June 10, 2008

Something new worth reading

A new webzine, The Agit Reader, just recently made its debut.  Judging by the first few pieces posted and the contributors list, it's definitely worth the time of the people who stumble in this direction.  Looks like while it is sorta Columbus-based, it's got a fairly global focus and will be updated regularly -- so far I've dug reading the Mudhoney interview and Kevin E.'s take on the new Pollard record (I guess he provides a cogent pro to my mumbling con).  Anyway, I've added the link to the sidebar, so remember to check it out.
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May 29, 2006

California Love

So I just finished reading Domenic Priore's Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson's Lost Masterpiece.  Published in 2005, Priore's book traces the story of the Smile album, from the pre-1966 Beach Boys backstory, to the album's construction and eventual abandonment, and ending with Brian Wilson's "finishing" of the album in 2004.

A little background before I proceed:  I grew up hearing Beach Boys records (on the oldies radio stations, on my parents' record player, at school).  "The Beach Boys" were the first real rock band I ever saw in concert -- at King's Dominion in Virginia, when I was in third grade (for the record I hated it, and resented the fact that my parents dragged me there, if only for the fact that I was traumatized by forced exposure to "Kokomo" ad nauseum in second grade music class--to this day "Kokomo" tops my "Most Hated Songs" list).  After I appropriated my parents' record player when I was in high school, I finally sat down and really listened to the Endless Summer album, and since then I've been in awe of most of the band's work.  For the past ten years of so, Pet Sounds has been my favorite album of all time.  Despite their inconsistent output after the mid-70's, the Beach Boys are one of my top-three favorite bands.

I've read a majority of the books published on the Beach Boys, so I figured it was about time that I make my way through Priore's book.  To me, Smile is the ultimate "one that got away," more so than any girl or anything like that.  If Brian Wilson had been able to finish Smile in 1966/67, the history of rock music, and maybe even the U.S. (I know, call me crazy), would have been drastically different.  Had Smile lived up to its realistic potential (i.e., as much of an improvement over Pet Sounds as that album was over Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) ), the Beach Boys--not the Beatles--would be considered the greatest rock group of all time.  Think about it:  Rubber Soul and Revolver are great albums, but Pet Sounds is better.  Up until 1967, Brian Wilson was winning the musical "race."  If it were completed, Smile would easily have eclipsed anything in the Beatles post-1966 canon.  Sgt. Pepper's has good songs, obviously, but as a whole it's overrated.  If you don't believe me, listen to the original Brian Wilson-piano version of "Surf's Up" and you'll realize that it's better than anything on Sgt. Pepper's ("A Day in the Life" comes close).  The White Album is fantastic, but it suffers from the fact that it's more a collection of three and a half solo EP's, rather than a cohesive album, and it has too many songs like "Mother Nature's Son" and "I Will" to be taken seriously.  The Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine speak for themselves.  Let It Be is uneven and should have originally included "Don't Let Me Down."  Of all of the Beatles' post-1966 albums, Abbey Road, to me, is the best, but it just doesn't break the ground that Smile would have broken (think about how amazing "Good Vibrations" is, and then think about what an album of songs of "Good Vibrations"'s magnitude would sound like), and any album that ends with "Her Majesty" has to be taken with a grain of salt.

What all this boils down to is that Smile would have raised the bar to another level, taking Brian Wilson's reputation as the preeminent musical genius to new cosmic heights, and forcing every other rock band (especially the Beatles) to take their collective games up a notch.  Take a look at any detailed history of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and you'll see that Rubber Soul served as a catalyst for Brian Wilson's creation of Pet Sounds, and that Pet Sounds had a similar role in Paul McCartney's vision for Sgt. Pepper's.  This leads to what I found to be one of the more interesting revelations of Priore's book:  The Beatles "planted" their publicist, Derek Taylor (who at the time was also the Beach Boys' publicist) as a "scout."  Taylor secretly gave the Beatles access to the Smile tapes, thus allowing the Fab Four to "spy" on the competition and apparently apply what they learned from Brian Wilson's studio mastery to their subsequent Sgt. Pepper's sessions.  The "mind gangster" (Wilson's phrase) tactics of the Beatles further assisted in the deterioration of Brian's mental state.  As Wilson fell apart, the Beatles got to work, and when Sgt. Pepper's was released, Brian gave up.

Overall, Priore does a decent job of tracing the rise, fall, and subsequent salvaging of Smile.  Other highlights of the book include pretty extensive and insightful excerpts from interviews with Van Dyke Parks and a look into how Mike Love (and apparently Carl Wilson) stubbornly insisted that Brian not "fuck with the formula," resorting to all kinds of mental treachery that also contributed to Brian's falling apart.  Priore was around a lot of the key players in the years leading up to Smile's release in 2004, so he's able to give a bit of an "insider's" account of the whole process of getting Brian to go ahead with "finishing" the album.  The editing of the book is actually kind of sloppy, though, and the text suffers from Priore's clear resentment of Mike Love, et al. (for instance, he almost completely dismisses any of the band's work not springing from Brian, which is only partially justified, and I think he completely overlooks Brian's 1977 masterpiece, The Beach Boys Love You).

Priore's book is a solid read for hardcore Beach Boys/Brian Wilson fans.  If you're a more casual fan of the group (meaning, if you've never heard of Smile), you probably could find something better to read.  With that said, even with his lavish praise of the 2004 Smile, Priore was unable to convince me to go against my decision not to listen to the album.  I'm sure it's a good album and everything, but there's no way it can be as good as it could have been if it were completed in 1966/67.  It's hard to think of a good analogy, but it's like saying to someone, "Look, I know it's crushingly tragic that Bobby Kennedy was killed, but Ted Kennedy still could be president."  As a Brian Wilson/Beach Boy fan, I've learned to deal with the facts that Smile never came into being and that people think of "Kokomo" and "Surfing USA" (which is a good song) when I tell them I love the Beach Boys.  I still think about what could have been, but I don't feel the need to settle for something less, however worthy it may be.

I also recently bought a copy of the DVD featuring both the Beach Boys: An American Band and Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn't Made for These Times documentaries.  The best thing about the American Band film is the vintage video clips, but the staged narrative scenes (the one with Al Jardine on the football field, in particular) are kind of annoying and cheesy.  After reading Priore's book, I feel dirty touching anything Mike Love-approved, so that kinda is another strike against An American Band.  I Just Wasn't Made for These Times is a nice look at Brian up until the mid-90's.  The interviews with Audrey Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Marilyn Wilson are poignant.  Plus, you can't go wrong with anything featuring even just a few seconds of Thurston Moore (ask me how my opinion of The Gilmore Girls has changed in the past month or so).  Again, An American Band is best for hardcore Beach Boys fans, but I do think even the casual observer would get a good deal out of I Just Wasn't Made for These Times.

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