My God, my God … The Beach Boys: “The SMiLE Sessions” (Capitol)

"Quiet, numbskull! We're making a masterpiece!" Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are busy working on writing "SMiLE" in 1966 while the rest of The Beach Boys are out having fun fun fun.

Note, Jan. 2, 2012: I didn’t intend for this to be a long childbirth. I never do. I started this two months ago yesterday, the day the box set was released (which was the day it arrived at the front door). Things happen — having to scramble to buy a car, having to run around getting said car fixed, working pretty much a full schedule leading into Christmas, doing a couple of holiday things here and there. Besides, this long-awaited collection was my Christmas gift to myself, anyway, so I guess it was appropriate to wait ’til after Christmas to run this. And on the good side, this didn’t become an albatross that took 45 years to come out.

Nov. 1, 2011

All Saints’ Day. All Smiles’ Day.

This is the one luxury I’m allowing myself as I slowly climb back into the realm of the employed and the solvent. Today is my Christmas. And I can’t believe my gift to myself came early on the appointed day.

Sitting in the foyer this morning was a package containing the deluxe version of The Beach Boys’ “The SMiLE Sessions,” the final, long, looooooooooooong-awaited, shattered — then painstakingly restored and reassembled — jigsaw pieces of one of the most beautiful, saddening, maddening episodes in the history of popular music.

The deluxe five-CD version in a box with 3-D cover art, along with a two-LP version of the album with some extras, two 45s, a fancy hardcover booklet and a poster. There's also a much less expensive, less comprehensive two-CD version.

An album that was begun before I even started kindergarten, when Brian Wilson started working on “Good Vibrations,” finally, officially arrived in a completed form today.

Diehard Brian fans have heard many of the pieces in one form or another in countless bootleg versions through the years, versions of the album as compiled by fans; many shards were included on Capitol’s “Good Vibrations” Beach Boys box set in 1993 and, of course, there’s the fine 2004 studio version Brian recorded with his current band. (I was so scared to hear it that I didn’t buy it for three months, then finally gave in and listened and was stunned.)

But this is different. The 2004 “SMiLE’ was sung by a 62-year-old Brian, with plenty of help from his band, not the 26-year-old Brian at his creative and vocal peaks; it was a bargain I willfully accepted — and it was a brilliant piece of work — but it wasn’t The Beach Boys.

This is The Beach Boys — Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al, Bruce — as they would never be again. Granted, the album in this here box set was put together and sequenced by a 69-year-old Brian (along with his “SMiLE” lyricist, Van Dyke Parks, and his co-producers, Mark Linnett and Alan Boyd). But hey, it was his creation in the first place. This was, and is, his vision. And this is as close to what he might have been thinking at the time as we’ll ever hear.

My work schedule precludes me listening to the five CDs right now,  but I sat there at my desk today, I felt a strange emotion hit me as I was listening to “Do You Like Worms? (Roll Plymouth Rock).” Maybe, as a tune that taps into American history and the exploration of the West, it was a direct connection to “Rio Grande” and the absolute joy I felt when I first listened to Brian’s solo album in the summer of 1988. Except out of nowhere, I felt myself choke up. It was momentary, but its suddenness startled me.

And eight songs later, it was “Surf’s Up.” I thought it was beautiful the first time I heard it as a teenager — one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard — with its melancholy piano, abstract lyrics (“Columnnated ruins domino/Canvas the town and brush the backdrop/Are you sleeping/Brother John?”) and Brian’s soaring, angelic falsetto. But sitting here today listening to it — remastered and cleaned-up, in the context of an officially sanctioned “SMiLE” masterminded by Brian? I started shaking. And then it became sobs.

My God, my God …

In my 50 years, I had never experienced the dichotomy of tears of joy until this point. The joy of both Brian and myself having stuck around long enough to see and hear this happen — and knowing what he had gone through emotionally to get to this point. Plus the sadness that comes with knowing this is the end of something.

