In an interview with Mojo Magazine from 1995, Mike Love asks his interrogator a rhetorical question:
Who wants to hear about Brian’s mental problems anyway? [Smile is under discussion] I mean, to call a record Sweet Insanity, imagine that. A whole album of Brian’s madness that no one wants to release and still everyone says he’s a genius! I make Kokomo, it goes to number one in the charts and l’m still the dumb, know-nothing, talentless Mike Love.
Sweet Insanity was Brian’s second solo album – produced, co-written and mentored by Gene Landy, Brian Wilson’s psychiatrist (and then collaborator) until 1992. The album was rejected (in two different versions) by Warner Brothers:
the entire album is saddled with psycho-analytical word-play which is undoubtedly the result of Brian’s total immersion in the care of Dr. Eugene Landy, who controlled every aspect of Brian’s life.
(purported projected second album sleeve art)
There are some apologists for Brian’s Sweet Insanity album (claims wikipedia), and it has been released on various bootlegs. Mike Love has a back catalogue of albums that ‘no one wants to release’ (read more here), but his comments to Mojo in 1995 reflect a general consensus about Sweet Insanity (and its most insane track doesn’t address Brian’s mental state at all, but Smart Girls does still need to be heard to be believed…some confounded commentary is here).
Brian Wilson’s self-titled predecessor from 1988 was a critical success (if not a commercial hit comparable with past glories), and came unburdened with psycho-babble lyrics, but Mike was comparably as unforgiving of his cousin’s previous attempt at a creative independence from The Beach Boys: asked by Goldmine Magazine (in 1992) ‘did you like [Brian’s] first solo album?’ his response is quite direct:
Goldmine: You didn’t like it?
Mike: Fuck no.
GM: What didn’t you like about it?
Mike: First of all the lyrics. Second of all the arrangements weren’t commercial enough. Third of all it sounded like shit compared to what he could sound like.
(full interview here)
Kokomo, as the Beach Boys other biggest ever hit, made its mark on the world the same year Brian Wilson was released. And in making Sweet Insanity somehow synonymous with Smile, Mike reinforces the legend that it was Brian Wilson’s ‘madness’ (exacerbated by ‘the drugs’) that brought into being the career blip that Smile has become to The Beach Boys Corporate Mindset.
Mike Love’s own sanity has never seemed in doubt – and he persists in modeling himself as The Beach Boys’ moderator: his collaborations with his cousin were at their most successful when Mike tempered Brian’s weirdnesses.
The band’s own Endless Harmony documentary from 1998 contains the core details:
Mike: and then I came up with the part i’m picking up good vibrations – he had the track, but he didn’t have the i’m picking up good vibrations. And the REASON I chose to come up with that part was, firstly that it was the bassline, but second of all, the track was so WEIRD (laughs).
Mike: Everything else up to the time was like I Get Around, Fun Fun Fun, Help Me Rhonda, Surfin’ USA – and then all of sudden (makes car skidding sound) – here’s Good Vibrations, with that weird mystical-sounding track – and I thought ‘oh my GOODNESS, our fans, the public, is gonna freak out when they hear this, they’re not gonna get this’ – so what I said was ‘well the one thing that people understand is boy/girl, attraction: ‘I’m picking up good vibrations, she’s giving me excitations’. So I wrote it from a boy/girl perspective.
The fans, the public, did freak when they heard Good Vibrations, along with everyone else, making it a Number One record. But Good Vibrations was only the first of many ‘weird mystical-sounding tracks’ Brian Wilson was producing for The Beach Boys until Smile was curtailed, and ‘weird’ thus became a defining part of the myth of Brian Wilson. And Mike has been consistently intolerant – and strangely unforgiving – of any manifestation of Brian’s weirdness since, especially where it affects The Beach Boys.
So who does want to hear about Brian’s mental problems anyway?
Mental illness, like drugs and spirituality, can be difficult to discuss objectively, especially when countered by the kind of sound and robust mind Mr. Mike Love possesses. Any mental illness that was maybe precipitated by drugs becomes even more problematic. And, like the experience gained from drugs, or dedication to a spiritual discipline, ultimately anything experiential is personal – to guess what goes on in the troubled mind of Brian Wilson can only ever be speculative, imagined.
But to assume that his ‘madness’ was some vague thing without point or ‘purpose’ is mostly an insult to Brian Wilson, and to anyone else intelligent enough to have some comparable insight into their own problems.
