Brian Wilson found his ‘Smile’

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To hear Brian Wilson tell it, it wasn’t his idea to bring his lost ‘60s album, “Smile,” back to life. Left to his own devices, the songwriter would just as soon have let “Smile” stay where he left it 37 years ago, a bad ‘60s memory that began with such grandiose ambitions – nothing less than a “teenage symphony to God” – but ended in acrimony, shame and mental dissolution.

“Smile” is now routinely referred to as the greatest lost album in pop history. At 24, Wilson was the dominant pop mastermind of his era, and “Smile” was to be his crowning achievement in 1967, the follow-up to his acclaimed album “Pet Sounds” and groundbreaking single “Good Vibrations.”

But its dense orchestral arrangements and elliptical lyrics (written by Wilson’s handpicked collaborator, a precociously talented producer and songwriter named Van Dyke Parks) were mocked by his Beach Boys bandmates and questioned by his record company, who both desired more “typical” sun-and-surf music from the company meal ticket.

Wilson abandoned “Smile” before completing it, and soon after became one of rock’s most celebrated recluses. He would not perform in public for three decades, suffering through mental illness, the deaths of his brothers and Beach Boys bandmates Carl and Dennis Wilson, and the burden of living up to his reputation as a composer who once awed both Leonard Bernstein and the Beatles.

But at 62, Wilson finds himself in the midst of a late-career roll. A few years ago, he performed the entirety of “Pet Sounds” in concert for the first time in a rapturously received tour. Now he has resurrected “Smile.”

Last year, he went back into the studio with Parks and his touring band to cobble together the abandoned songs that make up what Wilson calls his “three-movement rock opera.”

After countless bootlegs and unauthorized releases pieced together from studio outtakes, “Smile” (Nonesuch) finally received its official release Tuesday, 37 years after it was left for dead. Now the Beach Boys auteur is taking it on the road, with a concert that features Wilson performing songs from throughout his career around a set devoted entirely to “Smile.”

“My managers and my wife got together and thought it was time for the world to hear “Smile,’ finally,” Wilson says in an interview from his Los Angeles home. The singer does not hide his ambivalence. In a 1998 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wilson called the original “Smile” sessions “a bad experience for me; it brings back some bad memories.” To those who call it a lost masterpiece, he had a pithy response: “They’re not missing much.”

Parks, in an interview a decade ago, echoed that sentiment. “It galls me that it’s referred to as this unfinished masterpiece,” he said. “It embarrasses me.”

Even now, Wilson has little good to say about the experience. “I had a lot of bad memories about the drugs I was taking at that time,” he says. “I was going through a lot of bad head changes.

And Van Dyke was also going through a lot of bad changes. We got to the point where we couldn’t go any further. We knew it was advanced and avant-garde and too ahead of its time, so we junked it.”

But in recent years, Wilson was coaxed into revisiting the songs. For the first time in decades, he says, he feels “safe and loved,” thanks to his wife of nine years, Melinda, and musical collaborators who consider it an honor to work with him. In the late ‘90s he abandoned the bickering Beach Boys in favor of a 10-piece touring band that includes a handful of Chicagoans recruited when Wilson briefly lived in west suburban St. Charles (where he gave his first solo concert in 1998). Their unwavering enthusiasm for his music, particularly “Pet Sounds” and “Smile,” slowly helped him overcome some of his insecurities.

“At first he didn’t want to go there; we would suggest performing (the “Smile’ song) “Heroes and Villains’ in rehearsal, and it took us a year before we finally got that one song into the set,” says bassist Bob Lizik, who has been playing with Wilson since 1999.

“When I first started playing with him, I’d come home to my wife and wonder if I wanted to even be in a band with a guy who obviously didn’t want to be onstage. But it’s been a progression of baby steps.

We got him on tour, we got him to record new songs, we did “Pet Sounds.’ Now we have to do “Smile.’ With each step, you can see his confidence and happiness growing.”

Once Wilson committed to the project, doubts remained.

“I was befuddled at first,” says reed player and string arranger Paul Mertens. “We got seven CDs of all the outtakes from the original sessions, and some of it was just a tambourine playing over a bass line. It was a hodgepodge, and it wasn’t clear to any of us how it was all going to go together. It seemed repetitive and bizarre.”

But Wilson took control. He dictated each part to each musician, and then assembled the songs in a sequence that indicated he knew exactly what he wanted all along.

