Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – “She’s Too Much for My Mirror” & “My Human Gets Me Blues” (Live – 1969)

January 31, 2009 at 11:18 pm (Captain Beefheart, Music)

The Captain, live in Belguim…

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The Lyres – “On Fyre” (1984)

January 31, 2009 at 9:10 pm (Fran Fried, Reviews & Articles)

Fran Fried’s March 16, 2005 review (from Amazon.com) of this 80s garage rock classic. Although, I have to admit, the (absolutely perfect)first side of their second album, 1986’s Lyres Lyres, is what got me into this band (so naturally, it’s the album I love most by them). I don’t agree with his assessment either, of that album’s version of “She Pays the Rent” (I love the slowed-down nature of it) but anyhow, it’s all a matter of personal taste…

 

The Ultimate Truth in Advertising

 

On Fyre may very well be one of the most appropriate names ever for a rock’n’roll album. The first full-length album by Boston’s Lyres wasn’t just incendiary — it was a deliberate act of arson.
It also provided one of those handful of musical moments (hearing Rocket to Russia for the first time, watching Costello’s first “SNL” appearance, the first time I heard Pet Sounds, etc.) that changed my life as a music fan — walking into Sounds records in Manhattan’s East Village on my 23rd birthday in 1984, hearing the first bashing strains of “Don’t Give It Up Now” for the first time, right into the mad vibrato throbbing of “Help You Ann” … and two songs later, the familiar “You Really Got Me” riff that opened “I’m Telling You Girl,” followed by a scream and a Vox organ riff from the depths. And my jaw dropped. And I just about ran out of the store with the album. It led to many Rolling Rock-powered nights over the next decade of seeing Jeff “Monoman” Conolly and his various Lyres lineups in New York, New Haven, New London, Naugatuck, Boston and Hoboken. And between On Fyre, my immersion into The Fleshtones, The Vipers and the Hoodoo Gurus shortly after, and of course the “Pebbles” comps, I was about 90 percent on my way to being a garagehead.
The original Ace of Hearts release was way too short, with just 10 songs. But they were the right songs, including two real Kinks kovers (a sweet “Love Me ‘Til the Sun Shines” and a slowed-down, wring-it-out “Tired of Waiting”) and the garage equivalent of “Splish Splash” — the squeaky-clean yet soulful grind of “Soapy.”
The aces 1998 Matador reissue includes 10 more doses of whipped cream w/cherry on top: “I Really Want You Right Now,” another throbber only released on the import New Rose version of the LP; five previously unreleased studio cuts (the best being longtime Lyres staples “Never Met a Girl Like You” and “Swing Shift”), and, best of all, the four songs (if you had the import version) from their 1985 12-inch single. Two of their best tunes came off this single: the wind-it-up-and-let-it-rip “Someone Who’ll Treat you Right Now” and especially the bashing, crashing, unrelentless, full-on sound of “She Pays the Rent” (much better than the ensuing dragged-out version that appeared on their next album, Lyres Lyres).
It’s amazing that, 21 years later, it’s held up so well (better than many of the fans from back then who swear by it). It’s the type of album that if a contemporary radio station just plucked it out of nowhere and decided to play it (dream on), it would get dozens of calls wondering “What the hell was THAT?!?” and “Where can I get it?” The garage tribe, just like the rock’n’roll world in general, is full of hot stove league arguments over how good this record or that record truly is. Among garage fiends, there’s no argument about On Fyre. It was one of the best albums, period, and even more so with all the goodies added for the Matador re-release.

Fran Fried

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Gary Snyder – “For Lew Welch in a Snowfall”

January 31, 2009 at 9:27 am (Gary Snyder, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

 

Snowfall in March:

I sit in the white glow reading a thesis

About you. Your poems, your life

 

The author’s my student,

He even quotes me

 

Forty years since we joked in a kitchen in Portland

Twenty since you disappeared

 

All those year and their moments—

Crackling bacon, slamming car doors,

Poems tried out on friends,

Will be one more archive,

One more shaky test

 

But life continues in the kitchen

Where we still laugh and cook,

Watching snow.

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Michael Baker – “The Glory and Grandeur That Is Defeat: The Music of Alex Chilton” (2004)

January 31, 2009 at 1:00 am (Reviews & Articles)

This long fascinating article about Alex Chilton comes from the webzine Perfect Sound Forever (July 2004). Alex has definitely been one of the unsung heroes of rock and power pop over the past 40 years… 

 

I. Entrance: On the Slopes of Parnassus

 

Hold up your head, and don’t let your conscience get you down
Hold up your head darlin’, don’t let your conscience get you down
If you never lie to me, I’ll always be around

– ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’, Sonny Boy Williamson

 

There have been so many mistakes spawned on the banks of the swollen and slow-moving Mississippi near Memphis that any partial litany brings sorrow, if not nausea: slobbering, drugged Elvis, in a white jump, leering at our blue-haired grannies; Cybil Shepard’s acting career; Jeff Buckley’s leap; Reverend Al Green withering under the weight of smothering, boiling grits. Perhaps the gravest veering from normalcy is the artistic arc of Memphisian singer-songwriter, Alex Chilton, vocalist of the groovy Box Tops, co-founder and leader of the legendary, incandescent Big Star, famed eccentric producer and sideman, and memorable author of thirty years of solo projects that more often than not defy definition, taste, or rationality. His contrary nature, lack of public acclaim, partial solutions to uncertain and ambiguous pop song compositional conundrums, and occurrences of greatness, even genius, make Chilton the most compelling American singer/songwriter of the last thirty-five years. Watching and listening to Alex Chilton traverse, often shakily, the complicated labyrinth of Western pop music is watching ourselves grow uneasily into our own adult skins, beer bellies, STD’s, and blackened hearts and all. Stumbling upon Chilton’s music for the first time, especially the three Big Star albums, is like watching, heart fluttering, a perfectly awful army advance across a field of May chrysanthemums carrying banners proclaiming the British Invasion, youthful liberty, and the soon-to-be doomed.

 

Born in Memphis on December 28th, 1950, Chilton, like every musician born in that uglybeautiful town during the post-war years, was given the Stax/Sun/Hi imprint, as if Jackie Wilson, Jerry Lee, and Bill Black were his original whooping crane mothers. His music is as complex and multifariously linked to the past, moreover, as if the body of water more resembled the Thames or the Mersey or the Pacific, than simply the brown god Mississippi. His music, what is more, seeks conflation of shorelines, not imitation, nor a single swatch of a musical landscape. Most of these influences, targets of adulation, and steady rhythms were, to be sure, gleaned from British Pop in its heyday between 1965 and 1969, with lilting flourishes from America’s West Coast. Chilton has never been a Memphis musician per se, although the majority of his work has been produced there. And even as he ages, he does embrace more readily and enthusiastically Southern Soul, usually downriver to New Orleans. He often has erased his Memphis origins, all the while living or recording there, after his work with his first group, The Box Tops, like he was a Gatsby.

 

In fact, similar to that mystery man who pleaded innocence and virginal genesis, Chilton’s narrative is murky and muddled. We know the following: he was in the Box Tops for four albums from 1967-1970; he was co-founder, with the tragic Chris Bell (dead at twenty-eight) of Big Star, then leader for the last two of the three albums, all recorded between 1971 and 1975; he was associated as a performer with such odd, if minor, greats like Tav Falco, Alan Vega, and Paul Haines; he has produced brilliantly even odder fringes of rock’s hierarchy: the Cramps, Gories, and Royal Pendletons; he has, and will apparently continue to do so, release loose, baggy monsters of solo recordings, a dozen or so. There has been regretfully little commercial success; his work, moreover, must be viewed in totality, even if it is an impossible task to connect all the career dots. He is a chameleon, a sponge, a recluse, a belligerent, a revolutionary, a crazy artist suffering from Bladerunnerian accelerated decrepitude: by the age of twenty-five he could sing, without contempt or shallow irony: “Please don’t say a word/Get me out of here/Get me out of here/I hate it here/Get me out of here.” If there were no enemies, Alex Chilton would feel compelled to invent them.1 And here I am, idiot writer, wanting, needing to be his true friend.


 

II. Box Tops: White Men Can Jump (and Shout)

 

It is wrong to think the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
– Neils Bohr

 

Because the Mississippi River at Memphis is philosophically, if not topographically, the mid-point in America’s eastern half it has a gallimaufry of influences bearing upon it. Deep soul music of the backwoods and of the juke joints; gospel music of the Southern Baptists, both black and white; mountain music, with its frenetic picking, lonesome wailings, and rhythmic tightness; crazy jug music that would make a logical man break down in his lover’s shitty living room; Delta blues, just down the road apiece – America’s outstanding contribution to world culture, along with college basketball, gangster films, and Twentieth Century American poetry; urban blues, nearby at the nearest Memphis intersection; New Orleans jazz moving towards Chicago, and Chicago soul moving down towards that evil and pugnacious town. From these hybrid sources and influences, or because of the river’s amoral and free flowing and non-judgmental thereness, remarkable music was happening in Memphis, Tennessee in the late 60’s, much of it at three studios. Hi Records boasted the remarkable talents of this terrific trio of singers: Al Green, Ann Peebles, and O.V. Wright. Sun Studios – yeah, that studio – claimed Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl, Johnny, Merle, Conway, Patsy, and Roy. No last names, please. Over at Stax, and nearer Chilton’s heart, was a studio that changed America’s listening ways as much as any other label: Isaac Hayes, Sam and Dave, Booker T. and the MG’s, the Staples, Johnny Taylor, William Bell, and Otis, the greatest of them all. I hear the church and country blues in these recordings; and likewise in the greatest of Chilton’s songs I hear these field hollers, with even more electrified nastiness; in all this music, from W.C. Handy to Chilton’s latest gig, there are moans of ecstasy, cries for help, grown men and women swearing off sinning, the bottle, the opposite sex, only to go out on Saturday night, chasin’ the devil down. But most of all, I hear America singing and swinging: secular, sacred, profane, proper – this is a world celebrating the past and present, hoping for better days, coming from a town, not to mention its citizens, searching for second and third chances.

 

When listening to blue-eyed soul of the sixties, especially from the latter half, you are faced with formidable, life-altering contrasts on the black side of the street: James Brown, Aretha, Otis, Wilson, Smokey, or David Ruffin, just to name a half dozen obvious stalwarts, objects of understandably fierce and religious devotion by their younger, paler counterparts. One Laura Lee morality play, or one warning about layin’ off his woman from James Carr, or one litany of sexual conquests by Clarence Carter, bone-chillingly deep as they were and are, would be enough to tell this whitey, me, to pick up an instrument, or to go home, or certainly to step off the mike. And so often the best white soul singer in town is like the best Hungarian cook in Paris, or the best looking chick in Canton, Ohio – who gives a flyin’ Philadelphia? But 16-year old Chilton, front man for the (mostly) studio band, the Box Tops, was one of the select few who could belt, plead, cry, and make our knees weak, our pelvises grind. His voice was rock steady: lower than his natural tones, it held to a center of gravity that caused double takes at dances: That kid just wailed about two-timing broads? The Box Tops’ music, often ordinary, often engineered as if fresh air or oxygen would destroy the mix, reached heights of empathy and sorrow simultaneously, at times, thanks to Chilton’s confidence, performance, and invocation of a world in need of two more cocktails, please, Mr. Barkeep. Other sterling blue-eyed devils from that era included The Action’s Reg King, Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield, Spencer Davis’s Stevie Winwood, the Rascals’ Felix Cavaliere, and Scott Morgan – Yeah, baby! – from Michigan’s the Rationals. But I think Chilton was the most honest, the most singular, and the least slavish. At sixteen, Alex Chilton had the musical world’s throat wrapped tightly in his slim and vulgar white fingers.

 

Two of the songs will live forever on Classic Radio: 1967’s ‘The Letter’ and the next year’s ‘Cry Like a Baby’; produced by and overseered by soon-to-be-legends, songwriters Chips Moman and Dan Penn, who had spirited Chilton from the Memphis band, the Devilles. In little longer than two years, and with Chilton increasingly chaffing under these dual Svengalis – the writers picked and wrote the music, designed the charts, ran the studio, instructed the musicians-for-hire – the band managed to also release odd mixes of trippy Southern good time music: ‘Neon Rainbow,’ ‘Happy Times,’ and the amazing ‘Soul Deep.’ Chilton’s voice is strong, low, and purposeful, a teenager feeling, then feeding upon his oats, securing his chops more assuredly with each passing 2:34 composition, a wunderkind cantor aware of sorrow and eternal torture, a veteran participant of the “Sweet Cream Ladies Forward March.” Often his raw vocals are simultaneously sandpapery and honied; always there’s pathos, pain, and always, for the listener, there’s fascination. The material cooks, even if the recording levels bury the rhythm section, or the session cats are simply clocking in. But oddities abound: covers of ‘Wang Dang Doodle,’ ‘Flying Saucers Rock n Roll,’ Eddie Floyd’s monster ‘Bird Bird,’ and the Gentry’s ‘Keep on Dancing.’ Even though reports vary as to whether there was even a band not in name only, the latter song was covered because the Box Tops purported guitarist, Gary Talley, came from there. But the magic, asides from hits or misses on the four albums, centers around Chilton: not blue-eyed nor giddy, as befitting of those heady days of Aquarius, he and his voice sound illegal, intoxicated, away from the music, talking to itself and singing for itself, with frayed and failing emotions. His singing here, gruff, world weary, would emerge dominant in his later work, when there was no pretense of disappointment or failed expectations.

 

These moments of discord were to blossom brightly for the rest of his career. Chilton, a reformed drinker and drug taker, was in the ’70’s and beyond often described as dipsomaniacal and semi-deranged; we know with whatever certainty that he has always been unhealthily victimized by Don Juanism, astrological “philosophizing,” and feisty standoffishness. Infantile behavior, in adults, is marked by lack of stability, by peacock preening, by temper tantrums. We have to play their way, or they take the recording studio back home, sulking and stewing with liquor and paranoia. Infants do not like to take orders (Box Tops), share credit (Big Star), or follow orders (solo recordings); they are arrogant and willful, performing ‘Volare,’ or deliberately mistuning guitars. They hold grudges. For centuries. Children live for the moment; they cannot sustain relationships or plans; dialogue is out of the question, as is reflection; spontaneous and active, child-like adults who live in the ahistorical moment do not appreciate advice, sage or otherwise; they do not tolerate rules, nor suffer fools; their sandbox is permanently demarcated territorially. But in this case the children’s garden has been the fertile source for Chilton’s unyielding faith in his voice and his message. For a musician who has taken heat for years for following others, or for influencing so many, Chilton is rather so iconoclastic, both in songwriting and guitar playing, that he more properly should be defined as captain of his own ships, waving – goodbye or hello – during their sinking, as admirals invariably do, or must.

 

In the early years of the 1970’s the pop music world was unsteady. Not quite yet discofied, or incorporated fully by AOR MOR, or almost single-handedly destroyed by either Frey or Frampton, the scene could, moreover, take no solace from the front pages. Protest was inert; experiments were flushed down toilets. In a short span, Kent State, Watergate, the failure of King’s vision, and my wife’s entering into kindergarten all spelled some sort of tragedy for truth and expression and personal liberty. Even sadder, the Partridge Family replaced the Manson Family in our fragmented minds. On the radio it was much worse: what was certifiable was that the heyday of the now dilapidated, almost anachronistic, dinosaurs of classic rock from the halcyon days of experimentation and vigor and pants stuffed with erections was over, shards of skeletal remains flung upon the seedy shores of commercialism, littered with artists guilty of lack of foresight, minute-by-minute greed, and drug-taking excesses. The prodigious power of these life-altering behemoths was fading, from death, desertion into timidity or monasteries, break-ups or breakdowns, and apathy. The bands – anyone out there remember the Stones, the Kinks, Dylan, the Beatles, Zeppelin, the Velvets, Beefheart, the Temptations, the Who, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Move, or the Band? – were no longer that what taught people how to walk and talk and fuck. Thank Jesus – the older one, not Mel Gibson’s – there were solo artists with wondrous, idiosyncratic, soulful voices to be sure, most of them in the midst of their waxing and storied careers: Van Morrison, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Richard Thompson, Curtis Mayfield, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, Gene Clark, and Gram Parsons. Chilton belongs here, of course, near or at the top, and they all wrote and performed intense arty pop songs of adamantine beauty, retro sheen, with exploratory vignettes of intrepid selves diving into wrecks. These singer/songwriters, and their brilliant, brittle arrangements and playing, often carried back to a pre-Sgt Peppers of emotional honesty and stripped-down instrumentation. The songs were slashing, oblique, buoyant, and indefatigable. Big Star was all this, but also a working band, and the only other band of the new order to match them in originality, chops, songwriting, and rule breaking was the German experimentalists, Can, or maybe Pere Ubu – bands, if you can imagine, who sold even fewer records than Big Star here in America. All three bands, although with admittedly different artistic intentions and musical histories, changed the insides of their songs, tearing out banal clichés of cemented structures and replacing them with bent psychedelic twistings, minimalist bass lines, mesmerizing and stunning drumming, creating new ambiances of narcotic power rock and roll. Big Star was the best band, however, to emerge from the Stone Age. They are my Bo Diddly, my Ezra Pound, my soul’s salvation. As Schoenberg wrote to Mahler after hearing the latter’s Third: “I saw your very soul naked, stark naked….I suffered the pangs of disillusionment; I saw a man in torment struggling towards inward harmony… Forgive me, I cannot feel in halves.”


 

III. Big Star: Feeling in Wholes

 

The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered. We wish them in future to sing and re-echo upon our canvas in deafening and triumphant flourishes. Your eyes, accustomed to semidarkness, will soon open to more radiant visions of light. The shadows which we shall paint shall be more luminous than the highlights of our predecessors…

        F.T. Martinetti, “Futurist Painting: Technical Manifesto”

 

After walking out on the Box Tops and after hanging out in New York, cutting an album’s worth of discombobulated, spastic jams, later to re-surface as 1970, Chilton returned to Memphis, to home, to our real story, and to everlasting greatness. Before joining a trio called once Rock City, then Ice Water, he had been experimenting up North with folk song structures, but more significantly, possibly, was his closeness to soul mate and fellow prankster, and future esteemed engineer, Terry Manning, whose involvement with the demos helped to persuade the Beach Boys to possibly release them, because of Chilton’s respect for Brian Wilson. Luckily for our novella here they passed. By the time Manning and Chilton got home to Memphis, Manning had two significant mixing/engineer gigs at Ardent Studio: the Bar-Kays, a sound certainly found on the Big Star’s up-tempo rockers, and the knockout Led Zeppelin III, with its pastoral poignancy and supersonic snare drumming sound. Particular interest are both the ballad, ‘That’s the Way,’ which without the mandolin would have fit nicely into Big Star’s aims, and the power psychedelic of some of the cuts, echoing T. Rex, another huge influence upon Chilton. His joining of Ice Water – renamed Big Star after a neighborhood supermarket – teamed him with three extraordinary musicians, all of who were old friends, all of who in their early twenties could bang their axes with ecstatic and communicable faith, all of who loved British rock, Memphis soul, and good times. Put together, fellow songwriter and sad-eyed Chris Bell on guitar and vocals, Andy Hummel on bass, Jody Stephens on drums, with Chilton on guitar and vocals, smashed together in the early fall of 1973 a recklessly aggressive, exuberantly brilliant album – #1 Record – that is the greatest power pop album since Revolver, the fourth greatest rock debut (Jimi, Velvets, Television), and the album that has haunted my waking moments for thirty years.

 

The earlier Rock City recordings – Thomas Dean Eubanks on bass and lead vocals, Manning on keys, Stephens on drums, and Bell on guitars, background vocals, and occasional lead vocals – are not some primitive or foundational or nascent Big Star. They show that if Chilton is the guts and desires of Big Star, Bell was the architect, the heart and the teacher. Chilton’s school bully playing with the teacher’s pet, in a saber-rattling contest of border crossings between the past and the creative present. Bell’s guitar on Rock City slices through the heavy, swirling density; no weepy George Harrison solos here: it’s Badfinger on steroids. Eubanks’ songwriting and singing, especially for ‘Think It’s Time to Say Goodbye’ and ‘I Lost Your Love’ and ‘The Answer,’ are mature, tender, percussive, and soaring. Think Moby Grape, or Beau Brummels, or Emmit Rhodes, with McGuinn and Dave Davies playing lead guitars. Imagine a ballsier and blusier Big Star, but lacking both Chilton’s tightness of composition and Hummel’s rounded, expert bass notes. Some of the songs get washed over by hazy hippy yearnings, with “experimental” time shifts, sweeping keyboards. Against this prog folk/rock excess – don’t Bogart that joint, Terry! – the recordings sometimes remind me of a bad Moby Grape live gig, or a first-rate Love cover band. But when clicking, this is one if the best bands in America during the late 1960’s. Two future Big Star songs, ‘My Life Is Right’ and the Chilton-Bell masterpiece ‘Try Again,’ are stunners, with the second featuring Alex fresh from his Manning/1970 work. These are Bell’s first recorded vocals and, as with John Fry’s genius engineering here at his own Ardent Studios, there is nothing tentative, nothing shallow. If Alex Chilton had moved to Russia after the Box Tops and committed a life’s work to a new Trans Siberian Railway, Rock City and their hypothetical future recordings, not Big Star, would be making Paul Westerberg both wet and jealous. As it is, Eubanks moved to the periphery, Manning went to the booth, Chilton pushed his way in, and with those two songs and Bell’s ‘Feel’, Big Star decided to change history.

 

It is safe to say that without the first Big Star record, the following bands and soloists would have had drastically different, if not also inferior, careers: Teenage Fanclub; The Posies; Marshall Crenshaw; dB’s; Tommy Keene; Richard Heyman; Weezer; Replacements; Spongetones; Dramarama; Sloan; and Shazam, just to list a few of the hundreds. And the record crackles with wit, electricity, three-minute overtures to teenage lust, kids sitting on top of the world, with the careening, celebratory excess of soiled t-shirts not large enough to hold in the ripples. It is a masterpiece. The band screams with cocksure reductionism: “Don’t need to talk to my doctor/Don’t need to talk to my shrink/Don’t need to hide behind no locked doors/I don’t need to think/’Cause when my baby’s beside me, I don’t worry.” And nothing before this album, not the soulful Box Tops, or the wild NYC sides, could explain the quantum leap into greatness found in Chilton’s voice, guitar, songwriting, and confident, sneering swagger. Except, maybe, for Chris Bell’s active imagination.

 

Most atoms and molecules are electrically neutral in their normal states; however, when there is a large range of new sources available, these atoms and molecules become unstable, and then acquire an electrical charge. Bell’s sweetness and tenderness (he co-wrote 10 of the 12 songs with Chilton) when coupled with the enigmatic, deep-bottomed restlessness of his partner enacted a process similar to ionization. In other words, they needed each other, fed off the contrasts, and revelled in their simultaneous pursuit of perfection, as if complimentary, not supplementary, was the prevailing ethos. It is not that prior to this a team of rock musicians, whether working together or in proximity, did not synergistically potentiate with the odd coupling of the sweet, ramshackle, plaintive side with a grittier, bluesier angsty persona; simply look at: Lennon/McCartney; McGuinn/Clark; Lane/Stewart; Cale/Reed; the Davies brothers; Ham/Evans; Mick and Keith; Robertson/Manuel. Big Star’s contribution – because they came later and revered at least the pop side of those binomial equations – was the intensity of the interweaving; their creations of accessible allegros of spirit chant like a drunken choir of ascending angels.

 

Neither Bell nor Chilton can be credited with the power pop revival; as with punk rock and its murky antecedents, the revival – Raspberries, Badfinger, McCartney’s solos, stirrings in and around L.A. – of power pop certainly was filling a post-White Album void; to these strands Big Star dragged into the mix, however, such oddities as Texas garage, the baroque fragility of the Left Banke, and Southern Cal coolness. Bell and Chilton, furthermore, may be credited with the evolution of a power pop language appropriate to a Byrds/Beatles matrix now gone forever. The boys did not build the first skyscraper, but the facades of their overreaching songs are better articulated than the others. The recesses blend better with the excesses, and the origins of the tunes are now organically terminated, without a second to spare. Big Star gave us both the expressive syntax of a new era, but also the outline of a precise geometry. And they become free in their mathematical grid, like Isaac Newton discovering calculus.