In Mike’s 1992 Goldmine interview he talks about the power he has gained through Transcendental Meditation – but TM’s benefits, as described by Mike Love, feel less about an internal struggle with oneself:
Mike: There’s a line in “Kokomo”: “We’ll put out to see and we’ll perfect our chemistry. By and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity.” […] Why did I say defy gravity? Because in the practice of the TM city programs there’s sutras, where you develop the ability to levitate.
GM: Have you ever levitated?
Mike: Yeah, I practiced doing this as part of my TM city programs.
GM: And it’s worked?
Mike: Yeah, well, I mean we’re fledging hoppers. But the idea is with perfection of the mind and the body you can actually defy gravity. So it actually showed up in the song “Kokomo.” A hundred years from now people will be defying gravity as a normal course.
See, there’s a thing called survival of the fittest where evolution marches forward and people who are ignorant and violate the laws of nature, then their societies pass out of existence. People who are more in tune and in harmony with nature are gonna be those who survive. I want people who survive one hundred years from now to realize we were relevant now.
Readers of any of what has been written here since September 2011 will know that the writer of all of this has no issue with recreational drug use; Bill Hicks says it better
I think drugs have done some good things for us. I really do. And if you don’t believe drugs have done good things for us, do me a favor. Go home tonight. Take all your albums, all your tapes and all your CDs and burn them. ‘Cause you know what, the musicians that made all that great music that’s enhanced your lives throughout the years were rrreal fucking high on drugs.
Spirituality has been mentioned on and off, and will be tidied up with some small conclusions in some future Final Post; that Smile was originally planned as a ‘teenage symphony to God’ says a great deal about Brian Wilson’s own creative mindset at the time. The Good Humor Smile Site (formerly the Zen Interpretation of Smile) discusses the sources and inspirations for Smile with some admirable (and dogged) rigour – essential reading for anyone who actually cares about what Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks (and Frank Holmes) were up to in 66/67.
But ‘madness’, mental illness, Brian being bonkers, all those anecdotes about his loopy behaviour…it’s a topic that has been mostly avoided here. Because getting inside Brian Wilson’s head is a hypothetical.
Recently, a friend had the good fortune to meet Brian backstage with a VIP pass at a recent ‘solo’ performance (with a band containing more Beach Boys than ‘The Beach Boys’, currently resting from wowing the fairgrounds with classics like The Ballad of Ole Betsy). Conversation with Brian was curtailed in advance – but, given the opportunity to ask questions, what would one ask? What can poor Brian even recall about his past? Maybe better to ask him about his favourite cartoons…
Who can say what currently goes on in the mind of Brian Wilson? And who can really say what was in his mind after Smile was abandoned? Peter Ames Carlin’s Catch A Wave Brian biog recounts a visit to Brian’s home by Reprise Records execs in 1969, checking on their possible new signing:
The group had just emerged from their cars when Brian came out, his long hair combed, his clothes neatly pressed – and his face painted a vivid shade of green.
“He came out and said ‘Oh hi!’ and goes about the whole thing as if nothing is wrong” says Stephen Desper [Beach Boys engineer], who observed the entire scene from the opening handshakes to the farewells an hour or two later. “Brian was the perfect gentleman, very astute and polite, only his face painted green. And he knew damn well what he was doing. But the funniest thing was that no one said anything”.
Not until the Reprise guys left, at any rate. Then [Nick] Grillo, sensing that another all-but-signed record deal was about to fall through his fingertips thanks to Brian’s efforts, went into full freak-out mode. “Brian!” he shrieked. “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing?” Brian, Desper recalls, smiled innocently and shrugged. “Just seeing what would happen.”
(Catch A Wave, p.150)
Carlin makes a subtle argument throughout Catch A Wave that Brian Wilson made conscious efforts, through the post-Smile years, to sabotage any future career for The Beach Boys – or at the very least to estrange himself from the band; that he could contribute to this meeting for ‘an hour or two’ with his stupid green face while still ‘astute and polite’ suggests a subtle kind of ‘madness’ – a very conscious and self-aware one. This anecdote suggests a tactic at work.
