S&R Literature

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: “Smile: Love Song to a Fading America,” by Malcolm Cooper

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFictionIn terms of art and artistry, culture and the intricate moving multitudes of its respective parts, the 1960’s in America dissected almost every aspect of popular culture and reimagined it into the future. It was a revolution, in the most basic sense of the word–a rotation from the old into something novel and remarkable, the past winding the gears onward. The music of the era tended to be the best representation of this new experiment of interpreting one’s place in a cultural reality; this new imagining, this great experiment, was the philosophy of psychedelia and psychedelic music. For music to be psychedelic, it must rip apart the binding structures of the status quo and rearrange them for a better, more complex view. Many artists were taking old traditions of music and creating sounds never before heard out of their essence; Jimi Hendrix played the blues through a buzzing cloud of electricity and noise; the Grateful Dead took American folk and melted it down into abstract explorations; and bands like the Beatles looked toward the folk traditions of the east to guide rock into another abyss. But as the excitement of the new took hold, as freedom became the modus operandi, the past seemed to be buried, or at least looked upon as simple and out of fashion. Dylan, who seemed to lead the charge out of the shackles of the old world, warned those of the past to “get out of the new way if you can’t lend a hand.” The Who sang of their generation and hopes to “die before [they] got old.”

But was this always the case? Is revolution totally incompatible with the lessons of the past? Can we not guide ourselves forward while looking back for guidance? The answer to this dilemma is best answered with one of the most complex and important relics of popular music, Brian Wilson’s Smile. Like Pound and Eliot before him, Wilson sees the world as a constantly evolving force that is based in the past, that creates anew from digging deep and uncovering what was once the basis for a culture of the past. Throughout the record, he evokes a universal language–other than the actual music, which is always universal–that celebrates the American tradition and its relationship with its musical soul. In all, he searches for the sound of America. As a result, the music takes elements of the past and filters them through a forward-looking scope, that psychedelic experimentation that reinvents the status quo. In the end, Smile represents time fused and condensed through music, and tradition is never far away from the wonders of the new and bold.

The Concept

Brian Wilson started this inward journey out of the self-exploration of the album Pet Sounds. In it, he traded the general naivety of beach fun for a more solemn examination of his place in the world. Many tracks on the record represent a sort of personal tension between moral tradition and the social experimentation of the time (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”). Here, Wilson cannot shake the past, no matter how much he is contributing to the zeitgeist; he feels stuck and looks backward for a sort of perfection.

In part, the problem was clinical, for he was battling bipolar disorder, a condition he had since birth. The problem–as bipolar disorder was generally not understood very well at that point–was exacerbated by his Doctor’s (Levy) overprescription of anti-psychotics. Wilson also turned to illicit drugs at this point, attempting to find relief any way he could. But it was with LSD that he began to see things differently, breaking up the component parts of his perception that normally tortured him (“I Know There’s an Answer”). Brian Wilson’s “breakdown” is often attributed to LSD usage, but nobody ever acknowledged his latent mental illness. Either way, his mental state after Pet Sounds evolved into the stratosphere, enabling a new way of listening and creating music by listening.

During Pet Sounds and into Smile, Wilson’s evolving approach to the creation of music led to him thinking of the actual recording and production in new ways. Wilson was very conscious of frequencies–he had perfect pitch–and developed a perfectionist method of capturing frequencies on his records. He employed large orchestras, multiple instruments playing contrasting melodies, and harmonies stacked on top of each other. Often he would combine the sounds of two separate instruments, mix them down, and create an entirely new sound.

Immediately after Pet Sounds, Wilson was eager to incorporate his new techniques to something bigger. Smile came about as an idea to create a song cycle rather than just a collection of songs; the cycle would be connected by theme and lyrical content as well as the structure of the songs, sort of like a collage that forms a larger image, his image being the tradition of America. To assist in the writing of lyrics, Wilson entrusted friend Van Dyke Parks, who was no stranger to the concepts of song cycles and the American tradition; his album Song Cycle explores an American landscape with imagist and sometimes surrealist poetics set to song. Being the poet he was, he once said that “[his] lyrics present the listener with the challenge of deciding whether to take them literally, or at levels of deeper meaning.” This duality of language captures the tension between the past and future, the psychedelic exploration of the past in a new way, both literal and figuratively.

When it came down to the recording of Smile, Wilson said, “the door has been opened to a whole universe of experience to me.” In hindsight, Wilson’s view of time and its preservation is revealed by the actual recording process itself. Beach Boy Al Jardine said of Wilson’s approach that “we would tackle vocals on whatever track Brian wanted to work on and then move on to the next in no particular order.” To some, this method of recording might sound like chaos; perhaps that was the intended effect. But when a cycle of songs is presented together, time becomes immediate, the past also immediate, so in essence you are experiencing time not as a linear progression of moments but a symphony of moments, or as Wilson said, “a symphony to God.”

