I remember the exact moment my parents began to worry. The suspicious unmarked packages arrived. What has our well-behaved son gotten into?
The short answer was phenomenal music like buried treasure.
I don’t even have a cassette player anymore, but I have the cassettes. A half-dozen bootlegs from the late 1990s when the mp3 was still in its infancy. Exhaustively researched, compiled then recompiled, traded over long distances by snail mail and pored over for hours, these cassettes hold fuzzy, hiss-filled outtakes from the Beach Boys’ 1966 and 1967 sessions for Smile, Brian Wilson’s progressively surreal and gorgeous “teenage symphony to God” that collapsed, along with its genius creator, into a pit of paranoia and self-doubt. The Icarus of sound.
“Brian became really indecisive in 1967 about editing some of these songs, which were recorded in sections in a modular way,” says Domenic Priore, the leading Beach Boys historian and author of Riot on the Sunset Strip. “This doubt was triggered by a lawsuit between Capitol Records and the band’s new indie label Brother Records, some resistance from within the band and his own obsessive-compulsiveness about the song ‘Heroes & Villains.’ As Paul Williams wrote in Crawdaddy at the time, he hoped Brian wasn’t so ‘enamored with perfection that he produces nothing instead of something imperfect.’”
Though a few tracks were re-recorded for subsequent albums, Smile remained unreleased as the scraps and legends of the abandoned project were obsessed over for decades. Last month Capitol Records finally issued this music as The Smile Sessions, a pristinely mixed and remastered collection that makes my bootlegs sound like they were recorded at the bottom of a well.
I don’t know if this means those dusty old cassettes are obsolete or edified, but I think I’ll hang on to them either way. What’s the harm in opening a dresser drawer and seeing a little Smile?
Baton Rouge film industry veteran Amy Rodrigue knows firsthand the genius of Brian Wilson and the sheer power of his pop symphony. Rodrigue met the legendary Beach Boys songwriter in 2003 when she was hired as a segment producer and researcher for David Leaf’s documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile.
“He had no air of ‘rock god’ around him,” Rodrigue says. “There’s a child-like quality to Brian’s personality—very innocent. I’d be taking pictures, and he’d stop and make funny faces. I just loved hanging out with him.”
While Wilson was recording his own completed version of the lost album called Brian Wilson Presents Smile with Wondermints frontman Darian Sahanaja, Rodrigue assisted with interviews, photographed the writing sessions and exhaustively researched leads for Smile-era pictures of the group.
One day she was snapping Polaroids when Wilson moved to the piano and sketched a delicate melody across the keys. Rodrigue put her camera down and listened. A few minutes later, Sahanaja leaned over. “You do know that Brian Wilson just serenaded you, don’t you?” he told her.
“It didn’t hit me until Darian said that,” Rodrigue recalls. “I just melted. It was beautiful.”
A Grammy and sold-out tours greeted Brian Wilson Presents Smile, but fans still clamored for the original version cut in the 1960s. As miraculous as the 2004 iteration was, the vintage recording techniques and transcendent vocal blend of the Beach Boys still held the fascination of fans. Now with The Smile Sessions, they have gotten their wish.
“There’s something about an unfinished work of art produced at the height of the artist’s most creative period that allows people to project their own ‘what if’ scenario—a launch pad of dreams,” Sahanaja says. “Everyone gets to fill in the gaps and imagine their own perfect version. It’s the ideal musical fantasy. And it helps that the music is excellent.”
With five discs of Smile puzzle pieces now available, the Internet could soon be flooded with remixes and edits by those who continue tinkering with the unfinished masterpiece.
“All kinds of creative people are finding this music for the first time,” Priore says. “They are appreciating it in new ways that even original Beach Boys fans never did.”
For Rodrigue, that appreciation is immense and life-altering. Her experience working with Wilson triggered her permanent career shift to filmmaking. Music documentaries are her passion.
To her, Smile means inspiration, and the new Smile Sessions signals the end of an era.
“It’s such a touching story,” Rodrigue says. “I can’t believe it has come full circle. I think this new release means closure—for fans and for Brian Wilson.”
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Bad Guys, Good Eats! Pop-Up Dinner at Restaurant IPO
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Better Block BR
On Saturday the two blocks between Bedford and Beverly drives on April 13, 2013, residents will get to see a model of what Government Street could look like if we push local and state officials to update the roadway to a safer, more "complete street" model.