I don’t believe in the concept of “closure” — to me, it’s a senseless word tossed around carelessly by outsiders — but if something comes close, I guess this is it. It’s the glorious end of a glorious chapter of music, of a story that’s full of what sells books: joy, pain, angst, sadness, loss, mystery, redemption, paradise lost and found. The conclusion of a book that’s been written in fits and starts most of my life. And as a fan, when you carry a book around for three decades, even just spiritually and emotionally, if not physically, it’s hard to let go.

And I thought back to the spring of 1990, when Garry Trudeau ran that incredible week of Pulitzer-winning Doonesbury strips — Joanie’s lawyer friend, Andy Lippincott, getting to hear the remastered “Pet Sounds” on CD (which, along with Capitol’s first CD remastering of the entire Beach Boys catalog, was a huge deal at the time) as he lay on his deathbed from AIDS. I’m not ready to die (well, I certainly hope not), but now I can die knowing I’ve heard an official, honest-to-goodness version of “SMiLE,” the great lost album.

*****

Nov. 6, 2011 and beyond

After I’ve listened to the discs at least a couple time through …

*****

An older friend explained to me the other day that he wasn’t a Beach Boys fan because when he grew up, there were the jocks and the freaks, and he was a freak, and the jocks listened to The Beach Boys.

I replied that being a Beach Boys fan falls along two similar camps: the Brian Beach Boys and the Mike Love Beach Boys. Mike and Bruce Johnston continue to slog along, nearing 70, exhorting the whole fun fun fun-and-sun and “Little Deuce Coupe” thing for the jock crowd. Brian is the for the geeks, of course, the sensitive ones like me. Brian wrote all those jock hits, of course, but he also wrote the intricate, sensitive tunes that spurred Lennon and McCartney into creating “Sgt. Pepper.” (Note: It was announced in mid-December that all the surviving ’60s Beach Boys except Glen Campbell — Brian, Mike, Bruce, Al Jardine and Dave Marks — will go out together for a 2012 50th-anniversary tour.)

The Beach Boys were my favorite group in high school, in the midst of the “Endless Summer”/“Spirit of America”/“15 Big Ones” revival of the mid-’70s — reluctantly, at first, because of the seemingly effeminate harmonies, then enthusiastically after I heard “409″ one late summer night on the radio, sleeping on the floor in my folks’ newly finished cellar to avoid the heat. Then I got it.

But my in to the whole Brian camp — my first grown-up pop music education — was in early 1980, winter of my freshman year at college. A dormmate named Scott Bergmann was sitting security in the lobby one night, and we

If you look closely, you can hear Mike Love (left) mouthing, "Brian, what the hell do these words mean?" Just kidding. We think. Clockwise around Brian: Love, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston.

got to talking. He knew I was a Beach Boys fan, and he said, “I’ve got a book you ought to read.” It was David Leaf’s 1978 biography “The Beach Boys and the California Myth.”

You know how image and perception of public figures are frequently at odds with reality. Until I read that book — long out of print, worth a fortune now, still one of the landmark musical biographies, the book that totally steered the dialogue about Brian and the band and their legacy from that point on — I never would’ve guessed that beneath the placid, smiling images of the five bearded, good-looking guys was so much dysfunction, all well-documented, first by David and then by others over the next three decades.

It was the first I had heard of “Pet Sounds,” the landmark 1966 album whose hits — “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B,” “Caroline, No” — were quite familiar to me. But David’s book I went out to the campus record store and found a copy on cassette (a ’70s Warner Bros. release paired with the infamous “Carl and the Passions/So Tough”). I listened to it on the cheap cassette player that passed for my stereo for most of my school years. Essentially, it was in mono, as Brian heard and recorded it, and through a cheap speaker — I was having a 1966 experience in 1979.

