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Author Topic: My Ultimate Theory about Smile and the Beach Boys  (Read 9469 times)
Dunderhead
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« on: May 13, 2016, 04:34:51 PM »

Hello there fellow travelers. I haven't posted here in a while, but some of you might remember me as "Fishmonk,"

Truth be told I haven't listened to The Beach Boys much in the last 2 or 3 years, been busy with other things. And with blogging on other, more interesting parts of the internet. But recently I was induced to once again take up the topic of band, their successes, their failures etc. Now that I have a little more perspective on the band, and am perhaps able to be objective about them, I feel as if I have reached my Ultimate Fan Theory regarding why Smile didn't work.

Smile sucks. When you get right down to it, it's just not that enjoyable to listen to. The material has never been presented in anything more than a barely adequate way. I have listened to every fragment a million times, and truth be told, most of them aren't really listenable in any meaningful sense. Many of the experiments are utter failures, despite their nigh mythical status.

I feel that Brian's primary aim in creating Smile was to impress some of his friends. The only problem with that: Brian's friends considered him to be a bit of a fool, and listening to many of them today, it's clear they never respected him very much. I've emailed with Loren Schwartz, he's an asshole. And given Van Dyke Parks' later-day ingratitude towards Brian Wilson, it's hard not to catch a whiff of some long-festering resentment about his person. He was always a bit of a mooch, creatively. He associated with many talented musicians and songwriters, but never amounted to particularly much. As bad as Smile is, Song Cycle is much worse, and Van Dyke has struggled to eek out a legacy using it.

Van Dyke is an old Southern aristocrat at heart. One gets the impression that much of his artistic and public persona is stolen from Truman Capote. One often hears that he was a musical prodigy, and that he played violin for Einstein as a child. In his mind, he is the true creative, not Brian. He was the genius, not Brian. Brian wasn't smart enough to be a genius. And I think that's a sentiment that some of Brian's Smile-era friends shared, that Brian was a bit of dunce. It is almost embarrassing how hard Brian tried to impress these people.

Brian's friends during the Smile Sessions were some pretty insufferable people. Brian wasn't hanging out on the Strip, with Buffalo Springfield and Love. He surrounded himself with industry people and wannabes. They were pretentious. I mean, can you imagine wanting to be friends that badly with Curt Boettcher or somebody like that? If you ever listen to the discography of someone like Gary Usher, there's a really weird vibe of sanitized mysticism. It's incredibly lame stuff. There's a novelty factor that makes it enjoyable, sure. But is it 'cool'? No way.

Here's what I really think happened during the Smile era. Brian became enamored of a bunch of hipster-losers, and then he paid them all to be his friends. They all thought he wasn't truly capable of 'getting it,' in the way that they were, and came to deeply resent his influence upon their lives. Brian, with all his might, tried to tune in, or whatever. He tried to 'get it,' he wanted to be hip. But he's just too naive a person, and the whole scene that he wanted to be a part of so badly was simply too cynical in its constitution for him to ever enter very naturally into it.

Really what I'm saying is: these people Brian courted possessed no substantive beliefs other than an affected contempt for everything 'uncool'. Brian wanted to be cool, and they probably thought it was fun to perpetually label everything that he did 'uncool' in order to torment him. With Smile he wanted to make something that appealed to these people, this was his true and core audience. Smile was never made for the world at large, it was made for his immediate circle of dependents. Commercial success was only once factor that Brian thought might impress these people, because they leaned towards being industry types.

The problem came about because Brian really looked to them for help work shopping ideas, and they frankly weren't good at that, despite all being promoters and producers and wannabes.

