on brian wilson and SMiLE (a convoluted conversation part 1)

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WAS THE LEG­ENDARY "SMiLE" AL­BUM based on Brian Wilson's ex­pe­ri­ences with LSD? Did Brian con­sciously or un­con­sciously in­cor­po­rate as­pects of Zen Bud­dhism into SMiLE? Who was Arthur Koestler and what did he have to do with SMiLE? What the hell is 'biso­ci­a­tion' and why is it a part of a con­ver­sa­tion on Six­ties rock mu­sic? Did the other Beach Boys re­ally hate his new mu­sic of Brian's, or just Mike Love? Read "Con­vo­luted Con­ver­sa­tion Part 1" on Brian Wilson and SMiLE and learn.

This is the first of three parts in a con­vo­luted con­ver­sa­tion about Brian Wilson and SMiLE and Arthur Koestler and Zen and things.

This ar­ti­cle was com­piled from a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions be­tween William To­bel­man and me. It was sup­posed to be about Bill's Good Hu­mor SMiLE web­site, which is de­voted to Brian Wilson's record­ings of 1966–67—those that should have been re­leased as an al­bum called SMiLE in 1966.

But wasn't.

And then in 1967.

But wasn't.

And then again in 1972.

But wasn't.

The orig­i­nal theme of Bill's ar­gu­ment was that the SMiLE record­ings were based on Wilson's experience(s) with LSD—that the songs had Zen-like themes that in­ter­acted with one an­other.

This was im­me­di­ately at­trac­tive as it res­onated with my own ex­pe­ri­ences: my ini­tial ex­pe­ri­ence with LSD in 1971 had left me stunned by my in­abil­ity to re­late or con­nect what had hap­pened to me to any­thing in West­ern cul­ture!

So I turned else­where for in­sight.

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: caricature of the early Beach Boys by Jota Leal.

Car­i­ca­tur­ist Jota Leal did this mar­velous take on the Beach Boys as they first ap­peared to the Amer­i­can pub­lic in 1963. Within three very short years, the skinny guy at the front of the line would be among the most ad­ven­tur­ous music-makers in the world of pop and rock mu­sic. Whether or not the other four guys were pre­pared for this re­mains atopic of end­less con­ver­sa­tion among fans.

Hindu-like image AND satori!

My own quest led me to most of the psy­che­delic lit­er­a­ture that was avail­able at the time (and that wasn't much) along with read­ings as di­verse as the Hindu re­li­gion to Dada and Sur­re­al­ism! My ex­pe­ri­ence had Hindu-like im­ages and themes, as­tound­ing given my lack of ex­po­sure to that be­lief sys­tem! The clos­est that I got to a hint of what had hap­pened to me was my read­ings on Zen Bud­dhism and a state re­ferred to as satori.

So, com­bine this with my love for Brian's mu­sic and I was an easy sell for Bill's site and his ar­gu­ment. Re­cently, Bill has changed his view and his site: he be­lieves that Brian's in­spi­ra­tion for SMiLE was more based on the writ­ings of Arthur Koestler. I am not con­vinced that Koestler was as im­por­tant as Bill be­lieves him to have been. 1

I sug­gested to Bill that he and I have an email con­ver­sa­tion about his per­spec­tives on SMiLE and about the mak­ing and al­ter­ing of his site.

Here it is! 

But first, Bill's ar­gu­ment on the ori­gins of the SMiLE-era record­ings re­quires a lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of who Arthur Koestler was and what some of his work ad­dressed, I am pre­sent­ing this brief en­try as the broad­est of back­grounds. In­ter­ested read­ers should do more re­search on the man and his work.

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: photo of Arthur Koestler.

Discovery and creativity in art

Arthur Koestler was born Artúr Kösztler in Bu­dapest in 1905, but re­ceived his ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tria. Al­though Jew­ish, in 1931 he joined the Kom­mu­nis­tis­che Partei Deutsch­lands (Com­mu­nist Party of Ger­many). In 1938, he re­signed, dis­il­lu­sioned by the rightwing ex­trem­ism of Stal­in­ism. In 1940, he pub­lished Dark­ness At Noon, a novel with an anti-totalitarian theme that gained him in­ter­na­tional fame.

