Smile

Gumby’s post about the Mike Love situation set me off on a research project. Not because I don’t remember the Beach Boys at all – I do. But there’s no competing with the awesome Gumby memory, which plies the oceans of time like the giant Mobro 4000 garbage barge that hauled an enormous load of New York City refuse to Belize and back in 1987, looking for a port that would allow it to dock. My own memories of the Beach Boys are a bit confused, and it turns out I’m not alone.

In case you don’t know, the Beach Boys began in 1961 in Hawthorne, California, near Los Angeles. There were the three Wilson brothers – Brian, Dennis, and Carl – plus their friend Al Jardine, and of course their cousin, Mike Love, who at the time had no way of knowing that the Earth would one day be spanned by a vast electronic information network partly devoted to despising him. In public the Beach Boys were a group of smiling, wholesome-looking guys in identical vertically-striped shirts, who sang songs about surfing and going to the beach with girls. The surfing meant nothing to me because I grew up in Texas. (To the surprise of some people, Texas actually does have several hundred miles of seacoast, but the waves are small, and the only surfers here are those too clinically depressed to travel.) But never mind the surfing – like nearly all little kids, I liked the beach, which was a happy place far from chores and homework. Girls in swimsuits were all right too. So far, so good.

When the Beach Boys weren’t singing about the beach, they stuck to a narrow range of other subjects, mainly cars. Here’s part of the lyric from an early Beach Boys hit called “409”:

When I take her to the track she really shines
(Giddy up giddy up 409)
She always turns in the fastest times
(Giddy up giddy up 409)
My four speed dual-quad Positraction 409

As everyone knew fifty years ago – including possibly even me – the number 409 referred to the displacement of a celebrated Chevrolet big-block engine. The string of argot in the last line specifies the car’s transmission, carburetors, and differential. If you’re wondering why anyone would mention his differential in a pop song, I can’t help you much, and I doubt Gumby can either. Showing off in overpowered cars was part of a mating ritual that ended with the first oil crisis and the Ford Pinto, but it’s all documented pretty well in George Lucas’s early film American Graffiti (and also, now that I think of it, in Star Wars). When I heard “409” on the radio I thought it sounded a little insane, but then I was years away from being old enough to drive.

If I’m making the Beach Boys sound completely inaccessible, believe me that there are plenty of people who still care about them. Look at Wikipedia, where the main Beach Boys article seems to have been edited by the proverbial million monkeys at a million typewriters. And then there’s the Mike Love phenomenon, which Gumby has just shown to be international and trans-generational. Still, I haven’t been able to locate an actual Beach Boys fan near where I live. When I mentioned the band to Ariel she just wrinkled her nose. The Beach Boys? That was high-school stuff, little kids squeaking about their surfboards and cars.

In fact, high school itself was the band’s third constant theme: everything in a Beach Boys song took place against a background of lockers and pep rallies and letter-jackets. “Tell the teacher we’re surfin,” they’d sung (over Chuck Berry’s music). But then the Beatles showed up, almost their exact contemporaries, and it was impossible to imagine the Beatles making excuses to a teacher for any reason. It was impossible to imagine the Beatles in school. So at that point, kid-stuff made a quick disappearance from pop music. Pete Townsend could still get away with his teen-angst songs, because you’re not going to ridicule a guy who’s swinging a Gibson SG at you, but songs about the magic of middle-class adolescence were over. It would be twenty-five years before the Barenaked Ladies would prove it could still be done, and it’s probably no coincidence that the BNL wrote a hit song about Brian Wilson.

BeachBoys4

None of the guys go steady ’cause it wouldn’t be right

Clearly the Beach Boys needed to move on, and in at least one way they succeeded. I mentioned that they were wholesome-looking, which remained true through the mid-60s, but soon enough they turned up with long hair and shaggy beards. That was hardly unusual; in fact it was becoming an obligatory transition for rock stars. But while the Beatles with facial hair still looked like their mostly genial selves, the Beach Boys turned downright scary. Some more than the others, perhaps, but together they reminded me of a man I’d once seen in the middle of a busy street near my house, clutching a stack of traffic cones to his chest and screaming at someone who wasn’t there. Even if you didn’t agree with me that the late-Sixties Beach Boys were the most malignant-looking band in rock history, you had to admit it was now pretty strange to watch them doing their standard repertoire about rooting for their school and wondering who they’d take to the prom. But that was about all they had. Brian Wilson, lost in a world of his own by now, had composed the Pet Sounds album virtually by himself (legend says it was his personal response to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul) and much of it was so wrapped up in recording-studio artifice that it could not be performed live.

