Quantcast
"I was screwed up on drugs. I took LSD, marijuana and amphetamines all at once. So did Van Dyke Parks. So we both got a little goofed up in our heads."
SMiLE WHEN YOUR HEART IS BREAKING
An exclusive HITS dialogue with Brian Wilson by Roy Trakin

"Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children's song"

"Surf’s Up"

Almost four decades after it was originally slated as the follow-up to Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE, finally complete and released by Nonesuch through Atlantic Records Group, is still causing controversy. Beach Boys fans expecting heartbreaking ballads like "God Only Knows" and "Caroline No" or pop hits such as "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B" will probably be disappointed, just as the rest of the band was when Brian first played some of the songs for them back then. And while serious rockcrit types have been effusive, there is still much head-scratching among pop music fans about the piece’s fragmentary nature and allusive, tongue-in-cheek wordplay.

The legendary lost album, whose stature has approached myth, can now be heard for what it is. SMiLE is Brian and Van Dyke Parks’ attempt to compose a pop-rock opera set in 18th or 19th century America, filled with shimmering aural images heralding a then-burgeoning counterculture’s hope for a new world of peace, love and regained childhood innocence. The three-piece movement is now anchored by three Wilson classics, "Heroes and Villains," "Surf’s Up" and "Good Vibrations," the latter foreshadowing much of the work’s musical themes. It’s an idiosyncratic work, completely in tune with Brian’s obsessions—the vocal harmonies of his beloved Four Freshman, the Wall of Sound orchestrations pioneered by Phil Spector and the Beatles’ groundbreaking psychedelic pop.

Wilson, clearly energized by the public reaction to SMiLE, is more than happy to sit down and talk about the album in his home in a gated community at the top of Mulholland he shares with his wife Melinda and their adopted children, surrounded by pictures of his famous family.

It’s taken a long time to complete SMiLE. What provided the impetus for finally finishing it?
My wife’s encouragement, my manager’s encouragement, my publicity agent’s encouragement… and Van Dyke Parks’ collaboration with me to create the third movement. Creating "Paradise in Hawaii" and stuff like that. The first two movements were conceived in 1967. We went back and did everything from scratch. We learned it all brand-new. We didn’t use any of the old tapes.

This is a brand-new version of "Good Vibrations."
It’s a new recording, using Tony Asher’s original verse lyrics.

Why did you decide to re-record some of the original music?
The musicians I have now in my band [the Wondermints] are far superior to the ones I had in 1967. And far superior singers to the Beach Boys.

Is this SMiLE the way you originally heard it 38 years ago?
It’s similar to how I heard it, but with some new techniques, like ProTools.

When you first conceived SMiLE, were "Heroes and Villains," "Surf’s Up" and "Good Vibrations" part of it?
They were to be part of the fabric of the album.

You played SMiLE live in the U.K.?
We premiered it in London last February, and had standing ovations six nights in a row. Which speaks for itself.

How did you get to this point where you were able to do this?
My wife’s love has meant so much to me; it enabled me to create that third movement, and go back to touch up the first two movements… To take them all from scratch and learn them all over again.

Was not being able to complete SMiLE a frustration for you?
It was not a frustration, because we knew it was way too advanced for people. They were ready to hear little segments, but they couldn’t listen to the sequences together. That wasn’t the kind of music that was happening in those days. So we shelved it for 38 years.

SMiLE was originally intended as the follow-up to Pet Sounds. Had you heard any of Sgt. Pepper at that point?
We had already worked on SMiLE and junked it before Sgt. Pepper came out. Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds. And Pet Sounds inspired Sgt. Pepper. We hadn’t heard Sgt. Pepper when we began working on SMiLE. Revolver was out at the time.

There was a sense of wanting to one-up the Beatles.
Paul McCartney and I were friendly rivals for awhile in the ’60s, let’s put it that way.

