I’ve written another blog post for Rock Paper Photo, this time on the release of “the most famous unreleased album in rock and roll history” (according to Rolling Stone): The Beach Boys’ – actually Brian Wilson’s – much-ballyhooed SMiLE, which, indeed, never was finished but is presented in cobbled-together form as part of a dee-luxe box set from Capitol/EMI: The SMiLE Sessions. My post is entitled You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A SMiLE. The majority of the release consists of extensive session documentation, which feature lots of studio chatter, 24-year-old Brian giving directions to L.A. session men, outtakes, alternate mixes, and a version of “Good Vibrations” that is worth the price of admission.
It got me thinking about “lost albums,” “lost artists,” and more specifically, times when people have attempted to turn me on to something via a bootleg, usually saying: you gotta check this out!
Regarding SMiLE, sometime in the mid-90s, my dear friend Luis, whose taste ran from the Velvet Underground to Teddy Pendergrass to Steve Earle, engaged in awkward pregnant-with-hope sharing of SMiLE‘s “Heroes & Villains,” “Surf’s Up,” and “Vege-Tables.” He’d been repeatedly listening on a boombox to those and other songs now officially presented on The SMiLE Sessions. I was impressed by the originality but not lit on fire. His disappointment was palpable. I LOVED – and love – Pet Sounds, which balances Brian’s rapacious ambition with taut lyrics, producing songs you can live in, but none of the SMiLE stuff excited me. It just sounded mostly like a mess, a swirling vortex of blind, drug fueled nerdy desire, famously – and fabulously – lampooned in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
I’ve been on the opposite end of this dynamic with Bobbie Gentry, going so far as ordering her hard-to-find post-Ode To Billie Joe work and mailing it to friends, none of whom seem to get it. Ode To Billie Joe is a masterful single and album, but her magnum opus is Delta Sweete, a hard-to-find marvel of chamber pop opera that, maddeningly, no one seems to know about. Perhaps my fascination is tied up in her mystery, but if so, I cannot tweeze those things apart. Her mystery is this: Gentry retired from music in the early 80s, never to engage the public again. She literally dropped off the map, an act most compelling to me, as the world continues to evolve into a place where this seems almost impossible to do, especially for a celebrity. Word on the street is she either lives in a gated community somewhere down south or in L.A. No one seems sure.
By the way, you gotta check this out:
In the nineties I did make dubs of a half-demagnetized bootleg cassette of a “lost album” of songs that became much of Dylan’s “divorce album/return to form” Blood On The Tracks. For the “official” album (the one you hear in the supermarket), Dylan reworked the tunes, changing keys, tense, tunings, P.O.V., structure. Reasons for this are speculated, of course. Speculated ad nauseam. The original versions, which, to me, sound like the most emotionally raw stuff Dylan ever did, were eventually released as part of the Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. They are stripped down, and, for my money (although no money was spent) superior to the “official” version. I’ve forced those recordings on folks. Once in awhile, someone lights up and joins me in the sacred space.
Listening to The SMiLE Sessions now, some fifteen years since that day Luis attempted to enfold me in his ardor for Brian Wilson’s quixotic attempt to capture the ineffable, I finally get it a bit more. There is a saying “Our sorrows carve room for our joys.” While the last fifteen years have been among my best ever – fatherhood springs to mind – this time has also been contoured by quite a lot of sorrow in my life (including the loss of Luis). I’m wondering if that sorrow has, indeed, carved out a deeper, broader space inside me, allowing more of Brian’s crazy essence to seep in. I hear things now that I didn’t – or perhaps couldn’t – before. I hear a truly gifted man, a deeply dark man fighting demons with choirboy harmonies and lame jokes, emboldened by youth, drugs, money and the zeitgeist. I define some of the psychedelia as creepy, but that’s just me (and, likely, my childhood, when psychedelia scared the shit out of me.) While it is sad to know Brian suffered in the wake of SMiLE’s failure – indeed, his mental state never recovered –I appreciate more the miracle that the guy is still alive, a father of kids, a man functioning on this plane in a state of apparent happiness. That is a precious thing.
The misfires used to get on my nerves. But now I feel more forgiving of the aspects of SMiLE that do not work. Having faced a bit (a lot) of failure, I am not so afraid of it. Most of all, though, I have come to recognize bravery in its many forms, and as years pass, I appreciate it more and more; its currency goes up. If there’s one thing that jumps out of the speakers when you hear SMiLE, it’s audacity. To me, that is gold.
It’s still not as good as Pet Sounds, though.
By the way, ever hear the version of “God Only Knows” with Brian singing lead? You gotta check this out: