6
Jun 99

SMILE!

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I really don’t have much of an introduction for this essay, and I use the term loosely. I just had my initial listening to the album as Dominic Priore believes, to the best of his knowledge, it would’ve appeared, and my mind became inundated with ideas and concepts. It truly takes an amazing piece of art to have this sort of effect on the listener, and Smile is such an album. In this essay, I’d like to talk about two main concepts, as well as giving general impressions of the tracks and the album itself.

Immediately following my listening, I was struck by one thought: the album, as we have all listened to it, is not nearly incomplete as people make it out to be. Perhaps, it’s relatively unfinished in Brian’s eyes (and ears), but to mine, a little tinkering here and there and he would’ve cemented his reputation in the critics’ eyes as perhaps the greatest single pop mind the world has known. I won’t get into public perception as, by the introduction I’ve read, Mike will touch upon that. In short, if Capitol thought that Pet Sounds was a commercial flop, imagine them trying to market a single called “Vega-Tables.”

Another thing I realized, which will lead me into the first concept I want to address, happened quite accidentally, call it serendipity. Unlike the rest of you, I didn’t download all of the mp3’s. I have the boxed set, so I’m fortunate enough to possess nine of the tracks on CD. However, in order to listen to the album in order, I had to coordinate WinAMP and Win95’s CD Player. I was making the switch from the “Barnyard” MP3 to “Do You Like Worms?” in the d: drive when I accidentally hit the skip button on WinAMP instead of stop. What ensued was quite beautiful; “Barnyard” and “Do You Like Worms?” combined in perfect fashion, no cacophony or dissonance at all, as if they were meant to play like this all along. This is a long introduction to the concept of….

Smile: A Work of Modular Genius

I first came across this concept at http://www.escritoire.demon.co.uk/Modular.htm. You can catch it in full there, but here’s an excerpt that gets to the heart of the notion:

There is no ‘correct’ track sequence, there is no completed album, because Smile isn’t a linear progression of tracks. As a collection of modular melodic ideas it is by nature organic and resists being bookended. Brian Wilson has created his own Everest. It was possible for him to conquer Smile, some kind of finality could have been forced upon the tracks in the same way that Capitol trumped up album covers listing the tracks as if this were an ordinary 12 x 3 1/2 minute song product. Yet the task beat him down and left us with a conundrum.

Basically, what it means is that Smile was an album ahead of its time in more ways than one. Back in his day, Brian didn’t have programmable CD players which also featured a ‘random’ or ‘shuffle’ button.Nor was Smile crafted in the era of CD-ROMs which enable the listener to make their own mix. If you’re able to, try playing “Our Prayer” over “Heroes And Villains.” Is it coincidence that the first ‘movement’ of “H & V” is practically as long as “Our Prayer” itself? The singing rises and falls in coordination and tails off just as the ‘cantina’ section begins.

There are more examples of this. As we all know, “Child Is Father To The Man” eventually was draped over the coda to “Surf’s Up” with some slight altering, but listen to “Good Vibrations” and “Look” for probably the most obvious example. “Look” and “Vega-Tables” is certainly not as obvious, and perhaps I’m the only one who hears this, but listen to the main theme of “Look” and then the melody of “Vega-Tables.” Is it really just me? If this all sounds a little bit too Pink-Floyd-Meets-The-Wizard-of-Oz, maybe it is. This theory, to my knowledge, never came from Brian; it’s the work of UK fanzine, Stomp. Perhaps it is just a huge coincidence, though knowing Brian and what he was capable of at the time, I don’t think it’s too wild an idea.

Smile: The Concepts at Work

Smile consists of two sides and four parts. After listening to the album in its entirety, it’s obvious that they were arranged the way they were for a reason. Side One, Part One and “Cabinessence” fit into what I’ll call “Discover America”; the trio of songs that begin Side One, Part Two, I’ve dubbed “Innocence: Lost and Found”; and the two parts of Side Two, besides housing the Hit Single and link track, are comprised of one of the most-talked about components of Smile, The Elements Suite.

