Gather, SMiLE: The SMiLE Tour; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE; and SMiLE, 2004

(The following article, about Brian Wilson’s SMiLE, originally published on the buhdge website on October 13, 2004, was written prior to the reissue of the original SMiLE album.)

Gather, SMiLE
The SMiLE Tour; Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE; and SMiLE, 2004
by Alan Haber

Brian Wilson Presents Smile
Brian Wilson Presents Smile

They are 10 minutes late getting to the stage, but not a soul is bothered; rather, the mood is one of great anticipation. Every sound, every supposed pin drop, makes every one of the 1,800 people in Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theater look front and center. Is it time?

Eleven musicians, soon joined by eight more, gather on stage, creeping into their places, picking up their instruments, assembling before their microphones for a loose, around-the-campfire style acoustic set, during which some of the most glorious, most life-affirming harmonies you could ever hope to hear will be sung. There will be much give and take during the next two hours and forty minutes–lots of love going from the stage to the audience and coming back to the stage in kind.

There is a lot of love in this room. The Smile tour has reached the nation’s capital, and it is time to sing. It is time to sing the sweet, intoxicating melodies of our youth. It is time to add that top harmony part that will make the hair stand up on the backs of 1,800 necks. It is time for 1,800 people, united in their love for Brian Wilson, to give back all the love in the world to the man whose music is being celebrated tonight.

It is time to smile.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is a black-and-white still seen in Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, now playing on the Showtime cable channel, that is, on its face, the definition of photographic verite: a depiction of the genius as a young man with the world at his feet, only his feet are off the ground, caught by the camera’s fast lens in mid-air. The man’s hair is flopping around his head, his fists are barely clenched, and there is a hint of a smile on his face, tempered by a sense of aloofness. The depiction is both exhilarating and defeating, exposing the obvious emotions and hinting at those bottled up inside this adult child named Brian Wilson.

What must it feel like for a man to have traveled through his life to come to be considered a genius–a god, even–a light that lights the world, that exposes both the strengths and frailties of humanity; a man who still has to live with the demons that have haunted him? What must it feel like to want to be so strong yet often feel so beaten? What must it be like to be Brian Wilson? How does he summon the strength to move forward? Because it is all he knows, because he knows there is an answer, and he is so strong, so committed to find it, wherever it may be. His demons may pull him down, but his faith pulls him forward. He is the quintessential survivor.

So he forges on. Every night, he sits center stage and bares his soul. He sings his life’s work, the degrees of emotion he has felt. His voice is sometimes frail, and sometimes flat; sometimes he sings too low or too high, but his vocals are always honest, never less than truthful. It is sometimes hard to watch him sitting there, just raising his arms, pointing up or to the left or right, looking straight ahead or down, seeming so robotic, but his smile is the smile that can and does light the world and warms every heart, and inside he is oh so alive.

* * * * * * * * * *

The childlike innocence that continues to inhabit Brian Wilson is plainly evident and infectious on this most glorious of nights. When Wilson asks the audience to sing along with him on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the only fitting reaction is to smile. You want to put your arm around the person sitting next to you and divide the audience into groups so that the singing becomes a round, and there is nothing, nothing really, that can improve on how joyous a feeling that will bring. When Wilson tells the audience it is time to stop singing, you almost want to ignore him and try the song in another key and go another round.

But there is work to be done here tonight during the Washington, D.C. stop on the Smile tour. It is October 10th, and fall, tempered by summer’s lingering softness, is beginning to creep into the nation’s capital. For two hours and forty minutes, good vibrations–there is no other way to say it–will circle and swirl through the hall; favorite songs and left-field choices, delivered by some of the best musicians working in music today, will bookend the evening’s centerpiece: the 2004 realization of Brian Wilson’s masterwork, Smile.

It is true, during a night of truths, that music evokes feelings and gives one a sense of place in the world, a sense of purpose; on this night, the soundtrack of 1,800 lives will play, and surf and sand and songs about relationships and feelings and Hawaii will come together in an explosion of emotion, and every single living, breathing soul within earshot will be forever changed. For casual fans here in the Warner, the effect may be lessened by the reality that tomorrow morning, they have to go back to work and to school and their lives; for disciples of Brian Wilson, whose lives have been defined by his music, tomorrow will be a day of reflection, work or school be damned–a day that will be unlike the days that came before. For those who have gone beyond the hits and deep album tracks, who have read every article written about the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson and have been forever changed by Wilson’s art, tomorrow will be the start of a new life.

