The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream (Revisited)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012. It is featured in the new collection Murphy’s Law, Vol One.

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Roky Erickson: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Genius (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

Preface

You’re Gonna Miss Me is an instant classic and will likely be regarded as essential years from now. Two critical things it has going for it: one, its subject, Roky Erickson, is a filmmaker’s fantasy—the type of character who could never be adequately fictionalized because the story outstrips imagination, and two, instead of being overwhelmed by the material or trying to either sensationalize or sterilize it, director Keven McAlester, by simply standing in the right places at the right times, captures success, insanity, disintegration and redemption. It’s almost impossible to imagine the viewer coming away from this documentary without a better understanding of popular music, mental illness, frailty and faith. It’s likely viewers will something about themselves, as well. What else could one ask for?

I. Pictures (Leave Your Body Behind)
There are a handful of artistic archetypes we know and love—or loathe—in cinema, literature, and music, especially rock ‘n’ roll music. To take just a sampling of some of the more obvious ones, there is the cautionary tale (see Keith Moon); the tragic hero case study (see Jimi Hendrix); the unrecognized master (see Shuggie Otis); the posthumously recognized master (see Nick Drake); the redemption song (see Brian Wilson), et cetera . And yet, has there ever been an individual who encompasses several of the above, creating an entirely unique category? Yes: Roky Erickson. Who? Exactly. Roky Erickson is indeed many things, all at once. The greatest singer not many people have ever heard. The saddest could-have-been-a-contender parable in the annals of rock. An authentic icon who, while written off even by those who at one time followed him, attracted artists such as R.E.M., ZZ Top, Julian Cope and The Jesus and Mary Chain to take part in the excellent 1990 tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye .
So, who was Roky Erickson? Envision a psychedelic era band that combined the darker energy of Love and The Doors with the bluesy kitchen sink vocal assault of Janis Joplin, alongside the musical proficiency of The Yardbirds or The Mothers of Invention. That amalgamation begins to approximate what the 13th Floor Elevators, from Austin Texas, sounded like before the Summer of Love. When they eventually (inevitably) headed up the coast toward the burgeoning Bay Area scene in 1966, they blew the minds, so to speak, of many of the groups who were still cultivating a more mellow, folk-based sound. The Elevators were heavier, edgier and more exotic, drawing on an electric blues foundation that at once assimilated the aggression of The Who and the more cerebral introspection of Dylan. It was anything but a simple, hit-seeking sound, yet their first album yielded a song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me”—featuring the full range of Erickson’s vocals and the trademark electric jug playing of Tommy Hall—that caused some excitement, reaching #55 on the charts.
Much like seemingly everyone else on the accelerating edge of the rock scene, Erickson found stimulation, solace and eventually (inevitably) distraction via the LSD he ingested like lemon drops. Along with his better-known acid casualty compatriots Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, Erickson fell to earth. Chronic behavioral and legal issues ensued. Unlike Wilson, who headed for the relative security of his sandbox, and Barrett, who — after turning on and tuning in — dropped out entirely and disengaged from the outside world, Erickson returned to Austin and found himself the target of an overly enthusiastic police department anxious to make an example out of him. Popped for possession of marijuana joint and facing the possibility of serious jail time, Erickson’s lawyer proposed the dubious stratagem of pleading insanity, which led to an eventual confinement in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He remained there for three years.

II. Roller Coaster
You’re Gonna Miss Me traces the early adventures that led Roky to Rusk, and fills in the following decades, which have mostly been a tragic void for all but the most dedicated fans. Erickson may have been gone, but he was far from forgotten, as evidenced by the commentary provided by an impressively disparate array of musicians, including Billy Gibbons (of Texas legends ZZ Top), Patti Smith, Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers). It is a documentary that unfolds like a mystery story, each anecdote and interview revealing another layer that helps explain who he was, who he became, and who he is now.

III. Slip Inside This House
Seminal scene number one: Roky Erickson, now under the exclusive care of his mother back in Texas (circa 1999), enters his modest and messy apartment. He turns on the radio. Then he turns on a second radio. Then he turns on a television, and another. Then he turns on an electric Casio piano. Eventually he has plugged in or turned on a beehive of competing sounds; the room is a cacophony of random stimulation. He puts on a pair of sunglasses and announces in a soft voice (barely audible above the chaos) “Okay, I’m gonna lay down now.” His mother, who had presumably seen it all before, remarks matter-of-factly: “He falls asleep with all that stuff on…it’s when I turn it off that he wakes up.”

IV. If You Have Ghosts
A few things that the assembled evidence seems to render indisputable: Roky Erickson was, and remains, a sensitive and sweet human being; he was blessed with an extraordinary voice and had an intense interest in music very early on; his upbringing was complicated, even when measured against the understood assumption that some dysfunctional families are more dysfunctional than others.

V. Earthquake
Seminal scene number two: The camera pans down a long, empty hallway with white walls. A voice speaks; it is Roky, taped in a 1975 interview: “I felt like a male Jane Eyre in that place…all I had to look forward to was (being told) ‘You’re still insane.’” Back-story: June ’68, Roky abruptly returns home from San Francisco. He is filthy, scab-ridden and incoherent. Alarmed, his mother takes him to a doctor, who promptly, if blithely, declares him an incurable schizophrenic. He is subsequently “rescued” by one of his band mates and they hitchhike back to the Bay Area, where Roky eschews LSD for heroin. He begins hearing voices. Upon contracting serum hepatitis from a dirty needle, he returns to Austin, and that fateful marijuana bust. In a matter of months Roky has gone from the center of a psychedelic summertime to bunking up amongst the profoundly disturbed, and violent, residents of Rusk Hospital.

VI. Fire Engine
The similarities between Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett, while obvious, are nevertheless extraordinary. Barrett was more popular, his story more often told, and he was more missed once he was gone. But once Syd was gone, he stayed gone: after 1975, when he shocked his old mates by showing up at the studio as they were putting the finishing touches on the Barrett-inspired Wish You Were Here, he retreated to the care of his mother and abandoned all interest in music. Erickson, despite a similar appetite for acid (not to mention the heroin abuse) and regular shock treatments at Rusk, never stopped thinking about music. Unlike Syd, the fire of creating and making music never died inside Roky and was, ultimately, inextinguishable.

VII. Unforced Peace
Seminal scene number three: Bob Priest, Rusk’s resident psychologist, recalls how Roky played in a makeshift band that included a rapist, and two murderers. “Most of the time he’d have a yellow legal pad, sitting in the hallway writing music…he was a real nice little guy, he didn’t have a whole lot to say; he wanted to write his music, he wanted to play his music — and that’s all.”