 

I see these Big Star songs as structures, and not flimsy artifacts that will easily blow away or leave our minds: I see pitched roofs and recessed colonnades, providing sturdy exterior protection. These layered external constructs contrarily mirror the insides: simple staircases of elegance; two stories of functionality, with bright, clean fenestration. In these masterworks it is obvious that both men heavily influence each other, Bell the planner, Chilton the builder. The sequence of songs on the first Big Star record are calculated, it seems to me, not to elevate one singer/songwriter over the other, but to allow the single projects to invent in their own articulated spaces, without didacticism or jealousy. The songs are plastic and sturdy, Southern vernacular and universal, contemporary and nostalgic. They resemble civilization.

 

In a favorite game for critics, Chiltonions, or solitary-for-good-reason geekers walking around with shit stains in their drawers, individual Big Star songs are backwardly traced to potential sources, as if, by the way, most pop songs don’t share similar lyrical themes, chords, length, bridges, and harmonies. Suffice to say, without being Linnaeus or a member of some suicidal rotisserie league trading obscure 60’s Danish b-sides for bootlegs of live Apples in Stereo, I venture that the first Big Star feeds off Rubber Soul‘s alternative slow/fast order, the Kink’s love of dissonant dynamics, the happy-to-be blonde harmonies of the touched Wilson clan, and the quirky fifths, glissandos, and pummeling drumming of the Small Faces – power popster Richard X. Heyman told me he initially noticed the shared battering ram glee in the two bands, and that and the near falsettos, the quickening to the exposition, and the unity of the individual songs makes me think this is true. Lately I hear The Who Sell Out more often, if not in style, then at least in brashness and production. If I may betray my idiot roots for a moment, instead of direct links to bands, it is better to think of these shimmering, iridescent expressions as not caught in a web of paralyzing Oedipal struggles with Prince John or King Paul or Lord Ray, nor Harold Bloomian struggles forming serious paralysis or trembling because of anxieties of influence, but rather playgrounds of healthy influences, expanded and contracted, hinted at or directly stolen. These are goddamn kids, after all, not Alan Lomax or Harry Smith or Brown graduate students. Thank God.

 

Hey! Wait just a minute! What the fuck is power pop? Two guitars help, snarling and whippet fast; a rhythm section of strong armed mutes, not afraid to glower at fans, grinding it out like the Move, on the snap, crackle, pop of every 4/4 beat. “Catchy, short melodic songs” sounds like a description of Pepsi commercials. How about: hooks big enough for Aretha Franklin to hang her bras upon. No? Try: driving riffs, both Byrdsy jingle jangle and ‘Taxman’ spikiness. The major tone is required, emphasizing odes to joy and college girls from University of Nebraska. Speed is not that important; more of a stately quickening is preferred, with swirling dynamics, head-pounding chords on bridges, guitar solos walking above the gaping circus crowd, background voices complexly filling in between the twin maestros on lead guitar. Deathtrap desires should be bemoaned immediately – no time for reflection, regret, or perspicuity. Cleanness of production, single-minded pursuit of melody, and love-sick tenors wailing about last night’s loves are germane here. In fact, smiling wouldn’t kill any of you out there, from time to time, unless you are a glum Albanian or nasty German. Moreover, the librettos are mid-period Beach Boys, without the sun glare. The songs are sweet, simple, and short, played as if those are the most important chords and notes ever played or dreamt of, and that that final cymbal crash will be the last heard on this god damned good green earth. Add a Townsendian punch in the stomach, some glee from ‘Ticket to Ride,’ and a singer, in spite of absence, who does not celebrate loss, sickness, or depravity, but cries, “Ready for another?” Power pop music is ebullient, trippy, dense, assertive, and ringing with clarion severity: it is the anthem about hopeful eternity in the arms of a leggy teen brunette.

 

In fact, if Bell is the design behind Big Star, and Chilton the vehicle, then British Pop is the fuel of this secular and corrosive and tender machine/band. As Proust, noted partier and poof, wrote, “The question is not for Hamlet, to be or not to be, but to belong or not to belong.” And belong they did: Bell to the Beatles and their Black and White worlds of action verbs, and Chilton to the Kinks and Who, and their Black and Black worlds of ambiguous nouns. Not yet bored with clichés, Chilton was censorious of any music divorced from the soundscape of the late ’60’s. The fundamental tenets included furious and frenetic drumming, filling out the shocking silences, as on the Who’s ‘Call Me Lightning’ or their ‘I’m Free,’ the acoustic/electric dueling, with jagged, stinging guitar work, bent, but not bluesy, as on the Kinks’ ‘Lola’ and ‘A Long Way From Home,’ the jerking, robotic minimalism of T. Rex; ragged and boisterous background singing, as on the Kinks of the early ’70’s; the thundering tom toms of ‘I Can See For Miles,’ the tenderness of standard folk/rock structures made quicker and harder by slamming acoustic riffs: the Who’s ‘Tattoo,’ ‘Sunrise,’ the Kinks’ ‘Apeman,’ and ‘Get Back in Line,’ And although the songs detail the dailiness and deadliness of life, and rarely afford penetrating observations, the music itself, through the steady aggregation of galvanizing influences, becomes rapturous excitations; the self discipline needed to balance these emotions is found in the susceptibilities and vulnerabilities of Chilton’s tenuous grasp of his world. He is never this cocky again. The second album, as Chilton begins to stalk himself for the first time, seeks treaties with the Brits and then opposes their influences. The lingering connections to the past are there, of course, but the hues and shapes are darker, and faith in the power of the invasion has waned. That record celebrates poker players and rapscallions, not slaves nor sycophants.

 

Before I get to the music – have you bought the albums yet, you lazy sods? – and completely lose my audience, a troubling aspect of Big Star’s career is not Bell’s departure after the first, nor Hummel’s after the second, nor the drunken psychodramas on the third album, but rather how in a short span Chilton could embrace distinct, particularized worlds and various emotional, compositional, and sonic tonalities, without going crazy, or sacrificing value. The full blush of youthful glee of the first and its outrageous harmonies, turn to a more fierce hectoring tone on the second, Radio City: strident songs of spiky colorings, and then become abject resignation on the third, variously called Sister Lovers/Third, a harrowing maelstrom of self pity, perplexing torpor, bitterness, musically countermanded by banshee pyrotechnics and sloppy DIY awkwardness, often weirdly on the same song. In a few years, the clamoring heavenly harmonies of the first become shadowy, echoic laments, songs that canonize solitude and disrepair on the third, with a title replete with vague suggestions of both incestual darkness, and sloppy late sexual thirds. Freud’s tripartite topography of the mind begins as does the first album: an Id that seeks instant gratification, primitive forces ruled by the pleasure principle, with no parental intervention, no sibling rivalry, no sense of loss. This promise of youth needs no guidance: girls are always around; cars are always faster than your friends’ cars; gins and tonics are eternally served in India. And if the urge is not immediately discharged, you can move to the next 3-minute vignette of your life, with a god silently sitting in the engineer’s chair, cleaning out his toe jam. In this world, desires do get sated, often. The id is voracious, without self-reference or self-cognition. Who cares about libraries? Driving home in a convertible with your tape deck on, you know a lactating tit is always lurking under mommy’s sheets.


The opening sounds on the first album are tentative, murky, as if the deadhead clichés of the early 1970’s have to be swept away; on ‘Feel,’ the band employs blunt attackings, Badfinger-like tirades against loping, intimate songwriting. Some Memphis Horns help sustain the suspense, getting the groove on; the ringing guitar at the end is a prettified rave-up; and the singing is celebratory and worrying, minatory and tense. The guitars here, and elsewhere, are in the foreground, a note beyond the thundering pulse of the great bass/drum duo of Hummel and Stephens; their syllables are smashed, disrupting the mood of the beautiful harmonizing of the singing. In fact, even if the conventional structure of the songs is based on audience expectations of Top 40 Radio, the stability of the rhythm is often askew, the singing more often than not careens from identifiable dance rhythms, as in an ostinato, to the wild guitar major-minor pitch variations. But this is music you can dance to, and unlike the mutinous, aphoristic melodies of the third album, this music, even in the gorgeous ballads, are mobile and dynamic building blocks of the future of American rock and roll. Although bent by the British Invasion, and although fertile because of the two songwriters’ disparate preoccupations, the music on the first is not bound to history, nor buried in the present. It is music of the now – rock, steady, go. Chilton’s singing is tender, fragile, and heartbreakingly economic and swinging. There is a loose-jointed, comfortable sway here: if the songs lack occasional elegance and polish, they make up for it with verve, both soothing and harrowing.

 

The guitar of Chilton snakes through this bright world, grimacing like a potential arsonist around the corner. It rings high, it muddies from beneath. The melodic flow is interrupted by his outlandish string work: the solos are often sectionalized, segmented. He wants to get to the point, and he is happily trapped in the sub-three minute mile of pop song length; and sometimes the flash and dash becomes startlingly bold, eviscerating the form itself. He always swings madly, like a lovesick Quasimoto. The ambience becomes jagged, immodest mumblings of ordinary stories, told by twitchy novitiates. The heat is on high, but the effect is calmly affirmative – what were rational song structures become tiny vistas for boys in blue jeans, drinking, stealing cars, living lives of “lonely days of uncertainty.” To God, Bell pleads in his song, ‘Try Again,’ “Lord, I’ve been trying to be what I should/Lord, I’ve been trying to do what I could,” but Memphis is dying, and God moved north right after Sherman’s March. Chilton’s singing and guitar disown revival-style public utterances: each high note captured in voice, each quirky pop detour from a Harrison-like solo, are journeys that disembark soon enough in the middle of the night, seeking the present, and there, id-like, Chilton thumps his chest. These are dramatic monologues that are of bottom-feeding natures trying to get laid, and Chilton’s guitar, curvy and oblong, tries to get to the next mattress. We cannot ascend to Chilton’s vision: by accepting the singular loveliness of the songs, we are rejecting the possibility of our joined trip. The music is plain about this: this is our gig, and watch us work.

 

If the guitar lines are chiseled and angular, like Monk, and if the singing is full-throated and carefree, and if the five or so rockers that pierce our spines changed the way intensity could alter convention in bands like Cheap Trick and the Pixies, the ballads on the first album provide meditational counterpoints to the accelerated pulsations of the fury and fire. We are quieter now, gazing upon the dreamy world of heartache, unrequited love, and long distance runarounds. The messier overlapping of the twin guitars is gone; the vocals are mixed down to merge with the standard folk/rock arrangements of the Mersey or L.A. Love/Byrds scene. But the visceral impact remains. The delicate arrogance of the scorchers (‘Feel,’ ‘Don’t Lie to Me,’ ‘When My Baby’s Besides Me,’ ‘My Life is Right’) is asymmetrically argued against the ballads and the mid-tempo blends of the two camps; the casual noise is replaced with soaring sadness, alienated landscapes, and bittersweet, narrowing melodies. In the faster songs, Bell and Chilton generate expectations based on pop music’s historical-culture climate: they confirm the Kinks and the Beatles; they modify the Kinks and the Beatles; they delay, then deny the Kinks and the Beatles. But in this slavish environ of the power pop, expression and emotions are fettered. The releasing unleashing comes from the ballads – the tenderness of Bell, his cracking beauty of his nervy voice; the gruffness of the world-weary, lower-registered Chilton, already once a rock “star” – where the band moves beyond the past without repudiating it in the name of the rejection of silence and monologues. They are radicals, and they are the oppressed; they reach back to yesterday, recognize today, and sneak upon tomorrow. These boys, on this album, reach for their mothers’ and girlfriends’ hands, and say no to their sweaty, broken-backed fathers.

 

What is mostly true of rock’s lingua franca is an ahistoricism, or inability to emerge from present time, but the challenge of history is confronted, engaged, and resolved, here by Bell and Chilton, mostly, I think, by our hero, as a chance to forge a new epoch. He argues with the past, then walks away wiser. The slower songs – the lush ballads, ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ and ‘Thirteen’ – and the triptych of driving folk-rock mindblowers near the end (‘Give Me Another Chance,’ ‘Try Again’ and ‘Watch the Sunrise’) are characterized by a youthful series of aspirations, values, and concerns in search of fulfillment. The songs, without pity, without melancholic cliché, seek the generative power of depth and connections, with a respect for musical communities. The subjects of the songs are no longer objects: “Sun, it shines on all of us/We are one in its hands/Come Inside and light my room.” “I’ve been looking for to find/Something to believe in my mind/And it was you.” Change, the collapse of darkness, and solitude are no longer piercing: harmonies abound, light and sunrise and faith are present. These mid-tempo ballads can be traced from a variety of sources – although as mentioned, they seem new, polished, almost born perfectly perfected – such as Lennon’s ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ married to Gene Clark’s ‘Set You Free This Time’ on the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! In turn they then give bastard birth to the Love’s ‘Andmoreagain’. Bell’s and Chilton’s work here is true collaboration, involving engagement on the same tasks, correcting to one another, swapping ideas, exerting combined force. Their collaboration, therefore, involves both unity and critiquing conflict. And if the second half of that ratio caused Bell to leave for presumed poppier fields and more control, here on #1 Record it gave us joy, fluidity, with the moving of planets, and life and birth.

 

The greatest song, because it is Chilton’s greatest singing, because of the interplay of acoustic and electric, and because of the affirmation of love and life – pass the Kleenex, dear cousin Matilda – is the eighth of twelve tracks, ‘Give Me Another Chance.’ It is probably the least imaginative song in terms of studio technology or virtuoso musicianship, but those are plusses, as is Bell’s obvious delight in the role of second banana: his background singing, his steady strumming on the acoustic, are what gives the song its fragile beauty, and secondly, its steady heartbeat. There have been thoughts and sounds like these countless times before, but not becoming full-blown meaning like here: what were teenage kicks and action for action’s sake are now contemplation and repose, a Narcissus staring at the pool, a Sufi walking around with a damaged flower. The Id has become a creator, the Ego, a constantly composing and re-composing and de-composing agent in the world, generating truth though rhythm, compositional rigor, and style. The song moves us.

 

The album, recorded at Ardent with Chris Bell handling primarily the producing, was released on Ardent in 1972 who in turn hired the immortal, but dying, Stax label to distribute; they didn’t, and Bell left around Christmas, soon for Europe, misery, the I Am the Cosmos recordings, and tragedy. Bell and Chilton came in as a quartet, knocked a few songs together, and Bell left, leaving traces of his songwriting on at least three songs. The others stayed together, sort of, played a few dates, sort of, and then re-convened during the following fall to record in short order one of rock and roll’s masterpieces, Radio City, an amalgamation of bristly and brittly defiance, monster, mature guitar riffs canceling each other out with even greater imagination and intensity, and some of rock’s finest vocals. Without Bell’s placating tendencies or a bat in hell’s chance of rock stardom, Chilton changed rock and roll.

 

If the first album is soulful and unconscious, the second develops a narrator and player who find new voices, taking on consciousness, memory, and loss. The singing is higher in the scale, but less tenuous; the closing measures of the songs have sweeping orchestral beauty, both obscene and sad.

 

The guitar never lacks for interesting ideas – series, mostly, of ascending then descending scale lines, very notey, but pertinent, edgy, and harrowingly melodic. What is surprising is the balanced achieved because the tension is often the premise, if not simply at the forefront. The solos are bright, cheerful poppy bursts of staccato optimisms counterbalanced by quick codas of dissonance. The second stanzas of these twelve songs are often markedly contrasted with the first stanzas. The immediate lyricism has initially intensity, blooming from the appetites of youth, but shortly the songs display more halting notes colliding into one another, with the glorious rhythm section slackening then re-gathering into a forward momentum of aging. There are drops in octaves, almost like a releasing of a dream; the melody never becomes a burden, and is often doubly re-iterative, as if the exultant memory of the first party is too grand to let go of. Anybody who has had a fondness for life can understand Radio City.

 

These muscular songs lack the precious, delicate hands of the first album’s greater world. Indifferent to radio airplay – how many poignant ironies are conjured by Big Star’s resounding lack of commercial success and their album titles? – and the modest expectations of pop songs, Chilton was uncomfortable under the Badfinger/Beatles songwriting nexus of the first; now free, and living the pleasures of an indolent, never-to-be-repeated existence, Chilton snaked through his world, defining and defying it. He has the ardor of a debating team arguing without a forum or audience. It’s as if this album anticipates America’s apathy towards itself, belittling it, bewilderingly being hostile to it, and mocking the later bands that emerge from its terrifyingly powerful wake. The peculiarities of the songs are traceable to a disbelief that anything reliable lies out there to be talked about. The author is in search of a definable subject, but this striving gets shockingly interrupted by trapdoors. There is no secrecy or refinement, and what becomes haunted later on for Chilton here seems brooding, clumsy at times, but dramatic and powerful. This nascent maturity now seizes the earlier immediate gratification impulses, turning them into reality principles. The Ego, on this second album, acts as its own go-between, dealing with desires by repressing them. He buries the Id with the Id’s energies, becoming solitary, wise, skillful, and controlling. He becomes a man. In reality. In Memphis. And the results are tense, strange, scary, and real. And heavy.

 

The downtown is dying. People are fleeing, like naked women in Pompeian paintings. To the British Invasion he now adds and subtracts, violating accepted power pop norms. The ice is intense; the heat unbearable. As to the spirit, contributions of, or palpable presence of Bell at these sessions, don’t ask me. Bell’s brother says Chris gave ‘O My Soul,’ ‘Way Out West’, and ‘Back of a Car,’ almost fully formed, but I doubt it, especially the second, credited to Hummel (and sung by Stephens) on the album; Stephens and Hummel are unclear how much songwriting was done prior to Bell’s departure, and then taken to the studio (the now trio had just re-formed for a few live special shows); Chilton doesn’t talk about it. Be assured, however, that these are different sounds, aims, bands. The guitar is from the lean, muscular Steve Cropper/Keith Richards Ya-Ya’s School; there seems to be some Gram Parsons on the ballads; the lyrics lack the sweetness and clarity of the ballads of the previous album. There are acrimonious threats to women, disillusioned, if not merely misogynistic. The songs seem halting, at times, smoldering, instead of propulsive. There is an interrogative mood replacing the sweet declarative defiance of the first. Chilton has gotten funkier, needing to testify: he seems willing to lock himself up in the arcane of a monastery scriptorium, emancipating his rage, reality, and lowest common denominator concerns. Instead of harnessing the latent power of the prior collaborative process with its information sharing, its replication of experiential experiments, and dialogue, Chilton’s music now seems scattered, herky and jerky, as when with holiday lights if one goes out (Bell, an affair, guitar solo), the rest stay on, if not compensatorily brighter. Instead of striving to imitate the oppressing models of British Pop, on Radio City Chilton ejects these symbols and images and replaces them with autonomy. This is music being created right before our eyes and ears. Instead of static and fragile and opaline, it is dynamic and sturdy and falling apart in our hands, like a coalminer’s shards of gold flakes.

 

Chilton acts upon and transforms his world. There are two masterly songs here that are at the top of songs created in the 1970’s, justifiably standards of intelligent compositional rigor, intensity of feeling, brimming with unusual bridges, brilliant music and musicianship, with honesty and vigor, with both songs featuring breathy, tender, and wounded vocals from Chilton. Along with Sinatra’s ‘I Got You Under My Skin,’ some Schubert lieder, Sister Rosetta Tharp’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ Howard Tate’s ‘Get It While You Can,’ and the Stones’ ‘Moonlight Mile,’ the one song, Big Star’s ‘September Gurls,’ will be featured at my funeral (cash bar, please). The music here on the second album has moved beyond the neoclassical European pop model of the first album and moved into something more romantic, expressive, and imaginative. Both spontaneous and calculated, this song begins with a beautiful guitar intro, a ringing of a bell, a chiseled gavel calling the town meeting to order, a memorable hook not unlike ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’; it also like that masterpiece has bottomless grooves and sweltering empathy. Then Andy Hummel’s bass playing (and throughout this album) feeds off from this wellspring of ancient mystery: simple, incantatory, and grounded to terra firma (Hummel moved not long after to Texas to become an aerospace engineer). Moving ahead of the song, eager for a reconnoitering with classic song status, the dynamic drummer Jody Stephens – now the studio manager for Ardent Studios, right where this song was perfected – fills the breaks as if Ringo had sledgehammers that swung for arms. The vocals are, even for Chilton, wistful, fleeing from gravity, the recording level sounding as if he is stepping into a hearse. The heroic stature of the song comes not only from these elements, working furiously in unison, bound together by duct tape, the Kinks, and visionary chemistry, nor from the weird astrological lyrics that hint at world weariness and self pity –

 

September gurls do so much
I was your butch and you were touched
I loved you well never mind
I’ve been crying all the time
December boys got it bad.

September gurls I don’t know why
how can I deny what’s inside
even thought I keep away
maybe we’ll love all our days.

When I get to bed
late at night
that’s the time
she makes things right
ooh when she makes luv to me.

 

– but from the guitar: notes funky, spiritual, and economically blissful. One senses Chilton saw this masterwork as something potentially orchestrated. It sweeps and swoons, like Keats’ bird, and the man and woman in the song are equally unattainable for each other at this one moment. There is also much going on in the silences. The song is controlled, suggestive of buried desires; the melodic lines are fluidly sinuous, not in isolation, but in counterpoint with simpler notes. There is slight modulation, but also repetitions of simple notes that hint at dissonance’s Siberial borders. A mild glissando ties the solo’s coda down, and Chilton surprises and delights the listener by not returning immediately to the expected main strain, though he does repeat the final phrase. It is not related melodically or in spirit with what has preceded it or will follow it. It is a world in and of itself: shimmering, powerful, a warning to complacency, and homage both to mavericks and straight shooters. It is a world I once had a desire to live inside of.

The other classic is ‘Back of a Car,’ melody, if not all the music, by the departed Bell. ‘Mod Lang’ rocks harder, ‘Daisy Glaze’ is more transcendent, and ‘She’s a Mover’ is the song I hit repeat on more often, but ‘Car’ is unique, not to mention fecund and funky, like the thighs of Lola Falana. The lyrics are darker than usual, with an unexpected twist at the end: He may want some, but also Chilton vants to be alone, so sorry girls:

 

Sitting in the back of a car
music so loud can’t tell a thing
thinking bout what to say
and I can’t find the lines.

You know I love you a lot
I just don’t know should I not?
waiting for a brighter day
and I can’t find a way.

I’ll go on and on with you
like to fall and lie with you
I love you too
wo wo wo.

Baby I’m too afraid
I just don’t know if it’s okay
trying to get away
from everything.

Why don’t you take me home
it’s gone too far inside this car
I know I’ll feel a whole lot more
when I get alone.

 

Once again the rhythm section stars nobly. Of particular happiness is the loose limbed, sacrificial, yielding drumming rolls; the bass is fat backed, sassy, and searching for chitlin’ and cold ones. Chilton’s voice is druggy, dreamy, and slow to respond to the hooks’ urgencies: a little pinched, a little sorrowful, the singing is curiously reminiscent of lullaby sing songiness, but is more restrained in its joy. In fact, after the 600th listening, I feel it is a song of a mature man breaking down – pussy is OK, but Jesus, what do my desires mean? The guitar sings, so to speak, the second part, and it comes from some mysterious region of the disappointed soul; it climbs a step higher to open a release, illuminating the words, “Why don’t you take me home,” and then finds its still center amidst the moving world of change and transitory connections. The melodic line is grindingly starting up all over again, with constant affection for a series of descending fourths. The frenzied intensity almost makes the song bust loose, but it re-gathers, especially on the solo and bridge, where notes blister, quicken, like the heartbeat of a man running up a hill into the sun’s blinding fury, leaving us near the crest, open-mouthed. It ain’t phony music, and it ain’t pretty: it is a dreadful dirge of pop confectionary, theatrical and intimate, painful and liberating.

 

This secular fervor, this enthusiasm for melody, this blatant sentimentalizing, are balanced on the album with the chilly November waters of the Mississippi and its own overwhelming megalomaniacal logic. The album, almost unbearable at times in its descending vigor, ends with a note of heartfelt thankfulness: ‘I’m in Love with a Girl.’ This is no transition towards Chilton’s later songs, or a recapitulation, musically or lyrically, of what has just transpired. It is simply there, a ballad of tenderness, simple, direct, and haunting. It has a Harvest-like feel to it, and in its 106 seconds it has an emotional wallop not to be found again in Chilton’s career: it starts immediately, ends abruptly, and features the sweetest singing of Chilton’s legacy, a near falsetto that is so far removed from the Box Top voice it can’t possibly be the same man, and it is not.

