Thursday, May 14, 2009

Remind Me To Smile

I spent a couple of nights this week, courtesy Netflix, reacquainting myself with Brian Wilson's almost-lost masterpiece SMILE. It's a beautiful album and a really, really interesting story.

Wilson, the troubled genius behind the Beach Boys, was basking in the glory of GOOD VIBRATIONS, a single which he had cobbled together from musical snippets while basking in the glory of PET SOUNDS, the album which had made everyone reconsider les garcons de la plage. As the more outgoing Beach Boys toured Europe, Wilson started writing an album using the same techniques as Good Vibrations, composing brilliant pieces with an eye towards sequencing them into songs later. It was to be called Smile.

He enlisted the aid of a squad of musicians along with weird genius Van Dyke Parks and started writing and experimenting. If the song was about Hawaii, he'd order Hawaiian food. He built a sandbox in his house and put the piano in it, so he could play barefoot in the sand. For a song about the Chicago fire, he turned up the heat in the rehearsal studio and had everyone wear fireman's hats.

It being the sixties, there were plenty of drugs around too. LSD was still legal that year.

So the Beach Boys came back from the tour and Brian played them the demos, and they all hated it. It didn't sound like the Beach Boys, they said. They didn't understand Parks' oddball lyrics. Meanwhile, an incident had spooked Brian - while they were recording the fire song, a building down the street actually caught fire, and he feared that their collective energy had somehow caused it. Another nail in the coffin came when Sgt. Pepper came out, and Brian, who had kind of been competing with the Beatles to out-creative them, became depressed that his album just wasn't as good - they had already won that round and he hadn't even thrown a punch.

The spiral of paranoia, depression and drugs killed the album. Wilson literally spent a year in his bedroom. Some of the more accessible cuts made it to another Beach Boys album but Smile was dead in the wading pool. Wilson was cut loose.

Wilson struggled on, an undiagnosed clinical depressive and borderline schizophrenic (he suffers from occasional auditory hallucinations, voices that say they will kill him) for a long time. Eventually in the nineties he met his most recent wife, who got him on the proper meds and he started making public appearances. He still wouldn't discuss SMILE, which he considered the most painful experience of his life. Then one day he was performing a one-off of HEROES AND VILLAINS at a tribute concert and someone in the band suggested he oughtta finally finish the thing and Brian Wilson said, "Yeah, that's a good idea." So in 2002 he scooped up his notes, put a band together and finally completed the damn thing.

Listening to it now, it's easy to see what scared the Beach Boys so much. I can't think of another musical work which is so alternately brilliant and beautiful, then corny and stupid, then inexplicably naive. For example, there is a song about vegetables and how good they are for you, with the surprisingly creepy lyric:

I threw away my candy bar and ate up the wrapper
And when they told me what I'd done I burst into laughter

If Mike Love is singing that it's kinda cute; but in the hands of a schizophrenic... you know what I'm sayin'.

And yet, the soaring one-of-a-kind harmonies and the sheer complexity of most of the music carry the day. There's about a dozen things in Smile that seem impossible for human beings to do, and yet they do it. In fact, they do it live in concert. The voices in Brian's head are also responsible for writing those tricky counter-rhythms, so they can't be all bad.

Watching it live you are also confronted with the face of Brian Wilson. Even now, with his masterpiece completed and his brain chemistry stabilized he looks like the saddest man who ever walked the earth. Even when he's enjoying himself. It's the face of a man for whom "Smile" isn't just an album title, it's a reminder on a post-it note. Perhaps it's not surprising that the work is similarly contradictory and fascinating.


Publius said...

I was disappointed by Wilson's long awaited album.

Danielk said...

I was not, though I probably have the same opinion of it. It boils down to what you expected, I suppose.