What were you trying to accomplish with SMiLE?
We wanted to create the mood of early to mid-Americana. The kind of music that would probably have been happening in those times. We tried to recreate that mood, and we got very close to it.

When you say Americana, you mean people like Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, John Philip Sousa and the Gershwins?
That’s right. An orchestral, three-movement rock opera.

Did you use a live orchestra on this new version?
We used my current 10-piece band. Plus we had six strings and four horns, which meant 20 pieces in all.

The original recording sessions for SMiLE were very difficult for you emotionally.
I was screwed up on drugs. I took LSD, marijuana and amphetamines all at once. So did Van Dyke Parks. So we both got a little goofed up in our heads. We both had a little bit of a problem there.

And you had the rest of the Beach Boys complaining about the direction you were going in.
Dennis and Mike said it was too above people’s heads, it was too advanced. And I agreed with them, but I told them I still wanted to work on it for awhile. So we worked on it for a couple more weeks before shelving it.

Did going back to the album reawaken any of those bad feelings?
It reawakened the bad feelings of the drugs, not the music. The music was good vibes. The drugs were bad vibes. I had a bad flashback, but we got over it right away. It took us about two days. That’s how fast you can get going.

The collaboration with Van Dyke Parks is part of your history of working with distinctive lyricists. Do you feel that’s a weak point in your musical ability?
I wrote some of the lyrics for the Beach Boys songs, but as far as what we wanted to do with SMiLE, Van Dyke was the man for that.

He extended many of the themes that you worked with in the past… the surfing, the beach, the search for innocence, American values.
We wanted to create new images.

SMiLE harks back to the promise of the counterculture and alternative consciousness, new ways of living together. Are those ideas still relevant in 2004?
I think it holds up beautifully. Van Dyke’s lyrics describe it beautifully. And my music, of course, captures the mood very beautifully as well.

What was the working relationship like with Van Dyke?
There was a mutual respect, of course, plus he had an advanced technique of writing lyrics. And my music was a little advanced, so we got along pretty good.

His lyrics are abstract, surreal… They paint pictures, which the music complements.
Like "Bicycle rider/Just see what you’ve done/To the church/Of the American Indian."

The album is about American ideals, values and culture. Has the meaning of the material evolved for you?
It has the same meaning. We just touched up some of the melodies and lyrics on the first two movements. And, of course, we had to create a new third movement, which took about two weeks to do. We used computers and ProTools to sequence it all together. And then we learned to play it, which took around a month and a half.

The advances in technology certainly helped in the reconstruction.
It allowed us to make the record in a way that the keys flowed from one to another, and the pieces all made sense together. Instead of "jig-jag, jig-jag"… know what I mean? It flowed like a river. Real, real smoothly.

What does it mean to you to finally be able to complete this album?
It means reaching people in a market that’s so dead, so out of it. Breathing some new life into an old market is what this music is about. And I think it’s going to inspire the industry to make better music. I really do. A Phil Spector type of movement might happen again, too.

You seem energized and alert these days. What is it that your wife Melinda has brought to your life?
Not just love and stability. She’s inspired me to create music again, given me a reason to create. I had lost my grip on singing and stuff like that.

You do most of the lead vocals on the album. What was it like doing parts originally intended for Carl?
It was really emotional for me. I felt very sentimental about the deaths of Carl and Dennis. I did my best to try to capture their thing, but it was my band that came through for me with the background vocals. They’re actually better singers than the Beach Boys were. I know that’s hard to believe, but they’re pretty good. I’ve been seeing a vocal coach for the past couple of years, named Seth Riggs. She’s strengthened my throat to the point where I can sing more purely and better than I did when I was 24. And I’m now 62. I can sing better now than I did 38 years ago.

This album is, in many ways, an exploration of harmonies and vocal expression.
The interwoven harmonies, the sound of five voices all together… They have the ability to sound angelic. SMiLE has some angelic-ness to it, an angelic quality.

