beach Boys’ CEO. Still.
Obviously fan messageboards continually reprocess theories, but it’s only ever fans who read this stuff. So, from here onwards, if what follows goes beyond corroborative proofs and into some more speculative stuff…well, currently, who will stop me? And who even cares much about Smile any more, now that Brian is back with The Beach Boys?
Rock music’s own self-made ‘mythologies’ are pretty young narratives. But pop and rock’s histories are groaning towards a pensionable age – and, as the predominant younger person’s artform for the past half century or so, it can’t stay young and fresh for ever. The Beach Boys’ Crazy Summer article asks
what is it like to be America’s first 50-year-old rock ‘n’ roll band? Is it morbid, or is it inspiring? Cathartic or embarrassing? Or is it something else entirely?
I suppose this is uncharted territory. Singers who articulated a teenager’s voice that hoped ‘to die before I get old’ are still alive. Dead musicians seem to have a greater currency than those who live past 27. And there are seeming instant ‘classics’ released every month; that they might get replaced by newer ‘classics’ a year or so later is just the rock marketing machine doing what it built itself to do. The music industry has a captive audience – and a rather blinkered one. It’s hard to draw parallels between pop music and other art forms, other histories, when every popular record release exists essentially to make money, and, as its historians get younger, their own purview becomes narrower…
This is all standard stuff: art v. commerce, youth v. experience, music v. marketing…but this hugely-lucrative market process, working hand in hand with audiences and music journalism, has created a canon, and a concomitant accompanying set of ‘myths and legends’.
But what made a myth before there were ‘rock myths’? How are legends made?
Is the ‘legend of Smile’ one huge fiction? Or rather, is there a different way of reading it?
2: a thesis?
One working thesis that has been online since 1998 is Bill Tobelman’s Smile Riddle (and formerly ‘The Zen Interpretation of Smile’). I’d been aware of this ‘Zen’ approach to Smile since 2001, but had never read it – immediately put off by its conceit, I’d always imagined it to be ‘reaching’: disparate and unsupportable claims about vague ‘influences’ on Brian Wilson, with no grounding in either fact or proof.
I finally read it, in its various versions (originally at the Out-Of-Sight! SMiLE Site, and now The Good Humor SMiLE Site) – and in anticipation of something like the book(s) that accompanied The Pet Sounds Sessions within the forthcoming Smile Sessions box set. Naively, I’d assume that extensive interpretations of Smile would be there, alongside the timeline, sessionography, lyrics…and I wanted to be familiar with what had been said so far.
The site itself acknowledges the problems with the use of the term ‘Zen’:
I messed up by making the site too Zen oriented, and also by trying to prove my case using analogies. It didn’t work and few were swayed by the presentation. Frankly, the “Zen” thing may simply turn people off. That’s okay.
It put me off. But, in ideas refined over time, currently,
these webpages are an attempt to back up the solution with as much supporting theory & evidence as possible (not easy when dealing with an intentional riddle/mystery).
The rigour of this argument, and the evidence to support its ‘solution’, is reason enough to give it credence. This kind of informed research is generally considered acceptable in academia; it’s above and beyond what music journalism tries to do and say; and, in the 1970s, where Smile
still is an explained event, I don’t understand it
(says Van Dyke Parks in An American Band)
Smile still remains essentially ‘unexplained’. The Beach Boys themselves ‘solved’ Smile by curtailing its completion, negating its ambition and scale (with Smiley Smile), and then diluting its overall coherence by stealing and ‘finishing’ bits and pieces for later lesser albums. And where there is anything left ‘unsolved’, Mike Love’s anti-Smile utterances through the ages have deflected attention away Brian Wilson’s ambition:
See, a lot of the Brian bullshit rests around the album and it’s nothing, it’s just fragments. Who wants to hear about Brian’s mental problems anyway?
(from a 1995 Mojo interview)
Not (obviously) that there has ever been any shortage of fan enthusiasm – but, like this aptly-named Smile sessions bootleg,
explication feels like archaeology, and interpretation is like deciphering hieroglyphics…but only for enthusiasts. Smile has retained its mystery, and a commensurate attraction. But, for The Beach Boys themselves, it has been like a curse, and the bodies in the sand should stay buried in the sand.