VIII. I Walked With A Zombie
It’s 1972: finally released from Rusk, Rocky begins making music, but is plagued by paranoia and the aftereffects of what was, to say the least, his not exactly salubrious recent environment. Increasingly, he is convinced that he’s an alien and conniving humans are “zapping” his mind. His attorney takes him to the dime store several times to buy toy laser guns so he can zap them back. It does not work. Finally, she hits upon the idea of preparing a document declaring that Roky is, in fact, an alien, with the hope that whoever is sending telepathic shocks to his head will stop. It works.

IX. Starry Eyes
Seminal scene number four: A man out of time, he looks like it’s 1969, he sounds like it’s 1969, but it’s actually 1983. The same year synth-heavy pop was lip-synched around the clock on MTV, the man who may have invented psychedelic rock is in his mother’s house, being videotaped as he strums a song he wrote for her. He is disheveled and most of his teeth are now gone. It is poignant, but also more than a little painful to watch. And yet. That voice, those eyes, the honesty. As Melville wrote “You cannot hide the soul.”

X. She Lives in a Time of Her Own
At this point you are thinking: his mother is a saint. She took him in when no one else would, and every indication suggests that she accepts him and genuinely loves him, without reservation. If her rigid distrust of doctors and medication is unfortunate, it is also understandable, considering how she has seen her eldest son suffer. Certainly, she is eccentric; she could easily be the focus of a captivating documentary herself, recalling how Robert Crumb’s brothers occasionally, if chillingly, stole the spotlight in Terry Zwigoff’s justly celebrated film (speaking of controversial, odd artists). When Roky is interviewed at one point he confesses, sounding not only vulnerable and guileless, but childlike, “I wish I could be somewhere else.” The door of domestic unease creaks open and one wonders: how much of a good thing is this arrangement, after all?

XI. Don’t Slander Me
While the documentary keeps the focus firmly on Roky, the broiling undercurrent of familial tension (past and present) moves to the forefront when Erickson’s younger brother, Sumner (who plays tuba with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) asserts that years of therapy have helped him understand how domineering their mother has always been. While at first his sentiments seem more driven by an obsession to exorcise painful childhood demons, Sumner’s intentions to assist Roky are made touchingly clear when he offers to let his brother come live with him.
Eventually, it is up to a judge to determine who is best able to help Roky: his mother correctly claims to have helped him out when nobody else was able or interested; his brother insists that Roky now deserves the opportunity to help himself. The judge ultimately concurs with Sumner’s assessment that his mother, by refusing to let Roky take any medication, is effectively suppressing any possibility of improvement and, intentionally or not, keeping him in a state of dependence. The documentary, at this point, has portrayed enough candid incidents and interviews that the viewer will likely endorse the judge’s decision, but it is still an uneasy resolution.

XII. I Have Always Been Here Before
Seminal scene number five: After the court rules that Sumner can take his brother back with him to Pittsburgh, their mother silently leaves the courthouse. She stops by Roky’s apartment and, one by one, turns off the machines he’d left on when he left home, leaving her behind.

XIII. Splash I (Now I’m Home)
One year later, Roky is preparing to return home to visit his mother for the first time. Sumner, who seems wary whenever her name is mentioned, acknowledges that she probably did the best that she could to provide for her son. Nevertheless, Sumner’s influence has been profound, and positive: Roky’s teeth are fixed, he has been prescribed (and is taking) modern meds, and he is seeing a therapist, who encourages him to play songs. He seems happy and healthy, sitting outside on a balcony, playing his guitar again. The voice is still not of this earth, but there can no longer be any doubt, if there ever was any, that Roky Erickson is indeed an earthling. The greatest ending of all is that the story has not ended.

(Postscript)
Special mention must be made of the extra features, which are generous bordering on mind-boggling. In an era where, unfortunately, one almost expects to get less for more (if there is material for two albums, try and stretch it into three; if there are any leftovers, package them up and push it for the “deluxe” edition), the bonus footage could comprise another full documentary—one of equal value and interest.
Huge kudos to McAlester and company for doing the right thing for the fans, and for Erickson: newcomers who see this footage will almost certainly be inclined to check out some vintage 13th Floor Elevators, as well as the unconscionably overlooked post-Elevators music Erickson made. In addition to an incredible collection of vintage performances from over the years (mostly solo acoustic), there are deleted scenes and readings of original material by Roky and his mother.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, at least one more amazing chapter is presented here: the documentary wrapped in 2002, but Roky’s astonishing recovery saw him performing live for the first time in almost 20 years at the 2005 Austin City Limits Festival. To watch the reception he gets, to hear how great he sounds, and to behold how fulfilled he appears, it is not possible to be unmoved. “It’s a cold night for alligators,” he sings. Damn right it is.

— 9 August 2007

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Ten Songs From 1967 That Shaped Prog-Rock (Revisited)

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1. “Heroes and Villains”, The Beach Boys

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia (of the infamously aborted SMiLE sessions) is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

2. “The End”, The Doors

If not The Doors’ best song, it’s definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway To Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Manzarek and Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents, certainly at the time of its recording, an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.

3. “Nights in White Satin”, The Moody Blues

Strings! Poetry! Pretension! All of the above, and above all, the glorious vocals from Justin Hayward. There is such a uniquely British sensibility to this, something that still sounds like it should be heard over the radio. The Moody Blues would come to epitomize some of the worst excesses of the prog era (mellotron overload, mediocre poetry recitations on each album, a preciousness at times rivaled by an overbearing strain for profundity) but at their best –and for my money, there are at least one or two essential songs on each subsequent album– they pushed rock music in a more positive, enduring direction.

4. “Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum

This, like so many other classics of its era, has been overplayed on radio and overused in movies to the point where it’s lost much of its import. But it must be acknowledged for what it is: a brilliant, brooding masterwork of mood and economy. (The epic drum fills were game-changing.) And between the Bach references and the Chaucher name-checks, this has many ingredients that future prog-rockers would utilize, sometimes to excess.

5. “The Red Telephone”, Love

“The Red Telephone,” which ends side one of Forever Changes, is the album’s centerpiece; its brooding, apocalyptic imagery captures that three-month moment of 1967, while remaining possibly more applicable to the here and now: “They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key, / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” Those creepy chanted lines were prophetic, not only when you consider that Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid 1990s as a result of his own recklessness as well as California’s controversial third-strike laws. The lyrics anticipate the aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples, those that ingested and distributed the chemical vehicles to Valhalla, who would end up pulling harder time than our white-collar charlatans face for fleecing employees and the country out of millions of dollars. The lines are also a commentary on Americans acting un-American, looking back to the internments of Japanese citizens and forecasting the so-called enemy combatants rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy. As Lee sings in the same song, “Sometimes I deal with numbers, / And if you want to count me: Count me out.”