Mike Love himself remains untouched by the wind of the wing of madness, if one discounts ‘a rather dramatic breakdown’ in February 1970,
spurred by some combination of overambitious fasting and what [Mike] liked to call his “tainted Wilson blood” and climaxing in a long, high-speed car chase through Hollywood as he attempted to evade cars driven by his father and brothers
(Catch A Wave, p.167)
As Mike observes himself, it’s the Wilson ‘taint’, rather than any failing of his own…but his accounts of levitation quoted above, however informed by the tenets of TM, still should sound insane – and worse, delusional. However it’s Brian Wilson’s ‘madness’ – and as most tangibly manifested by Smile itself – which remains the key to what happened to The Beach Boys throughout the 1970s. There are other anecdotes that show Brian as comparably wayward (although minus the drama and the car chases), but these are often cited out of chronological sequence and out of context.
Brian Wilson’s (widely-quoted) paranoia connecting John Frankenheimer’s Seconds with Phil Spector appeared only once in print, in Jules Siegel’s Goodbye Surfing, Hello God! piece, published late 1967; Siegel himself is essentially eavesdropping on Brian, at home, talking with ‘a friend’:
“I walked into that movie…and the first thing that happened was a voice from the screen said ‘Hello Mr. Wilson’. It completely blew my mind. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty spooky, right?”
“That’s not all. Then the whole thing was there. I mean my whole life. Birth and death and rebirth. The whole thing. Even the beach was in it, a whole thing about the beach. It was my whole life up there on the screen.”
“It’s just a coincidence, man. What are you getting all excited about?”
Brian jabbers about ‘mind gangsters’, and Spector getting involved in films; his paranoia is tempered by his friend’s common sense:
“Brian, Phil Spector is not about to make a million dollar movie just to scare you. Come on, stop trying to be so dramatic.”
“All right, all right, I was just a little nervous about it…I just had to get it out of my system. You can see where something like that could scare someone, can’t you?”
and then that’s about the end of it.
This brief conversation appears, again and again and again, in biography, hagiography and hackjob, as ‘proof’ that Brian Wilson, during the ‘Smile era’, was crackers.
Brian Wilson’s various paranoias may have been fueled as much by the fact that the Good Vibrations master tape disappeared from the studio tape store for 3 days prior to release; there were also rumours that his father had hired a private detective to investigate Brian’s drug habits. And Brian’s Spector-fear had some reasonable foundation – Phil’s ‘symphonies for the kiddies’ would be surpassed forever by a ‘teenage symphony to God’. For all Brian’s admiration of Spector, he was also a commercial rival.
These kinds of suspicions and worries might easily put one slightly on edge (stoned or straight)…and, had Jules Siegel not overheard this conversation, it would not have seen print, and would not have be the ‘proof’ it has become.
But it’s the dismissal of Brian Wilson music deemed ‘inappropriate for The Beach Boys’ that often gets the shortest shrift – the revisionist US TV drama The Beach Boys: An American Family represents this band dismissal quite succinctly, somehow putting Can’t Wait Too Long (one of the great unfinished post-Smile Brian tracks) into the same niche of psycho otherness as its imaginary Charles Manson:
Brian plays something not dissimilar to Been Way Too Long/Can’t Wait Too Long, repeating the theme again and again. The guys (Carl and Mike) are unimpressed.
Charles Manson is in their studio.
Charles Manson: solution girl you get my gist (Jandek-style strumming) do you love me do you love me do you love
Carl (to Dennis): This guy’s stuff is NOT for us.
An American Family successfully reinforces (and rewrites) the ‘Brian is mad’ motif for a TV audience that might otherwise not give a shit either way – and usefully summarises what has given Beach Boys Corp/Brother Records Inc. such traction since. In and out of court.
While using the free facilities of WordPress to post this overextended series of observations and meditations, I’m unsure whether this is actually ‘blogging’ or not – however, esteemed US news source The Onion has a helpful recent item, Internet Rocked By Blogger With Sarcastic Sensibility:
Hailed by members of the online community as “a groundbreaking and radical new voice,” blogger Charles Edo has taken the internet by storm in recent weeks with a series of posts in which he conveys his opinions using the rhetorical device of sarcasm, sources reported Thursday.
Astounded readers of Edo’s Tumblr blog reported that the 26-year-old has found a way to write about both politics and popular culture with a sarcastic tone, in the process creating an entirely unique style of commentary never before observed in the blogosphere.