Discover America

After we’re finished listening to the opening benediction that is “Our Prayer,” we’re launched headlong into “Heroes And Villains,” which, to me and especially in this version, is redolent of the Old West. “Barnyard” follows next and takes us through the heartland. Whereas these two tracks seem to only focus on certain aspects of Americana, “Do You Like Worms” is a musical exodus. Brian’s incantations start us off at Plymouth Rock, and, via the “bicycle rider” theme straight from “Heroes And Villains,” we’re there as the Europeans first encounter the Native Americans, our hint, the crude Indian chants performed by the group. (An aside: As we’ve read, Brian intended Smile to be, at times, a humorous piece, which hopefully explains some of the downright preposterous aspects of the album.) We’re then taken straight to Hawaii courtesy of Brian’s chants, and finally, back to the “bicycle rider” theme which starts to wind down like a music box, but then, as Priore puts it, “starts up again and repeats ad infinitum, implying that the White Man’s expansion is never-ending.”

Priore ends Part One here, and Part Two begins with “The Old Master Painter.” If Smile was in fact supposed to have continuity, I would alter his sequencing and follow “Do You Like Worms?” with “Cabinessence.” It fits in well with the Americana theme established by the opening songs, and severely sticks out after “Child…” As Brian explains it, ,

“[‘Cabinessence’] was about railroads… and I wondered what the perspective was of the spike. Those Chinese laborers working on the railroads, like they’d be hitting the thing, but looking away, too… and noticing, say, a crow flying overhead. The Oriental mind going off on a different track.”

“Innocence: Lost and Found”

As Pet Sounds firmly established, Brian was certainly very much concerned with qualities like innocence. He himself has often been described as being full of “child-like wonder,” and I think this mini-song cycle exemplifies that. Whereas the above concept seemed to be mostly the work of lyricist Van Dyke Parks, a man who was greatly interested in Americana, as demonstrated by virtually his entire oeuvre, especially Discover America (you don’t think I came up with the last heading by myself, didja)?), this sequence of songs seems to come straight from Brian himself. “The Old Master Painter” is actually a medley of both the titular song and “You Are My Sunshine,” sung in the past tense by Dennis, who, in an interview in Teenset, said that this combination came straight from Brian. So, what we begin with is an epilogue, the sequence seems to be chronologically reversed.

Next up, we have “Wonderful,” a song featuring the girl who was Brian’s ‘sunshine’ perhaps? Priore has described this song as being very sexual in nature, and it’s not too difficult to see why. It seems to tell the story of a young girl experiencing the onset of puberty (“when God reached softly and moved her body”) and the loss of her virginity (“a boy bumped into her Wonderful”). But it’s not at all lewd or lascivious, it’s all quite innocent, something like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before they ate of the tree and realized they were naked. The final song in this set is “Child is Father To The Man,” which, to me, seems like the opening of this little saga. Mostly wordless, the song begins very peacefully, like the early years of a child’s life. The piano keys fall out and we’re left with a bass line that takes us directly into the chorus; the chaos that comes with that part of life, child becoming man (or woman), is represented by the roiling musical track . There’s probably a reason the cycle would’ve been sequenced in this fashion, perhaps Brian didn’t want to end it with such sadness, instead he wanted it to close with rebirth and a beginning, which surely would coincide with his way of thinking.

The Elements

Surely the most-talked about and perhaps the most ambitious segment of an album that set lofty goals to begin with, we have the Elements Suite. The biggest discussion stemming from this subject involves the individual elements themselves, namely, what songs represent what. On this presentation of the album, the suite consists of six songs, seven if you include “Surf’s Up.” Bypassing “Good Vibrations” and the airy “Look” (which just seems to serve the purpose of integrating “GV” into the album, something left undone with “Sloop John B. “and Pet Sounds), the suite begins with “Vega-Tables,” which, to my ear and mind (vegetables come from the earth, duh), is the ‘earth’ component (and hopefully, more of that humor. I can’t think of too many other artists who could make songs with subject matter like vegetables and wind chimes stick in my head for days.) Next up, “Holidays,” which seems to comprise the “air” segment, what with its prominent xylophone, slide whistle, and preponderance of woodwinds. From “air,” we logically move to “wind,” which manifests itself as “Wind Chimes.” The wind starts off light and delicate with Brian’s soft, airy vocals, but then a gust comes in suddenly as horns and group vocals enter the mix. The song ends quietly, though, with tinkly piano. It’s all a little off though, the piano bits aren’t smooth; at times, it sounds like someone is putting their fist to the keyboard, letting it land where it may. This disturbance seems to signal that an ill wind has blown in and leads to… “Fire”!

