Cover Story [Issue
Something To Smile About
CD Nonesuch )
For nearly four
decades, the world waited anxiously for the release of historys most famous
unfinished record. In 1967, Brian Wilson, pops hailed genius, was carefully
crafting the album entitled Smile, which was to be the triumphant follow-up
to Pet Sounds, a recording that is still widely regarded as the genres
finest hour in the last 50 years.
a number of unusual circumstances set the project back for what seemed an eternity.
Even the most ardent fans had all but given up hope of hearing the completed
Having spent a lifetime adoring the Beach Boys and their leaders unparalleled
gift for weaving otherworldly harmonies with the most poignant, emotional music,
I felt extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to speak with Brian Wilson
at his Los Angeles home. I was slightly apprehensive about talking with him
because he has the reputation for being a challenging interview. He was never
considered arrogant or difficult, simply shy and succinctly reserved with words.
I quickly learned that the tall, amiable man was more than eager to share his
thoughts on his latest masterpiece. When I walked through his front door, he
was standing in the living room and asked if I was the interviewer. He then
approached with a careful gait and kindly extended his hand and said, Hi,
Im Brian Wilson.
As we moved toward his living room to speak, he sat on a couch to my right because,
as he explained, he cannot hear out of his right ear. Although I already knew
this bit of information well, I jokingly offered the consolation, Well,
I think youve done pretty well for yourself, all things considered.
As though he were genuinely considering the statement, he thought for a moment
and reflectively mused, Yeah, I guess I have.
After two minutes of speaking with him, I knew that before me sat a man who
was once again in comfortable control of his life and loved every blessed moment
of it. He spoke with excited pride and contagious glee about the completion
of the Smile CD. More importantly, he was thrilled by the fans universal
reaction thus far.
The Beach Boys mastermind has arisen once again with the project that
had haunted him for years and the resulting effort is simply miraculous. Last
winter, Brians wife Melinda and his manager held a meeting with him to
say that they believed it was time to share Smile with the world. Once Wilson
had the motivation to finish his labor of love, he immediately approached lyricist
Van Dyke Parks to help him realize the completed vision. He reflects, I
called Van Dyke and he came over and I said, We need to write a third
movement. He said, I agree with you. It took us about
two weeks working five hours a day to get the whole thing written. We finally
got it created.
Instead of simply dusting off ancient tapes and refurbishing the existing tracks,
Wilson and Parks actually completed the astounding piece by writing a final
movement to the three-part pop music suite. The pair meticulously crafted a
musical love letter to the world and pored over each nuance with precision.
He states, He [Parks] explains to me what he wants. I write two bars of
music and he writes two bars of lyrics. The music usually comes first and the
lyrics are put to the music.
While explaining the decision to delay the completion of Smile, Wilson
revealed that he believed the music was simply too advanced for the publics
taste in 1967. Even after the monumental success of Pet Sounds, his own
family doubted the direction he was taking them. Wilson acknowledges the bands
strong resistance to Smile, but quickly explains that his own instincts
told him to scrap the undertaking. He reveals, The [Beach] Boys didnt
like it very much. They thought it was too advanced and inappropriate for the
Beach Boys to do. I disagreed, but we shelved it because we thought we
were too avant-garde or far ahead of our time, not because the Beach Boys didnt
An interesting aspect of the Smile concept was to convey the power of natural
elements in a spiritual manner. Wilson explains, The message of the record
is to experience Fire, Water, Earth, and Air and to experience the different
ways of expressing that. Thats what the three movements are all about
and thats what we had in mind when we first started it in 1967.
As the two collaborators began the writing process again, they found their collective
muse and the work flowed with inspired ease. He elaborates, We touched
up the melodies of the first two movements and created the third movement. We
got instantly back into it. It wasnt a challenge to get back into it.
The challenge was to keep going. As a matter of fact, we got more into it by
the third movement because we remembered what it was like to create the first
two movements. So, the third movement was created in the spirit of the first
two movements and it was like a spiritual experience to create those things.
Once the material had successfully been realized, the next logical step was
to teach his band the album in its entirety. Because the material is so precise
and complex, they agreed that the best plan would be to extensively rehearse
Wilsons 19-piece band and perform six nights in London to premiere the
music. After a string of live concerts generated emotional standing ovations,
everyone involved knew they were ready to enter the studio to track the CD.
He recalls, After we played it live, we went right into the studio to
record it. It took about a week to get the background instrumentation
with the orchestra and then it took about a week to get the background voices,
and about ten days to get the lead vocal. It came out September 28. It went
gold in England already and now its on its way to going gold in America.
Isnt that amazing?
Ironically, the more things stay the same, the more they seem to change. While
Wilson and his cohorts returned to Sunset Sound Studios, the location of many
of the original Smile sessions, the world of recording technology had
grown considerably. Instead of relying solely on enormous, cantankerous analog
gear, Wilson found delight in working with Pro Tools digital software. He beams,
It was fantastic. It was an experience, you know? I wasnt
very used to it. I was amazed how fast and how much you can do and make things
and cut things use Pro Tools to sequence things. Its an amazing trip.
Wilsons talents are certainly not limited to his composition and singing
gifts. In fact, many believe that his production genius is his primary strength.
Known for his uncanny ability to hear the slightest detail and arrange extremely
unorthodox instrument combinations, Wilson reveals that he typically experiments,
rather than coming in with a distinct approach in mind. He elaborates, My
vision is complete as an arrangement, not as a sound. I dont hear sounds
in my head. I can never do that. I understand Phil Spector was able to hear
sounds in his head before he went into the studio. I cant do that. I can
see the arrangement graphically in my mind, how the arrangement would go, but
I dont know the sound. When we get in the studio, its trial and
error. Then I hear what I hear and I choose what I like and discard what I dont
Perhaps the reason behind Wilsons ability to spin audio magic like a sonic
alchemist is that he traces a broad range of musical influence. Regarding the
inspiration of Smile, he acknowledges, Its like Bach and
I think Gershwin influenced it a little bit, too. As you can tell on Heroes
and Villains and (sings a musical motif), thats Bach-inspired. I
listened to Gershwin a lot and later in my life, I got turned on to Bach through
and album called Switched on Bach.
Obviously, the songs on Smile are the stars of the show. Surfs
Up may be one of the most inspired tracks in rock musics brief history
while Heroes and Villains could have single-handedly begun the indie
rock movement. As an intriguing album finale, Wilson does a remake of his landmark
hit, Good Vibrations. What gives the version new lifeblood is the
fact that there are alternate lyrics. The songs composer explains his
decision, My wife wanted to try something new. She felt it was getting
old and wanted to try Tony Ashers lyrics for the verses instead of Mike
Loves lyrics. So we used Tony Ashers lyrics instead. He wrote that
[the new lyrics] and I shelved those [the original lyrics] for Mike Loves
lyrics and I went the other way around now.
Now that the onus of delivering Smile is off his back, Wilsons fans throughout
the world can delight in the fact that he will be touring in support of the
album for the next two years. He beams, Whenever I can feel it, I know
other people are going to feel the same way. Thats the only way I can
go, you know? I cant go out there and listen to myself sing or watch my
band play. I can only do it. And, the audience can only experience it. So, Im
not able to be in the audience. I can only be where I am. So, thats why
its a challenge to make people feel the same way I do . . . I think its
a wonderful thing [performing Smile on tour] and it pumps me up.
After all these years, I am glad to see that Brian Wilson has something to smile