October 15, 2006

bboys Are we SMiLING yet? OK, we’re in the home stretch here and I’m ready to describe the final, essential pieces to my reconstituted SMiLE album. As mentioned in my previous installment, Side 2 of Brian Wilson‘s and Van Dyke Parks‘ SMiLE project, following on the heels of Side 1’s musical journey invoking America’s 19th century expansion westward to the Pacific, would focus on the here and now, recounting in both words and music the wonders and mysteries of the natural world. We’ve already covered the first three tracks on Side 2: “Good Vibrations”, a psychedelic celebration of the sixth sense attraction between a boy and a girl; “I’m In Great Shape” and “Vega-Tables”, whimsical salutes to the benefits of feeling good and eating healthy.

The remaining tracks on Side 2 are, in their own unique way, responsible by and large for the myth and mystique that ended up surrounding SMiLE: “The Elements”, because of the incredible music rumored to have been composed for it by Wilson, and the fact that no one to this day (including, perhaps, he himself) is really certain as to what this suite would have comprised and sounded like in its original incarnation, and “Surf’s Up”, for its near-universal recognition as an important piece of popular music, its beauty and lyrical imagery, and its hallowed place in the overall Beach Boys’ canon. In this final installment, I’ll detail my own version of “The Elements” suite, discuss “Surf’s Up”, and finish with one man’s unique perspective on why SMiLE was abandoned way back when in 1967.

4. The Elements: Without a doubt, one of SMiLE’s greatest mysteries is what Brian’s planned “The Elements” suite would have encompassed. Originally conceived as an ode to the basic elements of earth, fire, air, and water, from everything I’ve read, it seems probable that the afore-mentioned “Vega-Tables” was never meant to represent the “earth” section, nor “Wind Chimes” (below) the “air” section. (As to the latter, Brian has been quoted as saying he had a simple piano piece called “Air” in mind that appears to have never been recorded). Alternatively, we do know that “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” (below) was originally recorded for the “fire” section, and a piece called “I Love To Say Dada” (the last actual SMiLE-related recording worked on by Brian before the project was abandoned, also discussed below) the “water” section, but whether these tracks were ever considered complete, and, if so, where they might have been placed in relation to the other sections, remains one of SMiLE’s great unsolved mysteries.

Because it’s not clear what Brian’s final plans for “The Elements” were back in 1967, it remains the most challenging part of the equation for any true “SMiLEophile” attempting to try and reproduce it in any kind of “original” form. What follows is my own concept for “The Elements” and, while I’m deliberately using some 2004 “Brian” versions in place of the original 1967 “Beach Boys” recordings, I double-dog dare anyone to come up with a better-sounding alternative that gets “The Elements” any closer to the spirit of Brian’s original vision.

4a. On A Holiday (“Earth”): I’m kicking off my “Elements” suite with Brian and Van Dyke’s “On A Holiday” from Brian’s 2004 release. The instrumental track, replicated exactly from an original SMiLE-era piece called “Tones” (rumored to have been an “Elements” cut), has, in this 2004 re-creation, been augmented with new lyrics by Van Dyke telling a whimsical tale about pirates shipwrecked in Hawai’i:

Abash and forth a starboard course
With north abeam, sherry of course
The men will share some sport and now me hearty
Not the rum of Carib’ scum
It’s port tonight – drink up and come
Un-weigh the anchor Yank and we will party!

A shanty town, a shanty in Waikiki
And juxtapose a man with a mystery
A blue Hawaiian captures his melody
Pauahi O Kalani is what he sings to me

Given the song’s island locale, it seems to me a perfect choice for the “earth” section of my “Elements” suite, and the shouted/sung “rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over” chorus is not only jovial, it recalls the chorus of “Do You Like Worms?” on Side 1.

