Showtime is airing a great documentary on the long-awaited Smile album Brian Wilson shelved in the late sixties and didn’t complete until 2004. The film, Beautiful Dreamer, reveals a lot about Brian, who has long been misunderstood.
The film explains why Brian was able to rejoin the Beach Boys triumphant 50th anniversary tour last year, reuniting with all the surviving early members of the band. Tragically, he’s lost two brothers along the way: Dennis and Carl. Their original group, “The Pendletons,” formed when they were California teenagers. They were held back for a few years by an overbearing, abusive father. Cousin Mike Love came up with the name, by the way, taken from the uniform worn by the surfer generation (thick wool shirts and white Levis). Even after they switched to the more commercial “Beach Boys,” they continued to wear their Pendleton shirts at early shows, in homage to that surfer style. Shortly after being signed by Capitol Records, the band fired Murry as manager and producer and that’s when they really took off.
None were surfers (except Dennis), but there was such an incredible scene around Newport Beach at the time. Dick Dale was the ruling rock God and he played a vital role in developing a harder, more vicious electric guitar sound. Initially, the Wilson brothers were a folk act styled on the Four Freshman, but after Carl and his friend David Marks bought electric guitars, they transformed quickly. Brian and Mike wrote most of the songs, and Brian played musical director and sculpted harmonies. The power of Dale’s Newport Beach scene undoubtedly helped inspire Brian to write his early surf anthems. There was an underlying spirituality to the surfer movement that would soon birth the hippie movement. Meanwhile, Dale took rock to a new level by emulating the hellbent surfer ethos, and Fender had to build new amps just to contain his sonic blasts. Yet as big as Dale was in Southern California, he never achieved anything close to a national following. And that left a huge door for the Beach Boys to drive through.
Brian became a stoner right away, smoking pot non-stop. But shortly after his first acid trip he manifested a groundbreaking masterpiece, “Good Vibrations.” Mike came up with the lyrics. Mike had a knack for tapping into the zeitgeist, like his earlier song, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which was also right on the money at the time. But “vibrations” was something more cosmic. The emerging hippie generation was refocusing energy on telepathic frequencies. “Good Vibrations” became an instant anthem to the psychedelic experience and drove the music scene for a few years as major groups emulated it’s style.
Brian was deep into what I call Improvisation Ritual Theater at the time and on a real quest to find God through the creative process. He’d constantly customize his environment and his collaborators with elaborate sets and costumes, all intended to provoke cosmic responses. He was surfing the Fun Vibe at first, but after “Good Vibrations” decided to start making music people could pray to. In fact, Brian wasn’t sure if Mike’s lyrics were up to his new zeitgeist and asked a verbally gifted young session player named Van Dyke Parks to collaborate with him. First thing Brian wanted to know, could Parks juice up “Good Vibrations,” make it better? To his credit Parks declined to touch the song, but he did immediately start a collaboration with Brian and “Heroes and Villains” popped out first. At this time, Brian was too busy working in the studio to go out on the road, so the band went on tour with brother Carl as musical director. As lead singer and co-writer of the songs, however, Mike was really the heart and soul of the touring band, and he knew it.
But then something really tragic happened. When the band returned from a tour, and Brian needed to lay down vocals for his follow-up masterpiece to “Good Vibrations,” Mike balked and didn’t want to cooperate. The split got so intense Brian shelved the project and promptly had a complete nervous breakdown. Brian didn’t really integrate himself back together until 2004, when he was able to release “Smile,” and get it recognized as the masterpiece it always was.
The repercussions of this continue to reverberate. Although the entire surviving band was able to merge again for a brief time last year, Mike recently announced his return to his old group, sans brother Brian and other two surviving early members of the original band. Brian, meanwhile, booked his own tour with Jeff Beck as opening act. Mike has evolved into one of the most hated figures in rock history, at least partially due to some incredibly dumb comments he made at his Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame induction concerning Mick Jagger.
Even though Brian pulled himself back together, the relationship with Mike never fully repaired. Mike had been hoping the two would re-unite as a song-writing team during the 50th anniversary tour, but Brian clearly retains a preference for the more poetic and obtuse Parks style of lyrics. Maybe someday the Wilson/Love team will write another cosmic anthem. We can only hope.