How to Steal a SMiLE : An Alternate History of The Beach Boys’ Lost Classic
The SMiLE Sessions- Brian Wilson-CJasper Dailey: Courtesy of The Peter Reum Collection
“Every little piece was a major turn on,” Priore recalls. “I remember hearing ‘Child Is Father to the Man’ for the first time and thinking the piano and basslines were so ominous. The road to finish SMiLE has been extremely long. By 1989, I thought we had most of the stuff, but even that was quite short of what we could do by 1994. And even in the late 1990s, we got a major revelation because there was a tape of Brian Wilson on piano demoing ‘Heroes and Villains’ that revealed how ‘Heroes and Villains,’ ‘I’m in Great Shape’ and ‘Barnyard’ fit together. One of the real missing links was this backing track to ‘I’m in Great Shape,’ which only made it out in the last few years.”
Another fan, Lewis Shiner, wrote a science fiction novel, Glimpses, in which a time-traveling stereo repairman showed up at the sessions and helped Wilson finish. “Instead of fading where the single did, [“Good Vibrations”] went into a brief orchestral section, which recapped the bicycle rider theme, slipped into a few seconds of ‘George Fell into His French Horn’ and then segued, amid the laughter of horns, into ‘I’m in Great Shape,’” Shiner fantasized.
SMiLE was a perfect dream—all things to all fans. To some, like Will Cullen Hart of The Olivia Tremor Control, it begat a musical worldview. “Man, it’s everything ,” raves Hart, whose own albums became SMiLE inspired odysseys. “Conceptually, the musical stuff [is amazing]—the idea of the sections, each of them being a colorful world within itself. [Wilson’s] stuff could be so cinematic and then he could just drop down to a toy piano going plink, plink, plink and then, when you least expect it, it can fly back into a million gorgeous voices. Of course, you’ve got Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics.”
After the release of Look! Listen! Vibrate! SMILE!, Priore dubbed tape after tape of the bits and pieces that he had for inquiring musicians. “I was getting letter after letter saying, like, ‘make me five copies!,’” he remembers. He sent tapes to XTC, Gay Bikers on Acid, Apples in Stereo, and many others. To some, it was a source of income. Though the bootleg vinyl industry had long ignored The Beach Boys for being so primally unhip, SMiLE eventually began to appear on LP, often adorned with Frank Holmes’ cover art. Capitol Records nearly released the sessions again (but didn’t), and folded part of the material into its 1993 Good Vibrations box set.
Despite never coming out, SMiLE somehow even became, arguably, too hip. In 2001, cartoonist and critic Peter Bagge wrote a contrarian seven-page essay titled “In Defense of (and Praise For) Mike Love,” arguing for a Love and Carl Wilson-centric reappraisal of the Beach Boys vis-à-vis their post-SMiLE output. “[ Sunflower ] has a richness and a fullness and GLISTENING GOLDEN GOODNESS to its sound that hasn’t been matched before or since,” Bagge wrote. (Well, true.)
And, somehow, Brian Wilson got better. Not better better, but well, enough to get free of svenghali therapist Eugene Landy (a whole ‘nother story) and record some new albums. He acquired a backing band called The Wondermints, led by SMiLE collector (and Priore conspirator) Darian Sahanaja. They performed Pet Sounds live and, in 2003, announced that they would do the same to SMiLE —just as soon as Brian, Sahanaja and Van Dyke Parks finished it.
This is where things become problematic.
Wilson, Sahanaja, and Parks split SMiLE into three parts, beginning (as many Beach Boys scholars agreed) with “Our Prayer” and “Heroes and Villains,” and flowing into “Do You Like Worms,” replete with new vocal inserts. The middle act closed with “Surf’s Up” and the last concluded with “Good Vibrations,” scrubbed partially of Mike Love’s contributions and repurposed with a rave-up finale that doubled as a slam-bang finish for their live shows. Nonesuch released a studio recording in 2004.
While it made for fun listening, Brian Wilson presents SMiLE was not the same as the album at the heart of its meta-title. Its most obvious sign of forgery was its three parts—an error that the SMiLE Sessions box makes plain with its vinyl edition, which spreads the album out over three LP sides, unthinkable for an album slated to be released 1967. The less-obvious but more revealing error is in its mid-album placement of “Surf’s Up.”
“I don’t always subscribe to things Brian Wilson may say now because, a lot of the time, I think Brian is kind of reading ad copy, in a way, when you talk to him,” Priore notes. “But when the SMiLE compilation was done in 2004, Brian actually revealed to Darian that ‘Surf’s Up’ was part of ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Child Is Father to the Man.’” But memory can be a weird and unexpectedly moving part.
Gently put, Brian Wilson circa the early 21st century is not the most reliable narrator. He followed Brian Wilson presents SMiLE with a Christmas album the next year, though—when interviewed about it— seemed to betray no memory of singing holiday songs with his family in the early 1960s, despite this being a well-known story about how The Beach Boys first came together.
That the new box set uses the 2004 running order is perhaps both its greatest flaw and its happiest gift. Like SMiLE, the SMiLE Sessions might be all things to all fans. “You can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy this trippy concept album,” Priore happily notes. But in its non-finality—ready to be remade as one’s own— SMiLE remains alive in the present tense, a grin still worth grinning.
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