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A legend lives
The rebirth of Brian Wilsonís Smile

Thereís very little one can say about Brian Wilsonís Smile that hasnít been said over the past 30 years. Except, of course, that itís finally been released. In fact, the just-released Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Nonesuch) achieves the near-impossible feat of being richer, deeper, and more interesting than the tangled story surrounding it. Itís an album out of time, sounding like neither the í60s nor the present. Rather, it evokes a lovely and surreal netherworld that Wilson, who brings Smile to the Orpheum tonight, October 14, began staking out in the í60s and has finally come around to re-exploring.

Originally conceived as a Beach Boys album for release in late 1966 ó the same year that saw the release of Pet Sounds and the "Good Vibrations" single ó Smile is often called the most famous unreleased album in history. Yet that phrase isnít quite accurate, because there never was a finished Smile album. Instead, there was a series of extremely ambitious sessions that collapsed around the same time Brian Wilson did. Smile was to have been the teenage symphony, the psychedelic masterwork, the album that would bring the Beach Boys the same cachet that Sgt. Pepper afforded the Beatles (and come out six months earlier, no less). Yet Wilson was up against his own declining mental state and the lack of support from the other Beach Boys. (Singer Mike Love apparently freaked when he found out that Wilsonís new collaborator Van Dyke Parks had written the lyric "Columnated ruins domino.") In the end, Parks was banished, and the Beach Boys recorded a substitute album (with the confusing title Smiley Smile) in a mere week and got on with their career, though with lower expectations and less of Brianís input.

Bits of the original Smile leaked out over the years, with a pair of its key tracks ("Cabin-Essence" and "Surfís Up") appearing on Beach Boys albums. In the mid í80s, some bootleggers uncovered Smileís planned cover art (a very í60s cartoon of a corner shop selling smiley faces) and track listing, along with pieces of its unaccounted-for numbers. Tantalizing song titles came to light ó "Do You Like Worms," "Iím in Great Shape" ó along with many instrumental fragments and a couple of ringers ó the early Smile bootlegs had an alleged song called "George Fell into His French Horn," just five minutes of a stoned Brian goofing with some horn players in the studio. Piecing together Smile became either a parlor game or an obsession, depending on your level of fandom. And Web sites like www.thesmileshop.net ó perhaps the only site devoted to a single album ó showed just how obsessed the fans could get.

The largest amount of Smile music turned up on the 1994 Beach Boys box Good Vibrations, which put most of the findable fragments into a half-hour suite. These pieces proved that Smile would indeed have been a visionary piece, doing unheard-of things with rock harmonies and orchestration. Yet it all sounded a little dark and cerebral, and this suggested that the openly emotive Pet Sounds would still have been the better album.

Enter the real heroes of this story, the Los Angeles band the Wondermints. Never has a wandering rock legend had a more sympathetic back-up band than this LA group, who not only have toured as his backing band but have gone into the studio with the intention of reproducing his most complex productions. Theyíve added some extra players, including long-time Beach Boys sideman Jeffrey Foskett; theyíve also steered Wilson away from the greatest hits and toward his artier material, even bringing back Parks to orchestrate a live run-through of Pet Sounds four years ago.

For his part, Wilson has kept his famous mental problems, which include stage fright, pretty much in check, though itís been an up-and-down thing: at an Avalon show two years ago, you came away remembering either his heartfelt delivery of "Surfís Up" or the dodgy moment afterward when he complained out loud that his Teleprompter wasnít working. Earlier this year, Wilson quietly released an all-new album, Gettingí In over My Head (Rhino), thatís typical of his post-comeback output. Some of its songs date back to the scrapped 1992 album Sweet Insanity; others come from a short-lived collaboration with former Bostonian and pop expert Andy Paley. Itís bright and melodic, charming in its emotional openness (almost every song refers to the healing he got from his wife, Melinda) but trying too hard, and a little too successfully, to sound like a modern adult-contemporary effort.