One would have thought, however, that the Beach Boys fan world might embrace the amount of work hosted at the The Good Humor SMiLE Site, in pursuit of a solution to that ‘riddle’ – if only to help explain why Smile failed for The Beach Boys themselves – and why Mike Love objected to it so…don’t see that this has been the case however.
However, as a model of focused research alone, it is its own proof of the validity of careful study.
The Smile Riddle writing immediately got my attention because of this rigour – its bibliography is extensive, and looks far beyond rock writing and pop gossip for corroboration. It also cites Keith Badman’s The Beach Boys: A Definitive Diary, as both ‘a gas’, and something that ‘helped make [the SMiLE Time Line] easy’ – everything written here so far could not have been corroborated without Badman’s work (and I have a timeline of my own to follow this post).
1966/67 was a crucial time for the seeding of what now stands as ‘the history of rock music’ – but, in the larger history of music, and of art itself, pop (and especially rock) is but a blip. And, as a self-proclaimed ‘art form’, it’s something of an aberration – who made pop into art? Its consumers, its producers, its documenters, or its marketing machine? It’s the music industry itself that has the most to gain from convincing potential purchasers that what they are buying is ‘important’, or better yet ‘essential’.
And this clicked with major record companies, with all the commercial possibilities that the ‘counter-culture’ offered them after the Monterey Festival in 1967. This was that industry’s own ‘epiphany’; it was kind of incidental that the artists themselves were in the midst of their own collective extended epiphany…
The Beach Boys’ own immediate irrelevance as artists was attributed, in part, to their non-appearance at the same festival – and this may be true. The Brand (via Mike Love as mouthpiece) has since embraced being ‘lovingly irrelevant’ (says Mike in 1995); over time – and after their reinvention as ‘America’s Band’ (via their Endless Summer hits comp of 1974) – The Beach Boys became immured with this ‘irrelevance’, and mostly without Brian Wilson as anything more than a badge or a mascot.
Brian’s own ambitions, post-Pet Sounds, aspired towards a quite distinct relevance – very much as a reflection of the times, but also with a strong sense of ‘timelessness’.
America’s West Coast music and arts scene, the ‘ferment’ that David Oppenheim’s Inside Pop news broadcast documents, was a very unusual cross-pollination of different disciplines (and indisciplines). Beach Boys fandom seems to have great issue with the ‘stranger’ aspects of Brian Wilson’s personal preoccupations at that time – and passing references in contemporary articles, such as Jules Siegel’s Goodbye Surfing, Hello God (from late ’67, parts of which are cited as key to understanding Smile at the Out-Of-Sight! SMiLE Site), have been used in critiques and commentaries as examples of Brian Wilson’s ‘madness’, and as the ‘the result of promiscuous drugtaking’ (Mike Love again). Little more.
Tony Asher once described Brian Wilson as
something of a Hawthorne hick, who found it next to impossible to express himself verbally. Sometimes Brian’s lack of sophistication manifested itself in small ways…Other times, his childishness was more pronounced, as when he halted work to watch Flipper on TV and wept at the tender moments.
(quoted here, with an entertaining illustrative speculation upon Brian’s ‘lack of sophistication’)
Tony Asher uses the term ‘Hawthorne hick’ in a derogatory way, and as a reflection upon Brian and the Boys’ upbringing; in 1987 this background was a rallying call:
Carl: Hey Brian, what school did you go to?
Brian: I went to Hawthorne High, what about you Al?
Al: I was at Hawthorne with you, Brian.
Carl: Hawthorne. Is there anybody here who DIDN’T go to Hawthorne?
Mike: I was a DORSEY DON!
Bruce: I went to uni with Jan And Dean!
Carl: (to audience) Where did you guys go?
There is a vague murmur from the crowd, but no answer as such is given.
On Waikiki Beach in ’87, no one really gave a shit where The Boys gained their respective educations (and, according to IMDB, ‘every single word spoken by any Beach Boy, upon their request, was written on cue cards’, scripted by David Leaf). This dialogue is used purely as a precursor to a dire rendition of Be True To Your School, accompanied by high-kicking teenage girls (check them out here). But where their collective philistinism is celebrated in Hawaii in ’87, in 1965, Brian Wilson seemed pretty aware of his own ignorance (despite still crying at Flipper), and this may have informed his book choices. If not his tastes in TV.
