SMiLE (2/?) The Men Behind the Music

This multi-part essay is my attempt to thoroughly examine various aspects of Brian Wilson’s unfinished masterpiece, SMiLE. This essay is written with the assumption that readers already have a basic understanding of the album’s goals and demise. If you’re not familiar, the gist of it is that Brian Wilson was working on a follow-up to the critically acclaimed Pet Sounds in 1966-67, but for various reasons he never finished it. (Except as a solo tour and album release in 2003-04 without the Beach Boys.) In my personal opinion, the existing material from the original sessions is so fantastic that it warrants more attention from the general public. Furthermore, I speculate that not only would the ’60s project have taken on a vastly different form than the 2000s recording, but there is enough evidence to make a reasonable assumption of what that “lost album” would have been.

In this chapter, I’m going to talk about the two competing groups who represented Brian Wilson’s contradictory loyalties and views when working on SMiLE.

The Vosse Posse

NOTE: The Vosse Posse are a very loosely defined group of people who were hanging around with Brian during the time of the SMiLE sessions. By some accounts, they were all drug-pushers and hangers-on. But the namesake of the group, Michael Vosse, was a paid employee of Brian’s, hard at work on the then up and coming film division of Brother Records. Others such as David Anderle were Brother Records employees as well. Not only that, but it would be a mistake to believe all the characters collectively referred to as “the Posse” were even friends. As far as I can tell through my research on the subject, the project itself was the main thing that most of them had in common. So the label “Vosse Posse” is just a convenient shorthand to refer to a colorful cast of Brian’s acquaintances and associates during this specific period of time.

I’m sure Brian Wilson would have ditched the hippie intelligentsia crowd eventually even without his mental breakdown accelerating and exacerbating the process. I get the impression listening to the Psychedelic Sounds recordings (more on those later) that only Vosse himself was really trying to work with him. The others seem to treat the sessions as a time for goofing off and don’t take it as seriously as Brian seems to want them to. They outright ignore Brian when he tries to initiate the Vegetable Fight skit, and towards the end one of them seems to complain to Brian’s face about dragging them out there to do this at all. Both the Nov 4 session on disc 1 and Lifeboat Tape on disc 2 end with Brian sounding upset, possibly even browbeaten, and then self-isolating from the group as a result. Brian is just running on a different operating system than these guys. He seems to expect the others to operate on his level and instantly understand whatever he wants, then gets upset they don’t/can’t. That said, he was supposedly their friend and this was a big important album, so one would assume his friends would be more respectful, or at least willing to humor him. You’d think they’d be honored to even be included on what could have been one of the best albums ever made.

Some people in this group, like Lorren Daro, seem to be genuinely horrible people. Based on his interview in Beautiful Dreamer, and the description of him “cackling” in the Catch a Wave biography, and his comments on the SmileySmile forum, it’s clear he never had Brian’s interests at heart. From what I’ve heard, being under the influence of LSD makes a person incredibly emotional and vulnerable, and to take advantage of that situation for pleasure is not a strong recommendation for a man’s character. (By his own accord, Daro was laughing in Brian’s face while the man was having an existential breakdown.)

You could say Daro was just young and stupid back then, but grew up in the decades since and became a nice guy. Unfortunately, calling Brian’s long-suffering, well-intentioned wife a “cow” to a bunch of strangers and pretending all Brian’s best work was about him (Daro) is a pretty solid indicator that he’s not changed at all. Lorren’s free to genuinely dislike Marilyn, but there’s some things a gentleman keeps to himself, or at least says in a more tactful manner. (Ex “I’m personally not fond of Marilyn.”) Considering the fact that Daro’s objections to her boil down to “she didn’t like us give drugs to Brian” I don’t think his opinion is warranted. Then you consider how Marilyn had to spend years of her youthful life dealing with the mess Daro and drugs helped create, while raising their two children. One gets the sense that Daro, despite seeing himself as a great intelligentsia and artiste never amounted to much in the creative or intellectual world, so he’s been riding on Brian’s coattails for a claim to fame. 

