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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

"This was all part of the process. These were not indulgences," says David Leaf, director of Beautiful Dreamer, a Showtime documentary on Smile that will air Oct. 5. "It was all about vibe and feeling, and feeling is paramount in Brian's creative process."

Wilson wanted to make an optimistic but honest album about America, and he enlisted Parks to put his feelings into words. In 17 songs, Smile tells the story of America, of the settlers landing at Plymouth Rock and traveling westward, pausing in California to look back before pushing forward to Hawaii.

"It's who we are," Parks says. "Who us as Americans are, not with some Technicolor bath, but in black and white. And when Brian says [on Smile], `Is it hot as hell in here, or is it just me? It really is a mystery,' that's a man confessing in the present tense that he went through a lot and this really is an expensive little bijou. This is harmonicas and cymbals and hammer dulcimers and horns and strings and voices going in all the right places with powerful anecdotes."

(Smile is also, in fact, about the value of eating vegetables, showing Wilson to be a pioneer in food as well as music. While making the album, Wilson came to believe in the health benefits of vegetables; he made his musicians eat them and wrote "Vega-Tables" about them.)

Most of the music, however, was abstract and multilayered. It featured saws, whistles, horns, mallets, drills, animal sounds and, yes, vegetable-munching. Themes and verses carried from song to song. It was a long way from the cars-girls-and-surfing formula that had made the Beach Boys famous. And Wilson's band mates weren't happy to hear it.

As Brian was in the studio assembling Smile, the rest of the band was on a triumphant tour of Europe. In Britain, the readers of New Musical Express voted the Beach Boys the best vocal group of 1966; the Beatles came in second. But at the end of its tour, the group came home to find Wilson working with a new band of musicians, making a new kind of music. Mike Love was the loudest dissenter.

"Mike and Dennis both said they hated it," Wilson says. "They thought it was not appropriate for the Beach Boys. I said I want to do it anyway. I wanted to try something experimental. You see, we were taking a lot of drugs - LSD, marijuana, some amphetamines. It got us all spaced out."

Despite their doubts, the members of the Beach Boys started recording the vocals for Smile. Other pressures, though, were building. Wilson's father, Murry, apparently wasn't happy with the group's drug use, and Wilson came to believe that his father had hired detectives to follow him. He also thought his phones were tapped, and insisted on holding business meetings in his pool. His record label, Capitol, was upset that Smile was overdue, and didn't like the sound of it, either. Through it all, Wilson was suffering from what his friends now say was undiagnosed depression.

And then the Beatles put out the single "Strawberry Fields Forever." Wilson was driving in his car when he first heard on it the radio. He pulled over to listen.

"He just shook his head and said, `They did it already - what I wanted to do with Smile. Maybe it's too late,' " Michael Vosse, a friend of Wilson's who was with him at the time, says in the Showtime documentary. "I started laughing my head off, and he started laughing his head off. ... But the moment he said it, he sounded very serious."

Wilson says that ultimately Smile was shelved because he thought it was too weird and that people wouldn't understand it. Mike Love didn't like it, he said, and work on it stopped being fun. Some band members refused to sing their parts during recording sessions. At the same time, the Beach Boys filed a lawsuit against Capitol Records, accusing the label of cheating them out of much of their royalties. It was too much for Wilson to fight at once.

In the summer of 1967, Smile was abandoned.

The Beach Boys weren't done, but they weren't the same, either.

The music world, and their fans, moved on. The Beach Boys put out new albums through the '70s, but nothing rivaled the power or promise of Pet Sounds and Smile. Bits of Smile appeared on some subsequent Beach Boys records, and "Good Vibrations," now the album closer, was released as a single. But Smile was never heard in its entirety, in the way Wilson intended.

In 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned in the Pacific Ocean that had been celebrated in so many Beach Boys songs. Carl Wilson died of lung cancer in 1998. That left only the oldest, Brian.

He had gone through a dark, lost period in the 1980s, when a psychologist took control of his life and his music. Wilson's family eventually sued and a court ordered the psychologist to stay away. But Wilson really started getting better in 1995, when he married Melinda Ledbetter, a woman from whom he once bought a Cadillac.

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