Goodbye Surfing, Hello God: Brian Wilson's Tortured Effort to Finish 'Smile'

In this excerpt from a 1967 story in 'Cheetah' magazine, Wilson tries to show the Beach Boys are just as hip as the Beatles

November 3, 2011 1:40 PM ET

Band leader Brian Wilson of the rock and roll band "The Beach Boys" poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, CA circa 1967
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In 1966, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys entered the studio to compose Smile, an album that he believed would transform not just the band, but the face of popular music. What happened next – captured by writer Jules Siegel, who had spent months in the Beach Boys' inner circle – would become legend. "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God," Siegel's account of the tortured efforts to complete Smile, ran in Cheetah magazine, helping to create the legacy of Wilson's madcap genius and the mystique around rock's greatest lost album. The following is adapted from Siegel's original 1967 story, recently resurrected by The Atavist as an ebook single for the Kindle and Nook, and as a multimedia production in The Atavist iPhone/iPad app.

"I'm writing a teenage symphony to God," Brian Wilson told dinner guests on an October evening. He then played for them the collection of black acetate trial records that lay piled on the floor of his red-imitation-velvet-wallpapered bedroom with its leopard-print bedspread. In the bathroom, above the washbasin, there was a plastic color picture of Jesus Christ with trick-effect eyes that appeared to open and close when you moved your head. Sophisticate newcomers pointed it out to each other and laughed slyly, almost hoping to find a Keane painting among decorations ranging from lava lamps to a department store rack of dozens of dolls, each still in its plastic bubble container, the whole display trembling like a space-age Christmas tree to the music flowing out into the living room.

In the kitchen, Marilyn Wilson was trying to get the meal organized and served, aided and hindered by the chattering suggestions of the guests' wives and girlfriends. When everyone was seated and waiting for the food, Brian tapped his knife idly on a white china plate.

"Listen to that," he said. "That's really great!" Everybody listened as Brian played the plate. "Come on, let's get something going here," he ordered. "Michael – do this. David – you do this." A plate-and-spoon musicale began to develop as each guest played a distinctly different technique, rhythm and melody under Brian's enthusiastic direction.

"That's absolutely unbelievable!" said Brian. "Isn't that unbelievable? That's so unbelievable I'm going to put it on the album. Michael, I want you to get a sound system up here tomorrow and I want everyone to be here tomorrow night. We're going to get this on tape." Brian Wilson's plate-and-spoon musicale never did reach the public, but only because he forgot about it. Other sounds equally strange have found their way onto his records. On Pet Sounds, for example, on some tracks there is an odd, soft, hollow percussion effect that most musicians assume is some kind of electronically transmuted drum sound – a conga drum played with a stick perhaps, or an Indian tom-tom. Actually, it's drummer Hal Blaine playing the bottom of a plastic jug that once contained Sparklettes spring water. And, of course, at the end of the record there is the strangely affecting track of a train roaring through a lonely railroad crossing as a bell clangs and Brian's dog, Banana, a beagle, and Louie, a dark brown Weimaraner, bark after it.

Earlier in the summer, Brian had hired Van Dyke Parks, a super-sophisticated young songwriter and composer, to collaborate with him on the lyrics for Smile. With Van Dyke working for him, he had a fighting chance against John Lennon, whose literary skill and Liverpudlian wit had been one of the most important factors in making the Beatles the darlings of the hip intelligentsia.

With that flank covered, Brian was ready to deal with some of the other problems of trying to become hip, the most important of which was how he was going to get in touch with some really hip people. In effect, the dinner party at the house was his first hip social event, and the star of the evening, so far as Brian was concerned, was Van Dyke Parks's manager, David Anderle, who showed up with a whole group of very hip people.

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