6. “Section 43”, Country Joe and the Fish

This as much as any single song, distilled the whole LSD-in-a-bottle (or blotter) extended moment of ’67. It eschews saccharine, feel-good sentiment; indeed, it avoids lyrics altogether. It does not need them, it extends its vision of dread and release: a trip that could go bad or end up being the best thing that ever happened and, like too many acid trips to count, it is probably more than a bit of both.

7. “Interstellar Overdrive”, Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on this extended jam (which would get twice as long, or longer, played live). This song, like several others on this list, is utterly of its time, but it still sounds fresh and vital: it really is the essence of psychedelic exploration (and whimsy) summarized in under ten minutes, and serves as a very hip, across-the-pond companion to the Summer of Love soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, this one (and “Lucifer Sam”) could almost be used as incidental music for a James Bond flick, assuming it was a stirred, not shaken 007.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, Cream

Now we’re talking. Allusions to Greek literature, the lysergic swirl of Ginger Baker’s patented drum rolls, some of Jack Bruce’s more impassioned vocals and, of course, the apotheosis of Eric Clapton’s wah-wah pedal pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP were paying careful attention: “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is, in a sense, the blueprint, succinctly rendered, for the more ambitious (and/or pretentious and long-winded) progressive epics that would follow.

9. “Broken Arrow”, Buffalo Springfield

Neil Young would, of course, go in entirely different directions (ranging from the folk-rock of his solo debut to garage-band glory with Crazy Horse to the acoustic stylings of After The Gold Rush and the perfection, if not invention, of country-rock on Harvest, and then into the proverbial ditch for a string of albums that may represent his best work), but his contribution to the prog-rock ethos is undeniable. Unbelievably ambitious, painstakingly assembled and full of sociopolitical import (an unblinking look at our treatment of Native Americans –a theme that would resurface in his later work– juxtaposed with an increasingly out-of-control contemporary world), “Broken Arrow” is, in its way, an inimitable document of what rock music could do (in ’67, or ever).

10. “Waterloo Sunset”, The Kinks

It’s impossible to overstate how important this song was, for both Ray Davies as a songwriter, and the many disciples who followed him. Of course, this song, and The Kinks, were/are much less popular and appreciated in the states, which is at once typical, sad and expected. The Kinks were not just a British band, they were the British band. More, they were Britain, and no single band has composed as many songs celebrating, explaining, lamenting, and personifying all-things UK. This is their charm and it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many lesser acts connected in the U.S.A. while The Kinks have always been (at best) a second-tier band, commercially and otherwise.

Everyone from Peter Gabriel to Pete Townshend was influenced by the formula Davies perfected here: local color relayed by an everyman, albeit a wistful, lonely and exceedingly sensitive fellow. This is, perhaps more than the better known “A Day in the Life”, a true reflection of a typical day, an eyewitness account laced with melancholy, hope and acceptance. It manages to invoke the past, fear (or at least resist) the future and immortalize the present, however quietly or unintentionally. Lyrically and conceptually, you can take Davies’ strategy and anticipate the ways Genesis and Jethro Tull (to name two of the more successful) would expand on the autobiographical possibilities to create sprawling, literate and emotional works (think Selling England By The Pound and Thick As A Brick).

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Improving Upon Perfection, Part Two: Brian Wilson and Danny Gatton

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One of the best ballads ever?

No question.

Brian Wilson, whom one can never say enough about, evinced such astonishing growth in such a short period of time, only The Beatles can really hold a candle to what he achieved, artistically, in a similar period.

Along with “Don’t Worry Baby” (another of the all-time great rock ballads), “In My Room” signaled the full flowering of his early –already staggering– proficiency and potential. This was later realized, in spades, during the Pet Sounds sessions. Debate still rages, but this writer and fan considers the next steps, represented by the aborted (but now available!) Smile sessions, a possibly unparalleled achievement in pop music. (More on that later, and of course more on that has been said before: an in-depth examination and appreciation of Smile can be found HERE.)

Danny Gatton’s story is, unbelievably, almost sadder than Wilson’s. At least Wilson made it out of his self-imposed sabbatical from planet earth alive. Gatton, never able to attain the attention and approbation his incredible skills warranted, and allegedly battling depression, took his own life at the age of 49. More (much more) on him another time, but suffice it to say this is one musician you will be glad to get to know. His playing is almost uncommonly sensitive, advanced and he covers the spectrum in terms of style and range. He was one of the most gifted guitar players of the 20th century. That he was relatively unknown is a travesty. His music, his art, survives him and we are much better for it.

Check him out here, doing the damn near impossible: taking Wilson’s short, bittersweet burst of pop perfection and turning it into a gorgeous, yearning tone poem. If this one doesn’t go directly to your heart and shatter it into a million pieces, you should seek medical assistance, immediately…because you are either near death or a robot.

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

*Originally published in PopMatters, 8/26/2012.

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Pet Sounds: The Kind of World Where We Belong (Revisited)

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5/16/66.

A day that changed music, forever, for the better.

A case could, and probably should, be made that we ought to refer to rock music as “BP” and “AP” (Before Pet Sounds and After Pet Sounds).

Writing about Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the miraculous release of the (miraculous) SMiLE Sessions, this is my brief take on the times and circumstances Wilson instigated, embraced and inevitably became overwhelmed by:

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called the Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

A lot more on the making, breaking and reviving of the SMiLE legend HERE.

Talk about an opening statement, and statement of purpose. This is the sound of a revolution:

And then it’s a succession of brilliance, one miniature pop-opera at a time. It’s the sound of Brian Wilson maturing and growing into his genius. Not for nothing did Paul McCartney hear this and know he had to up his (already considerable, and all but peerless) game.

Brian Wilson was perfecting a somewhat unprecedented type of songwriting here: upbeat (sounding) but reflective, almost pensive ballads. No question The Beatles were listening closely to songs like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “That’s Not Me” (see: Mac’s songs on the subsequent Revolver). Check it out:

Whimsy, possibly enhanced by the ingestion of some consciousness-expanding substances, resulted in songs that are equal parts silly and audacious. It’s hard to imagine Beefheart and Syd Barrett having the balls, or ability, to take their next steps without a song like “Sloop John B”. It is disarmingly simple, but not simplistic. If nothing else, the arrangement is a delivery device for those voices: Wilson (as the image on the back cover, copied above, illustrates) was pushing himself, and his mates, to blend their vocals in increasingly complex and ingenious harmonies.

In hindsight these tracks are equal parts revelation and test run for SMiLE. Regarding the perfection achieved on that recording, I wrote the following:

Until now, the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes”.

Possibly the most important track (at least to Paul McCartney) is the epic “God Only Knows”. Rather than attempt to articulate its import, I’ll let Mac do the honors:

“It’s a really, really great song—it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten favorite songs for a Japanese radio station…I didn’t think long and hard on it, but I popped that [“God Only Knows”] on the top of my list. [Thinks for a moment] It’s very deep. [Quotes the lyrics to “God Only Knows”] Very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they’re the strangest collection of songs…but that is high on the list, I must say.”

More from Macca on Pet Sounds, HERE.

Speaking only for myself, I love Pet Sounds and appreciate its place as perhaps the single-most important stepping stone for the year (’67) where pop became art (a LOT more on that HERE). For me, Pet Sounds is like Sgt. Pepper in that I seldom listen to it all the way through the way I can later albums I prefer (think SMiLE or Abbey Road –more on the latter HERE). And like Sgt. Pepper, there are a handful of songs that I can listen to repeatedly, anytime, and never grow bored or uninspired. The number one example is “Hang On To Your Ego” (which became “I Know There’s an Answer”, allegedly based on Mike Love’s concerns that the lyrics were too blatantly LSD-inspired. Love must be acknowledged, if nothing else, for being the anti-Wilson in virtually every regard). Which one is better? Personally, I’ll take both.

In the final analysis, even though there are few things I enjoy more than writing about music, there is nothing I enjoy more than listening to music. And that, as ever, is the ultimate –if not only– way a work can account for itself. Listen, learn, appreciate, then repeat for the rest of your life. But the final words should be reserved, not for me, not for McCartney, but for the great man himself. In a song that manages to epitomize everything about Brian Wilson: aesthetically, creatively, as a musician, as a man, we must leave it at “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Only Wilson could write a composition that at once underscores how out of place, and out of time, he felt; yet in so feeling, he managed (through a possibly unparalleled combination of talent and will) to write a definitive song that inspired the greatness others emulated but possibly never equaled. In rock music’s ultimate irony, Wilson honestly felt he wasn’t a fit for the times he, as much as anyone, helped create. For that alone, attention must always be paid.

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Ten Songs From 1967 That Shaped Prog-Rock (Revisited)

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1. “Heroes and Villains”, The Beach Boys

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia (of the infamously aborted SMiLE sessions) is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

2. “The End”, The Doors

If not The Doors’ best song, it’s definitely among their most cherished and controversial. “The End” is the Doors’ “Stairway To Heaven”, the song that is the Dead Sea Scrolls for adolescent seekers: it entices and disorients not unlike the narcotic, agitating effect that Edgar Allan Poe’s stories initially have on young readers. Morrison’s stream of consciousness Götterdämmerung will incite debates until the sacred cows come home, but there can be no quarrel with the music. Manzarek and Krieger do some of their finest—if understated—work here, but it is Densmore’s passive-aggressive percussion that represents, certainly at the time of its recording, an apotheosis of sorts. It is scarcely conceivable how many psychedelic adventures this song has provided a soundtrack for, which is entirely appropriate considering that, according to legend, Morrison laid down his vocals (in two takes) while reeling from a particularly intense acid trip. Whatever else it may signify, “The End” is an ideal, inevitable coda, and one of the best closing songs on one of the very best rock albums.

3. “Nights in White Satin”, The Moody Blues

Strings! Poetry! Pretension! All of the above, and above all, the glorious vocals from Justin Hayward. There is such a uniquely British sensibility to this, something that still sounds like it should be heard over the radio. The Moody Blues would come to epitomize some of the worst excesses of the prog era (mellotron overload, mediocre poetry recitations on each album, a preciousness at times rivaled by an overbearing strain for profundity) but at their best –and for my money, there are at least one or two essential songs on each subsequent album– they pushed rock music in a more positive, enduring direction.

4. “Whiter Shade of Pale”, Procol Harum

This, like so many other classics of its era, has been overplayed on radio and overused in movies to the point where it’s lost much of its import. But it must be acknowledged for what it is: a brilliant, brooding masterwork of mood and economy. (The epic drum fills were game-changing.) And between the Bach references and the Chaucher name-checks, this has many ingredients that future prog-rockers would utilize, sometimes to excess.

5. “The Red Telephone”, Love

“The Red Telephone,” which ends side one of Forever Changes, is the album’s centerpiece; its brooding, apocalyptic imagery captures that three-month moment of 1967, while remaining possibly more applicable to the here and now: “They’re locking them up today; they’re throwing away the key, / I wonder who it’ll be tomorrow, you or me?” Those creepy chanted lines were prophetic, not only when you consider that Lee, who lived to be neither wealthy nor white, ended up imprisoned in the mid 1990s as a result of his own recklessness as well as California’s controversial third-strike laws. The lyrics anticipate the aftermath awaiting Timothy Leary’s disciples, those that ingested and distributed the chemical vehicles to Valhalla, who would end up pulling harder time than our white-collar charlatans face for fleecing employees and the country out of millions of dollars. The lines are also a commentary on Americans acting un-American, looking back to the internments of Japanese citizens and forecasting the so-called enemy combatants rotting behind bars without formal charges or legal counsel. I read the news today, oh boy. As Lee sings in the same song, “Sometimes I deal with numbers, / And if you want to count me: Count me out.”

6. “Section 43”, Country Joe and the Fish

This as much as any single song, distilled the whole LSD-in-a-bottle (or blotter) extended moment of ’67. It eschews saccharine, feel-good sentiment; indeed, it avoids lyrics altogether. It does not need them, it extends its vision of dread and release: a trip that could go bad or end up being the best thing that ever happened and, like too many acid trips to count, it is probably more than a bit of both.

7. “Interstellar Overdrive”, Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett’s clever if unconventional use of a Zippo lighter as a makeshift slide gave him the ability to play fast while conjuring a shrill metallic shriek from his guitar. Those glistening cries are in full effect on this extended jam (which would get twice as long, or longer, played live). This song, like several others on this list, is utterly of its time, but it still sounds fresh and vital: it really is the essence of psychedelic exploration (and whimsy) summarized in under ten minutes, and serves as a very hip, across-the-pond companion to the Summer of Love soundtrack. Speaking of soundtracks, this one (and “Lucifer Sam”) could almost be used as incidental music for a James Bond flick, assuming it was a stirred, not shaken 007.

8. “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, Cream

Now we’re talking. Allusions to Greek literature, the lysergic swirl of Ginger Baker’s patented drum rolls, some of Jack Bruce’s more impassioned vocals and, of course, the apotheosis of Eric Clapton’s wah-wah pedal pyrotechnics. There is no doubt that bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP were paying careful attention: “Tales of Brave Ulysses” is, in a sense, the blueprint, succinctly rendered, for the more ambitious (and/or pretentious and long-winded) progressive epics that would follow.

