by C. P. Lee


I’m excited. I haven’t been this excited in a long while. On Sunday I’m going to see history. On Sunday I’m going to Smile. Brian Wilson’s Smile to be precise, thirty-seven years after it was put aside as an unfinished work, never performed or released in any complete form the way that it was intended, the damaged genius’s ‘teenage symphony to God’ is being performed in Liverpool, and we’ll be there. 

Now… Why Brian Wilson? Why Smile? And what’s it got to do with Bob Dylan? 

In the early 1960s the Beach Boys were always ‘there’, always flying around the UK charts with their Californian anthems to sun, surf and girls, girls, girls. I can remember watching them on Ready Steady Go! wearing their matching Pendleton shirts and being quizzed by Keith Fordyce – “So tell me , Brian – What is this surf?” Mostly the songs seemed to be representative of the disposable end of Pop, fast on their feet and looking for a trend to latch onto. Then The Beach Boys began to change and instead of fast cars they applied their luscious harmonies to the production of symphonic Folk in the shape of Sloop John B, or sheer Rock ‘n’ Roll accapella  in their tribute to The Regents, Barbara Ann. Within my very limited experience of contemporary music this was something that appealed deeply to me. The vocal cadences of their harmonies knocked me sideways and could – and still can – make my hair stand on end. 

Pet Sounds came out at virtually the same time as Blonde on Blonde, and the music from these two records provided the soundtrack to my life in 1966 – one minute I was in an alley with Shakespeare, the other I was being wrenched apart by the vocals on God Only Knows. It was one hell of a summer, the window open, bright sunlight and a steaming Dansette record player playing the same records over and over so I could learn the notes for my bass guitar, because this was the summer of my first group – Jacko Ogg and The Head People! However … one of the defining moments of Rock history was the release of Good Vibrations, in my opinion the second greatest single ever (I imagine we all know what my first choice would be? – Like A Rolling Stone obviously). To hear it for the first time in November 1966, it was like, it was like…  an aural sledgehammer smashing into your consciousness. How could anybody come up with something like this? I found it devastating. 

What happened next is instructive and a tad peculiar too. Within a year the Beach Boys were basically a no-go zone, their Hip Licence, as it were, had been revoked. Jimi Hendrix even  announced it from the stage at the Monterey Festival – “You’ve heard the last of surf music!” he shrieked at the crowd in the middle of one of his solos. The Californian dream was all over. Throughout the course of the next four decades a simulacra of the band shuffled around the globe earning their living off an ever growing nostalgia circuit, selling punters the ersatz glow of fake tan and the masturbatory promise of bikini clad babes with welcoming smiles. It was a sham and a shame. 

What I didn’t know at the time, and wasn’t to learn about until the 1970s, was that the Beach Boys actually didn’t matter – Brian Wilson did. Brian was the boy genius who had started the band. Brian was the powerhouse behind all their great hits. Brian was stark, staring mad. His fragile psyche had been unable to cope with the stress of touring so in 1964 he’d been allowed to stay behind in LA and concentrate on writing the hits that the business demanded. Despite this break in an already manic schedule, personal problems, in particular with his domineering and violent father Murry, who sold off the rights to all Brian’s tunes for $80,000, the young song-writer slipped further and further into mental decline. The problem certainly wasn’t aided by the fistfuls of LSD he was taking, and, with the band away on a world tour, he began work on what was to be his major opus – Smile – in 1966. 

This was to be his above-mentioned “teenage symphony to God”. It is arguably the first ‘concept album’ in that it evolves musically around one theme. There are soaring heights of passion on it and also periods of whimsy that can become a little cloying, but overall it was a remarkable achievement astonishing Paul McCartney who dropped in on one of the sessions. Classical composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was moved to tears by Brian’s solo rendition of Surf’s Up

The album’s contents were divided into four suites, earth, air, fire and water, and it was the fire section that finally drove Brian over the edge into his long darkness of insanity. Equipping the musicians with children’s toy fire-helmets and lighting garbage cans of rubbish in the studio in order to ‘get them in the mood’, Brian was horrified to discover that there had been an outbreak of fires around LA the night they recorded the track. That and the fact that he thought Phil Spector was bugging him with a device that had been secretly fitted into his brain was the last straw. Control of the band slipped into the hands of his cousin Mike Love. 

Smile was abandoned and for years it was rumoured that Brian had destroyed the tapes. Eventually, in the late ‘70s, early 1980s, tracks began to be bootlegged. Finally, finished numbers began to appear as bonuses on compilation CD boxed sets, but the album in its entirety has never seen the light of day. 

The story of Brian Wilson’s fight against his illness and his slow struggle back onto the planet is one of remarkable sadness and courage, ending in an eventual triumph. If you want to know more there are plenty of internet sites and his own autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice

Our story now flips back into 1965 and the Hollywood Bowl, where Bob Dylan and his band are ‘walking like Rimbaud’. We know from contemporary accounts that Brian was in the audience that September evening. We know that in an interview he gave a few days later he talks about how much he admires Dylan but believes he could “destroy” music! Throughout that part of his career, Wilson was certainly possessed of an uncanny knack for seeing changes before they occurred and being able to integrate trends and flows into his own compositions whilst still retaining his artistic integrity.  Beach Boy Al Jardine had already brought a Folk sensibility into the group, it was him who suggested they cover the old Bahamian tune Sloop John B, and there are rumours of Dylan covers by the band languishing in the vaults. I personally don’t believe they’d be Brian era recordings though. More like Mike Love led forays into barrel scraping (even today at BB fan conventions the crowd sing along to a tune that begins “We hate Mike Love!”). 

So Brian slips off the creative map – He begins to return in the mid 1980s after controversial treatment from one Dr Eugene Landy. Controversial or not, in 1990 Brian was able to begin functioning as a ‘proper’ musician again and an album was co-written with his psychiatrist/therapist Landy. Ineptly named Sweet Insanity, it was roundly rejected by Brian’s label, as was Landy himself, by Brian’s family on his behalf, a short time later. After complaints from the families of several of his patients the doctor was summonsed to appear before a medical counsel who subsequently barred him for life for medical malpractice. Brian was on his own again, but this time for the better. Sweet Insanity only survives as a bootleg and it’s highly unlikely anybody would want to hear it performed in its entirety in 37 years time even if Brian was alive to play it. However, Sweet Insanity is important to our story because there’s a track on it called The Spirit Of Rock And Roll

It’s not a great track. In fact it’s an awful track, but performing a guest vocal on it is Mr Bob Dylan. For me, The Spirit Of Rock And Roll is on a par with the wonderfully named Dylan bootleg, Name That Tune, which features the very worst performances of the Zimmermeister. That particular bootleg, if memory serves me well, also dates from around 1990/91. Coincidence then that TSORAR is so awful? I think not – what could we expect from the collaboration of two of the greatest geniuses of 20th Century Popular Music? Dylan on a liquor-truck to hell and Wilson emerging from his creative purgatory equals, sadly, crap, and hilarious crap at that. What is germane to the tale of Smile and Dylan is that Brian had a photograph taken of him and Bob in the studio which is now framed and apparently still on his mantelpiece these fourteen years later! 

All goes to show – It’s a funny old world.