Brian’s own investigative reading habits almost certainly carried on into the 1970s – 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 (and is taken from here).
The contents of this rucksack will probably never be known; but if Brian Wilson’s Smile-era library was stocked in order to find support for a philosophical conundrum, it’s likely that, with Smile abandoned, this conundrum was still unresolved. One could venture to speculate that his rucksack was overflowing with philosophy and mysticism, rather than pornography and Zane Greys…but who can say?
But the same year that Mike Love revels in that ‘loving irrelevance’, Brian Wilson himself was exercising rather more thought about his own inspirations:
Brian Wilson: (with his now-wife Melinda Ledbetter) There’s a very distinguished writer named Arthur Koestler, and, after a lot of careful research and study and all that in his life
he discovered that the human mind is broken up into three categories: first is Humour, second is science, which he calls Discovery, and the third is Art.
Now, the one thing that really blew me out about that book was that the first rule of ego is humour – in other words, when people get together, they’re more apt to want to be funny, out of INSTINCT and EGO, than they are artistic or scientific…you know, like, intellectual.
The Smile Riddle attributes some significance to one book in particular, and Brian himself is paraphrasing part of its premise above (in Don Was’ 1995 documentary, some excerpts here). And Brian is familiar enough with Koestler not to even mention the title of the book, which is The Act Of Creation:
(‘first published 1964’, says my charity-shop UK Pan paperback copy)
This is one of my most favourite pictures of Brian Wilson. I first used it here.
It’s also a key image in the Riddle – but my own use of it (and the fictions it illustrated) prompted a rather annoyed comment from a reader, mainly because I had quoted (rewritten) passages from Brian Wilson’s curious ‘autobiography’, Wouldn’t It be Nice:
That book is a complete fake. I don’t know why you spent so much time analyzing it.
The thing that brought me back to Brian Wilson and Todd Gold’s ‘fake book’ was reading the Out-Of-Sight! SMiLE essays the week before, a book I’d been otherwise cautious of as a ‘reliable’ source in any of this. The Smile Riddle made me rethink certain passages and anecdotes – one of which recounts an ‘acid flashback’ experienced by Brian ‘several days before Christmas 1965’ in the Pickwick Bookstore in Hollywood (where the bookshop photo was taken). And this ‘flashback’ is likewise key to The Smile Riddle.
After writing a question never known to exist, I mailed The Smile Riddle‘s author (in November 2011), to comment upon his own interpretation, and mentioned that ‘fake book’ comment – and got an interesting response:
As far as the Beach Boys fans slamming everything in Brian’s bio goes: I suggest we talk using the science of probability and chance.
1) Remember, you’re not talking about the bio as a whole, just a few passages. You are examining those passages to see how they fit with all the verifiable facts we know to see if they’re compatible with reality. That’s a far cry from simply bowing down to the bio as an authoritative work.
2) The probability that any given pop album’s goal is to prompt a spiritual experience is extremely remote. To my knowledge SMiLE is the only pop album ever to even have a chance at such a classification. I’d cite Brian’s vegetables/health comment, his “Surf’s Up” lyric explanation, the artcle in The BEAT, and some Michael Vosse quotes to support the spiritual enlightenment contention.
3) The way to go about crafting such an album isn’t common knowledge. How would, or could, YOU do it? Awareness of such knowledge is probably very remote. The chances of someone knowing how to achieve such a thing are probably very improbable. I typically challenge know-it-alls to come forward and tell how they’d achieve such a thing (haven’t received a single idea yet).
4) Then you point to the bookstore flashback in Brian’s bio & that line “hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning” and note that this is supported by Koestler’s theories & observations as well as by SMiLE itself which resembles a hallucination/dream. You note how such an explanation can explain all the ‘weird’ SMILE events.
