SMiLE – Brian Wilson
Nonesuch Records 79846-2
SMiLE is here. Writers (including this one) have devoted much ink and bandwidth over the last 37 years over what could have been and what, at least in fragmentary form, was Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson’s masterpiece. Suffice it to say that this would have rivaled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band as an embodiment of its time, had it come out in 1967, and although, like Sgt. Pepper, it has some goofy bits which haven’t aged as well as the rest, it retains its power today.
The Sgt. Pepper comparisons may always dog SMiLE, but all parties involved have testified that the Beatles and the Beach Boys were inspiring, and competing with, each other from across the pond in the mid-60s. Like Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson mastered simple pop songcraft and then got influenced by many sources, with drugs being one entry on the list, into growing more ambitious as a composer. Around the same time that the Beatles set down the psychedelic path with "Tomorrow Never Knows," Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks began creating the unique set of songs that would comprise SMiLE, lusher than the new music coming from San Francisco and Britain, but fractured and ambitious as the Beatles only sometimes were. Unfortunately, while John and Paul kept their bandmates, producer and label with them on their trek, Wilson’s musical and business teams, not to mention his psyche, fell out of alignment in 1967, dooming SMiLE to incompletion. The same post-Summer of Love rock wave which the Beatles rode for the rest of the decade submerged Wilson and the Boys.
A few SMiLE bits emerged, starting with some unrealized-sounding fragments on 1967’s anti-climactic (though fascinating in its own right) Smiley Smile, and continuing with isolated cuts such as "Cabin Essence" in 1969 and "Surf’s Up" in 1971. However, for years, each new Boys release had a strike against it for not being SMiLE, while some wondered if Wilson’s supposed could-have-been crowning achievement was nothing more than an overblown myth. In the early ’90s, though, more SMiLErecordings began leaking out, and the new cuts, such as the stunningly beautiful "Wonderful" and the startling "Fire" (a piece of music which reportedly did much to trigger Brian’s breakdown) refueled interest in this lost record.
Finally, last year, Wilson and Parks fleshed out the bits that comprised SMiLEand reorganized it into a suite of three medleys, premiering it live this past winter to great acclaim from audiences including Sirs Paul McCartney and George Martin. Now comes a studio release of the same suite (and, for those who might think that some cynical calculation is involved, a counterargument is that Wilson made the odd choice to release an album of new songs, Gettin’ In Over My Head, a few months ago even though it was sure to be upstaged by SMiLE).
For those who've been following the story for a while, though, a new CD of SMiLE comes with a whole set of issues beyond the music. David Leaf’s liner notes note how much has changed since Wilson and Parks wrote these songs, but Leaf doesn’t acknowledge a significant issue: between its start as a Beach Boys album and its conclusion as a Wilson album, it became the fans’ album. Many (again, including me) have created their own SMiLEs using the bits that emerged from the vaults and on various albums, and thus this new disc sits in my collection along with three compilations of the old SMiLEstudio bits and one recording of the live version.
This amount of ownership of a work is hard to give up. As a result, though I'm amused to find validation that one strange instrumental bit apparently was the prelude to "Fire," and that one vocal bit that surfaced as "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter" on Smiley Smile was part of SMiLE, I may continue to refer to two segments as "Do You Like Worms" and "Look," although this CD has them titled "Roll Plymouth Rock" and "Song For Children."
Does this new SMiLEmake the old ones obsolete? No. In particular, the old studio work remains worth a spin. As careful and expert as Brian’s new band is, their work is a recreation rather than the genuine object, and no matter how much the Boys got in the way, this CD still makes me miss their vocal contributions: Carl’s dulcet tones, Dennis’s stoned cameos on "You Are My Sunshine" and "Cabin Essence," and yes, Mike Love, intercepted on his way to the drive-in in Daddy’s T-bird and forced to sing about crows and cornfields. The live version will stay, too, if only for the vicarious pleasure of hearing the crowd experience this music.
For many, though, a work doesn't exist at all until it exists in a complete, official form. For them, then, here is SMiLE: complete, well-recorded and packaged, tidily organized and poised to compete again with Sgt. Pepper, 37 years on.