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Published: 2004/03/30
by Pat Buzby

Featured Columnist: Pat BuzbySmiles & Structures

As I might not be the only person here to
mention, Brian Wilson has finally completed Smile, the
lost Beach Boys album which has fueled 37 years of
rock listeners’ fantasies, and the magic of Bit
Torrent has given me access to a recording of one of
its first live presentations less than a month after
the fact. It’s hard to resist the onrush of feelings
in listening to this (especially since it represents
just about everything I hoped it would be), but it’s
made me think at the same time.

Before Brian’s Smile, I’ve had three Smiles – the
first one sent to me by the aptly named David Lynch,
the second by Jesse Jarnow and the third constructed
by me from those two and some other sources. As Jesse
pointed out in his recent Salon article about Smile,
how you sequence your Smile says a lot about your
views on album structure, and "my" version has some
segue notions that reflect the influence of Todd
Rundgren and Frank Zappa but which might have been a
bit much for 1967.

It’s established, though, that Brian intended "Prayer"
(a minute of somber a cappella Boys singing) to start
Smile, and hearing it at the beginning of the live
version reminds me of how the old studio version
opened the door to the sonic world which this album
represented. Hearing it followed by "Heroes and
Villains," generally accepted as the first sight
behind that door, reminds me that I’ve never found
this song as wondrous as some of the rest, but I’ve
accepted it in order to get to the "Wonderful" and
"Cabinessence"-type delights that follow.

Later the same week that I grabbed the new Smile, a
Bruce Springsteen Torrent site offered _The Ties That
Bind_, the 1979 album which Springsteen rejected due to
its being "not personal enough," and which eventually
grew into 1980’s double album behemoth The River.
Now, I like double albums. (Those folks who think the
White Album should have been a single record – feh.)
The space enables artists to tell elaborate stories or
go on inspired tangents. The River is a good example,
including songs both more casual ("Sherry Darling")
and grandiose ("Drive All Night") than would probably
have been permissible on a single album, and it has a
fond place in my memories as the first new album I can
remember digging.

However, hearing The Ties That Bind (which includes
seven songs from The River, some of them in different
versions, and three rejects) makes me think again
about album structure. (The Internet means having
something new to think about every day.) In
particular, I think about Springsteen’s oft-reported
drive to shape an album that tells a story, sometimes
throwing out his best songs if they don’t fit the
scheme. Perhaps this album might have been a bit too
light to add to his burgeoning rep at the time.
However, I’m intrigued by the common fan theory that
this album may have been anything but "not personal
enough" for Springsteen.

With the possible exception of "The Price You Pay"
(which I view as the "wide-angle" lyric on both the
rejected and finished album), each of these 10 lyrics
touches very directly on man-woman relationships,
alternating between expressions of simple yearnings,
analyses of people yielding to flawed but irresistible
impulses, and studies of characters who live with the
fear that personal restlessness will destroy their
pursuit of happiness. The title song opens both this
album and The River, but having it as the title song
gives it more emphasis, fitting given Springsteen’s
admonitions to a "you" who may or may not be him. "I
Wanna Marry You," which appears on The River in the
relatively slight position of second-to-last cut on
side two out of four, is now in the more significant
position of second-to-last cut on side two out of two,
and here this song, as close to a happily-ever-after
as he got in those days, leads to the River outtake
"Loose Ends," in which another of his characters
likens a relationship to a noose which he and his mate
tighten around their own necks. Given what we know,
it’s not hard to imagine this character being
Springsteen, but what makes it work even better is
that it could also be many of the rest of us.

For the shows this year, Brian Wilson bypassed LP
strictures in reordering Smile, constructing three 10
to 18-minute medleys. However, it does conform to
old-school lengths, finishing around 45 minutes, and
it’s rather eerie how neatly everything fits together. Putting things in rather less opaque and flowery
language than what characterizes these lyrics, Smile,
at least to this listener on this first listen,
apparently seeks to liken America’s progress, and its
struggles against the resulting corruption and
environmental decay, to the work of a Brian-esque
na artist and his struggles against the loss of
innocence.

What’s especially significant here, though, is the
end. My Smile, and the two that came before it,
concludes with the open-ended, wide-angle "Surf’s Up." However, in his Smile, Brian gets this masterwork out
of the way early, in the second medley, leaving me to
wonder just how this epic would wrap up.

Where it ends is "Good Vibrations," the song which
some believe that Brian had not intended to include on
the original Smile. Given that this was a live Smile,
it’s an old showbiz trick to save the hit for the end,
but in another view, it certainly is bold to suggest
that both the ecological and personal struggles of
these songs can be overcome just by keeping those good
vibrations a-happenin’. If this had emerged in 1967,
that ending would have been a major contrast to the
acid-fried oblivion that concludes Sgt. Pepper. It’s
a flawed idea, which may explain why the man behind it
has not had the easiest time in the ensuing decades.
How sweet it is, though, to see this conclusion win
out 37 years after this album-that-never-was first
entered the world's consciousness.

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