Van Dyke Parks and Brian seem to be on the outs lately for reasons unknown to me. VDP is nowhere near as reprehensible as Daro, but I do speculate that he may be fueled by some of the same demons. I get the impression he’s upset his solo work never took off to the level he would have wanted, and now he’s most well known as SMiLE‘s collaborator. With what I’ve seen as a fan and having no insight into their personal lives or correspondence, VDP seems like a good person. However, he did throw his weight behind the Daro account of events on Twitter and has been taking pot shots at Brian. That strikes me, personally, as a bit immature. In my opinion, if he has a grievance, he should speak to Brian about it or describe it in detail. If it’s too small or too personal to warrant either action, then it’s also too small or too personal to constantly call attention to with barbs online. And for whatever his faults may be, Brian has never said a bad word about Van Dyke to my knowledge.

Jules Siegal’s article is very informative and well-written, but his obsession with how “hip” an artist is as opposed to just enjoying their art on its own merits struck me as somewhat immature and obnoxious. (Potentially gate-keeping as well.) I get the impression he’d ignore a magnificent piece of work like Vertigo because “Hitchcock’s not hip!!” but praise someone like Yoko Ono for being part of the in-crowd. I’ve read rumors on the SmileySmile forum that even the “cool” Vosse Posse crowd did not particularly like him either. I can’t claim to know Siegal as a person, and I’m just speculating based on this limited window into a small piece of his life. But I got the impression that he didn’t really appreciate what SMiLE was as a statement, or Brian Wilson the man, outside of their brief flirtation with the cool stoner crowd in LA.

It’s also worth noting that some of the supposed stoner friends, like Michael Vosse himself, strike me as genuinely good guys. When I read either of Vosse’s pieces about the SMiLE Era I sense genuine warmth and admiration. I half-jokingly called his, Anderle’s and Siegal’s pieces “the Four Gospels of SMiLE” but with Vosse’s in particular I really get the sense he understood the significance of what he was part of, and the need to preserve it in detail for future generations. Despite losing a potentially lucrative career to Brian’s flakiness, I do not see any rancor or resentment in his Fusion interview. On the aforementioned Psychedelic Sounds skits, Vosse genuinely does his best to go along with Brian’s impulses and try to give him something good on tape to work with. The others we hear seem noticeably less interested (or perhaps just suck at comedic improv). It’s also telling that Michael Vosse alone appears on the PS Disc 2 stuff, like the Taxi Cabber conversation and Vegetable Argument. I sense that Brian trusted Vosse, or felt comfortable with him to a degree not equaled with the others–possibly including Van Dyke Parks himself. Vosse was either a true friend, a devoted follower or both to Brian.

I get a similar vibe from David Anderle but less so. He seems like a scorned ex-friend who’s not happy with how things turned out but is mature enough to be ambivalent and gracious in public. Reading his interviews, I got the impression Anderle was disappointed but overall just wants his old friend to find his feet again. Brian literally called his wife a witch for taking the time to paint him a very nice portrait, and he let that go. He was left dealing with the business side of things and Brian was unwilling or unable to even sign papers which had to be frustrating, but he let it go. I don’t get the impression he was quite as smitten with the music as Vosse, but certainly more so than others in “the Posse.”

I don’t know as much about Danny Hutton but he strikes me as a good fellow too. Brian wanted to produce his band Three Dog Night after the SMiLE sessions, so clearly Brian liked and respected Hutton’s talents. I wouldn’t heap the praise of Vosse onto Hutton and Anderle, but neither do they deserve the criticism of Daro (and to a much lesser extent, VDP). They’re in the middle of the group, in terms of the reverence they held for Brian and his work all this time despite the unsatisfying way things worked out. I respect that.

Van Dyke Parks (How Much of SMiLE is His?)

