All But Done
By Barney Hoskyns

By the time "Good Vibrations" had hit No.1 at the end of 1966, Brian was firmly committed to extending pop's boundaries as far as he could. Gathering around him a coterie of brilliant, precocious scene-makers—Van Dyke Parks, Loren Schwartz, Danny Hutton, David Anderle, writers Jules Siegel and Paul Jay Robbins—he dug in deep and all but kissed goodbye to the Beach Boys of old. Most important among these men was Parks, the diminutive, bespectacled keyboard player whom he'd first met at Terry Melcher’s house on Cielo Drive in February 1966.

Van Dyke had first come to Hollywood as a child actor and was already renowned as an eccentric on the LA scene. He lived in a tiny room above a garage on Melrose Avenue, where (in Brian's words) he would hold court in "funny, poetic, often beguiling torrents" invariably fuelled by amphetamines. For Brian, Parks' "intellectual passion and esoteric way with words seemed to mesh with the way I was feeling," and he invited him to come up to the house on Laurel Way to write.

"I knew that I could write lyrics and that he was looking for a lyricist," Parks tells me. "What I had to offer was the diligence I associated with the crafting of lyrics from what I thought were the halcyon days of the pop song in America... the days of Cole Porter and great musical theatre. I was interested in the thoughtfulness of cadence that had preceded rock 'n' roll. Even if I couldn't pose as a rustic, I thought I might be able to walk away from this thing with the pride in accomplishment that I associated with Hoagy Carmichael."

Listening to a Van Dyke Parks monologue, delivered in a wonderfully camp, Southern-inflected voice, is a joyous experience. When you do get in the odd question, the reply lasts half an hour and takes in all manner of asides and digressions. Parks is a man who seems to have grasped the essence of Los Angeles as a music town without ever having been tainted by what he calls its "innate criminality." It's not hard to understand just how refreshing he must have been to Brian Wilson after five years of Mike Love.

"Brian was in the middle of 'Sloop John B' when I first went up to see him," Parks continues. "He told me about his hearing loss, and said he was very interested in stereo even though he could only hear monophonically. I'd go to the 'Good Vibrations' sessions and play piano or marimba. I enjoyed his daring in the studio, his fantastic enthusiasm. Nobody was doing anything like that anywhere. You can imagine how Brian's recording procedure threatened the record company bureaucrats, but through the force of his personality he changed the equation and got the financiers to accommodate his experimentation."

After the completion of "Good Vibrations," Wilson and Parks began working in earnest on a number of new songs intended to form part of a bold new work called Dumb Angel. "I imagined to myself a whole new form of music—religious, white, spiritual music," Brian later recalled, and he told Van Dyke the album would be 'a teenage symphony to God.'" Aided by copious amounts of speed and black Afghani hash, the two men worked through the late summer and fall, writing the epic "Heroes and Villains" and some of the songs which subsequently wound up on Smiley Smile and 20/20.

Dumb Angel, of course, became known as Smile, the title given to the most famous unreleased album of all time and the great rallying-call for Brian Wilson fanatics the world over. Although we'll almost certainly never have the Smile that Wilson intended to release, the songs which he and Van Dyke Parks wrote through those months into early 1967 comprise of the most intoxicatingly beautiful, dementedly ambitious pop ever committed to tape. This was Pet Sounds on twenty tabs of acid: featuring unabashedly literary lyrics about the Old West, or even stranger ones about vegetables and balding women; it was Brian's very own Fantasia. "Smile was going to be a monument," said David Anderle. "That's the way we talked about it, as a monument."

Unfortunately, by the time Brian was recording these songs his mind had really been fried by acid. The domestic situation on Laurel Way was strange enough, what with the business meetings being held in the swimming pool and the construction of a sandpit around Brian's piano, but the Smile recording sessions were thoroughly unhinged. If Van Dyke Parks was right that after Pet Sounds "the studio experience itself became more emphatically, demonstrably, and persuasively dominant over the way a performance took place in a proscenium," that hardly accounted for Brian freaking out and aborting the orchestral "Fire" suite because he thought he was causing real fires in Los Angeles. Even more worrying was the psychotic episode that occurred when he went to see John Frankenheimer's film Seconds and came out convinced the director had conspired with none other than Phil Spector to "mess with my head."

