The forever frown
It only grows bigger the further away it moves; object in rear-view mirror may be smaller than it appears. After all, it was only one album, one small collection of songs -- many of which have been officially released over the years. Who's to say how the world might have changed had it appeared in record stores when it was supposed to. Perhaps it would have ushered in revolution, led those who heard it to embark upon journeys previously unimagined, opened up doors no one ever even knew existed. So many maybes, but only one certainty: There has never been an official release of the Beach Boys' 1966 album Smile. And, for the time being, there never will be.
There have existed myriad bootlegs of the album, most of which are so abbreviated that they're nearly emasculated, unlistenable -- so much promise, cut and pasted into tiny little nothings. But that has never stopped Smile from reaching mythic proportions; indeed, it has only added to its lore. Even now, so many young bands ape the echoes, or at least try to wrest them from thin air. The Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage: Animation Music, released earlier this year, sounds like something Brian Wilson left in the tape machine in 1966, its blips and beeps merging perfectly with sublime melodies and massed harmonies that sound like made-for-radio hymns. (OTC also appears, alongside the likes of Thurston Moore and Jim O'Rourke, on a Japanese-only tribute to both Pet Sounds and Smile, released on Sony Music last year.) Each generation has its devotees who sing the praises of a record they have never even heard, from Paul McCartney to Billy Corgan, Frank Zappa to Peter Buck. They propagate the myth by celebrating that which does not exist.
The Internet overflows with essays devoted to this one lost album, the most famous unreleased record ever made -- or not made. Books have been written about the subject; in his 1993 novel Glimpses, Austin author Lewis Shiner imagined going back in time and helping Brian finish Smile. And Domenic Priore's 1997 scrapbook-plus Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! offers every single word every printed on the subject, in addition to the author's own rambling essay on the birth and death of Smile. Priore, like his fellow travelers, tells the story of how Brian Wilson set out to make the perfect record -- his "teenage symphony to God," as he once said -- only to have his bandmates tell him they did not want it released. Too fucking weird, they told him. Brian, forget it.
It is, essentially, as simple as that. For a moment, Brian Wilson had the chance to change the pop scene; his was to be an album of music and noise, absolute beauty and absolute chaos, that no one before him had ever imagined. Smile, with its a cappella harmonies and burning-house sound effects and off-kilter violins and plucked banjos and penny whistles and God knows what else (OK, everything else) piled up to the heavens, could well have been the most influential pop album of the 1960s. But Brian Wilson never had a chance: The Boys didn't want it out, Capitol Records didn't want it out...and soon enough, there would be no need for its release, as far as Brian was concerned. The Beatles, high on Brian's own Pet Sounds, struck back with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, and the rest would be history -- theirs, not Brian's.
For years, stories had circulated that the album had been destroyed -- burned by Brian in a fire, reduced to ashes when he began fearing the album was unleashing a psychotic bad vibe. That is hardly the case, as the bootleggers have proven, releasing their abbreviated versions that are sketches at best, consisting of loony tunes and other errata so disjointed that it makes you wonder why anyone would crave such a thing. Six years ago, Capitol Records did include several Smile songs on its multidisc Good Vibrations box -- among them, "Heroes and Villains" in two versions, "Wonderful," "Wind Chimes," "Do You Like Worms," "Vegetables," "I Love to Say Da Da," and "Surf's Up" -- but it was hardly enough to satisfy the casual fan, not to mention to the completist. The songs were more like a tease, an appetizer offered to the hunger-striker. After all, Smile was a concept album -- Brian imagined it as a "psychedelicate" humor album made up of fragments of every kind of American folk music that had ever existed -- and to hear it only in fragments was to stumble across more questions than answers.
But last month, an astonishing new bootleg surfaced -- and, thus far, it appears to be the most complete document, containing three discs of Smile sessions and another disc that purports to offer the album in its "completed" 43-minutes-plus entirety (though, in truth, no such thing could ever exist). Packaged not unlike Capitol Records' Pet Sounds Sessions, released in November 1997 after years of delays and containing every thought Brian Wilson put to tape during the making of that album, the newly available Smile boxed set is the combination of several previously known boots.
About six months ago, the European-based Sea of Tunes label -- a bootleg company devoted entirely to Beach Boys rarities, and a subsidiary of a label named Midnight Beat -- released three discs of Smile sessions. (The collection followed closely after the label's "Good Vibrations" three-disc box, which consists of nothing but rehearsals and demos...for a single song!) The Smile box, subtitled Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 16 (1966-1967), featured more than three hours' worth of outtakes, including nearly 20 different "versions" of "Heroes and Villains" and "Vegetables" -- and snippets of Wilson and musicians in the studio. Around the same time, Sea of Tunes, which is named for the Beach Boys' publishing company, also issued a single disc of Smile, which begins with the stunning "Our Prayer" (which consists solely of the Boys singing a wordless hymn composed by Brian) and ends with a thrilling, epic rendition of the symphonic "Surf's Up" suite, penned by Brian and Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the poetic lyrics for the entirety of Smile.
