SMiLE by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson is my favorite body of music ever. The only reason I’ve called other albums “my favorite” in the past is because SMiLE itself was never properly finished. There have been books, films, and scholarly essays on why that is and what it was supposed to be. That said, it’s such a personal topic to me and I believe my perspective is unique enough that I want to weigh in with my own analysis. This is going to be a huge multi-part series and I will be writing with the assumption that the reader has some background knowledge of the subject, so I recommend familiarizing yourself with the wikipedia at least. (In the last post of this series, I’ll also include a list of sources too, if you want to learn from them.)
In this introductory “chapter,” I’m going to give some background for how I found the music and its impact on me.
Summer Fun and Painful Angst
When I discovered this band, I was very young and listened to the Backstreet Boys (I know, I know…but it was the ’90s.) My mom noted “when I was your age, we listened to the beach boys” and showed me a cassette of a hits comp called Do It Again. I thought they looked like a bunch of dorks, not gonna lie. That was my first impression of this band that would come to affect my life so profoundly.
For awhile I pushed them to the back of my mind. Then sometime later, maybe a year or more, the Sounds of Summer compilation started getting advertised on TV and made the group seem enticing. I asked, and my mom bought me The Greatest Hits Volume 1: 20 Good Vibrations. The disappointment that it wasn’t the “right” greatest hits package quickly subsided when I gave that CD the first listen. From then on, I was truly hooked. My family would listen to it every summer on the way to and from the beach. I initially loved “I Get Around” and “California Girls” the most. However, as the years went on, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” grew on me and dethroned the previous pair of favorites. They had a beauty and emotional sincerity to them the other songs on the disc couldn’t match. Similarly, little kid me never thought of “Good Vibrations” (GV) as particularly impressive–it was just one more song on the comp. It wasn’t until I grew older that I fully appreciated how otherworldly it sounded, and what an impressive feat of musical production.
A year or two later, we got The Greatest Hits Volume 2: 20 More Good Vibrations and it changed my understanding of the band. I recall listening to this CD as a family traveling cross country to visit some out-of-the-way relatives. (It’s another great memory of my life tied to this group’s music.) I still loved the happy go lucky beach tunes, but when I got my iPod, if I was listening to the Beach Boys, it was always this second comp. The songs on it were far more somber and vulnerable, it seemed to speak to my budding insecurities and desire for intimate companionship as I entered Middle School. “Warmth of the Sun,” “Please Let Me Wonder,” “Little Girl I Once Knew” and especially “Caroline No” were the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard by any band at this point in my life. While I found it interesting, “Heroes and Villains” (H&V) never struck me as particularly special back then, similar to my aforementioned experience with GV. (So, needless to say, I was surprised years later when I found out H&V was the centerpiece to the fabled SMiLE masterpiece–but more on that later.)
Over time, I still enjoyed the old hits but more as a guilty pleasure. Then in High School, it was Brian Wilson and the myth of his genius which reeled me back into appreciating the group. Doing some research, I discovered Pet Sounds and that became my favorite album for several years. Starting in the Summer after 9th grade when I first heard it, the record was the soundtrack to my teen angst and longing for acceptance. PS was the very first physical album (as opposed to an iTunes download or YouTube rip) I ever purchased with my own money and there was a summer where I listened to it every single day. I’d try to get my friends to listen to it with me, but they heard “Beach Boys” and refused. If not that, the name and cover of the album itself killed any chance of them humoring me to check it out. At the time, I was really hurt by that; I wanted to share this precious statement that had got me through so many bad times and not even my closest friends trusted my taste in art. It was just one of many moments where I felt like the odd one out or punching bag even among my supposed friends–the exact emotions which appealed me to Pet Sounds in the first place.
Mozart + Icarus = SMiLE
After a bit more research, I came upon SMiLE, the fabled unfinished follow-up to Pet Sounds. Regrettably in hindsight, I decided to listen to Smiley Smile first since I heard that it was a simpler yet completed version of the music. At the time, I figured that would be preferable to a bunch of half-finished demos. Unfortunately, SS was such an under-produced, incomprehensible misfire that it killed my interest in SMiLE proper for another two years. Only in my senior year of High School did the subject somehow came up again in my mind, and I downloaded some bootlegs off the internet. To put it simply, these recordings completely blew me away like nothing has before or since in any medium. Not only that, they literally changed my life. (I know that’s a clichéd thing to say about a favorite piece of art, but in this case it’s absolutely true.)
