Half Smile

Wilson: Is the latest album his greatest -- or merely his "ego music"?

It was supposed to be the crowning moment for both the Beach Boys and their resident musical genius, Brian Wilson. It was supposed to prove that the band was about more than just sun, sand and girls. And it was supposed to one-up both the Beatles and Phil Spector, with whom Wilson felt an almost obsessive competition.

But instead, Smile became one of rock's greatest "What if?" questions, the Great Lost Album whose myth spawned a devout group that would bemoan and dissect what could have been had the album been completed. So what made Brian Wilson revisit -- and actually finish -- his lost masterpiece nearly 40 years later?

"My wife and manager had a meeting with me," Wilson says excitedly. "They thought I should present Smile to the world. They thought people would be ready for it. I agreed."


Brian Wilson

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So that's it?

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Apparently so.

"I didn't think the music was appropriate back then," he continues. "But I think there's a need and a hunger for music nowadays. Things have been so bad."

Van Dyke Parks, the erudite and quirky Smile lyricist, feels differently.

"I think the audience was ready to receive this article of faith back [in 1967]. The problem was, it wasn't a vehicle for the Beach Boys. And it was an albatross for me all these years, a job I had left unfinished."

Parks is thrilled to have the reality of Smile -- at long last -- shrink-wrapped in front of him. "There was just too much written about it, and it developed an audience with a mind of its own. But my feeling is that Brian Wilson himself should have the first cut of his work…call it justice delayed."

To be honest, today 62-year-old Brian Wilson is not quite all there. Years of abuse of drugs both prescribed and proscribed, a fragile mental state, and countless courtroom and family tussles have left him seeming like an intelligent 12-year-old, at least when he finds himself outside of the recording studio.

But after a remarriage with three adopted kids, the jettisoning of a controversial doctor and a rapturous response to his recent Pet Sounds concert tour, he is also in perhaps his most positive mental state ever, and much more lucid in interview than he was when I talked to him four years ago. And even his blank-faced, immobile stage presence has not dampened the enthusiasm of his audiences.

One thing that clearly has been a boon is his current backing band, at whose core is the L.A. pop group the Wondermints. "Now, he has a willing and enthusiastic group with no jealousy and competition," Parks says. "They have such a core spirit, and they encourage each other."

"I'm more comfortable on stage now, and I wasn't with the Beach Boys," Wilson says.

The story of Smile began in 1966, when the Beach Boys released the Pet Sounds LP and then the epochal "Good Vibrations" single. Both of these were miles apart from the simplistic good times of the band's previous work such as "Fun, Fun, Fun"; instead, they were lush, complex pop songs that remain hugely influential even today.

Wilson then set to work on his most ambitious project. He announced that Smile would be a "teenage symphony to God" as well as a grand statement about America and its westward growth. Expectations were staggering. This would be Brian's magnum opus.

Scores of sessions commenced with crack studio musicians, and the legendary stories of Wilson's eccentricity began. He composed music on his piano-in-a-sandbox; he recorded at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. There was the Arabian drug tent in the living room; and he ordered his full orchestra to don plastic fireman hats for the recording of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," which is also known as "Fire." When a rash of real fires broke out near the studio, Wilson was sure he was somehow the cause.

"I was dabbling in some kind of musical witchcraft," Wilson remembered in his 1991 autobiography, Wouldn't It Be Nice. "I can't let it happen again. It's too scary."

The hard work was done. All that was left was for the rest of the Beach Boys to come in and add their vocals, but by this time the sessions had become a pressure cooker. Dissension ran amok among Wilson's bandmates. A belligerent Mike Love decried Smile as "Brian's ego music" and confronted Parks for literal interpretations of fantastical lyrics like "Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield."

"I knew we weren't writing any hits," Parks concedes. "But I was ready to follow this tragic comic figure to the ends of the earth."

Brian Wilson was quickly falling apart. His always fragile ego and delicate mental state were exacerbated by crippling paranoia, a huge intake of pot and psychedelics, and record-company lawsuits. He'd even convinced himself that his rival Phil Spector had dispatched minions to bug his house. By mid-1967, Brian Wilson did the unthinkable: He walked away. Completely.

Dribs and drabs would come out over the years on Beach Boys records and compilations, drip-feeding the Smile cult. Journalists and obsessive bootleg collectors set about creating their own versions with these scraps, while Wilson showed no interest in finishing the project. Too many bad memories, he repeated time and time again. Though today, those tortured recollections seem to have been forgotten.

"I wasn't intimidated by it at all," Wilson insists. "It brought back good memories."

The new Smile began taking shape in early 2004. Once Wilson committed to finishing it, Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints loaded all the music he could find in Capitol's vaults and on bootlegs onto his iBook, and acted as "musical secretary" as Wilson sifted through his past.

Parks was also back, adding new words to go with some new melodies. One line, "Is it hot as hell in here / Or is it me / It really is a mystery," is a particularly telling stab at deciphering Wilson's often tortured psyche.

After road-testing the entire project on European audiences, the band hit the studio. "It's a quiltwork of impressions of America," Parks offers. "Little things, faintly connected, imagery to confirm the American vision."

So Smile is finally here. Is it everything it was supposed to be, the crowning achievement of a certified musical genius?

Well, the answer is…no. In all fairness to Wilson and Parks, whatever they put out in 2004 couldn't possibly live up to the legend. And there's no way to tell what kind of impact differently recorded material would have had in 1967, just before (or after) Sgt. Pepper. Also, Wilson's deepened, staccato 2004 voice often doesn't suit the material. And try as they may, the backing band can't re-create (or surpass) the magical harmonies of the original Beach Boys.

Furthermore, two of Smile's best songs ("Heroes and Villains" and "Surf's Up") had already seen the light of day, and it's easy to see why "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" made for truly jolting music. While some tracks ("Cabin Essence," "Song for Children/Child Is the Father to Man") reach high and succeed, on the whole the project is too hodgepodge. Instruments drop in and out, tempos constantly shift, and songs hint at themes without really delving in. Smile is an album of fragments with occasional aural interest, but Pet Sounds remains Wilson's masterpiece.

At the Verizon show, Wilson and his band will present Smile with a helping of his Beach Boys and solo material. Asked if he had any memories of Houston (other than a famous nervous breakdown on a plane bound for the city in late 1964), he says something that undoubtedly will be repeated in the rest of his 15-minute interviews with journalists, with only the city changed.

"I remember the girls are very pretty in Houston," he says without missing a beat. "There's a lot of pretty chicks there!"

One would assume, though, that they are not nearly as pretty as California girls.

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