In the previous section, we examined some of the flaws of Brian’s hip friends both in terms of personality and missing the significance of the art they were witnessing. In a future essay I will also analyze some of Brian’s own flaws as a leader in the studio. The conundrum then, is reconciling how much I love this album that was influenced by such imperfect people. According to Van Dyke Parks, Brian was a middling and overrated talent until he stepped in. Daro would say the same thing. Is any of that true?

I wonder how much of the themes, oblique poetry, the no-holds-barred attack on American history and easter eggs in SMiLE are the result of Brian and how much are the result of VDP and the Vosse Posse. I know Brian explored astrology again in his music, albeit less eloquently with “Solar System” off the Love You album. He eventually did a spoken word musical skit with “Mt. Vernon and Fairway” off the Holland album. Brian also did another mishmash album of the stuff that interested him at the time with Love You. It’s just that during that era, his interests were more unusual (Johnny Carson, roller skating, child rearing) and less grandiose as in SMiLE (with numerology, American heritage, fitness, classical elements). Brian also did an album with two clear moods divided by sides (Today!), an album of suites with spoken word bits (That Lucky Old Sun) and my guess is the Paley sessions would have followed a similar structure based on the three or four recurring themes therein. The Paley sessions also explore some of the religious and Americana concepts as well. Therefore, SMiLE isn’t a cut above the rest because it’s so different from what Brian did in the rest of his career–it’s his magnum opus because it took all the good parts of his other work and combined them into one album.

I also know that I’m not a big fan of VDP’s Song Cycle album while I love Brian’s less poetic, more naive outings the same year like “Busy Doin’ Nothing.” The two men together were a match made in heaven, with VDP’s more philosophical artiness bringing out the very best in Brian, who himself was an arranging and composing genius. Based off Pet Sounds alone, Brian would have made music as beautiful as the SMiLE backing tracks if left to his own devices (though I’m sure VDP bounced a lot of great ideas off him–like the cellos in “Good Vibrations”.) However, while the music of this theoretical VDP-less album might still have been great, I’m skeptical it would have had the kind of beautiful poetry found in “Surf’s Up” or “Wonderful.” Mike Love could write beautiful lyrics, like “Warmth of the Sun,” but he couldn’t write “heady” lyrics like those. I’m not convinced Tony Asher could’ve tapped into the themes Brian wanted either, despite how great he was on their previous collaboration. If Brian had just used Asher again, SMiLE would have just been another Pet Sounds, for better or worse. In some circles of Beach Boy fandom, it’s become stylish to criticize the lyrics of SMiLE, but with the possible exception of “Wind Chimes’ and “Barnyard” I think they’re magnificent. 

I also don’t think Brian would have been pushed to, or confident enough to pursue all the different themes and concepts in SMiLE without Van Dyke or someone else as well-read as him. It’s always been my impression that the Americana section was more VDP’s idea than Brian’s, or at least that VDP expanded it from a single cowboy song (“Heroes and Villains”) into an entire ongoing theme. I cannot believe for a second that Brian would have been talking about genocide against the Indians (“Do You Like Worms”) or destruction of the American wilderness (“Cabin Essence”) without VDP to bounce ideas off him. We wouldn’t have “Child is Father of the Man” for sure since Van Dyke introduced the Wordsworth poem to Brian, and that’s my favorite SMiLE song. The ultimate evidence that VDP made SMiLE “deeper” is that Brian ditched the thoughtful social commentary in Smiley Smile and never attempted anything that ambitious again. Without VDP, he either lost his nerve or his ability to do anything that witty or intentionally controversial for the rest of his career.

Without VDP, we also probably wouldn’t have subtle touches like the motif of modes of transportation between “Worms” and “CE,” or references to old standards (“Old Master Painter”) and books without VDP. Brian was a musical genius but in no way was he that sophisticated to work in details like that by himself. (Look at the rest of his discography; he never attempted anything like that again.) And for me, that’s the aspect of SMiLE that has makes it so fun to return to and analyze to this extent. Pet Sounds is gorgeous and Love You is pure fun, but they don’t warrant anything near the tomes I’ve written about SMiLE. You could say this is only because SMiLE is unfinished and therefore limitless in our ability to look into, but other unfinished works don’t invite half the level of speculation and dissection for me either. This album is special, and Van Dyke played a big part in making it so.

