Thursday, April 14, 2011

Brian Wilson, Smile and The Sandbox

 Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway for most people is seeing nature at its finest, but I saw it as the chance to see the sites that the Beach Boys immortalized in their surfing anthems of the sixties. For me and a lot of other land-locked teenagers, this was the promised land: sun, surf, sand and California Girls.
I was reminded of my infatuation with surf music while recently watching a documentary on Showtime, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile. Although initially wary of having to slog through all of Brian's emotional troubles again and be reminded of how we all have aged so much since the days of writing Surfers Rule on school blackboards, I found a heartwarming comeback story about a man whose peers revere him still as a musical genius.

The film opens with a quote from Bob Dylan, "Brian Wilson...that ear...Jesus, he's got to will that to the Smithsonian." On camera, Elvis Costello compares him to Gerswhin, Cole Porter and Richard Rogers.
By 1963 the Beach Boys had 28 Top 40 hits and nine consecutive gold albums in three years. The next year, Brian's nerves forced him to stop touring and he stayed home to experiment with his music and drugs.

One theme of his career (and the film) was the continuing competition with The Beatles and others. "I wanna do something Rubber Soul, " Brian announces. The result, Pet Sounds, knocked the music industry on its ear.  Jimmy Webb: " of the most significant albums of our generation."
Andrew Loog Oldham:  "How did he do that?"

In 1966 he teamed up Van Dyke Parks to start work on the various elements that would be part of his "teenage symphony to God," a musical journey that would touch people in basic ways and make them smile. The concept album was no secret and Capitol had a publicity campaign and cover art ready to roll out in early 1967.
Nor were the antics of Brian a secret as people read how he built a tent to work in and filled his living room with sand so he could enjoy playing the piano barefoot. (Reminded that he wrote Heroes and Villains and Surf's Up there, Brian admits, "yeah it was a great sandbox.")

While the world waited and was teased by pieces like Good Vibrations, things fell apart slowly. To record an song celebrating the element of fire, Brian made everyone wear toy fire hats (a delightful bit of vintage footage and stills) but when a nearby warehouse burned to the ground that night, it spooked him. Worse still, when the touring Beach Boys returned from London,  they balked at providing the voices to the symphony. "Mike (Love) hated it,"  Brian recalls. After months of bickering, Van Dyke Parks, tired of trying to explain his lyrics, quit. A number of other close friends and musicians did Brian's nervous breakdown. It was The Beatles turn to blow people's minds as Sgt. Pepper became the new standard of musical excellence.

"Finish Smile? You might as well try to raise the Titanic."
                                             ---Brian Wilson
Although we know how this story ends, its retelling is both dramatic and touching as the cameras trace how Brian put his own band together, how they gradually drew him into rehearsals for a live concert in London (which he announced before the pieces were finished, let alone sequenced), how Darien Shanaja put all the old tapes onto his laptop so Brian could mix and match at will, how Van Dyke returned to help with new lyrics, how people from around the world flew in for the premiere, how Sir Paul McCartney hugged and kissed him backstage and then joined in the standing ovation at the conclusion of Good Vibrations.

The film has plenty of faults, it is too long and some of the shooting and staging is gimmicky and it uses live concert footage from recent shows to illustrate the music Brian was writing back in the '60s which can be confusing.  But as a story about a musical work with a 37-year gestation period and to hear Brian say, about finishing Smile, "I felt like the demons had left me...It healed my soul very much," it moves you as the music intended.


  1. I'll for the program. Your piece makes me want to listen to Smile again!

  2. I saw a young hipster carrying a Surfin' USA record with the cover pictured above on the subway here a few months ago. Looked like he had just picked it up from the record shop, which put a smile on my face.