5) Then you ask them, what are the odds that the bookstore flashback ‘tale’ was conceived by Todd Gold or someone other than Brian Wilson? I would submit that the rarity of the idea of a pop album to inspire a religious experience (there’s only one) and the portrayal of how such a thing could be accomplished (there’s only one) was almost like DNA evidence. The odds that the two things aren’t related are staggering.
Which is kinda difficult to argue with (although you’re encouraged to try…). Whether one attributes any value to the Smile Riddle speculations and interpretations, one cannot doubt its methodology.
I wrote back that, ‘in the absence of verifiable fact, to me, big chunks of the Smile/post-Smile history make no sense’. The response:
Gee, to me the SMiLE period makes total sense. You cannot exactly know what is mean on all levels by one lyric or another but you can really get a great feel for it through the Koestler/Zen angle.
First, if you use Koestler’s ideas then SMiLE first & foremost needs to be an unexplained mystery. What we consider ‘SMILE history’ is actually second-hand observations from participants not clued into the real truth behind the thing.
Then take all of those ‘weird’ SMiLE era tales; from the fire paranoia, to the movie SECONDS paranoia, to the bugging devices paranoia, to the health fad, vegetables, the tent, witchcraft music, the sandbox, etc. They can all be related to this Koestler project & explained in theory via such an angle.
‘All of those ‘weird’ SMiLE era tales’ are what helped make up its ‘myths’; they’re also a fundamental basis for the Beach Boys™-sanctioned fictions that, disingenuously, play up Brian Wilson’s ‘madness’ – and in some of the least forgiving, least compassionate ways imaginable. And with Mike Love as band spokesperson (and Brian Wilson ‘missing in action’), big chunks of Smile‘s history have undergone various rewrites – and, like the Smile Riddle, Beach Boys Corps’ own Smile ‘riddle’ is likewise a ‘work in progress’; the latter is in endless rewrite.
As long as Mike is given a mouthpiece, he will use it.
But none of this tells you what this The Good Humor SMiLE Site has to say about Smile, just how it says it, and how it supports its arguments – obviously you have to go to the site, and read what it says. Get a coffee; see you later.
OK, you’re back now, having read about the earlier ‘Zen interpretation’, and the more developed Smile Riddle. Good work.
In our brief correspondence, I said:
One thought I’ve had lately is that, upon being called a ‘genius’ by Derek Taylor, Brian wanted to understand what this meant, and Koestler’s appendix on genius in The Act Of Creation [p.680-708, subtitled ‘The Sense of Wonder’ and ‘Innocence and Experience’] may have been what maybe lead him to the book…
and the response:
The idea that Brian was attracted to Koestler because of the ‘genius’ tag thing has occurred to me in the past. The problem with it is that it is so unverifiable that it’s likely to go nowhere….interesting idea though.
The rigour of his research is impressive; but there are certain questions that will never get answered. Van Dyke Parks is long past the point of talking about Smile:
I’m ready to move on. The windshield is larger than the rear-view mirror.
(VDP, 3rd day of Christmas, 2011, here)
Brian Wilson has almost certainly lost everything that acted as impetus for Smile – in a deeply poignant sentence before the above quotation, Mr. Parks says
I sure wish Brian were here to weigh in.
Smile‘s inspiration was negated by an ongoing family antagonism, rather than just ‘the drugs‘, as I have tried to argue throughout – and I believe that the blazing bright flashes of inspiration that fueled Brian’s 66/67 work weren’t immediately extinguished with Smile being abandoned, and will talk about this a bit more in one of the final posts.
But, ultimately, living with that unrelenting rejection of 18 months of inspired work as ‘not appropriate’ for the Beach Boys, he couldn’t keep that small flickering flame alight forever.
So I’m persuaded by the Smile Riddle‘s ‘solution’; and, if you’ve read it carefully, you should be likewise persuaded – by the argument. This does not, however, make it either ‘true’ or correct…I got a comment on an earlier post, and about everything I’ve written so far:
For what it counts, I don’t read these posts because I tend to agree – though that has to be a factor in the degree to which I enjoy them – but because they are ultimately well reasoned, articulate and (the consideration above all others) fair.
