The tendency to conflate madness with genius in Western culture endlessly fascinates me. We are seemingly unable to discuss an individual’s unparalleled excellence, especially in the arts, without rendering him characteristically flawed. The brilliant, tortured artists so heavily referenced in popular culture are paradigmatic of this prevailing notion, and when we indulge ourselves not only in their work but in the stories behind them, we only serve to validate the notion that transcendence is a product of insanity. Creative, unstable figures do undoubtedly exist, but the intriguing point for me is why our culture needs them to exist.
Last year, Capitol Records released the studio sessions of the most famous unreleased pop album in recent memory, Smile by The Beach Boys, after over forty years of being on the shelf under The Smile Sessions. The story of Smile is long and complex, and can be retold from many different angles. At once it’s a story about unearthing the unlimited possibilities of studio production, a cautionary tale about the dangers of ’60s drug culture, as well as a misguided international competition for artistic legitimacy. But Smile always returns to the desperation of a creative force, Brian Wilson, driven to the brink because of his desire to create an unconventional, innovative popular masterpiece the world had never seen.
Wilson, the leader and chief songwriter of The Beach Boys, had stopped performing with the group in 1964 after having a nervous breakdown on a flight, deciding to focus his attention solely on songwriting and production. Refusing to remain in the limelight, he positioned himself as a serious artist trying to shed the polished, surf-pop image of his band. After hearing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul in 1965, Wilson was inspired by their aspiration and ability to expand popular taste, and felt challenged to do something similar in order to reclaim sophistical, expansive pop music for America. The result was Pet Sounds, a definitive album in the ’60s canon that utilized unprecedented intricate sonic layering and combined vocal harmonies with untraditional instrumentation to produce a baroque, yet psychedelic sound. A commercial and critical success, Pet Sounds achieved what Wilson intended: he created a great, unifying album that placed The Beach Boys on artistic par with The Beatles. But he was not satisfied.
What Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, his new contributing lyricist and friend, truly envisioned for Smile is still unclear to this day, but, from what we can surmise, they attempted to do a few specific things: 1) to create a multi-layered, musically- and thematically-related suite of songs, connected through various movements in between, that had long, elaborate tracks bridged together by brief vocal and instrumental ones, 2) to orchestrate, through these movements, a “musical journey across America from east to west,” traversing American history and culture as well, a direct reaction to the British musical supremacy at the time, and 3) to elicit a youthful exuberance from listeners on a pre-conscious level by using humorous wordplay and puns in the lyrics and by hearkening back to popular music from America’s past through an experimental “cut-up” technique in production, i.e. splicing together divergent, seemingly random musical sections within specific songs as well as across the entire album. Fueled by massive amounts of marijuana and LSD, Wilson and Parks’ complicated vision was so conceptually and technologically ahead of its time that it created conflict within the group and drew ire from their record label. Mike Love, one of the group’s founding members, felt that Wilson and Parks were “fucking with the formula” and both disapproved of Wilson’s new friends and was concerned with his increasingly erratic behavior, exhibiting signs of depression and paranoia, due in part to his prolonged, consistent drug use. The project eventually collapsed when it was clear that the rest of the group strongly disliked the album and after the commercial failure of leadoff single “Heroes and Villains,” a huge blow to Wilson’s self-esteem and confidence as a musician.
The speculation around Smile—its myth has only increased in grandeur since the late ’60s—is representative of our obsession with the apparent connection between madness and genius. Wilson’s fragile state at the time had crossed into legend and the specificity of his vision, coupled with his offbeat strategies to achieve it, only served to spur fans’ imagination of Wilson’s unfinished masterpiece even farther. People interpreted Smile as possibly an extended, aural Zen koan, a liberating paradoxical dialogue that could not be understood through rational thought. They began believing in the supposed negative power and “bad vibrations” behind “The Elements,” a song that both told the story of the Chicago Fire and recreated Wilson’s negative acid experiences. They wanted to know once and for all if Wilson’s indoor sandbox (an effort to replicate the feeling of being on a beach) was essential to creating the unrecognized art-pop album of its time. It became impossible to remove Wilson and his vision from the music itself. His “teenage symphony to God” developed into a societal projection of perceived perfection and Smile was reduced to hyperbolic conjecture. In the eyes of fans, his personal insanity became tantamount to musical genius.
Wilson’s reclusive nature and deteriorating mental health in the post-Smile era had cemented his image as the broken genius, and his fans’ undying loyalty to both him and the messianic stature of the album finally bubbled over. With the advent of the internet in the ’90s, fans began bootlegging fragments and snippets from the unreleased sessions, as well as incorporating the songs already released on other Beach Boys albums, into their own particular mixes and edits. But while these fan-edits were certainly unique to whoever was creating them, there was never any effort to create a personal touch on the project. Most faithfully attempted to reconstruct Smile in its most original, complete form, to finish what Wilson could not.
Wilson eventually revived the Smile project in 2004, re-recording the entire album from scratch and from memory for a solo commercial release and, to the surprise of many, an international tour. However, Wilson made the distinction abundantly clear that this was his version of Smile and not the original Beach Boys version, as that still rested in the Capitol Records vaults, until it was compiled and edited for the 2011 release using Wilson’s 2004 album as a model. Fans and critics alike soon realized that the true, original version of Smile, conceived and intended by Wilson and Parks, would never fully come to light, as the entire scope of the project would and could not be replicated. (The Beach Boys released The Smile Sessions last year and not Smile, deliberately leaving the album an unfinished product.)
Genius as a construct alone baffles the average individual for good reason. The idea of an achievement that is somehow greater than the individual is both intimidating and inconceivable, and whenever someone does do this, he or she has to be marred by personal flaws or psychological impairment. And yet, one of the benefits of The Smile Sessions is finally being able to hear Wilson’s professional direction in the studio, surprising those who thought they would hear a man on the edge of an endless mental chasm. He was deliberative, helpful and generous to everyone in the room, countering the prevailing narrative we all have been acclimated to. That detail isn’t meant to discount Wilson’s mental calamities, as they are well documented and authentic, but should rather question our understanding of the stories that permeate our cultural conceptions of genius. Maybe Brian Wilson was just as crazy as we thought he was, or maybe he wasn’t even close. Maybe Smile was the masterpiece we all thought it was, or maybe it was the product of drug-induced neurosis. But I think we desperately need an artist’s madness to cope with his genius, and are comforted by the knowledge that a neurological makeup completely dissimilar to our own is necessary for greatness—for then it is acceptable for us not to reach it.
Near the end of the original Smile project, Wilson heard The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the radio and was deeply affected by it, commenting that they “got there first.” Despite the fact that many believed that The Beach Boys post-Pet Sounds were on the same creative level as The Beatles, he felt he could never measure up and was always troubled by this fact, struggling to grapple with feelings of inadequacy, proving that the connection between madness and genius isn’t tenuous but in fact travels both ways. Perhaps Wilson needed his madness as much as we did. Maybe Smile was too much of a burden for one artist to handle, and the insanity that was both a cause and result of the project was crucial to keeping good vibrations around.
This piece was also published in Nacht.