MEMOIR
Brian Wilson: Our Journey to SMiLE

It took 37 years for Brian Wilson’s SMiLE to see the light of day. At its first public performance, grown men wept openly.

By Ken Shane

brian

Photo by Ken Shane



It is the middle of October and I’m listening to a preview of Brian Wilson’s new album, What I Really Want for Christmas. The Season of Light has come early this year. The autumn chill has descended on my northern New Jersey home, but I’m thinking of a warm summer night two months ago that found me sitting in a large amphitheater, waiting to turn fantasy into reality.

I have a great seat in this amphitheater thanks to an understanding publicist. I’m here to cover the concert for a local arts magazine that’s not exactly Rolling Stone, but is enough to get me in the door. Actually, my reasons for being here are far more personal than they are professional. I’m not here on assignment; I volunteered.

***

Brian Wilson has existed in my memory for as long as I can remember. In my mind’s eye I can see him standing between the drawn velvet curtains on the stage of Newark’s Mosque Theater in the 1960s, his white Fender bass strapped to his body, wearing the Beach Boys’ uniform white pants and red-and-white striped shirt. There, too, are his younger brothers, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine.

The thing is, Brian was never really there – at least not then. By the time I first saw the Beach Boys in 1967, Brian had stopped touring with the band. He preferred to stay at home and work on, then abandon, an album called Dumb Angel. That album later became known as SMiLE, which was finally resurrected and released to great acclaim in 2004.

So how is it that my memories of him are so vivid? How can it be that until I read Keith Badman’s recent book The Beach Boys – a chronological look at the band from the early 1960s to the mid-70s – I was so sure I’d seen him up there? In fact, while I was watching Brian’s band perform on stage, he was at home in California, descending into a hell of mental illness and drug addiction.

It’s the music of course. While Brian spent years in his personal wilderness, out of the public eye aside from the occasional lurid detailing of his problems by the press, his music functioned as a backdrop for every summer day. If the concept of a comeback means anything at all (and there are too many comebacks made by people who never actually left) then Brian Wilson has made one of the great comebacks in history. Because Brian really left. He left, and he nearly didn’t make it back.

***

As in the case of so many musicians of my generation, it all started for me on a cold February night in 1964 when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I’d seen photographs of them, and had heard a couple of their songs, but it was that live performance before a national audience of millions that sealed the deal for me. And it wasn’t just us kids who were watching that night; our parents were there beside us – dubious at first, but captivated by the time it was over. A week later I was in my first band.

What was it about the Beatles that inspired me to actually pick up a guitar instead of watching from the sidelines? The simple answer is that the Beatles somehow made all things seem possible. If they could grow their hair long, wear Cuban-heeled boots, be smart and funny, and bring new sounds to music, it followed that there were more freedoms to be won. As it happened, the subsequent years brought freedom and creativity far beyond what many imagined, or some wanted.

The Beatles flew into JFK, and charmed a nation trying desperately to shed a blanket of sadness following the murder of its young President a few months earlier. To be English was all, and before long it wasn’t just the Beatles. Dave Clark Five, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Gerry and the Pacemakers were the front-line troops of a full-scale invasion.

By 1964, the Beach Boys had been making hit records for more than two years. Upon casual listening, those early songs were simple paeans to surf, sun, cars, and girls, but there would always be some little twist in Brian’s writing that elevated these tunes above the usual three-chord hits of the day. Just when you were expecting a return to the same old refrain, Brian would surprise you with an odd diminished chord, or an ambitious instrumental passage. If you were paying attention, you could hear the sound of things to come.

Nevertheless, the Beach Boys’ popularity waned in the wake of the Beatles’ stunning celebrity. The Beach Boys tried to grow their hair a little longer, but they had kept their uncool uniforms way too long, and became something of an afterthought. The hits kept coming, to be sure, but the band was in a desperate struggle to keep up. The wave of the future had crested, and they were paddling hard to try to catch it.

