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Interview: Brian Wilson on Smile

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Brian Wilson Last week I traveled to Los Angeles to spend time with Brian Wilson at his home in Beverly Hills. My interview with Brian is in today's Wall Street Journal (pick up a copy or go here if you're a subscriber). As the founding member of the Beach Boys and the musical wizard behind the group's most absorbing recordings, Brian also is probably rock's most direct link to the California's jazz scene of the 1950s.

What many jazz fans may not realize is that Wilson modeled the Beach Boys after the Four Freshmen. During our conversation last week, Brian expressed how much he enjoyed the swinging vocal quartet of the 1950s, particularly Four Freshmen and Five Trombones. But once 1960 rolled around and Phil Spector in Los Angeles began producing singles by the Crystals and the Ronettes—dense-packed with instrumentation and overdubbing—Brian fell in love with Spector's Wall of Sound approach to recording.

While Pet Sounds (1966) is widely regarded as the group's finest work and one of the decade's most radical rock albums, the material that Brian recorded next for a project known as Smile is even better. Let me explain:

After Pet Sounds, Brian set to work at home and in the studio writing and recording the music for the Beach Boys' next album. After using LSD and marijuana, he produced inventive tracks illustrating a psychedelic road trip of the U.S., as seen through a teenager's eyes. Brian enlisted the help of lyricist Van Dyke Parks, and through the summer and fall of 1966, they worked industriously on Smile.

Unfortunately, Brian didn't have a George Martin to crack the whip, and his quest for perfection and a layered, textured sound began to buckle under its own weight. By December, it was clear that the album wasn't going to make its January 15, 1967 deadline set by Capitol Records. As the months of the new year dragged on, it became clear to all involved that the music was too surreal, too exotic and ahead of its time. In addition to being a major break from what the Beach Boys' fan base was used to, it was almost impossible to perform the material on stage, where the band's money was being made.

When the album was aborted by Capitol, Brian went into an emotional slide. He already had had an nervous breakdown in 1964 in response to all of the pressure and anxiety he was under to write, play and produce the band's songs while still in his early 20s. But a failed album at the height of the Beach Boys' popularity in 1967 was too much to bear. Brian and the Beach Boys fought for years afterward and only recently reconciled.

You have to remember that in 1966, the Beach Boys were more popular than the Beatles in Britain. And in the U.S., the band was riding a double wave. Mass market fans loved their surf-girls-cars' themed music and more sophisticated fans wanted something more like sophisticated like Pet Sounds. The Beatles has abandoned touring earlier in the year and were slipping in popularity.

What's most remarkable is that much of the music for Smile was recorded before the Beatles even began working on Sgt. Pepper's. Which, of course, makes you wonder whether the Smile tapes were shared with the Beatles surreptitiously, since the material hadn't been released at the time.

Long story short, the Smile tapes remained in the Capitol vaults, though many of Smile's songs wound up on subsequent Beach Boys albums in an abbreviated form. Then in 2004, Brian agreed to re-record many of the Smile project's songs (Brian Wilson Presents Smile) and performed them briefly. Now, on Nov. 1, Capitol is finally releasing The Smile Sessions, two-CD and five-CD sets with all of the outtakes and the order in which Brian wanted the material to appear. I find it to be an extraordinary work on many levels.

When I arrived at Brian's home last Wednesday at 1 p.m., Jean, his media rep and assistant opened the glass front door. Brian's home is neo-Spanish in style, with marble staircases and lots of wood paneling. Jean led me back to the home's giant kitchen. There, Brian was waiting for me. As I entered, he stood up and we shook hands. He was wearing baggy chinos and a plaid shirt. I couldn't help but notice that he's taller than I thought he would be—probably around 6'-1" or 6'-2." [Brian Wilson's piano by Marc Myers]

Jean asked where we wanted to chat. I suggested a quiet place. Brian said, “Let's go up to my music room," and up the stairs we went to the second floor.

Once inside Brian's wood-paneled room—jammed with two pianos, dozens of awards and framed gold records—Brian plopped into a leather chair and put a pillow on his lap. He suggested I turn around the desk chair. I flipped on my two digital recorders, and we began to talk about Smile. [Photo by James Minchin III]

This was a difficult interview. Brian is not overly talkative, but not for the reasons you probably imagine. Many people have wrongly labeled him “fried" or “catatonic." But that's not the case. If you've heard his superb recordings made in the past year (the Gershwin album, Listen to Me on Listen to Me: Buddy Holly and the upcoming In the Key of Disney CD), you'd realize much of his brevity has to do with shyness and depression.

But since this issue was the elephant in the room, I asked him about right off the bad. His answer is in today's paper. Among the revelations in our conversation: Performing Good Vibrations makes Brian uneasy; he has only so much tolerance for hearing Smile because of the sour memories recording it; he doesn't regret taking LSD back then; and he didn't see Bob Dylan as compeittion—only the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Phil Spector.

