What would have happened if, as planned, The Beach Boys had released the Smile album in the summer of 1967? For starters, people would have been less impressed with The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper when it came out that fall.
Don’t get me wrong: Sgt. Pepper is a great record. With its accessible tunes, it would undoubtedly have outsold Smile; the Beatles’ record, after all, is essentially a bunch of likable British music-hall numbers decked out in psychedelic garb. There are some terrific songs, but if you subtract “Within You, Without You” and “A Day In the Life,” and allow for the then novel, now commonplace arrangements, the album is 11 three-minute pop songs—not all that different from Meet The Beatles.
Smile ultimately would have had the greater impact, being something else entirely—as different from Surfin’ U.S.A. as Aaron Copland was from John Philip Sousa, as the Miles Davis and Gil Evans collaborations were from early Dixieland. Here was a rock ’n’ roll album that wasn’t just a collection of songs; it was a true suite in which one song flowed into another, in which themes were repeated and developed, in which the harmonic scope of the music justified the chamber orchestra treatment. If Smile had been released in 1967, it would have been unprecedented.
And now that it’s finally being released this fall, it still sounds unprecedented. Because no one in the 37 years since has blended rock ’n’ roll and art music as the Beach Boys’ Brain Wilson did on Smile. There have been countless rock-opera, art-rock and prog-rock projects, but most have merely dressed up mediocre rock ’n’ roll in the gowns of grandiosity. But Wilson used the moving parts and shifting textures of art music not to show off but to reflect adulthood’s mixed emotions. He used the through-line of classical composition not to replace pop’s intimacy but to reinforce it, linking one personal moment to the next.
“We wanted to make it sound like it all went together,” Wilson says today. “We wanted it to sound like a continuum, because I like it when music flows. Bach’s music did that. To do that, though, you have to have the knack for it; you have to know your classical music. My favorite was Bach, because he used simple chords and simple forms, but got such complex results. That’s what I was trying to do.”
When Wilson oversaw the first-ever public performance of Smile at London’s Royal Festival Hall this past February, you could finally hear the fluidity he sought. The piece opened with “Our Prayer,” a gorgeous, wordless, a cappella hymn. It had the moving counterpoint parts of a Bach cantata, but it also had roots in the wide-open vowels of ’50s doo-wop, which Wilson underlined by segueing into The Crows’ 1954 hit, “Gee.” With the smack of a snare drum, “Gee” moved into “Heroes and Villains,” the Beach Boys’ 1967 Top-15 single. The verses, with their dizzying descending line set against a rising chord progression, were sung to the original lyrics and then repeated with even more dizzying scat variations. The theme of American heroes and villains was further refined in the “Cantina” section, which had been edited out of the original single and the version on Smiley Smile.
This circled back to “Heroes and Villains,” which slid into “Do You Like Worms” and “Cabinessence,” a series of American snapshots from the Caribbean isles to Plymouth Rock, from the cabin on the hill to the first trains on the Western plains. Tying them all together were snatches of “Home On the Range,” “You Are My Sunshine” and the chorus melody from “Heroes and Villains.” This section gave the impression of flying low over the entire American continent.
Then it was back to earth for the lovely romantic ballad, “Wonderful,” which bloomed into “Child Is Father to the Man,” heard for the first time with its verse lyrics. This melted into “Surf’s Up,” the world-weary lament of a grown-up surfer who finds himself “heart hardened—a broken man too tough to cry.” He longs for a lost innocence and finds its echo in a reprise of “Child Is Father to the Man.”
It was more than 19 minutes of continuous music, tightly woven together, and it was only half of Smile. Still to come was a second movement featuring “Vega-Tables,” “Wind Chimes,” “Cool, Cool Water,” “Good Vibrations,” Frank Sinatra’s “I Wanna Be Around” and the return of several motifs from the first movement.
The Smile CD being released this fall is a studio re-creation of those London shows. Due to the long history of litigation between Wilson, his fellow Beach Boys and Capitol Records, none of the original recordings were used for this version. But those original tracks were closely consulted by Wilson, Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks and Wilson’s music director, Darian Sahanaja, as they constructed first the live version and then the studio version.
“I was amazed when I finally heard it,” Wilson admits. “It brought back a lot of memories. It sounded the way I anticipated it would when I first wrote it. We wrote a bit of new music because we didn’t think it was complete. We wanted to make it a little bit longer. People call it a rock symphony, but it’s more a cantata, a rock cantata.”