***

It was one sunny afternoon in April 1967, a month before my 16th birthday that I got on a bus in my suburban New Jersey village and began the journey to Newark. The Beach Boys were playing a matinee there that day, and it was my first chance to see them in person. In retrospect it seems vaguely odd to me that my parents would let me travel to scary Newark on my own – until I remember Newark is where they both grew up. The show itself was happening in the same building where they were married. The bus ride lasted only 30 minutes, but felt in many ways like a journey to a foreign country.

Less than three months later, Newark police arrested a black cab driver named John Smith for swerving around a double-parked patrol car. When Smith arrived at the police station, it was apparent that he had been badly beaten. Word spread throughout the community, and suddenly Newark was on fire. In one of the worst civil disturbances in the history of the United States, the State Police and the National Guard battled the citizens of Newark for control of the city. When the smoke cleared, 23 people lay dead, and 725 were injured. It took years for the city to begin to recover from those four days of chaos, and the recovery is still ongoing nearly 40 years later.

That first night, July 12, 1967, I can remember watching from the roof of my house in the hills as the city below burned. I felt safe enough on my protected perch, but it was clear to me that if things didn’t change, we’d all eventually face what James Baldwin referred to as the fire next time.

Into the heart of this city on the edge, this invisible country, rode the Beach Boys – the All-American band. For me it was as if I had been granted one last day of idyllic childhood before being thrust into the maelstrom, but for those musicians it must have seemed like just another stop on a tour they’d started that March. The Newark show wasn’t even the only one they’d do that day; the last date of the tour was scheduled for Schenectady that night. Three days later the Beach Boys would head for Ireland to begin a European tour that would last almost a month. Memory tells me that Brian was onstage throughout that Newark show, while history tells me he wasn’t really there. But I know where he was, and what he was doing.

***

As Newark burned, San Francisco was gearing up for the Summer of Love. As the Vietnam War raged, opposition grew. There was a new kind of music in the air, inspired by an ever-expanding sense of freedom and the prodigious use of psychedelic drugs. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors were creating an innovative sound that was uniquely American. The hippie movement was in full flower. Thousands of people flocked to San Francisco that summer, and the spotlight shone brightly on California.

Meanwhile the Beatles were back home in England, creating the album that would be widely considered their masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Less widely known to the general public was the fact that in 1966 Brian Wilson had upped the ante for all musicians when he and the Beach Boys produced a masterpiece of their own, Pet Sounds – a response to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. A friendly but intense rivalry ensued, and we were all the beneficiaries. Years later, the Beatles readily admitted a compulsion to respond to Pet Sounds. Although the recording of SMiLE started before the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, and it’s likely the British band listened to and was influenced by Brian’s work-in-progress, the artistic climate became so heady after the release of Sgt. Pepper, it was Brian who now needed to respond. It would take 37 years for him to frame his rejoinder, but when he did on a winter night in 2004, Paul McCartney was in the audience, applauding and cheering along with everyone else.

***

The exhilarating years of the late ’60s gave way to the ’70s and the deadening notion that I would never again live in such exciting times. The new decade twice brought love my way, and twice left me with only memories. The excesses of the ’80s proved hard to resist, leaving me adrift throughout much of the ’90s.

But, though I had stopped performing live and was no longer writing songs, I never put down my guitar. In California, Brian wasn’t performing live either. Worse, his production of new songs slowed to a trickle. Every once in a while I’d read something about Brian Wilson in a magazine, but the news wasn’t particularly good. The most disturbing reports detailed his “care” by psychiatrist Eugene Landy, a case that seemed to border on captivity. Yet when life began to hurt, I knew I could listen to “God Only Knows” and make it all better, if only for those few moments.