I don’t believe this has to come down to a moral or eternal issue of rightness or wrongness; you’re presenting an argument, in the technical meaning of the term, based on 25 years of research, enthusiasm and experience. Those things have led you to certain (relative) conclusions. And if that is the case – and hence my original post – all those who’ve read your writings, whether sympathetic to your position or enraged by it, have nonetheless been challenged and engaged. Surely that’s the essence of scholarship, regardless of whether or not you intend to publish?
which is, in itself, about the most fair assessment anyone can make of any argument – whether you agree with it or not. If, after reading The Smile Riddle (and you’ve read it now, haven’t you?), you can then dismiss it, on the basis of nothing more than the fact that you ‘disagree’, you’re probably unfamiliar with the nature of discourse. And you’re likewise wasting your time reading what I’ve written. Cos I’m not done yet.
I believe that your average Beach Boys fan might not indulge this premise because of an inherent conservatism – a conservatism in musical aesthetics (which is not a criticism), but also a lack of knowledge or experience of drugs as anything other than ‘a bad thing’ (and if Mike Love is your model, then yeah, don’t do drugs – be like Mike!). The notion of a ‘spiritual enlightenment’ is a pretty ‘airy fairy’ idea (whether via Zen, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sufiism, whatever – it all ultimately aspires towards the same aims and ends) if you’ve no interest in that sort of thing. Or experienced that sort of thing. But you’ve presumably had flashes of something indefinable whilst listening to music…
And I believe that Brian’s aims with Smile were specifically spiritual – Good Vibrations, in concept, was Smile‘s ‘pocket symphony’ precursor; and Mike Love’s lyrical additions have no bearing on Brian Wilson’s aims in producing that track. Mike might say otherwise – and do check The Beach Boys: An American Family‘s ‘official’ version of how that all happened – scroll down till you see this guy:
and then read on…
This wretched fiction seems to have been rebroadcast recently on US TV, possibly as topical filler reflecting the Beach Boys being back in the news – I’m getting search terms bringing people here who have obviously seen it again…
Mike’s own vocal ‘spirituality’, via the discipline of Transcendental Meditation, might suit him and his own personal ‘aim’ – and this is carefully represented in An American Family with an eloquent speech:
Mike Love: There is too much bad karma out there. Look around: King, Kennedy, everybody with a message of hope gets cut down – meditating is so simple anyone can do it, and if everyone did it the world would be a totally different place. You won’t KNOW unless you try.
Pamela NoName (his fictional squeeze): Just don’t go overboard.
Mike Love: You think I’m gonna be like Brian and Dennis?!? No, this has given me perspective, sets up my priorities. With the band it’s all noise, I gotta find a way to cut through all that. Sooner or later they’ll learn, positivity and harmony last forever, negativity and dissonance will die an ugly death.
but Mike’s belief in ‘positivity and harmony’ has no connection whatsoever with Brian’s own aims. It’s maybe doubtful just how ‘spiritual’ Mike Love might actually ‘feel’…
It’s not his lyrics (lashed together in 15 minutes) that draw people back to Good Vibrations, much as he might argue otherwise. That song has an inbuilt, inherent construction – and is ‘attractive’ by design.
3: subjective and objective art
Eric Tamm‘s 1990 book Robert Fripp – From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, was originally started as a projected university thesis on the guitarist and his work; it was eventually expanded into the book as published. There are a lot of interesting things that could be said about Fripp, his music, and the philosophies that, over time, began to inform it; one life-changing influence upon Fripp was a personal ‘spiritual experience’ (in 1974). These are all the makings of a very interesting book.
From King Crimson to Guitar Craft is, alas, not that book. And despite the author’s dogged persistence, against its subject’s advice:
On November 1 , [Fripp] called me at seven in the morning (California time) to inform me that he had deep reservations about my project
before it was even begun.
Fripp, however, never warmed to the idea of my writing about him or his work. In several conversations…he gently but firmly endeavored to dissuade me from carrying out my project
My impression at the time was that Fripp based his disinclination to being written about by a budding musicologist on a number of factors, including: a general mistrust of the written word (which is related to his mistrust of music notation); his strong feeling that what he has to offer is best presented in person, and perhaps can only be presented in person; the fact that I had not been there with him throughout his career; and the fact that writers in the popular music press have often said small, totally uncomprehending things about him and his music.