Consider this: We take other people's words over Brian's. Why is there an Element Suite? I ask you. Because one of Brian's friends intimated that there was. These aren't Brian's ideas, they were often concocted out of discussions. Brian asked them "is this cool? what should I do? what's cool?" and they fed him a constant stream of lame brained ideas. At the end of the day, you can construct anything out of that. It's a fool's errand.
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« Reply #1 on: May 13, 2016, 04:41:11 PM »

Wow, can't wait to see the backlash to this post. Roll Eyes
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« Reply #2 on: May 13, 2016, 04:41:58 PM »

COMMENCE DRAMA IN 5...4...3...2...
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Dunderhead
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« Reply #3 on: May 13, 2016, 04:44:56 PM »

This is my genuine belief and final word on the topic.
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« Reply #4 on: May 13, 2016, 04:45:55 PM »

This is my genuine belief and final word on the topic.
And that's fine, I'm just not sure this thread will end well...
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« Reply #5 on: May 13, 2016, 04:50:06 PM »

Give me FRiends any day.
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Dunderhead
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« Reply #6 on: May 13, 2016, 04:51:09 PM »

Give me FRiends any day.

Right on brother. I'm with you.
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« Reply #7 on: May 13, 2016, 05:36:39 PM »

Have to admit, I find the Vosse Posse and people around the time of Smile who supposedly played big role in its history and influence extremely overrated. Yes, I read lengthy detailed posts from, I think, Mr. Mott and guitarfool, with buddhahat maybe thrown in but with due respect to their scholarship and various books and articles backing it, I disagree.
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« Reply #8 on: May 13, 2016, 06:33:42 PM »

Smile sucks. When you get right down to it, it's just not that enjoyable to listen to. The material has never been presented in anything more than a barely adequate way. I have listened to every fragment a million times, and truth be told, most of them aren't really listenable in any meaningful sense. Many of the experiments are utter failures, despite their nigh mythical status.

To each his own. I find no common ground with you in regards to your dislike of Smile, feeling it equals and even surpasses the mythical status afforded it over the years. Every once in a while a contrarian view resonates with me, but this isn't one of those times. I agree with Henry Rollins, who said that Smile is so "astonishingly good you might find yourself just staring at your speakers in unguarded wonder, as I have." I am sad for people that can't see the beauty and greatness in songs like Our Prayer, Heroes and Villains, Do You Like Worms, Cabin Essence, Wonderful, Child is Father of the Man, Surf's Up, Vegetables, Wind Chimes, Love to Say Dada, or Good Vibrations. I also don't believe for a second that Brian was a puppet of any sort, or kowtowing to the "in" crowd. I think Brian cared far more about the music than the motley crue.
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« Reply #9 on: May 13, 2016, 07:01:39 PM »

 I don't agree that "Smile sux." In fact, Smile reminds me of Aaron Copland and that kind of Americana art certainly does not Hoover anything. I also don't agree that none of it was Brian's idea. I think Brian got excited about doing something different, and went in a direction that, maybe, he wasn't quite sure of at the time. I think that direction took some detours in the creative process, but that's what creativity is like and I think it was basically Brian's direction.

I do agree that Brian surrounded himself with a bunch of pretentious "artiste" wannabes. And, that little group includes Daro and the ever (around here, anyway) idolized Van Dyke Parks. I also agree that Brian was trying to emulate, to some extent, these posers and really couldn't,  because hipsterism depends on a feigned cynicism and "irony," that Brian, a simple kid from Hawthorne, just couldn't call up. It just isn't in him. Even now, if you look at social media you can compare the veiled contempt so often tweeted out by Parks to Brian's often childlike responses in interviews. That guy would never fit in with the scoffing elitist hip set.

But, I think he did want to fit in. And, I do think Brian genuinely longed to create something more important in an artistic way. And, I do think the posers and hangers on fed him ideas and "critique."  But, it was ultimately up to Brian to sort through those ideas, reject the ones that didn't work, and pull together the ones that worked. Pet Sounds Brian was fully capable of doing that.  Maybe there was some pressure to impress the artsy set. And maybe that was one of the pressures that led to Smile's demise, along with record label pressure, band pressure, internal pressure, dad pressure, etc. The "goose that laid the golden egg" was being pulled in a lot of directions.

But, in the long run, no matter what other issues came into play, it all came down to one thing: no matter what Brian, or Parks, or Capitol or Murry, or the Beach Boys, or the posers wanted Smile to be, it wasn't going to happen.

 Why? Because Brian Wilson was breaking down and nothing anyone could do could stop that or change it.

