When Brian Wilson first announced plans to revisit the legendarily lost Beach Boys album Smile, it sounded like a terrible idea. Now 63, Wilson is no longer the giddy, spirited writer he was in his youthful prime. Classics like "Surfin' Safari" and "California Girls" still top lists of greatest Beach Boys hits, but Wilson's genius grew considerably once he moved beyond rock 'n' roll.
Beginning with 1966's Pet Sounds, Wilson tapped into new possibilities for symphonic grandeur in pop music. By that point, he'd left the Beach Boys' touring lineup to work exclusively in the studio, where he crafted vocal harmonies and orchestral suites that wowed Leonard Bernstein, who celebrated Wilson in a high-profile television special that wondered if, perhaps, pop music wasn't all garbage.
When Wilson started on Smile, handlers were touting him to a '60s counterculture less than thrilled to celebrate a guy associated with songs about hotrods and high school. The Beach Boys were far from hip. But as word spread about Smile's grand experiment, the legend grew. Tales of tripped-out hijinks—including a studio session played in fireman's hats and songs written in an in-house sandbox—primed the market for an album unlike any heard before.
Then it went unheard, partly because the rest of The Beach Boys hated it, and partly because Wilson simply couldn't finish. As the pressure to deliver grew, he had a debilitating nervous breakdown that still haunts him. The ghosts occasionally show up on the version of Smile that Wilson finished and released in 2004, but Wilson was very much the victor. After the recent release of a Smile DVD—anchored by the feature-length documentary Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson And The Story Of "Smile"—Wilson met with The A.V. Club to discuss the album, drugs, and Phil Spector.
The A.V. Club: Now that you've finished Smile and performed it several times, how do you feel about the whole process?
Brian Wilson: It is such a relief to have finished up the album. I think my band is far superior to The Beach Boys, so we are miles ahead of The Beach Boys, miles ahead, for this album.
AVC: In the film, there's a lot of talk about Smile being a form of therapy. Did you find it therapeutic?
BW: Yeah, in a sense. When we decided to do it in 2004, we went back to the time when we took a lot of drugs, so that was the bad memory, the drugs that I took. We took some street drugs that screwed up our heads, you know? But then when we were starting from scratch, we would listen to the tapes from 1967. Then we went and did it from scratch. And we created a third movement for it, which is all about "blue Hawaii" and paradise. So there's a three-part rock opera.
AVC: When you decided to go back and listen, did you think of it as revisiting that time in your life?
BW: No, no. We wanted to take it from that point on, from 2004. We didn't go back to the kind of thing we were into. We just kept going from 2004 until we had it completed.
AVC: How about for you personally? Were you able to think of it as a new project, or was it difficult to forget what had happened the first time?
BW: No, it wasn't difficult at all.
AVC: There's a lot of mythology about the role drugs played in the holdup of Smile. Were drugs a significant part of it?
BW: Well, the drugs got us into it, let's put it that way. The drugs got us into it, but we got into it so deeply, the drugs, that we had to stop them, because we were way, way ahead of our time for that album. That album was like 30, 40 years ahead of its time. We could have put it out, but again, it was very, very ahead of its time. And the drugs took us very deeply into it, so we had to pull out of the drugs, out of the project for 38 years, and then come back and think back 38 years later and put it all together.
AVC: Do you think the drugs helped in any way?
BW: Yes, they helped to spur it along and create an inspiration to continue. A little inspiration here, a little inspiration there. Inspiring-wise, it means a hell of a lot to me.
AVC: How does the music sound different to you now, versus when you started working on it?
BW: It sounds happier, more jovial. Jovial and happier.
AVC: Did you think of it as being dark at the time?
BW: No, no.
AVC: The documentary works a lot to place you in a line behind George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein.
BW: And Bach. Smile is inspired by Bach and Gershwin. [Sings melody.] That's Bach. We stole from Bach.
AVC: During the '60s, did you feel like The Beach Boys were part of the rock counterculture?
BW: Well, The Beach Boys have always been a part of the '60s spectrum, with The Beatles and that kind of thing. They were a part of the music business like everyone else. And they did quite well as a singing group, and I finished a lot of good records, and I'm very proud of them.
AVC: How would you describe the relationship that you had with The Beatles at the time?
BW: It was a friendly rivalry, as I call it. It was a mutual inspiration trip.
AVC: Did you guys talk about it at the time, or was it unspoken?
BW: It was an unspoken thing. In terms of 2004, they cried when they came back after the concert at the Royal Festival Hall. Paul McCartney came backstage crying. He cried his eyes out.
AVC: Do you feel like you outdid The Beatles in any way?
BW: Outdid? No! There's no outdoing The Beatles. You can do something that makes them say, "Hey, The Beach Boys must really like us, or they wouldn't have made that kind of music." So Paul McCartney is probably in love with me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Considering how clean-cut The Beach Boys originally were, was there tension between the group's past and what it later became?
BW: Well, we started out with surf songs, and then car songs, and then Pet Sounds, which was a little bit of a departure from the others. And then finally we got into, like, Carl And The Passions: So Tough. I don't know if you've ever heard of that album. We started making a little heavier music than we did before. We had our surf songs, which were rinky-dink. Our ballads, which were very beautiful. And we had our rock 'n' roll album.
AVC: Does Smile sound like a '60s album to you now?
BW: No. It sounds like a 2004 album.
AVC: What were you trying to do differently with Smile that you didn't do with Pet Sounds?
BW: I said, "I want something not so emotionally drained." After you hear Pet Sounds, you're emotionally drained. I wanted to have people leave on a kind of good, jovial high with Smile. I wanted Smile to make people a little happier and a little more up by the time the album was over, so they would walk away and say, "Hey, I like that album," instead of going, "Wow, what an emotional drain that was." That was my mood.