When Midnight Beat was raided two months ago by European authorities, the label's back catalog was seized -- a total of nearly 10,000 discs, including Smile. (The label is currently in litigation overseas, where the penalties for bootlegging are relatively minor -- maybe a fine, and not a large one.) When word spread through the bootlegging community that the Smile discs were about to disappear, someone kindly packaged all four CDs in one box -- thus creating the most complete account of that album to date. Such handiwork has resulted in the re-creation of a long-gone yesterday still relevant today.
Of course, the question remains: Where did these tapes come from? The quality of the recordings is immaculate, so pristine it's nearly obscene; to own them is to feel as though you've confiscated a piece of history, stolen it out of Brian Wilson's back pocket (and, in truth, you have). To listen to these discs is to stand next to Wilson at the recording console as he dons his fireman's hat and whirls his way through these magnificent, otherworldly songs. Not a pop, not a scratch exists. Put them in the CD player, and mainline magic in its purest form -- get high on what was, what remains, and what still sounds like echoes from the future.
Capitol Records' vice president of catalog A&R, Paul Atkinson, says he knows precisely where the tapes came from -- but he will not say, citing an ongoing criminal investigation by the label, Beach Boys management, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the International Federation of Phonographic Industry.
"I know where they came from, but until they are arrested, I can't talk about it," Atkinson says. "We're working closely with the Beach Boys and their management and the anti-piracy people to put an end to it as much as possible. But these bootleggers are like cockroaches -- you exterminate them, and they come back. It's a constant problem, and with the Beach Boys, it's an especially virulent problem."
According to one source, Brian had agreed in 1995 to a five-year plan that would have, eventually, allowed for the release of Smile in some form. But a holdup over the release of The Pet Sounds Sessions essentially killed that: The boxed set was supposed to come out in the spring of 1996, but the remaining members of the band took issue with the original liner notes' celebration of Brian. They wanted their share of credit, even though they had little to do with Pet Sounds. Such infighting, so many years after the fact, ruined the chances of a Smile box.
After all, Mike Love and the rest of the Boys quite literally killed the record -- aborted it just as Brian was ready to usher it into this world and forever change it. Worse, the band -- which exists as a shadow of a vestige, its legacy long reduced to parody and punch line -- has spent three decades pretending Pet Sounds and Smile never existed. When the Boys toured, without Brian, for all those years, they never once performed songs from those albums, leaning instead on warhorse oldies -- "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Surfin' U.S.A.," and all those other teenbeat anthems Brian wanted no part of by 1966. They dismissed Brian's experiments -- and, by doing so, they dismissed Brian. Once his bandmates -- his brothers, his cousins, his friends -- killed Smile, they killed a little part of him as well. He would never be the same.
For Smile to finally come out after all these years would make fools of Mike Love, Bruce Johnson, and Brian's own flesh and blood. It's like getting away with murder, only to have the corpse reappear 33 years later, pointing fingers at the guilty parties.
Paul Atkinson hints that perhaps an official Smile release is not too far off in the future -- but he speaks in the record executive's bland, teasing generalities. He says that next year, Capitol will restore the entirety of the Beach Boys' back catalog, including the post-Capitol albums released on the band's own Brother Records label (Sunflower, Surf's Up, and Love You, among many others). He also insists that he has done his best to delete so many of the best-ofs that have clogged the market -- even though the label has released three such discs within the past two years.
"Starting next year, we will release all of the albums in their original form," Atkinson insists. "There will also be a number of other releases I can't talk about."
When asked whether Smile is among those other releases, Atkinson chuckles and says only this: "Obviously, Smile is a famous album, and it's true to say we would love to release it. But it's up to Brian Wilson. Let me correct that. It's up to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys."
If that is the case, then the future is not so promising. In 1995, Brian told Mojo magazine he wants nothing more to do with the aborted project; he considers the music too "passé," better left to the past. In 1988, it was reported in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and USA Today that Brian had booked time at Capitol Records to finish the disc for a summer 1988 release. Nothing, of course, came of it.
Brian's publicist, Jean Sievers, says he does not even want to talk about Smile -- not now, at least.
"He doesn't get why people want anything to do with Smile," she says. "I'm not going to say someday he won't do anything with it, but he doesn't want anything to do with it right now."
So, for a little while longer, the record will remain unfinished and unreleased -- and in the hands of only the fetishists who are willing to pay nearly $100 for the pleasure of discovering the unheard music.
"Smile is like the girl who got away," says one friend of Brian's. "He had already made the best pop album with Pet Sounds and made the best pop single with 'Good Vibrations.' He was growing exponentially, and Smile was going to be the next step in his evolution. But it was the last time he was Brian Wilson; it was the last time he was in control of his art. There are a million reasons to long for Smile, not the least of which is because it's brilliant."
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