BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR MAGNET Teenage symphonies to God. That’s the phrase Beach Boys auteur Brian Wilson used to describe the a heartbreaking works of staggering genius he was creating in the mid-’60s, when his compositional powers were achieving miraculous states of beauty and innovation even as his fevered faculties skirted the fringes of madness. With the 1966 release of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boy’s orchestral-pop opus of ocean-blue melancholia, Brian clinched his status as teen America’s Mozart-on-the-beach in the cosmology of modern pop music.
Less than a year later, he would fall off the edge of his mind, abandoning his ambitious LSD-inspired follow-up, an album with the working title Dumb Angel later changed to Smile, which many who were privy to the recording sessions claimed would change the course of music history. Instead, it was The Beatles who would, as the history books tell us, assume the mantle of culture-shifting visionaries with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released a few months after Wilson pulled the plug on Smile. Meanwhile, Wilson sank into a decades-long downward spiral of darkness, exiling himself to a bedroom hermitage of terrifying hallucinations, debilitating paranoia, Herculean drug abuse and morbid obesity. While he would later recover some measure of his sanity, he would never again craft a work of such overarching majesty.
In the wake of all the breathless hype for an album that was never finished, Smile took on mythical status, and a cult of Wilsonian acolytes sprang up as fellow musicians and super-fans tried to connect the dots into constellations and piece together a completed album from the bootlegs of recording session outtakes that have leaked out over the years. For decades, Wilson maintained a Sphinx-like silence, unwilling or unable to talk about the project, which only amped up the mystery surrounding the project. But given its central role in his precipitous downfall, it’s no wonder Wilson refused to even discuss Smile in interviews, let alone entertain repeated entreaties to finish and release it. Furthermore, he no longer had the Beach Boys’ golden throats to carry his tunes — brothers Carl and Dennis are deceased and his relationship with cousin Mike Love has devolved into acrimony and six-figure litigation.
Meanwhile, even with Wilson‘s protracted absence from the music scene, the dark legend of Smile was passed down via oral tradition and backroom-traded bootlegs to succeeding generations of pop obsessives, scholars and composers and hailed by many as the enigmatic “Rosebud” of popular music. Selected tracks from the Smile sessions — spectral, spooky, ineffably beautiful — released with 1994’s Good Vibrations box set only fanned the flames of obsession and lurid speculation. Like the mysterious leopard found frozen to death near the summit of the mountain in Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” everyone wanted to know how Wilson got that high and what exactly he was looking for up there. MORE
SMILE EVEN THOUGH YOUR HEART IS BREAKING: A Very Brief Q&A With Brian Wilson
[illustration by NOWHERE MAN11]
The long awaited release of the session tapes of Brian Wilson and Beach Boys never-completed masterpiece, SMiLE, is finally here. With the full participation of original Beach Boys Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Brian Wilson, Capitol/EMI has, for the first time, collected and compiled the band’s legendary 1966-’67 sessions for the SMiLE Seesions 5-CD box set. In several sessions between the summer of 1966 and early 1967, The Beach Boys recorded a bounty of songs and drafts for an album with the working title Dumb Angel that was intended as a follow-up to the band’s 1966 masterwork, Pet Sounds. After more than a year of work, things fell apart, Brian went off the reservation, and the master tapes were ultimately shelved. Drawn from the original masters, SMiLE Sessions presents an in-depth overview of The Beach Boys’ recording sessions for the enigmatic album, which has achieved legendary, mythical status for music fans around the world. Recently, Phawker had a chance to speak with Brian Wilson about SMiLE.
PHAWKER: I don’t know if you remember this, but in 1965 you reportedly had a religious experience while under the influence of LSD, and out of that came Pet Sounds and SMiLE, which are arguably some of your greatest moments of artistry?
BRIAN WILSON: That’s true. The upside is you get the song, but the downside is you have to come down off that drug. That’s the hard part.
PHAWKER: Why did you wind up abandoning SMiLE anyway?
BRIAN WILSON: Because we thought we were too far advanced for the public to hear.
PHAWKER: Do you think that the public finally caught up?
BRIAN WILSON: I think the public is finally ready for it, yeah.