Okay, it started with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which I had heard often enough by that point; no big deal. I braced for the next song. A plucked piano C-note and the “WHoooo-OOOOOOO-ooo-ooo-ooo-oooooooo …” that began “You Still Believe in Me,” a fragile tune that incorporated sounds as diverse as a tympani, a bicycle bell and a bicycle horn in ways I never could have imagined. And I choked up as I took in the beauty. And I heard “God Only Knows” in a new way.

And as I ventured deeper, I heard songs that spoke to me, coming out of a troubled adolescence that increasingly included roller-coaster rides of depression. “I Know There’s an Answer.” And especially “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” (Sometimes I still don’t). And as the train pulled away at the end of “Caroline, No,” I sat there stunned … and changed. Someone whose music I admired greatly had written a most wonderful album about my adolescence a decade before I even got there.

Of course, I’ve heard and loved a great many sounds since, but none like “Pet Sounds.”

And then I read the chapter about “SMiLE.”

“Good Vibrations,” of course, was already a well-proclaimed — and well-worn — classic by then, the peak of Brian’s artistic ability, something a pop composer has never been able to touch (though Todd Rundgren took a credible stab at a note-for-note remake a decade later on his “faithful” album). But as I read the Leaf book, I realized how much more I’d been missing.

Never had a clue growing up (and keep in mind that I was in kindergarten then) that there was this album that was meant as a follow-up to “Pet Sounds,” meant in Brian’s mind to compete with what The Beatles were doing. Its whereabouts were shrouded in some sort of ominous mystery that Leaf never totally articulated in the book, the type Robert Stack would narrate had he had the chance. Never knew that Brian was facing resistance from band members and his record label, or that “Pet Sounds,” at the time, was not a huge seller.

Or that the combination of external pressures  and drug use would culminate in a breakdown — and that after The Beatles released their answer to “Pet Sounds,” “Sgt. Pepper,” Brian would shelve a project that he seemed tantalizingly close to completing. Where some of the tapes went was a mystery, too; so the story went, he was so freaked by the “Fire” element he recorded for the album — there was a rash of fires in the area around that time, and he thought he was responsible — that he destroyed the tapes. Of course, that wasn’t true, but these were the stories about an album that became myth much more than product.

Some of the songs trickled out. “Good Vibrations,” a significantly shortened “Heroes and Villains,” and inferior versions of “Vegetables” and “Wind Chimes” wound up on the substitute album “Smiley Smile,” which Carl Wilson famously referred to at the time as “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence” came out on “20/20″ in 1969. Two years later, “Surf’s Up” became the title cut of an otherwise inferior album. The rest lay in bits and pieces in vaults, presumably never to be heard again. Or, as I read in Leaf’s book, possibly destroyed.

As a fan, I felt teased, cheated — even if he shelved it about the time I was going into first grade.

*****

Anyway, fast-forward …

By the mid-’90s, thanks to books such as Leaf’s, and Timothy White’s “The Nearest Faraway Place”; Capitol’s 1990 CD reissue of the catalog; the inclusion of more than a half-hour of “SMiLE”-era outtakes in 1993 on the “Good Vibrations” box; and Don Was’ 1995 documentary “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” — plus the tributes of generations of musicians, from Paul McCartney to The Smithereens to Sonic Youth to Vince Gill — the world at large was more aware of, and receptive of, Brian’s landmark work. And there was always a faction of hardcores holding out hope for something resembling a complete “SMiLE”

And as fate would have it, Brian overcame enough of his myriad emotional baggage by the late ’90s and tentatively started touring again — and finally started to realize how many people loved and were influenced by his ’60s pocket masterpieces. And he finally got to the point in the early 2000s that when someone suggested he revisit “SMiLE,” up to that point an off-limits topic, he pondered and agreed.

Brian teamed with Parks and bandmate Darian Sahanaja to start putting together the pieces — both songs and sequence, with Parks filling in some of the long-abandoned lyrical gaps — and his band performed the album for the first time at London’s Royal Festival Hall in February 2004 to a rousing five-minute ovation. With that ringing endorsement, Brian and crew recorded his own version of “SMiLE, which also drew raves when released that September.

