Thursday, November 3, 2011

In the Cantina and Out of the Can: The SMiLE Sessions

My history of Smile:

Late autumn of 10th grade (1988-89), I was submerged in all things 1965-69. Mostly, things that involved fuzzed out guitars and cool haircuts. Thus, I didn't know much in the way of the Beach Boys, but kept coming across things in books and magazines about the amazing Pet Sounds and the mysterious Smile saga. But where to seek these things out? No one I knew liked The Beach Boys. I was a little embarrassed to check stuff out of the library.
Oh wait, there was that one kid who seemed to love only oldies and especially The Beach Boys. Maybe I'll ask him. Yikes. I never really talked to him before. But this was important.

Indeed! He had Pet Sounds. He lent it to me, and on a cold and desolate suburban adolescent night, I suddenly had a good reason to not do any homework. Huh. Jeeze. This was incomparable to anything I was listening to. More sophisticated, and yet not "up its own arse". It was sad and beautiful. It didn't leave my tape deck for weeks.
I told my sister about it, and that Christmas, she gave me this excellent book:

Ho. Lee. Cow. Really? Really! So, so, SO much information. (Bummer alert: this is another book I lost in a fire, and now it's like $150 at Amazon. GRRR!!!!) All in 'zine copy-machine style. Old articles, interviews, new pieces and interviews, amazing photos...all documenting, in real time, the story of Smile. I had to hear it. I asked the same kid, and lo and behold, he had a smile bootleg. Pretty bad quality, but I got the picture (I have very awesome memories of bootleg listening back then. The warbly cassettes I'd buy at record shops made things seem more mythical. I remember a live Traffic concert tape from '67 that made them sound literally like they were elves playing atop a mushroomy misty mountain. Anyway...)

I then rented The Beach Boys: An American Band and learned a few things:
--That emulating the young Dennis Wilson's drumming--the spirit, not the technique--would be a good idea.
--That I would wear an orange turtle neck and white cords with pride. And I did. The jocks sneered.  Victory.
--That there was a lot more to learn about The Beach Boys.
--That there was a lot I didn't need to hear.
--That the more wholesome the band tried to come across, the more disturbing they seemed.

Also, my sister and I liked to laugh and imitate Brian Wilson circa '76. laying in bed talking about Phil Spector. "Phil Spector. Whoo!" And also how he says "When I took the LSD..." (in that sort of way people use to imitate a square. "Don't try the pot, kids!" But Brian's not trying to be funny. Or maybe he is?).

But mostly, I watched the same 30 or so minutes over and over. Pet Sounds to Smile. And especially the "Surf's Up" clip. Now, I've never been a big fan of piano-driven pop, especially when there's no drums. But this wasn't pop. This was....indescribable.
Watch for yourself:

SURF'S UP--1966

Some time later that year, I wrote one of my first ever songs and ripped off the phrasing from the first part of "Surf's Up", and threw in a reference to the Grand Coulee Dam (from "Cabin Essence"). I didn't know how to play piano or write songs or even sing, really (I was a drummer and lyricist only). So of course, I base my first ever song on "Surf's Up" (??). I guess I was looking for an excuse to fail right off the bat. My songwriting partner tidied it up a bit, while not knowing the Beach Boys influence.

Here's that:

Prince Makeshift

So, forward to 2004. I'd made a lot of music, I'd made a lot of Beach Boys fan friends, most of whom are musicians. I'd heard a lot of good Smile clone jobs: Dukes of Stratosphear, Apples in Stereo, High Llamas, etc etc. Though most just make me want to go back to the real thing. Then the real thing--Brian Wilson-- announced that he was going to re-record and release Smile with his back up band, The Wondermints. This was cool, and I bought it and dug it. But...
It was not a listening experience that I wanted to return to. When you know Smile as done by angelic voiced 20-somethings at the top of their game, it was a little disconcerting hearing 60-something Brian, his voice long ago ravaged by waaay too many cigarettes and waaay too much cocaine, as well as 40 years having passed, singing those same words.
Again, it just made me want to go back to the original.

So thank god, and thank you Brian and Al and--am I really saying this?--Thank You Mike Love for getting over all the squabbles and hang ups and scars and lies and insults and allowing the real SMiLE Sessions (because it truly never was finished) to be remastered and released.

I bought the 2 CD set, because, well, I think that's enough for now. And it is a lot. And it is all amazing. It arrived yesterday.

I'm wearing the pin today.