The Sounds

Smile begins with a ceremonious incantation, a conjuring of the past through sound. “Our Prayer” presents itself as a wordless wave of vocal harmonies, weaving and moving vertically, suggesting native chants of performative utterance, the creation of the material with ceremony. It’s as if the primordial language is evoked in order to give power to the sounds that follow. “Gee” follows immediately in the same vein, although its harmonies reflect American doo-wop, transforming a wordless language through time, making the first connection of the primitive past with the story of America.

A slow crescendo of a brass instrument explodes into a backbeat with “Heroes and Villains.” Immediately, the song presents a dichotomy of good and evil, a structured view of the world unchanged by the present. A high-pitched whistle shakes us out of our slumber and creates a playful contrast to the traditional world of the song. When Wilson sings, “My children were raised, you know they suddenly rise./They started slow long ago, head to toe; healthy, wealthy, and wise,” we are reminded of the cyclical nature of time, regeneration and the like beneath these big concepts like Heroes and Villains.

With “Do You Like Worms (Roll Plymouth Rock),” the beginnings of America are invoked. Again, a sort of primal chant is mixed in with a steady bass as the vocals state, “roll Plymouth Rock rollover.” It is the fusion of the American past with the ongoing ceremony that creates an immediacy; the instrumentation of an electric bass almost conjuring up history in its aural contrast. A refrain of “Heroes and Villains” tightens up the circle, further confirming that this series of songs is a living testament, a connected cycle.

“Barnyard” is an interlude song that evokes the pastoral, the sort of edenic side of American life. Real animal sounds lend credence to the message–a message that presents the raw, unaltered sounds of American life, which in turn make up the music of America. This sort of pastoral vision is again found in “Cabin Essence,” a song that captures the folk tradition of American music: “Lost and found, you still remain there./ You’ll find a meadow filled with grain there.” The “essence” here is the immaterial vision of a lost America, a place that exists in the Platonic realm. When the singer assures us that we “still remain there,” he makes the American past, the ideal American past, much a part of contemporary existence as anything else. In “Child Father of the Man,” Wilson utilizes the Wordsworthian concept to capture the cyclical nature of sound. Much like Wordsworth’s assertion that nature, human nature, regenerates as a singular movement, the voices in the song sing in the round, picking up the repeated phrase and harmonizing it in different ways.

The main psychedelic achievement of the album comes in the form of “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow).” As an instrumental, it takes on a primal essence, being both destructive and transformative, just like fire. If the psychedelic tends to rend apart tradition, this piece does so and more–with no constraints such as time signature or general key, existing as an uncontrolled force. Yet, this too represents the traditional, the singular element that makes civilization possible. While recording the track, Wilson once said that the music itself was haunted, furthering the notion of an elemental force. The track itself is a spinning carousel of bells and whistles, with disembodied voices shouting through the nether. As a whole, the sounds could be interpreted as those of industry, urban squalor, or the steel confines of the individual; but, at the core, it is fire that both creates and destroys, summons and erases, and the sounds of the track suggest both.

In terms of endings to albums, “Good Vibrations” stands among the most poignant and effective. It begins with Wilson singing over a Hammond organ, his voice ethereal and almost heavenly. As his voice crescendos (“I hear the sound/ Of a gentle word”), the entire message of the record bursts forth and vibrates with intensity. In that one singular vibration, the “word” rings true, and the essence of music is bared as if looking at an atom through a microscope. Within itself, the song is a sort of mini song cycle–its four distinct parts represent the evolution of Wilson’s songwriting. The concept of vibrations, the celebration of vibrations, explains the function of music; within aural vibrations, time folds in on itself, ideas are connected, and the listener experiences the true essence of existence.

The Legacy

For nearly 45 years, Smile remained unheard in its true form. Much of it had to do with monetary concerns–in essence, Capitol deemed it unmarketable and virtually unlistenable. With time and money running long, Wilson was forced to give up on ever seeing his song cycle reach his listeners. Even though some of the songs were released as singles and shoved within subsequent mediocre albums, they lost all of their original effect outside the cycle itself. Maybe the world wasn’t ready for such an undertaking; maybe it was better to leave the album buried through time, much like the concept itself. But in the end, the album redefined what recorded music was capable of. Much like Romantic and Modernist poetry, it explored the uncharted waters of the human condition. In the end, Smile is one long love song to America and music itself.

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