Suddenly the music stops, and Brian sings a wistful “long, long ago, long ago” backed by strings that slowly give way to an exotic blend of xylophone and marimba with sweet-whispered vocals repeating the phrase, “Whisperin’ winds send my wind chimes a tinklin…” over and over (the coda of “Wind Chimes” as it appeared in a radically-different form on the mid-’67 replacement album “Smiley Smile”). The music softens, then drops out entirely, leaving only a capella voices weaving a beautifully tranquil, mesmorizing, and sweet piece of ear candy that segues directly into…

4b. Wind Chimes (“Air”): …the version of “Wind Chimes” as it appears on Brian’s 2004 release. Here again, the backing track is an exact replica of the original version recorded for SMiLE (albeit at a slightly faster tempo), and while Brian’s voice is not quite as sweet-sounding as on the original recording (released on the “Good Vibrations” box), as the “air” section here, it still manages to convey the calming, dream-like effect produced by the objects of his affection:

Hanging down from my window
Those are my wind chimes
On the warm breeze the little bells
Tinkle like wind chimes
Though it’s hard I try not to look at my wind chimes
Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek

Close your eyes and lean back now listen to wind chimes
In the late afternoon you’re hung up on wind chimes
Though it’s hard I try not to look at my wind chimes

As on the original SMiLE-era recording, the spell is suddenly broken by a second section introducing a thumping tempo, big wordless vocals, and a brash horn section, but Brian’s 2004 version adds a new twist: whereas the original version tacked on (in an obvious edit) a long fade-out section featuring one, then several, tinkling pianos, this one extends the second section for an additional verse and adds a firmer ending, which to me seems not only more pleasing to the ear, but more importantly, necessary, given what’s coming up next:

4c. Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (“Fire”): For my “Elements” suite’s “fire” section, I’m using the version on Brian’s 2004 release (a Grammy winner for best instrumental). Virtually identical to the original SMiLE-era recording (which, at this time, can only be found in its entirety in bootleg form), the mix may be a little different – the drums definitely louder and the bass less pronounced, but the results are no less incredible and unbeliveably true to Brian’s original creation.

How to describe “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”? Experimental. Incendiary. Psychedelic. Quite simply, in my mind, the most innovative and incredible piece of music I’ve ever heard. Even after numerous listenings, it never fails to amaze and awe. First, a burst of percussion and numerous whistles and toots create an image of frenzied activity that bubbles in intensity from a rolling piano-bass hook that ends in a single, dying whistle wheezing over a playful calliope organ. Then the explosion: fierce, pounding drums, wailing strings, fuzz guitar and thumping bass, and strange harmonies combine and reverberate in a pulsating aural pastiche that conjures up a hellish firestorm of blazing heat, chaos, and destruction, resulting in one of the most amazing and strangest pieces of music to come out of the ’60s, if not ever.

The story goes that for the “fire” section, Brian wanted to create something that would not only sound like a raging inferno, but scare people as well. After the recording session, when a sudden rash of fires occurred around L.A. and actually burned down a building located near the studio, it freaked him out to the point where, even if SMiLE had been released, it’s not 100% certain that “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” would have been included. After all, Brian reasoned, if he wanted fire, you didn’t have to do a huge blaze, you could do something soft and warm, like a candle – right? Whatever. There’s really no other way to put it: if SMiLE had come out in 1967 with this incredible 2 1/2 minute piece of music, everything that would have followed – and that includes The Beatles’ celebrated “Sgt. Pepper” album – would have suffered in comparison.

4d. I Wanna Be Around/Workshop: On Brian’s 2004 release, “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” is followed by the water chant intro to “In Blue Hawaii”, implying a “water” section putting out the “fire” section’s blaze, or refreshing its firefighters. Logical enough, one might think, but to me this is one of the true head-scratchers about “Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE”. As Domenic Priore in his book “SMiLE – The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece” and other numerous sources (including Brian himself) have indicated, this was not to be the case as originally conceived for SMiLE. What was intended was something akin to the “I Wanna Be Around/Workshop” section that Brian and his “musical secretary” and backup band leader Darian Sahanaja tacked on (mistakenly, in my view) to the end of “I’m In Great Shape”.