AVC: Do you think Smile is better than Pet Sounds?
BW: I like it better. I don't know if it's better, but I like it better, personally, than the others.
AVC: How come?
BW: Because it has happier and more jovial songs in it. And it moves fast—some of the pieces are only five seconds. Some of them are 30, 45 seconds, some are two minutes, three minutes, some are like 15 seconds, you know? It's like a very, very, very, very well-put-together sequence of music.
AVC: What gave you the idea to compose so many small bits of music?
BW: Well, we were taking drugs, you know? And the drugs inspired us to make music. We got too deep into it because of the drugs, that's all. That's how it was.
AVC: What kind of drugs are you talking about?
BW: Hashish, benzedrine, methamphetamine, LSD, and marijuana.
AVC: Smile is often described as a "spiritual" album. How do you describe the spirituality that you hear in it?
BW: Well, "Surf's Up" depicts a special mood. The words are very pictorial and poetic—you can see with the words. "Columnated ruins domino"… You can just see that, you know? "I'm broken but too tough to cry"… You can just hear that guy. The images, the poetic images, are very beautiful, and I think that's what gives it spirituality.
AVC: What was it like writing the songs with Van Dyke Parks?
BW: Working with Van Dyke was a bit of a test for me because of credibility, so I was tested. It was a great test for me to hang out with him, someone that good at music and at lyrics. It was quite a challenge.
AVC: How much of a role did you have in writing the lyrics?
AVC: Did you talk about what you wanted the songs to be about?
BW: No. He's the one who came up with the original ideas, and I just helped. I followed him.
AVC: Did he play a role in composing any of the music?
AVC: What was the reaction from the remaining Beach Boys after Smile came out last year?
BW: I don't know. I haven't spoken with them in so long, I have no idea what they think.
AVC: How long has it been?
BW: Seven years.
AVC: Do you want to talk to them?
BW: No. We parted ways. It's like when a guy gets a divorce from his wife. You part ways. That's what I did with The Beach Boys.
AVC: In the movie, you mention that you felt like the world was finally ready to hear Smile. What made you think that?
BW: Well, actually, it was my wife's idea to finish it. And I said, "I agree," and we did it.
AVC: It came out at a time when a lot of people talked about the need to remember elements from the '60s. Did that play a role in the decision?
BW: Well, I figured that television was moving fast enough to make you dizzy, you know? You almost get dizzy from how fast TV went, you know? So we were into making people dizzy, because I figured, "If TV is going to make me that dizzy and screw with my head, then we'll fight back with Smile and show people how fast we can move."
AVC: Does it sound like a weird album to you now?
BW: No, it sounds like a very happy album.
AVC: What are your plans now that Smile has been completed?
BW: Well, we just completed a Christmas album. We have eight traditional songs, two Brian Wilson originals, and two Beach Boys songs. We just finished it up last week. Can I add something to all of this? Phil Spector has inspired me to make a rock 'n' roll album this year. I'm inspired by his records. I'm determined to make a record as good as Phil Spector's.
AVC: You don't feel like you've already done that?
BW: No, I haven't.
AVC: What do you think has come closest?
BW: "California Girls."
AVC: Is that your favorite Beach Boys song?
BW: One of them.
AVC: How will you try to beat Phil Spector now if you haven't done it already?
BW: Well, I make better drums than he did. And I can make a better wall of sound than he can. I'm just babbling on here. Actually, he inspires me a lot to make a rock 'n' roll album, not to outdo or be as good as him, but to be influenced and inspired by him. That's something I still get off on.
AVC: Is he still the one you think about as the greatest that ever was?
AVC: Do you know him?
BW: No, actually ever since 1984, when I went to his house one time with my doctor, I haven't seen him or heard from him for about 22 years now.
AVC: What was that visit like for you?
BW: I was scared. I was really in awe of him, and very, very scared. I was going, "Oh man, I don't know if I can deal with this!" Then I said, "Yeah, you can, yeah you can." We were there for about a half hour.
AVC: What did you guys talk about?
BW: We talked about the possibility of him producing me on an album and we said, "Well, we don't know yet." We never got back to him on it, so it never happened.
AVC: What was he like?
BW: What is he, like 5'6"? He's a little guy. His house is very dimly lit and very scary and eerie. That's just Phil Spector. Phil Spector is an eerie person.
AVC: Was he still making music at that point?
BW: When I saw him in 1984, he told me that when John Lennon died, he never did anything in the studio anymore. He produced John Lennon, right? Remember "Instant Karma" and all those songs? "Across The Universe"?
AVC: How would you describe the way you hear music? There's so many parts in Beach Boys songs that come together to make totally different sounds.
BW: That's how Phil Spector did it. That's what I learned from Phil Spector. To make songs echo and stuff like that, to combine piano and guitar to make one sound. Combine horns and strings to make another sound, strings with voices to make a sound. There's all kind of possibilities in the studio.
AVC: Are those ideas you had in your head, or did you experiment in the studio?
BW: I spent many years experimenting in the studio, very many years.
AVC: Do you still play every day?
BW: Oh yeah, I play piano every day, at least twice a day.
AVC: What do you play when you're by yourself?
BW: I try to write songs.
AVC: How often do you write new ones?
BW: Once every two or three weeks, I'll have a little bit of a starting melody. I can't get a song finished lately, for some reason. I don't know what it is.
AVC: What's different about the days when you're able to finish a song?
BW: Well, I wake up in the morning and I say "Ahh! Today's the day for a song! I'm going to write a song today!" And I do. I write a song.