« Last Edit: May 13, 2016, 07:08:04 PM by Cyncie » Logged
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« Reply #10 on: May 13, 2016, 08:16:48 PM »

The Smile music surpassed my expectations and hopes. I think it's brilliant.
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« Reply #11 on: May 13, 2016, 08:17:51 PM »

Yeah BW is a genius! Smile is nothing like anything before or since!
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« Reply #12 on: May 13, 2016, 09:23:02 PM »


But, in the long run, no matter what other issues came into play, it all came down to one thing: no matter what Brian, or Parks, or Capitol or Murry, or the Beach Boys, or the posers wanted Smile to be, it wasn't going to happen.

 Why? Because Brian Wilson was breaking down and nothing anyone could do could stop that or change it.



I humbly disagree. Never say never.  I'm not convinced the technical or emotional challenges to the project were absolutely insurmountable.

I've said it before and I've said it again. IMO... if his bandmates would have been able to have an exceptionally forward-thinking response to Brian's emotional problems affecting the SMiLE project's completion...and if they all (including Mike) banded together with the sole, selfless goal of unconditionally supporting Brian's vision, without (very human) things like jealousy, fatigue, and exasperation setting in... offering their help with the painstaking time-consuming gruntwork portions of editing and splicing tapes (thus relieving Brian of some of these duties), not ever getting in the way of Brian and VDP's work, and making absolute, Herculean efforts to be a complete and total support system to Brian (much like his modern day band seems to do)... if they would have done those things, I'm convinced there could have been a *shot* that the project could have been completed and released, and thus I think the aftereffect could have been that Brian's emotional state wouldn't have gone nearly as far off the deep end as it eventually did.

The way Darian was Brian's musical secretary? Let's say instead of haranguing VDP about lyrics, Mike read a book about removing sarcasm from his persona, and then offered his sincere help with the musical secretarial task, paired with Carl. Yes, they'd have been absent a laptop. But steps could still have been taken that I'm convinced could have made a difference.

If The BBs recognized just how VITALLY important it was for the increasingly fragile VDP/Brian relationship to stay intact (instead of contributing to jealous fits that helped drive a wedge beyond repair), and made unconditional efforts to do whatever they could to keep that VDP/Brian relationship smoothly running... let's just say these types of actions would certainly not have *hurt* Brian's emotional state. This wouldn't have cured Brian of all of his long-festering problems certainly, but I think the major breakdowns that happened the way they did wouldn't necessarily have happened in the form that they did, if at all necessarily. SMiLE not getting finished and released was no small part of that; a noose around Brian's neck.

And I'm not saying that Brian's mates didn't in fact show Brian a ton of support for the project - they did, despite lots of understandable, yet unfortunate concurrent negative vibes that surely were there polluting Brian's mindset. When trying to create music, artists absolutely THRIVE on the full support and lack of negative vibes around them. This is a fact. Brian needed that - so, so badly. He deserved better. I'm not trying to point fingers, only to say that his mates tried their best, the best way they knew how in 1966/67, the way many other young, rich, 20-something guys would have done in the same situation. But there could have been a better way...

Would my hypothetical best-case scenario have been an atypical manner for guys in a band to act? Yes, surely it would have been. Doesn't mean it was impossible. By all accounts, it should have been impossible for Brian to write as many incredibly gorgeous songs as he did in the compressed periods of time that he did in the 1960s, but Brian did the impossible. So could the guys have gone that incredible extra mile for Brian and the project, while tabling their understandable emotions.  Still, I'll be the first to admit that this would have been highly unlikely to have occurred considering some of the personalities that were in the band at the time, and the fact that nobody had a crystal ball. It would have been hard, but it's not like it would have been walking-on-water impossible.  But I refuse to believe that *NOTHING* could have been done to change it. Give me a time machine. I'll go and talk some sense into The Boys, and we'll see what happens.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2016, 10:42:25 PM by CenturyDeprived » Logged
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« Reply #13 on: May 13, 2016, 11:01:34 PM »

Namaste Dunderhead/Fishmonk,

I reckon the story of Smile is a multilayered cake, each horizontal sponge layer of which is just a wee part of the truth. Your take on it, above, I recognise, absolutely. But it's only one of those parts.