It is the voice of maturity, of sapping strength, of sterile yearning, not innocent, nor peaceful. And in its stripped down ambiance, if not in the controlled, hopeful lyrics, or clinging vocals, it looks forward to the third album, recorded without Hummel, sometimes without Stephens, and sometimes late at night in the bowels of drunken self pity, lit by jagged hate, and fueled by failure, with a capital f-u-c-k.

 

Recorded a year later in 1974, with producer and fellow Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson and backed with a host of friends and flunkies, the album, which has three working titles, Third, Sisters Lovers, and Beale St. Green, wasn’t released until 1978 when it sold fewer records than probably Skip Spence’s Oar, an album it resembles. Sister Lovers was re-released on CD by Rykodisc in 1992 to near universal acclaim (except in Afghanistan. Humorless Taliban shitheads, they would have dug the misery). If the first Big Star album is the greatest pure pop album of the last thirty years, and if the second is the finest record made between Exile on Main Street and Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising, Sister Lovers is one of the top twenty albums of all time. And don’t care if it’s predominantly a solo or band venture; I look at the label and it says Big Star, and in the same way that the Byrds, Yardbirds, and The Move radically changed personnel, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and is called Big Star, then it’s a god damned duck.

And it is a very strange duck. To start with, it prefigures some of his solo albums in its self-absorption, disturbing solitude, sloppiness of musicianship, lack of a coherent song placement, and in its brutal disregard for convention or commercial prospects. Half the time, I want to sell it right after playing it, but then I proceed to drive a steak knife into my lower colon and play the album again. Most of the songs lack an introductory phrase: not merely in media res, but more like in the middle of hell, Chilton’s songs are the songs you’d hear as Charon ferries you across the River Styx. And instead of money stuffed in your mouth to pay for the ride, your ears are stuffed with bleakness, radical song structures collapsing upon themselves, and relationships that end worse than the Holocaust: in Holiday Inns; on downs; or simply wishing to “shoot a woman.” To be sure, as a singer/songwriter album full of quirky asides, declarations of hopelessness, and dark ramblings on the failure of America, Sister Lovers shares a similar greatness, ethos, and virtuosic intensity with other albums of the period, several of them nearly as great and dark as this one: Mayfield’s Roots, Gaye’s Here, My Dear, Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, Young’s Tonight’s The Night, Cale’s Paris 1919 and Hazelwood’s Requiem for an Almost Lady. But Sister Lovers documents a great mind and a great talent at both the apex and the nadir of his career/life and, even if he begs “I want to white out” himself on the scary opening track, ‘Kizza Me,’ he doesn’t mean it – he is as proud to be our Cassandra, self-accused and accusatory, his fingers chained to a guitar of shimmering beauty. He proposes confessions here hoping for forgiveness. He is wrong. It is we who are sorry, guilty, miserable, former believers no longer living with certitude.

 

Freud’s policeman is the Superego, and it attempts to transform self-reproach as a permanent repressor. The fully-formed conscience tells us what is right or wrong, forcing inhibition. The second stage attempts to form an ego ideal. Reverend Chilton, full of rage, resignation, and fire and brimstone, is the first stage, a teller of private truth. But he fails to merge with society here, or ever again in his music. There are no utopias. In healthy people the mind always attempts to compensate for the lost chords of youth by marriage, kids, jobs at Darren Stevens’ office. Chilton prefers to play alone, saying nix to harmony and cooperation and Memphis with a resounding No!, in thunder. The second and third songs share this disrespect for community. The first thanks “friends” because “Without my friends I got chaos;” the next, ‘Big Black Car,’ celebrates driving under the stars, not “feeling a thing.” And that is irony, children, times two. The first song is almost buoyant, but misses elation by a wide mark – there’s no evidence, either in the stinging guitar work, or the monotonic singing, of friendship or support, and if we are a little confused, then in the next song, we are lost as the vocals come from deep inside a drugged world of a short story by Poe, disembodied, naïve, and soon shorn of dignity, The singing attempts a lyrical, ascending crescendo of high notes, mostly wordless la-la’s, but all of this is to no avail. The song is dark and dirge-like, with “why should I care” countered with echoing, fat guitar notes, the pounding drums of some lost tribe, and an overall sound of melancholic quitting. These two songs, one conventional in structure, one minimalist and quiet, prepare piercingly the listener for what damage is to follow.

 

And most of the damage is self-inflicted; he borrows the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, making it even simpler, starker, and scarier. His voice here, and elsewhere, is a ghostly presence of his former Box Top full-throated declarations. Here, the patient is often secluded, certainly medicated; his voice hangs in the air, disconnected from the arrangements, which this time have a more unplugged feel to them; there is much more piano, eerie offerings of punctuating string work, and a drum sound that needs to be heard to believe: primitive, jarring, borrowed from a passing high school marching band outside the studio’s windows. These songs – on the original, fourteen of them – not only lack an aesthetic totality for the arrangements or the instrumentation used, but they often lack melody. They certainly lack bridges, or endings that have been achieved through the resolution of dynamics or tension. There is no resolution here, just beginnings and middles. It is not merely the material, it is the fatal attraction he has for the material.

Chilton, here as haunted as Lennon was singing about his mother, or Dylan about St Augustine, or Cobain covering Leadbelly, is only 24 and he has hired disintegration and decay as his new rhythm section.

 

If the music is often fragmentary, wayward, or even pointless harmonically, it is always chilling, always gorgeous, and always interesting, as with Mahler’s songs for dead children. The lyrics are brooding, slightly surreal, at times, brutal; this is the infamous ‘Holocaust’:

 

Your eyes are almost dead
Can’t get out of bed
And you can’t sleep

You’re sitting down to dress
And you’re a mess
You look in the mirror

You look in your eyes
Say you realize

Everybody goes
Leaving those who fall behind
Everybody goes
As far as they can,
They don’t just care.

They stood on the stairs
Laughing at your errors
Your mother’s dead
She said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Your mother’s dead
You’re on your own
She’s in her bed

Everybody goes
Leaving those who fall behind
Everybody goes
As far as they can
They don’t just care
You’re a wasted face
You’re a sad-eyed lie
You’re a holocaust.

 

Listening to that song, and a half dozen others, is like drinking a glass of lemon juice right after you ate a pound of M&Ms. The musical sadness is fugue-like, with notes that slur and slide over one another, draining into the dark brown river at sunrise. This is a song cycle along the lines of Baudelaire’s ”Flowers of Evil”: mocking thanks to friends; empty gestures to a sleeping deity; comparing love and people to inanimate objects; ridiculing the prospect of anyone ever “having” him; magical realism; and characters more suited to film noir – kleptomaniacs, surreal dream lovers, Dana and her magic wand, and the mysterious gymnast, “working out on the parallel rails,” stealing and dreaming at the same time. There is an outtake, included on Ryko’s release, called ‘Downs.’ Here is the middle section, a talking vignette like something off the third Velvets’ album, with an unusual self address:

 

Isolated as far as you go
I’m well versed in the walls of worst
In the windows of most
Wind down

A.C.
Coast
to coast
High cool ‘cept when I’m with you
Naked on a southern love
On cool downs.

 

The entire album has this druggy, soporific resignation, and because some of the ballads are still beautiful, and most of the singing is ethereal and suspended, the effect is chilling, a confessional booth with a cemented window.

 

If the mood is heavy, slow, and ponderous, so is the music: instead of attacking staccato, there is legato, with less electrical instrumentation – the piano dominates several songs. This legato, and the similar tempi, are contrasted with the odd arrangements of fermata, a pause, before the next musical idea, almost as if Chilton himself wonders about the direction. But there is no feel of sloppy second takes here: the musical template, the diction of the meditations, the B-Movie sound effects from stray cellos and mistuned guitars, may come from a parallel universe, but it is a finished world, not dynamic, changing, or hopeful. These are the songs that Sisyphus would serenade us with, hoping his black rock would get smaller, lighter, or easier to push against gravity.

 

My favorite song, one replete with a deceptive cadence, and lack of drone or dissonance, is ‘Blue Moon,’ a short and simple song characterized by an easy and flowing tone of composition. Chilton’s voice is almost in the soprano range, quickly repeating the same notes. He has Lennon standing on his left hand, Lou Reed on the other, with Ray Davies sitting on his chest. The spirit of Chris Bell whispers: “Birds sing outside/If demons come while you’re under/I’ll be a blue moon in the sky.” This is near the end, and this is about how we search for the perfect melody, the perfect fuck, the ending of sorrow. Chilton thinks if he puts in the right order the right words the demons will stay away; in fact, in the next song and the album’s last , the countrified, lovely, and non-ironic, ‘Take Care,’ he admonishes us to “Take care/Please, take care/Some people read idea books.” But, sorry, A.C., words aren’t going to fix this: in ‘Blue Moon,’ there is no spiritual salvation, no crescendo, just cryptic imagery and a slow fade. There is no release, just repetition. There is no answer, just a puzzle written across the southern skies, the Southern Cross buried by the high clouds. It’s a song that begs for accompanying harmony. Sorry again, Alex: you’ll have to go even further south than Memphis for the perfect partner – he’s the naked guy, well built, with absence where once his eyes shone, pushing a fucking rock up a fucking hill. Till the end of the day.


 

IV. Chilton Solo: In Dreams, Begin Responsibilities

 

The characteristics of the third type, justly called the narcissistic, are in the main negatively described… focused on self-preservation; the type is independent and not easily overawed. The ego has a considerable amount of aggression…they readily assume the role of leader, give a fresh stimulus to cultural development, or break down existing conditions.
– “Libidinal Types,” Sigmund Freud

 

A key figure in DIY self-portraiture, Chilton’s solo career assimilated elements from Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Lou Reed, and John Lennon, not to mention Jimmy Reed, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Johnny Mercer, and Fats Domino, blended with arcane, idiosyncratic key signatures, and loopy covers, but had its own unmistakable personality, exerting a lasting legacy and influence on various schools of singer/songwriters during the last few decades of the churning, unforgiving century. Such diverse voices as Chris Stamey, Paul Westerberg, Chris Knox, and Nikki Sudden each have carved out memorably erratic careers that mirror, in part, if also in smaller proportions, Chilton’s unique contribution to Americana. His songs usually appear cool and distant, not palpitating or congratulating; in place of euphoria, nature, and love, there is skepticism, closed rooms, and failed dreams. These canvases are to be placed above are exiting doorframes, with perspectives constructed from low viewpoints. The glimpses into verisimilitude are often caught mid-stream, with matter-of-fact simplicity, compositions both casual and resigned. As with Rembrandt – the painter, not the pussy band – who posed for over seventy self portraits, and often took up the guise of Biblical figures of sadness, or as with contemporary artist Cindy Sherman and her funny, shocking pictures of herself as a drunken movie star and suicidal housewife, Alex Chilton’s songs commemorate himself as other people, smaller, more misused, buried up to their necks. In fact, when I stroll through these songs, hand in hand, so to speak, with my new hero, he brings all types of urban misfits along, with or without approving commendation. For modern artists, I am most reminded in Chilton’s songs of the great photographer Nan Goldin and her spell-binding 1986 volume, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” These rascals, rogues, con men, and distaff lovers, in these solo outings are and are not our hero, Chilton, famed lover, singular recluse, dishwasher, teenage heartthrob, genius musician. In fact, Chilton’s songs, and the many covers he chooses, most resemble Van Gogh’s late series of coruscating caricatures of the himself, paintings when viewed close up are of vicious strokes flying off the canvas individually, but from a distance, and within a group, portray a calmer madman, a man dissatisfied more with his constrictors of genre than with his life.

 

Chilton’s preoccupations of his solo career, from the outlandish sloppiness of the aborted sessions in 1970 to 1999’s Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy, have pretty much stayed the same. He lives more comfortably inside his southern skin and his roots with black music, delving deeply into urban blues, gospel-like celebrations of dispirited sinners, R&B straight from Rufus Thomas’s Memphis radio show, and the sounds of New Orleans, whose funky lazy sway and strut of the back beats most characterizes Chilton’s simultaneous work ethic and pop song aesthetic. If you come to this music expecting revolution, philosophy, or musical pyrotechnics, you stepped into the wrong revolving door. You may exit now, stage left. Let the rest of us come in, we who appreciate good times, a certain lack of musical seriousness, and the brash, rousing, raucous sounds of a man happy to be alive who is connected to the musical past, to his own present, to himself.

 

Not to say that this is all breakfast cereal for children. Many of the bizarre contortions of his mind re-occur in these songs, whether his own efforts, or in the over sixty that he has covered. He still loves to shock, as he sings about female genitalia, sexual desire, jailbaits, and fearless egotism. He still creeps along the streets, cranky, lacking reserve, looking for love in all the illegal places. These albums, these mini-operas, stretched thinly over weird time and space, are Rorschachs into an aging man and his faded youthful desires, sharing his discoveries with perfect strangers. The fact that many of the songs are shamelessly rambling, derivative, or relatively insipid, makes some of us want more eagerly to hear the next collection’s take on melancholy, regret, and their cataloguing of the scraps in the junkyard.

 

The decline in professionalism heard in Bach’s Bottom and Like Flies on Sherbert has been replaced by a shuffling concern for praising the famous men and women of the South, and their blasphemously peripheral lives: Furry Lewis, sore-backed laborers, women with leather thighs and silver tongues, and Chris Kenner. This is the eccentric annotation of scoundrels, music not with a bullet, but music made from discarded ammunition near Shiloh. Chilton’s discomfort with Modernism is rabid enough to even challenge Darwin’s theories. There is no advancement, no evolution, just mere struggle. His solo career and his narrowing of focus back to land deep in guilt and sorrow and defeat has gained Chilton second-class citizenship with us big city folk, mistaking his covers to be infantile, like Jonathan Richman, when in fact they are torrential in their pity for us, we who once mocked. Although narrowing in musical composition, his covers and their range, with their lack of specialization or single focus, works against him commercially, but paradoxically allows him more freedom to pursue the strange and the overlooked for the next go around. He can feel at home everywhere because he is at home nowhere, and his homelessness and his quest to redress it are the great themes of Chilton’s career.

 

Like the Holy Trinity, Chilton’s solo career conveniently demarcates into three sections, equally separated conveniently by the decades of our calendars. The first decade is beset by willful rejection of such concepts like sound balance, practice, song structure, and recording techniques. 1970, 1975’s Bach’s Bottom (Box Tops, get it?), and the rambunctious, logic-defying Like Flies on Sherbert, from 1979, are from the same decade as Big Star’s three albums of magnificence. This is equivalent to Beethoven’s composing the scores for the Little Rascal shorts as he was completing his ‘9th Symphony’ and ‘Emperor Concerto’. But Chilton is our hero, so plow we must, onward and downward. 1970 is curious, lively, and an essential bridge, obviously, between his teenage singing style and that higher, more expressive and tender voice emergent on the Big Star recordings. As with the three songs he wrote for the Box Tops right before his departure, ‘I Must Be the Devil,’ ‘(The) Happy Song,’ and ‘I See Only Sunshine,’ some of these songs betray a songwriter of burgeoning skills and promise; I particularly like the Gram Parson-like ‘Free Again’ and the Stonesy ‘All I Want is Money,’ but the real gem is the poppy ‘Every Day As We Grow Closer.’ As if Left Banke played at a southern picnic, it’s a stunner that falls apart at the end, like he wasn’t sure how to perfect the form until he met Bell, Stephens and Hummel.

 

Bach’s Bottom has the scorching Seeds cover ‘Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,’ a few droopy pleasant slow songs that lack internal guts, and the great ‘Bangkok’; but the record is a mess, compiled without his permission. ‘Bangkok’ is a song more famous for its reference to Johnny Thunders than its own considerable merits. Because of the allusion, Chilton was “part of the punk scene,” which is like saying because my mother once flipped off a carload of born-agains, she reads the Bible every night. And, she is more punk rock than Alex, which doesn’t diminish the song’s vibrations, fury, and inspired yodeling.

 

In 1979, four years after Big Star’s last, right after Bell’s death, in the middle of his own abuse problems, and surely so pissed off at the American listening public, Donna Summer, and corporate morons driving Porsches, Chilton couldn’t even see straight, so he recorded Flies, an album that he is not seeing straight on. Reviled to the point of repugnance by many, revered by others as an iconographic collection of basement treasures, the album has false starts, sloppy drumming, nonexistent production finishings, cover songs plumbed lazily from truck stop jukeboxes, and those are just the plusses. The singing quality veers from New England college boys singing ‘Mandy’ deep into the night of a college bar contest, to eccentric impersonations of actual good singers, and Chilton’s own intemperate and immoderate crooning, sounding like cats dragged across gravel racetracks. I love it. This is an album in an inverted world: the worse songs sound the freshest to me; the guitar breaks, uniquely unclassifiable, make me laugh out loud. Long live this élan, nerve, and fuck-it-all guts – on 1970, he actually did a medley of the Archies and James Brown. It is god-awful bad, and also unforgettable.

 

The eighties bring Chilton back to greatness, even if the heights are much lower, even if the work is muted by lazy, wandering charm and lack of ambitious musical ideas. He is often reprising his own melodies, locked up in himself. Above all else, as in Big Star, a similar commercial and design eclecticism prevails that grows in size during the process of self-discovery. The impact of technical innovation was never the point, but the element of diversification is observable as a general feature, catering for a broad spectrum of needs and tastes, rather than concentrating on limited forms. This, in turn, facilitated a significant extension of formal possibilities and their application. Chilton in the 1980’s was less sanguine about the possibilities of uniting art and vision for economic or posterity’s advantages. The aim was no longer to improve aesthetic standards; his albums became comfortable and virtuous foundations of decency, good humor, and rootsy cleverness. Highlights of this decade are mostly found on 1987’s High Priest and three EPs, Feudalist Tarts, No Sex, and black list. Each of the collections have sliding, serpentine guitar work, straight from the swamps of a now feral and fertile mind; the singing is lower and haunted, as opposed to his earlier higher and haunting work. None of the backing musicians are world-beaters (although I have come to appreciate the anchorings of long-time collaborator, bassist René Coman); for the most part, Chilton picks up his axe, shouts changes, and after the second take, the band goes for food. I admire this period – the singing is varied and expressive; the instrumentation is mature and pithy; and the rollicking, defiant songs themselves grind against your thighs, like aging strippers fresh out of 24-hour lockup.


 

V. Exit Laughing

 

In man’s evolution he has created the cities and
the motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance
I’d be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle

– ‘Ape Man’, The Kinks

 

Our hero, thankfully, has not gone silent or predictable in the last decade or so; in fact, his re-working of his version of the Great American Songbook suggests a man at peace, a musical maturity not so much because he resides in an age of standards, but because of his eager wish to thank the giants before him by paying homage, connecting in a less provincial manner to the 20th Century. At times, his performances are schmaltzy and annoying – a little too clever, a little too tossed off – and at times head-scratchingly bewildering in his actual selection of material; Chilton’s work on the albums Cliches, A Man Called Destruction and Loose Shoes Tight Pussy (Set, in America) is akin to the work of other idiosyncratic raconteurs of American songs: Richman, Michael Hurley, Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash, Chet Baker, or Charles Brown. Chilton’s song borrowings, from Porter, Styne, Jimmy Reed, Tormé, and Bach, are intimate dialogues created for us, willing collaborators in these tiny psychodramas. We can’t answer back; we can’t complain or adore publicly. We are simple listening in, as if the singer is some retired math teacher in a Hilton Bar outside Helena, playing three nights a week, and we are waiting for the morning’s wake-up call.

 

Not that these enterprises are amateurish; yes, a little, in the sense of avidity for the project, and yes, the performances are roughhewn at times, but if Chilton’s voice has gotten lower, steadier, more gravelly, then isn’t this also a throwback to the proud vocalizations of the Box Top era? And not only does the voice itself resemble a backward leaping over the two previous decades, but the songs leap precariously even further back, as if an addled crooner is doing a non-scholarly musicological survey of his country. The songs are laidback and charming, but for all of their insouciant and pastoral wistfulness, they are filtered through an uncompromising prism of certitude. On Clichés – all covers – highlights include a scintillating cover of ‘Save Your Love for Me,’ done previously by Bobby Bland and then Etta Jones, two of my heroes, and I presume two of Chilton’s southern saints. He covers tenderly Nat King Cole’s ‘What Was,’ and that’s it: you are either down with the conceit of a great musician doing others’ songs, both obscure and real obscure, or you are not. Take a listen, and decide. I dig the corniness and charm, and the musical vibe, the relaxed and expert ambiance. So give the songs a chance. Clichés, however, also has a few missteps: Bach’s ‘Gavotte’ is thin, and even Mormons or Dubya don’t need another ‘The Christmas Song.’

 

Chilton writes half of the songs on the superior A Man Called Destruction, from 1995. The covers include a tender distillation of his astrological fancy, ‘What’s Your Sign Girl,’ done by Danny Pearson initially, under the aegis of the late and lamented love god, Barry White. The band here, as elsewhere, cooks, swampy on some measures, Brill Building-icy on others. The singing on the album is the best since High Priest, and the guitar work is sensational: sexy, smoldering, and recitative of the great licks of rock and roll: Jimmy Reed’s ‘You Don’t Have to Go’ could teach the Animals, Stones, and Pretty Things a few things, and Jan and Dean’s immortal ‘New Girl in School’ is as sunny and as fresh as the clime it came from. Anybody who thinks Chilton has lied down and died needs to re-think their pessimism – there are more highs here, however modulated and conventional, than in most singer/songwriter albums of the ’90’s, and if the material isn’t really your scene, cool, daddy-o, but if a soundtrack to late Saturday night parties is what you are after, this is it: all you have to do is move your feet, to the Harlem Shuffle.

 

In addition to his storied and varied solo work, Chilton has maintained healthy contacts with his two bands, The Box Tops and Big Star. The former have played reunion concerts with the original line-up, Chilton, Gary Talley, John Evans, Bill Cunningham, and Danny Smythe, over the last five years to enthusiastic praise from audience, fan, and friends. They do not limit their material to their own: they let their whips come down on obscure Sun rockers, period oddities, Stax genius, and a show-stopping tribute to Olivier’s movie, The Entertainer, depicting Archie Rice as down and out song and dance man, a Chilton fave. Big Star, this time Chilton, Stephens, and the two Posies, Auer and Stringfellow, were in the Ardent Studios in the spring of 2004 making an album of originals due for release later this year. As with the recent Big Star live shows, and as with Chilton and all his recordings, this event is not to be missed.

 

His latest album, Set, features two real head turners: Chris Farlowe’s ‘Lipstick Traces,’ and honky tonk legend Gary Stewart’s ‘Single Again.’ There is nothing poppy about this album; if anything, this is anti-pop – despairing, with darker tones, and a matter-of-fact resignation. The voice is fine, even possibly more expressive than the earlier two records; it seems here Chilton has come home. I hear more of the Memphis Stax sound here than anywhere else – covering an Eddie Floyd song might explain some of that – and the guitar work is strict Steve Cropper: bursts of quiet fires, probing rhythm fills. The album is a fitting place to end our work here: it’s as if Chilton is re-stoking his own creative fires. Now that this cycle of covers is completed, perhaps Chilton will learn, or desire, to jumpstart his own songwriting. He has often said that he thinks of himself as a performer first, then a guitarist, then a singer; he dismisses his songwriting skills as weak. Right, and Willie Mays was a pissant centerfielder, and grits ain’t groceries. Alex Chilton has changed rock and roll for the better, has written a half dozen masterpieces – how many times has lightening struck your ass down? – and has sent chills into my groin and heart for more than half of my life. If he is no longer at this very time essential, he is liberated, free to skip stones across the brown river god late at night, near Memphis, dreaming of handclapping orisons, anthems to nearly-defunct summertime eras, shiny surfaces of muscle cars unable to conceal the rings of empty ice tea tumblers.


