From its brilliantly ambitious conception to its ignominious death to its glorious resurrection 37 years later, Brian Wilson's "SMiLE" is one of the greatest and most heroic stories in pop music history.
The troubled genius behind the infectious surf hits of the Beach Boys in the early 1960s, Wilson was anxious to move forward from the simple rhythms and sweet harmonies of "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" to a more complex and cinematic sound on "SMiLE."
But his artistic ambitions ran into opposition from his siblings and colleagues in the band, record-label executives, and his own fragile psyche, according to author David Leaf and "SMiLE" collaborator Van Dyke Parks.
"In the fall of 1966, when Brian was considered the most important and adventurous creator by everybody including the Beatles," Leaf said, "in the wake of 'Pet Sounds' and 'Good Vibrations,' which are arguably the greatest album and the greatest single of all time, Brian began the follow-up to 'Pet Sounds.' And by all accounts from that time, it was going to be a mind-blowing effort that would be as radical a step forward as 'Good Vibrations' had been from 'Pet Sounds.'
"Given how much attention the music world in general and the Beatles in particular were paying to what Brian was doing, 'SMiLE' was important with a capital 'I'."
Leaf directed a documentary on the disc, Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE, premiering Tuesday on Showtime.
But Wilson, crumbling under pressures seen and unseen, shelved the album in 1967 and fell into a mental and emotional void.
Parks said Wilson had tried to create a musical masterpiece before the Beatles and was crushed when the Fab Four released "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" early in 1967. Parks said John Lennon and Paul McCartney slipped into Wilson's studio and, without his permission, heard early tapes of "SMiLE," which inspired them in writing "Sgt. Pepper."
"They listened to the work he was doing and then they started 'Sgt. Pepper' under the influence of 'SMiLE,' " Parks said.
While Wilson was struggling to create his album virtually on his own, the Beatles had the advantage of collaborating as a group, plus George Martin's production "vindicated" them, Parks said.
Wilson decided to resume "SMiLE" last year, and invited Parks to join him in November.
How did he feel when Wilson called him to help finish "SMiLE"?
"I was terrified!" Parks said. "I hadn't listened to this stuff in 38 years. I'm now 61. I started working on this when I was 22. I hadn't listened to it because it represented something terrible to me - a job started and not completed. It was a very sad event for me all these years, thinking about 'SMiLE.' I buried it. I buried it properly and I planted things on that dirt. But darn it, Brian was determined.
The finished album was finally released Tuesday and Wilson, 62, is bringing "SMiLE" to the masses in a 23-city tour.
Both Leaf and Parks said they and Wilson are exhilarated by the completion of the project.
"I think that Brian's wrestling this demon to the ground has been, to say the least, therapeutic and wonderful," Parks said. "And I'm so proud of him for doing it."
Parks, who worked with Wilson on the album from the start, wrote all the lyrics to "SMiLE" and has continued to collaborate with Wilson through the decades.
He said "SMiLE" started on a high note but rapidly deteriorated as the Beach Boys went through a series of struggles, from drug abuse to lawsuits to pressures to turn out more surf-music hits.
"There were so many problems in the world of 'Brian Wilson, Incorporated,'●" Parks said from his home in Los Angeles. "They dominated his life and it became a pressure cooker and this is essentially the main reason for his collapse."
He said Wilson wanted to grow artistically and not be limited to a hit-making formula. Wilson and Parks both wanted "SMiLE" to be a work of art that captured theessenceoftumultuous America in 1966 and '67.
"He was interested, as I was, in describing an American viewpoint and confirming what we could about it. And that's the honest truth," Parks said. "We created a quiltwork of small images. It wasn't a canvas, it was small scenes that attempted to describe the American mindset. And at the time it was gauche to do it. Everybody wanted to be British. We firmly put our foot down on that. We wanted to be Americans."
He believes the music has fared well despite the time lapse. "To tell you the truth, what we came up with was a fragile work," Parks said. "It may not be the answer to cancer, but it's an honest shake at a pure piece of work, a piece of fantasy, and I think it was a significant work of the American century and I believe it shows that Brian is a significant artist."
Brian Wilson will perform "SMiLE" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. Tickets, $42.50 and $85, are available from Ticketmaster and the box office, 734-668-8397.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.