SMiLE (10/14) The Gospel of Vosse

In these next four essays, I’m going to analyze what the members of the so-called Vosse Posse have said about the album in editorials or interviews.

Initially, these commentaries were written in response to a user named HolyBee on the SmileySmile forum, who told me I had no right to offer my theories on SMiLE as I had not read Look Listen Vibrate SMiLE yet. As it happened, I owned the book I just hadn’t gotten the opportunity to read it yet since I was in college, working a job and dealing with some massive personal hurdles at the time. To try to compromise, I set aside the time I could spare to read the four articles most commonly cited as the essentials–the Vosse Fusion interview, Anderle Crawdaddy interview, Siegal’s “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God” and the Teen Set promo written by Vosse. Because he’d made such a big deal about how crucial they were, I started referring to these half-jokingly as the “four gospels” and I kinda liked the name ever since. I’m bringing up this context because I’m going to harp on some specific details in these commentaries which HolyBee disagreed with and led me to believe these sources would disprove. (As it happens, after writing these commentaries I was accused of mis-framing them to intentionally mislead people. Though none of my observations themselves could be refuted.) 

Thereafter, in the process of compiling these essays into one body of writing, I started looking through the other people in the infamous SMiLE Sessions airport photo to see if they had ever offered their perspective on the project. I could only find interviews from Danny Hutton and Mark Volman besides the aforementioned Siegal, Anderle and Vosse pieces. Volman refused to discuss the subject at all and quickly changed the subject–consider his testimony an “apocryphal Gospel.” =P

The Interview in Fusion Magazine

I got around to reading the Fusion article today. I was always meaning to read it and I’m glad I finally forced myself to do so, but I think I heard most of what’s in here before through quotes on the SmileySmile board and corroboration by other sources, so aside from one or two factoids I didn’t learn much. Still a great read and Vosse seems like the most comprehensive and reliable source I’ve seen. Most of what’s presented here supports the theories I had already. Namely:

1) Humor was a very big part of the album as well as its inspiration. Brian equated humor to religious epiphanies and thought that if you were laughing you were vulnerable and thus more open to be enlightened or taught. This doesn’t necessarily mean humor skits on the album, but with the other evidence I’ve cited ad nauseum it adds up to a bigger picture. Vosse also says sound effects and other experimental oddities would be on the album, and you can hear Brian exploring those on the Psychedelic Sounds bootleg as well.

2) Going off that, Vosse mentions the cover and booklet photos being intentionally badly done, that is to say, very simplistic and crude for the former as well unflattering and “out of their element” for the latter. I’ve brought this up before, how the cover ties the whole idea of the music and PS together. It’s that idea of subverting expectations, hearing about this great new experimental album, this symphony to God…and it’s bundled in a drawing your 7 year old could’ve made. These guys who are synonymous with the hot beaches are now floating on a boat in the chilly rivers of Boston, the last place you’d expect. Vosse mentions Brian specifically wanted people to laugh at them. I propose then that if he wanted people to laugh at the cover and booklet, it stands to reason he would want people to laugh at certain points in the music too.

3) According to Vosse, the album existed as a fully conceptualized entity in ~November ’66 or so. I tend to lean the same way. Obviously specifics were changing week to week, month to month, and as I said in a reply to another user before, there’s unanswered questions about every single track much less the sequence or inclusion of Psychedelic Sounds. But there was an *outline* a general “skeleton” which had only to be fully fleshed out and put to tape, before late December and 1967 when it all went to chaos in service of creating a follow up single to Good Vibrations.

4) Vosse specifically mentions Elements as a four part suite, but the implication is clearly that it was all one song. He also mentions the Tag of Wind Chimes very specifically but as its own thing, outside of the Elemental context. Again, as with Anderle, I have to believe that if Wind Chimes–even just the tag of it–was Air, Vosse would say that. More especially since he goes out of his way to talk about both and STILL doesn’t make the connection.

5) He mentions Brian and Van fighting, Brian asserting dominance over Van and the latter resenting the other for it. But Vosse also specifically mentions Mike and Brian fighting often, and the band in general in a sort of fragmented state with two camps complaining about the other here and there. This, to me, proves that while the band didn’t kill SMiLE (which is pretty commonly accepted among the fandom now) the tension was still very real. Far more than the revisionist “all Mike did was innocently ask about lyrics one time” position would have you believe. THAT BEING SAID the arguments between BW & VDP were almost certainly more significant than most have been lead to believe. (Beautiful Dreamer certainly didn’t go into that.) And it seems according to Vosse that the others only felt comfortable bashing VDP openly because Brian more or less already was.

