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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2004/09/29
by Mike Gruenberg


Looking at the title of this month’s column, one would get the impression that the subject matter has to do with happy thoughts. Maybe something has been written that would make you smile. Or could it be about something cheerful? Perhaps, but that’s not entirely correct.
I like stories with happy endings, but that doesn’t mean that I like stories that make me smile, although smiling is good and that is part of the subject matter of this month’s column. Whenever I go to the movies, I look for a story that has a happy ending. You know, the hero triumphs over adversity. We all handle adversity differently. The great basketball coach, Pat Riley in is book, "The Winner Within" calls life’s’ adversities "thunderbolts." Just when you think all is good; a thunderbolt comes out of nowhere to snap you back into reality. The true character of a person is how those bumps in the road are handled and dealt with.
We see many public characters such as actors, athletes and rock stars who through their abundant talent and hard work find early success but somehow do not know how to handle that success which in some cases, cause them to fall into the abyss. Careers are ruined, marriages are wrecked, and fortunes are lost all because the fame came too fast.
The temptations put in front of a world-class athlete, rock star or Hollywood star must be overwhelming Although every situation is different, I have little tolerance for the celebrity that finds success only to throw it away in a storm of overindulgence. On the other hand, I have great admiration for the person who can look within himself and correct the situation only to come back better and stronger than before.
Thirty seven years ago at the apex of his fame and in the depths of untreated depression, Brian Wilson, founder of the Beach Boys created his rock symphonic masterpiece called "Smile." Coming off the heels of "Pet Sounds", another milestone in rock history, "Smile was to have been his crowning achievement. Charles Granata, in his book, "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" describes the Smile album as "the height of poetic lyricism…. finely chiseled study in texture and contrast."
Wilson collaborated with Van Dyke Parks, another young West Coast musician whose intricate melodies and unique song writing style had intrigued him. All the top session musicians in LA were used on this ill-fated project. Hours were spent in the studio with no discernible end much to the consternation of the record company who was already embroiled in lawsuits with the Beach Boys over disputed royalty payments.

At the same time the Beatles were releasing Sgt. Pepper to great praise and adulation. Brian was envious of the work done by his contemporaries such as Lennon/McCartney, Phil Spector, etc. Even though he had produced the amazing "Pet Sounds" album, he continually compared it to Sgt. Pepper and as such, wanted to top that record and produce the masterpiece that would put him at the top of the rock world. Being a severe critic of his own work, hearing criticism from the group due to the complicated nature of the music in "Smile" and not understanding the depths of his depression, Wilson threw up his hands in disgust and shelved the album.
Over the years, the "Smile" album tapes, which were at first rumored to have been destroyed by Wilson in a fit of rage, slowly saw the light of day. Various tunes that were intended to be part of this album crept into subsequent Beach Boy releases. For example, "Heroes and Villains" written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks was released on the "Smiley Smile" album. It was the high point of that album. In 1971, another Wilson/Parks tune, "Surf’s Up" appeared on an album with the same name. In my opinion, this is the finest tune ever written by Brian Wilson. The haunting melody, the orchestration and the harmonies are perfect. Although I owned the LP, for years, I searched for the 45 so that I could put it in my jukebox. I finally found the 45 in pristine condition at a record shop in Toronto.
As Brian began to recover from his depression and drug dependency, he used his music as the antidote to help him in his struggle to survive. Slowly, he got better and started recording and performing. For a television special shown in 2001, he performed "Heroes and Villains" to the absolute delight of the crowd and assembled musicians. This prompted him to seek out his old friend, Van Dyke Parks and discuss the finishing of the "Smile" project. Parks and Wilson got together and finished the album. The album was released on September 28, 2004, thirty-seven years after it was first conceived.
Today, Brian is happily married with three adopted children plus his two grown daughters from his first marriage. He is writing music again. He is touring to the delight of his old fans and in the process is gaining many new fans. Recent pictures of him show him to be in good health. Yes, I would say that he triumphed over adversity and dodged the thunderbolts. That’s a good reason to smile.

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