The group’s creative implosion came next, though since I didn’t know Gumby at the time, I don’t remember anyone talking about it. When Charles Manson made the news in 1969, we learned the Beach Boys had met him and recorded one of his songs just a year earlier, which left my personal reaction to the band just about where it already had been. Details of Brian’s condition got around slowly, in urban-legend format. The old surf songs sounded ridiculous while anti-war protests were on the news every night. And so as far as I could tell, the Beach Boys simply disappeared. Today, if you meet someone my age who can remember a Beach Boys song that was recorded after 1966 and isn’t “Kokomo,” you’re probably talking to Gumby.

One day in 2004 I found a package in my mailbox. Brian Wilson had finally completed Smile, the album he’d been working on in 1967 when he ground to a halt – the album that was supposed to be as far beyond Pet Sounds as Pet Sounds was beyond the surf music. Gumby had mailed me a copy (which is the generous sort of thing that Gumby does quite often, even though all he gets for it is abuse in these pages). I still don’t know what to make of it.

Was Brian Wilson a genius? I don’t know. His “late period” has been analyzed by ten thousand critics, ranging from blithering fanatics to those capable of pointing out that the verse of “Good Vibrations” is based on the Andalusian cadence familiar from flamenco music (like the chorus of The Supremes’ “Love Child” or the verse of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World”). That sort of thing just fuels the fire, as the idea that pop music has any structure at all sends its fans into raptures like Moliere’s gentleman when he found out he was speaking prose. Still, there’s no doubt that Brian made a huge effort to do something new and remarkable, and he burned up what was then a phenomenal number of studio hours recording it.

It’s said that he wanted to produce an “American” album, a one-man last stand against the British Invasion. Musically, he may have succeeded. Smile is covered up with thick vocal harmonies that sound like nothing so much as American barbershop music. And as for the rock and roll parts, well who invented that? In the backing vocals there are lots of odd noises and effects meant to sound like instruments, and if Brian stole that idea from the Swingle Singers (who were popular by 1966) then there was a British fifth column at work. But he might easily have hit on the idea by himself.

But what about the lyrics? “Heroes and Villains,” one of the two Smile-era songs to actually chart, contains a section that seems to be set in an old-West saloon, accompanied by a jangly piano. But the rest of the “Americana” in the album all seems to do with crops, pigs, horses, etc. – so it really only works if you forget that nearly every other country on the face of the earth also has agriculture. Despite all the help within Brian’s reach – brothers, lyricists, talented session musicians – you still feel that we was working alone, with no Lennon/ or /McCartney to add perspective, to give him a little nudge now and then.

As Smile goes on it gets more bizarre. “Vege-Tables” doesn’t need any exegesis: it’s literally an exhortation to eat your vegetables, with the sound of crunching carrots used as a percussion instrument. Paul McCartney himself helped with an early version of that recording, probably not feeling that his own legacy was on the line. Much of this was meant to be facetious, for whatever else you can say about Brian he was famously averse to taking himself too seriously. But it still feels odd. When the Beatles were whimsical (“now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”) you felt it was part of a comic tradition that went back through The Goon Show and Lewis Carroll to, I don’t know, some joker at the Battle of Hastings. Of course there’s an American brand of comedy that has nothing to apologize for – see Mark Twain – but I don’t think it’s at work here. In the end the Smile narrative just sounds random and stoned-out. Mike Love claimed that people weren’t ready for music this crazy. Well, a broken clock is right twice a day.

I’ll say this for Smile. If you listen all the way through it, please just close your eyes and don’t follow the track listing. At about the 42nd minute, you’ll find yourself lost in another one of Brian’s little harmony mazes, a cappella voices modulating and modulating on “ah” toward God Only Knows what destination. You’re at the end of the song “Blue Hawaii.” And then a little miracle happens, a bright ray of Califonia sunshine breaks in, and you’re listening to “Good Vibrations,” right at the spot (I prefer to think) where Brian meant to put it all along, back in 1966 when he could still dream of outfoxing the Beatles. If that moment doesn’t give you a chill, then check out Mike Love’s “Kokomo” – you’ll probably like it.

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