Wilson, now 62, talks in truncated sentences, in bursts of child-like enthusiasm. He’s wary of attempts at musical analysis, but he does acknowledge a sense of relief that Smile has finally been finished.
For 37 years, it’s been the most famous unreleased album in rock ’n’ roll history, the subject of countless books, articles and websites (there are still sites where you can “Make your own Smile album” from the bits and pieces that have leaked out on bootlegs and Beach Boys reissues). It’s been a painful reminder that he never completed his greatest work and instead entered a dark period of drugs, family squabbles and mental instability.
Parks, 61, has also been haunted by the ghosts of the unfinished album. “For so long,” he says, “this project brought me nothing but humiliation. It was the first question people always asked—‘How come Smile never came out?’ It brought me little money; it didn’t pay my kids’ tuition. After living the life of Job that this project gave me, I was so relieved when I heard it in London. I was so grateful that everything sounded acceptable and even had a certain charm. Something wonderful had happened back then in our state of youthful enthusiasm.”
It’s hard to remember how fast pop music was changing in the mid-’60s. Less than two years separate The Beatles’ first appearance on the U.S. charts with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” in January 1964 from such mature works as “Yesterday,” “Day Tripper” and the Rubber Soul album by the end of 1965. In the same period, Bob Dylan had gone from acoustic protest songs such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to the folk-rock epic “Like a Rolling Stone.” Keeping pace with them was Brian Wilson.
“Rubber Soul blew my mind,” Wilson remembers. “I liked the way it all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me to do something similar. That made me want to make Pet Sounds. … I didn’t want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level. Smile. wasn’t the same kind of thing; it wasn’t anything like The Beatles. It wasn’t pop music; it was something more advanced.”
It was more advanced in that it tried to move rock ’n’ roll beyond the bounds of the three-to-five-minute song. Dylan was doing something similar with lyrics, but Wilson didn’t want to merely add more verses to the same song. He wanted to link different musical passages in a chain, much as Duke Ellington and George Gershwin had done with jazz and Tin Pan Alley in the 1930s.
Wilson wasn’t interested in merely adding string charts to rock songs; he wanted to create a musical through line so a mood or a chord progression could develop beyond the standard verse-chorus-bridge format. After all, if life didn’t always have a simple beginning, middle and end, why should music? Pet Sounds was a step in the right direction, but it was still a collection of discrete songs. The next step was a true suite.
When he first heard Pet Sounds, Paul McCartney once told a reporter, “I just thought, ‘Oh, dear me. This is the album of all-time. What are we gonna do?’” One thing he did was write “Here, There and Everywhere” as a direct response to The Beach Boys’ album. That song appeared on The Beatles’ Revolver album, which raised the ante for The Beach Boys’ next effort. Wilson’s first response was “Good Vibrations,” a number-one single that was also a landmark in studio techniques.
The late Carl Wilson, Brian’s kid brother and closest partner in The Beach Boys, explained those sessions to me in a 1982 interview: “‘Good Vibrations’ has a lot of texture on it, because we did so many overdubs. We’d double or triple or quadruple the exact same part, so it would sound like 20 voices. There’s a phase in your voice, and even if you try to sing it exactly the same, it’s not exactly the same and more overtones and harmonics come out. It has a choral sound, a choir effect.
“We recorded some bridge sections at Western, went back to Gold Star and tried some verses there and did some choruses at Sunset Sound. Each studio had a good sound for a different thing. In the end, he’d use the section that sounded best; it didn’t matter where it was recorded. It was pretty daring back then to take a chance and record a section and see if it would fit with another. But instead of making it more bulging and more raucous as Phil Spector might have, Brian refined it.”
“Brian was on his own free-thinking path at the time,” notes Sahanaja. “He would get all the musicians together and work variations on a groove or a riff or a melodic fragment. It’s what I call modular recording. For ‘Good Vibrations’ he did 28 variations on the verse and 37 variations on the chorus. Then he picked and chose the best bits to make one single. That was a great success, so he decided to make a whole album that way.”
That album was Smile. Wilson had a concept for the lyrics but, as in so many areas, he was insecure about his abilities as a wordsmith. Just as he’d recruited a young L.A. ad man named Tony Asher to write the lyrics for Pet Sounds, so he recruited a young L.A. session musician named Van Dyke Parks to write the lyrics for Smile.
Born in Mississippi and schooled in Pennsylvania, Parks had migrated to California at the end of 1962 to play in the same folk coffeehouses as David Crosby, Jim McGuinn and Jackson Browne. When folk-rock supplanted folk, Parks put away his acoustic guitar and used his schooling in jazz and classical music to become one of the top keyboardists and arrangers on the progressive-rock scene.
