Smile, Frown, Sigh


Certainly the most challenging combination of situation and material in the history of pop music is the legendary, incomplete, unreleased album Smile. Essentially a "duo" album by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, this followup to the brilliant Pet Sounds has never seen legitimate release as a whole, due to some combination of band politics involving the Beach Boys, business differences involving Capitol Records, and personal problems of Brian's.

So aside from a few repackaged pieces leaked out on Beach Boy albums and a few cuts on the Good Vibrations boxed set, the only way to get any feel for what Smile was or could have been is to purchase bootleg compilations of master tapes, or evaluate some of the interesting attempts people have made to process those bootlegs into some approximation of a finished product.

The good news is that there is so much brilliance in the extant Smile material, therefore we are all quite fortunate to have it. I am not personally exaggerating when I say that as a musician, hearing that music utterly and unutterably changed my life and my attitude toward the entire process of conceiving and making music.

Despite what I just said, and because of it, I do believe that:

1) Smile would not have been a commercial success in early 1967 because it had essentially no market

2) Smile is better left as is unless Brian Wilson decides for his own reasons, having nothing to do with any "fans," that he wants to do something with it. Everything everyone says about how therapeutic it would be for him to finish it, or how fraught with danger it would be for him to deal with it again, is totally irrelevant speculation based on rumor and innuendo.

Despite point 2) above it is valuable and delightful to hear what people have to offer about possible use of various takes, sequences of songs and the like, with the caveat that Jack Rieley has expressed so well: whatever people put together, whether bootleggers or fans, none of it is the actual Smile. Indeed, the actual Smile will never exist: unless someone comes up with a time and age-reduction machine. The moment passed, and anything produced now, *even by Brian himself* will not be the 1967 Smile album that never was.

I don't quite know how I arrived at it, but I try to use what I call the "five-dimension" approach to analyzing pop recordings. Some of the dimensions are obvious: lyrics is one, harmony and melody taken together are another. Another aspect I evaluate, particularly relevant in Brian's case, is what I call for want of a better word the "sound;" this is sort of a catchall for anything that you can *hear* but cannot annotate musically. Things like backwards tapes, animal noises, even "colors" like echo or reverb fall into this category.

The other two dimensions involve time, or actually two times, one fixed and the other malleable. The malleable time involved is "now," that is, whenever you write about a song, it is in the context of a moment, both in your individual context and that of the society around you. The non-malleable time is the context that surrounded the song when it was released, which is always a part of its history, and becomes frozen by events.

Unfortunately, in the case of Smile, that last dimension- the contemporary context- remains forever locked in frustration and incompletion. Whatever Brian's vision was at the time, it did not get finalized and packaged and make its way into the greater cultural context to one effect or another. And there's no known way to progress time backwards and make that happen. Is is however at least a bit reasonable to speculate, given what did happen with other music at that same time, as to how Smile might have been received, but no one can say anything definitive about an event that never happened.

As one example, let's take the fact that there were more problems with this project than just the status of this or that take, which piece was planned to go where and whatnot. The word Smile is not in itself a concept or unifying theme of any sort... one tends to think that Brian never quite resolved what his "symphony to God" was actually about. It certainly was not "teenage" in any meaningful sense; Brian was no longer a teenager, and the cuts that exist deal almost exclusively with non-teenage issues. In many ways Pet Sounds can be interpreted as Brian's final statement on teenage issues, and this was supposed to be what he did next. Commercially, the sound of the record may have severely limited its appeal: there ain't a single meaningful bit of electric guitar music on any cut that I can recall... this in 1967, the year of Hendrix, Cream, etc.

Had Brian and Van Dyke been able to realize and embody some sort of unifying conceptual theme with this set of songs, it probably would have come out as a musical meditation on the American and Californian Dream, its darkside as well as its positive aspects. Smile probably would have concluded with the notion that "the dream is over," if you interpret Surf's Up to mean something like Time's Up... I find it hard to believe that a significant percentage of the pop music consumer base was ready to hear that message, columnated ruins of the American Empire dominoing apocalyptically (without electric guitars), in 1967 before Tet, RFK, and Chicago. One could see it becoming a late blooming classic around '69 or so, though...

Reading Jack Rieley's pained and somewhat painful thoughts on the matter (Jack has expressed the notion that people should not even play around with Smile because only Brian's unfathomable original impulses would actually be artistically valid), I am reminded of Michelangelo's somewhat famous failed sculpture of Moses. At some point, the artist either realized he'd removed too much stone, chosen the wrong rock, or simply started in the wrong place, so that some essential part of the figure was now in midair, never to be carved. To me, Smile is the 20th century American musical equivalent of that sculpture. What is there has brilliance, and the whole thing will simply never be realized, period.

However, and I may be taking issue with Jack on this, there is extreme value to all in the existence of Smile, like Moses, as an unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece. The message that even genius can fail to achieve what it set out to do should be both a comfort and a warning to everyone. That such a thing can happen, and the artist then continue on to produce other good work, is a lesson in recovery and perspective: they can't all be gems, and there is no point in agonizing over them forever. That Smile's commercial success was far from certain (I think from their point of view the Crapitol people were right, the thing had no singles and would not sell from shelves where Jefferson Airplane et al were moving units like crazy), despite the brilliance of the content, and the role of commercial considerations in its stillbirth, should remind us of the difference between art and commerce. By the time of Pet Sounds, Brian had clearly chosen art as his personal direction, and that simple and proper choice confirmed that Brian indeed was not made for those times, and led to much of the subsequent problems between him and his band, his record label, and even his audience.

Look around you. This "culture" is designed to produce wealth and power, not beauty and truth. Success is easily measured in dollars earned and units shipped, whereas artistic quality is subjective, unquantifiable, debatable. The net effect is that esthetics and honesty are irrelevant if you can make a buck. What I take to be the true message of Smile (that empires rise and fall, but childish wonder and delight at beauty is a universal truth, and music is a form of that beauty)- is something this culture as a whole is not ready to face, dismissive as such a notion is of its universal and unquestioned imperial/material assumptions and pretensions.

And art as commercial product, truth/beauty to be judged by the standards of pushcart vendors and dealt for profit by craven merchants in search of a few dinarii... that is a recent abomination, one from which it is to be hoped humanity will eventually recover (presuming we are able to not sorcerer's-apprentice blow ourselves and our fellows away with the weapons of mass destruction upon which billions of various currencies were spent in 1967, 1996, and every year in between). The Kafkaesque hunger-artist superstar, one after another brilliant dysfunctional freak publically enacting his or her nervous breakdown to the sound of thrown coins and applause, is not a healthy phenomenon for any of the participants. Except, of course, record company executives...

As a people, we have gotten the culture and civilization we deserve, no more and no less, and that is why we do not have a complete Smile album: we are not yet worthy. We have all allowed a system to exist that stifles and prostitutes some of our noblest instincts, and this is a clear case in point. The Cartesian centaur, rational bodiless man fused to machine, is near-omnipotent in his destructiveness but a sterile creature whose ultimate legacy is emptiness. One envisions more intelligent creatures, in some enlightened future, viewing our Billboard sales charts the way we today look at Babylonian clay models (used in ancient formal academies) to teach the reading of entrails. Bicycle rider, see what you've done... if you can.