Yes, I can see a truth in the idea that at times Brian was trying to impress the hipsters drawn to him by the smell of money, free hash. But I also think he was so absorbed by the music pouring out of him that he wouldn't have let it be diluted by any such desire to impress them. I think he wanted to be part of that crowd - and let's face it, he was - but I don't think the music was ever secondary.

Because the music, even the wee snippets, is incredible.

I also agree with Century Deprived that Smile was not unsalvagable. I don't think it could have been saved by the band alone though; if Brian had been willing to work alongside Carl and Steve Desper around the time of the 20/20 album, I reckon we could have had a finished Smile of some incredible magnitude and magnificence - that's the point at which the necessary elements had aligned for it to work, all except Brian's own engagement. Want evidence? The version of Cabinessence, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Our Prayer, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Cool Cool Water, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Surf's Up, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper…

Just my own thoughts, and possibly another layer of that cake o' truth Smiley
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« Reply #14 on: May 14, 2016, 12:28:38 AM »

I enjoyed your perspective, Dunderhead, and it's good to see you back.

Nobody doubts that Brian was in awe of this hipster crowd and that some of the motivation behind Smile was an attempt to impress these people and their ilk. But if  you're suggesting that Brian trying to impress others might somehow diminish his talents, I'd argue that his greatest songwriting is built on exactly this i.e. trying to win Murry's recognition.

Plus one only has to have ears and a copy of Cabinessence to know that Brian and VDP were doing incredible things during this period.
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« Reply #15 on: May 14, 2016, 03:58:03 AM »

Everybody knows that Mike is the reason SMiLE never came out.

(I just wanted to be the first person to say this, because everyone knows that it's coming at some point).
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« Reply #16 on: May 14, 2016, 08:07:00 AM »

Everybody knows that Mike is the reason SMiLE never came out.

(I just wanted to be the first person to say this, because everyone knows that it's coming at some point).

Contributing factor. Not the reason.
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« Reply #17 on: May 14, 2016, 08:30:27 AM »

I don't doubt for a minute that Brian was out to impress when he made Smile. This is nothing new. He's always been out to impress and grab someone's attention with his music. Whether he wanted to impress his fellow Beach Boys, Murry, the Beatles, or even the hangers-on during Smile, Brian has always thrived on the reaction of others to his music. I don't think that necessarily dilutes the value of Smile as it exists in a state of myriad fragments since we have no idea what Smile would have been in 1967. I'm more inclined to pin the cancellation of Smile on Brian just being stressed beyond belief at the time, given the Capitol lawsuit, internal problems with the band, the formation of Brother Records, possibly the usage of drugs, and of course the daunting task of figuring out how all of the Smile music fit together. Brian's always had "new best friends" in his music making process, from Gary Usher to Joe Thomas. While Brian always seemed to move on from previous collaborators, the new best friends during the Smile period moved on from him. In all of his desire to be cutting edge, the people around him just disappearing one by one must have been a crushing blow.
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« Reply #18 on: May 14, 2016, 08:38:20 AM »

I believe that SMiLE fell apart because Brian was trying to go to the moon in a P51 Mustang.

All the other drama is fallout from that.
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« Reply #19 on: May 14, 2016, 08:56:56 AM »

I've always felt various pieces of SMiLE (all of them, really, but some more so) are freakin' brilliant, yet as a whole, cohesive work, it pales compared to Pet Sounds or other less ambitious albums like Friends. Looking at the original sessions, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts, and I believe that's because Brian painted himself into an artistic corner that he couldn't get out of - which is the main reason he chose to abandon it. Once BWPS was unveiled, it made a bit more sense as a whole, but only through the lens of knowing that Brian was looking back from the vantage point of his later years to the fractured, acid-influenced (yet still brilliant) ambition of his youth.
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« Reply #20 on: May 14, 2016, 09:04:39 AM »

The part of Dunderhead's theory that I agree with is, yes, Brian was out to impress his friends and others. But, I always considered that a positive, not a negative. In those days Brian was very competitive, whether it be in regard to Spector, The Beatles, to show his father, to hear his songs on the radio, or just to "perform" something at the dinner table with friends. But, again, that was a good thing.

