Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Resurrection of Brian Wilson’s Smile

As the sun sets over Southern California, illuminating the spider-like chemtrails that have replaced clouds, I sit thinking about Brian Wilson (the genius behind The Beach Boys).  Since high school, rock music has been the soundtrack of my life.  I’m 35 now, and that fact remains as true now as it did when I was 16.  As a younger man, I wasn’t really into The Beach Boys.  My impression of them was this corny, out-dated 1960s surf music.  Even though I grew up 30 minutes away from the very beaches the Wilson brothers sang about, I was never a “beach” guy.  I was more of an “indie kid.”  Of 1960s music, I preferred the more melancholy Simon and Garfunkel, later Beatles, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan.  Songs about sunny beaches and surfing didn’t really resonate with me.

Brian Wilson

It was in my mid-20s, a period of profound musical exploration and enlightenment, that my roommate Landon shared with me The Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds.

“It’s like the American Sgt. Pepper,” he said.

I gave it a listen and have loved it ever since.  Pet Sounds is a true Brian Wilson masterpiece, a pop rock record with incredibly symphony-like harmonies and instrumentation.  It’s a much more experimental and interesting album than anything they’d done before—a beautiful, sometimes melancholy, but ultimately joyful piece of art.

Around this time, I discovered from some fellow music nerds that there was this unfinished follow-up album to Pet Sounds called Smile.  It was supposed to be Brian Wilson’s magnum opus—his Rhapsody in Blue, his Quadrophenia—this legendary unfinished and unreleased Beach Boys album.

Wild rumors and legends surrounded Smile—mostly involving Wilson taking lots of drugs and losing his mind in the creative process.  He was like the pop music equivalent of Icarus—the boy genius (he was 23 at the time) who flew too close to the sun on wings of his own creativity.  Brian Wilson apparently had a nervous breakdown, became a kind of damaged hermit, and Smile never saw the light of day.

Photos of Brian Wilson during the original Smile Sessions.

The 1970s and 1980s weren’t kind to Brian Wilson.  Suffering from mental illness (auditory hallucinations, agoraphobia, depression) and an exploitive “therapist” who micro-managed his life—he lived in relative seclusion, put on a bunch of weight, and seemed to have become another casualty of 1960s drug culture.  The dream had died, and Brian Wilson’s spirit had apparently died with it.

Brian Wilson in the 1970s.

Or so I thought.  In 2004, while working at the now-defunct Borders books and music in Brea, I began to hear rumors that Brian Wilson had re-emerged, as if from the dead, onto the music scene, and was going to finally finish and release Smile.  It sounded like just another rumor or legend.  But, sure enough, later that year, there appeared on the shelves a brightly colored CD (this was 2004, in the waning days of CDs) called Brian Wilson presents Smile.  I bought it with my employee discount and eagerly listened to it at home.

I remember having mixed feelings about it at the time.  On the one hand, it was a gorgeously multi-layered and complex concept album.  It was fascinating.  But I couldn’t help thinking—Brian sounds old.  And he was—pushing 60.  But still, there was something magical and inspiring about Wilson finally completing an album he’d envisioned over 30 years prior.  It’s very existence was still a kind of miracle.

Fast forward another 10 years.  I’m no longer the young man I was when I first discovered Pet Sounds.  I’m 35 now, a teacher creeping toward what feels like “middle age.”  Lately, for some reason, I find myself thinking about Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys and Smile—drawn to this music which, for me, is as much about the person who created it as the music itself.  I can’t separate Pet Sounds and Smile from that slightly chubby, soft-spoken, tormented genius Brian Wilson.

To me, he seems to symbolize some important things about America.  How can I reconcile the naive, exuberant, joyful 1960s Beach Boys with the bearded, chubby, suffering hermit that Wilson became?  The 1970s and 1980s were dark times in America—it was the era of Nixon and Reagan, the rise of reactionary conservative politics that pretty effectively squashed the dream that was the 1960s.  After the Vietnam War and Watergate and all that bullshit, America became disillusioned, paranoid, insular, afraid, damaged—like Brian Wilson.  If you’re looking for a metaphor for late 20th century America, Brian Wilson actually works pretty well.

Which makes his recovery and completion of Smile all the more astonishing and miraculous.  Today I watched a documentary with the admittedly corny title Beautiful Dreamer.  It’s about Brian Wilson and Smile—telling the story of the genesis of that album in the late 60s, how the other Beach Boys (especially Mike Love) didn’t like it, how (at age 23) this young man at the height of his creative powers had a nervous breakdown, how Smile went into the vault of pop music legend, only to re-emerge in 2004 out of seemingly nowhere, with the help and support of his wife and a new generation of musicians who grew up loving Wilson’s music.  

The process of completing Smile was, for the aging Wilson, a process of therapy, a kind of exorcism of the demons he’d carried for so long.  And when he performed the album for the first time in 2004, to a sold-out international audience in London, it was an almost religious experience.  It was the resurrection of Brian Wilson’s Smile, both literally and musically.  Through the creative process he re-discovered a kind of joy he’d lost years ago.

Brian Wilson today.

I guess, in my own weird way, I relate to Brian Wilson.  I suffered a breakdown in my early 20s and it took me a long time to get better, and part of my healing involved re-discovering my own creativity.  I spent a long time compiling my journals and drawings from my darkest days into a memoir I called An American Comedy.  It was my own personal Smile.

For me, Smile is not just a great album—it is a human triumph.  It’s ironic that it was released in 2004, in the midst of another Vietnam-esque war (Iraq) led by a Nixon-esque president (Dick Cheney—let’s be honest about who was really calling the shots).  Brian Wilson’s Smile reminds us that, for all the darkness and disillusionment and problems that America gets herself into, there are also artists who give us a different, and more hopeful vision of ourselves and the world.  Wilson has described Smile as a kind of prayer.  It’s overarching concept is a transcontinental journey across American geography and history—from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii.  For all the melancholy and tragedy that accompanies this journey, there is a strong current of hope, endurance, and beauty in the symphony of voices and sounds that blend together.  

The effect is sublime, like a balm on a wound, or a prayer of healing.  Not in a cheesy, corny, or even patriotic way, but rather in the unique way that only Brian Wilson can communicate—the music is at once personal and expansive, as if to say, with equal parts naivetĂ© and hard-earned wisdom…it’s gonna be alright.

To listen to Brian Wilson performing my favorite song from Smile, Heroes and Villains, click HERE.

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