I'll start this review by discussing two reviews I recently read:
The London Guardian likened Smile to "...a psychedelic experience Hendrix wouldn't understand, but Don Draper might." You may know Don Draper as the protagonist of the excellent television program, Mad Men, about the Manhattan advertising big shots around 1960. The review also mentions that Brian sounds "terrified" when he asks the other Beach Boys "you guys feeling any acid yet?" in the middle of the "Our Prayer" rehearsals (he doesn't mention that Carl replies "I feel great".) The review is overall favorable, and acknowledges that Brian Wilson was "way ahead of everyone else".
But to those two excerpts, I will reply: The world today shows that Don Draper and co won the revolution. They bought Hendrix's (and Marley/Morrison/James Dean etc) image and put it everywhere. They don't really mean much. Don't believe me? Look at the t shirts at Target.  See how many Hendrix or Lennon YouTube comments you can read before someone's calling someone else a "faggot" or spreading Christian propaganda. Right. You've really learned from listening to these artists.  It's safer being a Don Draper because it's easier to be subversive and not attract attention. They watch the artists walking on the edge, and if they fall, they buy their legacy. Thus, a midwest football team owner plays one of Jerry Garcia's guitars with his buddies on weekends because he could afford to buy it on auction. It's sick, but it's how it is. (Wow, did I just lay down and admit defeat? No. I'm still on the artist's side. How could I not be?).
Anyway, I think SMiLE exists neither in Hendrix or Don Draper land. (If you want Don Draper, listen to the Capitol Records industry ad hidden track!) In fact, it represents a world that existed in the combined young, twisted minds of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. Van Dyke wrote amazing lyrics that conjure so many images, so many worlds, at once. Brian's music and, most of all, his vocal and instrumental arrangements dress these lyrics in the most unique, innovative, multi-multi-multifaceted music that represents someone thinking 1000 ideas per minute and actually able to get a good percentage of them across to his bandmates and the session players. (Listen to "Smile Backing Vocal Montage" and you will hear more ideas in these snippets than most people have in a career. More about that later).
These music and lyrics together are like an altered state where your senses are all firing at once and you're hearing and thinking the most amazing otherworldly ideas--but only if you have the wits to somehow get them down on paper or tape, they're lost forever. Brian and Van Dyke were thinking and hearing these things while in the studio, and luckily had the musical and vocal support to bring them to life.
And, back to the Guardian review: I don't think Brian sounds "terrified" when asking about the acid. He's in the middle of arranging the miraculous "Our Prayer" with the Beach Boys, teaching them which harmonies to sing. He sounds calm, together, in his element. They pretty much all do. Only when Mike Love briefly turns one of Brian's instructions into a cheesy song is the calm disturbed. You can feel everyone cringe. The mellow officially harshed. Right after that, Brian says "You have any more of those hash joints, Danny? I know you do" (Danny Hutton, later of Three Dog Night, who ran with Brian's posse). Acid, hash...So, Brian was maybe a little preoccupied by drugs.

But more importantly, those few seconds--Mike trying to lighten the mood by reminding the guys of surf-pop and Brian asking for more hash--pretty much tell the Beach Boys tale for the next decade or two. See what I'm getting at?

The other review comes from the Los Angeles Times,  which gives the Smile Sessions 2.5 stars and says that the collection lacks "...the flair for pop economy that helped turn the Beach Boys into icons. (Wilson) more skillfully balanced inspiration and aspiration elsewhere.".
In the words of Mark E. Smith: Hey there, Fuckface.

Yes, and Sgt Pepper didn't sound like With the Beatles. Missing the point just a tiny bit, aren't we?

I wonder if the writer listened to what I found to be the most amazing listening experience of all (and believe me, it was all an amazing listening experience. Do it on headphones. Yes. Do.)
The track is called "Smile Backing Vocals Montage" and was compiled just for this collection. I won't be able to do it justice with words, but suffice to say (I think these are all in it. My head's still sort of swirling from all this new info):
1) it gave me new found respect for the other Beach Boys--they are giving it their all, and many of these arrangements are worlds away from anything anyone had ever dreamed up. Brian took them into his warp-speed carnival of a mind and they did exactly what they were told.
2) Brian's vocal ideas are just...just...holy crap. Ok, an example: Laughing down a satanic-sounding scale in 4 part harmony (Vegetables).  Umm..I'm at a loss. That is just mad genius. I can't list it all. You need to listen and discover. But I'll throw this other one in..
3) In "Wonderful", I always thought that there was some kind of brass--trombone perhaps-- doing the counter-melody in the later verse ("farther down the path was a mystery.."), but it's MIKE LOVE! Now there was a non-annoying use for his voice. Who knew?

If there's one (one) one (one) (sorry) piece on Disc One (the tracks slated for the SMiLE LP) that I'd say is a bit much, it'd be "Look (Song For Children)". I dunno, I just don't love it.

