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

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Band leader Brian Wilson of the rock and roll band "The Beach Boys" poses for a portrait in Los Angeles, CA circa 1967 (Photo: 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.

Within six weeks, he was working for the Beach Boys; everything that Brian wanted seemed at last to be in reach. The house was full of underground press writers. Anderle's friend Michael Vosse was on the Brother Records payroll out scouting TV contacts and performing other odd jobs. Another of Anderle's friends was writing the story on Brian for The Saturday Evening Post and a film crew from CBS TV was up at the house for a documentary to be narrated by Leonard Bernstein. The Beach Boys were having meetings once or twice a week with teams of experts briefing them on corporate policy, drawing complicated chalk patterns as they described the millions of dollars everyone was going to earn out of all this.

As 1967 opened it seemed as though Brian and the Beach Boys were assured of a new world of success; yet something was going wrong. As the corporate activity reached a peak of intensity, Brian was becoming less and less productive and more and more erratic. Smile, which was to have been released for the Christmas season, remained unfinished. "Heroes and Villains," which was virtually complete, remained in the can, as Brian kept working out new little pieces and then scrapping them.

Van Dyke Parks had left and come back and would leave again, tired of being constantly dominated by Brian. Marilyn Wilson was having headaches and Dennis Wilson was leaving his wife. Session after session was canceled. One night a studio full of violinists waited while Brian tried to decide whether or not the vibrations were friendly or hostile. The answer was hostile and the session was canceled, at a cost of some $3,000. Everything seemed to be going wrong. Even the Post story fell through. 

Several months later, the last move in Brian's attempt to win the hip community was played out. On July 15th, the Beach Boys were scheduled to appear at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival, a kind of summit of rock music with the emphasis on love, flowers and youth. Although Brian was a member of the board of this nonprofit event, the Beach Boys canceled their commitment to perform. The official reason was that their negotiations with Capitol Records were at a crucial stage and they had to get "Heroes and Villains" out right away. The second official reason was that Carl, who had been arrested for refusing to report for induction into the Army (he was later cleared in court), was so upset that he wouldn't be able to sing.

Whatever the merit in these reasons, the real one may have been closer to something John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas and a Monterey board member suggested: "Brian was afraid that the hippies from San Francisco would think the Beach Boys were square and boo them."

But maybe Brian was right. "Those candy-striped shirts just wouldn't have made it at Monterey, man," said David Anderle.

Whatever the case, at the end of the summer, "Heroes and Villains" was released in sharply edited form and Smile was reported to be on its way. In the meantime, however, the Beatles had released Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and John Lennon was riding about London in a bright yellow Phantom VII Rolls-Royce painted with flowers on the sides and his zodiac symbol on the top. In Life magazine, Paul McCartney came out openly for LSD and in the Haight- Ashbury district of San Francisco George Harrison walked through the streets blessing the hippies. Ringo was still collecting material for a Beatles museum. However good Smile might turn out to be, it seemed somehow that once more the Beatles had outdistanced the Beach Boys.

From the eBook single 'Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!' by Jules Siegel Copyright © 2011 by The Atavist/Jules Siegel. The full account is available from The Atavist for the Kindle, the iPhone/iPad app, and other ebook readers via The Atavist website.

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