“Brian produced the record in his head,” drummer Jim Hines says. “He knew exactly what each part was going to sound like before we played it for him. He’d have me doing things that I thought, “It’s not going to work.’ And then I heard the finished song and realized, “He’s always right.”‘

Parks got a call last year from his old collaborator to join the “Smile” sessions in Los Angeles and was both honored and disturbed.

“I was in a way quite frightened before I arrived at Brian’s house because I had no idea how this music would hold up,” Parks says. “But upon listening to what they had done, I was quite relieved. It was still alive, and it still had something that might address the present tense.”

“Smile” still sounds like a musical world unto itself. Wilson’s expansive arrangements were built on a foundation of radical ideas about harmonics and rhythm. “The notes are simple, but the combinations of sounds are not,” Mertens says.

“There is not one song that has classic kick, snare, hi-hat drums on it,” says percussionist Jim Hines. “Classic timekeeping in the pop sense of the word never happens.”

The arrangements are a kaleidoscope of moods: Terror (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”), fragility (“Wind Chimes”), solemnity (“Our Prayer”), playfulness (“Vega-Tables,” with the sound of carrot and celery-munching as part of the rhythm track). Parks’ lyrics evoke an America that is affirming and optimistic, with wordplay both poetic (“Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield”) and fanciful (“Columnated ruins domino!”).

His elliptical imagery was lost on the Beach Boys, but to dismiss “Smile” on that basis misses the point. Whereas “Pet Sounds” was steeped in the language of emotion, a diary of lost innocence, “Smile” is on to something else entirely. It’s about sound more than sense.

Upon hearing a solo Wilson performance of “Surf’s Up,” an almost unbearably beautiful ballad that ranges across nearly three octaves, Bernstein proclaimed Wilson one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. “Heroes and Villains” was described by Jimi Hendrix as the sound of “a psychedelic barbershop quartet.” The disc isn’t the masterpiece that its most ardent supporters claim it to be; it’s little wonder this small art-pop album collapsed under the weight of myth and expectation attached to it.

But if taken on its own terms, its oddball charms become apparent. It’s concise – 17 songs clocking in at barely more than 47 minutes – and the story it tells is evocative rather than literal. Whereas “Pet Sounds” was a string of individual pearls wrapped around the heart, “Smile” plays like an episodic western movie for the mind. In tracks such as “Our Prayer,” “Wonderful,” “Cabin Essence” and “Surf’s Up,” Wilson and Parks hit upon a uniquely spiritual vision of Americana. With its stacked voices and ornate instrumentation, this music suggests a prairie church service, the “teenage symphony to God” Wilson was striving for from the outset.

“It seems to me that Brian made a decision when he entered “Smile’ that he wasn’t just going to write some hit songs,” Parks says. “That came as a two-edged sword for me. One part of me was very happy to see him write himself out of a box, as it were, and get highly imaginative, and then there was a part of me that was nagging throughout the process that said wouldn’t it be nice, so to speak, that I could just be part of a hit tune?

“I had my own misgivings about the imagination being applied to the project. But I only serve one master, and that was Brian, and I followed his notes with words as quickly as I could, with no thought about how easy or difficult it may be for the Beach Boys to perform it. I didn’t take those things into account and now in Monday night quarterbacking mode, it just seems so easy to understand that that would be a problem for the Beach Boys. I come away from it years later realizing there were no villains. Some people thought it was sliced bread, and other people thought it was vile. Each one deserves an opinion.”

Those divisions still weighed on Wilson when it came time to finally premiere “Smile” on a concert stage last February in London. Wilson was so anxious he checked himself into a hospital before the opening, Parks says. “That’s when I fully realized the torment Brian went through to get that far.”

The first performance was a trial for everybody; Wilson still unsure of the public reaction “Smile” would receive after the decades of hype, rumor and self-doubt, the band feeling the tension of getting through the three-part opus from start to finish without screwing up.

But by the second night in London, Wilson knew where he stood, when the audience rose for a prolonged ovation. “I felt validated,” he says.

For Parks, seeing that performance made the 37-year ride worthwhile. “I had a residue of regret about how much it cost me, but the real expense was shouldered by Brian alone,” he says. “If there is a question which is of greater significance, the singer or the song, I would always say it’s the singer. It’s Brian Wilson’s triumph.”


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