Contrary to its name, the SMiLE music was so melancholy, yet there were elements of frivolity buried in them too. These contrasting moods created a disparate while simultaneously harmonious balance such that I didn’t know quite how to react to most of the songs emotionally. Somehow, this made them even more compelling though, like I had to dig deep and figure out the message for myself. A good example of what I’m talking about is the track “Child is Father of the Man” which on the surface sounds despondent, yet there’s this horn part in the melody that reminded me of the “wah wah” sound effect in TV shows where someone is the butt of a joke. It’s a seemingly inappropriate element that has no business being in the tune…yet somehow it just works. A more commonly cited example is the yodeling in “Wonderful” or the upbeat “Heroes and Villains” containing lyrics about a wife and mother getting violently gunned down in the streets. On top of all this, there were also hundreds of literary and historical references, deep themes including the cost of manifest destiny, and hidden puns which inspired hours of analysis and discussion over the next 5 years of my life. The many theories of how it all fit together intrigued me, as did the tragic story of its creation and abandonment.
During my High School senior week, me and a dozen or so friends rented a house on the shore. When I wasn’t enjoying the beach, taking in the city or getting drunk with everybody, I was chilling out and reading Catch a Wave: The Rise Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Over the next several years, I started getting into other far-out ’60s music and the counterculture that surrounded it. In college, when I wasn’t working on school itself, I was reading over a dozen biographies of various contemporary musicians, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix. When it came out, I eagerly purchased the SMiLE Sessions Boxset, which has remained one of my most prized possessions to this day. I poured over the session highlights, using them to make my own SMiLE mixes–the structure of which changed drastically over time.
Overall, SMiLE and its mythos completely redefined my sense of what music and art were capable of. Familiarizing myself with the counterculture also gave me the courage to be myself more, and stop trying to fit into what other people perceive as “normal” or acceptable. This started the long process of me having the courage to come out of the closet and be myself, which I don’t believe would have happened anywhere near as quickly were it not for SMiLE and the avalanche of material it introduced me to. No other work of art, in any medium, has had such a big impact on my life as this.
Four years after the boxset came out, after spending the interim period checking out the music of their contemporaries, I returned to Brian and the Beach Boys once again. As I was taking the first concrete steps to transition, including buying some girl-clothes and trying makeup for the first time, I finally sampled their post-SMiLE work. I learned to appreciate Smiley Smile on its own terms for the bizarre, one of a kind experiment it is. I found the song I consider to be the summation of Brian’s personality and humor, “Busy Doin’ Nothing.” Most significantly, it was Love You that personally resonated with me to a degree nothing had since Pet Sounds and SMiLE themselves. I dig how it’s so unapologetically quirky and sincere; it’s a great listen because of how frivolously it takes itself. See, by that point in his career Brian had nothing to prove anymore, so he just wrote fun tongue-in-cheek songs about Johnny Carson, the solar system, spending time with his infant daughter and other trivial subject matter in an earnest manner. I want more music, and perhaps more art in general, to be like that. Love You was the perfect soundtrack to what I was going through at the time, just being myself without giving a damn what anyone thought about it.
I feel like my writing today is a cross between Brian Wilson’s SMiLE and Love You but put to the page. There’s pretensions on my part of saying something as deep as the former. But in actuality, it’s just a fun off-beat mishmash of stuff I like to talk about, in keeping with the spirit of the latter. Occasionally, when I’m feeling brave and it’s relevant to the topic at hand, I delve into personal memoirs, in the same emotional honesty that I found inspiring in Pet Sounds. So, thank you to the Wilson brothers, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Tony Asher, Van Dyke Parks, the Wrecking Crew and Mike Love for all the music. No other band comes anywhere close to the effect the Beach Boys have had on my life; no other group has guided me through as many personal milestones or inspired me so much creatively.