“A couple weeks ago he posted this thing saying he really loved the Dexter series finale, but it was weird—he kept calling the episode ‘great’ while detailing all of its flaws,” said reader Ryan Zalch, explaining his initial puzzlement with Edo’s sarcasm. “Then suddenly it hit me: This guy didn’t actually like the show at all. Somehow, he was writing the literal opposite of what he meant, going way over-the-top with what seemed like praise to express his hatred.”
“It’s this whole new way of conveying ideas about something,” Zalch added. “It’s confusing at first, but once you understand how it works, it’s incredibly impressive.”
Internet experts have declared that Edo’s ability to use sarcasm to hide meaning “between the lines” is nothing short of revolutionary.
“How on earth did he ever come up with the idea to start writing in this voice—and on the web, of all places?” said Laura Hudson, culture and entertainment editor of Wired.com. “That’s the question everyone is asking right now. We’d never seen anything like it until this guy came along. There’s even a certain tone in his work that’s almost kind of snarky, you know? And that kind of thing could become a real game-changer for voices on the internet.”
I can only aspire to the subtle levels of snark this ‘radical new voice’ utilises in commenting upon popular culture and its icons – but Mr Edo and his ilk obviously thrive upon attention for their opinions, whereas my own ‘web-logging’ has but a handful of readers. Which is a great luxury: there was always an end to all of this, and having been waylaid by life’s other priorities (while also taking a break from the toxicity of The Beach Boys’ ongoing drama), no one much has been on tenterhooks awaiting The Next Installment.
And, usefully, there are times when it all writes itself: please welcome another guest submission (previous offerings here and here) from another disinterested party, having something more to say than I can currently be arsed to do myself
With apologies to The Onion, I believe that The Sixties, in its self-admiringly capitalised version, has usurped the Titanic as the world’s largest metaphor. Nesting Russian doll-like at the heart of that is The Beach Boys, and Smile in particular. They synecdochically encapsulate that decade of idealistic over-reaching and Icarian descent. Smile is such an infinitely reverberant story that I feel any exploration of it should be signposted at the outset with a warning sign marked with the message “Beware Deep Waters”. The most real danger being that the extraordinary music at the centre can be reduced to little more than a MacGuffin. It is true that the music existed for years purely as an absence, a blank area on the map of the ‘60s, a situation which in itself is rich with resonance. Before chasing echoes we should be mindful that Smile is not wholly about what didn’t happen and what might have been, but does refer to a tangible, documented suite of songs. Whatever missed opportunities the Smile Sessions box may represent, it did also make Smile into an undeniable object of significant weight and solidity. That in itself seems to have caused some strategic upheaval in Mike Love’s 40-year campaign of tilting at windmills.
But chasing echoes is so much fun and I don’t think Brian would wish to deny anyone that. The vapours of theory, speculation, desires, allegations and rhetoric can be intoxicating, and have certainly played their part in fuelling the fascination with Smile. It has long been a truism that part of the allure of Smile is its place in the canon of great lost expressionist art works. As with The Magnificent Ambersons or Greed, the lacunae are as integral to its mythical status as are the genuine touches of genius that do exist. It’s the allure of that blank area on the map, an allure that this blog so eloquently mines.
It is the vacuum left by Smile’s non-appearance that is central to its metaphorical fecundity. The process of critical osmosis freights Smile with a weight of subjective but equally valid significances. All viable responses to Mike’s nagging “but what does it actually mean, Van Dyke?” questions. A large part of my own fascination with Smile has been what the story reveals about mental illness, something that exists in the same chimerical space as Smile, both allegory and inescapable actuality.
Mental illness also seems to be another lacuna in the Smile exegesis. It’s there as part of the anecdotal colour, crazy Brian in those crazy ‘60s. Or as another explanation for the non-appearance, or as a cautionary lesson against chemical experimentation. The “it fucked with my brain” interpretation always struck me as bathetically simplistic. Far more intriguing and equally convincing is the brain-fucking potential in the Atlasian position of being able to divert the current of popular music, which in the crux of 66 seemed to equate with the current of history. From that perspective, the parallels with Bob Dylan are more illuminating than any Beatles rivalry and, with the privilege of hindsight, one wishes Brian had been more aware of those at the time. Dylan’s breakdown in ’66 was a conscious choice, his playing of a “get out of jail free” card to escape a position of generational spokesman that he never sought and which carried with it similar weight of expectation. His retreat also saw a period of stunning musical productivity, most notably The Basement Tapes; as equally mythologised as Smile but birthed in antithetical conditions of a near amniotic environment, no pressure, and supportive collaborators.
