Hey, I read a book! Yesterday!
Luis Sanchez's SMILE (2014) is a look at the Beach Boys' "lost classic" album of the mid-'60s, one of 33-1/3rd's ongoing series of short books about classic rock albums.
The series has varied in quality. Some of the books are Everything You'd Ever Want To Know about a classic album -- Warren Zanes' DUSTY IN MEMPHIS is a pretty good, solid peek behind the scenes with lotsa details you probably never heard before. Gillian Gaar's IN UTERO is pretty-much a moment-by-moment recap of how that Nirvana album got made. I found Andrew Hultkranz's FOREVER CHANGES pretty frustrating -- it takes a look at Love's 1967 psychedelic classic and makes a bunch of speculations based on ... not much, I thought.
Some of the books are straight history, others are reminiscences, some are about what an album meant to the writer. In some, the writer just sort of dances around the album for his own entertainment. You might not be entertained by this.
Sanchez's book on SMILE has been slammed by some Beach Boys fans -- which is one of the reasons I wanted to read it. Sanchez treats SMILE as a finished album, a finished fact -- both as a complete artwork and a significant rock achievement, apart from the fact that its release was delayed by 45 years. He treats it more as an Artistic Object or a Cultural Artifact than as an album. His book is sort of an overview of What SMILE Means, Why It's Important.
He's taken some beatings for this. This is not straight history -- much of the SMILE story is here, though not all of it. There's almost nothing on how the SMILE SESSIONS album finally got released, how the folks behind the scenes pulled the parts together to give us the box set that came out in 2011. And if you're looking for a song-by-song analysis, that DEFINITELY isn't here.
Other books do that -- David Leaf's THE BEACH BOYS AND THE CALIFORNIA MYTH tells most of the story, Dominic Priore's LOOK! LISTEN! VIBRATE! SMILE! pulls together lots more bits and pieces in incredible detail, and Priore's later SMILE tries to give a historical overview. Lewis Shiner's novel GLIMPSES has a clear, idealized view of what the SMILE adventure must have been like. Much of the story has come down to Beach Boys fans as Brian Wilson's personal adventure in the wilderness. The story's so well known, is there much need to repeat all of it? Only if you can add something new.
Sanchez picks out the pieces he wants to illuminate, and adds comments from lyricist Van Dyke Parks and others who were around for these happenings. He adds a TON of Beach Boys history, more than was really necessary, I thought. Any serious fan already knows most of that stuff. The section on SMILE itself takes up maybe 30 pages of a 118-page book. The rest is background and overview.
That doesn't make the book bad, or weak. I think Sanchez's writing is pretty solid for what he wanted to do. There are a lot of different ways to approach this story, and the long history of this album. Relating the history of the Beach Boys' music and SMILE's place in American pop-music history is as legit an approach as any. While this book doesn't tell me Everything I Need To Know about a great album, I'm OK with what it DOES tell me -- even if I didn't learn much that's new.
I have other problems with the book, and they're technical. The book shows signs of being rushed. The proofreading is hideous in places, especially toward the end. One of Bob Dylan's best-known albums is mis-named HIGH 61 REVISITED. You might want to look that album up, could be fun. Comedian-actor-writer-director Mel Brooks's last name is spelled wrong. These should have been obvious, easy, simple fixes. Words are dropped here and there, sentences are mangled. The folks who proofread this book did the writer no favors. Usually you can infer what the writer intended from what you're reading. Here you can't always.
At the end, Sanchez is shocked that if SMILE were this good and this close to being completed back in the fall of 1966, why didn't Capitol Records just go ahead and release it? Couldn't they have insisted? Surely they wanted the money -- and they expected the album to be BIG.
But Brian said releasing the album then would have killed him and tore his family apart, and clearly he didn't want to be responsible for the emotional pain and potential economic impact if this experimental album flopped -- like PET SOUNDS basically did just a few months earlier (it just barely reached the Top 10).
That sorta sounds like Mike Love talking, don't it? "Stick to the formula, Brian -- girls and cars and surfing, catchy simple upbeat songs that I can sing and the fans can dig."
SMILE might have changed the musical landscape at the end of '66, coming after PET SOUNDS and "Good Vibrations" and BLONDE ON BLONDE and REVOLVER, and before SGT. PEPPER. But there's no way to know. It might have gone right over the heads of the audience. There were lots of BB fans who thought PET SOUNDS was "too weird" at the time: "You can't play it at parties. You can't dance to it. Where's the songs about cars and girls and surfing?"
SMILE's still a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind musical experience. As for what might have been ... well, maybe it's about time someone wrote an alternate history in which SMILE came out on time and the world DID change....
PS -- This is one of three 33-1/3rd books I grabbed at Powell's Books in Portland -- the other two are on PET SOUNDS and Van Dyke Parks' SONG CYCLE, all recorded in roughly the same era. Maybe they can shed some light on each other....