Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Surf's Up!

I can’t help but wonder how different my life might have been had Smile been a part of it for the past 37 years. Many albums have played background to my last four decades — music that still leaps into my mind or onto the CD-changer spontaneously: the Beatles’ Revolver, The Velvet Underground & Nico, the Stones’ Let It Bleed, Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model. And the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

As a lot of us knew way back when and as most people know by now, Brian Wilson had planned that Smile follow up the groundbreaking Pet Sounds. But the unfinished tapes were shelved in 1967, and Smile became a pop music legend. Pieces of it appeared on Beach Boys LPs and box sets during the next decade — “Heroes and Villains,” of course, and “Cabinessence,” “Wonderful,” and “Surf’s Up.” And there was “Good Vibrations,” recorded after Pet Sounds and meant for Smile, released as a single in fall 1966. But the context was missing. Wilson had written Smile as a series of “suites,” full-blown songs linked together by stray melodic bits. But we Beach Boys enthusiasts were denied the Big Picture. And for 37 years, diehards have speculated about what exactly would have made up Smile, as well as Brian’s intended track sequence.

Last fall, Brian and lyricist Van Dyke Parks finally gathered up all the pieces and finished Smile. Then Wilson and his touring band performed the completed album at London’s Royal Festival Hall last February before marching into a studio to record it. And last week, Smile arrived in stores, 37 years late, not as a Beach Boys CD but as a freshly recorded project of Brian Wilson’s. Does it live up to its hype? Yes. If it had been released as a Beach Boys album in 1967, would it have rivaled Sgt. Peppers? I think so.

Smile is gorgeous. It’s filled with all the strings, horns, and oddball sound effects that Brian orchestrated back in the ’60s. The famous Beach Boys harmonies, even without Carl, Dennis, Mike, and Al, are all there. The great “Heroes and Villains,” the first genuine song on the album, includes the “in the cantina” break missing from the oh-so-familiar version, and for the first time, we understand that it was meant to be Smile’s centerpiece; its melodies are threaded throughout the album.

In a ReasonOnline essay last Tuesday, Brian Doherty confessed, “Newly completed tracks like ‘Barnyard’ and ‘Song for Children’ brought this old fan to tears, and I believe it could do so even to those for whom the phrase ‘George Fell into his French Horn’ is meaningless, not argument-starting.” I’m nodding in agreement even as I type Doherty’s words.

You know, if it had been released in 1967, Smile might very well have been lost in the shuffle of Sgt. Peppers, Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, and The Doors. But I still would have had 37 extra years to bask in it joyfully. Ah well...

Brian Wilson’s Smile is, hands down, the musical event of 2004. Maybe of the decade.


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