“There was a tremendous urgency in the air at that time,” Parks remembers. “Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement forced everyone to make a decision: Either you were happy to remain in the Eisenhower era or you were willing to plunge ahead into the space age. Music was changing, responding to Dylan and The Beatles. When folk music went electric, a music industry developed out here [in L.A.] with people who thought that lyrics and music had other purposes than simply entertainment.”
Parks was playing a lot of sessions with Terry Melcher, who was producing records for everyone from Paul Revere & the Raiders to The Byrds. Melcher, an old surf-music colleague, had spoken to Wilson about Parks’ lyrics. One day, Parks was visiting Melcher when Wilson happened by and off-handedly invited Parks to write some lyrics for him. Out of such chance meetings, history is born.
“I didn’t know much about The Beach Boys,” Parks admits, “but I liked anything with imaginative chords and melodies—I liked Lou Christie and The Four Seasons. I wasn’t so interested in the topics of The Beach Boys’ songs—I never celebrated sexual conquest, and fast cars were just a means of getting some place—but Brian was obviously interested in getting beyond those topics.
“On the other hand, I wasn’t joining the counter-culture whole hog. The counter-culture had no respect for America, because so many shameful things were being done in its name—there’s a parallel to our own time. I did not believe the lyrics should be oblivious to that, but should respond with a guarded optimism. I thought the lyrics should confirm something of the American Dream and not just dump on it.
“The first thing we did was we knocked off ‘Heroes and Villains’ in one day,” Parks continues. “Brian sang the melody, and it sounded like Marty Robbins to me, so I wrote about the American West. I made it a policy not to change one note of the melody, because each stone in the melody is essential to the architecture. Melody is feeling, and feelings are important; they speak even to the comatose.”
Some of Parks’ lyrics crossed the line into artsy pretension, but they boasted so many aphorisms, puns and sly rhymes that they recovered from every stumble. He evokes the allure of the open frontier with lines like, “Nestle in a kiss below there; the constellations ebb and flow there and witness our home on the range.” He conjures up a schoolyard romance with this image, “Through the recess, the chalk and numbers, a boy bumped into his wonderful.”
“I thought Van Dyke was a genius,” Wilson says today. “We wanted to capture the mood of early Americana, Plymouth Rock and all that. Van Dyke had a lot of knowledge about America. I gave him hardly any direction. We wanted to get back to basics and try something simple. We wanted to capture something as basic as the mood of water and fire.”
Parks claims that Wilson has a “cartoon consciousness,” and he means that in the most admiring way. It’s no great trick, he says, to make complex art out of complex subjects; all you have to do is hold up a mirror. Anyone can tack pops-orchestra charts onto songs about “Topographic Oceans” or “Brain Salad Surgery”; the trick is to reveal the complexity in things as simple as “Vega-Tables” or “Wind Chimes.” Wilson, Parks argues, made music that was as easy to grasp as a cartoon and yet rewarded repeated listening as much as Bach.
“My friend Lowell George [of Little Feat] once described it as smart/dumb,” Parks adds, “smart and dumb at the same time. Just as the best comic books can turn cliché into high art, so can the best pop music. Brian does that. He can take common or hackneyed material and raise it from a low place to the highest, and he can do it with an economy of imagery that speaks to the casual observer—bam! It’s no coincidence that he was working at the same time that Warhol and Lichtenstein were doing pop art.”
It wasn’t just the writing that made Smile so special; it was the arranging as well. Parks didn’t write any of the music, but he did collaborate on the arrangements, encouraging Wilson to extend the experiments of Pet Sounds. Instead of the usual trap drums, much of the percussion was tympani, marimba and vibes. Instead of the usual guitars, much of the texture came from cello, banjo and woodwinds. But these instruments weren’t used for artsy ostentation; often, a brass section might seem to erupt into animated conversation or laughter.
“We used different percussion because we didn’t want it to sound too boomy,” Wilson reveals. “We wanted it to sound more delicate. I didn’t want it to sound too rock ’n’ roll. I thought it would be original to use a cello in rock ’n’ roll. It gave me other colors to work with. I heard the instruments in my head as I wrote the music. And it’s important to use humor so people don’t get bored, so they won’t be bothered by it.”
The songwriting for Smile (originally and revealingly titled Dumb Angel) was largely done between July and September 1966. Recording began in September, and Capitol printed album covers (with Frank Holmes’ illustration of a small-town shop that sold smiles in its front window) for an announced January release.
But the sessions dragged on through March. Increasing drug use destabilized Wilson’s always shaky confidence, a confidence that was further frayed when Beach Boy Mike Love openly resisted the surreal lyrics and avant-garde music of the album. After one especially heated argument, Parks resigned from the project, and Brian Wilson abandoned it shortly thereafter.
“It all came as a big surprise to me when my music was doubted,” Parks says today, “because I was doing my best to support Brian’s work. Fame and fortune had nothing to do with it; I just wanted to be involved, because this guy was the shit.
“I will say, though, that I knew Brian was headed for disaster, psychological collapse. A lot of that had to do with drug experimentation. Though I had done my fair share, I wasn’t interested in getting into a tent with Brian to do psychedelics. I didn’t want to be involved in anything that would incapacitate him. I was also intimidated by Mike Love; I was physically afraid of him, because Brian had confided to me what Mike had done to him.”
“Because I was on drugs,” Wilson concedes, “I couldn’t concentrate, and this music requires a lot of concentration. If we had released it then, I don’t think it would have sold one copy; I don’t think anyone would have liked it, because it sounded like it was from another planet.”
“Brian just couldn’t thread it all together,” Carl Wilson maintained in 1982. “It takes a lot of concentration to stay on top of a project like that, and everybody was so loaded on pot and hash all the time, that it’s no wonder it didn’t get done. He was getting fragmented; he was starting to have difficulty completing things. And it was also a thing, what if it didn’t turn out to be great, what if it had totally flopped? That would have completely destroyed him. We would have lost him forever.
“So in the middle of all this, Brian just said, ‘I can’t do this. We’re going to make a homespun version of it instead. We’re just going to take it easy. I’ll get in the pool and sing. Or let’s go in the gym and do our parts.’ That was Smiley Smile. A lot of Smile songs were on Smiley Smile, but they didn’t sound the same at all. The melodies were similar, but the versions were more laid back. Maybe we’d do the melody, but nothing would be there of the original production. I’ve always said Smiley Smile was the bunt, and Smile was the home run.”
If you can hear Smiley Smile apart from the expectations for Smile, it’s a lovely, charming record. It’s not the groundbreaking artistic milestone Smile would have been, but its pleasures are genuine, as are the pleasures of its stripped-down R&B follow-up, Wild Honey. Brian Wilson oversaw both those albums, but his involvement in The Beach Boys gradually lessened, and he never attempted anything as ambitious as Smile again. He refused to talk about Smile in interviews and had to be coaxed into releasing some of the tracks on 1993’s Good Vibrations box set. But even as he hid from the world and from his own music, a whole new generation was discovering his songs. The multi-platinum success of the 1974 compilation, Endless Summer, and the 1975 sequel, Spirit of America, seduced a new legion of fans, and the more adventuresome sought out the original Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile albums and eventually the Smile bootlegs. Two of them were Darian Sahanaja and Nick Walusko, two singer/guitarists so inspired by Wilson’s music that they formed their own band, The Wondermints.
“Within five minutes of meeting Nick, Brian Wilson’s name came up,” Sahanaja confesses with a chuckle. “At one point, I got a home silkscreen kit, so I printed up T-shirts of the Smile album cover. One day someone saw me in the shirt, and said, ‘I know someone who would die for that shirt.’ It was Probyn Gregory, who ended up playing for The Wondermints. Nick, he and I are all in Brian’s band now. We’ll be standing on stage playing something like ‘God Only Knows,’ and I’ll look at the other guys and go, ‘Wow. After imagining this so often, it’s actually happening.’”
The Wondermints have recorded four delightful albums of their own, but when they heard Brian Wilson was organizing his first-ever solo tour after releasing his second-ever solo album, 1998’s Imagination, The Wondermints couldn’t resist the temptation to audition.
“We didn’t know if Brian could handle it. …” Sahanaja admits. “He was known for showing up at Beach Boys shows, sitting off to one side and playing one song while they were playing another. They’d trundle him up there like a dancing bear. That’s not what I wanted, and I didn’t want to just run through the hits either, though that’s what some people wanted. To me, if you come to a Brian Wilson show, it should be a portrait of the composer and his music. It was all about getting the music right.
“The first few shows, I was afraid he was going to bolt off stage after each song. But he made it through the first show, then the second show, then five shows, then 10 shows. I think he was startled by people showing such appreciation for the music. It’s incredible to think he has never felt that love from an audience.”