Then, at some point in the late ’90s, Brian and I started to emerge from separate cocoons. I started to write songs and play in clubs again. I even pulled together enough material to release my first album in 2003. It was an homage to my coming of age on the beaches of Atlantic City. Clearly, much of the appeal that Brian’s music has held for me over the decades has to do with our common childhood experiences at the water’s edge. For his part, Brian released a couple of solo albums, and finally surprised everyone by taking his show on the road for the first time in many years.

***

Picture those old movies where pages of a calendar blow away to indicate the passage of years. Thirty-eight years have gone by, and I’m sitting in the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey – just 30 minutes down the Garden State Parkway from Newark. I find myself thinking about how much has happened in my life since that day in 1967. Yet here I am, still in New Jersey, still passionate about this music despite various bumps and detours along the way. Sure there were times in the late 1960s when it wasn’t totally cool to be a Beach Boys fan. They weren’t trendy. They weren’t hip. They didn’t speak out on politics. But that never stopped me from buying the latest Beach Boys album, even if it had evolved into a clandestine habit. I never stopped being curious about what Brian would come up with next.

Tonight, though, the wondering will turn to knowing because Brian Wilson and I will be in a room together for the first time. And he will play his songs for me, just like it happens in my memories.

There are no Beach Boys anymore. Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl, are dead. If anyone had told me that Brian would be the surviving Wilson brother, I wouldn’t have believed it. But after years of struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, Dennis drowned in 1983. Carl died of lung cancer in 1998. So here I am, waiting for Brian to walk across the stage and sit down at that piano.

These days, Mike Love tours with a group he calls The Beach Boys, and as an original member of that band, I suppose it’s his right. But in truth, there can’t be Beach Boys now. Not without Dennis. Not without Carl. And although they found someone to play Brian’s part onstage for a number of years, he was always back home, writing the songs for them to sing. Now Brian is singing his own songs – old and new – and each night that he does so, he reclaims a bit more of his own history.

***

Brian is here in New Jersey tonight to perform his masterwork, SMiLE, a piece he once called his “teenage symphony to God.” Those words still seem unlikely, even as I write them. The story of SMiLE is not pretty, but it has a happy ending. Bowing to pressure from his record company and bandmates, and sinking ever deeper into despair and depression, Brian abandoned SMiLE in 1967. A number of the songs appeared on other Beach Boys recordings in the years to come, including classics like Good Vibrations and Surf’s Up. But the world was left to speculate about what a finished version of SMiLE would sound like. And speculate it did.

People put together countless bootlegs, composed of the released songs and snippets that turned up every now and again. Most claimed to be the real SMiLE, just the way Brian intended it to be. In 1993 a writer named Lewis Shiner published a fantasy novel called Glimpses, in which the hero was able to travel back in time to 1967 for the express purpose of helping Brian Wilson to finish SMiLE.

When Brian started to tour again, nobody knew quite what to make of it. Still, he was surrounded for the first time in a long time by people who loved him (as opposed to people who wanted something from him), and a band of musicians, including several members of the Los Angeles band Wondermints who had grown up with Brian’s music, were determined to present it with the respect and dignity it deserved. Because it was becoming increasingly clear that Brian Wilson was more than just another rock-’n’-roll casualty. He was, and is, one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. Any musician who has ever tried to play Brian’s music will tell you about the challenging complexity of his arrangements and chord structure. Having passed the test of time, it is undoubtedly more substantial than the simplistic surf music it initially appeared to be.

Two live albums were released, Live at the Roxy in 2000, and Pet Sounds Live in 2002. The latter was of particular interest because it presented what to that point was Brian’s masterwork in an all-new setting, against the backdrop of a great band.

Speculation began anew. If Brian could recreate Pet Sounds with this outfit, was it possible that SMiLE could be next? The answer came on February 20, 2004, at the Royal Festival Hall in London. That night, before an audience that included Sir Paul McCartney and composer/lyricist Van Dyke Parks, there occurred the world premiere of SMiLE, 37 years after it had been shelved. The event was chronicled in a documentary called Beautiful Dreamer, released as part of the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE DVD package earlier this year.

