Brian Wilson began recording his masterpiece, Smile, in 1966; the project collapsed a year later, unfinished. For the past thirty-seven years, Wilson’s been coasting on his reputation as The Guy Who Didn’t Finish His Masterpiece, But Really, It Was a Masterpiece, Honest. Which is, in a way, a fortunate position to be in. A finished work is susceptible to public and critical judgment, and to the brutal treatment of taste-currents, backlashes, revivals, nostalgia and anti-nostalgia. But an unfinished Great Work is forever what it might have been. Now, at the age of 62, he’s finally completed it, or something like it.
The story of the original Smile is a fascinating catastrophe. It’s best detailed in Domenic Priore’s book Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, a collection of magazine articles, interviews, sheet music and other primary documents from the period when Smile originally almost came to fruition. The essence of it is that in mid-1966, Wilson was at the top of the American pop world. His group the Beach Boys (who were, at that point, under his creative control) had been making increasingly beautiful, complicated records, built around exquisite harmonies and Wilson’s inventive way with tone color; the Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds had set them up as the band to beat, and they’d followed it with the song “Good Vibrations,” which had raised expectations for Wilson’s work even higher. (Contemporary readers may need to work a bit to imagine “Good Vibrations” as a revolutionary piece of music rather than as an orange soda commercial, but that’s what it was.)
Smile, Wilson declared, was going to be the Beach Boys’ “teenage symphony to God”–an epic album about the American experience, the elements, physical fitness and a bunch of other stuff that nobody was ever too clear on. Van Dyke Parks was engaged as lyricist, and came up with far more abstract, arty words than the Beach Boys had ever sung before. (One of the Boys, Mike Love, infamously objected to “over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.”) Wilson started recording overlapping, interlocking fragments of vocals and orchestration, on the assumption that he’d eventually assemble them all into a coherent recording. The centerpiece of the album was going to be an enormous production called “Heroes and Villains,” which Wilson recorded and rewrote and remixed, again and again, for months on end.
In December 1966, Capitol Records, panicked that Smile was taking so long, pressed Wilson for a track listing, and printed more than 400,000 jackets and booklets for an album that wasn’t entirely written yet. Recording sessions continued to drag on for months, getting messier and darker as Wilson’s mental state deteriorated–Keith Badman’s new diary of the band’s career, simply called The Beach Boys, includes lots of details of the chaos. By mid-May 1967, all the Beach Boys had was an enormous pile of shimmering, dreamy, unfinished, unfinishable scraps of tape. It was the most exquisite and original music they’d ever made–but it wasn’t anything like an album. Most of it was barely even fully composed songs, some crucial sections weren’t there at all and the drug-addled Wilson, who’d started canceling recording sessions on the basis of “bad vibes,” was in no shape to tie it together. Capitol pulled the plug, and two weeks later released the cash cow it’d been waiting for: the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Wilson never really recovered. If he’d previously earned a reputation as a genius, he was now a damaged genius, and he’s stayed more or less damaged ever since. (His album of new material released earlier this year, Gettin’ In Over My Head, sounds like the work of a very badly damaged old guy desperately and gracelessly attempting to reconstruct the dippy bliss of “Fun, Fun, Fun”; it’s painful to listen to.) The Smile tapes were too good to abandon altogether, though. The Beach Boys promptly banged out a breezy, druggy, spare-to-the-point-of-minimalism LP called Smiley Smile, which included quick-and-dirty remakes of a couple of Smile songs (and, though it bombed in the charts, has held up exceptionally well). For the next few years, most of their albums incorporated a fragment or two of the Smile tapes. Speculating about Smile eventually became a cottage industry; virtually all the extant recordings have been released or bootlegged, and avid Smileophiles have started assembling their own versions of the album as it might have been.
