There are eight stages that you, the typical Beach Boys fan, go through on the way to becoming insufferable:
1. You think you know all you need to know about The Beach Boys because you've heard the songs about surfing and cars on oldies radio. Cute, you think, but about as relevant as Pat Boone.
2. You hear "Good Vibrations" for about the hundredth time, but it's the first time you really hear it. You're flabbergasted by its complexity.
3. You buy Pet Sounds, because it's on all those "Top 100 Rock Albums Of All Time" lists. You wish it rocked more, but you find yourself playing "Wouldn't It Be Nice" every morning on your way to work, and thinking about your high school girlfriend.
4. You pick up Endless Summer, and all those corny early hits don't sound as corny as they used to. You fall in love with "The Warmth Of The Sun," "Girl Don't Tell Me," "Don't Worry Baby" and "Let Him Run Wild," all of which suddenly strike you as being about enjoying the pleasures of adulthoodsex, primarilyand the regret that comes with it. You find yourself returning to Pet Sounds more and more, and beginning to like the easy listening instrumentals, like "Let's Get Away For Awhile." They make you feel like you're drinking rum at some tropical resort, even when you're sitting in your cubicle.
5. You start reading up on SMiLE, the great lost Beach Boys album that Brian Wilson was working on with Van Dyke Parks before Wilson broke down and scrapped the project. You learn that a lot of the songs from SMiLE were later retooled for subsequent Beach Boys records. You also start listening with greater admiration to Beach Boys-inspired bands, like Yo La Tengo and The High Llamas.
6. You buy up the first couple of post-Pet Sounds discs, like the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey two-fer and Friends/20-20. They're hit and miss, but the high points are as good as anything in the Beach Boys catalog: "Let The Wind Blow," "Busy Doing Nothing," and especially the SMiLE outtake "Heroes And Villains."
7. You buy a SMiLE bootleg on eBay, sequenced by a fan, based on the songs that made it onto later albums and the few surviving scraps of Wilson's work tapes. You're not sure it comes to much, but you convince yourself that all the abstraction would've coalesced into a masterpiece, had Wilson finished it. You also buy the Sunflower/Surf's Up two-fer, and find "This Whole World," "Feel Flows" and "'Til I Die" all essential. And "Surf's Up" of course, which was supposed to be the last song on SMiLE.
8. You pick up the rest of the '70s records, and tell everyone who'll listen that Carl & The Passions: So Tough and Holland are really underrated, with an earthy country-rock sound on songs like "Sail On, Sailor" that show how that whole California scene developed. You also start digging up records by the likes of Millennium and Sagittariuspsych-bubblegum acts masterminded by Wilson crony Curt Boettcher. You discover The Dependables, who were like Flying Burrito Brothers but with more of a Memphis R&B influence. You get excited about this long-lost Bobby Darin record you've heard about, from his hippie troubadour period, when he was like Lee Hazelwood meets Harry Nilsson meets Scott Walker meets Serge Gainsbourg.
And so on. In short: you start with good intentions, and soon you're loving music based on what might've been, rather than what is.
Perhaps the most surprising and delightful thing about Brian Wilson's reconstitution of SMiLEaside from the very fact of its existenceis the subtle way it differs from the bootleg versions, in which well-meaning Beach Boys devotees tried to imagine Wilson's vision for the record as something grander than it ended up being. Granted, Wilson himself in interviews hinted at SMiLE's ambition. But Pete Townshend did the same thing with The Who's abortive post-Tommy rock opera Lifehouse, which he later salvaged as the much less pretentious Who's Next, a true rock classic. Wilson may have planned on threading musical themes through a fragmented suite that instilled the history of American music with the sublime simplicity of nursery rhymes but the scaled-down SMiLE is charmingly incomplete, and human.
And it's not too far removed from Wilson's original intentions. He and co-writer Van Dyke Parks wanted to get through to the listener at a preconscious level, to keep you from thinking too much. SMiLE is a patchwork quilt, with fractured songs made up of interchangeable pieces. Even a phrase as weird as "the church of the American Indian" fits behind any of the big orchestral swells that crest frequently. The album is divided into three suites, the first of which ostensibly begins with "Heroes And Villains" and ends with "Cabin Essence," loosely describing the process of colonization. The second suite is short but stunning, beginning with "Wonderful" and ending with "Surf's Up," and taking its circular meaning and its mantra-like refrain from one of the middle tracks, "Child Is The Father Of The Man."
The album is really over after that. "Vega-Tables" is a lot of fun (with the great line, "I threw away the candy bar and I ate the wrapper"), and songs like "On A Holiday" and "In Blue Hawaii" are pleasant on their own terms, but by the time they come up, listeners may be getting whimsied out. It's nice to hear "Good Vibrations" come in at the end, sounding like a whole new song and acting like a benediction. But let's face it, "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" is a noisy mess that's hard to take, and the album doesn't really get anywhere important. It's a lovely, useless bauble, in a lot of ways. The best kind.
Of course, SMiLE's legacy is as important as the record itself. SMiLE begat The Cult Of The Lostrock fans who are certain that the albums their favorite artists didn't make are better than the ones they did. It's an impulse that comes from fans wanting to be a part of the show. If they fill in the gaps, or re-sequence the songs, or imagine a better mix, then they don't have to give in completely to an artists' vision. They'll tell you about Neil Young's Homegrown or Bruce Springsteen's The Ties That Bind or Prince's real sequel to 1999 or even Eddie & The Cruisers' A Season In Hell all unreleased, unfinished, and unrealized. Those people are right now combining Brian Wilson's finalized SMiLE with their old SMiLE bootlegs to make "the real SMiLE."
Which is all well and good, except that The Cult Of The Lost often becomes The Cult Of The Broken Or Shabby. Like a rockophile wing of auteurist movie buffs, these noble junk collectors ignore what they're supposed to like, and go looking for a pattern of kinks in the work of Top 40 acts, or start making heroes out of musicians who tried their damnedest to make the charts, but failed.
I understand this impulse, and sometimes I share it. When you get sick of hearing Fleetwood Mac on classic rock radio, it helps sometimes to hear an obscure band from the era that sounds like Fleetwood Mac, or even a popular band who put out a record that cashed in on the Fleetwood Mac craze. There's a novelty to those songs, and they can help you understand Fleetwood Mac a little better, which may help you better see the unbroken line of pop music. It may be unfair to the masters, and to yourself, to start deriving all your pleasure from music made by artists effecting minor triumphs over limited resourceslike a lack of talentbut hey, it's your money and your leisure time.
Besides, the alternative is to put your faith in old pop heroes who use everything at their disposal to crank out disappointing albums containing almost none of their old spark. Case in point: R.E.M.'s new Around The Sun, which sounds like one of those albums that bands talk about at the end of their episode of Behind The Music as "the best work they've ever done," because they've figured out how to use some odd tuning or time signature that they'd never been able to master before. Musicians sometimes look for different things in music than their listeners do.
So again, thank the Lord for Brian Wilson, who after almost 40 years decided to admit that nothing's perfect and put out his SMiLE, clunky final third and all. Musicians may never understand why fans love their outtakes more than their finished songs, and fans may never understand that musicians are fallible, but so long as creators ignore what jerks like me have to say and just do their thing, we'll at least have something to talk about. Because right now there's a casual Beach Boys fannot yet typicalwho's going to pick up SMiLE having heard nothing on it but "Good Vibrations." And that person gets to be freshly amazed by "Surf's Up," with its multiple gorgeous melodies and abstract drift. I envy that son of a bitch.