 

NOTES:

 

For an outstanding, up-to-date Chilton discography, check out Crawdaddy Simon’s site: http://www3.sympatico.ca/rasp.arsenault/Records.html. Notice by the nineties the weird labels, the references to France, and the general confusion. Let me make it easy: Skip Rhino’s solo collection; it has five songs (why?) from Sister Lovers. Find the French Top 30 instead. The period from the 1990’s could be more extensive, but you can pick up used copies of the single works anyways, tightwads. I love the 1994 Razor and Tie’s reprint of High Priest; it’s his strongest songwriting post-Big Star and it includes 3 outtakes and the entire black list EP. As for Big Star live, they all have merits (Nobody Can Dance includes 8 studio rehearsals, including the fierce ‘In The Street’ and ‘Mod Lang’), but the two to get are Big Star Live, out on Ryko in 1992, and the outstanding Columbia, Live at Missouri University 4/25/93, where Chilton and Stephens play with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies. Highly recommended. Arista’s Soul Deep: The Best of the Box Tops is also essential, if not perfect. I actually find joy on the individual albums, but I’m from Akron, Ohio, so trust might be an issue here. You must own Chris Bell’s I Am the Cosmos (see below) as both artifact and aphrodisiac, and, of course, Rock City. If you don’t have, or won’t get, the first two Big Star albums, re-issued together on Stax, and Third/Sister Lovers on Rykodisc, then I have failed you.

 

In fairness to Chris Bell, and to Chilton, it’s best to consider Bell’s remarkable I Am the Cosmos on its own, no matter how briefly. Along with Joni’s Blue, Townes Van Zandt and Syd Barrett, Nat King Cole, Love’s Forever Changes, and Beethoven’s Middle Quartets, this album is my Sunday Morning Church Service Music. Recorded in Memphis and France around 1975 and released in 1992 by Ryko, Cosmos features two numbingly gorgeous ballads, the title song, and ‘You and Your Sister’, the latter featuring Chilton on harmonies. The song ‘Better Save Yourself’ sounds like a Let It Be song if all bets were cancelled; the ballad ‘Speed of Sound’ is one of my favorite songs in the world, echoing Gene Clark at his most expressive. ‘Get Away’ and ‘Make a Scene’ would fit nicely in any expanded play list of Big Star’s first, and the songs ‘Fight at the Table’ and ‘There Was a Light’ are funkier, ballsier than what you would expect from this troubled soul, in the midst of losing his way. In 1978 he crashed his Triumph into a telephone pole, dying instantly. He had been lately helping out at his family’s restaurant.

 

The Memphis scene features unsung heroes, like Tommy Hoehn, Cargoe, Hot Dogs, and Short Kuts; no article this long can also not mention the interlocking confluences, guidance of, and musical talents – both playing and engineering – of several key dramatis personae. Terry Manning, already mentioned, Chris Bell’s brother, David, Jim Stephens (Jody’s bassist brother), Eubanks, and the ubiquitous drummer Richard Roseborough, all of who helped with the formation of this Memphis musical ethos and aesthetic in its nascent stages, and then were healthy and talented enough to stick around, propping up their dear friends, Chilton and Bell mostly, in and out of Ardent’s studios. One man and one band should also be mentioned here, purveyors of a post-Big Star pop iconoclasm, of grittiness, bursting with talent and with songs written from the mind and the hips: Van Duren and the Scruffs, products of the late 1970’s. Van Duren’s Idiot Optimism – on Lucky Seven Records as are the majority of these Memphis insiders and outsiders – is a great pop album: super guitar, a wildanimal tenor singer, and tight, rollicking songs. Van Duren is a Badfingery/Ram mixture that adds personality and a polished flourish to Memphis’s sound. The music is peppier than Big Star’s, but after Sister Lovers it’s nice to have songs for singing during showering. If Van Duren is positively pastoral, respectable towards the past, and only gently seceding from the movement, the new brutalism of the Scruffs is almost scary, like the Raspberries after hearing James Williamson on guitar. The songs fly around, like beautiful Japanese pinwheels. The Scruffs have also been thankfully reissued – Rev-Ola – and the music actually screams at you, disjointed and tight, keening and confident, with punkish guitar breaks, and an exuberance that only can be approximated once every few years in musical history. Rob Jovanovic’s book about all this – the Big Star big book – will be released in the autumn of 2004 from Harper Collins. It will be a must read. 

 

Michael Baker

http://www.furious.com/perfect/alexchilton.html

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John L. Micek – “Tell Me When It’s Over: The Paisley Underground Reconsidered” (2002)

January 30, 2009 at 4:03 pm (Reviews & Articles)

This article about the neo-psychedelic movement of the early 80s comes from PopMatters, April 30, 2002… 

 

If you ask Steve Wynn for one of his favorite memories from his days playing on the Los Angeles club scene back in the early eighties, you might be surprised by his answer.

It’s not sharing the bill with such legendary combos as The Rain Parade or Green on Red, or touring the nation, or even recording an album in 1982 that’s come to be viewed as a seminal document of the time (The Days of Wine and Roses — more on which later).

No, when Wynn, the former Dream Syndicate leader (now a solo artist), thinks about the brief flowering of West Coast bands that became known as The Paisley underground, he thinks about a day trip to Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California.

 

The year is 1982. It’s a glorious Fourth of July weekend, and members of the Dream Syndicate, Rain Parade, Salvation Army and the Bangles (before the big hair and “Walk Like an Egyptian”) are all in attendance. It is a day of sun, surf, barbecue and camaraderie.

“It was the defining moment,” Wynn recalled not long ago. “We were all just happy together. We were all into the moment.”

So why should one memory, now 20 years gone, still hold any importance? Why should the activities of a semi-obscure group of bands still hold sway two decades after they first took up their instruments and committed songs to tape?

The answer is twofold.

First, Wynn’s story should resonate with anyone who even vaguely remembers their early 20s: that magical time when your friends are your family, when every sensation is the first one, and (if you’re a musician just starting out) rock is the food and drink that gets you through the day.

“It was a surprisingly supportive scene,” said Steven Roback, who co-founded the Rain Parade with brother David. “Part of it was preestablished friendships between David and I and the Hoffs family. We grew up together, lived two blocks from each other. In fact, I performed in seventh grade musical with Sue [Susannah Hoffs of the Bangles] as the lead.”

The camaraderie between the bands was at least as important as the music they were making. For a period of several years, the Paisley Underground groups crossed paths on tour, shared the same booking agents, and worked on each other’s projects.

The epicenter for the scene was the two-story, Los Angeles apartment kept by desert rockers Green on Red. The band’s barbecues provided a place to schmooze, drink and swap musical ideas. It is a place recalled with great fondness by the Paisley Underground’s various members.

Rain Parade guitarist Matt Piucci puts it this way: “We met the Dream Syndicate through a (Green on Red) barbecue,” Piucci recalled. “They had this place up in Hollywood. From there, we met the [Bangles’] Peterson sisters — Ooh yeah! They were very sweet girls.”

 

The bands that made up the Paisley Underground provide a direct link between the early American underground and the modern alternative rock and alt.country that was to follow a decade later.

“It was a marriage of classic rock and punk,” explained Pat Thomas, co-owner of San Francisco indie Innerstate Records and the Underground’s unofficial historian. “It was a precursor to SubPop and the whole alternative country movement. You’ve got bands like the Long Ryders. Fast-forward 10 years, and everyone thinks that Son Volt is God’s gift to country rock.”

Indeed, the harsh guitar noise of the Dream Syndicate echoed later in the Pixies and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain once cited the Syndicate as an influence) and the twangy guitars of the Long Ryders and Green on Red later provided a blueprint for alt.country pioneers Uncle Tupelo.

“Uncle Tupelo started as we were unraveling,” former Long Ryders bassist Tom Stevens said. “We played St. Louis once, and I don’t know if (Uncle Tupelo leaders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar) were out in the audience taking notes or what.”

Although they disagree about exactly when they were officially christened (listening to the various musicians tell stories about the era is not unlike playing a child’s game of telephone), Wynn and the others do agree that it was former Salvation Army leader Michael Quercio who gave the movement its name.

Quercio — who later went on to form the Three O’Clock and Jupiter Affect — jokingly dropped the Paisley Underground reference during an interview. It stuck. And again, depending on whom you ask, the communal moniker was either a godsend or an albatross.

“We viewed it as joke,” Stevens said. “We didn’t like to be pigeonholed on the one hand. On the other, if people were writing about us and spelling our names right, it was okay.”

Wynn is slightly more charitable.

“I don’t think [Quercio] thought it would stick like it did”, he said. “As dopey as it was . . . it was helpful to have a banner over it. It didn’t really hurt anyone.”

Those involved in the scene also agree on something else: the umbrella label failed to take into account the diverse bands that made up the Paisley Underground scene.

On the one hand, there was the desert rock of Green on Red and the country-punk of the Long Ryders. On the other was the dreamy pop of the Rain Parade and the Salvation Army/3 O’clock. The Dream Syndicate, meanwhile, blended psychedelia with the anger of punk and the mystique of the Velvet Underground.

“These bands in L.A. had extremely diverse musical personalities. Some of them were extremely hard rocking, and that’s why the Paisley Underground is truly a misnomer,” Roback said. “The whole thing was a spontaneous resynthesis of many influences, which happens periodically, colored by the personalities of the people and the times. Rain Parade was very much a recasting of our punk interests in more musical terms, inspired by our fascination with music history.”

Indeed, if you spend any time talking with its constituents, it rapidly becomes apparent that the Paisley Underground’s members are music junkies in the truest sense of the word. Wynn and Piucci, in particular, are repositories of vast stores of rock history. Combine that knowledge with a punk D.I.Y ethic, and the scene explodes.

“We all came out of punk,” Wynn said. “We had a huge musical awakening in 1977, and it just blew everything else away. In 1975, you couldn’t do that. But by 1982, it was second nature.”

That melding of styles also lends the music a certain timelessness that is lacking in other records of the period. Indeed, the Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses or Rain Parade’s stellar debut, Emergency Third Rail Power Trip, still sound refreshingly modern and could easily occupy the same indie airspace as the Strokes or the Anniversary.

“I think it’s because they wrote good songs,” Chicago Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis said of the scene’s staying power. “It’s illuminating to compare the ’60s revivals of the era — the West Coast Paisley Underground and the East Coast garage scene. The bands from the former stay with the fans much more than the latter because they wrote strong material that stood the test of time, while the latter were largely devoted to covers and style (and fashion) over songwriting.”

But by 1985, the scene had disintegrated amid personnel changes, disputes over songwriting, and the old demon: record deals gone bad.

“Unfortunately, they were all united by the fact that they all took turns for the worse when they were signed to major labels,” DeRogatis wrote in his seminal work on the scene, Kaleidoscope Eyes.

“In the days before Nirvana, they proved there was money to be made if the bands were left to their own devices,” DeRogatis wrote. “It’s possible that corporate meddling was to blame. The bands may have lost heart as, with the sole exception of R.E.M., American guitar music was unable to achieve both critical and commercial success.”

 

For a brief, flashing moment, it appeared that the American underground had conquered rock. And through the prism of two decades, the members of the Paisley Underground remain fiercely proud of their legacy.

“The reason the L.A. scene has endured is because the music was really good,” Roback said. “I mean things did get a little absurd when these . . . A&R people started showing up at gigs and throwing money around. But these people were all very talented, and regardless of the label, capable of great things. For about three or four years, all of those bands were on a serious roll, producing great music, which was all different . . . The rest is mainly hype.”

But the artistic achievement was important enough for Innerstate’s Thomas (whose own New York band, the Rochester-based Absolute Gray, provided the Underground with its East Coast branch office) to spend several fruitless months attempting to compile a still-unreleased Paisley Underground boxed set.

He began compiling the set in 1997 at the behest of executives at Rykodisc in England. “I got a phone call out of the blue”, he recalled. “And they were looking for the phone numbers for some of the key members. I was working at a record store and the owner was good friends with the head of A&R at Ryko and he convinced him why I should have the job. Finally, they flew someone out to meet with me, and by 1998, I had the job.”

What followed is a textbook example of the whims of the record business. After spending six months compiling photographs, tracking down old B-sides and compiling live cuts, the rug was suddenly pulled out from under him.

“Ryko got bought out by Island, and they fired the big bosses,” he said. “Pretty much every project got canceled. Every few months, someone from Ryko will call and ask what’s up, but I’d be surprised if it ever sees the light of day.” He’s briefly toyed with releasing the set on his own label, but the costs of such a project would make it prohibitive. “To do it all top-notch would cost about $30,000,” he said. “If we were to do it ourselves, it would cost about $10,000. What needs to happen is that someone needs to take the bull by the horns. I’ll get excited when and if that happens.”

Several hundred miles north of Thomas’ Oakland offices that has already begun to happen.

 

Founded little more than a year ago, the Portland, Oregon-based indie, the Paisley Pop Label, has dedicated itself to keeping the spirit of the Underground alive. In its brief existence, the label has released demos and outtakes by former Windbreaker s Bobby Sutliff and Tim Lee, an Absolute Grey live set, and, more recently, a collection by former True West members Gavin Blair and Richard McGrath called The Foolkillers.

Label owner Jim Huie (himself a frequent collaborator with former True West guitarist Russ Tolman) also moderates a Paisley Underground mailing list. It is, he says, his way of keeping the faith.

“If the Paisley Underground built upon the ’60s, then it’s certainly possible that a younger crowd might take inspiration from the Dream Syndicate and the Long Ryders.”

For his part, Wynn said he’s glad that the Paisley Underground’s legacy has endured and picked up new fans.

“It’s attached to a lot of strong feelings from people”, he said. “I don’t know how many are people who were there at the time and how many are 25-year-old kids who are discovering it for the first time . . . I think it still sounds kind of non-formulaic in ways that other music does not. It still does stand out.”

John L. Micek

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Patti Smith – “a useless death” (1972)

January 29, 2009 at 3:49 pm (Patti Smith, Poetry & Literature)

a useless death

     by patti smith

I am on the scaffold. What excitement!
What glitter! What is going on?
I know so little of this country.
I suspect its the coronation of the queen.
NO. Oh god. I’m wrong.
Its the execution of the queen!
and I’m trapped.
there’s no way I can help.
there’s no way I can avoid watching.
perched on this scaffold.
I gotta bird’s eye view.

The king calls for action. like the
director of some blown out passion play.
He makes a weary gesture.
its clear he hasn’t slept in ages.
first come the ladies in waiting.
there they are. thirty of them.
dressed alike. high-waisted
green taffeta gowns.

moving alike. medieval majorettes.
that flemish air. nose in air.
thirty pairs of tiny hands folded
over protruding bellies.

why are condemned women affecting
a pregnant woman’s gesture?

and how comical it is. thirty sentenced
women swaying. some very pretty indeed.
many on the brink of collapse.

The king is muttering. what is he saying?
seems my hearing has become as acute as my view.

“god damn ladies-in-waiting. get rid
of them. how I’ve despised them. always
clutter up the castle. cluck cluck.”

 

He seems to object to them more than
the queen. but as the saying goes:
kill me ya kill my dogs. and vice versa.
its a package deal. its the rules of
the game. and a king sticks to them.

the ladies are in tears. tearing tissues.
they approach a sizeable block of land.
its roped off and seasoned with fresh
topsoil. 3l shovels are lined up face
down.

The king decrees that they are to dig
their own grave. Jesus what a rucas.
The women lose what composure they
had in the procession. They sob openly.
they wring their hands and cling to
one another. several fall prostrate.
those more distraught tear their hair
and rip their gowns.

This is getting ridiculous. The prince
is embarrassed. I throw a quick glance
toward the castle. Backdrop. There
is the queen. No one has noticed her.
She moves as if a dream. listless.
weightless. she seems to have little
to do with the proceedings. does she
understand that death is near?
she seems completely unaware.

How I admire her! She is a true heroine.
Oblivious of her power. how power, love
and death revolve around her! as though
she had never stood before a mirror.
The king is exasperated. her lack of
recognition. does his word mean nothing?
The ladies-in-waiting make up for it.
they weep harder at the sight of their
gentle queen. they beat their breasts in
unison. a few onlookers swoon. The
cook has to be carried off.

 

The queen is handed a spade. Was that a
smile that crossed her face? its impossible
to tell now.

Suddenly she shivers and says, “I’m cold”.
Instantly I feel the intense cold.
everyone does. god, its below zero.
I’m confused. wasn’t it just spring?
everyone has on thin wraps.
Even the king has but a simple velvet cloak
and not his usual ermine.

The ladies’ teeth chatter. the only way
to keep warm is to move. they begin to
dig like the devil. thirty women working
hard in the soil creates great warmth.
if they stop to rest they’ll freeze
to death.

The queen can’t seem to get in the swing
of things. she helps a bit. loosens a
chunk of hard clay or helps excavate a
huge rock. occasionally a smooth stone
or a pretty piece of crystal will attract
her. she handles it. examines it. turns
it over. drops it in her train which she
has gathered up smiling.
her childish delight in serving herself.

Frost is making it harder to dig. yet
the women are working like madmen to
keep warm.

The king has lost interest. the queen is
wandering off. everyone is going home.

I lose my footing
fall off the scaffold
everything in slow motion.

 

crime without passion

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Joseph Devassy – “Ballad of the Black Field Goal Kicker” (2009)

January 29, 2009 at 6:08 am (Life & Politics, Reviews & Articles)

A recent article from Jan. 22nd, written by a good friend of mine. In it, he analyzes how many of us live our lives trying to conform to what we think society expects of us. This article got me to thinking. Imagine if President Obama had simply “accepted” that a black man could never be elected president, so therefore, why even bother trying? He didn’t of course, and we are all the richer for his determination and boldness. We should all try to follow the brave example of Mr. Obama and the three other gentlemen discussed in this article, who each decided to follow their dreams, despite the limitations of a conformist society. They represent the “pioneering spirit” (as Mr. Devassy states) in all of us, that we each possess but unfortunately allow to remain dormant within ourselves. May we all strive to change that behavior. Don’t settle for the mediocrity we have all allowed ourselves to accept as the “norm” in this country. Don’t blindly follow fashions and trends, just to appear “cool.” Realize it is much more cool to simply be “yourself”…whoever that may be. 

(NOTE: This article has been reprinted in a couple of different places, using my preface, and in one of them, the article was slightly altered. This is the original posting.)
 

     As a psychotherapist in Bristol, Connecticut, I can feel the visceral pulse of ESPN, the sports programming behemoth, whose world headquarters sprawl impressively, mere yards from my office. Invariably, I think of sports, and as I think of sports, I think of America, and the staggering myriad of ingredients that flavor this democracy for the ages. I think of Mr. Barack Obama, and am warmed with the healthy intoxication of witnessing his stirring ascent to the leadership of our still proud country. I think of our president, and marvel at his pioneering spirit, his determined optimism, his grasp of the human condition, and his seemingly innate sense of the components of our republic that need to be displaced or recast. I think of President Obama and understand why a nation was galvanized on that early November day.

     As psychotherapists, my colleagues and I have an imperative duty to assess and interpret the larger culture within which our clients are conducting their recovery efforts. This can be a daunting task, for American society is indeed a complex organism, teeming with a multitude of varied and often intricate cultural messages and expectations. However, as dedicated students of this complicated and intricate culture, it becomes evident that some societal tenets are so established and so embedded, that they pervade every citizen’s existence on some level, regardless of the demographics of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, education, sexuality, economic status, etc. These tenets are often stealthy and surreptitious, ensconced deeply within the cultural psyche, so confident in their ability to influence the populace, and emboldened by the fact that many citizens are simply not cognizant of their oppressive effects.

     Of these tenets, perhaps the most malevolent and disturbing is the overbearing cultural pressure to…conform. Now, clearly, conformity and compliance serve, on several levels, to maintain required aspects of basic social order. However, it is increasingly evident that this powerful and potent tenet of conformity has shaped generation after generation after generation of American citizens into, for lack of a better term, and with all due respect, largely homogenous automatons, subconsciously terrified of “falling out of step,” desperately fearful of the societal censure that accompanies any sustained efforts to operate outside the conventional and rigid cultural parameters of what is defined as “normal.” This collective apprehension, dread, and anxiety of “not fitting in,” is deeply rooted in the psyche of our nation, and further validates the accomplishments of any American social pioneer.

     As the Super Bowl descends upon our nation this weekend, with all its deep and intense sociocultural symbolism, I ask that you please remember three proud men, three true social pioneers…Gene Mingo, Cedric Oglesby, and Justin Medlock. The National Football League was created in 1922 and, from its inception, African-Americans have participated in the action. Conversely, Major League Baseball existed for a half-century before Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier in 1947. Despite nearly ninety years of African-American participation in National Football League combat, these THREE men are the ONLY black Americans to have kicked a field goal in a regular season game. Amidst the thousands and thousands of NFL games played in these years, and the thousands and thousands of players that have filled NFL rosters, Mr. Mingo, Mr. Oglesby, and Mr. Medlock are the only black field goal kickers in history. This is a staggering statistic, given the deserved prominence of the black athlete in American sports history, including the traditionally “white” sports of golf, tennis, and even speedskating. What is even more staggering is that Mr. Mingo kicked his first NFL field goal in 1967, some forty-five years after the inception of the league. Thirty-four years later, in 2001, Mr. Oglesby had the “audacity” to kick five field goals for the Arizona Cardinals. Mr. Medlock completed the trio in 2007, when he kicked one field goal for the Kansas City Chiefs. Historically, there may be no greater dearth of African-Americans, in any occupation, than there has been as NFL field goal kickers.

     Readers must also understand that field goal kickers (a.k.a. placekickers), regardless of skin color, are famously shunned by their brawnier teammates, ostracized for their general lack of intimidating physicality, often cast as social pariahs in the hyper-masculine domains of NFL teams. Consciously choosing to pursue a career path as a field goal kicker is, in and of itself, a decision to “not fit in.” For a black man, choosing this career path can only be seen as an intensely brave decision, and, in my research, three pioneering choices that have never really been acknowledged. While President Obama’s pioneering achievement is understandably seismic and globally lauded, the achievements of the black field goal kicker, while not as distinctive, are seemingly consigned to the dusty cut-out bin of forgotten sports memories. So to Gene Mingo, Cedric Oglesby, and Justin Medlock, wherever you may be, we salute you!

     As you watch the Super Bowl this weekend, and realize that you really can’t, for the life of you, remember any black American field goal kicker, consider the self-induced boundaries that may have materialized in your own life. Please realize that it’s okay to truly “think outside the box,” that it’s okay to slowly break away from the preconceived and prefabricated roles that we have crafted for ourselves. Those around you will resist, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and will likely send verbal and non-verbal messages to not “rock the boat,” as it were, especially those invested in your maintenance of a status quo. Ignore them, for life is short, and they will adapt. It’s never too late to start the quest for your own inner black field goal kicker.

Joseph Devassy

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Monstrance – “Monstrance” (2007)

January 28, 2009 at 8:13 am (Reviews & Articles, XTC)

Andy Partridge’s side project with former XTC bandmate Barry Andrews. This album shows off their experimental side and is definitely an interesting experiment.
This review comes from Roque Strew, from
Pitchfork – May 8, 2007… 

 

Before Andy Partridge locked down his place in the new-wave pantheon as the brain and public face of XTC, he had two loves. One was a famous affair with slightly-off pop and the other was a secret crush on free jazz. Fans may have seen the signs in 1994’s Through the Hill, his record with ambient composer Harold Budd. Partridge finally fully liberates his love for Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler on Monstrance, reuniting with keyboardist Barry Andrews (who left XTC in 1979, later starting Shriekback) and recruiting Martyn Barker (drummer in Andrews’ band). Together they abandon the domain of shimmery pop with a twist for a moody, dissonant netherworld.
It bears repeating: Don’t expect to encounter XTC here. And good luck finding Shriekback. But if you take Monstrance on its own terms — bringing a yen for improvisational, instrumental music — you might feel the strange thrill of eavesdropping on a freewheeling, nonsensical conversation. Culled from roughly eight hours of recordings, we still get to hear the awkward lulls, the autistic blurts, the little foils that often enrich the surrounding noise. Lightly edited and proudly free of overdubbing, Monstrance allows concepts to roam, phrases to drift.
The record’s long prelude, “I Lovely Cosmonaut” unfolds in slow motion, as a rhythm of silences accrues in the potholes, everyone swerving around it, stubbornly, until a fuller rhythm crystallizes. “Winterwerk” is not as coy. On the contrary, Barker turns it into twirling, tropical carnival. Nevertheless, the longer tracks are the richest here. Coming in at 16 minutes, “Priapple” is arguably the centerpiece of the album. Partridge heroically sticks to a pair of fuzzy chords, as Andrews mounts a relentless and chaotic siege, while Barker answers with erratic percussion.
Every song– and not always for the better — seems to be at war with itself. “Chaingang” milks a sense of unease out of two rhythms, Partridge’s ragged Beefheart riffs in 7/4 and Barker in 4/4, that fleetingly lock into place. These blink-and-you’ll-miss-it resolutions, each one a tiny solar eclipse, give the song its thrilling air of flux and incompleteness. During the whole drama, Andrews remains the outsider looking in. He works this same routine in the first half of “Torturetainmen,” while he drills holes — it literally sounds like heavy machinery — into the oddball groove Partridge and Barker crafted together.
Calling this “unlistenable noise” is baffling. This record falls closer to the viscous, chaotic beauty of Swans than the poisonous crunch of Metal Machine Music. All the stretches of darkness have real depth, while at its calmer and more intimate moments, Monstrance evokes the stoic, spacey impressionism of ECM chamber jazz. 