(From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, Preface, p.xiv-xv)
Tamm persisted, and thus his thesis exists. You can read it online here, or download the text here (the UK edition is long out of print). I do recall, a good few years ago, that the author’s website had some comments from Robert Fripp about the book post-publication which were rather less than complimentary, and it was to the author’s credit that he acknowledged this…but they now seem to be gone.
Eric Tamm’s website, and his blog (Time and Consciousness) do seem to be peppered with references and quotations from G.I. Gurdjieff – and it was Gurdjieff’s own ideas (as author, philosopher and ‘mystic’, and as mediated by P.D. Ouspensky and J.G. Bennett) that so changed Robert Fripp’s own worldview in 1974 (and precipitated the end of King Crimson until the 1980s). Maybe, through Fripp, Mr. Tamm came closer to these ideas, which have informed his own work since…who knows.
From King Crimson to Guitar Craft does try to address some Gurdjieffian specifics, and Tamm tries to relate these to Fripp’s work throughout his book – and especially in Chapter Twelve, entitled Objective Art.
From what little I knew about this idea of ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ art from Ouspensky’s own writing – and specifically in A New Model of the Universe (1931) and In Search of the Miraculous (1949) – I came away from Tamm’s book with the impression that he seems to have misconstrued these ideas, seeing in Objective Art a kind of ‘elite’ music…but he ends with a quote from Fripp himself (from 1980), who said that
it is my conviction that music has the capacity to radically change far more of ourselves and ‘the world’ than we ordinarily believe.
“The difference between objective art and subjective art is that in objective art the artist really does ‘create’, that is, he makes what he intended, he puts into his work whatever ideas and feelings he wants to put into it. And the action of this work upon men is absolutely definite; they will, of course each according to his own level, receive the same ideas and the same feelings that the artist wanted to transmit to them. There can be nothing accidental either in the creation or in the impressions of objective art.”
(G.I.Gurdjieff quoted by P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.266)
From a non-rock discipline, I think this idea of an Objective Art is as good a summary of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ intent with Smile as I think I have read.
“Really?!?” you say (rather doubtfully) – you’ve read this far; as Fripp says (in his stentorian voice) at the end of Under Heavy Manners: continue.
Ever fond of systematized lists, Fripp saw three qualitatively different kinds of music-making:
1) Third division. Artistic research and development, a “civilized” style of life, and little or no financial remuneration. Where ideas and art exist and are experimented with for their own sake.
2) Second division. Gainful employment as a working professional musician; respectability and a certain level of commercial success, but little impact on mass culture: “You won’t change the world.”
3) First division. Exposure at the level of the mass media, with all its rewards and risks. For better or for worse, you become a mythical figure on the screen of contemporary consciousness. Access to the best musicians and to all current ideas, musical trends, and technologies. “Total commitment of belief, energy, life-style and time.”
(From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, p.130)
This is a condensation of a diary entry Fripp made on March 11 1981, and as reprinted in full in the enormous booklet from Frame By Frame: The Essential King Crimson (a 1991 4CD overview); the latter is more expansive about what is to be gained (or lost) whilst working in the First Division:
First division is a an entirely different bag of bananas: at worst it’s merely “prime market penetration” and success as mass culture; at best it means the top players, cream of new ideas and the apex of popular culture. It also involves the…total commitment of belief, energy, life-style and time…you’re on a tightrope…you have to jump and if you fall you lose your health, sanity and occasionally your soul. But you just might fly away.
The emphasis is mine.
Fripp’s own ‘systematized list’ was for his own reference, and relates to his own work (at time of writing, Frippertronics was Third Division, his band The League Of Gentleman were Second Division, and Crimson The First Division).
Robert Fripp working within the Third Division, 1979
(postcard from Under Heavy Manners/God Save The Queen, 1980)
However, while this didn’t really apply in the mid-1960s, when Brian and Van Dyke were writing and recording Smile, The Beach Boys embodied all three Divisions: while Brian and Van Dyke’s research and development was being applied to Smile‘s composition, the band themselves obtained gainful employment as working professional musicians on the road – but all of Brian’s studio work, with eventual exposure at the level of the mass media, was the accumulative Aim. And, as pop music was rapidly becoming a very popular Art, there was an eagerly anticipatory audience.