In regard to the "posse", I think it was more of Brian influencing them and telling them what to do than the other way around, at least musically. I think David Anderle said it best, and I'm paraphrasing, "Be as creative as you can, nothing is too 'out there', as long as it's good". And, most of the SMiLE music is great.

Other than Van Dyke Parks' exit, I don't know if Brian's "friends" leaving had a lot to do with Brian scrapping SMiLE. They already made their contributions, and judging by history, friends of Brian didn't hang around that long anyway. We've heard several reasons now - from Brian directly - about why he didn't release SMiLE, but I never heard or read it was because of...people leaving. But, you never know.
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« Reply #21 on: May 14, 2016, 09:28:34 AM »

I think what Fishmonk/Dunderhead has written is in many ways the logical outcome of what he had written in a more abstract way during the years he frequented the board. Do I agree with it? Partially, but in a more measured way, more in the sense of what he'd written a few years back...the intimation that SMiLE was simultaneously a breakthrough and a dead end.

I personally prefer the Fishmonk who (rightly, IMO) rhapsodized about "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" as Brian's peak than the Dunderhead who represents much too concentrated a version of the cynical side of his personality, which, when applied to the events and time frames involving the SMiLE project, creates a scenario that is historically inaccurate.

By the fall of '66, Brian had worked through his various demons vis-a-vis "Good Vibrations" and had gotten the song into the pipeline despite the pressures and head-scratching from all the factions that had been coalescing. The massive success of "GV" which then followed was actually a major complicating factor for everyone, rather than a resolution, because Brian became convinced of something akin to a mystical dimension in modular composition, which rapidly led him down a rabbit hole.

The pure problem of SMiLE in early '67 had nothing to do with the hipsters, IMO. It had to do with the immense pressure to top "GV" which had raised the stakes to an elevation of Mt. Everest-type proportions. After the dust-up over the "Cabinessence" lyrics and what appears to be some analogous negativity regarding "Surf's Up" (remember that these songs were abandoned during the latter stages of SMiLE production in favor of "H&V," "Vegetables" and "Dada" and were conspicuous in their absence from Smiley Smile), Brian looked for a way to salvage the project by creating a single that could meet expectations after "GV." That led to the marathon dance that was "Heroes & Villains."

The irony, of course, is that the Beatles scored a staggering world triumph with Sergeant Pepper, an LP that did not have a song released from it as a single. Could that have been the case for SMiLE? The problem for Brian was that Pet Sounds had not proven to be a world-beater commercially, as its advances were resisted both internally and by the record company, causing it to lag in sales, whereas the Beatles' Revolver, an impressive but far less cohesive album, had no problem keeping the Beatles' commercial momentum intact.

No such luck for Brian, and with his two greatest achievements in the SMiLE era pushed aside by the various internecine intrigues, it is certainly true that the SMiLE era really did suck. Not the music, but rather the course of events, the whole miasma that took over the production and inexorably pushed into oblivion and a hasty, surreal echo of itself in Smiley Smile. That Smiley is still a haunting, often staggeringly beautiful record belies the idea that the music was the product of committee-by-hipster. It's just that Brian found a simpler way to reconstruct much of what he had been doing earlier, using that Baldwin organ, and for the next couple of years he would create new genres of "Beach Boys" music with it as the focal point.