 

Roque Strew 

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Bob Dylan & The Band – “The Basement Tapes” (1975)

January 27, 2009 at 7:02 pm (Bob Dylan, Reviews & Articles)

Paul Nelson’s Sept. 11, 1975 Rolling Stone review (in issue #195) of the famous Basement Tapes (recorded in 1967)…

 

There was a desert wind blowing that night, and the hot breeze that sighed through the open window had just enough muscle to swirl the smoke from the ghosts of a hundred cigarettes a single time around the solitary desk lamp before giving it up as a bad job. I knew the feeling. I had been sitting in the office for days, thinking and rethinking the case. It added up all right — hell, it had added up from the very beginning — but I just couldn’t figure out why. The more I tried to analyze it, the more it resisted my efforts. I got that nervous feeling on the back of my neck that someone very close was telling me to lay off, that to get too involved with the quest for the white-hot center would be to miss the whole point.

Logic is a funny thing to a private detective. It has nothing to do with facts but rather with intuition — a kind of mathematics without damage. After a number of years, you learn to trust your hunches, to draw occasionally to that inside straight no matter what the book said. Especially if the people you were playing with — in this case, Bob Dylan and the Band — made up new rules each time out in the only worthwhile game in town.

What got to me was that I knew what they were doing but I couldn’t explain it, not in words anyway. Arguably, I’d had some luck with Dylan before, was not unfamiliar with his circuitous, sporadic manner. He wasn’t a classicist; instead he played spontaneously, from the heart, stringing together such disparate cards that only the force of his will held his ideas together. The results he got were amazing, often magical. He’d had some lean years in the late Sixties and early Seventies when he’d tried to run some more or less conventional bluffs, but now he was as personal and enigmatic as ever.

Or was he? I couldn’t be sure.

The Basement Tapes seemed destined to remain a mystery, and I wasn’t at all sure that Dylan hadn’t planned it that way from the start.

The office was in the Arbogast Building on Embryo Street off Perelman Square, half a block from Coma Noodle Corporation, right next to the Ambergris Diner and the Dead Souls Church and Motel. It’s in the basement — a little irony there — and that fact perhaps provides a peculiar perspective.

I swung my feet up on the desk, thumbed a match, set fire to a cigarette, stared at the phonograph and got ready to face the music again. I had always prided myself on being a professional, an eye who looked up straight into all that heaven allowed. In my life, there was always a new case, new clients, a few old ones who never left; thus far I managed to satisfy most of them — and myself as well — with the proper explanations at the proper time. This go-round, I didn’t feel half so cocky.

Marcus, the Berkeley op who’d done some preliminary work on the case, had warned me. He’d said: “Do it quickly. If you listen too long and don’t get out fast, you’ll never get out.”

He was right.

All of the documentation was in order, plus a lot of inspired speculation. The music was eight years old, but it could have been made eight minutes or eight decades ago; it wouldn’t have mattered. It had once been illegal, sold under the counter. Hell, even now it wasn’t complete — these things never are. Nobody had even heard any of the Band’s songs before — they were sapped before Music from Big Pink — and at least four of them (“Yazoo Street Scandal,” “Katie’s Been Gone,” “Bessie Smith,” “Ain’t No More Cane”) would have as difficult to hide as a bosomy blonde under a bushel basket.

Missing from the Dylan file were “Get Your Rocks Off!,” “Sign on the Cross,” “I’m Not There (I’m Gone),” the celebrated “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn)” and “I Shall Be Released” and who knows what else. Added was an unheard ace in the hole, “Goin’ to Acapulco,” the kind of cosmic bawdy song that is so achingly beautiful it is about everything that it isn’t about as well as what it is about, if you know what I mean. So was most of Basement Tapes, for that matter.

Marcus had pretty well let the cat out of the bag with his report, included in the total package. It’s all there. You can read it. The facts, the camaraderie of equals, the notion of a hard testing ground, superb musicianship, randiness, roots, memory, archetypal American music and its obsession with mystery and death. All there and all true.

But the white-hot center remains laughing and unexplained.

Untouched.

I was on my fourth carton of cigarettes and time was running out fast. I knew I had to take a shot at it soon but no man likes to play the fool. Truths? There were no truths in this case. I had known that for a long time, that and little else. In death and matters of the heart, we are all of us amateurs, someone once said. Maybe it was me.

Down the hall came the eager footsteps of my partner, my alter ego. Something of a dandy, he once translated the complete works of Leonard Cohen into Canadian so he’s probably not to be trusted. I usually take what he has to say with more than a shot of rye.

He opened the door and debauched in, a wolfish smile on his face as he polished a simile. He’d been out doing the usual legwork. He stared at the wax on the machine. “Tears of Rage,” was playing.

“The traditional approach to Dylan is through his lyrics,” he said. “Figuring out what those words mean is like trying to read a book with your ears.”

“That’s a metaphor,” I said. “But it’s not bad.”

“Since all of these songs were recorded between June and October of 1967, they should logically provide an aesthetic link between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, not to mention Big Pink

“They don’t,” I said.

He looked worried. His eyes, the color of unset rhinestones, darkened, lightened, got darker again.

“We are dealing with the real Bob Dylan and the Band here,” he said. “Yet there is a hidden language, masks within masks…”

“No,” I said slowly, rolling the syllable across my tongue like a billiard ball on the le of night. “No.” I bit off the end of the word sharply.

He said: “You don’t think…”

I stared at him. “The Basement Tapes are no more the real Dylan, the real band, than are the ‘official’ recordings. They are no better and no worse than Highway 61 Revisited, et al., but surely very different. There’s something to the hidden-language theory, but not the way you mean it — hell, the janitor, laughs at “Clothes Line Saga” and cries at “This Wheel’s on Fire.” There are no masks.”

Nobody said anything for a while. I let a cigarette burn down between my fingers, until it made a small red mark. It had been that kind of caper. The end was very near. I could feel it on the back of my neck. Suddenly, I felt very sad.

“You’ve solved the case?” he said. He acted like a sulky child.

“No,” I said thickly. My face was set hard and deeply lined. I could feel my eyes burning madly. “I haven’t solved the case and I don’t intend to. No one will ever figure out The Basement Tapes the way you want to; somehow it would be indecent. They’re either King Lear or they’re nothing — take your pick, then leave them alone. I respect them and I think I understand them, and that’s enough for me.”

“You’re not serious,” he said. “You don’t expect me to think . . .”

“I don’t care what you think,” I said.

I nodded toward the inner office to indicate that I was going in there, and went in there. I picked up a book named Keep It Crisp and read a story called “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer.” I liked it fine. When a man’s partner is routed, you’re supposed to do something about it. I kept thinking. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him.

I said: “Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give it up.”

“All right,” he said.

“Listen. The songs on The Basement Tapes are the hardest, toughest, sweetest, saddest, funniest, wisest songs I know, yet I don’t know what they’re about. Friendship, sex, death, heroism, learning from others. I guess history and inevitability are in there too. And sorrow and longing. Second, they’re as personal or impersonal as abstract paintings, but, that doesn’t make them difficult. You just have to go at them in a different way. Third, they’re about survival with honor and without bitterness. If there are tests, they’ve all been passed, and what you’re hearing are the results. Serious comedy. Deadpan tragedy.”

He said: “I think…”

“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, the songs are home music, barroom music played pleasure and for the hell of it by and for musicians with a shared experience outsiders may not fully understand. Nobody ever figured they’d be an album someday. Next, they’re playful and competitive, the music and lyrics snarled and spit out of the corners of one’s mouth. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that these were inspired times, and Dylan and the Band could as well have been singing and playing the telephone book. Seventh, when somebody offers me a joke, I just say no thanks. I try to tell it like it is. And eighth — but that’s enough. All those on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that you want one hard clean answer.”

“I do,” he whispered, “whether you do or not.”

“I don’t. I won’t play the sap for you. As far as I’m concerned The Basement Tapes are the stuff of dreams, brass-lined maybe. I like them like that. You want to solve the case? It’s yours.” 

 

Paul Nelson

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Ed Howard – “‘Smile’: The Definitive Lost Album” (2003)

January 27, 2009 at 4:03 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles, The Beach Boys)

 

Written in two parts for Stylus magazine, July 28 and Aug. 4, 2003 (prior to Brian Wilson doing his own version with his current band), comes this long, in-depth discussion on the greatest album that never was… 


It is the ultimate irony that one of the most famous (and infamous) Beach Boys album has never even been officially released. Critics have endlessly discussed the impact of the group’s undisputed masterpiece, 1966’s Pet Sounds, and nostalgic fans have long been enamored of the band’s early surfing-cars-and-girls singles, but arguably even more attention has been dedicated to the group’s Smile era. Despite the impressive accomplishments of the Beach Boys during their early-to-mid ’60s peak, they will forever be remembered for the one accomplishment they failed to deliver.

The story of Smile has been well-documented, starting even before the sessions for the album fell apart. Although the relatively adventurous Pet Sounds had been a commercial disappointment compared to the Boys’ past work, it was also critically lauded and almost universally embraced within the rest of the musical community. The album’s emotional beauty reportedly brought Paul McCartney to tears, in a time when the Beatles and the Beach Boys were both competitors and a mutual inspiration for one another. It was a remarkable record that deliberately set off to infuse pop music with a naked emotional content that had not often been present previously. The true miracle of this phase of the band’s evolution is that Brian Wilson, who had masterminded Pet Sounds and most of the Boys’ other peak-era material, really knew that he was onto something special here. He was purposefully branching out into previously unexplored avenues, not just on a personal level, but for pop music in general.

Though Brian had been the de facto leader of the Beach Boys ever since their earliest days, in the mid-60s he truly came into his own as the primary — even sole — source of the band’s artistic vision. When he quit touring in 1964 to concentrate full-time on the studio (an idea the Beatles would embrace en masse a few years later), the Beach Boys’ records began to head into distinctly new creative terrain. 1965’s The Beach Boys Today! heralded this new direction with more audacious productions, serious, introspective (though still very teenage) lyrics, and the use of session musicians to play most of the instrumental parts. Brian followed up Today! with Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which was just as impressive in its epic pop scope. The glorious singles “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls,” coupled with equally stunning lesser-known cuts like “Let Him Run Wild,” “Kiss Me, Baby,” and “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” were indicative of Brian’s increasing confidence and ambition in the studio.

These two records were a drastic departure for the band, paving the way for the near-perfection of this more sophisticated sound on Pet Sounds. Most impressively, at least prior to Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ comparatively more experimental outings still sold lots of records, despite the restless tinkering with their already successful formula. With the weight of these expectations behind him, Brian set out to make what many — Brian included — claimed would have been the best album ever made.

But first, immediately after completing work on Pet Sounds, Brian returned to the studio to craft a song called “Good Vibrations,” which he had started during the early ’66 album sessions but postponed until he could dedicate his full attention to it. The single, called a “pocket symphony” by Brian, represented a completely unprecedented form of production, a massive leap forward in recording methods. As impressive as Brian’s multilayered production on Pet Sounds and its predecessors had been, “Good Vibrations” was an even greater leap forward in the Beach Boys’ evolution; it would also prove to be their last truly significant, commercially available work.

Using the studio as an instrument, Brian recorded multiple instrumental and vocal sections for the song, taking six months to record, re-record, and arrange the different segments into a coherent whole. He experimented with many different arrangements, finally crafting the definitive mix which has become one of the most famous and well-loved rock singles of all time. Although the other Beach Boys reportedly complained about Brian’s relentless attention to even the tiniest details, the result spoke for itself, and his efforts were validated in October of 1966 with the group’s first #1 selling single.

Fresh off this success and the critical acclaim for Pet Sounds, Brian was reportedly bursting with creativity and enthusiasm. He was anxious to complete a work that could compete successfully, both on a commercial and artistic level, with the contemporary accomplishments of the Beatles. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, with its thematically consistent, high-quality suite of songs, had inspired Brian to create Pet Sounds, and the continuing friendly competition between the two groups further spurred Brian’s genius.

Smile was born from several projects Brian was considering at the time: an album of comedy, a fitness album, a record featuring only water sounds. In the fall of 1966, before “Good Vibrations” was released, Brian combined these ideas and began work on what would have been the Beach Boys’ next album, the successor to Pet Sounds. The album, at first dubbed Dumb Angel — to indicate the conflict between spirituality and earthliness that would have been one of the record’s central themes — represented a hotbed of Brian’s diverse ideas from this period. He wanted to make a record that would build on the innovations of the past year, continuing the group’s evolution from innocent surfers to an artistic outlet for Brian’s increasingly sophisticated ambitions. He also wanted to make an LP that would live up to its title, a happy record that would spread the “good vibrations” he so badly desired to foster in his fans.

The advance billing on Smile was incredibly positive. It was one of the most talked-about albums in the rock press in late 1966 and early 1967, and reports from journalists who visited Brian in the studio largely confirmed the expectations that this would be one of the most amazing recordings ever. Capitol, the Boys’ label, initially scheduled the album for a December ’66 release, a date that was continually pushed back as Brian dedicated more and more work to perfecting the album. Even as the sessions stretched out far beyond what had been anticipated, early in December Brian wrote up a tentative tracklist featuring the 12 songs that the album would feature when completed. Using this, the label commissioned the artist Frank Holmes to design a booklet for Smile, listing the songs Brian named on the back of the sleeve with a notation to look at the record itself for the proper order. The 12 tracks on Brian’s memo were:

Do You Like Worms?
Wind Chimes
Heroes & Villains
Surf’s Up
Good Vibrations
Cabinessence
Wonderful
I’m in Great Shape
Child is the Father of the Man
The Elements
Vega-Tables
The Old Master Painter/Sunshine

Capitol printed up 400,000 copies of the album jackets along with Holmes’ 12-page booklets, still optimistically anticipating a release in the not-so-distant future, while Brian continued feverishly spinning off ideas for the record. The sessions halted several times — including once because of a royalties dispute with Capitol — and infighting between the other Beach Boys and Brian further stalled the recording. It’s clear that Brian’s arty ambitions for the album simply seemed weird and uncommercial to the rest of the group, and their clashes intensified as the sessions progressed. A particular bone of contention with the group was Brian’s new lyrical collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, whose abstract, poetic, and often nonsensical lyrics infuriated the other Beach Boys (especially the Wilsons’ cousin, Mike Love). Brian’s growing drug habit, which at least partially inspired the album’s heavy psychedelic content, was another problem, and his sometimes weird behavior in the studio raised concerns about the viability of the entire project.

By the early months of 1967, it was obvious that Smile was disintegrating. In February, Brian concentrated solely on the planned first single “Heroes & Villains,” only to abandon that and focus his efforts on “Vega-Tables,” which he also scrapped after two feverish weeks of work. Brian’s behavior was growing increasingly erratic and idiosyncratic, and he was frustrated by his inability to convey his ideas to the rest of his group. The sessions grew more fractured than ever, old ideas were abandoned and new ones commenced, and Van Dyke Parks left the project in the wake of criticism from Mike Love and the other Beach Boys.

By May of that year, the Smile album had been abandoned altogether, with countless hours of tapes thrown into the vaults. In its place, the group hastily assembled an album called Smiley Smile and released it in September of 1967 to an underwhelming reaction. The LP was a slipshod collection of salvaged Smile bits and pieces, featuring some material recorded during the ’66-’67 sessions, as well as some newly recorded parts. The record, in stark contrast to the crisp studio perfection of Brian’s previous work, was roughly produced and assembled in virtually no time at all.

The reaction to Smiley Smile was unenthusiastic, especially considering all the pre-release hype that had been given to this material for the previous ten months. In the wake of all that build-up for the greatest album ever made, Smiley Smile’s loony, half-finished psychedelia couldn’t really be anything but an incredible disappointment. The LP wasn’t helped by the fact that the re-recordings were distinctly inferior to the Smile-era versions of the same songs. Although virtually no one at that time had heard the gorgeous Smile realizations of “Heroes & Villains,” “Wonderful,” “With Me Tonight,” “Vega-Tables,” or “Wind Chimes,” there was still a palpable sense that the takes available simply didn’t live up to the group’s promise.

Now, with the actual Smile material accessible on numerous bootlegs, Smiley Smile only seems even more flawed, though it retains a certain charm in its off-the-cuff rawness and childlike whimsy. Still, the defining feeling running through the album — and indeed all of the Beach Boys’ subsequent recordings — is one of disappointment. Following the Smile debacle, the Beach Boys would never again approach the heights they’d once so confidently scaled. The late ’60s and early ’70s saw the group releasing a handful of uneven but enjoyable albums, many of which recycled Smile material as a draw to longtime fans. Even so, these albums were largely unsuccessful with both the public and the critical community, and re-packagings of their surf-and-sun greatest hits consistently sold much better than their new studio albums. Over time, the Beach Boys mutated into an oldies act, selling out large-scale tours on the strength of their nostalgic hits.

Brian Wilson’s role in the group has diminished along with his band’s success. Smiley Smile was the first Beach Boys album to bear the notation “produced by the Beach Boys” rather than the proud “produced by Brian Wilson” which had adorned the group’s peak-era records. Never again would Brian assert a dominant role in the group; on 1973’s Holland, he fully relinquished the production to his brother Carl, and subsequent albums have often hardly featured Brian at all. The wake of the Smile disaster left Brian’s confidence completely shattered. His self-perceived failure to compete with the Beatles destroyed all of his artistic drive, and though he’s released a few solo albums over the years, he has never truly come close to matching his former glories. The combination of his late-’60s drug use with his fragile ego has caused him to withdraw almost totally from public life.

All of this is the readily available mythology of Smile. The album has been one of the most discussed and dissected unreleased records ever made, and the availability of bootleg recordings documenting the sessions has only further fueled the dialogue. Multiple theories abound concerning what Smile might actually have been if it had been completed, and many mysteries are contained even within Brian’s semi-official tracklist, not to mention the scores of unfinished takes, brief instrumentals, and experiments that were attempted during the sessions.

Some who have written about the album — most notably Domenic Priore, whose book “Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!” is considered the definitive tome on the subject — have contended that Smile was virtually finished when Brian abandoned it, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Certainly, significant work was completed on almost all the songs Brian listed, but likewise almost none of them were finished. Preliminary mixes had been made (in some cases several times) for “Heroes & Villains,” “Wonderful,” “Cabinessence,” “Prayer,” and “Wind Chimes,” but “Surf’s Up,” “Do You Like Worms?,” and “Child is the Father of the Man” were missing crucial vocal parts, and the remaining songs (including “I’m in Great Shape” and “The Elements”) had only been worked on minimally.

More likely than Priore’s convoluted theory regarding Smile — which went so far as to posit a song order based largely on speculation — is that Smile was, simply put, nowhere near finished in May of 1967. Furthermore, any effort to guess at what the album might have sounded like would be nothing more than conjecture. When Smile was abandoned, the material that existed was spread out over months and months, comprising half-finished songs, fragments, experimental sessions, reams of vocal overdubs, alternate versions, and rough mixes. It’s virtually impossible to take this disparate, haphazardly compiled material and form an image of what Brian intended Smile to be at the time; to do so would require actually getting into Brian’s thoughts from the period, and even then it’s likely that he himself didn’t have a clear, constant, single idea for the album.

What exists from the Smile period, then, is the equivalent of dozens of separate albums that might have been. There is no sense in attempting to reduce these recordings to the traditional pop album it would’ve been if it had come out in 1967. Instead, the Beach Boys’ unfinished album is best heard as a movie reel on the making of a record: multiple takes of each song, with no definitive version. These recordings are among the most intriguing, constantly fascinating music ever made; in a way, a more informative and enjoyable listen than any non-existent Smile single album could have been.

This is the spirit with which I will approach the rest of this article, peering into the inner workings of each song from the Smile era, and hopefully shedding some greater light on the project as a whole along the way. The 12 songs from the Capitol tracklist will serve as signposts, guides to reveal a fuller picture of this nearly unfathomable work of art. As a portrait of the creative process at work, the Smile sessions are unrivaled in popular music, a voyeuristic thrill for the rock connoisseur, a diagram of the recording process laid bare.

A NOTE ON BOOTLEGS

Naturally, given the nature of Smile, numerous unofficial bootlegs of varying quality exist. The documentation of the sessions has been spread out over thirty years, and no definitive bootleg sums up the entire project. The popular (and now defunct) bootleg label Vigotone has produced a two-disc version that is considered one of the best for its balance between near-finished songs and session fragments, although it is marred by errors and incompleteness (for instance, it contains no completed mix of “Heroes & Villains”). Numerous other single disc approximations of the album have often been released, mostly consisting of the widely accepted “finished” songs. The best of these may be on the Sea of Tunes label, which has released a wealth of Beach Boys rarities. Their Unsurpassed Masters series dedicates volumes 16 and 17 to Smile, with the 16th installment featuring an 18-song line-up of rough full mixes, and volume 17 compiling three discs of studio sessions and song segments.

Another good source for the raw sessions is the Japanese vinyl bootleg Archaeology, which dedicates three of its five LPs to The Lost Smile Sessions, totaling to nearly two hours of studio sessions representing around fifteen different tunes from the album. Numerous other bootlegs have been made available over the years, but all of them essentially contain the same core material of (mostly) completed songs and session tapes, and relatively little new material has surfaced over the years.

There is also a sizable amount of Smile material available on official releases from Capitol Records. The Beach Boys consistently salvaged old material from the album for their new recordings throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The albums Smiley Smile (1967), Wild Honey (1967), 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), and Surf’s Up (1971) all contained reworked and newly finished versions of Smile songs, some of them remaining true to the original conceptions, and some departing significantly from the originals. Additionally, Capitol’s reissues of these albums as twofers with two albums on one CD have also included a number of bonus tracks, many of which date from the late 1966-early 1967 era.

Capitol has also included some Smile-related material on the box set Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys, released in 1993; the set’s second disc includes about half a CD’s worth of Smile takes on some of the era’s most well-known songs. Several times, Capitol has attempted to release Smile material en masse, either as a single album or a box set compilation. In every case — most prominently a proposed 1988 release for which engineer Mark Linett even prepared tapes of rough mixes — Brian has sabotaged the idea. Some of Linett’s mixes have been included on the Good Vibrations box, though, and his unused mixes have also provided the basis for many of the newer bootleg releases.

In preparing this article, I have used all of the sources available to hear the Smile material. In addition to the officially released versions from the box set, the original albums, and twofer bonus tracks, I have relied mostly on Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 16, The Lost Smile Sessions, and the Vigotone two-disc set.

PRAYER

Although Brian Wilson didn’t consider the short a cappella group chant “Prayer” a proper album track (and hence didn’t include it on his tracklist memo), it’s clear from the recording sessions for the song that he did intend for “Prayer” to be included on the Smile album. During the recording for the song, Brian told Mike Love (who thought the tune was good enough to be a full song) that “this is a little intro, you know, to the album.” This knowledge makes “Prayer” the only Smile song that holds a definitive place on the album, since Brian’s tracklist was only a preliminary listing of the songs that would be on the album, without indicating the order in which they would appear.

The song was recorded in one day (October 4, 1966) very early in the sessions for Smile, and was probably considered pretty much complete by Brian, since he did no more work on the tune for the remainder of the sessions except to cut out a brief section towards the end. Around five minutes of session tapes from October 4 have been preserved on bootlegs, and they provide a fascinating glimpse into how much work Brian would commit to even the simplest of songs. The tapes reveal that Brian probably didn’t think much of this song — it was the introduction to the album, and he seemed eager to get it out of the way quickly and commence work on the real material. Throughout the recording, he rushes the other Beach Boys, reminding them that they had to get to work on “Wind Chimes” next; in fact, recording on that song was not commenced until the next day.

However, despite Brian’s desire to get this intro out of the way, he didn’t sacrifice any of his well-known perfectionism in recording it. Multiple takes were attempted of the complex multi-part harmonies, with Brian directing the other Beach Boys to get it exactly right. Not only was he trying to get the notes perfect — which the talented vocalists could easily pull off — but he seemed to be aiming for a more abstract quality in the performance that couldn’t easily be explained to the other singers. Once the group gets past actually learning the composition and starts getting the notes right, Brian also instructs them in the actual sound that the vocal blend should have. It is truly amazing to hear the progression from their first tentative stabs at the song to the gorgeous, full-bodied reading that they finally completed.

With its wordless, evocative harmonizing, “Prayer” would have been a perfect introduction to the album’s abstract themes and lyrical content, a nod to the Beach Boys of old while preparing listeners for the group’s new tendencies. As it was, the song wasn’t released officially until the 1969 album 20/20 (renamed “Our Prayer”) with only minimal overdubs added to the final section of the song.

One interesting note from these sessions is that Brian can be heard asking his brother Dennis for a joint between takes, and at another point someone asks “do you guys feel any acid yet?” This is one of many glimpses into exactly the conditions that the group was working under for much of these sessions; although things would get worse later, already there were signs of Brian’s demanding studio persona and the potentially crippling drug use of the band members.

GOOD VIBRATIONS

Saying any more about “Good Vibrations” seems almost redundant, given the large body of work which has already been dedicated to this single. More than virtually any other hit in recorded history, it has been dissected and analyzed from every perspective. And no song can hold up to the scrutiny in quite the way that this one can; it remains as much a part of the rock canon as anything by the Beatles or the Stones, and arguably more influential and inventive than either. The bootleg labels Vigotone and Sea of Tunes have each dedicated an entire three-disc box to just this song, including multiple session takes and overdub sections. Analyzing this song in-depth would take up its own separate essay, and would be far beyond the scope of this piece.

However, it is worth taking a moment here to discuss the place that the track held in the context of the larger Smile project. “Good Vibrations” was not originally part of Brian’s conception for the album. Started in February of 1966, during the Pet Sounds sessions, the single was completed and released by October of that year, while the Beach Boys were involved in work on their next album. The single was at first supposed to have been on Pet Sounds, but Brian quickly realized that his ambitions for the song would have pushed back the album’s release date by an unreasonable amount of time. So, he shelved “Good Vibrations,” working on it only sporadically until Pet Sounds was finished.

Then, throughout the summer Brian recommenced work on the single, recording section after section in an effort to reach pure pop nirvana. The use of the Theremin — an exotic instrument that is played without actually touching it — was revolutionary for the time, but that was nothing compared to Brian’s inventive method of assembling the tune. The song was recorded piecemeal, a massive departure from past procedures that signaled the changes to come for the Smile sessions. Brian fastidiously arranged the recording, hiring professional musicians (as he’d previously done for Pet Sounds) and only bringing the Beach Boys in to sing. His attention to detail extended to every aspect of the recording, as the many, many snippets of available outtakes from the song reveal.

The various bootleg sets dedicated to the song capture the many ideas Brian threw around in recording it, and the extant studio fragments are in many ways as exciting as the finished song. The Capitol Good Vibrations box and the Smiley Smile/Wild Honey twofer include a collage (made by Mark Linett) of various sessions which trace the song’s evolution. The aforementioned twofer also includes the song’s first take ever, recorded on February 18, 1966, which features completely different lyrics than the single version — the original Tony Asher-penned words, before Brian and Mike Love rewrote them in May. What this version reveals, more than anything, is just how complete this song was from the moment it was first attempted; even in its rough form, it’s a beautifully written gem.

Brian made many rough edits of the song during the six months he was working on it, always revising and re-recording until he had exactly the sound he wanted. The result was nothing short of the perfection he sought: a “pocket symphony” in every sense, full of complex arrangements, gorgeous vocal harmonies, and hairpin turns from one section to the next. And yet it was all so beautifully put together that not a note seemed out-of-place, and all of the sudden changes felt natural rather than jarring. It was, and still is, the best pop single ever made.

The importance of “Good Vibrations” for Smile cannot be underestimated either. The single was a complete validation of Brian’s wild ideas, a boost of confidence after the lackluster sales of Pet Sounds. With Pet Sounds, Brian felt he had made his most personal artistic statement yet, but the pride he felt in it was tempered by what he perceived as its failure in the marketplace. “Good Vibrations,” finally, unified Brian’s artistic and commercial ambitions, convincing him that he could be successful with both fans and critics.

The song also pointed the way towards the methods Brian would employ in the studio for Smile. The unique approach to recording “Good Vibrations” had resulted in a truly revolutionary single, and Brian envisioned the next Beach Boys album as being just as radical. He claimed that Smile would be “as much an improvement over [Pet Sounds] as that was over Summer Days,” and he planned to achieve those results by applying his new studio techniques to the entire album. The problem, of course, was that Brian’s new methods, expanded on a grand scale, could (and did) easily sprawl out of control.At the time of “Good Vibrations,” though, everything still seemed possible. The Beach Boys were on top of the charts and selling out concerts all over the world, and Brian was excited to be going back into the studio to work on a new batch of songs with his friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Parks, incidentally, had been asked by Brian to rewrite the lyrics for “Good Vibrations” towards the end of the sessions for the song, but Parks refused so as not to get off on a bad foot with Mike Love, who co-wrote the song with Brian.

When Brian started work on Smile, he did not think of “Good Vibrations” as part of the album. It’s likely that he was later convinced to include it by Capitol executives — who, facing the prospect of a second album in a row without a clear single, were eager to add an established hit to the decidedly uncommercial project. By the time Brian sent Capitol the tracklist memo, he had apparently ceded to the pressure, committing to the tune as one of the 12 tracks. In fact, when the Smile jackets were pressed, the label included the song title written several times below the album title, giving prominent billing to the #1 single in an effort to boost sales.

Still, even as a slightly out-of-place hit stuck onto an in-progress album, the song’s off-kilter majesty seems to fit in well amid the rest of the Smile oddities. Certainly, it would have been a lot more comfortable on that album than it ultimately was on Smiley Smile, where it sticks out rather conspicuously.

HEROES & VILLAINS

The proposed follow-up single to “Good Vibrations” was “Heroes & Villains,” a song which was one of Brian’s primary fixations throughout the album sessions. He worked harder and spent more time on “Heroes” than on any other song for the LP, and his conception of what the track should be changed frequently. Clearly, expectations for the next single after “Good Vibrations” were ludicrously high, and the pressure to create an equally ingenious hit may have been part of the reason that Smile fell apart.

In addition to being the chronological successor to “Vibrations,” “Heroes” inherited that song’s recording methods as well. The production on “Heroes” was conducted piecemeal, spanning virtually the entire time that Brian was working on Smile, with new sections being recorded and rejected all the time. Brian completed numerous rough mixes, with at least four vastly different versions of the song, but he never settled on a final mix during the sessions.“Heroes & Villains,” in many ways can be seen as the lynchpin of the entire Smile project, and a rather weak lynchpin at that. From the very beginning, this song commenced the unwinding of Brian’s ambitions, because unlike “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes & Villains” was not a finished, planned-out song from the moment it was started. Brian wrote and rewrote the song many times, with many different segments that would often be rejected and subsequently spun off into separate songs. As such, the sessions for “Heroes” were among the most prolific (and troublesome) of the period, spawning a whole subset of material that ultimately had little to do with the song itself. Virtually the only constant element in the song from its earliest stages to its official release was the opening verse, which began with the line “I’ve been in this town so long…” All of the available mixes kick off with this familiar energetic opening, but the rest of the song was constantly being re-imagined.

Because of Brian’s ever-shifting vision for the single, “Heroes & Villains” was always a much less cohesive song than “Good Vibrations,” with the different sections often transitioning rather jarringly into one another. “Heroes” is illustrative of the breakdown of Brian’s new compositional methods when subjected to a deadline. After all, “Good Vibrations” alone had taken six months to complete, a rather excessive amount of time to spend on a three-and-a-half minute single. In trying to apply his piecemeal studio techniques to an entire album, Brian overextended himself and ultimately collapsed under the pressure of turning out an LP that would meet his exacting standards.

The sessions for “Good Vibrations,” though long and perhaps overly perfectionist, had at least been working towards the concrete goal of a song that was already written. “Vibrations” had distinct parts, a definite structure, and some key constants in the arrangements at all points in its recording; Brian’s perfectionism, then, was limited to getting each part to sound just right. With “Heroes” (and the Smile album in general), Brian had no definite goal to work towards, and in addition to getting the music to sound perfect, he also obsessed over the proper placement of each individual piece of the puzzle. To make things worse, he often redefined his objectives in mid-thought, as we can hear from the mounds of half-finished Smile scraps. “Heroes” was continually reinvented, each time drastically altering the tone and idea of the composition, while scrapping weeks of work on a whim. As such, the sessions stalled — for the song and the album as a whole — and eventually ground to a halt altogether. In February 1967, Brian concentrated all his efforts on the single, stopping work on all other songs. Nevertheless, by March the sessions had broken down yet again without an acceptable mix, and for a few weeks in April Brian considered “Vega-Tables” to be the first single, probably because “Heroes” had been so problematic.

What remains of “Heroes & Villains,” though, is nevertheless fascinating. Even more fractured (and arguably more inspired) than “Good Vibrations,” this single track was a distillation of everything that Brian was working towards in this period. The song, along with its numerous spun-off tracks and discarded sections, is a pocket opera where “Good Vibrations” was a “pocket symphony.” In all its various versions, “Heroes & Villains” told a story, though the actual narrative changed depending on what sections were being added or discarded at any given time.

Brian regarded the track as “a three minute musical comedy,” a fulfillment of his aim to fuse humor into a rock record. “Heroes,” as heard in its original Smile context, is not a comedy song per se, but its lighthearted tone and frantic lack of structure give it a distinctly fun feel. The version of the song that was eventually released, however, contained few hints of what Brian had been working on for Smile. The official follow-up to “Good Vibrations” was not released until July 31, 1967, almost three months after the album sessions fell apart. Hastily re-recorded and assembled for the Smiley Smile LP, this official version of the “Heroes” single bears little resemblance to the various Smile takes, in either tone or quality.

Although this version is, on its own merits, a pretty remarkable tune, it could not have been anything but a disappointment coming as it did on the heels of the album collapse and the incredible hype that had been built up over the preceding months. The disjointed mix which appears on Smiley Smile was cobbled together from a combination of new recordings and raw material from the various Smile takes. In fact, a surprising amount of the single does come from the 1966 and early 1967 sessions, but its arrangement and production are intentionally rough and slipshod, indicating the complete end of an era; after this song, Brian would no longer be the studio guru.

The single starts familiarly enough with the famed first verse, just as all known versions of the song did. Following this is a segment called “Bicycle Rider” that dates from the Smile sessions, illustrating Brian’s wild creative process at this time. This brief theme — which echoes the “Heroes” melody — was originally part of “Do You Like Worms?,” which was developed concurrently with “Heroes.” During the recording of Smile, Brian would frequently take sections from one song and move them into a different one; he was continually trying out new things just to see what they would sound like. And “Worms” and “Heroes” were almost certainly related to each other to begin with, so moving “Bicycle Rider” into the single was a natural idea.

The theme itself appears in several different forms from the Smile era. Many versions are instrumental, featuring just the familiar piano melody and bassline, but there also exist several different lyrics. For “Worms,” the song features the brief lyric, “Bicycle rider, just see what you’ve done/ done to the church of the American Indian,” backed up by “oga-chucka” backing vocals; these words echo the theme of westward expansion running through “Worms.” The version of “Bicycle Rider” used on the “Heroes” single release replaces these lyrics with a chant of “heroes and villains” that follows the same melody. Although versions of both “Worms” and “Heroes” exist with and without the different vocals, it’s likely that “Bicycle Rider” was intended to have lyrics in both incarnations had the songs been finished.

Following “Bicycle Rider” in the Smiley Smile single was a newly recorded short verse (starting with the lyrics “stand and fall…”), then a vocal breakdown of “doo doo doos,” leading into the “my children were raised…” section. The song then repeats the opening verse, slower and accompanied only by piano; Brian cleverly makes a slight change in the familiar wording, singing “I’ve been in this town so long/ so long to the city.” This section ends with “heroes and…” which cuts off to a reprise of the “Bicycle Rider” theme as a fade to the song.

Although this is the most well-known version of the single, it’s instructive to take a similarly close look at an earlier mix of the song. As was already mentioned, “Heroes & Villains” was the prime example of Brian’s “modular songwriting” (as Van Dyke Parks called it), a song written in parts and constructed piecemeal. Before the Smile sessions collapsed completely, Brian completed many different rough mixes of “Heroes & Villains,” each time with different constituent segments. The last one he finished, commonly called the “Cantina” mix, is also the only existing Smile-era mix of the song we have today.

The “Cantina” version – named this by collectors after a line in a verse towards the end of the song — is commonly thought to have been a strong contender for a single release at the time it was completed in February of 1967. Engineer Chuck Britz even recalls mixing the song for a single release, which never happened for various reasons. It’s possible that the song simply didn’t come out because of the royalties lawsuit that the Beach Boys and Capitol were embroiled with at the time, but perhaps more likely given Brian’s continued tinkering with the song is that he wasn’t quite happy with it yet.

Nevertheless, this mix of “Heroes” remains, for many Smile fans, the definitive version of the song, and a much more viable single than the one that actually came out. Interestingly, although it was the last version of the song completed before Brian compiled the single, this mix is almost completely different from the one already discussed. After the familiar opening verse (the same take used in the single), the song transitions into the same a cappella breakdown that was included at a later point in the Smiley Smile mix. This part is followed by the “In the Cantina” verse, which Brian wrote and recorded on January 27, 1967. At the end of this section, there is a shout of “you’re under arrest,” signaling the abrupt transition into the next part. On the session tapes for the “Cantina” verse, an extra brief section of “woo woo woo” vocals precedes the policeman’s shout; Brian excised these vox from his rough mix to smoothen the flow.

Following “In the Cantina,” the song moves on to the “my children were raised” verse; the vocals for this part were re-recorded for the Smiley Smile version, and this earlier take has a much more upbeat reading of the lyric. Additionally, there is an extended verse (with music very similar to that on the opening verse) featuring the lyrics “at three score and five/ I’m very much alive,” which doesn’t appear on the eventual single release. The song next breaks down into a very interesting segment of repeating “dum dum dum” vocals that almost sound like the tape is breaking. Listening to the sessions for this part, however, reveals that much of the effect was actually accomplished without the aid of tape effects. Brian in fact composed this vocal bassline for the other Beach Boys to sing, and the arrangement of voices makes the part sound like it’s coming out of a skipping record player even on the original tapes. Brian is often credited for his advanced production techniques, but his compositional skills were often just as inventive, and are too often given the short shrift. Obviously, Brian still manipulated the end of this part to make it completely break down.

This breakdown leads into the song’s coda, one of the most problematic parts of “Heroes.” Brian fiddled with the coda to “Heroes” very often, and for this version he took a part from another song, as he frequently did. This segment, with its clip-clop percussion and a vaguely Western-sounding melody, was for a long time thought to be the widely discussed but unheard “Barnyard” segment. In actuality, this part was actually taken from the end of the song “The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine.”

The differences between the Smiley Smile and “Cantina” versions reveal just how flexible “Heroes & Villains was, structurally. Although there is a certain similarity between the two songs, the structures are completely divergent, and tonally they are rather distinct. Whereas the Smiley Smile single is characterized by hasty, haphazard edits and drastically changing moods, the “Cantina” mix is much more consistent throughout, its edits still abrupt, but more logical. In this sense, the “Cantina” mix is a better follow-up to “Good Vibrations,” since it is comprised of very disparate parts that still fit together naturally and sound like they go well together. Certainly, part of the charm of the single mix is its haphazard, rough-sounding construction, but it’s at the sacrifice of coherence.

Earlier versions of “Heroes & Villains” probably hold even less in common with one another than this example illustrates. It is known that Brian made several rough edits of “Heroes” prior to completing the “Cantina” mix, but none of these edits have surfaced. The first version of the song was mixed on May 11, 1966, but it was unfortunately taped over; it apparently included “You Are My Sunshine” as a section and held little in common with the more familiar recordings of “Heroes.” The next time Brian mixed down the song, it was probably somewhat more related to its eventual version, though still just a distant cousin. This October 20 mix is the source of the “I’ve been in this town” first verse, which was the only segment of the song to carry through to all subsequent mix-downs of the single.

A piano-only demo of this incarnation of the song appeared recently on the 2000 Endless Harmony soundtrack, and it reveals “Heroes” in its original form, as a farm-themed composition with an almost completely different structure than the one we know today (more about this when we discuss “I’m in Great Shape”). Later, the entire second half of this version was removed, its constituent parts moved into other songs, and new parts moved into “Heroes.” This rearrangement probably featured at least some of the new verses that appear in the later mixes (“three score and five,” “my children were raised,” etc.) and the “Bicycle Rider” theme from “Do You Like Worms?”

During these early phases of recording, Brian completely changed the structure of “Heroes” very frequently. He recorded many different parts of varying length, and probably tried them out at different points in the track. A few brief a cappella chants, like “Do a Lot” (which later became “Mama Says” on Smiley Smile) and “Whistle In,” were first attempted at these sessions. Where these parts might have been placed within the song is a matter of guessing, at best, since there are no rough mixes from this phase in the song’s evolution. At some point, however, Brian replaced “Bicycle Rider” with the new “Cantina” verse; presumably, “BR” was returned to its original home in “Worms” at this point, although Brian eventually chose to use “Bicycle Rider” in “Heroes” again when he re-assembled the song for Smiley Smile.

Although the “Cantina” mix was the last completed version of “Heroes & Villains” during the early 1967 sessions, Brian did record more work on the song before canceling the project altogether. The last recordings on “Heroes & Vilains” during Smile — known collectively as the “version 4” or “part 2” variations — comprised several main pieces of music. These parts contain some of the most gorgeous vocal harmonies that the Beach Boys recorded during these sessions; for those who miss the complex multipart singing that the Boys abandoned almost permanently after 1967, this is the place to start exploring Smile.

“How I Love My Girl” seems to have been part of a new, upbeat reading of “Heroes & Villains” that Brian was working on around this time. Starting with soulful, barbershop-type “da da da” harmonizing, this piece then ends with a harmony on the title line. It seems likely from a few rough partial mixes from this time that Brian intended for the “How I Love My Girl” part to transition directly into a new, uptempo reading of a “heroes and villains” chant. Several chants of this kind from the “version 4” sessions exist, with various musical backings; the common component is a much more overtly happy bounce to the melody, and more complex vocal parts than appear on pretty much any other Smile outtake. These variations are truly beautiful, indicating that even at this late point in the sessions, in what must have been a stressful recording climate, Brian was perfectly capable of writing fantastic music.

It’s also interesting to note that, despite all the known problems, Brian was still very much in control of the sessions. The other Beach Boys may have been fed up with Brian by this point, but they didn’t let it bleed into the recording much on these tapes; Brian dominates the process, directing the rest of the group just as obsessively as he did on the much earlier “Prayer” sessions. At one point, he even instructs them to sing while smiling, and they run through multiple takes of every part. It’s sad to think that maybe, even this late in the sessions, the whole project was still in relatively good shape and might’ve been salvaged.

In addition to “How I Love My Girl,” these late “Heroes” recordings also yielded a new song called “With Me Tonight.” This track, which appeared in a new version on Smiley Smile, was first attempted during these late Smile dates; in fact, there were no Smile dates actually logged under the name “With Me Tonight,” which suggests that perhaps this track started life as a late-era addition to “Heroes.” Several recordings of varying lengths were attempted during the “version 4” sessions. A few short instrumental recordings — with, incidentally, a melody somewhat similar to “Heroes” itself — lend credence to the idea of this track as originally being just a part of “Heroes.” One very rough instrumental take was introduced as the “tag to part 1,” which would mark it as a possible replacement for the “Sunshine” tag that ended the “Cantina” mix.

Longer recordings of the song — particularly the “on and on she goes” vocal intro — could be either a replacement for the “Cantina” verse or an extension of the song. Some press accounts at the time contained suggestions of a five or six-minute “Heroes & Villains” single, so it’s possible that the “version 4” variations of “With Me Tonight” and “How I Love My Girl” would have made up the second half of the song. This theory loses a little credence, though, since there also exists a fully realized complete song take of “With Me Tonight” with fleshed out instrumentation and a structure similar to the way it would eventually appear on Smiley Smile. Most likely, “With Me Tonight” started life as part of “Heroes & Villains,” but by the end of the sessions it was almost certainly considered its own separate track, perhaps scheduled to replace a track like “Surf’s Up” or “Do You Like Worms?,” both of which had received less-than-enthusiastic reactions from the other Beach Boys.

There has been some discussion surrounding the “version 4” tapes of a possible two-part “Heroes & Villains” single. The theory was first suggested (or, ahem, invented) by Domenic Priore inLook! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!,” and many others have picked it up from him. Priore suggested that “Heroes & Villains” was to have been a two-part single release, with side A being the “Cantina” mix and side B being an extended, mostly a cappella re-visitation of the main themes, featuring the “version 4” variations. The problem, unfortunately, is that not only is there virtually no evidence for this, but there is actually a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Brian even explicitly said in contemporary interviews that he had no idea what the B-side for the single would be, and was reportedly considering several different songs for the role (for Smiley Smile, he settled on the a cappella chant “You’re Welcome” at the last minute). Many bootlegs (most notably the Vigotone set), have followed Priore’s lead and produced supposed “part 2” mixes, but inevitably these have merely been edited together by bootleggers from the “version 4” variations. It’s far more likely, given the existing evidence, that Brian intended this material to be a part of the proper single somehow.

Regardless of what Brian’s plans for the single may have been, he was chronically unable to bring them to fruition. Throughout most of February and March, he worked almost exclusively on “Heroes & Villains,” recording for the “Cantina” and “version 4” mixes of the proposed single. But despite his best efforts, he could not seem to create a mix that satisfied whatever he was seeking. The pressure of perfection was simply too much for Brian, and he couldn’t have been unaware of the multiple deadlines that were slipping behind him with no finished product in sight. Still, he refused to simply “settle” for a mix, and by the end of March he had given up on the song altogether. He abandoned “Heroes” unfinished and shifted work to “Vega-Tables,” which he started calling the next single. Brian seemed unable to do what he had done so confidently with “Good Vibrations,” which was to craft a cohesive, accessible single from a pile of scattershot material. The greater pressure on him during the Smile recording, his deteriorating relationships with the band, Van Dyke, and Capitol, and the multiple problems still lurking with the rest of the album must have been a tremendous strain on his creative process.

Even so, from its first recordings to its last, “Heroes & Villains” was always the most important song on Smile. No song changed more drastically during the recording sessions, and no song seemed to have a bigger grasp on Brian’s imagination. It was the only song to be worked on at all stages of the project, and its transformations are a good indicator of just how intensive the recording of this album was. “Heroes & Villains” also spawned a wealth of material that wound up not being related to the song at all; “Do You Like Worms?,” “I’m in Great Shape,” “Barnyard,” “With Me Tonight,” and smaller parts of countless other songs all developed out of the single. It is impossible to imagine what Smile might have been without considering what could rightly be called the “Heroes & Villains” suite, a set of material all developed from the same source, following common threads of thematic ideas and musical motifs.

DO YOU LIKE WORMS?

“Do You Like Worms?” has already been discussed a little in the context of “Heroes & Villains,” but in fact it was considered by Brian to be its own separate song in spite of the fact that it recycles some of the same melodic ideas. Recording on “Worms” was started on October 18, 1966, which was when the entirety of the instrumental track was laid down (plus Brian’s lead vocals). The “oga-chucka” backing vocals were added by the rest of the group on October 21, though the lyrics for the “Bicycle Rider” chorus weren’t recorded until January at a “Heroes & Villains” date.

The song was imagined as a lyrical journey across the United States from coast to coast, though in its surviving form it doesn’t quite realize this ambition. Nevertheless, it’s an admirable experiment that diverges from the rest of the Smile songs while remaining tied to “Heroes.” It starts with a rumbling rhythm on trashy-sounding drums (which is probably just due to the nature of bootlegs, though much of the Smile material is intentionally a lot rougher-sounding than Brian had ever recorded previously) and the Beach Boys singing the refrain “rock, roll, play myth rock, roll over.”

This refrain was to have been the song’s chorus; the verses have the “Bicycle Rider” melody, with the original lyrics that Van Dyke Parks wrote about “the church of the American Indian.” Lyrics were apparently written (but never recorded) for the entire song — including the missing phrases “Once upon the Sandwich Isles, the social structure steamed upon Hawaii” and “having returned to the West or East Indies — we always got them confused.” The song’s intended journey across America, obviously, was not to have been an idyllic but a satirical one, commenting on the colonizing and exploitation of the Americas by our European ancestors. These lyrics were either never recorded or were lost, and the only surviving verse vocal is the previously mentioned “Bicycle Rider” segment. It’s interesting that the reason this vocal exists at all is because it was actually recorded for “Heroes & Villains” when Brian was toying with splicing “Bicycle Rider” into the single; otherwise, “Worms” might have remained entirely vocal-less.

After running through a straight verse/chorus/verse structure for just over two minutes, there’s an unexpected bridge with Brian singing an approximation of a Hawaiian hula chant before returning to a fade of the rumbling drums segment, this time sans the chorus vocals. As with so much of the Smile material, it’s frustrating to hear this tune castrated as it exists today, without its full lyrics. Perhaps the reason that so much of this music seems experimental to us today is that it was unfinished, because it’s clear that Brian — his unconventional production methods aside — had rather standard commercial aspirations for a good deal of these songs. “Worms,” if it had ever been completed, might have been a stunning pop song.

But it was not to be, and not least of all because Mike Love made the song a particular target of his traditionalist hatred. Although it’s certainly not the easiest Beach Boys song to digest, “Worms” would probably have seemed much more palatable with its finished vocals. Again, for all of his experimentation and tweaking — and with a few exceptions like “Heroes & Villains” — Brian wasn’t doing anything too radical with song forms on Smile. A lot is made of the proposed multi-song suites and experimental collages, and the fact that so much of the Smile material is instrumental or at least has very minimal vocals. But these details are more due to the sessions’ failure than to the successes; Brian intended for his masterpiece album to be the best collection of pop songs ever made, and not much more.

Clearly, he had conceptual ambitions, too. “Worms” itself was part of a much larger conceptual suite built around the “Heroes” single and possibly also including “Barnyard,” “I’m in Great Shape,” and others (more on all this later). Additionally, there are common thematic threads running through most of Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics for the album, not quite creating a coherent narrative, but definitely constituting a step towards the concept albums that would become all the rage a few years later (you can decide for yourselves whether that’s a good or a bad thing). These ambitions, though, did not include drastic changes to pop music forms or structures themselves. Remember, Brian was using as his model the Beatles, and especially Rubber Soul, so his primary goal was to craft a set of songs, unified in mood and quality, that could rival such a pop pinnacle.

Though almost all of the songs for Smile were recorded in sections, the mixes that Brian assembled from these parts by and large followed standard verse/chorus/verse conventions, with maybe a bridge or extended coda thrown in there for variety. This is perhaps hard to grasp for latter-day Beach Boys enthusiasts who tout this album as a lost experimental work so far ahead of its time that it’s nearly incomprehensible. Brian was a bit ahead of the curve here, but just a bit. And ultimately, the Beatles won the race to the psychedelic finish line, releasing their psychedelic pop masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s, just as Brian’s work on Smile was disintegrating for good.

I’M IN GREAT SHAPE

One of Brian’s many ideas for Smile was that it should contain several musical suites composed of smaller interlocking segments. For a long time, the identity of the song “I’m in Great Shape” was one of the album’s greatest mysteries: it was named on the tracklist memo and listed on a few recording dates and tape boxes, but no definitive tapes representing it had surfaced. A few clues pointed the way, however, and it is now generally accepted that “I’m in Great Shape” was in fact a piece that Brian described in the music press at the time as “a barnyard suite.” 

A central concept of Smile was that it would be an exploration of the American experience, and “I’m in Great Shape” would have represented the tranquil old world life of the American farmer. As with “Do You Like Worms?,” this suite grew out of the “Heroes & Villains” sessions, and many of the recordings which have been linked with this piece are believed to have been rejected sections of “Heroes & Villains.” In fact, Brian’s early vision of the second half of “H&V” may have been the original barnyard suite, before he separated the two songs, with the barnyard parts becoming known collectively as “I’m in Great Shape.”

In the fall of ’66, Brian performed a solo piano version of “Heroes & Villains” for radio DJ Harmony Harv, as a rough demonstration of what the song would sound like. This is the recording that appeared as “Heroes & Villains demo” on Endless Harmony, finally revealing the identity of “Great Shape” and causing a huge stir among Smile fans. After the familiar first verse (“I’ve been in this town so long…”), there is a segment which has otherwise never been heard elsewhere. Featuring the lyrics “Freshenin’ air around my head/ mornings tumble out of bed/ eggs and grits and lickety split/ look at my ???/ I’m in the great shape of the north country,” this section (although no real studio recording of it has ever been heard) provides the crucial link between “I’m in Great Shape” and the barnyard suite. Brian followed this with a section featuring more lyrics about the farmyard backed by the appropriate animal noises, which he urged some unidentified others in Harv’s studio to perform. This second part was probably a rare vocal performance of a piece which has been known simply as “Barnyard.”

Brian split the “I’m in Great Shape”/“Barnyard” sections from “Heroes & Villains” sometime in the late fall or early winter of ’66, replacing the whole farm-themed part with the “Bicycle Rider” theme from “Do You Like Worms?” Thus, by the time Brian sent Capitol the song list in December, “I’m in Great Shape” was considered its own song. There are still no proper studio recordings of the track, even though sessions under that name were logged on October 17 (vocals) and November 29 (instrumental). What the finished suite might have sounded like is anybody’s guess, but it would almost certainly have included all the excised farm lyrics from “Heroes & Villains,” as well as “Barnyard.” It has also been suggested that “Do a Lot,” the ubiquitous vocal chant which started life in “Heroes & Villains,” may have been at least temporarily considered another section of the “Great Shape” suite.

The track for “Barnyard” that’s appeared on bootlegs is based on the idea of the “out in the farmyard” section that Brian ran through on the Harmony Harv show following the “great shape” part. The actual studio version is much different from that demo, without the lyrics (“out in the barnyard, the chickens do their number/ out in the farmyard, the cook is chopping lumber/ jump in the pigpen, next time I’ll take my shoes off/ hit the dirt, do two and a half/ next time I’ll leave my hat on”), and with a vaguely Western-sounding clip-clop feel. The Beach Boys provide a lilting vocal harmony as various animal noises fill the background; it’s a charming little track, and it’s likely that once “Bicycle Rider” replaced it as the coda to “Heroes & Villains,” “Barnyard” was moved into the similarly themed “I’m in Great Shape.” Brian probably intended to record the “out in the farmyard” vocals to complete this part, but never got around to it.

The emergence of the Harmony Harv demo on the soundtrack to the documentary Endless Harmony resolved the longest-running controversy of the Smile tracklist. Prior to this, theories regarding the track’s identity were uncertain at best, and the track “I Wanna Be Around/Friday Night” (which has since been associated almost certainly with “The Elements”) was frequently thought to be the mystery track. Although the debate is still not one hundred percent settled, the current theory regarding “I’m In Great Shape” is fairly credible and fits in with all the available evidence.

THE ELEMENTS

Like “I’m in Great Shape,” “The Elements” was conceived as a set of connected pieces arranged into a suite. As an integral component of the album’s musical and thematic content, this suite would have consisted of four individual themes, each one representing a different natural element: fire, earth, air, and water. Of these, the identity of only one element is definitely known. A piece alternately known as “Fire” and “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” was to have been the first song in the suite. Recorded on November 28, 1966, the piece is a musical approximation of the great Chicago fire of 1871 (which was started by the titular bovine).

Much has been made of Brian’s eccentric personality over the years, with many popular accounts likening him to such damaged geniuses as Syd Barrett or Roky Erikson. This reputation has been fueled by stories like the report of Brian wanting a sandbox brought into his home studio so he could play piano with his toes in the sand. Another major source of the mythology surrounding Brian originated with the “Fire” piece. The recording session for the song contains one of the most touchingly idiosyncratic examples of Brian’s bizarre behavior at this point: he reportedly started a small fire in the studio, then equipped all the musicians with fireman helmets and buckets of water while they played the song.

Furthermore, Brian became terrified by the song when he came to believe that recording it had unleashed a rash of fires on downtown Los Angeles that night. He later vowed to re-record the song as “a candle,” not wanting such a powerful force on his positive album. Nevertheless, Brian apparently never re-made the track, and the only existing version is a rather avant-garde instrumental featuring screechy sirens, chaotic rhythms, and a generally crazed mood. Despite his seeming reluctance to work further on the song, Brian actually recorded several different sections for “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” including a chaotic whistle-filled intro, the rumbling main body, and a slowed-down fade of drums for the ending.

In spite of Brian’s frightening experience with “Fire,” the very next day he returned to the studio to record a track he described as “the rebuilding after the fire.” This track is very likely a medley of the standard “I Wanna Be Around” with the Brian composition “Friday Night,” which has also surfaced on bootlegs under the title “The Woodshop Song.” The latter nomenclature originates from the various building, sawing, and hammering sounds which adorn the song’s second half. It is highly likely that this song was the second part of the “Elements” suite, probably representing the earth element. However, it’s also worth noting that “Vega-Tables” has also been linked with the earth element, particularly by one of Frank Howle’s illustrations which depicts the song as one of the elements. Still — especially since both “Vega-Tables” and “The Elements” are listed separately on Brian’s tracklist — “I Wanna Be Around/Friday Night” is a much more compelling choice for the earth element.

“Friday Night” has also been associated somewhat speculatively with “I’m in Great Shape,” especially since the sessions for the track coincide with instrumental sessions from the same day that were logged under the “Great Shape” name. However, the release of the “Heroes & Villains” demo on Endless Harmony has largely cleared up that mystery, since “Great Shape” is now believed to be comprised of the “freshenin’ air” verses that were excised from “Heroes.” The naming of the November 29 session may be explained by a simple mix-up — sessions from this era were frequently misnamed — or else “Friday Night” could actually have been considered for the “Great Shape” barnyard suite at one point. Brian’s description of the song as “rebuilding after the fire,” though, inextricably links this session to “The Elements.”

The identities of the other elements are much less easily obtained. Of the air element, Brian once casually remarked that he and Van Dyke Parks had recorded a short little piano piece to represent this element, but no such recording has ever surfaced. Various writers have suggested various titles as being the elusive air piece, but there is really no conclusive evidence for any of the proposed songs. Probably, the piece is exactly what Brian described, a short piano fragment that has as-of-yet gone unnoticed amidst the countless hours of Smile tapes filling the Capitol vaults. Most of the “Elements” pieces that do exist share a rough, almost tossed-off quality in contrast to the more meticulous nature of the main body of Smile music, so it’s easy to imagine such a recording being overlooked.

The water piece is another mystery. The most consistently suggested song for this element is “I Love to Say Da-Da,” a short minute-and-a-half instrumental which doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere else. It was the last song Brian attempted during the Smile sessions — or, more properly, the first song attempted after the sessions had collapsed — recorded on May 16-18, and one more session was scheduled for the song in mid- to late May (it was canceled with the album). The “wa-wa-hoo-ah” vocal chant (possibly evoking the word “water?”) lends credence to the song’s place in the “Elements” suite, but otherwise there’s no link between the pieces. In fact, “Da-Da” probably started as a section of “Heroes & Villains,” since a short early version of it entitled “All Day” was attempted during a “Heroes” date. The version of “Da-Da” available today was edited together by Mark Linett from material recorded May 16; the other two dates yielded only slightly different results, and the hint that there may have been a third section of the song which was never fully recorded.

Another possibility for the water element is “The Water Chant,” a brief a cappella track — much like “Prayer” and “Do a Lot” — featuring wordless harmonizing that suggests the sound of water. It’s only a very small snippet, and would be the shortest known piece in the “Elements” suite, but if “Elements” was meant to be a single track composed of shorter segments, it would make sense for one or two of them to be fairly pithy.

As an interesting aside, the Smile version of “The Water Chant” was later inserted whole into the middle of the song “Cool, Cool Water” on 1970’s Sunflower. Because of this link, “Cool, Cool Water” has often been believed to be a Smile song, and a demo recording of it even appeared on the Vigotone bootleg. However, the song wasn’t actually started until the end of 1967 during the sessions for Wild Honey, then shelved and returned to later in 1970 — the demo on the Vigotone bootleg was probably from the Wild Honey sessions. The version which appears on Sunflower was assembled at the latter date, with overdubs and the addition of “The Water Chant,” from the original Wild Honey backing track. Although it’s not a proper Smile song, “Cool, Cool Water” does have a link to the Smile era, since it was first recorded just two weeks after the sessions dissolved, and it is a melodic relative of “I Love to Say Da-Da.”

VEGA-TABLES

Thematically, Smile was many, many things. In addition to the thread of Americana running through “Do You Like Worms?” and the other “Heroes”-related songs, the album addressed the natural world (the various “Elements” pieces and “Wind Chimes”), spirituality (“Prayer” and “Wonderful”), and health and fitness. The latter theme emerged from one of Brian Wilson’s primary concerns at the time, as expressed in his pre-Smile intention to record an exercise LP.

Brian’s interest in health, as with many of his interests during this period, could be considered almost obsessive. At one studio session, he even recorded a lengthy monologue in the guise of a public service announcement pronouncing the dangers of smog. On the actual album, though, there ambitions were primarily funneled into “Vega-Tables,” which was considered a major track, and the a cappella chant “Do a Lot” (which became a part of the Smile-era recording of “Vega-Tables” after a tenure in “Heroes & Villains”).

It’s curious that “Vega-Tables” was given such a prominent place on Smile; in many respects, it comes across as a bit of a frivolous joke, but, of course, that’s not so out-of-line with the album’s essential aesthetic anyway. In virtually every version — and there are many, as you’d expect — the song is driven primarily by piano and odd percussive noises and sound effects created with voices and mouth sounds. But for all its light-hearted mood and general silliness, Brian did intend for the song to have a serious positive message: he genuinely wanted people to eat their vegetables.

The song was first attempted in November in a fairly straightforward run-through of the main melody, with somewhat different, trippier lyrics by Parks, but “Vega-Tables” wasn’t really tackled in earnest until April. At that point, Brian was apparently dissatisfied with work on “Heroes & Villains,” and in April suddenly announced that the first single from Smile would be a song called “Vega-Tables,” backed by “Wonderful.” Brian even posed in front of a fruit stand for the cover of a potential “Vega-Tables” single. Then, he dove headfirst into sessions that were just as intensive as the ones for “Heroes.”

In stark contrast to the earlier November version, the April mixes of “Vega-Tables” were much more complex, in line with the multi-part composing that Brian had been attempting with the rest of the album songs. Certainly, it should not be thought that switching the lead single was an act of surrender or compromise by Brian; he intended the finished “Vega-Tables” single to be just as impressive as he had wanted the “Heroes” single to be, and he simply channeled his energy reserves into the new song.

One of the first elements added to “Vega-Tables” was the chant “Do a Lot,” which had first been recorded as a possible “Heroes” insert. Of course, it made much more sense in the new single, and it was Brian’s first choice for a fade, acting as an extended coda complete with a whistled melody and junky percussion. Brian may have later replaced this fade with the shorter section that’s been labeled simply “fade to Vega-Tables,” an upbeat jog through the main melody with “bum bum bum” vocals.

Perhaps the most interesting anecdote regarding this song is the story of those odd background noises that add a kind of percussive clatter to the verses. These sounds were created by the Beach Boys by chewing vegetables and drinking water, adding a distinctive playful extra to the arrangement. And, in a typically quirky move, the band brought in none other than Paul McCartney to chew vegetables with them. On April 10, McCartney spent the day in the studio with Brian and the Boys, playing them a recently completed demo record of “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper’s. Apparently the Boys and McCartney got along well, and later that night they recorded a joking cover of “On Top of Old Smokey” together. Al Jardine even remembers McCartney somewhat taking control of the “Vega-Tables” session from a passive Brian — which would be indicative of Brian’s feelings of inferiority and desperate competition with regards to the Beatles.

Nevertheless, Brian did complete a lot of work on the song in April. In addition to numerous takes of “Vega-Tables,” “Do a Lot,” and the new fade, he supervised a re-recording of the proposed b-side “Wonderful” and probably some other inserts and unused instrumental sections as well. Most of the existing mixes segue from the main section into the “Do a Lot” fade, then the proper fade — although Brian probably would have picked one or the other for the completed song.

This Smile version, this could’ve been single, bears little resemblance to the new take that was ultimately released on Smiley Smile later that year. The renaming to the more traditional spelling “Vegetables” was the least of the changes; the rousing piano melody of the intro was entirely replaced with a simple, repetitive bass line accompanied by the sound of water pouring and vegetables chomping. All of this was newly recorded during the home sessions in mid-1967, and its rough production and stark arrangement is a rather sad contrast to the full, grandiose versions Brian had mixed down in April and May. “Do a Lot” is also noticeably absent, and the song fades instead on a segment stolen from the Smile-era recordings, starting with the uptempo singing of “I know that you’ll feel better…”

CABINESSENCE

As with many of the Smile tracks, “Cabinessence” was recorded piecemeal, with several different section comprising the finished song — although in this case all three known sections were recorded on the same date, October 3, 1966. Less complex than “Heroes & Villains” or “Good Vibrations,” “Cabinessence” was still a lovely track with very distinct movements, an excellent example of Van Dyke Parks’ impressionistic lyrics. Recording started on “Cabinessence” under the title “Home on the Range,” the name for the first section of the song, which featured a simple piano motif, plucked banjo, and horns. Vocals for this segment — the playful “doing doing” backing melody with a typically Parksian lyric — were recorded, but many bootleg recordings feature the first “Home on the Range” verse without the vocal overdubs. Either way, this piece provides a slow, languid lead-up to the next part.

Lyrically, “Cabinessence” follows several threads related to the Old West, including the expansion of America through the railroads, the immigrant’s role in the U.S., and life on the farm. Whereas “Home on the Range” was a laidback approximation of the old-time farm at dawn — an aural painting of a relaxing horseback ride across the plains, perhaps — in “Who Ran the Iron Horse,” the rapid development of the rail system completely alters life on the plains. The lyrics to “Home on the Range” provided a few clues of the shift to come (“welcomes the time for a change”), and the frantic pace of the next section is the embodiment of all the transformations that American society has gone through as technology evolves. The title line of “Who Ran the Iron Horse” is repeated rapidly over ascending backing vox, a thick bassline, and various instruments that get hidden in the maelstrom, conjuring images of swiftly revolving steam engine wheels.

The third section of “Cabinessence,” which is often left off some bootleg mixes, was called “The Grand Coulee Dam.” This section is musically somewhat similar to the earlier “Home on the Range,” with the lyrics “have you seen the Grand Coulee working on the railroad/ over and over the crow flies uncover the corn field/ etc.” Although it’s a lovely part, it apparently caused a surprising amount of controversy within the band. Mike Love in particular objected to the line “over and over the crow flies uncover the corn field,” asking Van Dyke Parks what it meant. When Parks somewhat cheekily replied that he didn’t know, this of course enraged Love, who firmly believed in concrete rather than abstract lyrics.

But despite Parks’ response, there does seem to be a fair amount of meaning invested in the lyrics to “Cabinessence,” although it accomplishes its objectives more through mood and images rather than any direct narrative. The lyrics to “Home on the Range” establish a pastoral feeling of innocence and quietude, evoking the old times before industrial progress changed everything, while the grating circular motif of “Who Ran the Iron Horse” represents the wheels of change itself. Coming on the heels of “Iron Horse” — which implies never-ending cycles of progress in its repetition — “Grand Coulee” is a more impressionistic account of the grand scale of progress. Perhaps it’s meant to be the perspective of a bird flying over America, watching railroads being built and farm machines at work. Brian described this particular part as Chinese laborers building the rail lines and glancing up to see a crow fly overhead.

Although many bootlegs simply string different recordings of the three sections of “Cabinessence” together in order to create a rough mix, the actual finished recording of the song would have been much different. The three-and-a-half minute version on the Sea of Tunes bootleg Unsurpassed Masters, Vol. 16 provides a good guide to the song’s structure, as does the more widely available version that the Beach Boys completed without Brian’s input for 20/20 in 1969. On the Sea of Tunes version, “Home on the Range” is used for the verses, with “Iron Horse” as a kind of simple chorus. The pattern repeats twice — verse/chorus/verse/chorus — before adding the “Grand Coulee Dam” section as a tag, fading out on the repetition of the line “over and over the crow flies uncover the corn field.” The version of the song included on 20/20 mimics this structure, using some of the same recordings, plus overdubs and some new bits.

In addition to the three extant segments of “Cabinessence,” Van Dyke Parks wrote lyrics for a fourth section, which was either never recorded or has since been lost. The lyrics for this part (which may have been recorded on October 11, if it was at all) go: “Reconnected telephone direct dialing/ different color cords to your extension/ don’t forget to mention this is a recording/ even though the echoes through my mind/ have filtered through the pines/ I came and found my peace/ and this is not a recording/ Doobie doo/ Doobie doo/ or not doobie.” Despite this exclusion, it is probable that “Cabinessence” was nearly complete very early in the Smile sessions. Brian returned to the song later in October and again in December, but the only rough mix available is the Sea of Tunes one, and it’s likely that despite Brian’s later attempts, the song was just about done in the state we can hear it in now.

WONDERFUL

Since Brian Wilson opened Smile with a hymn and once described these songs as “teenage symphonies to God,” it’s clear that spirituality was one of his main concerns when recording this album. “Wonderful” is the album’s most lyrically spiritual song, an examination of faith and innocence (or, more concretely, virginity) hidden within one of Van Dyke Parks’ serpentine lyrics. Certainly, the words Parks scribed for this lovely song are typically obtuse, with multiple meanings and entendres embedded in the layered lyrics.

One popular line of thought runs that the song is a literal (well, as close to literal as Parks ever got at this point) narrative about the loss of virginity, with the line “the boy bumped into her wonderful” being a fey reference to sex. Likewise, “God moved softly and moved her body” could be an interpretation of the onset of puberty, making the song about growing up and getting laid. Regardless of whether the thread of innocence in the song implies sexuality or not — I for one think it does — there is a definite spiritual undertone throughout, a sense that God, religion, and family can provide a sanctuary from the uncertainty of the future. The girl in the story (for “Wonderful,” more than any other song on Smile, is a story) is “never known as a non-believer,” and she starts safe and contented as a child, “loving her mother and father,” but somewhere down the line in the “mystery” of the future, she loses “it all to a non-believer.” Ultimately, of course, redemption comes in the form of her parents, who still love her; she abandons the non-believing boy who stole her virginity (and maybe got her pregnant, too?) and soldiers on in spite of her troubles.

It’s a naïve and pro-establishment tune that’s very much in line with Brian’s wide-eyed optimism and Parks’ love of all things Americana, and in Brian’s hands the song is absolutely gorgeous. “Wonderful” was first recorded very early in the Smile sessions, but as the pattern went, Brian was never truly happy with it. The basic instrumental track — a simple but lovely chiming harpsichord line (played by Brian), accompanied by bass, French horn, and ukulele — was recorded on August 25, 1966, Brian’s lead vocal was recorded October 6, and the Beach Boys recorded some ultimately unused backing vocals on December 15. This first version of the song, with just Brian and the session band, is the most widely distributed on bootlegs, and it formed the basis for many later edits.