But, without the completion or release of Smile, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper became rock music’s first ‘First Division’ work. Smiley Smile was neither First, Second or Third Division. Just third-rate.
So. Where am I going with this? What do I believe?
You’re not going to read Gurdjieff, Ouspensky or Bennett if you’re not ‘in search of the miraculous’ yourself; it’s the kind of writing that either resonates or repels. But this idea of an ‘objective art’ has fascinated me for years. And especially within a post-‘Post-Modern’ perception of Art and Meaning. And, before continuing, better first to look at what an ‘objective art’ isn’t:
“In subjective art everything is accidental. The artist, as I have already said, does not create; with him ‘it creates itself’ This means that he is in the power of ideas, thoughts, and moods which he himself does not understand and over which he has no control whatever. They rule him and they express themselves in one form or another. And when they have accidentally taken this or that form, this form just as accidentally produces on man this or that action according to his mood, tastes, habits, the nature of the hypnosis under which he lives, and so on. There is nothing invariable; nothing is definite here. In objective art there is nothing indefinite.”
(G.I.Gurdjieff quoted by P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, p.266)
One example of a purely Subjective Art could be the fraudulence of ‘Brit Art‘ (with Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin as its King and Queen of Crap), and the absolute dearth of ‘meaning’ that this popular art embodied. It means, I suppose, what you want it to mean – and will one day typify the nadir of meaninglessness, pointlessness and self-indulgence in any future history of 20th century art (if it doesn’t already).
These manifestations of creativity (without any creative skill) somehow convinced an art audience (and its buyers) that it had validity. But without art critics, and the support of galleries and collectors, it would not be art. It may be a commentary on exactly that fact – but that’s subjective. In isolation, it’s nothing more than the objects that embody it. Project all you want onto it – but that isn’t meaning.
I’m not an art critic, nor am I music critic – but I know what I hate. And I only cite Brit Art as an extreme, but usefully-illustrative example of art as a subjective medium. But this idea is as easily applicable to popular music’s current canons: what is ‘art’ and ‘genius’ and ‘seminal’ and ‘important’ is made so by its critical context and the marketing behind it. Sometimes these mechanisms are persuasive; but ultimately they’re meaningless.
And, while pop music is still the most ‘popular’ popular art form – maybe now, in the 21st century, little of art or music (or music as art) has any meaning any more…which is not to say that there isn’t art or music being produced that doesn’t contain deeper meaning – but it’s not happening in the mainstream. It will always continue in the margins (Fripp’s Third Division) – but, in the mid-60s, where pop musicians were discovering that they might actually also be artists, those margins may as well not have existed. Your ‘lost psych classic’ might have been found and redeemed 20 years or so later, but its producers wanted their music to matter to an audience that week. It might be acclaimed decades later as ‘essential’ or ‘seminal’, but, while history reads it as Third Division work, its aspirations were always towards the First Division. Mass appeal; mass acceptance…and, with all the powers of persuasion that Bernstein and Oppenheim discuss in April 1967’s Inside Pop.
Without a broad appeal, who was gonna notice it? Especially at that crucial ‘ferment’ of 66/67, when every week brought newer and more advanced recordings and releases…
Good Vibrations is a pop song that is also an artistic expression of a specific intent. It had – and still has – a huge broad appeal. And its function? It makes the listener feel good. In that sense, what it is for is also what it is about. You pick up good vibrations by listening to Good Vibrations. Does Good Vibrations make anyone feel bad or sad or mad? Generally speaking it doesn’t. And it was the Beach Boys’ biggest hit. It worked. And, in relation to what Smile could have done, it was just a pretty simple ‘proof of concept’.
So, using Gurdjieffian terminology, Good Vibrations is maybe an example of Objective Art: listeners ‘receive the same ideas and the same feelings that the artist wanted to transmit to them’. But it’s not an ‘elite music’ or a Third Division Art – it’s mass culture. And, with this success, Brian Wilson, via The Beach Boys, had the potential for a quite extraordinarily persuasive power.
