Perhaps not so much the history of rock and roll -- Pet Sounds had been something of a comercial failure and the Beatles' Revolver, released the same year, alienated many fans -- certainly the history of the Beach Boys, and of Brian Wilson, would be a different one than the one we know.
The sad and painful history of Smile has been well documented. The effects of drug use on the part of Brian and (less often remarked) the rest of the group; Mike Love's constant bickering with Brian and Van Dyke Parks ("But what do these lyrics MEAN?"); and the lesser known law suit the group was pursuing against Capitol Records over past royalties (making it impossible for many months for the group to release an album). Certainly, had Smile been released, the critics -- and rock critics at that time were a very new breed -- would have had a field day, much as they would the following year with Sgt. Pepper. Young record buyers would probably have been confused: why doesn't the rest of the album sound like "Good Vibrations?" And besides, what DOES "over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield" mean? No doubt it would have been hailed by many as the greatest rock / pop album ever...as is Pet Sounds today. But whether it would have kept the Beach Boys from hitting bottom as they did with the public in the early seventies is something we'll never know. Consider the way the four ex-Beatles got slammed during that time.
So what are we left with? An unfinished album that only Brian can finish, and he, seemingly still haunted by bad memories, chooses not to. But what an unfinished album! The good news is that the music that would have made up Smile can be heard, should be and must be heard. If you doubt that Brian Wilson is a genius, listen to Pet Sounds. If you doubt that he's one of the great American composers, listen to what we have of Smile. In addition to countless bootlegs, one can consult Capitol's box set "Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys." Most of the major tracks are there, with the exception of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (aka: "Fire") and other things that are easily found on the boots (apparently the "Elements" suite was never completed). Listen to the original versions of songs like "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes" to hear some of the best singing Brian and the group ever did. Listen to "Cabinessence" and hear why comparisons with Charles Ives are not exaggerated. Listen to Brian rehearsing the orchestra on "Good Vibrations" and realize that, yes, this probably is how Mozart would have done it had he been born a couple of centuries later. Listen too to a couple of brilliant and unique albums that came directly out of the wreckage of Smile: Van Dyke's "Song Cycle" and the Beach Boys "Smiley Smile," an album that has been underrated only because of its being in Smile's shadow.
So the good news is that the music Brian laid down thirty five years ago is there for us. I could go through it track by track, but like all great art, it's best for each of us to make his or her own discovery. There's no music in the world quite like Smile, and only the true genius of Brian Wilson could have made it. It's one of those things that you really can't overrate. Whatever you may have heard about it, it's all true, and so much more besides. Walt Whitman once wrote "He who touches my book touches me." Whoever touches Smile touches Brian, and if they have a heart and a soul, Brian will touch back.
J. M. Haze
Del Mar, CA
July 6, 2001
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