Here, backed by a cooling, exotic blend of lazy bass and vibraphone, Brian starts crooning the old Johnny Mercer standard, “I Wanna Be Around”…

I wanna be around to pick up the pieces
When somebody breaks your heart
When somebody breaks your heart
In two…

…upon which a cacophany of power tools and the sounds of wood being hammered, drilled, and sawed backed by floating marimbas suddenly intrudes, bringing an abrupt and hilarious end to the gentle mood established after the fire.

These brief pieces, re-creating two separate SMiLE-era recordings (the former recorded, yet not found in any form I’m aware of; the latter [called “Woodshop”], a fragment of which can be heard at the close of “Do It Again”, a minor hit from the Beach Boys’ 1968 album “20/20”), were, as mentioned in my previous installment, easily cut from “I’m In Great Shape” on Brian’s 2004 release using my DART CD Recording Studio software for placement immediately following “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow”.

As Brian once described it, the reasoning behind having these pieces follow the “fire” section was to represent the rebuilding that takes place after a fire. (The “I Wanna Be Around” lyrics also suggest the desire to “fix” someone’s broken heart after the intense fire of a failed relationship.) Besides, moving the “water” section after “Workshop” has its own inherent logic – after all, the workers doing the hot, sweaty work of reconstruction after a fire would long for water’s refreshment, right? At any rate, properly restored in my “Elements” suite to their originally intended place, they not only reflect Brian’s original vision for SMiLE, but sonically they fit and sound better, too.

4e. In Blue Hawaii: The dying construction sounds of “Workshop” easily segue to the hushed organ and vocal chanting that introduces “In Blue Hawaii” from Brian’s 2004 release, sounding as if it were always meant to be heard that way. (Believe me, once you hear these songs in this revised order, your ears will agree!)

“In Blue Hawaii” both recreates and reinterprets the original SMiLE-era track “I Love To Say Dada” (also released on the “Good Vibrations” box), adding not only a sung prelude, but lyrics composed by Parks especially for the 2004 release. The prelude, sung over a series of “water chants” backed by grumbling cello, is Van Dyke’s salute to Brian’s perseverence as an artist amidst the psychological struggles he has endured over the years since SMiLE’s agonizing demise:

Is it hot as hell in here or is it me?
It really is a mystery
If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take my misery

I could really use a drop to drink
Somewhere in a placid pool and sink
Feel like I was really in the pink

Upon the word “pink”, the song brightens considerably – piano and bass, and echoed percussion percolating in the background break the tension, replacing it with feeling of release, relief, and joy. Here, the original backing track for “I Love To Say Dada” is replicated exactly, but, rather than solely relying on Brian’s original “wa wa ho wa” vocal, Van Dyke’s new lyrics convey a new, whimsical longing for faraway tropical places:

A lucid dream, but I don’t sleep
I’m slumbering
There’s still a promise we must keep
I’m wondering

Wa wa ho wa, Hawaii
Wa wa ho wa, Hawaii way beyond the sea
Wa wa ho wa, Hawaii
Wa wa ho wa, Hawaii

Oh I could use a drop to drink right now
In the waterfall, back there in Hawaii
Take me to a luau now
And lay before me holy, holy cow

Down in blue Hawaii
So far away from blue Hawaii
Aloha nui means goodbye

Rather than simply fading out as “Dada” originally would have, here a breezy symphonic interlude, one that comes awfully close to overkill by being almost too perfect-sounding to these ears, brings the song to a close. Fortunately, just before it’s allowed to sink into the abyss of elevator music, a lovely a capella reprise of a portion of “Prayer” (the album’s opening track) comes to the rescue. This not only brings “The Elements” to a close, the album has also been brought full circle as well: something Brian and Darian obviously took into account when they assembled the 2004 release.