9. “Broken Arrow”, Buffalo Springfield

Neil Young would, of course, go in entirely different directions (ranging from the folk-rock of his solo debut to garage-band glory with Crazy Horse to the acoustic stylings of After The Gold Rush and the perfection, if not invention, of country-rock on Harvest, and then into the proverbial ditch for a string of albums that may represent his best work), but his contribution to the prog-rock ethos is undeniable. Unbelievably ambitious, painstakingly assembled and full of sociopolitical import (an unblinking look at our treatment of Native Americans –a theme that would resurface in his later work– juxtaposed with an increasingly out-of-control contemporary world), “Broken Arrow” is, in its way, an inimitable document of what rock music could do (in ’67, or ever).

10. “Waterloo Sunset”, The Kinks

It’s impossible to overstate how important this song was, for both Ray Davies as a songwriter, and the many disciples who followed him. Of course, this song, and The Kinks, were/are much less popular and appreciated in the states, which is at once typical, sad and expected. The Kinks were not just a British band, they were the British band. More, they were Britain, and no single band has composed as many songs celebrating, explaining, lamenting, and personifying all-things UK. This is their charm and it also goes a long way toward explaining why so many lesser acts connected in the U.S.A. while The Kinks have always been (at best) a second-tier band, commercially and otherwise.

Everyone from Peter Gabriel to Pete Townshend was influenced by the formula Davies perfected here: local color relayed by an everyman, albeit a wistful, lonely and exceedingly sensitive fellow. This is, perhaps more than the better known “A Day in the Life”, a true reflection of a typical day, an eyewitness account laced with melancholy, hope and acceptance. It manages to invoke the past, fear (or at least resist) the future and immortalize the present, however quietly or unintentionally. Lyrically and conceptually, you can take Davies’ strategy and anticipate the ways Genesis and Jethro Tull (to name two of the more successful) would expand on the autobiographical possibilities to create sprawling, literate and emotional works (think Selling England By The Pound and Thick As A Brick).

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The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream

smile14brianatwestern.l

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Icarus soars too close to the sun. Othello, vulnerable and halfway crazy, mistakenly trusts the evil Iago. The product of a celebrated cultural era sets out to fictionalize some of the forces that made his ascent—and disintegration—possible (hint: he is the same author who opined there are no second acts in American lives). The captain of a sinking ship, obsessed unto madness by a malevolent mammal, takes his crew with him under the water into oblivion. A small man, armed only with a sling-shot, takes aim and slays the giant. The underdog gets off the mat to dethrone the champion, the nerd flies out of a phone booth, the orphan slides a magic slipper on her foot, a kid who would be king pulls the sword from the stone…

Get the picture? All of these elements are, to varying extents, contained within this epic Tragedy that detours into Comedy and ends up as Romance. And the rest is History: the construction, dissolution and redemption of one man’s very American Dream.

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called The Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

When “Good Vibrations” dominated the charts in late ’66, it was a gauntlet thrown as much as a premonition of greater things to come. The Beatles got there first and Sgt. Pepper became the undisputed artistic and cultural event of 1967. SMiLE, initially—and tellingly—entitled Dumb Angel, was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ counterpunch. Impossible as it might be to imagine, Brian Wilson was poised to share the stage with Lennon/McCartney. It doesn’t compute to contemporary minds because decades of blank space and unfulfilled promise did what history always does: vindicate the winners. But Wilson, as much as his peers across the pond, was edging the idiom toward the avant-garde, and the arresting results of “Good Vibrations” could be seen as an opening salvo. SMiLE, then, was going to be the band’s masterpiece, and possibly the crown jewel of the Summer of Love. It very well might have put The Beach Boys, not The Beatles, on the top shelf critically as well as commercially.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Wilson lost first the goodwill and support of his brethren and then, his mind. (Not unlike the other sad casualty of ’67, Syd Barrett: it was an escalating intake of drugs—especially the LSD he credited with unlocking the doors and assisting the great visions— that accelerated his southward spiral.) And so, the work in progress was mostly scrapped and the shell-shocked group cobbled together the odd, occasionally sublime—if ultimately underwhelming—replacement, Smiley Smile. In the ensuing decades those aborted sessions—the strange fruits of Wilson’s measureless mind—became rock music’s Holy Grail. The material simply could not find the light of day; Wilson was too far gone and the results allegedly too impenetrable for public release.

And now, in a real-life Deus ex machina, rock’s scariest horror story has been transformed into pop music’s Dead Sea Scrolls. Salvaged from oblivion with the blessing—and assistance—of the man who made them, in late 2011 we received the opportunity to hear them, in full (or as full as we can reasonably hope) for the first time. The results must be considered as close to an unvarnished approximation as possible of Wilson’s original vision, and they are miraculous. Like a bombed and burned-out cathedral, there is dirt and dust aplenty, and the stained glass is, in places, broken and filled with cobwebs and strange empty spaces. This dirty authenticity only adds layers of meaning to the overall impact.

First reaction: it’s difficult, bordering on unreasonable to believe the current incarnation of SMiLE—modeled as it is after Wilson’s crucial but now less significant Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE from 2004—is comprised mostly of uncompleted drafts, bits and pieces. It sounds that great; it feels that complete.

Second reaction: I kept finding myself thinking much less of Sgt. Pepper and more of two later Beatles works, The Beatles (White Album) and Abbey Road. It’s all in here, and where The White Album is a glorious, murky mess, these SMiLE sessions are more like wave after wave crashing onto soft sand. There are moments that conjure the acoustic bliss of “Julia” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, the surreal parlor music of “Martha My Dear” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, the baroque touches of “Long, Long, Long” and “Good Night” and the kitchen sink chaos of “Wild Honey Pie” and (of course) “Revolution 9”. And where Lennon/McCartney got some wonderfully satirical licks on topical—and enduring—American history via “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” and “Rocky Raccoon”, Wilson was clearly attempting to tackle the whole mythical cycle of westward expansion. As such, SMiLE might be best understood, or appreciated as a psychedelic tour of forward motion, incorporating sounds and sights (and smells and tastes) invoking myriad aspects of Americana. We are treated to chanting, cowboy movie theme music, field studies ranging from Indian to Hawaiian, cool-ish jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoonish sound effects, Musique concrete and a yodel thrown in for good measure. And most of all, tons and tons of the best harmonizing you’ve (never) heard, until now.

To me, and I’ve written about it (http://bullmurph.com/2010/10/05/love-is-old-love-is-new-another-appreciation-of-abbey-road/), the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes” (of which more, shortly).