The Wondermints’ love of your music is so apparent, it must energize you.
In 1997, I went to a night club in Hollywood and saw them performing Beach Boys songs. After the concert, I said, "You guys know my songs. How would you like to be the band for my solo career?" And they said, "Yeah," right off the bat, that very night. So we called about six other musicians from Chicago and L.A., and we got together a 10-piece band. And we learned how to play SMiLE.

What do you see as the overall theme to the album?
America, Americana. The way Van Dyke Parks and I envisioned Americana to be in the 1700s and 1800s.

There’s also a sense of mortality, of musical forms evolving into new genres, like the doo-wop you were raised on mutating into a hybrid, ethereal form. "Surf’s Up" has a melancholy quality about it, like an era is over.
I’m glad to hear that. The melancholy is in "Wonderful," "Cabin Essence" and "Surf’s Up." That’s the sensibility Van Dyke Parks and I brought to it.

Was "Good Vibrations" originally conceived to be part of SMiLE?
No, it was not. We thought up the idea to add it at the end, so that the younger generation who hadn’t heard it in 1966 could be exposed to it and hear it. Because it’s a great record.

It was originally included on Smiley Smile.
That’s right. Those were all marijuana-induced songs. We were all smoking marijuana at the time. You can tell by the way we’re singing and the way the songs go. That was our stoned album. Stoned… stoned.

What was it like going back to the SMiLE material clean and sober this time?
On the natch? We had a much better ability to concentrate on what we were playing and singing.

Now that you’ve done SMiLE, will you be writing some new material?
We’re going to create a rock & roll album inspired by the music of Phil Spector and Paul McCartney and we hope to God people will tap their foot to it and dance to it. Because Phil Spector’s records are the greatest.

Phil was charged with murder today.
That was an accident. He didn’t kill anybody.

Are you still friendly with him?
I last spoke with him 20 years ago. I don’t know what he’s up to now.

Do you enjoy performing live?
I really do. I get a kick out of it.

Because sometimes you look like a deer caught in the headlights on-stage.
I feel a little nervous when I perform. I’m just a very sensitive individual who has a tough time with it. That’s the way I describe myself. Actually, believe it or not, it’s been getting easier. I’m enjoying the people. It’s hard work to concentrate on getting the notes right so you can live up to your goddamn name. Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys. We’re a very famous group, one of the biggest in the business, and people expect the best out of us, so we have to give them our best. I am a professional. Carl was a professional singer, too.

Do you still get a kick out of singing the old songs?
When I sing the Beach Boys songs, I do get a kick. "California Girls," "Good Vibrations," "I Get Around," "Don’t Worry Baby"… always blows my mind to sing them. It really does.

How about "God Only Knows," "In My Room," "Caroline, No," the real intense, personal ones?
And "Surfer Girl," too. Those songs bring back very pleasant memories because I love ballads. I’ve always been a ballad person. I wrote a lot of pretty ballads in my lifetime. They bring back emotional feelings of love. They brought love to people. They’re sweet, pretty, angelic songs that people liked.

What about the edge of sadness that creeps in, knowing what you were going through when you wrote them?
It was a way to express some of the sorrow I was going through. And I got it across pretty good.

How do you feel today about your dad Murry, considering the way he treated you?
My dad didn’t only treat me mean and hostile and cruel and bad and shitty, but he also gave me the inspiration to compete. "Get in there and make a better record than ‘Be My Baby.’" And I said, "Dad, I can’t do that." And he’d go, "Yes you can!" I tried and I never could, but at least I did pretty good, though. He gave me the drive and lit the fire under my butt.

Have you forgiven him?
Oh, yeah. In my mind, I have. I’ve forgiven him for hurting me. I have.

But you’ve spent a lot of time with those feelings.
Yes, that’s true.

You’ve always chosen strong partners, from your dad through Eugene Landy to your current wife. Do you need someone to direct you to where you want to go?
Yeah, my wife. Dr. Landy wasn’t all bad. He was pretty bad, but he wasn’t all bad. He taught me a couple of things about life, but he wouldn’t let me talk to my family, he medicated me heavily and controlled my money. He was quite the tyrant.