Perhaps the shadow of Spector's failure with "River Deep" hung over Brian in the first half of 1967, because he seemed to be doing everything he could to sabotage Smile. Even Van Dyke Parks found it hard to handle the excess and insanity around Brian, though he remained sufficiently awestruck by the man's genius to continue work on such masterpieces as "Surf's Up." For David Anderle, who'd been appointed head of Brian's new Brother label, it was inevitable that two such remarkable men would at some point be unable to work together. "Van Dyke blew Brian's mind, and I hadn't seen anyone else do that," Anderle told Paul Williams, but he felt that at most they had "a great moment of creativity" and thought that "Surf's Up" was the only "perfect blending" they achieved. "Their parting was kind of tragic, in the fact that they were two people who absolutely did not want to separate, but who had to separate." Ironically, despite its title, "Surf's Up" did not concern the waves which had inspire Brian's early songs, though its "surf" did imply the mystical sense of a wave as "the eternal now." Performed by Brian alone at the piano during a Leonard Bernstein CBS-TV special on pop music, it was later revisited by the Beach Boys sans Brian—and more than creditably—on the title track of their 1971 album.

It didn't help matters that the other Beach Boys were openly hostile to Parks, with Mike Love dismissing his lyrics as mere "acid alliteration" and the rest of them quick to express their suspicion of the whole clique around Brian. David Anderle urged Brian to make Smile a solo project, but the eldest Wilson brother lacked the strength to stand up to the band. "Brian would go through tremendous paranoia before he'd get into the studio, knowing he was going to have to face an argument," Anderle remembered. For his part, Van Dyke claims he "walked away from the situation as soon as I realized it was causing friction between Brian and the group." His final Smile session took place on 14 April.

Parks believes that the "huge mutual lawsuit" which destroyed the dream of Smile could only be comprehended by someone who'd read Dickens' Bleak House. "It can consume a life and still the most expressive creative spirit," he says. "So that's what happened to our effort, and that's why I am now back at the age of 50 trying to bring meaning to this tremendous and unlimited respect I have for Brian Wilson." By way of concluding my interview with him, he proceeds to play me two songs ("Hold Back Time" and "Orange Crate Art") from a new solo-album-in-the-making, both of them featuring Wilson on vocals. They're not quite "Surf's Up" or "Cabinessence," but the multi-tracked Brian Wilson harmonies on "Orange Crate Art" are about as close to the glories of Smile as either of the two men has come since they last worked together.

When Brian met Paul McCartney at Derek Taylor's Laurel Canyon house in April 1967, it was already clear that Smile might never see the light of day. Instead, Brian cobbled together the Smiley Smile album from the debris, including new versions of such Smile songs as "Vegetables," "Wonderful," and "Wind Chimes." After Pet Soundsand despite the inclusion of "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains"—the album sounded extremely spare and pared-down, with low-key instrumentation and only the odd woodblock where there was any percussion at all. It also sounded very stoned and pretty silly, easy to dismiss. But there were beautiful moments and motifs embedded in the curious half-sketches for songs: exquisite, evanescent melodies, honeyed close-harmony singing as lovely as anything the Beach Boys ever did. And there was something to be said for the sheer acid-casualty spookiness of 'Vegetables' and 'Wind Chimes'—the sound of the once squeaky-clean surfer buddies tripping out of the Southern California dream state—especially when one considers Dennis Wilson's association with Charles Manson.

Most of Smiley Smile was recorded in Brian's new Bel Air mansion on Bellagio Road, acquired after Capitol's official cancellation of Smile at the end of April 1967. This was where the genius would enact, as Phil Spector was doing, his very own version of Norma Desmond's self-incarceration in Sunset Boulevardespecially after the epic "Heroes and Villains" stalled at No. 12 and Smiley Smile failed even to penetrate the Top 40. The release of Sgt Pepper, meanwhile, was for Brian the equivalent of Amundsen beating Scott to the South Pole. And when the Beach Boys pulled out of the Monterey Pop Festival that summer, afraid to line up alongside the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, their day was all but done.

Excerpted from Barney Hoskyns' Waiting For the Sun: Strange Days, Weird Scenes and the Sound of Los Angeles (St. Martin's Press, 1996). Hoskyns is the editor of Rock's Backpages [www.rocksbackpages.com], the Online Library of Rock & Roll.