The once and future Smile
by James Leonard
In the beginning was Brian Wilson's "Good Vibrations." Given its world premiere by Wilson's Beach Boys in 1966 in Hill Auditorium, the song sold a million copies within a week of its release, and 16 million in six months. From "Good Vibrations" flowed Wilson's Smile, his self-proclaimed "teenage symphony to God," which supposedly included a numinous "Our Prayer," an ethereal "Wonderful," an exhilarating "Heroes and Villains," and a sublime "Surf's Up," a song Leonard Bernstein proclaimed "beautiful even in its obscurity." But Wilson's beautiful obscurity proved too much for the Beach Boys, who denounced Smile when they returned from their first English tour in late 1966. And so Wilson began to lose faith in his vision and in himself, and Smile slipped away as Wilson slowly slid into a decade of doubt and madness.
For almost four decades, Smile was only a handful of songs released on random Beach Boys records, rumors of songs Wilson scrapped, and a legend of a lost masterpiece that could never be finished. But Wilson slowly worked his way back from madness, and in 1988 he released his first single as a solo artist, "Love and Mercy." In 1997 Wilson returned to performing with a concert version of Pet Sounds, his epochal 1966 album that had preceded "Good Vibrations." Then, in 2003, Wilson and Van Dyke Parks worked together to finish the legendary lost Smile. Wilson premiered the work in a series of concerts in Europe to laudatory reviews and ecstatic audiences. On September 28, thirty-eight years after it was conceived, Smile will be released on CD, and on Monday, October 4, Wilson will perform Smile at the Michigan Theater.
To judge by the fragments previously available and a performance of the whole work recorded in Hamburg, the finished Smile fuses its fragments and fulfills its legend. Wilson and Parks set its seventeen songs as three movements in a work with the lyrical cogency of a cantata and the musical coherence
of a symphony. The lyrics take a journey through the history of the United States that leads from Plymouth Rock, across the cornfields on the iron horse, to the church of the American Indian. The opening movement starts with the wordless a cappella hymn "Our Prayer," moves through the John Ford western of "Heroes and Villains" and the Looney Tunes cartoon of "Barnyard," and closes with the home-on-the-range "Cabin Essence." The central slow movement starts with the exquisite "Wonderful" and ends with the ecstatic "Surf's Up." The closing movement starts with the hilarious "I'm in Great Shape," moves through the joyous "Vega-Tables" to the infernal "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," and climaxes with the luminous "Good Vibrations."
The finished Smile is a great work of American musical art, comparable to the best of Ives, Ellington, or Gershwin. Anyone with a heart, a soul, and a spirit should hear it.
[Originally published in October, 2004.]