The 2004 album, with its firmed-up sequence, and its extended and reworked versions of “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” gave the producers a template from which to work in reassembling studio fragments for this collection.

*****

Because we’ve heard the hits so often, we doesn’t realize just how radical the “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE” albums were for their time. Remember that The Beach Boys were a surf/pop/rock’n’roll band in the prime of the three-minute pop hit. Bands went in, laid down a few tracks and bingo! The next hit single. And that’s what the suits at Capitol kept demanding from Brian, Never mind that the pressure had already pushed him to one breakdown.

Brian, whose love of music ranged from Gershwin to the ’50s white-boy harmonies of The Hi-Lo’s, wanted to stretch out in the studio. “Pet Sounds” was just the start: Bicycle bell and bike horn, french horn — certainly not surf or car songs. And while the boys were out touring, he was working with The Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in Los Angeles — many of the same folks who backed his idol/rival, Phil Spector, and an entire cross-section of ’60s American music — and with classical musicians.

It’s astounding that an album that included hits such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No” and the record company-demanded “hit single,” “Sloop John B” wasn’t a commercial success at the time. But in his way, Brian outSpectored Spector — who, ironically, was also encountering a first-ever commercial flop at the time with his most artistic single, Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” Spector never recovered from his peak, either.

But Brian kept driving himself, propelled by his imaginary competitions with both Spector and The Beatles, who were rumored to be responding the gauntlet laid down by “Pet Sounds.” He plunged into “SMiLE” in the spring of ’66. And the story of how “Good Vibrations” took six months and an astronomical-at-the-time $40,000 to record is legendary. Working with Van Dyke Parks, a a young transplanted Southerner with a head full of abstract, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, Brian set to creating what he called his “teenage symphony to God.” (Which became the title of one of the best albums of the ’90s.)

But when you have a pampered-yet-fragile ego, which had already been through one nervous breakdown a year and a half previous, combine that with the relentless record-label pressure to crank out product, then face resistance from your bandmates, lay down hundreds of jigsaw-puzzle-piece instrumental and vocal tracks and do drugs while attempting all this … well, it was too much for Brian to bear. Another breakdown. And when “Sgt. Pepper” came out in June of 1967 and stopped the musical world in its tracks, Brian just let it be. No “SMiLE” — just a lot of fragments and shards and playing in the sandbox and laying in bed playing “Be My Baby” over and over and … well, it’s all been well-chronicled.

And through the aborted comebacks over the years — capped, of course, by the triumphant return for good in the late ’90s — one albatross kept circling over Brian’s head. And the more comfortable he became, and the more he realized how many people truly loved his music, the more his confidence grew … to the point where he could tackle “SMiLE.” First, his version with his current band, and now, the original.

*****

Realize that the 2004 “SMiLE” and the 1967/2011 version are two different things. For one, the ’04 version was sung by a then-62-year-old Brian, with a lot of vocal help from his bandmates, who approximate The Beach Boys very well. The original was sung by a 25, 26-year-old Brian with the real Beach Boys, and, as mentioned, backed by The Wrecking Crew and other bigtime studio hands.

For another, the song list, and order, and, in a couple cases, the songs themselves, are slightly different — namely because a couple of the songs that appeared as finished pieces in 2004 were never completed in 1967. Brian and Parks fleshed out “I Love to Say Dada” into “In Blue Hawaii” for the ’04 version — but used the new/old “Dada,” an instrumental with harmony drizzles, on the ’67/’11 version. In addition, the ’04 “SMiLE” incorporates the three snippets “I’m in Great Shape”/”I Wanna Be Around”/”Workshop” into one track; on this version, the goofy 27-second “I’m in Great Shape” is broken off and moved up the song list.