"The Act Of Cre­ation is about the logic of laugh­ter. Study­ing meta­physics was cru­cial, but Koestler's book re­ally was the big one for me." – Brian Wilson

It is the tale of an Old Bol­she­vik who is ar­rested and im­pris­oned and tried for trea­son against the gov­ern­ment which he had helped to cre­ate. The novel ex­pressed the author's dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the So­viet Union's prac­tice of Com­mu­nism.

In The Lo­tus And The Ro­bot (1960), Koestler ex­plored East­ern mys­ti­cism, con­cen­trat­ing on In­dian (the "lo­tus" of the book's ti­tle) and Japan­ese (the "ro­bot") tra­di­tions. The book is in­ter­est­ing for pre­sent­ing a non-bowdlerized ver­sion of the tra­di­tions, es­pe­cially yoga, which is quite dif­fer­ent in its tra­di­tional form to that prac­ticed in the West, par­tic­u­larly in its con­trol of in­ter­nal bod­ily func­tions such as peri­stal­sis. 2

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: cover of the first British edition of THE ACT OF CREATION by Arthur Koestler.

The first UK edi­tion of The Act Of Cre­ation was pub­lished by Hutchin­son & Com­pany (1964). As Koestler was a res­i­dent of Eng­land, this should be con­sid­ered the proper first edi­tion. 

Creation and bisociation

The Act Of Cre­ation (1964) was a study of the processes of dis­cov­ery, in­ven­tion, imag­i­na­tion, and cre­ativ­ity in hu­mor, sci­ence, and the arts. It laid out Koestler's at­tempt to de­velop a gen­eral the­ory of hu­man cre­ativ­ity. From it came per­haps the author's most quoted line:

The more orig­i­nal a dis­cov­ery, the more ob­vi­ous it seems af­ter­ward.”

From de­scrib­ing and com­par­ing many dif­fer­ent ex­am­ples of in­ven­tion and dis­cov­ery, Koestler con­cluded that they all shared a com­mon pat­tern, which he ter­med biso­ci­a­tion—a blend­ing of el­e­ments drawn from two pre­vi­ously un­re­lated ma­tri­ces of thought into a new ma­trix of mean­ing by way of a process in­volv­ing com­par­ison, ab­strac­tion, and cat­e­go­riza­tion, and us­ing analo­gies and metaphors.

In 1960, Koestler was in­volved with Tim­o­thy Leary and his ex­per­i­ments with psilo­cy­bin, from which came an es­say, “Re­turn Trip To Nir­vana.” Pub­lished in The Sun­day Telegraph in 1967, his opin­ion of the re­sults were nei­ther en­tirely neg­a­tive nor pos­i­tive:

"I pro­foundly ad­mire Al­dous Hux­ley but I dis­agree with his ad­vo­cacy of the chem­i­cal open­ing of doors into the Other World, and with his be­lief that drugs can pro­cure a gra­tu­itous grace." – Arthur Koestler

"I do not want to ex­ag­ger­ate the small risks in­volved in prop­erly su­per­vised ex­per­i­ments for le­git­i­mate re­search pur­poses; and I also be­lieve that every clin­i­cal psy­chi­a­trist could de­rive im­mense ben­e­fits from a few ex­per­i­ments in chem­i­cally in­duced tem­po­rary psy­chosis, en­abling him to see life through his pa­tients' eyes.

But I dis­agree with the en­thu­si­asts' be­lief that mesca­line or psilo­cy­bin, even when taken un­der the most favourable con­di­tions, will provide artists, writ­ers, or as­pir­ing mys­tics with new in­sights, or rev­e­la­tions, of a tran­scen­den­tal na­ture.

I pro­foundly ad­mire Al­dous Hux­ley, both for his phi­los­o­phy and un­com­pro­mis­ing sin­cer­ity. But I dis­agree with his ad­vo­cacy of the 'chem­i­cal open­ing of doors into the Other World,' and with his be­lief that drugs can pro­cure what Catholic the­olo­gians call a gra­tu­itous grace.”

Koestler summed up his opin­ion of drug-induced in­sight by stat­ing that “Chem­i­cally in­duced hal­lu­ci­na­tions, delu­sions, and rap­tures may be fright­en­ing or won­der­fully grat­i­fy­ing; in ei­ther case, they are in the na­ture of con­fi­dence tricks played on one's own ner­vous sys­tem.”

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: cover of the first American edition of THE ACT OF CREATION by Arthur Koestler.