Wilson himself has never gone back and finished the original Smile tapes, but his current collaborator Darian Sahanaja recently persuaded him to devise a concert version of Smile. It was performed in public for the first time early this year, and then recorded (from scratch) as Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch). The Beach Boys of thirty-seven years ago are mostly either dead (Dennis Wilson died in 1983, Carl Wilson in 1998) or more or less estranged from their former director (Mike Love is still touring with various hired guns as the Beach Boys). Wilson’s current band, built around Sahanaja’s group the Wondermints, has largely reproduced Wilson’s original arrangements note for note and timbre for timbre, including their fantastically lush close-harmony parts. It’s probably as close to the real thing as we’re ever going to get.
It’s a lovely album–a lot better than it might have been. Wilson, or, more likely, his “musical secretary” Sahanaja, has arranged most of the extant Smile music into three suites that flow remarkably smoothly. Four lines of the previously undiscovered “I’m in Great Shape” turned up on a demo tape some years ago, and so “I’m in Great Shape” lasts all of four lines here; the Smile sessions included fragmentary versions of the standards “Old Master Painter” and “You Are My Sunshine,” as well as some miscellaneous hammer-and-saw noise, all of which appear on the finished Smile. The only significant additions are a couple of key-changing orchestral segues, whose reliance on standard, unmutated instrument sounds makes them stick out a bit, and Parks’s new (or at least previously unheard) lyrics for a handful of incomplete pieces.
One of the fuzzily conceived sections of the original Smile was to have been a suite about earth, air, water and fire. The only element of it whose identity is certain is an instrumental called “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” which the disturbed Wilson feared was responsible for an outbreak of fires around Los Angeles shortly after it was originally recorded. The third and last movement of Smile 2004 more or less follows the four-elements template: “Vega-Tables” seems to represent earth, “Wind Chimes” is air and a rewritten version of the deranged fragment “Love to Say Da Da,” now called “In Blue Hawaii,” is water.
Parks and Wilson’s new bridge between the fire and water passages is the finished Smile‘s one serious misstep. “Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? It really is a mystery,” Wilson sings as it begins. The clunkiness of the second line aside, this is not a lyric that would ever have appeared on the original Smile: There’s an aloneness about it, an isolation, that’s alien to the album’s conception of togetherness. The first person is missing from a lot of Smile songs, and when it appears it’s usually plural, or in the context of other voices–the album opens with the wordless a cappella piece “Our Prayer,” and “Vega-Tables” concludes “I know that you’ll feel better when you send us in your letter and tell us the name of your favorite vegetables.” (If the album’s sense of humor was a little corny in its day, it’s now nostalgically corny.) And the other “mystery” in the original “Smile” is in the gorgeous “Wonderful,” an oblique lyric about faith and sex set to one of Wilson’s sun-dappled melodies: “farther down the path lies a mystery,” and later “all fall down and lost in the mystery.”
What Wilson is singing about as the flames of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” die down, though, may be his personal hell. He wrote some first-rate songs in the decade after Smile, but his madness and his gifts have never again worked together the same way. And time has been terribly cruel to his voice. His bandmates prop it up, but he labors over every syllable–most obviously on “Surf’s Up,” the conclusion of Smile‘s second suite, which once seemed to levitate effortlessly and now struggles to make its way off the ground. “I heard a word–wonderful thing!–a children’s song,” he sings, knowing that the children he once sang that line for now have grown children of their own.
The weight of being a finished masterpiece hangs heavy on Smile, especially because its painful disintegration and reintegration has been so public, and taken so long. Still, it was originally intended as a piece of light entertainment–the title is not Grimace and Scratch Your Head–and if you’re lucky enough not to recognize every little countermelody, a lot of it is spectacular ear candy. But it can’t entirely escape the context time has brought to it. “Good Vibrations,” ending the 1966 Smile, might have been a starburst, a radiant overspilling of joy, and until the album was realized, it could still have been that in fantasy. As it ends the 2004 Smile, though, “Good Vibrations” is an immaculately reconstructed, immaculately executed version of an orange soda commercial. Is the album really a masterpiece? It might be too late to tell.