Purists might argue that any SMiLE recreation worth its salt must feature the original “I Love To Say Dada” recording as the “water” section in any “Elements” suite. Fine. The reasons I’ve chosen to go with Brian’s 2004 version instead are three-fold: 1) as a SMiLE-themed recording and recreation, “In Blue Hawaii” stands quite nicely on its own, thank you; 2) just as Hawaii’s landscape served as the locale for the “The Elements” opening section (“On A Holiday”), its tranquil blue waters provide the inspiration for its close – good symmetry there; and 3) its reprise of “Prayer” sets up my final track, the magnificent “Surf’s Up”, the same way The Beatles used the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s” opening track to set the stage for “A Day In The Life”. In both cases, by saving the best tracks for last and setting them ever-so-slightly apart from the rest of the album, the songs are given space to breathe and the opportunity for maximum impact. Which is exactly what happens.

5. Surf’s Up: One of the most sublime pieces of pop music ever recorded, the majestic “Surf’s Up” closes out my SMiLE on a high note, indeed. One of the first songs written by Brian and Van Dyke for SMiLE (amazingly, it was completed in a single night), it serves as a perfect ending to this amazing experiment in pop music. “Surf’s Up” is no ordinary pop song. The music is both breezy and moody; lyrically it is undoubtedly Van Dyke’s finest, full of clever plays on words, double meanings, and surreal imagery that contrasts civilization’s shortcomings with the innocence of youth:

A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand some drummed along, oh
To a handsome man and baton
A blind class aristocracy
Back through the opera glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn
Columnated ruins domino

Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?

Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn
The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumperter swan
Columnated ruins domino

Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, brother john?

Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog
Two-step to lamp lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in auld lang syne

The glass was raised, the fired rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die

A choke of grief hard hardened i
Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry

Surf’s up!
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children’s song

(A child is the father of the man)

A children’s song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way

Like a number of tracks used for my reconstituted SMiLE, no one is absolutely certain how “Surf’s Up” would have sounded on SMiLE had it been released back in 1967. The version I’m using here is the one assembled by Carl Wilson, then-Beach Boys manager Jack Rieley, and Brian in 1971 for the “Surf’s Up” album. It was also released on the “Good Vibrations” compliation box ([Disc 3, track 28]), and that’s the version I’m using for my CD. “Surf’s Up” comprises three sections – the first recorded in late ’66 with Carl’s vocal added in 1971; the second from a solo performance of the song by Brian for a CBS News television special on popular music hosted by Leonard Bernstein, also in late ’66; the third from another SMiLE-era recording called “Child Is The Father To The Man” (a circular, melodious chant whose lyric borrows from Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”), with additional vocals and a new, Brian-conceived tag line.

The question begs: what is “Surf’s Up” about? As recounted by Priore in his book, Brian explained it all to writer Jules Siegel in 1967 for an article he was working on for the Saturday Evening Post, subsequently published in Cheetah magazine under the title, “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!”:

“[the song’s protagonist] is off in a vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he’s creating it like a dream. “Dove nested towers” – Europe, a long time ago. “The laughs come hard in ‘Auld Lang Syne'” – the poor people in the taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing. Then there’s the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea: “While at port, adieu or die” – ships in the harbor, battling it out, a kind of Roman Empire kind of thing.’

…The song doesn’t simply raise questions; it has the strength to search for and provide a possible answer. ‘”A choke of grief”,’ Wilson intoned, ‘at his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life, because he can’t even cry for the suffering of the world, for his own suffering. And then, hope: “Surf’s Up! Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave.” Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood. “I heard the word” …of God. And what is it? “A children’s song!” “The song is love, and the children know the way.”

What makes “Surf’s Up” so magnificent? From beginning to end, the song shimmers with a radiance of beauty that is at times joyous, mysterious, poignant, and celebratory. Like The Beatles’ epic “A Day In The Life”, one senses something solid, purposeful, and important at work here – some inherent quality that makes one sense from the outset that this is not just another Brian Wilson or Beach Boys song, it is an inspired creation that stands alone in its own time and space.

And that, folks, is my version of SMiLE.

Next – Some final thoughts.

Filed in: Uncategorized by The Great White Shank at 01:00 | Comments (0)
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