And in Los Angeles, in the mid-60s of the last century, a lot of other pop musicians working within the ‘rock revolution‘ went on to wield considerable power over their audiences. For better or worse: that ‘power’ (of persuasion) was given to them by their backers and their supporters (mainly major record labels with major promotional budgets). And, quite quickly, the exercise of that power meant little more than an exercise of ego.
One of Mike Love’s recurrent damnings of Smile (and Pet Sounds before it) was as Brian Wilson’s ‘ego music’ – but, considering the love that his best music generates and attracts, that’s a pretty benign use of ego. Reading Barney Hoskyns’ Waiting For The Sun makes you kind of hate a lot of the people from that West Coast scene whose music you might otherwise like…reprehensible people. Scumbags. Look back to Kokomo and its co-author John Phillips – a very bad man indeed. I mean, he obviously loved his daughter, but still…
All Brian Wilson wanted (with Van Dyke Parks as the other half of his comedy duo) was to make you Smile. And laugh. And think. They both had that power. And after Good Vibrations, Brian Wilson couldn’t have been better positioned to do just that – major label backing (if not an unreserved support); an attentive – and huge – potential audience; and, until May 1967, nothing in his field to challenge him or his ambition.
4: summaries and questions
1: In the absence of a 2011 Smile thesis, the Zen Interpretation/Smile Riddle/Good Humor SMiLE Site, as one of the most rigorous available, is also possibly one of the most wayward for a Beach Boys’ audience.
2: Brian Wilson’s own ‘spiritual enlightenment’, and what that taught him, was something he wanted to share with 1967’s pop audiences via Smile. Good Vibrations, and its success as ‘proof of concept’, should have been all the encouragement he needed. But he didn’t count upon The Beach Boys’ own discouragement.
Brian tried to share it first with the other Beach Boys:
Al Jardine (here): We started to get indications that Brian was taking some hallucinogens, like LSD and stuff like that – a lot of the writers were doing that at the time – but it took a tremendous toll from him. He drove me around the parking lot of William Morris about 20 times, explaining to me about this great trip he had just taken, and I just wanted to be as far away from that as possible! Because I didn’t want to know about it – I wanted the INNOCENCE.
In Brian’s own innocence (he cried at Flipper for Christ’s sake!), he was almost certainly just trying to impart to poor innocent Al what he felt he had gained himself…but any support Carl and Dennis might have given him was probably overruled by what Mike Love didn’t want. Further elaboration to follow.
3: Eric Tamm became quite distraught with Robert Fripp’s endless rejection of the thesis that became From King Crimson to Guitar Craft:
On seeing the state I was in because Fripp had refused to “cooperate,” my primary dissertation adviser, Professor Philip Brett, said, “Well, Eric, that’s one of the advantages of doing historical musicology; it’s much easier to wait until they’re dead.”
(From King Crimson to Guitar Craft, Preface, p.xv)
Which key Beach Boy needs to have died before Smile archaeology begins in earnest?
Brian himself seems more than a little aware of his own mortality – from May 2012’s The Beach Boys’ Crazy Summer:
“We’re 70 fucking years old” [says Brian to Al Jardine] “You’ll be 70 in September. I’ll be 70 in June. I’m worried about being 70.”
“It’s still a few months off,” Jardine says.
“That’s true,” Wilson mutters. He pauses for a few seconds, looking away from his bandmate. “I want to know how did we get here?” he finally says. “How did we ever fucking get here? That’s what I want to know.”
4: Brian Wilson, after Smile, was probably still trying to resolve his own Smile riddle; he probably read a rucksack full of books apart from Arthur Koestler’s The Act Of Creation to help find his own ‘solution’ (and lost his health, sanity and maybe his soul in the process).
The problem with this idea is that it is so unverifiable that it’s likely to go nowhere (to paraphrase one of the email discussions quoted above)…but, from now on, what is verifiable and what is speculative may start to blur somewhat.
I mean everything you can write about [Smile] – and every fantasy that people have – has been written
And what am I doing, writing all this?!? I haven’t finished yet…
(thanks to Bill Tobelman for permission to quote correspondence)