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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

He Can't Suppress a 'Smile'

Brian Wilson buried a musical masterpiece 37 years ago. His doubts now gone, the former Beach Boy has revived and reshaped the songs.

February 20, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

There's no surf, no sand, no little deuce coupes and only a couple of California girls in sight of the North Hollywood recording studio. Inside, the 61-year-old architect of "Good Vibrations," "Surfin' U.S.A." and "Fun, Fun, Fun" sits stoically at his keyboard, surrounded by a small army of musicians, and stares into one of two video monitors.

Song lyrics crawl across the screens as the other performers, most of whom weren't born when Brian Wilson's songs topped the charts four decades ago, serve up the densely layered vocal harmonies and rainbow of instrumental colors that his compositions require.

Wilson frequently looks away from the monitors and occasionally switches them off, but likes them nearby as a safety net.

Who can blame him? The songs he's working on aren't the familiar rock hits he created with the Beach Boys, those relentlessly sunny tunes that painted a fantasy of Southern California life as an endless summer of perfect waves, hot rods and blond beauties.

Instead, he's putting the finishing touches on a work he dreamed up 38 years ago, at the height of his creative rivalry with the Beatles.

After years of wrestling with depression and drug and alcohol abuse, after half a lifetime of trying to forget his fabled lost masterwork, Wilson can smile again.

"This feels so good," he says to a reporter when the session is over. "So good I can't believe it."

Tonight, he'll unveil "Smile" at a concert in England, where fans have long accorded him the heroic status that Americans reserved for the Beatles. Paul McCartney is expected to join him on stage during at least one of six sold-out shows at London's Royal Festival Hall.

Over the next three weeks, Wilson will give 16 "Smile" concerts in Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France. He plans a U.S. tour in the fall to coincide with the CD release of the newly recorded work.

To tens of thousands of pop fans, Wilson's completion of "Smile" is no less exhilarating than the discovery of a completed manuscript for Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony would be to classical music scholars.

"I can hardly wait," says Rick Rubin, a producer who has worked with acts ranging from Johnny Cash and Tom Petty to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Beastie Boys.

Wilson, his hair now streaked with gray but still thick and full, has been touring regularly since 1998, something many pop fans never thought they'd see, given his history of emotional instability.

Now they'll get the music that most never dreamed they would hear.

The Beatles' Rivals

Wilson was 24 when he went to work on the album he conceived as "a teenage symphony to God." Originally to be called "Dumb Angel" to reflect its themes of humor and spirituality, it was retitled "Smile."

It was 1966, and a string of more than two dozen hit singles and 10 hit albums had made the Beach Boys, a band from Hawthorne, the most popular American group and the Beatles' chief rivals atop the sales charts. Pop music was going through a transformation in which the album was supplanting the three-minute single as the dominant format.

Wilson has long said he felt a sense of artistic competitiveness with the Fab Four. Each group has acknowledged the influence of the other.

The Beatles' 1965 album "Rubber Soul" inspired Wilson to move beyond the teen simplicity of the Beach Boys' early work to the musical maturity and emotional expressiveness of 1966's "Pet Sounds." The ambitions of "Pet Sounds" helped spur the Beatles to new heights in their next album, "Revolver."

Wilson was determined to top his rivals again with "Smile." He promised it would be as much of a progression over "Pet Sounds" as that was over its predecessor, "Beach Boys Party!"

"Smile" was expected at the end of 1966 -- while the Beatles were working on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Immediately after "Pet Sounds," Wilson created the band's most intricately crafted recording, "Good Vibrations," a song intended for "Smile." It became the Beach Boys' biggest hit up to that time, proof that there was a market for Wilson's increasingly sophisticated music.

Wilson's further evolution with "Smile" stemmed from his collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, a Mississippi-born singer, songwriter, pianist, arranger and producer who had moved to Southern California in the 1950s.

Parks brought a strong literary sensibility to the lyrics he wrote for "Smile," which he and Wilson envisioned as a work rooted in American history, culture and musical vernacular. It was to contain doses of comic-book humor reflecting the whimsicality of the dawning psychedelic age. (Jimi Hendrix once described what he'd heard of "Smile" as the music of "a psychedelic barbershop quartet.")

But Parks' impressionistic lyrics led to dissension among the Beach Boys. Mike Love, the band's front man during concerts, was particularly sensitive to pleasing fans and found Parks' lyrics obscure.

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