That Music Was Actually Created
An interview with "Smile" historian Domenic Priore
By Neal Alpert

"Smile." That one little word has a 35-year ripple effect in the storied career of the Beach Boys. While the band has a permanent place in musical history for releasing Pet Sounds, one of the most admired rock albums of all time, it is the follow-up album that the aficionados really remember. That album, which started life as "Dumb Angel," would top even the remarkable Pet Sounds, vowed leader Brian Wilson. It was going to establish the Beach Boys as the trendsetters, above and beyond even the untouchable Beatles. Coming hot on the heels of the universally acclaimed single "Good Vibrations," Smile had the music world buzzing in anticipation in 1966, and it seemed that the Beach Boys really were going to make good on Wilson's promise. However, slowly but surely, the train became derailed. Wilson, already emotionally fragile from a tortured childhood and a zealous competitive spirit, had been dabbling with drugs and was facing intense pressure to make a commerically successful album. Pet Sounds had sold relatively poorly, despite winning praise from the critics, and now Wilson was making music that broke with the proven sound even more. The weight of it all finally caught up with him. And by 1967, Wilson had abandoned the Smile project, no longer strong enough emotionally or physicially to see his vision through to completion.

The failure to release Smile after all the months of build-up irreparably damaged the Beach Boys. They were seen as having lost the competitive edge, and Brian Wilson never again attempted such an ambitious project. While the band grew less and less influential throughout the years, however, the Smile album refused to die. With every new album, leftovers inevitably found their way to the public, hinting at what could have been. Smile music slowly trickled into the bootleg market, whetting the appetites of listeners for an official release. The sounds from the unfinished album represented one of those rare cases when the music lived up to the hype, with beautiful hymnal-chants, wonderfully odd and inspired harmonies, textured instumentation, and lyrics unlike any in popular music.

The legend began to grow, as a myriad of stories built up around the recording sessions themselves—that Wilson had gone crazy, that he had burned the session tapes in a bonfire, that the band members intentionally sabotaged the album. Since the early 1970s, there have been several aborted attempts by either the Beach Boys or their label to master the album and ready it for release. The closest we have come to an official release was in 1990, when Capitol included several sections of songs on the Beach Boys boxed set.

The clamor for an official release of Smile continues in 2002, however, and one of the people who continues to stoke the fire is Domenic Priore, a writer who has compiled a comprehensive book on the whole project which is entitled Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! The book contains essays about the album written during the time of its recording, as well as in the intervening years. It includes contemporary newspaper clippings from the mid-1960s and Priore's own insights into a project which has become mired in many rumors and misunderstandings. Recently revised and released, Priore's book is an essential read for anyone who longs to understand exactly what went into the making, and un-making, of Smile. The following is a truncated account of a recent interview I had with Priore in which he tried to help explain the musical landscape of that legendary album and why it may never come out.

Gadfly: How did you come to put the book together in the first place?

Domenic Priore: Well, what happened was that a girlfriend of mine had this cool little notebook, you know those school notebooks, the three-ring binders? It had... these vintage '60s things on it, and it had her name on it in a flowered, psychedelic way inside. Right at the time, I was finding all these articles from the '60s, primarily four articles, by different writers, that were extensive about Smile. One of them was Jules Siegels' "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God." Another one was the Crawdaddy piece done by Paul Williams, and there was another piece that was in Teen Set magazine, and it had a lot of pictures. And these pieces are actually in the Smile book, and—oh, yes, there's another one from I Magazine, I believe. And I just got plastic binding papers and put them inside this little folder, booklet, and I just used it to read about Smile, because it was such a compelling subject.

I got hold of those articles that people told me about, put 'em in this one little book. And I said, you know, everybody should be able to read all four of these in a row like I'm reading them in this little loose leaf binder. Before you know it, people kept on telling me about other articles, about Smile. And... I said, "Man, this is getting to be like a whole huge literary collection of long pieces just on an unreleased album, and I just happen to be putting them into a loose leaf binder." And as time went on, I decided, hell, what else is out there, and people just kept on handing me things... So, every time I heard a little piece of tape, it was like I got goose bumps, you know? It was almost scary, they were so good, you know? Like the first time I heard "Wonderful" or "Child is Father to the Man," that's really neat. And I was getting these articles, and that's when I thought that this was becoming very, very interesting. That was the roots of the project, really.

Have you heard all the music that was intended for Smile?