There were a lot of smiles that night, and grown men of a certain age in the audience wept openly. When I’m asked what concert I wish I could have attended, of all concerts that have ever been, my answer is clearly that February, 2004 performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

***

The lights go down, and suddenly he’s there: A little older, a few pounds heavier, the full head of hair tinged with a bit of gray. The sadness around his eyes is unmistakable, but when the show starts, it’s time to put sadness away and revel in the joy of Brian Wilson’s music. Sitting center-stage, it is almost as if he’s the guest of honor at his own party. He seems a little shy, a bit tentative, but the years wash away when he sings and the pain and loneliness – his and mine – dissipate.

I try to count the musicians. There seem to be about 17 in addition to Brian. That’s Darian Sahanaja on keyboards – the “musical secretary” of the band – said to be the prime motivating force behind the revival of SMiLE. Guitarist Jeffrey Foskett sings Carl Wilson’s vocal parts; if you close your eyes, it’s easy to believe Carl never left us. There’s a nine-piece string-and-horn section from Stockholm. Every musician seems to be able to play several instruments, and play them all well. At times there are as many as eight people, including vocalist Taylor Mills, singing beautiful harmonies. Together they create a wall of sound that would make Phil Spector (whom Brian often cites as a major influence) extremely proud. Call me a heretic, but these live performances are better than anything the Beach Boys ever did.

The first half of the show is devoted to hits from the Beach Boys era, and as each song rolls majestically by, I am flooded with memories that seem embedded in the music. It begins with “Do It Again” and continues with classics like “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” and includes a suite of songs from Pet Sounds: “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and the instrumental title track, before the set closes with the unbearably beautiful “God Only Knows,” “Sail On, Sailor,” and, in tribute to Carl, “Marcella”. When the break comes, I need it just to catch my breath.

White lights as if from heaven illuminate the vocalists as they begin the first of SMiLE’s three movements with the haunting a cappella plea “Our Prayer,” which segues into the doo-wop sound of “Gee” before hitting the movement’s centerpiece epic, “Heroes and Villains.” As far I can tell from repeated listening, SMiLE is the story of the westward expansion of the United States, from the landing at Plymouth Rock to the far-away islands of Hawaii. Van Dyke Parks’s brilliant lyrics can be obscure at times, but the story is there for anyone who wants to listen. And tonight, people are really listening. I love it that audience members are staying in their seats and paying this work the same close attention that would be paid to the work of any great American composer. Applause is held until the first movement concludes with the exquisite, banjo-laced “Cabin Essence.”

SMiLE is a work that requires you to surrender yourself, to give in to the music and let it take you where it will. By the time the second movement begins with “Wonderful,” it is obvious that most people in the audience have been transported to places unknown. This section winds down with “Surf’s Up” – one song from the abandoned project that actually saw the light of day as the title track of a Beach Boys album.

The third movement, marking the beginning of the end, is funny (“Vegetables”), scary (“Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”), wistful (“Wind Chimes”), and, finally, powerful. At the familiar opening “ah…” of “Good Vibrations,” the audience rises as one, and the party is on. It continues through the encore, when Brian returns for more Beach Boys classics including “Barbara Ann,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” before he closes the night with the inspirational “Love and Mercy.”

***

And then, as suddenly as he appeared a couple of hours ago, Brian is gone.

A few nights later there’s another show in Philadelphia. It’s another unforgettable event. I’m ready to give it all up and hit the road with this band. Maybe I can sell T-shirts in the parking lots like people used to do at Grateful Dead concerts.

Brian Wilson lives in my memory. He always has, but until one night in the summer of 2005, the memory wasn’t real. Now he’s there forever. We’ve grown older together, Brian and I. We have seen changes and been changed. There has been despair, great joy, loss, and renewal. In the end, there is the music.