Smile operates in a different realm altogether. With the help of Parks and the Wondermints, Wilson has made it sound as if he and the Beach Boys had finished the original project. Although all the recordings are new, the arrangements on the original tapes are closely re-created, including the shifting string and keyboard parts on "Roll Plymouth Rock" (a little moment that the High Llamasí Sean OíHagan has built his entire career on) and the jarring rushes of harmony on "Cabin-Essence." In fact, there are no full songs here that fans havenít already heard, from either the released versions or the bootlegs. The real accomplishment was to assemble all the pieces, making sense and structure out of what had been unfinished songs and segue snippets. Smile now has the emotional kick of Pet Sounds and then some.

The segues are largely responsible for that, with the bits assembled into three continuous suites. The first is concerned with Americana, the second with childhood; the third is the long-rumored "Elements Suite." (Themes also recur from one suite to the next.) A playful piano theme runs through the childhood section, setting up the sad and reflective "Surfís Up," which Wilson sings more fittingly as a troubled adult than he did as a 23-year-old. (Although he strains for some of the high notes, his vocals throughout are the first really good ones heís recorded in decades.) And some of the completed bits ó like the wacky "On a Holiday," formerly just an instrumental ó reveal that Smile was meant to be more upbeat than the boots have suggested. Likewise, the "Elements Suite" climaxes with the lyric-less "Fire/Mrs. OíLearyís Cow," apparently the song that most scared Wilson into scrapping the album the first time. (Itís the one 1966 track thatís never been officially released.) The placement of instruments is slightly tweaked in this version: the screaming strings remain, but the wicked fuzz bass line is now right up front. Itís still a nightmare, but now itís one that rocks.

That song also sets up the one Smile moment that refers to Wilsonís latter-day mental struggles, and the moment that could have ruined the album if it hadnít been handled so well. His voice left alone after the "Fire" outburst, he sings some newly written lyrics: "Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? I guess itís just a mystery." The singer eases his mind by imagining himself in Hawaii, a personal vision of Paradise. This interlude dissolves into a reprise of "Prayer," the wordless chant that opens the album ó and then slams into the finale of "Good Vibrations," here given alternate lyrics (taken from one of the early demos) that make it more of a wide-eyed love song. Thus Smile gets its 35-year payoff: peace of mind, the redemptive power of love, and Heaven as a place with great surfing.

Of course, fans can speculate endlessly about whether Wilson really did the assembly work on Smile or whether his collaborators covered for him. "His role was pivotal and central," insists Van Dyke Parks over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. "Did he make up his mind to do it? Yes. And was it tough? Very. And very expensive, folks. He has a continuing problem with auditory hallucinations, thatís part of his DNA. And heís a man who keeps hope alive; thatís what he represents to me."

Is the new Smile the same album Parks and Wilson would have finished in 1966í-67? "Well, letís be honest here for a moment, though I usually believe that should be avoided at all costs: I donít know. Because I lack the subtleties and nuances of my previous mindset on it. But I have a feeling we did the most dutiful job and the least invasive surgery on it."

Parks was a young session man when Wilson brought him into the original Smile sessions; heís since developed a significant career as a maverick composer and cult hero. "Brian and I met at ĎGood Vibrations.í I remember that song on Dick Clarkís American Bandstand; the kids were just boogieing to that song. And there was the part in the middle where the rhythm drops down to nothing; the kids just stood there holding each other until it started up again, So he was already thinking outside a certain box. Iíd like to take more credit, but I was a good beta male and did what he needed me to do."

Far-fetched as a Smile follow-up would seem, Parks reveals that he and Wilson have been collaborating again. "Iíll tell you, I think itís going to change both of our lives now that weíve admitted to this phantasm, this youthful folly that we did in 1966. He sent me a melody the other day thatís so reminiscent of Hoagy Carmichael and beyond, and Iím trying to find a way to use it and serve the hitmeister that he is. So the monkey ainít dead and the circus ainít over."

Brian Wilson performs tonight, October 14, at the Orpheum Theatre, 1 Hamilton Place in Boston; call (617) 931-2000.

Issue Date: October 15 - 21, 2004
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