Dylan’s elegant untying of the knots in which he was entangled in ’66 contrasts to Brian’s own struggle. That seem more akin to something described by another of the decade’s pioneering psychic explorers, R.D. Laing. The knots of Brian’s own multiple double binds seemed ever tighter. But then Dylan only had the whole world anticipating and criticising his every move; Brian had his family.
The Smile story could be narrated as a very convincing case study from Laing and A. Esterson’s classic Sanity, Madness and the Family, a book which my Penguin edition claims “suggests that some forms of madness may largely be social creations and many of their symptoms no more than the tortured ruses of people struggling to live in unliveable situations.” That phrase “unliveable situation” seems a marvellously compact description of Brian circa ‘66/’67. Music is the keystone of his world and a way to approval and inclusion within his family, from father and brothers. But Smile met with hostility, and the alternative family he had gathered around him proved less than stable and protective in itself. Drugs provided some measure of creative freedom but like the mass experimentation of the ‘60s as a generational whole lead to dead ends and further entrapment. My hypothetical chapter of Sanity, Madness and the Family, titled “The Wilsons”, reveals that a psychotic reaction by a highly emotionally sensitive person to the situation would be clearly understandable in Laingian terms. It is a double bind so inextricable it has continued for decades and can be discerned at work in the machinations surrounding the release of the Smile Sessions box and the 50th anniversary reunion tour. One of the many merits of Laing’s work is that it never loses sight of the real emotional distress that exists beyond analysis and speculation. “Every day is a daily struggle”, says Brian in a 2011 interview, and also mentions the “derogatory voices” that he hears, like an internalisation of decades of malignant family dynamics.
It is in this sense that I feel the term “America’s band” to be highly apposite as a description of The Beach Boys. Nothing seems more American to me than that sunny Californian façade constructed over unresolvable tension and conflict, artistic ambition stymied by commercial demands, beauty and madness in fractious union. And the absurdity of trying to negate all that with such as Kokomo. Smile has an inexhaustible psychic resonance; like mental illness, it cannot be contained by metaphor. Such is Smile’s totemic significance Brian seemed physically afraid of the power of this music for decades. Ironically Mike has also acted as if afraid of Smile. Of course, Smile is rich in bible black irony. Much as Albert Ayler claimed that Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe on his final, pre-suicide album, Brian wanted to make the world Smile, before retreating to his bed and chemical numbness for a couple of decades. Should my untrained long-distance psychoanalysis have any point, it is to stress that it is too easy to get caught up in Smile as metaphor. The story is even replete with fairy tale elements – a (L.A.) mansion, baddies to hiss at, goodies to applaud. But I find it hard to contemplate the knotted strands of Smile or to listen to the utopianism of Brian and Van Dyke’s musical vision without being disturbingly aware of the emotional pain at its heart, unmitigated by any pat falsities such as creativity birthed from madness. In that way, Smile continues to reflect the terrifying extremes of our individual hopes and fears.
(cheers Pete Coward; read his piece on The Art Of Dion McGregor here)
The ’emotional pain at its heart’ is something that has become more and more prevalent throughout the time of writing all of this: from the excitement and trepidation about an official Smile release (March to September 2011), through its arrival in November 2011 – and then the dissipation of Smile via The Beach Boys reunion tour, album, CD reissues, the Made In California box set…returning to The Smile Sessions, there cannot not be some kind of great sadness to it all. The Sessionography in the Smile Sessions book, and the band narrative as mediated via Keith Badman’s Beach Boys Definitive Diary, offer versions of a tale yet to be told in full, without its contradictory counter-narratives, personal revisionism, and ‘on the record’ utterances which could yet see their day in court.
There surely cannot be any debate about music as The Healing Force of the Universe (although ‘blogger Charles Edo’ or equivalent could probably outwrite me saying otherwise) – and with the damage done to Brian Wilson since Smile (and mostly because of Smile), one would think that familial breaches and personal competitiveness would have dissipated in the 40-odd years since. But, even in its self-celebration, The Beach Boys’ reunion in 2012 ended on a somewhat sour note…
Will this American family ever stop bickering?!?