14
Mar 00

Keep Smiling

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This is a reply by Paul Pasquerella to the original “Smile Special” series of articles.

The current “hipness” of the Beach Boys, a total reversal from the time from about 1967 to 1985 (or so) when it was the kiss of death to be seen liking the band’s music from the point of view of your Hendrix or metal or Deadhead or glam rock or punk or Husker Du lovin’ friends, probably indeed stems with Smile’s position as an alternative artifact.

I always find it amusing, however, when people claim that Smile is better than Sgt. Pepper’s. Along with the fact that most comparisons are odious, although I myself make them all the time much to my detriment, there is also the simple fact that Smile cannot in any possible sense be better than the Beatles’ famed opus because SMILE DOES NOT EXIST. Period, no caveats allowed. You can’t compare a series of drafts and the endless speculations of various rock critic types with the presence of a finished, released work. Even famous unfinished works from the classical realm, like Mozart’s Requiem or Alban Berg’s Lulu, had large portions completed, much more so than Smile as it existed in the late spring of 1967. They can be spoken of as almost-finished works; can’t do that with Brian’s lost masterpiece, if a masterpiece it was to be at all. Who knows how Brian, who was undoubtedly mercurial even without the drugs and the weird friends, would have changed it had he been in full control of both the situation and his own faculties. Agreed, though, it certainly was the bare bones of a masterpiece, and what the band did later to the “Cabinessence” and “Surf’s Up” tracks certainly points out the promise that remained unfulfilled.

I completely disagree that the history of rock music is hegemonic: it’s actually incredibly rich and varied, much more so than virtually any music anywhere other than jazz and western classical simply because it abhors its traditions as much as honors them. If anything, the history of alternative rock is far more hegemonic, given that a) ground zero for alternative rock is pretty much one band, the Velvet Underground and b) by its very nature alternative is reactionary, mostly defining itself in terms of what it is against, rather than what it is for. It doesn’t help anyone’s creativity or even survival to be a handed a list of what is and what is not allowed in order not to jeopardize one’s credibility. Especially if you’re a sensitive soul prone to self-destruction, like Kurt Cobain.

I also do not know if a functional, released Smile would have greatly changed the history of rock at all, especially if it had sold well, a situation likely if Capitol had insisted that “Good Vibrations” be included. It probably would be dismissed by those so inclined as a bloated, overweening piece of pomp, and unfairly so, as happens to Sgt. Pepper by so many now. It isn’t the Beatles’ fault that Yes and Emerson Lake and Palmer and their ilk happened in their wake. There was no forced march into artistic uplands by rock music in the mid-sixties as it was happening; that historicist viewpoint is only possible with hindsight. The rock/pop musicians of the mid-sixties wanted to expand their horizons, musically and otherwise, and Brian Wilson was no different in that regard than many of his contemporaries. They wanted more complex, more textured, bigger, better, faster. That was the ruling zeitgeist of 1966. Once they had upped the ante with Pet Sounds and “Eight Miles High” and Blonde on Blonde and Sgt. Pepper, then those who followed felt compelled to meet those standards.

That is what caused pop to become rock and embrace the pretensions so detested by critics who cut their teeth on punk and all want to be Lester Bangs. The legitimacy of Sgt. Pepper’s as the apex of rock has been challenged since as early as The Mothers’ release of We’re Only In It For the Money, and its endurance as a milestone is simply due to the fact that it is a fine piece of work, and really not pretentious at all. It’s just that some of the people who talk about it are pretentious.

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