To finish. That is the unacknowledged trick of great art — completing a journey that begins with conception and arrives at the concluding moment when all decisions are made and chiseled into stone. As Brancusi, no mean sculptor himself, would say: “To see far is one thing, going there is another.”
In 1966, Brian Wilson tuned his radio telescope to the ends of the universe to craft what would have been his — and the Beach Boys’ — epic masterpiece. Forty-five years later, a Jurassic age in the evolution of pop music, the might-have-beens and foreshortened realizations of the album still fascinate and resonate. For years, tracks of the work-in-progress would surface on various Beach Boys albums, shorn from their intending superstructure; intrepid aficionados would create their own track listings and imaginings of what Smile might have sounded like had Brian been given the psychic room to realize his vision.
That he was unable to bring this cosmic grin into fruition is one of the great paradise-lost tales of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2004, with the encouragement and help of Brian’s backing band, the Wondermints, a definitive version of Smile was lovingly constructed, released and even performed to ecstatic hosannas. But as Smile‘s legend attests, the work itself, in all its magnificence, pales before the Icarus-like myth that has risen around its making. And now, over the course of five CDs (or two, if you only want highlights), the odyssey that is Smile is told in overwhelming detail, a cup-runneth-over that illuminates the ambitious aspiration and sheer genius that made this album a milestone— as well as a millstone — in the Beach Boys’ storied history.
The Smile Sessions affords the listener a unique opportunity to climb inside the finished record, as if positioned on a couch looking through the glass of the control room out to the studio where the disparate sound textures are being orchestrated; or, like one of the many humoresque asides gathered on a disc under the heading “Psychodelic Sounds,” the way Brian is “trapped” inside the piano, or a microphone. As dense as the album would eventually be — and can be heard in all its fulfilled glory on the first disc — hearing these snippets of overdub and studio chatter show the underpinnings of the work, the care taken to ensure its perfectionism, its painstaking growth and the way its reach always threatened to exceed its grasp. “Perhaps I’m looking for something that’s not there,” Brian says at one point, and knowing how the tale unfolds, one can only rue the prophecy.
Wilson worked on the album’s instrumental tracks while the other Beach Boys were out on tour, assembling a top shelf of L.A.’s studio musicians and encouraging them to step outside their comfort zone and follow his muse. Given some of the more outlandish tales that have emerged from the sessions, the popular notion of Brian as spaced-out savant is hardly in evidence. Though it’s true that psychedelic drug use was rife, his acute concentration and forceful direction belies any lack of focus; a producer and musical conductor attentive to every nuance of performance, adjusting tempo, expression, even the way an instrument is struck. That he accomplished this in a time before digital manipulation, with its unlimited tracks and editing possibilities, is a lesson in recording technology as it begins to become an end in itself, the studio as palette and co-conspirator.
He was not alone in this, as many (including Phil Spector and the Beatles) were expanding sonic consciousness, and the times — when the humble simplicities of rock ‘n’ roll were exploding artistically at the rate of the Big Bang — encouraged the freefall of experimentation. Originally conceived as a Brian solo album, he was aided and abetted in his quixotic quest by Van Dyke Parks, whose literary sensibilities lyrically matched Wilson’s elaborations and flights of fancy. Smile‘s themes would eventually grow to encompass the pioneer spirit as it progressed east from Plymouth Rock across a pioneer America, the classic showdown of Hero vs. Villain, the complexities of Father-Son relationship (especially given Murray Wilson’s paterfamilias with his three sons), the Elements (earth, air, fire, water), and Capitol’s insistence on keeping the Beach Boys commercial hit-makers. That this was all designed to be encapsulated in a single album due out in early 1967, with cover designed and advertisements placed, placed a finite marker on what was rapidly becoming a moebius strip of never-ending possibility. By then, Brian had begun to lose heart: “Please don’t take My Sunshine away,” the tag line from the spectral standard placed in the middle of Smile, is more plea than musical referencing.
Beyond listening to the intricate keyboard counterpoints or the slapstick rhythms amid the album’s acute sense of humor, there are the Voices. Returning from tour to overdub their complex harmonies, it is little wonder that the other Beach Boys, led by Mike Love, were somewhat mystified by the verbal wordplay inherent in Parks’s allusions and metaphors, so different from their previous triangulate symbolism of cars, girls and the perfect liquid curl. Yet the sections of a cappella Beach Boys on display here, working out the interweavings of “Our Prayer,” or “Cabin Essence,” are particularly revelatory. Brian oversees their blending until each strand becomes a unified swell, an aural surfing of oohs into ahhs into onomatopoeic impressionism. To hear these choral polyphonics stand-alone not only heightens the accepted influence of the Four Freshmen, but shows that the Beach Boys — for all their songcraft and image and sibling rivalries — were surely the most accomplished vocal group in rock ‘n’ roll.
Of course, that genre classification is hardly capable of describing Smile, and in Brian’s case, not only was he attempting to stretch beyond the parameters of the Beach Boys, but the accepted notions of what could be placed upon the hit parade. He aspired to the tone poems of a Gershwin (made manifest when he recently covered George in a 2011 album) or Aaron Copland, and listening to the transitions and permutations of the album, it is likely that his idea of a “teenage symphony to God” would have translated to avant-classicism, appealing as well to such discerning high-artisans as Leonard Bernstein, who showcased Brian singing “Surf’s Up” on a television special.
Smile would not only fall victim to Brian’s own excesses and instability, but the inherent conservatism of pop music, which likes verses and choruses and singing along. When the edifice he had constructed proved too unwieldy, becoming his own personal Tower of Babel, the elder Wilson retreated, taking refuge in the more listener-friendly Smiley Smile, unwilling to face the demands and psychic toll his prodigious masterpiece had exacted. He had moved, as in Smile‘s most gem-like song, from “Wonderful” to “wondering.” For an artist, sometimes to hesitate and second-guess is to lose the initial impetus of inspiration, along with the motivation and resolve that goes along with it.
Yet even in its unfinished state, the challenge that is Smile ever remains; and though somewhat retrofitted, with hindsight giving a coherence that its creator found elusive, it is a singular achievement. Listening today to the album, illuminated by hearing its jigsaw puzzle broken into disparate pieces and reassembled, does not dim its prescience. Rather, it stands as an homage to one man’s sense of potential, the godhead within, and our human frailty that causes us to strive ever harder for the elusive immortality that is art fulfilled.