6) The songs were very fluid, and CE/Worms were originally pieces of 2 or 3 “feels” each that were finally combined. This shows that the same was almost certainly true of Heroes and IIGS too. If two fragments called “Who Ran the Iron Horse” and “Home on the Range” could be cobbled together into one song, who’s to say the same isn’t true of H&V, IIGS? BUT…would that really mean just straightforward one section/another section/another section structures? What I mean is, those two CE fragments REPEAT. One part became the verse, the other the chorus. Another section, “Grand Coulee Dam,” became the fade. Now this is more speculation that anything, but I think this lends precedent to my earlier idea about IIGS: that Do A Lot was originally the chorus to that song, and IIGS as we know it would be the verses. Maybe Barnyard would’ve been the fade?

7) Piggybacking off that, if the pieces of Americana were so undeniably fluid that they shuffled from one track to the next, that to me is further evidence they were meant to be together on the album. OMP, Barnyard and H&V were all together too at one point. IIGS is part of H&V, then its own track, then (if you buy my earlier hypothesis) part of that track goes into Veggies just as part of Worms goes into Heroes. This paints a picture of a very interrelated set of music, what we now call the Americana songs. It seems hard to argue against my assertion that these tracks should be placed together on the album when, ignoring the instrumental/thematic/lyrical/conceptual connections I’ve been harping on for a year, each one was part of another song in that same group at some point or another.

Anyway, I’m not sure if the same can be said of the Cycle of Life tracks, but even so it’s irrelevant. If you put all these tracks which shared pieces at various points on one side, what remains on the other are the Cycle of Life songs plus The Elements anyway.

8) Vosse mentions the water recordings were his idea. Again, while he talked about the Elements before in his article and undeniably spoke a great deal about these Water recordings with Brian (since it was his idea and hes the one who made them) he makes NO MENTION of this being the water element. He does mention Brian saying they could make a song out of them, since every musical note had been represented by the various water sounds in these tapes. But again, no clear indication this is water and it sounds to me like another off-the-cuff Brian idea that never panned out, much like his silverware symphony. One gets the impression that “I should put this on the album” was probably a common phrase uttered by him in those days. It’s what he actually committed to tape that we ought to focus on, if for no other reason than that’s all we have from the area which is vintage.

9) The scene Vosse describes with the I-Ching sounded like something out of a movie. Insanely prophetic although he himself didn’t believe it to be so. Similarly I loved the idea about meetings in the swimming pool and I didn’t know Brian wanted to have a slide that went to his bed or that he painted his house pink.

10) It seems this idea of the album [that was popular on SmileySmile at the time] coming apart because “using the Wrecking Crew wasn’t cool” and wanting the band to play on their own album might be overstated. Sounds more like Brian wasn’t satisfied with their vocal performances and kept rerecording all the parts himself. This could explain the “lazier” or if you prefer, “laid back” production on the Smiley Smile album, where they’re all a group again and mistakes are intentionally left in. Seems possible SMiLE was a very personal album for Brian that had to be just so, and when he realized they couldn’t do it–or his expectations were too high and it was killing the group–he decided it was more important to make a fun album with his band, imperfections and all. At least that’s the feeling I get reading Vosse. The phrase “don’t think you’re god, just be a cool guy” uttered deep in the mix of Smiley‘s version of Wonderful suddenly makes sense…

11) Very interesting to hear there was more to the Inside Pop demo of Surf’s Up, with the gang all around a pool. I would literally kill to see what that was supposed to be. I loved the anecdote too about Murray trying to hog the spotlight by diving and badgering Brian to say good things about him to the cameras. Classic Murray.

12) Vosse does mention a two sided, 6 minute H&V single. As I recall though, he never said that was the intended edit or the one Brian really wanted, just that it was his own personal favorite. He claims it was one of a dozen or so. I personally don’t really have a stake in this single sided vs two sided H&V single debate. I’m far more interested in the album, personally, and my thoughts on the H&V single basically amount to “waste of time; should’ve used a stripped down Surf’s Up as heard on TV.” I do recall reading a quote from Brian during the sessions where he said he didn’t want to reveal too much in the next single. Where he said the B-side would probably be something simple like himself at a piano. Obviously a H&V sampler B-side would be the exact opposite of that, and even without the quote it seems crazy to reveal so much to people before they buy the album, and to your competition during a virtual arms race before you’ve actually won.

The Promo in Teen Set Magazine

1) The implication seems to be that the Workshop sounds are merely background noise for one of the SMiLE tracks. I realize Workshop has musical accompaniment to it (I Wanna Be Around), but the speculative part of me cannot help but wonder if perhaps that accompaniment might be something else. With or without the IWBA music, I use workshop as a makeshift Earth, and rebuilding after the Fire. Sometimes I like to use a psychedelic skit overtop of it as well.

