Friday, October 22, 2004

All the way back; Smile

So what if "a week" isn't quite "soon"? But at least the papers got graded.

Listening to Smile, just released on Nonesuch 37 years after Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks first began working on it, is an odd experience. With the exception of "Good Vibrations," "Surf's Up," "Heroes and Villains," "Our Prayer," and "Cabin Essence," none of this music had been publicly heard before Smile's first live performance in February 2004. It had all been written in the mid- to late-60s (David Leaf, who wrote the liner notes, mentions that the then-current Beatles album was Revolver) and so is very much of a piece with that era. Indeed, as I listened, I couldn't help but think about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But--and here's the oddness of my listening experience--Smile's conception predates Sgt. Pepper, but its release follows that album at a considerable distance. Leaf tacitly recognizes the possibility that Smile is irrelevant now: "[A] lengthy retelling of the history and mystery of the original Smile era might convince you that Smile matters. Or it might not." Fortunately for sales, this text doesn't appear on the CD's outer packaging.
Though Leaf, in the notes, isn't shy about calling Brian Wilson a genius, he oddly doesn't even mention Sgt. Pepper, much less draw comparisons between the two. But given that their compositions were occurring at almost exactly the same time, and given that both the Beach Boys and the Beatles conceived of their respective albums as unified bodies of work (as opposed to simple collections of songs), that lack of mention is also odd. Perhaps he is afraid that by doing so, Smile will seem outdated or derivative--and, thus, a lesser work. But, since I have no real reputation at stake, I'm not afraid to do so.
Smile is very much an example of mid-Sixties pop experimentation and so is "dated" in that sense. What isn't dated is its manner of experimentation, both within the songs and in how Wilson and Parks manage to give a sense of unity to such a diverse group of songs. It is on those grounds that, I'd have to say, Smile is a much more adventurous and even daring album than Sgt. Pepper. More: it's also more fully realized.
We are familiar with Beach Boys harmonies and their rootedness in doo-wop. "Good Vibrations," easily the most familiar of the Smile songs, gives the listener an inkling of how that sound gets pushed and stretched in the rest of the album. The doo-wop roots are still there, but, as one example, Wilson takes that "bop-bop-bop" line from the chorus in the direction of a kind of minimalist Handel chorus near the very end of the song. It's in this example that we see an important difference between the Beatles and the Beach Boys: the Beatles experimented with different styles of music; the Beach Boys experimented within their basic style, finding it to be much more elastic than even a song like "I Get Around" would have led one to believe. Wilson's genius is to hear and exploit echoes of other forms and traditions within the Beach Boys' sound. And so it is with the other songs on Smile: there are experiments with ambient sounds and odd instruments, but the real experiments are with those harmonies. There's even a moment when the singers laugh in harmony.
But it's not just that recognizable Beach Boys style that grounds all the songs (with the exception of "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," an instrumental that truly is distinctive, in its attitude (if not instrumentation) seeming to anticipate Zeppelin-style heavy rock). Just as in classical music, musical motifs appear and reappear in different songs--one little riff from "Heroes and Villains," Smile's second song, anticipates "Good Vibrations," the last song. Phrases from lyrics get repeated in other songs as well. Just about all the songs have some musical or lyrical motif linking them to another song on the album.
All this leads me down that treacherous path called the What If game: What If Brian Wilson hadn't been tormented by his addictions and fears and had released Smile whole and entire before or at the time of Sgt. Pepper? (As an aside: I remember reading somewhere that Paul McCartney once said that the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was a big influence on Sgt. Pepper.) I think one result would have been to have broadened the public's sense of Wilson's and the Beach Boys' stature as artists. There's also the possibility that Smile might have influenced Lennon and McCartney's work on Sgt. Pepper--most likely, I'd guess, in the direction of creating more musical and lyrical bridges between songs.
I'm glad I have Smile, but I have to admit to a sense of sadness as I listen and ponder what might have been. Grand as the Beatles' achievement undeniably is, I can't help but wonder how Smile would have shaped and directed pop music in those days, had it been available. Is it pointless to wonder such a thing? Knowing Smile now, we cannot unplay the notes we already know from that time; nor does Smile fill in gaps in our musical knowledge from that time because it just didn't exist as such except in Brian Wilson's studio. Having Smile is rather like having fossil records of Homo habilis or some other early form of human that didn't survive abd didn't shape who/what Homo sapiens would become.

Tomorrow: Issa Bagayogo.

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