Those early tours were documented on the 2000 album, Live at the Roxy Theatre. Once Wilson got comfortable with touring and was convinced that audiences really wanted to hear more than just the hits, the idea was developed to perform in sequence the entire Pet Sounds album for the show’s second set. In some cities, an orchestra joined The Wondermints and the rest of Wilson’s band for this segment. That tour was documented on the 2002 album, Pet Sounds Live.
Once they’d done Pet Sounds, everyone was asking, “What could possibly top this?” As soon as the question was posed, the answer was obvious: Smile. But how could you perform an album that had never been finished, that Wilson refused to even talk about?
“We were already doing ‘Heroes and Villains,’ ‘Good Vibrations’ and a medley of ‘Wonderful’ into ‘Cabinessence,’” Sahanaja points out, “which are some of the more ambitious songs from the album. So I thought maybe we could do a set of Smile music. But to do that, you’d have to go back and assemble the music from a lot of pieces and fragments. And to do that, you’d have to have Brian leading the way.
“But when we started, Brian didn’t want to do it at all. He was terrified by Smile. It’s pretty well documented how he associates this music with all of his failure. Smile was the moment when he started to check out; when it fractured and he lost his support system. He’s had to live with the what-if for 40 years, with everyone saying, ‘Oh, the great Beach Boys albums that could have influenced The Beatles and caused them to make different Beatles albums.’
“When I first met Brian,” Sahanaja continues, “you couldn’t even mention the words ‘Heroes and Villains’; he’d turn around and walk away or he’d say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ Once we were in New York, and a good friend of Brian came over and said, ‘Will you play “Heroes and Villains”?’ He said, ‘No,’ but they begged him, and he got into it and suddenly everyone was crowding around the piano and it made a new association for him. When we put it in the show, it became a standout in the set. Soon Brian loved the song; it went to being his favorite part of the show.
“Touring with him for six years, you learn that what’s most important is the music at that moment. If the music is sounding really good at that moment, it can override any associations or objections he might have. It becomes music again. Last year I was playing ‘’Til I Die’ on vibes for the Carl benefit. Brian came over and he said, ‘That’s great. Good memories.’ I’m thinking, ‘Good memories? He wrote this during the darkest period of his life.’ I asked him and he said, ‘Yeah, it reminds me of our first tour.’ He’s made a new connection with it.”
The first thing Sahanaja did was dig into the Beach Boys vault and pull out every piece of tape relevant to the Smile project. He transferred everything to his iBook hard drive. He then carried the iBook up to Wilson’s house and played all the songs and scraps.
“I sat down with him and said, ‘Brian, you have to listen to the music.’ I put my hand on his knee and said, ‘Brian, we’re not trying to finish the album; we’re trying to put it together in a way that flows, that has some cohesion as a live performance.’ When he heard it that way, he was more agreeable. It was scary for me, because I’m sure it was the first time he had been forced to listen to this music in many years. But we were listening to a piece of music and he said, ‘How will we do that on stage?’ I said, ‘We’ll do this on clarinet and that on vibes,’ and he said, ‘Really? Wow.’ Then he got into it.”
One day they were working on the song, “Do You Like Worms,” and Sahanaja, who felt it sounded incomplete, asked Wilson if there were parts that weren’t on the tapes. Immediately, Wilson started singing a 37-year-old melody and then taught Sahanaja a 37-year-old harmony part. Through all the drugs and mental breakdowns, his grasp of the music had never faltered. Sahanaja asked about the lyrics that went with the new melody, and Wilson went to the phone and punched in Van Dyke Parks’ phone number, a number he hadn’t used in years.
Parks showed up the next day, and for most of October and November of last year, the three men worked on solving the riddle that Smile had become. Parks wrote a few new lyrics to fill in gaps and to complete the segues; Wilson negotiated the transitions from one passage to another. Gradually it fell into place.
“It was like a puzzle,” Sahanaja explains; “you finish this corner, and then you see where the next piece fits. My role was to suggest how it might work onstage; maybe we could slow down this song, change the key and segue it into the next song. I’d go home after a meeting session like that and I’d record those ideas and bring it back to them the next day in a tangible form so they could hear it and so we could all critique it. Meanwhile, Brian would sing the melody, and Van Dyke would have the lyrics to go with the melody. I’d ask if a line was part of the original idea, and all he’d say was, ‘It was inevitable.’