One can—and should—recognize that, beginning with Revolver, The Beatles had the inclination, and money, to spend as much time in the studio as they saw fit, tinkering and tailoring until they were satisfied. They also, for understandable and well-documented reasons, had collectively grown weary of touring. Wilson too, had no stomach for the hustle and grind, even in the better days, but of course his band mates did (and still do). For the undeniable advancements of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, Lennon and McCartney enjoyed a mutual focus and solidarity, not to mention the quite capable services of Harrison, Starr and the invaluable George Martin. Wilson, by comparison, was trying to hit a grand slam with no one else on base—or on board (and he just about knocked it out of the ballpark before a Tempest blew in and suspended play for almost a half-century). Needless to say, unlike the environment in the Beatles’ camp, the SMiLE sessions comprised the inevitable tension of a band following the unsteady lead of its eccentric yet brilliant conductor, with one eye on The Road and all this entailed: adoring crowds, fat wallets and the safety of hit singles.

“Don’t fuck with the formula,” Mike Love supposedly complained as the material grew too complicated—and unconventional—for his liking. Love’s words, and the attitude that prompted them, serve not only as a succinct summary of the internal forces Wilson found himself confronting (even in an increasingly fragile state of mind he was still the de-facto leader and resident visionary, something Syd Barrett abruptly ceased to be well before his eventual ouster), but also represents the rapacious imperatives of any commercial enterprise: keep it simple, appeal to as many people as possible and above all, never leave any opportunity for money on the table.

That Wilson lost this battle, ostensibly a victim of his own excesses and weakness, says a great deal about the ugly side of the unbridled ‘60s. Like Syd Barrett and too many anonymous psychedelic foot soldiers to count, LSD was a major incentive for creativity and expansion, but it carried a cost. By Wilson’s own reckoning, acid played an essential role in his stylistic and compositional progression, but it also hastened some of the off-kilter internal mechanisms that preyed on his confidence, if not his ability to cope. The already controversial and clownish Mike Love comes off worse than ever the more one thinks about these circumstances and what was at stake in late ’66 and early ’67. Shouting not-so-sweet nothings in Wilson’s ear would be unfortunate enough coming from a record company executive; coming from a fellow band mate, especially one who had gained a great deal more fame and wealth than he ever could have done on his own, is unforgivable.

What has tended to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle of sensationalistic trivia is that Wilson did not go down without a hell of a fight. He may not even have gone down at all so much as he was forced down, which makes the proceedings Tragic with a capital T. There can be no doubt that a primary instigating factor in Wilson’s meltdown was his utter lack of guile. Remember, the Beach Boys were square. Wilson forced them, through a combination of will and his own curious brand of genius, to be successful. They were always more than a little corny, and that formula worked on the clean-cut, if innocuous early singles. SMiLE illustrates the struggle of a naïve but proficient artist chasing the white whale inside his own head. He was making it up as he went along and just about nobody was along for the ride. Much of this can be more easily understood by hearing the numerous takes of the eventual tour de force “Heroes and Villains”. He knew what he was after, and he convinced, cajoled and begged his compatriots to cross the finish line. The results more than validate his obsessive effort: the song is masterful, complex but accessible, intense but assured, the fully realized vision of a unique talent.

So where does that leave us? Assuming that SMiLE is superior, ultimately, to Pet Sounds, how profoundly does its belated release shift of perceptions of the ‘60s; of rock and roll history? First, in what ways does it alter our well-ingrained admiration of Pet Sounds? It shouldn’t, necessarily. Put simply, just as everyone is, correctly, comfortable with The Beatles having several albums represented in what we acknowledge as the upper echelon (think Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, White Album, Abbey Road, which typically land in the Top 20, if not Top 10, of critical lists), SMiLE must correspondingly assume its overdue but welcome place in the pantheon.

Now, the fun begins. Where does it go? Is it better than Pet Sounds? In terms of ambition, scope and execution, this writer has no problem putting it at the top of the heap. And, the unthinkable: is it better than Sgt. Pepper? Yes. More influential? Obviously not. More popular? Not even close. More important to the band’s development? Hardly, since unlike The Beatles, The Beach Boys retreated, getting back to where they once belonged. But taking it on a song-by-song basis, is it superior? Unquestionably.

Now, the real fun: not much can stand alongside “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “A Day in the Life”. You can even throw in “She’s Leaving Home” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” if you must. Can even those four stand comfortably alongside “Heroes and Villains”, “Surf’s Up”, “Cabin Essence” and—take your pick—“Do You Like Worms” or “Vega-Tables”? We can leave aside “Good Vibrations” to accompany “Strawberry Fields Forever”, both released as singles in ’66. It could even be conceded that, based on the above, The Beatles best songs edge out whichever ones we can throw up against them. But, as is the case with most classic albums, it’s the odds and sods that make the ultimate case for greatness. Consider the opening salvo of “Our Prayer”, and remember Wilson remarked that his desire was to write a “teenage symphony to God”. The creepy acid-washed “You Are My Sunshine”; the gorgeous segue of “Look (Song for Children)” into “Child is the Father of the Man”; the quirky, Zappa-esque romp of “Holidays”; the pre-Abbey Road majesty of “Wonderful”; the Beatles-meet-Beefheart “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”; the presciently prog-rock “Love To Say Dada”.

And, above all, the dark gem of the lot, “Wind Chimes”. This, more than anything else The Beach Boys did (and only Love and The Doors came close, or tried), seems to provide the until-now unheard and definitive counterpunch to the phoned-in feel-good anthem that did dominate the summer of ’67, “All You Need is Love”. Calculated if not entirely cynical, “All You Need is Love” is LSD-Lite, the calm before the White Album aftermath. As a complete and consistent artistic statement, only Love’s Forever Changes (similarly embellished as it is with horns, strings, and harpsichord, with harmonies and a sense of dread lurking around every other note, occasionally threatening to move in and suffocate everything) presages the ugliness around the corner like “Wind Chimes” does—and it does so with a feeling and lack of self-consciousness that seems all the more remarkable, today. Perhaps Syd Barrett’s “Jugband Blues” delineates the harrowing descent, breaking down in real time, better than anything else. “Wind Chimes” splits the difference, and does so with the benefit of Wilson’s inimitable combination of innocence, wonder and frailty.

What results is a product that defies anything any hipster or detractor—of any generation—can credibly dismiss. SMiLE is earnest, it is honest and it is almost entirely unique. Its arrival explodes, or at least expands, the already rich narrative of 1967. It is at once the story of what was and what could have been. The question could be asked: does it represent what should have been? Probably not. Maybe the world would not have been ready for this. Maybe SMiLE would have come out and been laughed off the shelves. Maybe music would not have changed (for better, for worse) if this enigmatic masterpiece had been able to go toe-to-toe, a musical rumble in the jungle, with Sgt. Pepper. The only answer is that we can never know.