In both versions of the album, alternate takes of the two most familiar tunes were used, versions familiar to hardcore fans from bootlegs through the years. In 2004, Brian added the slow, rollicking “cantina” piano verse to “Heroes and Villains,” while on “Good Vibrations,” he went with an earlier version of the lyrics, plus the “nom-me-nom” vocal part in the harmonies before the final refrain. The 2011 version includes the “cantina” verse on “Heroes” and the “nom-me-nom” on “Good Vibrations,” but with the familiar lyrics.

So no matter how you slice it, you’re not getting Brian’s 1967 vision in either case. But you’re getting a pretty good idea of where he was going and what he was thinking.

*****

“SMiLE” doesn’t hit with the emotional visceral force of “Pet Sounds.” That album, with lyrics by Brian and Gary Usher, struck at a young-adult version of teen angst and self-doubt: “You Still Believe in Me.” “God Only Knows.” “I Know There’s an Answer.” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

“SMiLE,” a much lighter album at its core, was a combination of two things: Parks’ lyrical whimsy and Brian exploration of America, from Plymouth rock to the then-present. (It was a theme he would return to on his 1988 album, spurred by Warner Bros. executive Lenny Waronker to write an epic that incorporated America in the same way; hence, “Rio Grande.”)

The album does begin with a teenage symphony to God in the form of “Our Prayer” — with them sucking all the air out of the room with their dizzying vocal harmony — incorporating a snippet from the Church of Vocal Harmony, them singing the signature harmony from The Crows’ 1953 R&B hit, “Gee.”

Brian takes us along a travelog of sorts. The Western movie of “Heroes and Villains.” “To the Church of the American Indian” on “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock),” an assortment of tympani beats and quasi-tribal harmonic chants accompanied by chimey keyboards and trippy steel guitar, among other instruments. The incorporation of the American Songbook chestnut “You Are My Sunshine” with “The Old Master Painter,” straight into the banjo-infused Americana folksiness and home-on-the-range scenery of “Cabin Essence.”

He also takes us, famously, into the Elements suite. The goofy, bounce-in-place “Vega-Tables,” with various people chomping on veggies (including Paul McCartney on celery stalk), represents, naturally, the Earth element. “Holidays,” a jaunty nautical sojourn, represents water, “Wind Chimes,” still beautiful in its muted simplicity of instrumentation (the xylophone approximating wooden chime pieces) and vocal sweetness, is self-explanatory.

And then, the most infamous of the four, “Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow).” It’s easy to see how, with the violin section replicating both eerily soaring fire and fire sirens, anchored by an ominous, steadily marching beat, someone tripping out of his gourd might very well be freaked by all this. It still has a disturbing quality all these years later. (Also a humorous one: The master of vocal harmony won his first and only Grammy in 2005 — doubly ironically not only for best instrumental, but for the 2004 “SMiLE” version of the very piece that initially frightened him so. Gotta love those Grammy people …)

But the pinnacle of the album, as alluded to two months and a few thousand words ago, is “Surf’s Up.” Back to the American saga. Trail’s end — the Pacific. Manifest destiny fulfilled. An era of richly appointed opulence. And then the columnated ruins domino. All is lost for now. A toast to auld lang syne. Grief. Unbelief. A broken man too tough to cry. But in the end, there’s the surf. Always the surf. The ocean is eternal. Surf’s up.

The very song that Leonard Bernstein chose when he included Brian in a famous CBS special in 1966 on contemporary music. Brian’s piano provides a steady drumbeat, a constant through the falsetto arches, the soaring heights and the crash, and then the calm and the acceptance of what was lost and what remains.

I’m a rock’n’roller through and through, and almost always fall on the side of adrenaline in my musical tastes. But that said, there are two masterpieces that, to me, stand above everything else written under the rock’n’roll umbrella. One is “Eleanor Rigby” — McCartney telling a rich, and richly orchestrated, tale that fully fleshes out two characters and their tales of unrequited sadness and loneliness, all in 2 minutes, 8 seconds. “Surf’s Up” is the other.