2) The description of the piano piece and how it was made really gets me thinking. I believe it’s possible that a lot of the more off the wall ideas like Talking Horns’ various sections and other more obscure SMiLE pieces might have been ideas which Brian didn’t know how they were going to work…and in those particular cases, he couldn’t get them to work in the end. That piano idea seems to have been kinda spur of the moment and could just as easily have turned out not so great. I know the point of the anecdote is Brian’s genius that he could make great music on the fly. But even geniuses don’t always get it right. So perhaps that could be what happened with many of these pieces we have no explanation for–Brian got a crazy idea, recorded it, but never knew how exactly it’d fit into the overarching structure.

3) It’s great to see the Taxi Cabber skit mentioned here. I concede it does sound like Brian is talking about using this guy in a “humor record” that is implied to be different from SMiLE. With the dinner table concert he says “I’m putting this on the album” with this it’s “a humor record.” Could still be SMiLE, but also could not, especially since Brian says “possibly a radio show.” I’m wondering now if perhaps spoken word humor wasn’t part of the album’s original plan thru ’66 until Dec or maybe early ’67, with that quote about “a lot of talking in the pauses” during an All Day session and the Cantina Edit.

Maybe humor gradually became more and more prominent to the concept until we got to Smiley Smile with its off the wall goofiness (She’s Goin’ Bald, anyone?). I think that’s very probable, especially looking at the evolution of titles from Dumb Angel to SMiLE to Smiley Smile–from the more thought provoking and serious to the more sublime and silly. I think the complaint about pretense and defensiveness in humor could possibly be a dig at VDP. Maybe some of VDP’s lyrics and/or contributions to humor skits weren’t liked by Brian. Maybe he was looking for someone funny and was slowly realizing VDP wasn’t it, and that played a small part in their growing divide and split. VDP’s sense of humor seems to be lyrical puns and double entendres while Brian’s is very juvenile and screwball. This is speculation of course.

4) OH MY GOD. FINALLY. We have a description of the water sounds Brian recorded during Psychedelic Sounds. Vosse’s quoted specifically saying that Brian would have the Boys try something similar when they got back. This unofficial session is described as trying to recreate the feeling of water. Honestly, this is case closed as far as I’m concerned. Undersea Chant is the early Water Chant, and therefore the closest Brian ever came during the sessions to completing the Water element. And this in turn suggests–though admittedly doesn’t outright prove–that Brian could’ve done the same with Breathing as air. HolyBee, you said before you thought Breathing was perhaps meant to be the sounds of a gym. I think you’re right, actually. And I’d like to say this could also tie in to Anderle’s testimony that the Elements were meant to convey fitness as well.

Wouldn’t you know it, there’s a lot of rhythmic chants about water strokes and swimming on Psychedelic Sounds as well. I also find it telling that where Brian scaled back Fire from an inferno to a candle, this early water is described as Atlantis. Water Chant is beautiful, but Atlantis it’s not. I think it’s possible this was intentionally scaled down too, from a busy Ocean floor scenery to a more simple, laid back pool. I know I’m outvoted but I couldn’t be more certain of Breathing and Undersea Chant as early versions of Elements after reading this and Anderle’s articles.

5) And what do you know? Talking Horns (another unpopular pet theory of mine) specifically comes up as well. And it’s presented as another successful last minute experiment.

6) I knew Brian was into health during this time but this is the first I’ve ever heard of it as part of spiritual enlightenment. So that’s really cool, and helps me understand why this–and the elements which are apparently about health too–fit with all the other themes going on in SMiLE. Before, I’d always considered the fitness and elemental components of the album to be something of an ungainly outgrowth–something I liked but that felt unfitting with the rest of the songs and themes.  

7) I’d LOVE to see the film Vosse describes about the chicken with tennis shoes. Could’ve been a cool counterpoint to the Fire video.

I cannot believe I didn’t read this sooner, and that it wasn’t as highly regarded as the others. For such a short little puff piece I actually learned a lot. It feels like it was written specifically for me, by mentioning the Psych Sounds skits, Talking Horns and other stuff Ive been focusing on lately. I have to admit, this makes me question Taxi Cabber being on SMiLE, although personally I still think it works great in it. It further casts doubt on the “WC piano is air” because if it was, with everything else he got right I think Vosse would know, and would have said it outright. With how he goes on discussing the Water chants as an Atlantis and stuff, I’d expect him to use similarly element-related details with this piano if it were air. But he doesn’t call the WC piano tag “a heavenly cloud” or “a gentle breeze” or anything of the sort. He specifically compares it to a music box–something with zero connection to the air. I’d expect between this, Anderle and Fusion that at one point someone would say WC PIANO IS AIR in no uncertain terms if that were the case.

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