There is undeniably a cognitive dissonance listening to this, trying to make sense of it, all these years later. As awkward, or uncomfortable, or awe-inspiring as it is to hear 1966 with today’s ears, it cannot be overlooked—attention must be paid. Assessing SMiLE and giving it its deferred due need not detract from everything The Beatles are worshipped for doing. This is, nevertheless, paradigm-shattering stuff, and most welcome to honest and open minds. How often does an artifact come along that radically disrupts, and reconfigures, an established understanding of history? How exceedingly seldom does this happen, if it ever does? It has happened here and everyone has reason to be very happy it did.

In the final analysis, the vision that sustained SMiLE was undeniable; delicate yet capable of withstanding an uninterested world—which is pretty much precisely what happened. The music, this beauty, bears witness to a dream—at times dark yet always unadulterated—and it remains Wilson’s, and our, triumph.

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Pet Sounds: The Kind of World Where We Belong (Revisited)

ps

5/16/66.

A day that changed music, forever, for the better.

A case could, and probably should, be made that we ought to refer to rock music as “BP” and “AP” (Before Pet Sounds and After Pet Sounds).

Writing about Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, and the miraculous release of the (miraculous) SMiLE Sessions, this is my brief take on the times and circumstances Wilson instigated, embraced and inevitably became overwhelmed by:

Speaking of America and dreams, there is one overriding rule. We want our artists to earn it, to mean it, and sometimes the world sees to it that they suffer. If any single artist left it all, every scrap of his ambition and energy, on the table, it’s Brian Wilson. He did not pay the ultimate price; he did not die. But for an unconscionable number of years—and years that got broken into months into weeks into hours into minutes into seconds like all the grains in a sandbox—Wilson had to reconcile himself to what must have seemed an irreconcilable verdict: a senseless world declared that he was insane. And then, having to live with a failure only he could be accountable for, even if blame could fairly be laid at the rubber souls of almost everyone that surrounded him.

For anyone new to the story, or unfamiliar with the intricacies therein, it might be useful to summarize what has long been rock and roll’s ultimate cautionary tale. There was this band called the Beach Boys and they crafted best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Driven by the increasingly determined—and restless—frontman, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge and first Revolver, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band followed. Of course, Pet Sounds was not a commercial success, at least compared with previous number-one-with-a-bullet efforts from admittedly less complicated times. This did not sit well with some of Wilson’s sidemen, particularly the Kiddie-Pool deep Mike Love.

A lot more on the making, breaking and reviving of the SMiLE legend HERE.

Talk about an opening statement, and statement of purpose. This is the sound of a revolution:

And then it’s a succession of brilliance, one miniature pop-opera at a time. It’s the sound of Brian Wilson maturing and growing into his genius. Not for nothing did Paul McCartney hear this and know he had to up his (already considerable, and all but peerless) game.

Brian Wilson was perfecting a somewhat unprecedented type of songwriting here: upbeat (sounding) but reflective, almost pensive ballads. No question The Beatles were listening closely to songs like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” and “That’s Not Me” (see: Mac’s songs on the subsequent Revolver). Check it out:

Whimsy, possibly enhanced by the ingestion of some consciousness-expanding substances, resulted in songs that are equal parts silly and audacious. It’s hard to imagine Beefheart and Syd Barrett having the balls, or ability, to take their next steps without a song like “Sloop John B”. It is disarmingly simple, but not simplistic. If nothing else, the arrangement is a delivery device for those voices: Wilson (as the image on the back cover, copied above, illustrates) was pushing himself, and his mates, to blend their vocals in increasingly complex and ingenious harmonies.

In hindsight these tracks are equal parts revelation and test run for SMiLE. Regarding the perfection achieved on that recording, I wrote the following:

Until now, the high-water mark of harmonizing, with due respect to Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby Stills and Nash and even earlier Beach Boys material, remains Abbey Road (and it is still astonishing to consider the trajectory The Beatles took, starting with the glistening sheen of the early hits to the mano-a-mano glory of Rubber Soul to the all-in, panoramic sweep of their final work). All that notwithstanding, I’m unsure I’ve heard anything approaching what is happening, on a purely vocal level, throughout SMiLE. It is instructive here to note the bonus tracks, particularly the “SMiLE Backing Vocals Montage”, which make it abundantly obvious how these sounds were stacked, shuffled and overlaid to create miniature symphonies of human voice. To hear these efforts come to fruition in songs as radically different as “Wonderful” (the aforementioned yodel, along with harmonies to rival Side Two of Abbey Road), “Do You Like Worms” (the previously described faux-Hawaiian chanting) or the pinnacle of harmonies and emotion in “Wind Chimes”.

Possibly the most important track (at least to Paul McCartney) is the epic “God Only Knows”. Rather than attempt to articulate its import, I’ll let Mac do the honors:

“It’s a really, really great song—it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top ten favorite songs for a Japanese radio station…I didn’t think long and hard on it, but I popped that [“God Only Knows”] on the top of my list. [Thinks for a moment] It’s very deep. [Quotes the lyrics to “God Only Knows”] Very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. There are certain songs that just hit home with me, and they’re the strangest collection of songs…but that is high on the list, I must say.”

More from Macca on Pet Sounds, HERE.

Speaking only for myself, I love Pet Sounds and appreciate its place as perhaps the single-most important stepping stone for the year (’67) where pop became art (a LOT more on that HERE). For me, Pet Sounds is like Sgt. Pepper in that I seldom listen to it all the way through the way I can later albums I prefer (think SMiLE or Abbey Road –more on the latter HERE). And like Sgt. Pepper, there are a handful of songs that I can listen to repeatedly, anytime, and never grow bored or uninspired. The number one example is “Hang On To Your Ego” (which became “I Know There’s an Answer”, allegedly based on Mike Love’s concerns that the lyrics were too blatantly LSD-inspired. Love must be acknowledged, if nothing else, for being the anti-Wilson in virtually every regard). Which one is better? Personally, I’ll take both.

In the final analysis, even though there are few things I enjoy more than writing about music, there is nothing I enjoy more than listening to music. And that, as ever, is the ultimate –if not only– way a work can account for itself. Listen, learn, appreciate, then repeat for the rest of your life. But the final words should be reserved, not for me, not for McCartney, but for the great man himself. In a song that manages to epitomize everything about Brian Wilson: aesthetically, creatively, as a musician, as a man, we must leave it at “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.” Only Wilson could write a composition that at once underscores how out of place, and out of time, he felt; yet in so feeling, he managed (through a possibly unparalleled combination of talent and will) to write a definitive song that inspired the greatness others emulated but possibly never equaled. In rock music’s ultimate irony, Wilson honestly felt he wasn’t a fit for the times he, as much as anyone, helped create. For that alone, attention must always be paid.

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1967 and the Prog-Rock Progenitors* (Revisited)

Progressive rock reached its full potential in the ‘70s, but its roots trace back to the previous decade. While an attempt to determine when and with whom prog-rock formally originated is impossible (not to mention pointless), it is instructive to consider which artists pointed the way.

