SMiLE – 1966-1967
Abaft and forth – a starboard course
In 2004, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks got back together to resume work on completing their ambitious SMiLE album that began in 1966. After first working on and recording the song “The Waltz” for his Gettin’ In Over My Head album, Brian then worked with Van Dyke on completing the fragmented portions of the SMiLE album material.
The finished vision was released as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE on September 28, 2004. The original recording sessions for SMiLE were eventually released as The SMiLE Sessions box set on October 31, 2011.
In this first installment, Van Dyke discusses the original SMiLE material and the pieces he completed for the 2004 release.
ESQ: How did work on “Heroes and Villains” begin?
Van Dyke Parks: It was Brian’s title. That immediately suggested a ballad of the golden West. We did that song – excepting the cantina section – in a sitting; it went very easily. We connected immediately, and that’s what sparked the enthusiasm to keep on working.
ESQ: On your 1995 collaboration with Brian, Orange Crate Art, the title track mentions Ramona and seems to carry on in the same vein of the romanticism captured in SMiLE.
Van Dyke: That was on purpose. We thought about the Spanish and Indian [culture], and Ramona typifies that. We didn’t use that word [in SMiLE]. There’s the saga of the relationship between the Spanish and Indians. The on-and-off love affair between them. All this interested me.
There was a distinct and definite relationship between the discovery of gold at [John] Sutter’s Mill* and the taking of California. That was when the white people came over and wrested these folks from their land grants. That was all very interesting to me. I was fascinated by that and a little bit offended that the United States had done such a thing. I wanted everything to be totally legitimate, and we were finding out as we grew up that the United States was not always right. What happened to the Indians in California was basically the same thing that happened to the Indians in Pennsylvania where Parks Township was. So, the songs point to a social tragedy.
*Near the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers in January 1848
ESQ: Do you feel that the importance of those tragedies is as important today?
Van Dyke: I do think so. It’s surprisingly relevant. The record in many ways still suggests festering concerns. I think that that is a good thing.
I don’t want to say that it’s art. I know it’s brilliant music; it’s shown itself to be durable goods. But these concerns are still alive. Part of the job of art is it can console, entertain, and agitate. I think SMiLE does all those things. I’m glad that we had the honest desire to try to address [those issues]. [Laughs] That wasn’t my idea so much as [it was] something that came from the Sixties. A sympathy for the indigenous people. All that stuff collided and was celebrated in the news.
This was after the sleepwalking Eisenhower years. Kennedy comes in and we think about other things than our own comfort. That started to appear in all aspects of popular art, and music – most notably with Bob Dylan. It was not a bad thing to go beyond boy meets girl in a song. That was what Brian wished me to do. I was working for Brian; I wasn’t working for The Beach Boys. That’s just what happened. He asked me up to his house to work for him. I did my best with the situation. I don’t fault any of us for the disagreements that might have come over this effort. I emphasize that I don’t take any greater delight in SMiLE than the earliest works of The Beach Boys; it’s all wonderful and celebratory music. SMiLE was a difficult thing to box into The Beach Boys’ image, and that was the problem.
ESQ: What songs did you write new lyrics for in 2004?
Van Dyke: “On a Holiday” and “In Blue Hawaii.”
Here, in this new territory, we have this thing called “On a Holiday.” I thought it was only appropriate to continue the thought of Hawaii in this piece because back in the Sixties, we decided that this album would be about the westward movement from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. It was only natural that I wanted to catch these pirates in a drunken celebration when they reached their territorial goal, which was Hawaii.
The pirates on the song … The pirating had been so determinate in my life – economically, of course – I decided to get at them. And keep the pirates in place. Include them. And that’s why that image is there. I thought it was a good thing for us to pursue the Hawaiians a little further with the pirate.
Here’s some very interesting information about that sad chapter in American history: the United States Marines – at the behest of Dole and some other missionaries – pointed the cannons directly at Queen Liliuokalani’spalace. And she abdicated under military pressure. She was the same queen who had written hymns and studied in Paris. She actually wrote music. This tragic story about Hawaii – I thought – should be something to think about. That’s why that’s there.
[“On a Holiday”] has a lot to do with all the things that are in the tale: the spread of the Gospel, the insistence that the conquered territories adapt to Christianity, and bow to the American way of life. When we were in our twenties, we were thinking about stuff like that. The musical world was basically influenced by The Beatles and their imitators, the war in Vietnam, and the struggle for civil rights. SMiLE is the entertainment that we thought we would serve up.
On “In Blue Hawaii” I wrote, “Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? It really is a mystery.” I thought we should have some new words that give Brian a chance to step forward and admit that he had been through hell. When we were in London, and they were working on that part [during the sound check], I went over to Melinda Wilson and the lighting designer and said, “I think it’s very important for you to cut this thing to a black and white pin spot and leave this man alone in the stark contrast of the romance that he creates with his music to let people know that he had been through hell.” That was very important to me.
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