Holy Pop Relic

Why Brian Wilson should leave the unfinished Beach Boy masterpiece Smile alone.

Later this month, Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys and one of rock’s most revered architects, will play a series of London concerts during which he will finally share something he’s kept close to his chest for nearly 40 years. Those in attendance at the Royal Festival Hall on Feb. 20—the opening night of Wilson’s sold-out six-night event—will get to hear all the songs that were to have appeared on the legendary Beach Boys album Smile, performed for the first time by Wilson and his touring band. News of his decision to play these songs circulated quickly among pop-music geeks, rock journalists, and the small community of Smile cultists and bootleggers whose zealotry has helped turn the unfinished album over the decades into something like a pop Ark of the Covenant: a holy relic, temporarily lost to the faithful, but waiting to be found, restored, and redeemed.

Smile, the Beach Boys’ famously scrapped project, is the most celebrated album never made. Recorded in late 1966 and early 1967 on the heels of the critically lauded album Pet Sounds and the follow-up smash single “Good Vibrations,” Smile was being billed as a significant turning point in popular music well before the public had heard a single note of it. One of the album’s earliest champions was the writer Jules Siegel, whose magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, had commissioned him to write an article on its making. Siegel, blown away by what he heard during his interviews with Wilson, turned in a rhapsodic profile; the Post chided him for abandoning his journalistic objectivity and summarily killed it. Upon hearing one song being readied for the album, the coyly titled epic “Surfs Up,” Leonard Bernstein described it as “too complex to get all of the first time around … poetic, beautiful, even in its obscurity.” By this point, Wilson had taken to calling Smile his “teenage symphony to God” and gamely (mis)quoting the American psychiatric pioneer Karl Menninger, signifying that in the four short years since the Beach Boys had risen to the top of the charts with carefree anthems like “Surfin’ Safari,” Wilson had finally and permanently abandoned the tropes of fun in favor of something far more complicated. In doing so, he had safely guided the Beach Boys out of the square wilderness into the realm of the hip—governed at the time by the Revolver-era John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who were said to be working on a new album that was even more daring.

The story of how Smile came not to be has, over time, taken on the aura of parable: It’s the story of the emotionally fragile genius beset by knaves, forced to abandon his magnum opus rather than allow it to be compromised. In this oversimplified version of events, the heavy is usually played by Beach Boy Mike Love (Wilson’s cousin), who openly objected to the experimental, and arguably uncommercial, direction in which the group was apparently headed. A pivotal moment took place during the recording of ” Cabinessence,” when Love was asked to sing one of the more esoteric lines penned by Van Dyke Parks, a Los Angeles folk-scene wunderkind whom Wilson had hired to produce suitable lyrics. Parks’ elliptical, impressionistic poetry conjured a surreal vista punctuated by sturdy emblems of Americana: divine visitations, the building of the railroads, decadent opera-goers, Old West tableaux, agrarian idylls—more libretto than pop lyric. Love finally agreed to sing the line (“Over and over/ The crow cries, ‘Uncover the cornfield’ “) after an angry protest, but his vote of no-confidence alienated Parks, who ended up walking away from the project. Meanwhile, Wilson’s LSD-addled mood, already mercurial, hardened into a full-fledged bipolarity, marked by bursts of obsessive tweaking alternating with long periods of sulky inaction. He was acutely aware that with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles were about to lay irrefutable claim to the title of Pop’s Reigning Geniuses, and he was despondent at having lost the race to usher in the “new sound.” By the time Sgt. Pepper came out, it was already sadly evident that Smile probably never would.

Until now, no official version of Smile has ever existed, just reimagined renditions of songs that found their way onto subsequent (and disappointing) Beach Boys albums: fragments smuggled out of the vaults and onto muddy bootlegs and a half-hour’s worth of exquisite, professionally mastered material that appeared on the 1993 Beach Boys box set, Good Vibrations. But given next month’s concerts, it is highly likely that a complete, Wilson-sanctioned recording of Smile is finally going to see the light of day—either as a live recording or as a follow-up studio project, or possibly both. This is too bad. Though I’m a Smile cultist of medium intensity (yes to bootlegs and histories; no to message boards and Smile-inspired science fiction), I’m not especially looking forward to any new release that comes in the wake of the shows, for several reasons.

Chief among them is the suspicion that some of Smile’s majesty is its mystery—that any attempt, even one by Wilson, to provide a final, authoritative version of the album will destroy the mutability that makes listening to it such a pleasure. Smile, as it exists now in a half-realized state, is really the first interactive rock ’n’ roll artwork, graciously allowing the listener to finish the songs, to order them according to personal taste, and to invent an overarching concept that might have unified and made sense of Parks’ cavalcade of trippy images. Maybe we can’t bask in the album’s holistic brilliance the way we can with Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper, but what we have now is fantastically protean and fluid, and we can use our imaginations to perfect it ourselves, which may actually be more fun.

A second reason to hope that Smile isn’t resuscitated is that—as much as it pains me to say it—Brian Wilson isn’t exactly at the peak of his creative powers. His vocal range, once a marvel, isn’t what it used to be; during his 2000 tour, he had to leave many of the high notes to a younger accompanist, which injected a melancholy subtext into all his famous songs of youthful abandon. More significantly, there’s little in his body of work over the last 30 years to suggest he’s capable of summoning the muse that graced him during his annus mirabilis, 1966, when he abruptly stopped work on the songs that were to make up Smile. In a sad, Flowers-for-Algernon kind of way, after Smile failed to coalesce, Wilson returned to writing the perfectly catchy but fundamentally banal songs that made up the Beach Boys’ earliest hits. One no more wishes the current Brian Wilson to go back and monkey around with the original Smile masters than one would wish the Steel Wheels-era Rolling Stones to go back and tinker with Exile on Main Street.

But perhaps the best case for allowing the album to remain unfinished is this: Smile, had it ever been released, would have been a watershed musical moment not only because it was so new, but because the Beach Boys, of all bands, were putting it out. Today, the Beach Boys are history. Carl and Dennis, Brian’s brothers, have both passed away; Mike Love and Brian have been estranged for years. But that’s the Beach Boys, all (or most) of them, harmonizing like angels on the aptly named “Our Prayer.” That’s them delving into English music-hall style during the bridge of the unreleased version of ” Heroes and Villains.” No band of touring musicians and singers, even one as talented as the group that backed up Wilson in 2000, will come close to capturing the magic that these kids from the ticky-tacky suburbs of Los Angeles were able to achieve in the studio during those months. To return to this now-mythic collection of songs is to gild the rarest, wildest lily in pop music. Smile is dead; long live Smile.