Brian Wilson's story is one of creativity and commerce, about trying to make the most innovative, divine music in the world and failing twice as often as succeeding. It's also about dysfunctional families: about a tyrannical father who severely beat him, about brothers who lent him the voices he heard in his head and then died. These reasons help explain why Smile, Wilson's "new" album, is so special, and so late in arriving.
Brian, the head Beach Boy, crafted indelible surf, girl, and car tunes in the early 1960s and spawned a key Rock Pantheon album in '66's Pet Sounds, but his work from then on is better known for promise than delivery. Being called a genius in one's twenties can be damaging. Furthermore, competing with the Beatles comes with immeasurable pressure; 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a tough act to precede or match, let alone follow.
Today, at 62, Wilson has only himself as competition. The Beach Boys are self-parodying golden oldies who pump up state fairs, and the Beatles have receded into legend. This year and next, meanwhile, are shaping up as the time for Wilson to finally become a luxury brand of his own. This summer, he rejoined the mainstream with a new album, Gettin' in Over My Head, but it's an older project that may return him to mainstream dominance. Smile, originally conceived in the late '60s, was supposed to complement Pet Sounds, best Sgt. Pepper's, and seal Wilson's claim to greatness. Unfortunately, it's the mythical project the Beach Boys never officially put out. Until now, the Greatest Album Never Released has been synonymous with unfulfilled anticipation, living on via cobbled-together bootlegs.
Now, 38 years after conception, Smile has official emerged not as a Beach Boys album, but a Brian Wilson album on Nonesuch, the Warner Bros. boutique label that legitimizes pedigreed maverick rockers from Wilco to David Byrne. And it's beautiful, beginning with a sublime, wordless vocal and segueing into "Heroes and Villains," a remarkable Americana single. The album ends exultantly with "Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' only No. 1 hit (until they devolved, Brian-less, into bad Jimmy Buffett for a week in 1988 with "Kokomo").
Brian is quietly prepared for this. Wilson's work with Los Angeles powerpop group the Wondermints has been stunning ever since Brian's commercial rehabilitation began in the mid-'90s. Consequently, Smile's lush arrangements are as exciting as any he's ever crafted. Today, Wilson says the music was ahead of its time: specifically, 1966 and '67, when he and longtime collaborator Van Dyke Parks were trying to put Smile together. It "was a crazy time of life for me," Brian says now. "I was taking a lot of drugs during those days."
The notoriously shy Wilson is eager to popularize Smile's official unveiling. His telephone manner is natural but halting, making it hard to decide whether he's talking to make himself feel better, or to simply push his product. "It's more than I ever wanted it to be, it's fantastic," Wilson says of the legendary album. It also is different from the original conception, he says, "in the fact that we created a third movement."
Nevertheless, Wilson, who famously fell apart under the stress of recording Smile, still seems damaged from the sessions. At the time -- disappointed that Pet Sounds didn't sell as well as earlier, more conventional Beach Boys albums -- he began to drift away from his bandmates, sequestering himself in obsessive composition with Parks before ultimately sequestering himself entirely. The Boys, meanwhile, smarted at the alliance; the arrogant Mike Love, in particular, considered Brian overly demanding and thought Parks' surrealistic lyrics made no sense (they sure don't, if you keep your thinking linear).
But three years ago, emboldened by critical and popular response to live shows of solo and Beach Boys material, Wilson began to consider reviving the aborted Smile, snippets of which had gradually surfaced on projects including the iffy Smiley Smile, the stronger Wild Honey and 20/20, and the enigmatic, romantic Surf's Up.
For those enamored of Brian's gory details, a feature-length documentary, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, debuted on Showtime this week. It's a moving account of Wilson's mental illness -- some say drugs played a minor part; others suggest LSD was a potent trigger -- and his rehabilitation. There's a big gap, however: Aside from several provocative photos, Dreamer doesn't cover 1968 through 1994, when Wilson was lost in the psychological desert and fell under the spell of discredited psychologist Eugene Landy. (Wilson finally escaped Landy's control in the early '90s.)
A more authentic inquiry into the Beach Boys story is Keith Badman's The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio. Scheduled to hit bookstores on October 15, the book tracks the band from 1961 to 1976, and its details of the endless, tortuous Smile sessions are especially illuminating.
For his part, recalling the album and his years out of the spotlight, Wilson seems oddly wooden. Our conversation proceeds in fits and starts -- it's as if Wilson is assembling his thoughts in a modular fashion, just as he did on Smile, where pieces of one song would wind up in another, and titles would shift as seamlessly and unpredictably as the harmonies.
Is he happy these days? "I'm happier than I was before, a couple years ago. I'm happier now." Does he work out? "I run every day, I exercise every day. I take all my vitamins and my vegetables," he says with a laugh. "I get my meat, too." The music of Smile "was too advanced for people, so we held it for 38 years." He laughs again, before noting that he and Parks -- not the Beach Boys -- are responsible for it.
Is he in touch with Mike Love and Bruce Johnston, the key survivors from those early years? "Not at all," Brian says. "We don't talk anymore. We kind of drifted apart. We broke up. I do my own Brian Wilson concerts. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston go out under the Beach Boys. The musicians I'm playing with now are far superior to the Beach Boys musicians. It's a much more musical group."
Smile may publicly redeem Wilson, but that doesn't mean he's quitting yet. Brian notes that he's written several songs for "my new rock 'n' roll album that we might do in January," the conversation ending as fitfully as it began. "I got to do something with my time. I can't just sit on my butt all day and not do nothing."
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