Not able to write a new post today, as I’m not very well. However, my proposal for a book in the 33 1/3 series just got rejected today, and so I thought I’d post the proposal for anyone else to read. This is just C&P’d from the RTF file, so it might not be particularly well-formatted. Let me know what you think anyway:
The Beach Boys’ Smile has had a great deal written about it over the years, but most of this writing has told essentially the same story in a variety of ways : a young genius at the height of his powers tries to aim for something just beyond his reach, crashes and burns, and loses all his talent forever. The metaphor of Icarus is used, usually with some reference to the ‘bright California sun’. The only difference in these writings is who the scapegoat is for Smile’s non-release – is it Evil Drugs or is it Evil Mike Love?
I think there are far more interesting things to write about. I intend to try to track down the Platonic ideal of the Smile album, using three of the shadows it has cast in the real world as my map. I shall probably ask Van Dyke Parks, the primary lyricist on the album (with whom I am casually acquainted via email and who has been very forthcoming with information and advice in the past) and Darian Sahanaja, who helped put the completed 2004 version together (and with whom I share a number of acquaintances, though I don’t know him personally) to verify or clarify a few things, but this is going to be more a critical study than an examination of the process by which the album was made.
Smile as Brian Wilson intended it was never actually recorded, and has only ever existed in his head, but he made three separate attempts to get it out of there and into the real world, each with a different collaborator or collaborators. The first was in 1966, when he wrote and recorded the bulk of the material that was scrapped, with Van Dyke Parks. The second was in 1967, when he recorded a new album, Smiley Smile, as a full collaboration with the Beach Boys, with other band members contributing to the production and to the re-written songs, and the third was in 2004, when he returned to the material with Parks and with Darian Sahanaja and Paul Mertens of his new band, and finally released something that was close to his original conception.
Each of these is an attempt to work in collaboration with others to realise the same vision, and each is overlaid with the collaborators’ own worldview and artistic preoccupations. Parks added the wordplay and fascination with Americana that has been the hallmark of his work ever since. Smiley Smile added songs about Hawaii, emphasised the vocal harmonies, and simplified the instrumental arrangements to the point where they could be reproduced on stage by people who were great singers but barely competent instrumentalists, as the Beach Boys were at that point.
These collaborations can all be used to throw light on what Wilson’s true intention for the album was, but the most interesting one, and the one on which I will spend most time, is the 2004 album, as that’s a collaboration with himself, nearly forty years on; a collaboration across time that has never been tried before. Whole sections of the album take on a whole new meaning when sung by a man in his sixties, and great chunks of it now sound like he’s singing them to the young man he was in 1966, the young man with whom he’s co-written the new version.
But all three albums have a great deal of artistic merit, and I plan also to examine in detail the underrated Smiley Smile, which does after all contain two of the great singles of all time (Good Vibrations and Heroes And Villains) along with a gorgeous, minimalist version of Wonderful which I consider one of the greatest things in the history of recorded sound and Wind Chimes, which in its Smiley Smile version reminds me of some of Scott Walker’s most recent work, an atonal twisted nursery rhyme. Smiley Smile has been described as ‘space age acid casualty doo-wop’, and the description is an apt one. It is a stripped-down minimal masterpiece that’s always lived in the shadow of its unfinished predecessor but may be the most overlooked album of the sixties
So, taking these three attempts separately, we have three images of an ideal. The first image we have (the 1966 recordings) is a kaleidoscope – lots of tiny little fragments that can be mixed up into many beautiful forms, but which never cohere into something permanently. The second (Smiley Smile) is like looking at it in a funhouse mirror – you can recognise the shape, but some of it’s so distorted you have to laugh, and isn’t that a bit of something else entirely that’s somehow entered the picture? And the third is a painting from memory by a great artist of something he glimpsed once, decades earlier.
But what is it he glimpsed? Most people who’ve written about the album have spoken about themes like ‘Americana’ and ‘the Elements’. But while they’re there, and I will discuss them in the book to an extent, I believe they are extraneous to Wilson’s original conception. Neither have appeared in Wilson’s work to any great extent either before or since, and he has never spoken about either as being important to him. The ‘Americana’ theme almost certainly came from Parks (though Wilson willingly added this to the stew), as this is something that has obsessed Parks throughout his career (from albums like Discover America to the rewritten Bre’er Rabbit stories in Jump! to his most recent album of new material, Orange Crate Art, about a lost California of the past). The elements theme, on the other hand, seems to me to have been something imposed on the music afterward, possibly due to Wilson’s desire to impress his new ‘hip’ friends, and while the Americana theme is quite clearly present in songs such as Heroes & Villains and CabinEssence, the ‘elements’ songs like Barnyard and In Blue Hawaii have only the most notional connection to the classical elements.