Another popular (but lesser) version has become known as the “Rock with me Henry” mix because of its low, repeating background vocals of “oh pretty baby, won’t you rock with me Henry?,” forming a sort of vocal bassline under the instrumentation, which is notably more fleshed out than in the original version. Brian also recorded an insert for the song on January 9, 1967, which is probably the “hey baba ruba” breakdown section found on the vastly inferior re-recorded Smiley Smile mix. Other than this section, which sounds like a drug-fueled party interrupting the entire flow of the song, “Wonderful” contained no rotating sections and no drastic structural shifts. In the scheme of Smile, despite Brian’s dissatisfied re-recording, “Wonderful” was a delightfully simple song sitting serenely amid the chaos. The original remains the best existing copy of the tune — the breakdown and the “Henry” vocals merely distract from what is otherwise a beautiful song — and it’s one of Smile’s many puzzles why Brian wasn’t elated by “Wonderful” from take 1.

SURF’S UP

Although problems existed right along in the Smile sessions, the point at which things truly began to fall apart was probably during the vocal sessions for a song called “Surf’s Up.” One of the finest songs from this era, “Surf’s Up” was also one of the album’s most ironic titles, nodding back to the innocent Beach Boys of old while containing some of Van Dyke Parks’ most challenging lyrics. The basic instrumental track for “Surf’s Up” was completed in one day on November 8, 1966, with a group of session musicians brought in to provide the horn section (Brian may have later recorded string arrangements in January, but no tapes have ever been heard). The horn arrangements feature a lengthy, atmospheric instrumental build-up, with the horns providing both melodic and dissonant accents to Brian’s simple piano line and the minimal percussion.

The day before the instrumental sessions (November 7), in a warm-up session with the same musicians, Brian had instructed the players to use their instruments in decidedly untraditional ways. The result was a piece which has been dubbed “George Fell Into His French Horn” by collectors, an almost eight minute document of the horn section holding conversations through their instruments and creating weird noises at Brian’s instruction. An illustration of Brian’s somewhat unusual studio methods, this session was for “sound effects,” he told the musicians, but of course none of this was actually used. The actual “Surf’s Up” instrumental sessions the next day went beautifully, yielding some of the loveliest horn charts Brian ever wrote, coupled with piano and percussion. Oddly enough, Brian went to great lengths instructing the musicians at the session to make percussive sounds like jewelry jingling, but these sounds aren’t actually heard much in the finished instrumental track.

More problematic were the vocal sessions for “Surf’s Up,” held on December 15. By this point in the sessions, it was of course obvious that Smile would not be ready in time for the proposed Christmas release, and the rest of the Beach Boys were beginning to suspect that Brian was losing it. Mike Love and the other group members had already clashed several times with Van Dyke Parks over his lyrical content, especially on “Cabinessence,” and the stream-of-consciousness poetry which Parks wrote for “Surf’s Up” proved to be a breaking point for the band.

The vocal sessions for the song completely fell apart, apparently yielding nothing usable whatsoever other than fighting between Brian, Parks, and the rest of the band. Despite the Boys’ reaction, the “Surf’s Up” lyric happens to be Parks’ finest hour, a complex web of clever wordplay and evocative imagery. However, Mike Love, long an advocate of not “fucking with the formula,” would probably not have understood (or liked) the subtle wordplay and multiple meanings contained in lines like “columnated ruins domino/ canvas the town and brush the backdrop.”

With the vocals for “Surf’s Up” unrecorded, Brian’s project had taken a massive blow. The other Beach Boys couldn’t grasp the more avant-garde aspects of the Smile project, and both Brian and Parks were quickly growing frustrated with having to explain their art to an openly hostile audience. The very same night as the failed vocal session, after sulking alone in his car smoking cigarettes, Brian performed “Surf’s Up” solo for a CBS documentary called Inside Pop, recording himself at the piano singing the tune. A few days later, Brian again performed the song solo for “Inside Pop,” this time at his own home; this was the version actually used in the film.

It is the first, late-night solo recording, however, that has formed the basis for most of the widely available versions of the song. The most often bootlegged mix of “Surf’s Up” features the instrumental intro from the November 8 session, followed by Brian’s solo piano performance of the song, with a fade on the wordless high vocalizing at the end. It’s a beautiful realization of the song, even if it’s probably not how Brian envisioned it turning out.

More well-known than this bootleg mix, however, is the version which was officially released on the Surf’s Up album in 1971. This version may actually come closer to realizing Brian’s original intentions for the song, kicking in with the November 8 instrumental used as a backing track for the first verse. The vocals for this part were newly recorded by Carl Wilson, as was a new bassline. After the first “columnated ruins domino” chorus, the song splices in Brian’s 1966 solo piano performance, with new overdubbed backing vocals by the other Beach Boys. At the end, in what appears to have been a flash of inspiration from Carl, after Brian sings “a children’s song” there is an added coda featuring new lyrics and backing vocals singing the “Child is the Father of the Man” theme. This version is gorgeous in itself, as is the bootleg mix and both solo piano readings, but it’s impossible to know what a classic this song could have been if it had come out as Brian originally intended it in early ’67. More than any other song recorded for Smile, “Surf’s Up” evokes a profound feeling of disappointment and opportunities missed.

CHILD IS THE FATHER OF THE MAN

Although “Child is the Father of the Man” earned its “official” release as part of the coda to “Surf’s Up” in 1971, Brian had different ambitions for the song in 1966. If, as many assume, “Child” was to have been a three-to-four-minute pop song on Smile, then it is one of the least-finished titles to appear on Brian’s tracklist memo. The existing recordings of the song are largely instrumental, except for some vocal overdubs of the chorus, which simply repeats the title.

However, Brian made some rough instrumental mixes of the song which indicate that, had it been completed, it would have been much longer than the two minute version that can currently be heard on bootlegs. Brian’s mixes of the backing track roughly follow a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure, which would have made the finished “Child” a conventional pop tune, rather than the slight interlude it is now. Furthermore, Van Dyke Parks confirms that he wrote lyrics for the verses, but they were never recorded — probably because of the continuing contentious relationship between Parks and the Beach Boys.

What does exist of “Child” is deceptively simple, and it’s near impossible to extract any inkling of the finished track from these half-sketches and ideas. The song’s verse sections consisted of a simple, high piano melody and some muted trumpet in the background, lasting about half a minute before leading into the chorus with a pause and a handful of bass notes. The chorus is more full-bodied and dense, even with the low recording fidelity of most existing recordings; polished up and officially released, it would doubtless be breathtaking. There’s also an extended bridge that takes off on a slightly more galloping version of the chorus melody. Brian’s rough instrumental mix had a verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure, and this is likely the sequence that the finished song would have followed had Brian not abandoned it.

As for the missing verse lyrics, at least one contemporary account of a Dennis Wilson solo demo of the song recalls it as “a cowboy song,” which might link it to “Heroes & Villains” and the other songs from the Americana-themed suite that some scholars believe would have taken up much of the finished album’s first side.

WIND CHIMES

After all these twists and turns and multiple takes and infighting, it’s a true pleasure to stumble across a nearly finished, relatively simple song amid all the Smile debris. “Wind Chimes” is a lovely ballad in three parts, and it was completed early in the album sessions and then left alone thereafter. The instrumental track was recorded on August 3, and the verses re-recorded on October 5; the vocals were added October 10. The song starts on a low-key note with a double-tracked vocal by Brian over a quiet melody that approximates the title chimes with vibes. This part blows up into a fuller section with a 13-musician band and backing vocals by the Beach Boys, which in turn transitions to a tinkling theme played on multiple pianos.

Curiously, though “Wind Chimes” was nearly complete in this version, and Brian was apparently content enough with it that he did no further work on it during the sessions, he re-recorded the song from scratch for Smiley Smile, where it appears in a very different form. This “official” version is almost painfully slow, the opening section featuring just a droning organ and tentative tinkles mixed low in the background behind the vocals, which are tackled by the entire group taking turns. Completely excised are the full band section and the piano fade; instead the song consists of the opening verse that was taken by Brian in the earlier version, ending with a new fade that features the lyric “when the whispering wind sends the wind chimes a-tinklin’.”

The comparison of these two versions provides some interesting insight into Brian’s thought process following the dissolution of the Smile project. When Brian left his fancy studios and went into a quickly jerry-rigged home studio, he left behind his entire previous aesthetic, and it shows in the rough production of Smiley Smile. The released “Wind Chimes” is so different from its earlier counterpart that it’s practically a different song, all its complexity and dynamics eliminated in favor of a passive — but admittedly lovely — calm. That Brian would choose to scrap the absolutely gorgeous, exciting Smile take, which was after all finished, and release this sub-par re-creation instead says a lot about his state of mind at this time, and possibly about his lack of involvement in many aspects of the Smiley Smile recording.

In the years since 1967, Brian has very seldom spoken about Smile, and until very recently has seemed unwilling to even think about that period of his life. As we can hear on the 1967 material he did release, that clean break started not long after the album sessions fell apart. The re-recordings of “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes” completely dispensed with the extensive archive of Smile music, and “Vegetables” relegated the older material to a brief fade. In fact, of the Smile songs released on the album, only “Heroes & Villains” contained a sizable amount of older material. Of course, Brian hadn’t really been happy with most of the original mixes of these songs anyway, but it’s hard to believe that he liked the Smiley Smile versions — which sound essentially like demos — better. Rather, this was a conscious decision on Brian’s part to bury that part of his past, and he started by burying the music and alienating his fans by releasing shoddy new versions.

THE OLD MASTER PAINTER/YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE

Of all the songs on the semi-official Smile tracklist, none are more surprising than “The Old Master Painter.” Seemingly a half-realized medley, this track feels somewhat out-of-place amid the much more ambitious company of songs like “Heroes & Villains” and the various multipart suites. Why, on an album heavy with high concepts and complex structures, would Brian choose to include a song that merely pairs up the standard “The Old Master Painter” with “You Are My Sunshine?” The answer, of course, is the same as with virtually all things Smile: no one really knows.

What we do know is that the idea came from something as simple as Brian thinking it would sound great to re-do “You Are My Sunshine” with a melancholy mood. The idea was first featured in an early, unheard mix of “Heroes & Villains” that Brian erased immediately after recording it, and sometime after that he seems to have developed the short sketch into its own separate track. The song — which is barely over a minute as it exists today — featured a short instrumental take on “TOMP” before shifting into a low-key rendition of “Sunshine” with a beautifully sad lead vocal by Dennis Wilson. There also is a version without the vocal overdubs (heard on the Sea Of Tunes one-disc boot), but otherwise not much else is around. The instrumental sessions were all tracked in one day on November 14, 1966, and Dennis’ vocal was recorded just a couple of weeks later on November 30. The song would have been slightly longer as Brian originally intended, but he removed the Western-sounding fade (recorded the same day as the rest of the tune) from it and added it as a tag to the “Cantina” mix of “Heroes & Villains.”

Still, even with the tag, “TOMP/Sunshine” would have been the shortest song on Smile, probably by quite a bit. Since it’s placed last on Brian’s song list, it might’ve been considered an outro to the album, which would have had interesting consequences for the record’s flow. Certainly, it’s easy to imagine as the closer, but then we would have an album called Smile that began with a kind of church hymn and ended with an ironically depressing cover of “You Are My Sunshine.”

OTHER SMILE SONGS

In addition to the proper songs listed on the Smile tracklist that Brian sent to Capitol, the sessions yielded countless other small gems and song fragments. The various other tracks not already mentioned have often been talked about and placed in various roles on the album, but in all likelihood virtually everything that can’t be linked somehow to one of the 12 “official” songs was probably nothing more than an outtake. Considering how prolific and diverse the album sessions were, it should come as no surprise that Brian produced a lot of material that he perhaps never intended to use, but many of these scraps have proven nearly as interesting as the actual album material.

One of these fragments is a short vocal melody which was released as the first part of “She’s Goin’ Bald” on the Smiley Smile album. This segment was attempted several times during the Smile sessions, and like many of the shorter songs from this era it may have gotten its start during a “Heroes & Villains” date. Two different versions of the song exist from this era, the first featuring an early lyric about someone giving a speech (it was called “He Gives Speeches” in this incarnation), and another featuring the more familiar lyric from the Smiley Smile version. The original lyrics were written by Van Dyke Parks, and Mike Love rewrote them (typically) to be less circuitous and more narrative for the official release. The short “She’s Goin’ Bald” as recorded for Smile forms the basis for the intro to the later three-part released song — the second section is a wild, haphazard play with distorted voices speak-singing Broadway style, and the third is a nice little boogie-woogie sing-a-long with the lyrics “you’re too late, momma/ ain’t nothing upside your head.” These two later bits were recorded specifically for Smiley Smile, and the group also re-recorded the first part based on the original Smile track.

Brian recorded many short snippets like this for Smile — “Whistle In,” “You’re Welcome,” “Do a Lot,” the existing short versions of “Da-Da” and many others — and it’s really not certain what the purpose of this piece might’ve been. Van Dyke Parks, on his Song Cycle album (recorded and released after Smile collapsed), included a few similar short ditties as separate tracks, but it’s doubtful that Brian would have done anything similar. Domenic Priore would probably bring up his notion of link tracks — that the various snippets would have served as connectors between proper songs — but as with many of Priore’s speculations, this idea seems to be based more in wishful thinking and guessing than any actual evidence. As with many of these short pieces, “She’s Goin’ Bald” was probably recorded specifically for “Heroes” and abandoned when it was removed from that song.

In addition to the wealth of short song fragments written and recorded for Smile, Brian worked on a number of instrumentals for the album. The story of these songs is surprisingly complex, and made even more confusing by rampant misnaming on bootlegs, though the songs themselves are worthy of discussion regardless of the confusion.

“Look,” which has often been mislabeled as “Holidays” on bootlegs (most notably the Vigotone set), is a lovely little instrumental that conjures a lighthearted springtime mood. Or, more properly, it’s a full song for which only the instrumental part has survived. The sessions were held August 12, 1966 with an 11 musician group, under the name “Untitled Song #1.” By October 13, when the vocals were supposedly recorded, the song had been renamed “I Ran,” though a tape box for the song was labeled “Look,” which is where that came from (“Holidays” is another song altogether).

The vocals for “I Ran”/“Look” (if they ever indeed existed) have regrettably gone missing, but what remains is an absolutely gorgeous instrumental that rises and falls with a rough alteration between verse and chorus. The song starts with a plaintive piano and horns before exploding into the energetic chorus part, with an insistent rhythm on piano, bass, and drums. This is countered by another melodic section led by tinkling vibes and a flute playing the melody line. Although the tune works perfectly well as an instrumental, it does sound at times like some vocals would have been a natural addition, despite the lack of a proper verse/chorus structure.

The other part of the naming debacle is “Holidays,” which was how “I Ran” has often been labeled. In fact, “Holidays” is a totally different tune. It first surfaced on the Vigotone set, where, ironically, it was called “Tones/Tune X” (again, a different song; more to come). Like “I Ran,” this was an early Smile song that Brian cut from the running very early on and never worked on it again, though unlike the former song “Holidays” was apparently meant to be an instrumental.

The session was logged on September 8 with Van Dyke Parks in attendance, as he often was early on, apparently playing the piano part. The song starts with the should-be-famous glockenspiel part that Brian — as heard on the session tapes — seemingly spent an eternity coaxing out of the poor musician. After this, it shifts into another upbeat instrumental of the traipsing-gaily-through-meadows sort, with the glockenspiel accompanying a shivery keyboard part barely heard in the background, steady drumming, a horn section, and occasional slide whistles. Brian can be heard instructing the musicians on the sessions to “make it feel like a Dixieland thing here in the room or something,” a directive the horn players live up to with some soulful and melodic blowing. In fact, one of the striking facets of Smile is that none of its music, despite being played almost entirely by a huge cast of ever-changing session musicians, is lacking in passion or energy — a tribute, perhaps, to the quality of musicians Brian found, the inherent quality of his songs, or the deference and ambition he inspired in everyone around him. Most likely, a combination of all three.

Interestingly, although “Holidays” disappeared from the recording process very early in the Smile sessions, a part of it did surface eventually. The shimmering vibes coda that fades out at the end of the song was re-used for the “whispering winds” section that was added into “Wind Chimes” on Smiley Smile. As for “Holidays” itself, the song was discarded by Brian some time after recording it, as with probably many other songs worked on during the early Smile sessions. By November or December of 1966, Brian had a clearer idea of what he wanted to do, at least enough so that he could narrow his efforts down to the 12 songs listed on his Capitol memo, leaving behind songs like “I Ran” and “Holidays.”

Although they have never actually been heard or any tapes found bearing their marking, two of the most intriguing of the late-Smile-era recordings were called “Tones” (alternately, “Tune X”) and “I Don’t Know.” All three song titles appear on recording sessions from late in the sessions, and the identities of these mysterious songs remain unknown. For a long time, “Tones” was believed to be the instrumental now known as “Holidays,” and “Tune X” was thought to be a recording session for the tag to that song, but tape boxes have since revealed the real title of “Holidays.” The Vigotone bootleg was the first to perpetrate this error, labeling “Holidays” as “Tones/Tune X” and “Look” as “Holidays.”

The current theory regarding these mystery titles raises some much more interesting points about the late Smile period. It is known that, towards the end of the sessions, both Dennis and Carl Wilson logged studio time to record their own compositions with session musicians. By this point, it was probably quite clear that the album was not going to be completed, and these dates were a desperate attempt to salvage some workable material. Perhaps Brian had already relinquished his grand notions of a unified vision, and simply wanted to put together an album, even if it wasn’t all written by him. Thoughts of a more egalitarian Smile aside, no tapes of either Dennis’ or Carl’s contributions have ever surfaced, though it is probable that “Tones” and “Tune X” were two different working titles for Carl’s song, and “I Don’t Know” (which was recorded on January 12) was a working title for Dennis’ composition.

As if it wasn’t already obvious, the Smile sessions were pretty far removed from anything coherent or focused, and Brian himself also turned out numerous instrumentals and titles that have never surfaced. Although the June 2, 1966 date for “Inspiration” was probably just one of the final sessions for “Good Vibrations,” and not an unheard instrumental as was previously believed, many other brief snippets and sections do exist in the vaults somewhere, just waiting for collectors to find them. A piece called “Jazz” was apparently recorded at the November 29 “I Wanna Be Around/Friday Night” date, and literally dozens of similar pieces remain to taunt tape archaeologists.

Additionally, Brian went somewhat out-of-character to record covers of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” and Burt Bacharach’s “Little Red Book” during the late Smile period. Considering the fact that he had just a year earlier released the Beach Boys’ first album of all-original material (“Sloop John B” doesn’t count, since it wasn’t Brian’s idea to include it), the decision to record any covers for possible inclusion on Smile was probably another sign of desperation as recording on Brian’s own songs ground to a halt. If Brian ever truly had control of the recording process — which is certainly debatable — he had thoroughly lost it by the early months of 1967, and he was floundering around desperately looking for some creative direction, or at least trying to record enough material to get some product out to appease Capitol’s clamoring for an album.

AFTERWORD

So where does all this leave us? What great epiphany has been reached by sifting through the mounds of Smile detritus left lying like erstwhile sand dunes dotted across the California shore? What revelations have been revealed regarding the mystery of artistry or the nature of creativity?

To be totally frank, none.

In sum, the exploration of Smile only uncovers more mysteries and befuddling questions than it answers. Each track recorded during 1966 and 1967 is its own intriguingly twisted maze, a series of blind alleys and false endings with no resolution possible. What Brian intended for the album is totally a matter of speculation, no matter what you hear to the contrary — even the recently announced Smile concerts planned for early 2004 may not definitively set anything to rest regarding this greatest of all musical Rubic’s cubes.

The question — that’s THE question — is, did Brian even know himself what this record would have been? Or was Smile, as many have suggested, really the one that got away from even its creator? It’s possible, even likely, that Brian Wilson had simply bitten off a lot more than he could handle in 1966. Sure, there were the drugs and the label troubles and the Beatles and the Mike Love troubles and all sorts of other outside pressures acting on him, but the album itself, Smile, was its own kind of pressure.

Just a cursory look at the scattered fragments left by this album, all the half-finished songs and missing vocal parts, and the inevitable conclusion is that it’s all a confused mess. But did Smile look any different to Brian back in 1966, or did he see the same thing as we do? Looking at what he’d recorded, what he’d made, I think Brian did start to see nothing but chaos and randomness as 1966 turned into 1967. He’d once before, on “Good Vibrations,” brilliantly transformed such chaos into the best pop song ever recorded. In fact, it was that very chaos that had made “Good Vibrations” such a timeless, instantly classic track. Yet Brian probably didn’t realize just how risky it was to flirt with bedlam like that when he dove into the album-length project.

What had worked so spectacularly on the single failed to pay off with Smile largely because, among others things, Brian didn’t seem to have a clear vision of what he was striving for. At certain points, perhaps, he had a vision for individual songs (his feverish activity on the “Cantina” version of “Heroes & Villains,” for example) but his aims for the project as a whole never really coalesced. Remember, this was an album borne out of very different ambitions, a kind of mixed bag of all of Brian’s post-Pet Sounds half-baked ideas and sketches. In 1966, he was overflowing with creative energy and eager to aim high; he said as much in interviews and informal chats, always on about beating the Beatles and making the best album ever. These are not easy aspirations to shoulder for a guy who’d been catapulted to fame in a very short time, and had matured just as quickly from an overdeveloped adolescent to an intellectual, emotional wellspring of a man.This, then, is the reason for Smile’s current fractured state. It is not that time has rent the album apart and shrouded in fog the conditions of its formation. It’s telling that even many of those who were actually in the studio with Brian don’t seem able to shed any greater light on the album that today’s most assiduous after-the-fact historians. Clearly, Brian’s difficulty in articulating his ideas to others in a way that made sense — a failure that’s painfully obvious on most of the session tapes I’ve heard — was majorly culpable in preventing Smile’s release, and I believe that Brian had difficulty enlightening others because he himself was in the dark. Look at the wealth of music recorded for the album that was apparently never even intended for use: Brian was casting around for ideas, restlessly experimenting in search of something that would click with him. All his nonsensical recordings like “George Fell Into His French Horn” and the uniquely unfunny comedy sketches, all his endless re-recording of parts and shuffling of sections from song to song, was an endless quest for a very specific kind of perfection that was just outside his grasp.

What this perfection may have sounded like, of course, is anyone’s guess. Listening even to the remains of Smile that exist today, it’s not hard to imagine the album as Brian did: a spectacular testament to hope, happiness, and love cased in some of the loveliest, most original pop music ever recorded. Those are just dreams, though, imaginings of wistful fans, and it’s much more problematic trying to conform the vision of Smile we have today into the mold of what is essentially a fictional standard in ‘60s pop. The Smile we can get ahold of now is not an album in any traditional meaning of the word. There is no song list that can be considered definitive, no distinction between the outtakes and the tracks meant for the final product. Instead, we are left to sift through infinite potential albums, and the sheer conglomeration of possibility and promise held within each 30-second overdub or snippet of studio chatter is nothing short of breathtaking.

You see, if the legacy of Smile doesn’t quite live up to Brian’s (or our) grandiose goals, it is also so much more than its author or its fans could ever have hoped. Had this record been released in 1967, it’s probable that it would never have reached the legendary status it holds today. Indeed, though it’s painful to admit it, the concerns Mike Love expressed regarding much of this music were probably valid — not in an artistic sense, but in a commercial one. Despite Brian’s considerable Top 40 ambitions, it’s hard to imagine a lot of the Smile material (excepting “Heroes & Villains” and a few others) finding much of a connection with close-minded audiences, particularly in light of the similar failure of the phenomenal Pet Sounds to find that success in America, where the Boys had formerly reigned atop the charts.

With no expectations behind the music, with no hype machine or nostalgia working on the listener’s ears, stumbling across Smile today is virtually an unparalleled experience in music. Go in, as avid fans in 1966 and 1967 could not, with totally open ears, and hear for the first time some of the most amazing music ever recorded. Search through shoddy bootlegs and reissue bonus tracks, scour obscure tracklists full of naming errors and outright fakes, all in an endless quest for the moments of transcendence that make everything worthwhile.

Ed Howard

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