Monday, October 4, 2004

Smiley Smile

It was one of those times as a young lad in love where you rehearse what you're going to say and do many times over but the only difference between this time and any others would be that all the words and all the nervous nights lying awake thinking about what I had to do, what I couldn't do, I actually somehow found myself saying to her.

It was the last day of 9th grade band class and Mr. Kelley gave us the period to sign each other's yearbooks. I looked at the girl who meant everything, who taught me the difference between inspiration and love and where the two intertwine. She somehow (sadly) remains the only person who I ever found myself writing to, for, and about. And I remember vividly there she was sitting in her familiar but soon never to be sat in by her again, first chair clarinet seat, two rows down from my middle of the last row first chair trumpet seat.

We had spent many a day making music together, making eye contact at key moments in key passages of key songs (though listening to the tapes later we weren't always so in tune). My knees were shaking because it had only been in the last month or two when she reached out and had said anything to me. She liked me singing one night on a bus. She liked some of my writing. She seemed to want to get to know me better. I of course just stammered and stuttered whenever I had tried striking up an actual conversation. But somehow I knew she just knew.

It was with and without great effort that I somehow felt myself getting up, walking down, and thrusting my yearbook in front of her. "Will you sign this," I said though I had said it much more wittily in rehearsal. "Sure, if you sign mine," Susan said.

I don't remember what I ended up writing in her yearbook. Something not too revealing. I do remember exactly what she wrote in my yearbook. "You're kinda strange but a lot of fun to be around. Have a great summer. Keep smiling! Sue Weiss." I remember her words exactly because I spent many days in the following years reading and re-reading those words and wondering if there were any hidden meanings, something that wasn't all apparent in what she wrote. "She's a great writer," I thought to myself. How could I be in love with someone who was not?

Keep smiling was Sue's advice. She liked my smile. Or she didn't think I smiled enough.

Sue ended up (of course) breaking my heart. She holds the distinction of being the first of four. In fact a human heart has never been splintered into so many pieces. There wasn't anywhere to turn when I happened to hear the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds LP for the first time. And that music, perhaps the saddest ever recorded, spoke volumes to my heart. Most importantly it conveyed the message that as much as I thought no one had ever felt as heartbroken as I was feeling, the songs spoke to me and convinced me that at least one other person had felt the same depth of things at least once in human history.

When Brian sings about sometimes feeling SO SAD and guessing he just wasn't made for these times and how he just wants to go home, I knew exactly what he was singing about even if I had never ridden the Sloop John B or nor did I know Caroline.

I discovered and fell in love with the music nearly 20 years after it was written and performed, years after a lot of people had declared it the greatest LP of all time. I wasn't exactly a Beach Boys fan but this wasn't exactly Beach Boy-like music. And I didn't know anything of the legend of the LP that was to follow (and supposed to top the pristine effort of Pet Sounds) an album that Brian ultimately was going to simply name Smile.

Lots has been written about the greatest LP never released. It was to be Brian's effort to write a "teenage symphony to God." It was experimental, taking snippets of music, of sounds, of whatever it was that stuck in Brian's brain and soul and ear enough to inspire his heart, from church music to marching band blasts to everything between and far beyond. Yet the legend became too much. The more people that heard the new music the more that was written how astounding it was the higher the ante became on what Brian had to produce. And his already fragile psyche broke, never quite to be the same again.

Reading about the Smile sessions and hearing subsequent releases of songs recorded during that period I was curious but not enough to buy the many bootlegs out there. It was well known Brian was well under the influence of mood altering substances throughout the writing and recording of the Smile sessions contributing to his breakdown. And I've heard enough drug induced music/doodling to know that often what one thinks is significant under the influence (not that I'd ever know) often in retrospect is just pure unfiltered pap.

So in a year when a fellow could easily slide from "could have" to "has" been one discovers that things don't always work the way they used to and that's just a hard lesson of life one thinks about walking in the dark in the dusk to work. It was the morning I had waited for since it was announced Brian was working hard at completing the project. Thirty-seven long years after the project began Brian finally got around to releasing Smile. He isn't nearly the same person he was back then. His current seemingly delicate self is both sad and inspiring. And thus completing his masterpiece is not only a wondrous miracle but also a natural monument to the resiliency of the human spirit and an unmatched example of the healing power of music. Nothing more, nothing less.

Hearing the Smile song cycle for the first time is a magical experience (though I must admit after having bought it during lunch during a work break I couldn't stop playing it over and over). Like Pet Sounds there is so much to hear and repeated listenings just reveal more and more. Peel away the many different sounds and notes and crazy words and what you are left with is a spirit as large as the largest human heart that ever existed. Teenage symphony to God? This goes way beyond that.

Thus it seemed appropriate as exhausted as I feel these days both physically and emotionally to be listening to the music that finally cracked Brian's spirit and wiped that sideways smile right off his face. Burning candles at all ends and feeling certain flames flicker (or perhaps snuffed) out can give one a certain perspective on life and leave one peering perilously way too close to the edge. The most famous song on Smile is "Good Vibrations" and probably the best is the astounding "Surf's Up" and yet both those songs ultimately pale in comparison to all that surround them. And a lot of the tracks aren't really songs, more a collage of different musical fragments skillfully combined to convey something really lovely. This is more than a mishmash of pop and choral songs, it's beyond harmony and melody, it's something that really defies words and must be heard and experienced to truly appreciate.

And for those who hear (or is that more accurately listen to) "Good Vibrations" and think that is what the Beach Boys are, and think of a Sunkist commercial, or thoughtless Reagan flag-waving Americana without hearing how crazy the music is (and thus how crazy the music maker must have been) you don't know what you're missing. Listening to this music conjures up the same heart pounding sensation, good vibration, falling in love with the first chair clarinetist once did once upon a long ago. Elsewhere I love how Brian weaves in snippets of two standards "You Are My Sunshine" and "I Wanna Be Around" and makes them fit snuggly with all the rest of the brilliant and bright music.

The music left my mouth agape. Yet somehow my vanishing voice rediscovered itself.

In the end, my dear sweet friend, My Dear Dear Susan I'm compelled to call out to you all these years later and reveal once more that I have indeed kept Smiling after all these years...

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