Here's what didn't make it into the Wall Street Journal today...

Marc Myers: What was your obsession with youth on Smile?

Brian Wilson: We lose our childhood spirit as we grow older. When you hear this music, it takes you back to your childhood. That's one of the reasons why we released all the tapes now. We want people to get a taste of what we were into. We want them to flash back to their youth.

MM: Back in '66, what was driving you?

BW: My youth. I had a lot of youth energy. Look at George Gershwin. He was 26 years old when he wrote Rhapsody in Blue. When you're young, all that matters is excitement and positive feelings. We have that for only a brief time. Then it's gone. 

MM: Smile was originally going to be called Dumb Angel?

BW: Yes. I was stoned one night sitting in my office in my home in Beverley Hills. I said to myself, “Dumb Angel. Hmmm, hey that's going to be the name of the album." I told [lyricist] Van Dyke Parks. He said, “No way. We're going to call it Smile. I said, “Alright you win." He said, “Alright, I win."

MM: You didn't put up a fight?

BW: Nah. Smile was better. More happier. No one would have understood Dumb Angel anyway.

MM: Do you hear Smile on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's?

BW: Not at all, no.

MM: You don't hear Surf's Up in Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane?

BW: No, no way.

MM: of your Fire in A Day in the Life?

BW: Oh, the big buildup—interesting.

MM: And the end of Child Is the Father of the Man seems to have found its way into the beginning of Paul McCartney's Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.

BW: I'll be darned. I never would have thought of that. Yeah, actually.

MM: Could someone have shared Smile's tapes with the Beatles before Sgt. Pepper's was recorded or completed?

BW: Nah.

MM: So you don't think the Beatles heard the Smile tapes before they recorded Sgt. Pepper's?

BW: No, I don't think so.

MM: Why are listeners ready for Smile now?

BW: Because people who were young then have grown older. Now they miss their youth. Their minds have grown musically, too. Now they can understand the music we made. A lot of people tell me that when they hear Smile, they feel like a kid again.

MM: Why was Smile abandoned?

BW: We just had enough. Van Dyke and I had come to the conclusion that the music was too advanced. The music would not be appreciated. It's not really rock and roll. What would you call Smile?

MM: Impressionistic psychedelic folk-rock.

BW: Ah, OK. Folk-rock—there you go. Why?

MM: The album has a heart. And it has feelings. It expresses what it's like to be a kid in an impressionistic way. Most rock to me is about adulthood. Smile depicts the psychedelic magic of childhood.

BW: I love that. You coin those just right. By the way, I still love to listen to Phil Spector's records. You can write that.

MM: What do you like about them?

BW: The teenage drama. The tension. I love Be My Baby [the Ronettes], Da Doo Ron Ron [the Crystals], River Deep Mountain High [Ike & Tina Turner]. And... I can't think of it...

MM: The Ronettes' Walkin in the Rain?

BW: Whoa! Now you're talking business. You're talkin' business now.

MM: Since most people will be importing Smile into iTunes, should they change the order of the master takes in the folder? Or leave it as is?

BW: They should leave it as is. Because it's the adventure I want them to take, the order it is now.

At the end of the interview, Brian asked me to come out back with him. Down the stairs we went and out the back door to a sitting area, with a fenced-in swimming pool across a short distance of lawn. Brian originally had agreed to let me tag along on his daily walk. But I sensed he wanted to ask me if he could return to the studio, where he spends much of his time. Then he asked me just that.

What was I going to do, insist that Brian Wilson—the guy who shaped the California surf sound in the early 1960s and pioneered the concept album and psychedelic rock album mid-decade—live up to his agreement? “Of course, Mr. Wilson, we're good," I said. At which point he jumped up and thanked me. In the house, he graciously signed my copy of his autobiography, said he loved our chat and headed out the front door. [Photo by James Minchin III]

As I stood inside the rotunda of his home's entrance, I watched Brian walk off down the stairs of his house to the driveway with a bounce, happy as a lark on a perfectly warm sunny day.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find The Smile Sessions available in multiple formats on November 1. The full box is here, a two-CD set is here and vinyl is here.

JazzWax notes: If you're interested in more information on Brian, Smile and the entire rock scene in Los Angeles in the '60s, I recommend the following books: Brian Wilson: Wouldn't It Be Nice (go here), Domenic Priore's Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece (go here) and Domenic Priorie's Riot on Sunset Strip (go here).

JazzWax clip: Here's Heroes and Villains from Smile. Keep in mind, this was being recorded months before the Beatles went into the studio to record Sgt. Pepper's...



And here's Surf's Up from Smile. Sounds a bit like Surf's Up wound up in the Beatles' Lovely Rita about 3:30 in...



And here's Child Is the Father of the Man. At about 1:06, I hear the intro to what would become Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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