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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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