‘Pissbags and Tubing’ to ‘Good Vibrations’: A Rant on Rock Operas and Brian Wilson’s Smile
ROW P, SEAT 8 Brian Wilson sits center stage amidst the purple glow of the stage lights at Davies Symphony Hall as his band sings "Our Prayer/Gee," the acapella incantation that opens his long-awaited rock opus, Smile. Safely fortressed behind his keyboards, Wilson glances apprehensively about and smiles that golden grin as his eyes scan the audience for a reaction. Raising his hand, Wilson gestures along with the music in his mind as the band drops into that trademark Beach Boy upbeat rocker rhythm for "Heroes And Villains." Behind him, his 18-member band bounces and sways to the beat. I feel certain the Polyphonic Spree will drop in from the sky any minute.
Rock operas are hip these days. Green Day recently released American Idiot, a punk rock opera about a disillusioned kid and his reaction to the social and political world around him. Neil Young’s Greendale was released last year to both fanatical excitement and critical dismay. The Who were the originators of the rock opera, releasing what is widely considered the first rock opera in 1969 with Tommy, followed up quickly by Quadrophenia in 73. Pete Townsend was largely responsible for the content of both albums; unfortunately for us, Townsend sought to repeat his rock opera successes with The Who with solo efforts White City, The Iron Man and Psychoderelict that largely did not live up to expectations. Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars from 1972 might arguably be the best rock opera of all time, though Roger Waters and David Gilmour might have something to say about that. The Wall certainly gives Stardust a run for its money. Randy Newman’s _Good Old Boys_from ’74 is considered a Southern rock opera by some; Patterson Hood, frontman of the Drive By Truckers, counts it as a chief influence on his own Southern Rock Opera, a double album released in 2001 about life growing up in the Deep South in the 70s. Even Mike Watt, bassist for the legendary L.A. punk pioneers, The Minutemen, has gotten into the act. His new album, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, is a rock opera of sorts that details his recent brush with death brought on by a massive abscess in his perineum that eventually burst. Watt says he was inspired to pattern the album after Dante’s Divine Comedy, with his sickness representing the Inferno, the ensuing treatment as Purgatory, and his recovery as the ascent to Paradise. Watt doing a rock opera based on Dante? Tunes like "Puked to High Heaven" and "Pissbags and Tubing" dispense any thoughts that this is Watt’s attempt at highbrow rock opery.
Brian Wilson’s Smile breaks the traditional rock opera mold in that the focus is not on the struggle of the antihero. Wilson’s intent was to create an album of cohesive, modular music that could serve as a slice of Americana for his generation. Consider the circumstances: in 1965, the Beatles released the revolutionary album, Rubber Soul. Wilson was reportedly blown away and headed straight into the studio to craft his reply to Lennon and McCartney. Pet Sounds was the result, a studio masterpiece that highlighted Wilson’s genius as an engineer and producer. McCartney told friends that "God Only Knows" was his new favorite song. The Beatles quickly responded, releasing the excellent Revolver with psychedelic anthems like "Yellow Submarine" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." The bar was set.
Wilson was determined to create a concept album that was radically different than anything his contemporaries were making; he wanted to break the social barrier between rock music and art. Along with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson entered the studio to record his self-described "teenage symphony to God" a telling insight into Wilson’s innocence as a 24-year-old rock genius in the summer of ’66.
Tales of Wilson’s demise into depression and drug addiction during the Smile sessions are well chronicled. A giant sandbox was constructed in the studio at Wilson’s request to house his piano. An empty pool was found and used to record some songs. Firefighter helmets were purchased for the symphony orchestra to wear during the recording of "Fire" and then subsequently dismissed when Wilson blamed an outbreak of fires in Los Angeles at the time on the helmets. McCartney even dropped by to play a carrot on the song "Veg-e-tables." More than 60 hours of tapes were reportedly shelved, and "Good Vibrations" was released in ’66 in an effort to offset some of the recording costs. The troubled Wilson retreated into seclusion, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in early ’67 The Beatles’ concept album rumored to be McCartney’s brainchild upon hearing of Wilson’s plans for Smile. Some of the great rock songs of all time were recorded during those three years, born out of the creative competition between two legendary groups at the peak of their careers.
Fast-forward 37 years. In 2003, Wilson was convinced by family and friends to return to the Smile project for one last go. Having not spoken in more than 20 years, Wilson revived his relationship with his former songwriter Parks and the duo wrote a third movement to round out the original two. Wilson and his band rehearsed for several months before performing the album live in its entirety at a sold-out Royal Albert Hall in London – Sir Paul seated in Row A, Seat 1 and subsequently recorded the album live in Studio One at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, the same studio Wilson used for the original "Good Vibrations" sessions.
Although none of the tapes from the initial sessions were used for the final album, the revived Smile is anachronistic in that it accurately reflects the time in which it was originally written and fits perfectly into the creative progression of the Beatles/Beach Boys rivalry. Wilson’s lush production is reminiscent of his work on Pet Sounds, and his sonic palette once again proves to be limitless; Parks’ abstract, psychedelic songwriting perfectly captures the tone and optimism of the 60s counterculture in California. "Barnyard" is admittedly pretty strange, with its animal noises and Indian war drums, but reveals Wilson’s innocent, child-like sense of humor. Tunes like "Surf’s Up" and "In Blue Hawaii" are classics that are right at home with the rest of Wilson’s canon. Smile is not an album to be reviewed in parts, but assessed as a complete work of art, Wilson's symphonic soliloquy on life as a teenager in Southern California in the 1960s.