And while the rest of the album doesn’t hit me the way “Pet Sounds” did as the troubled and conflicted 18-year-old I was when I first heard it, “SMiLE” contains Brian’s two artistic pinnacles: “Good Vibrations” and “Surf’s Up.” Arguing over which of the two was his best Beach Boys album is like arguing best apple vs. best orange. Though, from an emotional standpoint, I’ll take the best apple of “Pet Sounds.”

*****

The rest of the first CD includes “You’re Welcome,” the B-side of the “Heroes and Villains” single, as well as odds and ends: the stereo mix of “Heroes” (which had been recorded in mono), 7-plus minutes of “Heroes” snippets, a minute-plus song fragment called “He Gives Speeches,” an 8-minute montage of vocal harmonies, the beautiful solo demo version of “Surf’s Up,” a goofball segment of Brian “falling into” his piano; and a Capitol Records in-house promo spot for the album.

The other four discs of the deluxe set are for the hardcore fans only. They consist of outtakes galore — many of the shards from which Brian pieced together the album in the first place. He pieced it together much in the way a film director edits a movie, and in the pre-digital age, he left a lot of footage on the cutting-room floor. And there’s also the “Our Prayer” session that licks off the second disc where Brian asked brother Dennis, “Denny, do you have any hash joints left? I know you do.”

Disc 2 is mostly “Heroes and Villains” outtakes; at one point early on, the song was reported to have been about 12 minutes long. Another point of interest is on Disc 4 — “Three Blind Mice,” not to be confused at all with The Three Stooges’ theme song; it’s an October 1965 instrumental track whose experimental nature presaged what was to come by a year. There’s also a “Vega-Tables” segment on that disc where director Brian tried some Method-acting direction on session drummer extraordinaire Hal Blaine, who acted extremely annoyed. Disc 5 is totally “Good Vibrations,” starting with 7 1/2-minutes of takes from the beginning, in February 1966, where the foundation of organ, drum and theremin took shape.

And after all this …

Well, after hearing the 2004 “SMiLE,” and having seen Brian run through “Pet Sounds” twice — his spectacular three-set show at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut in July 2000, where “Good Vibrations” was the encore of the middle “Pet Sounds” set; and the final American performance, at the Oakland Paramount in February 2007, where the guests included Al and ’70s Beach Boys drummer Rikki Fataar — I said that whatever Brian does the rest of his life is fine with me, that he doesn’t owe us anything.

I never expected this one last tremendous gift from him. In a way, it’s kind of anticlimactic — after all, how could anything match the Holy Grail buildup to this? — but we have it a complete “SMiLE,” whether some real diehards agree with that or not, and it’s been a wonderful experience following the story from seeming tragedy to triumph. A triumph of not only artistry, but love. Brian, in essence, gave back to the fans who have shown him so many decades of, well, love and mercy. Love begets love.

But there is a little sadness here, too. We now have an official “SMiLE” that comes straight from Brian. The quest we never thought would end is over. Done. Land’s end. Surf’s up, ooh-oooooooooh …

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3 Responses to “My God, my God … The Beach Boys: “The SMiLE Sessions” (Capitol)”

  1. Michael Barone Says:

    Brilliant peice Fran. Of course I feel exactly the same way you do about Pet Sounds too! Happy New Year to you.

    MB

  2. Mike Janowski Says:

    Really moving piece. I’m not a big BB fan, and in fact was sort of weary about all this “Smile” nonsense, but you put its importance into context perfectly…when I remember how blown away I was by Pet Sounds, I realize that I shouldn’t be poo-poohing this, but rather embracing it. Thanks.
    - mike

  3. Five Songs, Part 82 (Beach Boys edition) « Franorama World Says:

    [...] then fully spoiled when he and The Beach Boys pieced together the shards of the original SMiLE and released it as a box set last [...]

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