Yeah. I heard a lot of the things that were sort of completed tracks, before the book came out, in 1988. And since that time, maybe by design, I sort of made the book so that Beatles people would maybe kind of wake up a little bit and take a look at this stuff. Beatles people tend to be the biggest bootleggers, you know, and the eventual thing ended up happening. In other words, I had nothing to do with any of the bootlegs, other than the fact that maybe some of these sleeping bootleggers who were primarily into the Beatles or Dylan woke up and said, "Wait a minute. Brian Wilson was really onto something." And that caused other people who had more illegitimate means of releasing music... The myth has mushroomed, but I would like to say that it is really not a myth because that music was actually created. And that's the reason why people have been drawn to it and been inspired by it.

Speaking of myths, this is certainly a project where many myths have come and gone through the years. What are some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Smile?

The biggest myths and misconceptions about the album are things that Brian Wilson himself has put out there. Like, "I burned the 'Fire' tapes," which we all know isn't true because we've heard them. That guy [Wilson] definitely had very serious emotional, artistic, creative problems at the time, just after he made all that music. He met with a lot of resistance, and it was a very hurtful thing for him, and it was something that he kept guarded for many years. Some of the guarding has been him putting out certain myths like that. Unfortunately, we all want to listen to what Brian Wilson says about this. But, to be honest, that is the reason I compiled this book. Before those artistic walls were put up around him, he spoke quite openly about Smile music, and it appears in all those magazine articles. He was interviewed by people like Derek Taylor, a great journalist. And Derek got—not only Derek, but people like Jules Siegel and some of these other people—really got Brian to come out and talk openly about the new music he was making at the time he was making it. Unlike these bullshit myths that came out years later when he put up these walls around himself, you could read right there, in that book, his original '60s feelings about that music. That's why I think that book is powerful because it's Brian talking about Smile before he had any problems with it.

Is Brian Wilson the primary reason why there still hasn't been an official release?

Today, the answer is no. In the past, the answer was yes. Around 1972, Carl Wilson and Steven Desper, the engineer with the Beach Boys between 1966 and 1972, had made a massive gathering of tapes of Smile, and that's when a lot of stuff was really first exhumed for possible release. They got tapes for "Love To Say Da Da," and they expanded it into "Cool Cool Water." And they got various different pieces and were using them between 1968 and 1971. But in 1972, Carl Wilson and Desper were like, "Let's get this stuff together." They got going on it, and Brian put a stop to it. That's when the relationship between Warner Brothers and the Beach Boys started to sour.

Meanwhile, Brian was drifting further and further away from the group emotionally. He didn't want them to put out "Surf's Up," and finally, he agreed to do it in 1971 and helped finish it. So, it's never been an easy subject for Brian Wilson, and it continues to be a thing that is not the easiest for him. [But] between Capitol wanting to put it out and the Beach Boys kind of being a hindrance because they want to have their say and Mike Love's say is somewhat creatively unrewarding, as Orson Welles might say. Plus, Capitol has never really had anyone in their reissue department that has seen this thing to fruition.

So, it's the other Beach Boys that are standing in the way, at this point?

They're not making it easier, but at the end of the day, as long as it means money in their pockets, they don't really care whether it comes out or not. Nobody's stopping Smile from coming out, but again, it's been to a lot of people a very difficult project because there's a multitude of tape. And the biggest problem is that people keep on sorting through all this tape over and over and over. And then a new guy gets it, and he starts sorting it over and over. And then another guy gets on it, and he has his own theories. So there's too much jerking off, as far as I'm concerned.

But they did get close to releasing it, around the time of Brian's first solo album in 1988, correct?

They've come close to releasing it three times now, you know. Like, in '95 or '96, there was a cover story in Billboard that it was about to come out. It was unfortunate because Timothy White jumped the gun on that story. We were actually talking about it then, and I was talking about it with Capitol. And one thing led to another, and it got around to him, and he made it into a story. There was no story, there were still a lot of kinks to work, and by breaking the story, he helped to kill it.

In your opinion, knowing what you know and seeing what you've seen, will Smile ever be officially released?

You know what the talk is, is this: there should be a collection of tapes for fanatics. Like with the Pet Sounds boxed set, there are a lot of fascinating tapes. And with Smile, it's even more fascinating because there was a lot of little pieces of music that were done that were never really going to be included on what would have been the final album. So, that would be a very interesting project with a myriad of interesting sounds. But I do think they are also considering that there is enough music here [that is] reasonably full of vocals, full of words, finished tracks, to put a single CD out.

Let's talk about Smiley Smile. Several tracks were already in the can for Smile when it was scrapped. Why did the Beach Boys go and re-record several of those songs for Smiley Smile? Many people felt the new versions paled in comparison.