* * * * * * * * * *

What brought me here to the Warner was the realization of a life’s dream–to see Brian Wilson in great shape. I had seen the Beach Boys twice within a single week back in the mid-1970’s–once at the Saratoga Performing Arts Festival in upstate New York, and a few days later at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Brian was at both shows, looking unhealthy in his Adidas track suit, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Seated at an electric piano or playing the bass, he was the definition of lethargic. He was physically there, but it didn’t feel right; his largeness was off putting and the effect was overbearing sadness. Years later, my wife and I, living in Delaware, made the trip to Philadelphia to see the Beach Boys; neither of us can remember if Brian was there that night, but it’s just as well. Those mid-seventies memories still lingered.

Now, in 2004, those memories have forever been erased, thanks to the release of the long time in coming realization of Smile, lovingly packaged and released by Nonesuch. I had listened to the album a dozen or so times before entering the Warner, so I was more than familiar with the current presentation of Wilson’s masterwork. I am of the belief that Smile is indeed the holy grail of popular music; I believe that Smile is indeed the apex of Wilson’s output. I am in love with Pet Sounds, but I am in love with Smile.

I have been in love with Smile since first hearing the few songs that were intended to be part of the original album. My favorite seemed to be”Surf’s Up”; I loved it immediately upon hearing it when it appeared on the same-named album in 1971. I can remember playing the song in a class of mine on a day when show and tell was the activity at hand. I remember being mystified that no one in the class, other than me, was moved by the song, but it spoke to me in wondrous ways.

But so did “Heroes and Villains,” “Vege-Tables” and the other Smile tracks that managed to escape the Beach Boys tape vault. But what spoke to me even more were the mysteries that revolved around Smile: Why didn’t it come out back in the sixties? What was the genesis of the original idea? What was Wilson’s intent? Mind you, I posed these questions more than a few years after Smile was abandoned and Smiley Smile took its place; it wasn’t until the eighties, when my wife and I were married and living in Brooklyn, New York that I caught Smile fever in earnest for the very first time.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, my chief source for music was the radio, supplemented by any 45’s or albums that I could save up to buy with my pittance of an allowance or get as presents on my birthday or Chanukah or the odd special occasion. My father, who played the trumpet and loved music–even some of my favorite music–would occasionally spring for a disc. When, as an adolescent, I worked for him during holidays from school and during summers, I would usually spend every penny I made (or thereabouts) on albums, three for five dollars at the Duane Reed drug store across from his office at 32 Broadway in New York City.

There were no Beach Boys albums in the Duane Reed bin; I remember Jethro Tull’s Aqualung being one of my most treasured scores during my weekly trawls. It’s funny looking back on those days now, but when I bought a record, it usually wasn’t something that I was overly familiar with, unless it was by the Beatles; I would go with unfamiliar bands and albums more often than not, in the interest of discovery. The familiar was in my head–up here. I didn’t start collecting my favorite records until I was just about out of high school, and didn’t get heavy into bulk until I was in college. Serving summonses for my father during my first year of college (he was a partner in a law firm), I made five dollars a pop; on a good day, serving 20 or 25 summonses, I could make enough to buy a whole lot of records.

In college, I discovered those cool vinyl Beach Boys two-fers that Capitol had released, pairing such albums as Wild Honey and 20/20 and Friends and Smiley Smile; I would buy them, one by one, and drag them back to my dorm room, where I would confound my more progressive floor mates by indulging in my love of the Beach Boys’ harmonies and melodies, playing those records into the night, much to their dismay and under the blaring of their music which featured–gasp!–loud electric guitars and screaming disguised as singing, oh my.

When I discovered, in the eighties, the variety of Smile bootleg albums available, I moved from obsessive fan to hardcore collector and analyzer. How did the pieces fit? Did they even make sense? What was the true running order? How did they do that? My imagined calls to Brian Wilson, during which I meant to beg for love and mercy, and the answers to these and many other questions, went unanswered.

In the late eighties, I graduated to Smile bootlegs on CD; a particular favorite was a single disc collection that was supposedly pressed in Japan and had the best sound to date (but didn’t they all?). The fine folks at VigOTone records put out a sterling, great sounding, two-disc set that not only included a typically deluxe, information-filled booklet, but also a poster depicting Frank Holmes’ wonderful original, sixties cover artwork, suitable for framing or tacking up on a waiting wall.

All along, from the late sixties on, there were always rumors that Smile would be assembled soon, that it was ready to go and a release date was on the verge of being announced; the rumors and promises always were soon doused, so fans like me had to hang onto their bootlegs and await the day that those discs would be rendered obsolete.

I have spent nearly 20 years listening to Smile fragments and out takes, only to come no closer to understanding what the album was supposed to be like, had it been finished and released when initially promised. Now, I’m not so sure that knowing the answers to all of the questions about the original Smile is necessary, because there is no original Smile album, only a myriad of clues to its track listing, to its intent. So comparing the 2004 version of the album to whatever it might have been in the sixties is really rather pointless; you simply can not compare apples and oranges, or yesterday to today.

Brian Wilson’s current band, assembled around all but one of the fabulous Wondermints (Nick Walusko, Probyn Gregory, and musical secretary Darian Sahanaja) and the indispensable Jeffrey Foskett, is a prime example of a dream come true: multi-instrumentalists and singers blessed with warm insight into the music, they were meant to be spiritual, fellow travelers with a song in their heart and the ability to sing it right every time. And on this night in the nation’s capital, they are at the top of their game. Building on the sound and feel of the abandoned sixties recordings, they recreate Smile in loving homage, while adding their own stamp and making the total work uniquely their own. The great drummer Jim Hines and solid, rock-steady bassist Bob Lizik provide the necessary grounding and underlying beat; they are aided by the multi-talented Scott Bennett, who is about to put out a solo project on the Not Lame label; pretty, soulful Taylor Mills on backup vocals; woodwind-player Paul Mertens, who also conducts the ace Stockholm Strings ‘n’ Horns, who are in love with their parts and whose enthusiasm is infectious, especially when they’re wearing toy fire hats and trying to tame an unwieldy fire hose; and the unbelievable percussionist Nelson Bragg, who is somehow able to keep track of the seemingly millions of noisemakers he bangs, pings and crashes against all apparent odds.

Van Dyke Parks, who is not in the band but might as well be–he should at least be in the audience at every show to take a bow for his lyrics and heart–is, in concert with Wilson, Smile’s main instrument. Together, they have composed a work that fuses elements of rock, symphony, folk, world, Barbershop and God knows what else into a universe wholly its own. Watching Parks react to the closing notes of the London premiere of Smile is something you will not forget (it comes at the end of Beautiful Dreamer); Parks is overtaken with emotion as the lights come up and he is drawn deeply in his seat; on the stage, he rests his head on Wilson’s right shoulder and takes his bows, and that gesture of love lights up the room on a night when lighting up the room is job one.

Although much of Beautiful Dreamer recounts familiar stories and emotions, the overall effect is strong, a mixture of exhilaration and pain in strong measures. It is still hard to listen to Brian tell stories about his father abusing him; it is still hard to fathom a parent who is in competition with his child, who takes out his frustrations in the form of painful beatings and will-defeating verbal assaults. It is profoundly sad to see that these and other memories still haunt the adult child that Brian has become; his fears and uncomfortableness with many elements of everyday life are real, and it is a great shame that he must still contend with both.

David Leaf, who wrote, directed and produced Beautiful Dreamer, does an admirable job telling this latest take on the life of Brian, although he might have laid off on the quotations from famous figures and gotten on-camera testimonies from more relevant testifiers than actor Jeff Bridges and director Rob Reiner, fine entertainers though they may be. And the scene that shows the band conducting vocal rehearsals, during which Brian seems to completely zone out and eventually leaves the room, is too long and painful to watch. I wonder how much of Brian’s pain is necessary to show to evoke a certain response from an audience.

For me, Brian’s inability to completely integrate into his surroundings is demonstrated no more clearly than when Paul McCartney meets up with him backstage before the London show and kisses him on the cheek. “No tongue,” says Paul, the joke completely over the head of Brian, who merely answers, “Okay.” But perhaps Brian doesn’t need to get the joke. Perhaps whatever Brian can give at any given moment is enough, and if it isn’t, it should be.

* * * * *

It is amazing that so few notes on so small a musical scale can be put together in so many permutations and evoke so many different emotions from so many different kinds of people. How the creative mind works, and how creativity is received and processed by people, remains a mystery; that someone like Brian Wilson could ever think on so widescreen a scale–how he could wrangle and twist so few notes to produce such exhilaratingly original work using so broad a canvas is one for the ages.

Tonight, here at the Warner, that canvas, colorful sound images flowing from it, bathing the audience, is golden; the man who drew on it, whose work has touched so many millions of people, caps his show with a soulful take on his inspiring “Love and Mercy,” and he is right, as he is surrounded by his band–love and mercy is what you need tonight. And tomorrow. You also need to eat a lot, drink a lot, and brush them like crazy, but that, along with many other truths, is another story. For now, love and mercy will have to do.

October 13, 2004

Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber's Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes
Click on the image to listen to Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio through players like iTunes

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