So what is the theme of Smile? A clue comes from Wilson’s famous quote that Smile was intended as a ‘teenage symphony to God’. But a better description would be ‘teenage symphony to Goddess’. Throughout his career, Wilson has written about goddess figures. The women in his songs (and this is something that runs through no matter who his lyrical collaborators are, suggesting it’s something that’s very important to his work) are almost all perfect and loving, all-knowing and all-forgiving, taking pity on the male protagonists, who are all deeply flawed. There are only two really consistent themes that recur throughout Wilson’s work – this feeling of being an unworthy man being given unconditional love by a perfect woman, and a search for transcendence – a search to become more than the sinful man he knows himself to be.
This need for transcendence has shown up in different ways throughout Wilson’s career. In the early songs, it’s all about proving yourself, being a real man, and pushing yourself to the utmost (“You gotta be a little nuts/but show ’em you got guts/Don’t back down from that wave”), with a constant restlessness, a need to move on (“I’m gettin’ bugged driving up and down the same old strip/I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip”). In later songs, such as Break Away, it becomes fighting against his mental illness, using “the part of me that cries to be free” to “break away to that better life/where no shackles ever hold me down”.
But in all these songs, hope for transcendence, for ‘that better life’, comes from effort from within – pushing yourself, transcending your own limits. For all that Wilson’s music is often melancholy, the only time he ever sounds truly despairing is in Til I Die, and in that song the lyrics (“I’m a cork in the ocean”, “I’m a rock in a landslide”, “I’m a leaf on a windy day”) suggest a resignation to fate, an inability (and even a lack of desire) to strive for something better.
So with these facts, and the phrase ‘teenage symphony to God’, we have the key to unlock the album that Wilson intended. In this interpretation, the journey from East Coast to West Coast that the album takes us on is an expression of Manifest Destiny – settlers had to move West the same way Wilson has to search for something greater than himself, because we must keep moving forward or die. And while things collapse and fall, hope is always in the young, because they have more of this pioneer spirit, having not been ground down by life – but that youth is something that can be regained. “At three score and five I’m very much alive/I’ve still got the jive to survive with the heroes and villains”.
Over and over again through this album, things die and are reborn – the civilisation in Surf’s Up collapses (“Columnated ruins domino”) but there’s a rebirth at the end (“Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave”), but this falling and rising happens most often to a young woman – Wilson’s goddess figure. In Heroes & Villains it’s the dancer, Margarita, who’s shot down (“she was right in the rain of the bullets that eventually cut her down”) but who somehow still lives (“But she’s still dancing in the night”). In Wonderful, the death is metaphorical – a spiritual death (“all fall down and lost with her liberty, lost it all to an unbeliever”) that comes with loss of virginity/innocence/youth , but even this can be regained (“She’ll return in love with her liberty, just away from the non-believer, she’ll smile and thank God for wonderful”). This is the dying and rising Sun God (and what better band for Sun God worshippers than the Beach Boys, after all?) – but in the form of a young woman (there’s more than a hint here of the stories of Ishtar or Persephone).
This interpretation also makes sense of the inclusion of a snatch of I Wanna Be Around, the Johnny Mercer song, which sometimes bemuses fans. While the song’s original intent was cynical, in this context “I want to be around to pick up the pieces when someone breaks your heart” means just that – the emphasis not on the heartbreak, but on picking up the pieces, carrying on.
So in essence, the story of Smile is not the story of Icarus, but of Ishtar – the story of a goddess descending into the underworld and being stripped of everything, but then rising again and getting everything back.
In the book I will go into far more detail about the actual music, which is of course the most important thing, analysing the way Wilson recontextualises snippets of music from his childhood and teenage years (elements of Bach and Gershwin jostling with Marty Robbins, The Crows and You Are My Sunshine) and the way that most of the songs on the album are based around variations of a tiny number of musical themes, as well as talking more about Parks’ contribution. But the essence of the book will be to try to combine the pictures from the three versions of the album, and to see if I can get a clear picture of the masterpiece Brian Wilson saw for a moment back in 1966. If I can, I suspect the centre of the picture is a young girl – let’s call her Liberty – she’s singing to herself, and she knows that even though the sun will soon go down in the West, it will rise again in the East.