“Brian would hear something and go, ‘What is that sound?’ Van Dyke would say, ‘That’s a lap steel combined with a vocal.’,” Sahanaja explains. “That’s when I realized that Smile was a true collaboration, that they had both helped with each other’s realm, because I was seeing it happening again last fall. Brian’s chord and melody ideas were left intact; even the connecting material was taken from pieces recorded in 1966. That was important to me, that every piece of music be of that sensibility. I have a strong radar for that stuff. If something modern sticks out; that has to go.”
The high spirits of the fall, though, gave way to Christmas depression and renewed doubts about the whole project. When rehearsals resumed in January, Wilson was ready to abandon Smile once again. He had to be coaxed through rehearsals. And when it finally came time to debut the Smile suite at London’s Royal Festival Hall, Wilson still wasn’t sure he could do it.
“After the first show,” Sahanaja recounts, “he was rocking back and forth. He looked up at me and said, ‘We did it; we got through Smile.’ What he really meant was he got through it and the sky didn’t fall down. Van Dyke came backstage, and tears were streaming down his face and he hugged Brian. It was a real relief for him, too.
“The second night, Brian had already scaled the mountain and was able to look into the valley and actually think, ‘Check this music out; isn’t this cool?’ That ovation we got the second night was really touching. The audience would just not stop. Brian had this look on his face, a look I hadn’t seen since Ronnie Spector sang a bunch of Ronettes songs for him in New York for his birthday, a look like, ‘This is so good it’s scary, so good that I can’t leave.’”
After the success of the live shows in London, it seemed foolhardy not to record a studio version. Wilson had confronted his ghosts from the past and was finally feeling good about the Smile suite. Moreover, he had 18 musicians and singers (including Sahanaja, Walusko, Gregory, falsetto specialist Jeffrey Foskett, vibist Scott Bennett and the Stockholm Strings & Brass) who knew the material cold.
“We did it backwards,” Sahanaja admits. “Most people establish a studio version of the music and then go out and perform it live and maybe strip it down and pump it up a bit to connect with the audience. But we figured, ‘We know the songs. Why not go back and cut each piece in sections in the studio, the way Brian originally did with ‘Good Vibrations,’ and then assemble the pieces?’ So that’s what we did.”
Smile remains the pinnacle of Wilson’s career, but it’s not his only music that has gone unrealized for a long time. There’s a batch of post-Smile songs (“Can’t Wait Too Long,” “With Me Tonight,” “You’re Welcome,” “’Til I Die”) that deserve a Smile-like treatment. There’s the unreleased 1971 album, Landlocked, the 1977 orchestral sessions with Dick Reynolds, the unreleased 1991 album, Sweet Insanity, and the 1996 Andy Paley sessions. Much of this has leaked out in dribs and drabs; some of it is inferior work, but some of it is terrific music that deserves a better presentation.
Earlier this year Wilson released his third official studio solo album, Gettin’ In Over My Head. Much of the publicity concerned his collaborations with Elton John, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney, but these have the stilted quality of a marketing ploy. The real gems on the disc are a new collaboration by Wilson and Parks, “The Waltz,” and four songs rescued from the Paley sessions.
Paley—who has a reputation for working with difficult artists, including Jonathan Richman and Jerry Lee Lewis—coaxed Wilson into creating the eight-minute, Smile-like “Rio Grande” on his first solo album and oversaw his best studio work of the ’90s. Unfortunately, none of the later songs were released until this year and then only in watered-down versions. Still unreleased is Wilson’s last collaboration with The Beach Boys, “She’s Still a Mystery”; a Phil Spector-ized version of “Proud Mary”; the roaring rocker “I’m Broke”; and the nakedly autobiographical “It’s Not Easy Being Me.” Perhaps Sahanaja can next turn his attention to these tracks.
One of the Paley songs that does appear on Gettin’ In Over My Head is the hook-laden “Soul Searchin’,” featuring a lead vocal recorded by Carl Wilson a year or so before he died of brain cancer in 1998. It’s a reminder that no matter how dysfunctional The Beach Boys were, they were all great singers. The group was the perfect vehicle for Brian Wilson’s songwriting, and no matter how faithfully Smile has been recreated over the past year, it will never sound like it would have with those great voices at its service—especially the way they sounded in 1966.
“Carl was a great singer,” Brian acknowledges. “I liked writing music for him because he sang really good for me. They were all great singers, and that made it easier to write for them. I knew they could do anything I wrote. And they did. I had to teach them how to sing on pitch. I did it one guy at a time, teaching them parts. I don’t talk to The Beach Boys now. We just stopped talking about six years ago, after my brothers died.”