On the website, a track called “Fire Intro” is included. I don’t know if this came at Priore’s behest or if the website author included it on her own. It obviously fits in with the track, but, oddly enough, it’s included on the boxed set as “Heroes And Villains (intro).” It works that way as well, perhaps hinting at the modularity of the album. “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” itself is unlike anything Brian Wilson has created before or since. The silly whistles and images of Brian in a fireman’s hat aren’t enough to offset the pure malevolence of this track, all thundering drums and pulsing bass. I can see how it upset the good-natured Brian so, leading him to say, “That would have been a really bad vibration to let out on the world.” Without reading any of the liner notes, I was unable to see how “I’m In Great Shape,” the next song in the tracklisting, fit into the grand scheme of things. The title would suggest something from “Vega-Tables”; the sound, something from the “air” section. Yet Brian put it all together with one line, “Rebuilding after the fire.” Which is exactly what it sounds like, both sections. The first is calm and tranquil with lulling vibes and piano, suggesting the unsettling quietude following a great disaster. The silence is broken, however, by the sound of hammering and sawing.

To me, it would seem more natural to follow ‘fire’ with ‘water,’ but given the way the last two Songs are inextricably linked as ‘water,’ that would be impossible to do. Those of us who’ve heard “Cool, Cool Water” can see its genesis in the Smile track, “Love To Say Da Da,” which represents ‘water’ in the Suite. The piano track gives the listener the impression of a rolling sea, the guitar and wordless vocal chant sound like water droplets falling into another body of water. It gives the overall impression of a bright, sunny day at the beach, a place where we find ourselves for Smile’s closing and most breathtaking track.

By the time we reach “Surf’s Up,” night has fallen at the beach. The laughter is gone, all of the other Beach Boys have left. In the version I’m listening to, we’re left with only Brian and his piano, and the result is breathtaking. Maybe Brian didn’t intend “Surf’s Up” to be associated with the suite. Like “Our Prayer,” its fellow bookend, perhaps it was meant to stand alone, the spiritual conclusion of what “Prayer” began. However, I, for one, can’t see it any other way. The first and most obvious hint is the title, but that’s not what gives me the mental image of Brian at the beach at night, staring out into the vast openness, the infinitude of the tide, and coming up with the idea for this song. No, what does it for me is the ending. After all of Parks’ elaborate and intricate wordplay is finished and Brian sums up the whole idea behind the album in a wordless falsetto cry. Accompanying him is his piano, his masterful usage of the bass notes. His right hand plays chords in time, but the left? It’s as if he’s watching the tide and trying to play it on the piano. It flows up the shore and then recedes, at times, he captures the undulating motion of the waves. But, most of all, it is infinite. Like the tides, as the song fades out, Brian just seems like he’s going to be at it forever, never ceasing. Magisterial.

Conclusion

So, here we have Smile in all its glory. Even in this ragtag collection of partially finished songs, we still have an incredible album. As I said earlier, I don’t think it’s unfinished as some contend, yet there are still some parts that feel incongruous. I imagine Brian would’ve liked to have recorded more link tracks, bringing together songs like “Wonderful” and “Child Is Father To The Man”; maybe throwing “Good Vibrations” and “Look” into one, longer extended version of the former; making a more cohesive whole out of the Elements Suite; and certainly, though it sounds wonderful to us, finishing “Heroes And Villains” the way he wanted. Still, I can’t help but feel moved by the whole experience (and be pissed that I don’t have a CDR drive so that I could make a CD out of this :P). I only hope that someday, all of the Smile material is released and we can all have a chance to arrange the album the way we like and gain greater insight into the mind of a singular talent, the likes of which we may never see again.

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