Did he have your best interests at heart?
No, he did not. He was self-motivated.

You’re now able to separate people’s good qualities from bad?
I can see the difference between the two now.

Do you feel energized at this point to continue creating music?
I’ve been getting up at 5:30-6 in the morning and writing. I find writing early in the morning very inspirational. I’ve been doing that for a couple of months and have written 12 new songs in that time. What’s helped me is I’ve discovered something about my health. If you eat less food, small meals, throughout the day, your energy doubles because the body doesn’t have to work so hard to digest food. So you have all that excess energy.

Has the commercial success of SMiLE stoked your competitive fires?
Actually, no. SMiLE isn’t really competitive. It’s something so off-the-wall, so different and so innovative. It’s not an attempt to make people feel competitive at all. That doesn’t drive me anymore.

You wanted to raise the current standard of pop music.
I think we’re at the lowest point we’ve been in the history of the business. The quality of music, the lack of melodic originality, the lack of discernible lyrics, like in rap music. It all adds up to one big minus.

Rock & roll’s primacy of the beat overshadowed much of the vocal music you came up with.
Between Phil Spector, the Beatles, Motown and the Beach Boys, yeah. With the advent of Spector’s records, people began to take rock & roll a lot more seriously. They were able to get farther behind their music, put a little more sound into their productions. It was quite a shot in the arm for the entire industry.

Have you ever thought about musical theater?
They are doing a play featuring my music and the Beach Boys’ music, starting in late January.

What’s your relationship with Mike Love at this point?
I don’t talk to him anymore. I haven’t talked to him in eight years and probably won’t talk to him for another five years. After Carl and Dennis died, we all kind of fell apart. Our group went to hell.

Does it matter to you that Love and Al Jardine are performing as the Beach Boys?
It doesn’t matter to me, as long as they don’t let people down. As long as they keep up the quality of the music. That’s all that matters to me.

How do you compete with your own legacy?
I’m, of course, proud of what we did. And I show that by the way I sing the songs on-stage. When I sing Beach Boys songs, I put my heart and soul into it. Because I love Beach Boys music. When we do SMiLE, we do it with a lot of pride and musicianship. I’m still improving; I’m still learning.

This must seem like a blessing to you.
It’s amazing and very gratifying.

How would you want to be remembered?
Not just as a good balladeer, but a good rock & roll writer, too.

What’s next for you?
I think the next big thing in the business will be Phil Spector-type rock & roll. That’s my prediction. It might not come true. I might be completely full of it… The Wall of Sound is something people need, the excitement and purity of his music.

Anybody out there impress you as an artist?
Not really, no. I really don’t see anyone that’s doing anything serious. Nothing like Phil Spector. He’s still my idol.

What does it mean for you to have people hear SMiLE today?
The music is timeless and the musicianship is superior to what it was back then.

PRIMARY WAVE CHECKS INTO
THE FOUR SEASONS
Mestel walks like a man. (10/22a)
UMG IPO SET FOR '22
And Q3 figures look good as well. (10/21a)
TOP 20: TAY'S FOLKLORIC RUN CONTINUES
A Swift return to #1. (10/22a)
REVENUE CHART: “LEMONADE” AND OCEAN SPRAY
The Rumours are true. (10/22a)
GRAMMY PREVIEW:
PHOEBE BRIDGERS
Could she be this year's left-field anointed one? (10/22a)
RAINMAKERS 2020
Bring your umbrella.
GRAMMY OUTLIERS
Mulling possible surprises.
HALLOWEEN IN QUARANTINE
Why not wear a mask indoors?
ELECTION 2020
What drugs will help us get there?
 Email

 First Name

 Last Name

 Company

 Country
CAPTCHA code
Captcha: (type the characters above)