Surf's up in the Empyrean.
It's appropriate that the '60s, easily the strangest decade in modern American history, would have its coda now, 37 years late and well into the new century. The generation that never grew up finally gets its legendary soundtrack just as it is preparing to fade away.
Brian Wilson's Smile, rumored for so long that it had become the Great Rock Album That Never Was, suddenly appeared in the stores last week, complete with a bouncy That Girl typeface and a yellow sun looking just like a day-glo daisy sticker. Few of us knew it was coming, and a quick surf (funny how that word has changed) of the Web and the comments section of Amazon.com suggests that thousands of middle-aged Americans are simultaneously undergoing a kind of aural whiplash.
Being a California suburban boy, I, of course, grew up on the Beach Boys. I remember an entire busload of us seventh-graders pounding on the seats and singing in unison to "Barbara Ann." Even after 40 years of listening to rock 'n' roll, and a stint as a rock record critic, I still consider "Don't Worry Baby", with its archetypal mix of cars, girls and teen angst, to be the perfect pop single.
But, as anyone who was there can tell you, the '60s ended hard and nasty, even in California — maybe especially in California. That Brian's little brother Dennis, the Beach Boys drummer, ran around for a while with Charlie Manson is not only surpassingly creepy, but oddly appropriate for the era. With assassinations, riots and drug overdoses, "Surfer Girl" and "Surfin' USA" seemed wildly inappropriate. We found our answers in the menace of the Door's The End and Love's Red Telephone. The boys of summer found new careers writing computer code.
Beach Boys Endure
And yet, the Beach Boys were still there, calling to us like our lost innocence. I remember in 1971, a summer I largely spent floating in a pool practicing my alienation, finally listening to Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's last masterpiece before, it was said at the time, he collapsed into drugs and madness while trying to come up with an answer to Sgt. Pepper's.
As the myth went, Wilson had created Pet Sounds in response to the Beatle's Revolver — only to be one-upped forever by Sgt. Pepper's. He had gone into the studio to come up with a counterstroke, but had only managed to produce one masterful single, "Good Vibrations," before cracking up and removing himself from the world.
The real story, as I learned many years later (some of it with the release of this album), is that, in truth,Pet Sounds came out before Revolver, and Smile was slated to appear before Sgt. Pepper's. Thus, if anyone was doing the stylistic chasing, it was George Martin and the Fab Four.
Moreover, Brian in fact did lay down many of the tracks of Smile — as many of us learned over the subsequent three decades as bits and pieces of many of them dribbled out — "Heroes and Villains," "Vegetables," "Wind Chimes," most of all "Good Vibrations" — on various lackluster Beach Boy albums or compilations. Each in its own way was extraordinary. They were the last glimpses of musical craftsmanship before pop music became lost in the wildnerness of disco.
The decades passed. The Beach Boys became an oldies act, flogging Brian's early tunes to an ever-younger audience of summer seekers. Dennis died, much as he had lived. Then Carl, the middle brother without genius who did all the work. Then it was just cousin Al and neighbor Mike, and then just Mike. And the real Beach Boys, Mr. Wilson's boys, were gone forever.
I remember watching the Beach Boys once on TV in the early '80s. Brian was temporarily back with the band, but hiding in the background, distracted and addled, slurring his words out the corner of a drooping mouth while the band played his magnificent opening notes to "California Girls." I remember turning to my then-girlfriend and saying sadly, "That's our Mozart."
It has now been nearly four decades, and we Children of the Future have become cynical and gray. Meanwhile the myth of the Great Lost Album has only grown, until it seemed impossible that any recording could be as good as Smile was claimed to be — as if, had we only had Smile, the '70s would never have happened.
Then, the other day, I happened to be surfing Amazon when one of its cookies came up recommending a new Brian Wilson album called Smile. I did a double-take. Impossible. But there it was, after all of these years, reassembled by Wilson at last, the scattered pieces all put into their proper places. I linked to the page — to discover that it was to be released the next day … and that it was already No. 1 on Amazon. Apparently others had tripped over the news as well. By the next evening, there were 80 comments on the site — covering the gamut from outright dismissal of an anachronism to swooning claims that it is the greatest pop album of all time — and a five-star rating.
Though my life is now much busier than that lost summer in the pool, I've now managed to listen to Smile a half-dozen times, each time with greater admiration. It is a Beach Boys album without being a Beach Boy album. That's not just because Carl and Dennis are gone and Mike and Al absent, replaced by a modern 20-piece orchestra, but because almost everything that made the Beach Boys who they were — except Brian's harmonies — are gone.
Instead, Smile is a true symphony, or more accurately, a rhapsody: a patchwork of diverse songs, tied together by musical themes that reappear throughout.
This is handcrafted music, the last new musical remnant of the analog age, most of it laid down in the studio and mixed on an old vacuum tube board. It is not only pre-irony, but also pre-sampling, pre-MTV, pre-MP3 and of an era when an ambitious soul could still write music for the whole world — and not be embarrassed about being dopey, silly or just out-and-out happy. When was the last time we heard music like that?
Can Album Change Today's Music?
Many of the comments on Amazon.com asked the inevitable question: How would pop culture have changed over the last four decades if Smile had been released? But perhaps the real question is: How will it change music today? Can a generation raised on the introversion of Kid A even hear the expansiveness of Smile?
We live in a world so different from that of Smile that it is hard to even imagine that other one. The digital revolution has tied us closer together even as it has isolated us before our monitors and keyboards. Now, when we paste together a pastiche of the past, it is digital files of the music itself, not impressions of that past filtered through the mind of a musical genius.
The album is divided (though it can sometimes be difficult to pick them out of Van Dyke Parks' elliptical lyrics) into three sections, corresponding roughly to the Greek elements — earth, water and fire/air. From beginning to end, Smile also roughly follows a chronological path through American history, beginning with the Spanish and Indians and early New England settlers, and concluding in the present, in Hawaii and with a young man falling in love — with stops in between at events like the Great Chicago Fire.
Each of the three movements is pinned down by a pop masterpiece — the psychedelic barbershop quartet of "Heroes and Villains" (with, alas, the cabaret section), the great secular hymn "Surf's Up," and, closing everything, "Good Vibrations," (with some changed lyrics). It is magnificent, goofy, heartbreaking and naive in a way that only the '60s could be. And as the name suggests, it exists on the far side of the Irony Divide that separates now from then.
As someone who was around the first time, I can say that listening to Smile yo-yos you through time, flinging you back to 1967 and then forward into the new Millennium, from the Teaberry Shuffle to Nine Inch Nails. Even Brian's 62-year-old voice, with its slur and reduced range, can suddenly melt away and become the soaring 22-year-old falsetto of "Warmth of the Sun."
Where Does It Rank?
Is it the greatest pop album of them all? No, but it just might be in the top 10; and may very well be the album of the year — both for 1967 and 2004. As an encyclopedia of musical styles it hasn't the reach of Sgt. Pepper's, nor the consistent brilliance of Revolver or Abbey Road or even Something Else or Exile on Main Street. And for sheer passion, Smile pales before the likes of Heart Shaped Box or Joy Division's Closer.
And yet, Smile exists in its own exalted place in the pop music pantheon, not just because it is the full-flowering of Brian Wilson's compositional genius as he stretched like Gershwin beyond the pop song into something greater, toward his own Rhapsody in Blue — but because it also shows us how much the world has changed … and what has been lost in the process.
Brian Wilson may have been the first nerd, but he is now also the last flower child. And he has, at last, given rock 'n' roll the one work that may still be performed long after my generation and its music are gone.
Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.