I also agree with Century Deprived that Smile was not unsalvagable. I don't think it could have been saved by the band alone though; if Brian had been willing to work alongside Carl and Steve Desper around the time of the 20/20 album, I reckon we could have had a finished Smile of some incredible magnitude and magnificence - that's the point at which the necessary elements had aligned for it to work, all except Brian's own engagement. Want evidence? The version of Cabinessence, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Our Prayer, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Cool Cool Water, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper. The version of Surf's Up, started by Brian and completed by Carl and Desper…


Of course SMiLE was salvagable. But we can understand why Brian didn't want to do it at the time. Let's also distinguish a bit more by what "completed" means in the specific context of these songs. "Prayer" has more vocal parts added. "Cabinessence" has Carl's lead vocal and Dennis' countermelody in "Iron Horse." These are not major additions in the sense that new musical ideas are being applied. More is done to "Surf's Up"--many engineering effects added to smooth transition from Part 1 to Part 2, and the grafting of "Child" to the end--decisions that clearly go beyond Brian's originally authorial possession. "Cool Cool Water" is something else entirely--a track that captures a snippet from a SMiLE session the way people use to capture insects in amber, surrounded by various permutations of wonderfully-executed but not especially adventurous harmony passages. It really shouldn't be cited as an example here, as it's more akin to a track like "Can't Wait Too Long" except for the fact that they actually finished it/released it.

I think that once Brian had found a way to recreate the BBs while sitting at his Baldwin organ, any thought that may have been circulating that he would go back and reconstruct SMiLE was something he tossed away. It would be so much easier just to stay at home and have the boys do more of the work (which was what they wanted, anyway...) than to go out and expend all that energy--when, instead, he could be busy doin' nothing. Or, at least, a lot less.

Of course, that type of thinking often leads to depression, drug use, and more demons. The great news is that Brian (with a little help from his friends, many years later) was able to create a viable version of SMiLE that is satisfying and brilliant enough to minimize the fact that it's a work (as it as always was) with peaks and valleys. We should be happy to have it because of the great beaury it contains, despite it being a retrospective re-imagining, because it's something that allowed Brian to exorcise a lot of pain and regret by lifting the terrible weight of history that had been on his shoulders for so long.
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« Reply #22 on: May 14, 2016, 10:24:16 AM »

We should be happy to have [BWPS] because of the great beauty it contains, despite it being a retrospective re-imagining, because it's something that allowed Brian to exorcise a lot of pain and regret by lifting the terrible weight of history that had been on his shoulders for so long.

This.
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« Reply #23 on: May 14, 2016, 12:55:22 PM »


But, in the long run, no matter what other issues came into play, it all came down to one thing: no matter what Brian, or Parks, or Capitol or Murry, or the Beach Boys, or the posers wanted Smile to be, it wasn't going to happen.

 Why? Because Brian Wilson was breaking down and nothing anyone could do could stop that or change it.



I humbly disagree. Never say never.  I'm not convinced the technical or emotional challenges to the project were absolutely insurmountable.

I've said it before and I've said it again. IMO... if his bandmates would have been able to have an exceptionally forward-thinking response to Brian's emotional problems affecting the SMiLE project's completion...and if they all (including Mike) banded together with the sole, selfless goal of unconditionally supporting Brian's vision, without (very human) things like jealousy, fatigue, and exasperation setting in... offering their help with the painstaking time-consuming gruntwork portions of editing and splicing tapes (thus relieving Brian of some of these duties), not ever getting in the way of Brian and VDP's work, and making absolute, Herculean efforts to be a complete and total support system to Brian (much like his modern day band seems to do)... if they would have done those things, I'm convinced there could have been a *shot* that the project could have been completed and released, and thus I think the aftereffect could have been that Brian's emotional state wouldn't have gone nearly as far off the deep end as it eventually did.

Actually, i do agree with you on this. I meant, however, that in the existing context, Smile wasn't going to happen. Not because Brian was trying to impress the hipsters, but because he was ill. Had others been supportive, we would have seen another story.

« Last Edit: May 14, 2016, 12:58:09 PM by Cyncie » Logged
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« Reply #24 on: May 15, 2016, 02:43:59 AM »

I think Smile is left open for interpretation by its listeners. In attending the premier, I can say that as a piece of music in three movements, it is sequenced in a form that is dazzling. The second movement is brilliant. The other two movements are inspired  as well. It does not hit some Beach Boy listeners as finished. There is room for interpretation. I would examine every piece of Smile in its creative time. It definitely moved me in ways that no other Brian music can, including his other pieces that are long form. Long may it present itself as a piece for performance that now exists, regardless of its part  in music categories that become blurred in an experimental piece like Smile.
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