In December of 1966, I opened my copy of the Brit music newspaper Melody Maker, and espied a whimsical picture of a corner store selling pop images of smiles. The ad copy read, "coming in January the new Beach Boys' album Smile." Last week, 45 years later, I walked over to Norman Isaacs' music store near Cooper Union and finally bought the album, now a two CD set, dubbed The Smile Sessions, from Capitol Records.
It has been so long, this promise of the greatest rock album never released, that, when I called my friend, the artist Sherry Wong, in San Francisco, to crow about Smile, she, age 33, replied, "Never heard of it, Charlie. Besides I don't do albums, I just download songs." For those who don't know, Smile is what Brian Wilson called "a teenage symphony to God." Originally titled Dumb Angel, this collaboration between Wilson and a nerdy songwriter from Scarsdale named Van Dyke Parks, combines elements of John Cage, Charles Ives, Tin Pan Alley, Gregorian chants and, of course, surf music, to describe a historical tour of America.
The titles of its cherished pericopes, broken up by many acid trips over the piano in a sandbox in Brian's Bel Air mansion, give the USA a simple glory: Bicycle Rider, Who Ran the Iron Horse?, Cabin Essence, He Gives Speeches, Plymouth Rock Roll Over. As the elements of Smile emerged on Beach Boys' albums, bootlegs and in the many iterations of the putative song cycle created by Wilson fanatics on YouTube, culminating in a 2004 concert tour and official CD of same by a then 63-year-old Brian, the longing to finally have the real thing released has driven aging Smile fanatics crazy. Imagine if Sergeant Pepper had never been released, Beatle fans, to get the idea!
Now that we can hear Smile in all its originality, what's there? For starters, the digitalized mix is stunning, best listened to in the dark. There are elements in the final order of songs that even I, a Smile fanatic, have never heard before: a rolling vocal cadenza in Surf's Up, a stretched out version of the chant Child Is Father to the Man, a beautiful trilling echo in the middle of Cabin Essence and an exquisite "new" choir like reverberation towards the end of Good Vibrations, whose mix on the new disc makes you hear this very familiar hit for the first time.
Van Dyke Parks, to his credit, was cognizant of America's oppressed tribes, referencing the Chinese slave labor which built the railroads, the Native American Trail of Tears and the joyous music of Hawaiian native culture. Wilson himself more than sympathized, as his own family, like many Californians, was forced to the coast by the dust storms which ruined Depression Oklahoma, living in tents near Malibu, in a kind of Occupy the Pacific movement (this fascinating, little known tale is best chronicled in the late Timothy White's book Another Faraway Place).
But above all it is Brian's music which ripples through the mind. The Fire Suite, which freaked out Brian when a fire started across the street from the studio during recording, is positively fearful before being drenched by the modulations of Cool Cool Water. Wonderful and Love to say Dada are complex lullabies to the two Wilson daughters who became two-thirds of the group Wilson Phillips.
Finally, there is Surf's Up, a melancholy masterpiece so evocative that Leonard Bernstein himself journeyed to Brian's house in 1966 to film its performance for an ABC-TV special he hosted, thus precipitating Wilson's nervous breakdown, which led to his cancelling Smile's release. Its lyric crescends into the phrase "columnated ruins domino."
Few knew what those words meant in 1966. Forty-five years later, with Smile finally ringing, officially, through my enlarged, aging ears, I know.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).