In conclusion, Brian could write melodies and compose arrangements at least as good as those found on SMiLE if left to his own devices, but the many layers of puns, references and subtle meaning inherent in this music are almost certainly due to Van Dyke. If I were forced to choose one artist to listen to, it’d be Brian, with its quirkiness and naive honesty over VDP’s pretentiousness any day. However, I think both men in their primes, working together, produced something greater than either one working alone could have done. SMiLE (at least a 2-sided, 12 track, ~42 minute mix of its best material) is far greater than the sum of its parts. (I don’t think the officially released 3-suite, ~18 track structure, or the “everything and the kitchen sink” mixes do it justice. But more on that in a future essay.)

Enter Mike Love (Is He SMiLE’s Killer?)

Despite everything I’ve just said, I can still see how Mike Love would have perceived these guys as hangers on and toxic to Brian; he wouldn’t have been completely wrong in that assessment. And I can understand the Posse looking down on him as a square who doesn’t “get” something deep like SMiLE. (I still don’t think he “gets it,” even decades later.) It’s just an oil and water situation where the two personalities and worldviews just clash yet no one can back down.

The Vosse Posse was filled with some less than stellar people who were making Brian worse off, but Mike ought to have at least respected his cousin enough to choose his own friends and develop as an artist. I’m not sure if Mike tried to give the SMiLE music an honest listen, or hear Brian out on what it was all about, but if not he should’ve. At the same time, some of the Vosse Posse were good people who challenged Brian to raise the quality of his art. However, Mike had been an essential part of getting the band to the point where the record company would allow Brian to have essentially free reign making something unprecedented like SMiLE in the first place. So, with that in mind, the Posse should have respected Mike for his part with that. 

It’s undeniable that Mike gave Brian and VDP a lot of grief due to jealousy and skepticism, as opposed to the apologist claim that “he just innocently asked about lyrics once.” That said, Mike did eventually sing the lyrics regardless of his personal misgivings, and if invited into the creative process to some degree, I think he could have been placated enough to be more supportive. I believe a lot of Mike’s antagonism towards Pet Sounds and SMiLE came from feeling sidelined in the creative process. This is a totally human, understandable reaction. If you saw yourself as the Paul McCartney to Brian’s John Lennon and then learned you were just the “guest lyricist” until your partner found someone better, you’d be hurt too. You might lash out at the new guys taking your place, or act spitefully towards the guy who replaced you. That’s normal if not optimal, and I don’t hold it against Mike for acting that way. 

Brian should have explained to Mike what he was going for in each new album and maybe allowed Mike to pitch lyrics on the side. After all, his contributions during this time were great, including “I’m Waiting For the Day” and besting Asher with his lyrics for “Good Vibrations.” I think the fallout with Mike was at least as much Brian’s fault; I mean he didn’t even give Mike credit for the hits up to this point that made the band the #1 group in the world. What’s more, as I will point out in future essays of this series, Brian wasn’t a very good leader. He just sort of jumped into things and expected his group to follow without clear instructions or description of the endgame. If Brian had treated his bandmates the same way as the Vosse Posse during the Psychedelic Sounds, it’s no wonder they felt alienated and wondered if Brian even had a coherent plan. (Based on Al Jardine’s description of being ordered to act like a pig on the spot and feeling humiliated, we must assume Brian did in fact treat them the same way.)