The official or at least easiest story is that when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be appreciated—and appraised—as Art. Of course there is considerable truth to this account, but there were plenty of other bands, circa 1967, edging things in a direction that was at once more evolved, complicated and unclassifiable.

For starters, The Beatles themselves had already made significant strides: Rubber Soul and especially Revolver showcased a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import) and restlessness with regard to convention. “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this song nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit.

If 1967 characterizes a high point (famously, if a bit unfairly exemplified solely by Sgt. Pepper), it also initiated an explicit realignment of what was possible in rock music—for better or worse. Two albums that, in their way, illustrate where the art form would go are The Who’s The Who Sell Out and Love’s Forever Changes. In fact, if you combine the various concepts and approaches of both, a rough formula can be gleaned, previewing much of what was to come.

Indeed, both Love and The Who (led by Arthur Lee and Pete Townshend, respectively) had already made advancements on previous albums. The Who’s cheeky mini-opera, “A Quick One, While He’s Away” provided a template that Townshend—and many subsequent imitators—would utilize to greater effect. Love is notable for creating, alongside Dylan, Zappa and The Rolling Stones, one of the first songs to fill an entire album side. Love is not extolled nearly enough for the subtle ways they augmented the possibilities of a standard pop song: incorporating strings, flutes and harpsichords are all elements that make Side One of Da Capo a ceaselessly colorful and engaging listening experience.

Neil Young, not long for Buffalo Springfield, employed strings (with Jack Nitzsche’s supervision) for his elaborate miniature epics “Broken Arrow” and “Expecting to Fly”. The Moody Blues took a definitive leap forward, collaborating with Decca’s house orchestra to embellish their conceptual song-cycle Days of Future Passed. The Moody Blues were also one of the first bands to make prominent use of the mellotron (courtesy of Mike Pinder who, incidentally, is credited with turning John Lennon, pre “Strawberry Fields Forever”, onto the instrument), which would become a fixture in the prog-rock sound.

Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” remain ubiquitous psychedelic anthems from 1967, but it was arguably two lesser known and celebrated (at the time) acts that provided crucial direction for more ambitious artists. The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart dropped albums that inspired and influenced the way modern music could connect. By turns surreal and cynical, Lou Reed and Don Van Vliet turned a mordant eye upon society and extended the lyrical possibilities Bob Dylan pioneered. Tracks like “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Drop Out Boogie” and “Electricity” (theremin!) are uncanny blueprints of a kitchen sink sensibility that quickly became commonplace.

Special mention must be made of the inimitable Brian Wilson. Even though his magnum opus SMiLE never saw the light of day (much more on that, here, “The Once and Future King: ‘SMiLE’ and Brian Wilson’s Very American Dream”) he can be—and has been, by none other than Paul McCartney—credited with inspiring if not intimidating the Fab Four to raise their game. Although the world would not hear the ideas and innovations Wilson began to assemble in 1966(!), enough material was salvaged to ultimately surface on 1967’s Smiley Smile, and “Heroes and Villains” could be considered the yin to “A Day in the Life’s” yang.

Two other debuts, both released prior to Sgt. Pepper, contain multiple elements that would be mined throughout the ensuing decade. We will never know what direction(s) Jimi Hendrix may have headed in, but the sources of a very different rock sound are sprinkled liberally throughout Are You Experienced?. His virtuosity alone served notice and opened the floodgates of imitation and indulgence; arguably no one has yet caught up to what Hendrix was achieving between 1967 and 1970. Whatever his merits as a lyricist (never mind poet), there is no question that Jim Morrison introduced a modus operandi that was at once more literate and dark than most of the rock albums that preceded The Doors.

Morrison’s two extended album closers, “The End” and “When The Music’s Over” (from Strange Days, also released in 1967) brought a dramatic, cathartic aspect to songwriting that translated to more theatric live performances: every arena act learned a trick or two from the Lizard King. However effectively (or farcically, depending upon your preference) the organ and guitar solos on “Light My Fire” approximate jazz improvisation, Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek did the near-impossible (or unthinkable, depending upon your preference) on the song that helped define the Summer of Love: they turned attention from the singer’s looks (and vocals) to the band mates’ sounds, if even for a few minutes.

Finally, enough can never be said (and much more will be said, before long) about Pink Floyd. Another 1967 debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recorded at the same time in the same studio as Sgt. Pepper, is a fully realized burst of sui generis psychedelic perfection. Lyrically, it ranges from the obligatory astral imagery of the era (“Astronomy Domine”) to the obligatory shout-out to I Ching (“Chapter 24”) to the brain salad surgery of “Bike”, revealing the unique and astonishing mind of a 21-year-old Syd Barrett.

Captivating as Barrett’s words (and voice) is throughout; the real revelation is his songwriting. The tunes, with one notable exception (“Interstellar Overdrive”), are exercises in precision, packing maximal sound and feeling into bite-sized bits. Eccentric, erudite and ebullient, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a happy explosion of creative potential, a template Floyd would expand upon in a stretch of possibly unrivaled masterpieces throughout the ‘70s.

By 1968 it was apparent many artists were paying attention, and a trio of songs signifies some of the ways the prog-rock aesthetic was already in full effect. Perhaps most notoriously, Iron Butterfly went all in, crafting a side-long song that strained for profundity, intensity and inscrutability. “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (In The Garden of Eden?) super-sized the instrumental passages from “Light My Fire” (including a drum solo!), and incorporated earnest if overbearing explorations that drew from Country Joe and the Fish’s acid-drenched “Section 43”: over the course of 18 minutes it is psychedelia unbound or pretentious noodling personified (perhaps both).

Eric Burdon, who had found fame mining blues motifs with The Animals, threw his hat into the ring and crafted one of the more successful anti-war ballads, “Sky Pilot”. The band is focused and at just over seven minutes the song still seems just right: neither noodling (musically) or preaching (lyrically), the inclusion of sound effects and bagpipes are novel strategies, albeit ones that would become familiar—and somewhat stale in the next decade.

Lastly, another overlooked artist who deserves more, Arthur Brown, reached incisively into the recent past and did much to predict the future. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown is an early concept album, incorporating mythology, religion and astute sociological insight. Best known for the one-and-done hit single “Fire”, the rest of Brown’s debut holds up well even as it’s unmistakably of its time.

His flair for the dramatic (bounding onto the stage with his metal helmet aflame) and painted face anticipated acts as diverse as Kiss, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. The remarkable “Spontaneous Apple Creation”, which sounds like a mash-up of Sun Ra and Ennio Morricone, with vocals (and lyrics) that undeniably influenced Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, remains a signpost of how far rock music had come in only a couple of years.

*Second installment of new monthly PopMatters column, “The Amazing Pudding” (First installment HERE).

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