- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

Brian Wilson isn’t the only one who’s been haunted by the long shadow of “Smile,” the barrier-breaking song cycle he famously left unfinished in May 1967 as mental illness clamped a chokehold on him. The almost mythical collapse of “Smile” — only the truncated single “Heroes and Villains” was salvaged immediately from the wreckage — claimed a second victim, Van Dyke Parks, the hip young lyricist who’d been collaborating with Mr. Wilson on the ambitious album.

“I lived nearly 40 years with the infamy of an unfinished project,” Mr. Parks says now.

Mr. Parks went on to build a charmingly eclectic career as an in-demand musician, songwriter, record producer, arranger and composer of more than 20 film scores, from 1978’s “Goin’ South” to last year’s “The Company.”

But even after eight albums of his own, he lived with being best known for fanciful words he wrote at age 22 for Mr. Wilson that have never — until now — been heard as originally intended.

Imagine the Beatles shelving “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” within weeks of completion, and you have an idea of the Beach Boys after their tormented creative leader abandoned “Smile.”

The album’s release in summer 1967 was supposed to be the Beach Boys’ triumphant rejoinder to “Sgt. Pepper” in their friendly duel of musical one-upmanship with the Fab Four. The Beatles’ famous concept album was itself a musical riposte to the 24-year-old Wilson’s 1966 “Pet Sounds,” which had been spurred by his competitive need to trump the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.”

“I’m adjusting to it,” Mr. Parks, now 61, says over the phone from his Los Angeles home.

What he’s adjusting to is the reality that 37 years later, “Smile” arrives in stores Tuesday. Or rather, “Brian Wilson Presents ‘Smile,’ ” a new studio recording of the masterwork Mr. Wilson once envisioned as “a teenage symphony to God.”

Mr. Wilson, who turned 62 in June, is taking “Smile” out on a U.S. concert tour after a well-received London premiere in February and a series of other dates in Europe. The tour rolls into the Warner Theatre on Oct. 10.

“When I walked out for good,” Mr. Parks says of that day in mid-April 1967, “Brian was headed to a psychological collapse. You can condemn me for that, but there was nothing I could do.”

Much has been written and said about Mr. Wilson’s disintegration at the peak of his creative powers. Less familiar is the perspective of his Mississippi-born partner on those eight turbulent months.

Mr. Parks responded to what he calls Mr. Wilson’s “cartoon consciousness” with seriocomic lyrics for eight evolving songs evoking the violent westward push of the American experience, from Plymouth Rock to Waikiki.

Mr. Parks’ image- and pun-packed lines were met with suspicion by the other Beach Boys. Particularly scornful was Mr. Wilson’s cousin, lead singer and frequent lyricist Mike Love. (Mr. Love’s words adorn “Good Vibrations,” the huge hit that presaged Mr. Wilson’s ambitions for “Smile,” of which the song was and is a part.)

Mr. Parks cites many reasons for leaving the project, including meddlesome hangers-on and a legal battle between the Beach Boys and Capitol Records. But there also was the Boys’ hostility toward lyrics such as these, from “Surf’s Up”:

Columnated ruins domino

Canvas the town

And brush the backdrop

Are you sleeping?

His instinct was to “back off” from the situation, Mr. Parks explains. “I feel that it’s important not to be where one is not wanted.”

Mr. Wilson did not continue work on “Smile” for more than a few weeks without his collaborator.

Mr. Parks quit before the recording of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” the “fire” portion of a movement to be devoted to “the elements” (with earth, air and water also represented). The segment came to symbolize how “Smile” freaked Mr. Wilson when he put away the frenzied recreation of roaring flames in the belief that it had sparked nearby fires.

In the intervening years, reverence for the unreleased “Smile” has grown, fueled by bootleg copies of original tapes (and the issuing of “Cabin Essence,” “Wonderful,” “Surf’s Up” and other revamped songs out of context on later Beach Boys records). It’s been small consolation to Mr. Parks.

“I just felt somehow violated, as Brian certainly did,” he says.

Even after his seemingly miraculous return to physical health, mental stability and the stage in 1998-99, Mr. Wilson long rebuffed suggestions that he and his formidable 10-piece band tackle songs from “Smile.” It seemed a bridge between past and future destined to remain too far.

Since abandoning “Smile,” Mr. Wilson and Mr. Parks had reteamed twice of significance: on the Beach Boys’ 1972 single “Sail On Sailor” and, movingly, in 1995. That’s when Mr. Wilson emerged to sing on Mr. Parks’ marvelous album “Orange Crate Art,” an aural bookend to “Smile” on which the partners swapped roles.

Then, during a March 2001 tribute concert, Mr. Wilson surprised and delighted a Radio City Music Hall audience, including Mr. Parks, by charging authoritatively through his former partner’s densely packed lyrics for “Heroes and Villains.”

Fast forward to a day last November when Mr. Parks answered the phone and heard his old friend’s voice asking him to decipher a word he had scrawled back in 1966. (It turned out to be “Indian,” from a lost line in “Heroes and Villains.”)

“I got the impression that he wasn’t entirely sold on” resurrecting “Smile,” Mr. Parks says. “It was a daunting task for him. He has continuing psychological difficulties, as he’s pointed out. He has involuntary [auditory] hallucinations.”

But Mr. Wilson invited Mr. Parks to his Beverly Hills home to decide what was needed to complete their work. They listened to a sequence of songs from the original tapes stitched together first on computer and then CD by Wilson’s keyboardist and musical director, Darian Sahanaja, 41.

“I was totally intimidated by it, the idea of bringing this stuff out in the open again,” Mr. Parks says.

Then he heard the music, the exquisite vocals singing his words. It was, he says, almost “ecstasy” — like “10 tons” had been lifted off him.

“The piece turned out not to be brain-dead, not to be irrelevant, but very alive and with a great emotional content,” he says.

Mr. Parks felt particularly strongly about writing lyrics for “In Blue Hawaii” (until now a segment with wordless vocals known as “Love To Say Da Da”), inspired by the historic U.S. subjugation of those islands.

Unimpressed with a “tantric chant” by his old nemesis, Mr. Love, during “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” Mr. Parks proposed a second major addition.

“That’s where I decided to underscore Brian’s present-tense predicament, when he says: ‘Is it hot in here, or is it me?/It really is a mystery.’ I was very keen on having Brian surface for a moment in his misery … with a confession to having had some severe problems. And that immediately resonated with him.”

• •

A standing ovation greeted Mr. Parks as he and his wife, Sally, entered London Festival Hall on Feb. 20 for the critically acclaimed concert premiere of “Smile.”

“All of a sudden, I was enjoying some reflected glory,” he quips.

“I just wish Brian had not taken such a hammering for it in his youth,” adds Mr. Parks, who says the performance left him in tears. “I have never met anyone who brought more decency to his every action. So I have unresolved, sad issues to get through.

“But I want to take his lead on this and consider this a time for healing. I reached up to do the possible, and I got it done, and I’m content.”

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide