Enter Sandman

Former Beach Boy Brian Wilson leaves the California shore to journey into a darker state of mind

Brian Wilson's dad hurt him a lot when he was a little kid. Today he says he still hears voices--"Sometimes I bang on my head and go Stop, stop"--and he takes a lot of pills just to stay cool. For years he was paralyzed with fear; the kernel of it all was a night when, Brian says, his dad forced him to take a shit on a piece of newspaper in the family kitchen. His dad beat on him with a two-by-four till it broke in half. And even when this part was all over and Brian was a famous Beach Boy and had fame and Malibu houses and coke and every form of distraction and comfort, he still trembled with fear. He knew it was his dad; but it didn't matter.

When Brian was 24 he went to see the John Frankenheimer movie Seconds. This very scary movie opens with the words, "Good morning, Mr. Wilson." Brian was convinced that the movie was a plot by the music producer Phil Spector to drive him mad. Spector haunted him. After watching Seconds, Brian played Spector's "Be My Baby" over and over and over till the record wore out. Spector was, to Brian's ears, the greatest songmaker in the world. Brian could never make a "Be My Baby," never make it, never--and his distance from the masterpiece became a chastisement. He got far away from his dad yelling at him over that piece of newspaper, but not really. He found a way to recreate that scene again, with a better villain.

Around this time, Brian started making a record called Smile.

He found an odd local kid who loved music in sort of the way he did: Van Dyke Parks. When this kid asked Brian what they would be working on, Brian said, "A teenage symphony to God."

The material for Smile was worked on and worked on and abandoned. Some of the material appeared on the 1967 album Smiley Smile in a completely different form. But Brian shelved Smile--the original concept album, predating even Sgt. Pepper--for 37 years. Brian was frightened when a song he was working on called "Fire" coincided with a massive brush fire in L.A. County. It is said that he hurled the masters of the "Fire" song into a fireplace.

From the time when Smile was originally supposed to be released--January 1967--to the first time it was actually released--September 2004--Brian gained and lost 140 pounds, became a cocaine addict, drank 40 cups of coffee a day, hid in his house, and underwent a years-long round-the-clock session of psychotherapy with Dr. Eugene Landy, a Tartuffe-like figure who isolated Brian from his girlfriend and bandmates and co-wrote songs with Brian such as "Male Ego." He was legally separated from Dr. Landy with help from his brother Carl and became a generally functional professional musician again. And after performing portions in concert, Brian felt secure enough to let Smile find its way in the world.

Perhaps the cruelest moment in Brian's music career came when the other Beach Boys heard Brian's "God Only Knows" for the first time. "How'd you come up with that?" Mike Love asked Brian. "I prayed to God," was Brian's sincere and modest answer. "Well, I pray to God somebody buys a copy," was Mike's response.

Brian wanted Smile to be an epic portrait of America's Wild West, a mosaic the size of a bus station, filled with earthy humor and laughter and smudgy screw-ups between takes. Like all master craftspeople, Brian wanted to let the ugliness and mistakes in. Like all artists who have found success in a minor key, Brian wanted to make an ambitious, large-scale, neoclassical work--a colossus.

Smile was Brian's last major work.

From the opening soar of godly harmonies, into the kaleidoscopic, episodic, cinematic "Heroes and Villains," it is clear that Smile is a record about America. But it's not the huffing, sweating, sardine-packed trolley-car America of Walt Whitman or Robert Altman or other strongman chroniclers of the width and breadth of national passions. It is the slide-whistle, jew's-harp, silent-movie-organ America of Michael Eisner. It is a theme-park U.S.A., where the listener tours the continent as if on the tram at Universal CityWalk; a pious exhortation to "Roll, roll, roll, Plymouth Rock roll under" is subsumed by the appearance of Mrs. O'Leary's cow--the destroyer of the city of Chicago--followed by a detour "In Blue Hawaii." And what is the indigenous quality of each patch of America Brian lays out for us? It is that Phil Spector wall of sound he could never penetrate, that vibrating jellylike mass of sonic effects that turns even the smoothest orchestration into something more, a 3-D, Sensurround, tremor-inducing experience, a physical and emotional penetration of the listener that far exceeds a "hook."

Brian was always trapped by the high school-band vocabulary enforced by his dad. He could never get the fungible, omnivorous, crazy-quilt sound that his idol, Paul McCartney, could so easily work into even routine compositions. This is the beautiful poignancy of Smile. Brian wants to make a work that encompasses all American voices. But he always winds up sounding as if he's in the high school rehearsal room. He invents the drama of escaping his dad--yes, the biological and the musical one--and then even more melodramatically rehearses the helpless return to the dad; or a recapture by him.

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