THINGS TO LISTEN FOR ON DISC ONE or If there's a heaven, I would like to have a loop of the following playing, because I just think that they are among the most beautiful and engaging pieces of music ever recorded:

1) 4:18-4:30 of "Heroes and Villains". God, do I love those 12 seconds and wish they went on for 7 hours.
2) The first several seconds of "Barnyard". A rare instance of a guitar as lead instrument. Cool-ass tone.
3) The cello intro and final 50 seconds of "You Are My Sunshine" (this is not a diss to Dennis, who sings the rest of it)
4) "have you seen the Grand Coulee" bridge of "Cabin Essence".
5) Every damn second of "Wonderful" and "Surf's Up". The whispered refrains on "Surf's Up"? I never heard that before! How did they find things to make that sound even better?
6) I love "Holidays". It's 50's-early 60's Los Angeles to a tee. Not that I was there. But I'm real glad not to hear the "new" vocals on it that the 2004 Smile had. That was kind of lame.
7) The last minute of "Wind Chimes". Actually, no. All of it.

So, bonus stuff...and yes, I'm sure I'll be searching for someone who got the whole box once I officially want more. But for now, I gots plenty to chew on. Some observations:

1) session bassist extraordinaire Carole Kaye seems like a real cut up in the studio chatter. Brian even has to tell her to settle down. At some point there seems to be some "blue humor" in which "fingering" has more than a musical meaning. Me, I have no idea what they're on about. But I guess if you're "one of the guys" you gotta adapt.

2) I have always loved "He Gives Speeches", ever since my friend Tony Westcott gave me a Smile bootleg 10 years ago. And it's way better than the dumb song it evolved into ("She's Going Bald").

3) As my friend and fellow rock blogger at Born To Rock and Roll wrote to me, "Surfs Up '67 might take the cake.". He might be right. It's a solo piano version, crystal clear and heart wrenching and life affirming, and 100% perfect. In every goddamn way. If you just download one track, download this. It will shut up anyone who just doesn't get the fuss. That is, if they have a heart. If I was Brian, and I was told that this was just "ego freakout music", I'd have a nervous breakdown too. Oh, Mike Love, I'm sorry I went and wrote one of the most miraculous songs ever in the history of music. I'll get right down to  writing "Do It Again" next week. Happy?

4) Heroes and Villains- The "Children Were Raised" is the band getting the insane "bom bom bom" bits just right. And again, you gotta doff your cap. Or raise the white flag. Or roll out the red carpet. Or roll a hash joint for Brian. "Part Two" taught me that Al Jardine sings one of the most distinctive parts. I must say, I often have a hard time telling when Al is singing lead. His voice has elements of all the guys. Except Dennis. You can always tell Dennis.

5) "Cabin Essence" without vocals stands as a breathtaking and modern/avant garde piece of music.  I want to listen to it again and again. I want it played on every PA of every show I go to. And every waiting room I wait in. And in Stop and Shop.

6) I'll stop here: the "Vegetables" and "Fire" sessions--and the others--show Brian telling the Wrecking Crew (session musicians) exactly what to play and how to play it. "Don't play the high D", "Don't hit the cymbals that hard" etc. Every last detail. I remember in the "American Band" video, Carl, in a 70's clip where he's wearing a sun visor on the beach, recalls Brian's ability to hear one note or sound that he didn't like when 25 people were playing at the same time. Carl seems either jealous or sad. Or both.

And that was that. Because this super baby was never born, because some of its uncles (ahem, Mike Love) hated and cursed the baby while it was still in utero, because Brian was a sensitive artist who retreated and masked his heartbreak with drugs instead of telling Mike to fuck right off, Brian agreed to abort it. He never regained this kind of control. He never even wanted to have it again.
This is all starting to make sense. There is so much damn guilt and shame attached to this project. The boys went along with Brian for a while. Apparently they even abandoned the clean image and shared his drugs to see what it was all about. Then something snapped and suddenly it was "cut the shit, Brian. This is garbage. We need hits." Poor Brian spent the next 35 years, convinced that they were right. "Smile was me on drugs. It's ugly music. It's inappropriate. It shoudn't be heard". And the Boys were all "poor Brian, what happened?". YOU are what happened. If they had allowed Smile to be released, and Brian's ego and psyche wasn't stomped on, who knows? 
With this release, he's getting the last laugh. Justice is served, a bit too late to save the world, but enough to hopefully blow a few thousand minds, old and young.

1 comment:

  1. Just stumbled upon yr blog, dig your writing and insight. Thanks for the great Smile Box write-up, xmas can't come soon enough.