The popular “Mike killed SMiLE” narrative is certainly a conclusion without nuance but not altogether without evidence either. When nearly all of our primary sources (more on this in a future essay) from those close to the project say the same thing about tension, unsupportive behavior, Brian dreading the Beach Boys coming home, we shouldn’t ignore it. When asked about why SMiLE failed to come out in the Beautiful Dreamer documentary, Brian’s first and most viscerally charged answer was “Mike didn’t like it. He hated it. He hated it.” While memories change over the years and some could (perhaps rudely) argue that Brian’s not all there anymore, I think such a strong direct answer should tell us something. The complexity and nuance of memories may fade over time, but how you felt, your visceral impressions, don’t. At least that’s always been my experience. 

Of course we all know how numerous and complex the issues with the project were and why it was perhaps doomed to fail regardless. But for Brian that was perhaps the final straw where he didn’t care to deal with the headache of SMiLE anymore. Ironically I can kind of relate to this idea through my own experiences analyzing SMiLE on the forums. Having a dozen or so private messages saying they love your theories is cool, but when you’re being harassed or berated constantly in public and no one from the crowd will openly defend you… Well, after enough of trudging through it, there’s a point where the thought “why do I bother?” has no answer, and you just need to tap out for your own sanity. Especially so if you have a lot of other stuff going on in life (feelings of inadequacy, other obligations, potentially losing family and more) and the project you’ve invested in was supposed to be uplifting and fun. It’s my belief that SMiLE might have been doomed either way by the other issues going on: mental crisis, suing Capitol Records, getting Brother Records off the ground, the modular recording system, disagreements with VDP, Carl getting drafted etc. But it’s also my strong belief that SMiLE absolutely couldn’t weather all that and Mike being angry and causing Brian to second guess himself constantly. The answer to whether Mike killed it or not depends on how much you weigh that factor among the others, but the point is it was a factor in the collapse of the project. 

However, I’ve seen the pendulum swing the other way recently. Where the narrative used to be entirely anti-Mike, now the Vosse Posse are all made into terrible people, no exceptions. (At least this seems to be the attitude on the forums.) The fact that Brian dropped the Posse after the sessions is used as a condemnation of their characters. A moral is built up out of the tragedy, that “it’s wrong to pretend to be something you’re not.” They’re all painted as these loser pretentious hipsters for daring to care about deeper themes in music or (gasp!) doing soft drugs in the 1960s! This, I think, is as slanderous as saying Mike personally came in and canceled SMiLE. We should never forget that whatever the faults of one or two bad apples, this was a pretty big group (if you include everyone in the airport picture for example) with diverse personalities. Painting them all with one brush is ridiculously simplistic. Whether he was trying to impress them or not, it was Brian’s choice to go in this direction. The Vosse Posse didn’t coerce him to do anything. It’s always been my impression from contemporaneous and retrospective comments that Brian was excited for the music and disappointed it didn’t work out. Let’s give these people some credit and benefit of the doubt too. They seemed like the wrong crowd for Brian, some more than others, but placing the blame squarely on their shoulders is wrong. So are those that would say the project was ill-conceived from the beginning, or that Brian was insincere about it.

I think the fact that the Vosse Posse are not bandmembers allows some Beach Boys fans a blank check to use them all as scapegoats for everything wrong that happened in this period. In that community, condemning Mike offends a portion of the fanbase and you’d have to rectify his bad actions with his good ones. Same if you were to blame Brian. But it’s easy to throw some random “nobodies” under the bus and leave it at that. For me that’s not the honest thing to do, when looking at the situation objectively. As we can see from the contradictory anecdotes surrounding the SMiLE sessions, everyone was at least somewhat at fault. That’s life; nobody’s perfect and everything’s a shade of gray. It’s easy for someone like me to come in decades later with the benefit of hindsight and dictate how these young men in a high pressure situation should have acted, but it’s not fair to any of them for me to do so.

In short, both extremist views of the Vosse Posse, and whether they or Mike were in the right are oversimplifications. We always want a bad guy, a black/white narrative that’s simple to follow. The truth is real life is more complicated than that. The only real bad guy here is mental illness. 

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