Carl Wilson's great comment, "A bunt instead of a grand slam." Well, when you think about the Byrds, how they did Sweetheart of the Rodeo after coming out of psychedelia, this whole, large, Gone With The Wind-style production in rock that started happening with Pet Sounds and eventually with Sgt. Pepper, and even the Stones realized, "We're not going to be doing Satanic Majesties anymore.'" Brian, and maybe Dylan, was one of the first people to really realize, "Okay, we're losing some of the intrinsic soul of rock and roll, because we've gone to fairy land, we've gone to pointy hat land." It was really, really great music, but you were starting to lose the Little Richard in it, you were losing the Jerry Lee Lewis, you were losing the straight-away soul because you were going so far into "Fantasia" that it's time to go back to doo-wop. I think that's what the Beach Boys were doing. Going minimalist was the next step, really, and Brian, doing that in the summer of '67, was really just about a year ahead of his time. I don't think it's a bad album, in retrospect.

Could you talk a little bit about Brian's state of mind around the Smile period? There are a lot of conflicting stories about whether he was on the verge of a breakdown or whether he was ravaged by hallucinogens, whether he was a paranoid schizophrenic or whether that has all been blown entirely out of proportion. What was his state of mind?

Well, let's put it this way: Brian had very good reason to be paranoid. Do you realize that the master tape for "Good Vibrations" was stolen for three days, missing for three days... and Brian didn't know where it was? It ended up being the greatest hit the group ever had, and it was stolen! So, anyone complaining that Brian Wilson was paranoid at that time isn't really looking at the big picture. He was on top of the music business, and shit was happening.

Was there any resentment on the part of the other Beach Boys about Brian's creative dominance, or dominance in general, by the time they got to Smile?

There was beginning to be some resentment, even within some of the more creative members of the band. Carl Wilson, for one, was interviewed, where it said "Beach Boys: Puppets," where it had a little drawing of them as Brian's puppets. And people were starting to say, "Aren't you guys just his puppets?" And Carl was adamant, saying, "No, we do things creatively!" Dennis Wilson's attitude was that he didn't worry about people saying that sort of stuff. But you know that if Carl Wilson was showing a little bit of that attitude, certainly Mike Love was going to be questioning things a bit more and complaining about not having more vocal parts.

Getting back to the music itself, what is the overall theme of Smile, and how does the Elemental Suite fit into this theme?

I did an interview with Van Dyke Parks for the L.A. Weekly a few years back, and we talked about it. And he said there were two things: one, the Vietnam War was beginning to become the big focus, students had become involved in a war, escalation was happening, this was completely nonsense, and people knew it. The other thing was that the Beatles, and the whole British Invasion, were just so overwhelming during the Mod, swinging London days of 1965. It was really like the pop art moment. And although a lot of the pop art stuff was coming from New York and L.A., swinging London was all the commercial pop. The public perception was that it was all coming from England, and it just wasn't true. Brian had his own feelings, and he felt "Wait a second, we've got our own culture out here, too." But, you know, in Smile, they were talking about the railroads, the Wild West, the westward expansion. Some of that is covered in "Do You Dig Worms," where they go all the way from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, musically.

You asked about the Elements suite. They were inspired by this anti-war movement, but they also wanted to show the inherent—Brian and Van Dyke wanted to throw something back to the British Invasion that was an inherently American, Gothic trip—that's the reason why they went after the whole thing with "Heroes and Villains," "Cabinessence," the railroads and all that. But then, at the same time, the Elemental Suite was what was going on at the West Coast, like "Vegetables," for instance, with the whole health food thing and environmental concerns. It's a celebration of the environment, in that respect. Here's American history, westward expansion, and here we are in the West, giving you the environmental themes, good vibrations, which is kind of a part of the elements, you know?

So, if Smile came out when it was originally intended to, in the first half of 1967, how would the story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys have been different?

Brian didn't really finish the next single, "Heroes and Villains," until February of '67. Capitol had begun the advertising campaign for Smile around the Christmas season of '66. When he finished that single, he took the ball and held onto it. He still had some bits he had to finish for the album, but the real thing that killed Smile was not Mike Love. Love didn't help, but the thing that really killed it was that the Beach Boys wanted to start their own record label. Brian continued to make the music, while David Anderlee was trying to get the business off the ground, and then the lawsuits started. I think that if Smile had arrived at a timely fashion, Brian Wilson would have just been another of those true heroes of the counter-culture, which he wasn't. He was never really a hero of the counterculture... he was never really accepted by those people. He was beginning [to be accepted], but that was cut off. If Brian had not worried about the lawsuits, he could have had Smile out by May. Had this happened, it would've been a widely heralded album, for sure. So, in terms of the Beach Boys' acceptance by the new counterculture, they just became square pegs, also-rans. They wouldn't have become also-rans had Smile come out.