Lost and Found Sounds

Four decades after abandoning it, Brian Wilson unearths the legendary album `Smile.'

Cover Story

September 26, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

If you listen closely - and there is no other way to listen to Brian Wilson's Smile - you can hear Paul McCartney crunching on a stalk of celery.

At least, that's who Wilson says it is. His recollections aren't always reliable because he was using a lot of drugs at the time. It was the fall of 1966. His band, the Beach Boys, had just released the instant classic Pet Sounds and was waging a lonely resistance against the British Invasion. It was in the midst of this rivalry with the Beatles that McCartney stopped by the studio where Wilson was working on his next record, what he hoped would be "a teen-aged symphony to God."

"He came by, and we had a big pile of vegetables on the table there, and I said, `Here, Paul, chew up this stalk of celery while we sing Vega-Tables,' " Wilson says now, on the phone from Los Angeles. "He just laughed his head off."

Wilson says he wasn't rattled by McCartney's presence, but that's hard to imagine. The two bands were both in the middle of creating experimental albums that would redefine their medium, racing to see who would be first to present their new sound to the world. It was a race that the Beatles would win, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in June 1967.

The Beach Boys were beaten, and Smile was shelved. Wilson suffered a psychological breakdown and retreated to his home, an emotional wreck. He rarely spoke of Smile again. But now, almost four decades later, Wilson has remade his lost masterpiece. On Tuesday, Smile will finally be released, in a new recording, and Wilson will kick off a five-week tour that will bring him to Washington on Oct. 10.

"It's quite a relief. We finally did it," Wilson says, his voice still clear and strong at 62. "It was like a legendary kind of [lost] album for 38 years, and now the Smile dream has been realized."

Only one of the Beach Boys was actually a beach boy. That would be Dennis Wilson, the middle of three Wilson brothers growing up in Hawthorne, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. He was drawn to the California coast in the early '60s, when the surfing culture was taking hold. The oldest brother, Brian, preferred his bedroom, where he spent hours listening to early rock and doo-wop and teaching his youngest brother, Carl, to sing with him.

When Brian wanted to form a band, Dennis suggested he write a song about surfing. And so, with his cousin, Mike Love, he wrote a song called "Surfin'." The song was taken to Capitol Records, reworked as "Surfin' Safari" and released in May 1962. By August, it had reached No. 14 on the Billboard pop charts and the Beach Boys were on their way.

In the next three years, the band would place 16 songs in the Top 40 with a formula that revolved around girls, cars and surfing. "I wish they all could be California girls," they would sing. They also wished everyone "had an ocean / across the USA / Then everybody'd be surfin' / like Californ-i-a." And they had "fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes the T-bird away."

The music was sunny and good-hearted in its optimism. The songs evoked an idealized vision of California and spoke of the transforming power of love. Brian Wilson talked a lot about love, and of his hope to share it with the world. But he was facing demons of his own.

Still reeling from a violent childhood - his father, who was later his manager, routinely administered beatings to the three boys when they fell short of perfection, including one that left Brian deaf in one ear - and exhausted by the rigors of touring and writing songs nonstop, Brian Wilson suffered his first nervous breakdown in late 1964. In January 1965, he left the road altogether and stayed home to work on his music, presenting it to the other band members when they stopped home between tours.

Meanwhile, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were trading punches across the Atlantic. The Beatles' Rubber Soul came out in late 1965; the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds followed in May 1966. And while the Beatles worked on Sgt. Pepper that year, Wilson worked on Smile. As it seemed everyone was embracing all things British, he turned inward to America.

"It was an iconoclastic, maverick thing to do," says Van Dyke Parks, who was a young poet and musician in the burgeoning L.A. arts scene when he began working with Wilson on Smile in 1966. "Things American were gauche. Everything Brit was happening. And that codified itself in a competition. It was a culture war between Brian Wilson, the man, and the Beatles, plus their great producer [George Martin]. One man was up against that.

"He was like a moth rebelling against the chloroform just before they snap [the jar] shut," Parks says. "This guy decided to fly right out."

Smile was originally written and recorded with the aid of a giant sand pit constructed in Wilson's living room, an Arabian tent in the den (intended as a place for gathering, it became a place for smoking marijuana) and a studio full of musicians wearing plastic firemen's helmets.

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