The first US edi­tion of The Act Of Cre­ation was pub­lished by Macmil­lan Pub­lish­ers (1964). This is prob­a­bly the book that Brian Wilson read in '64.

Recognition of Arthur Koestler

(If all that Koestler ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing his ex­per­i­ments with psy­che­delic sub­stances were hal­lu­ci­na­tions, delu­sions, and rap­tures, then his con­clu­sion makes per­fect sense. What a shame that more did not oc­cur.)

In 1968, Koestler was awarded the Son­ning Prize for his “out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion to Eu­ro­pean cul­ture.”

In 1972, Koestler was made a Com­man­der of the Or­der of the Or­der of the British Em­pire (CBE).

In 1998, the Mod­ern Li­brary ranked Dark­ness At Noon at #8 on its list of the 100 Best English-Language Nov­els of the 20th Cen­tury.

These three should elim­i­nate any thoughts that Mr. Koestler was of mar­ginal in­ter­est or, per­ish for­bid, merely a crank—he was quite re­spected in his time and re­mains an im­por­tant force in West­ern cul­ture.

Af­ter spend­ing years fight­ing Parkinson's dis­ease and leukemia, he and his wife com­mit­ted joint sui­cide in 1983, de­spite her be­ing of sound body.

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: cover of the original SMILE album of 1967 by the Beach Boys.

Frank Holmes's art­work for SMiLE, more or less as it was in­tended to have been re­leased in 1966–1967. de­spite the ban­ner at the top pro­claim­ing "New Im­proved Full Di­men­sional Stereo," the al­bum was as­signed the cat­a­log num­ber DT-2580. The DT pre­fix in­di­cated that the stereo record would play in Capitol's fake, echo-laden, and dis­torted Duo­phonic Stereo in late 1966 or early '67. 3

More convoluted conversation

The sec­ond and third parts of this ar­ti­cle is es­sen­tially a lengthy gabfest-with-arguing be­tween Bill To­bel­man and my­self. We dis­cuss SMiLE at length and ar­gue over its in­spi­ra­tion, mo­ti­va­tion, and un­der­pin­nings. A ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of Koestler is re­quired to un­der­stand the con­ver­sa­tion, so don't skip this first part! Here are the three parts with links:

On Brian Wilson And SMiLE (A Con­vo­luted Con­ver­sa­tion Part 1)
On Brian Wilson And SMiLE (A Con­vo­luted Con­ver­sa­tion Part 2)
On Brian Wilson And SMiLE (A Con­vo­luted Con­ver­sa­tion Part 3)


Convoluted Conversation Part 1: poster from the movie LOVE & MERCY.

FEA­TURED IM­AGE: The im­age at the top of this page is lifted from the poster for the movie Love & Mercy. I had to crop it and darken it to make the white let­ters of the article's ti­tle stand out.

If you've read this far and you haven't seen it yet, stop what­ever you're do­ing and see this movie! Bravo! to Paul Dano as the young Brian (and he gets to be in one of the best trip­ping sce­nes in a movie), John Cu­sack as the older Brian, and Paul Gi­a­matti as Eu­gene Landy.

And Brava! to Eliz­a­beth Banks as Melinda Led­bet­ter. Ms Banks is the heart and soul of the movie.

Did Brian Wilson con­sciously in­cor­po­rate psy­che­delics and Zen Bud­dhism into SMiLE? Click To Tweet


1   This ar­ti­cle was pieced to­gether from a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions a on Brian Wilson with William To­bel­man re­gard­ing his web­site, The Good Hu­mor SMiLE Site. Bill's site is de­voted to Brian Wilson's record­ings of 1966–67 that should have been re­leased in early '67 as an even then highly an­tic­i­pated Beach Boys al­bum. I stum­bled over this site sev­eral years ago—and a lengthy and in­volv­ing site it was. Af­ter read­ing it, I con­tacted Bill and we have back-and-forthed via email since.

"A con­ver­sa­tion on Brian Wilson and SMiLE" started life as three sep­a­rate posts on my other web­site, Neal Umphred Dot Com. A fourth was added af­ter the fact. These four chap­ters have been all over the place since then, in­clud­ing here on this site as "kid to­bel­man vs. sugar ray umphred in a knock­down SMiLE­down."

One of the ear­lier ti­tles of this ar­ti­cle ("kid to­bel­man vs. sugar ray umphred in a knock­down SMILE­down") was a play on the track "Cas­sius Love Vs. Sonny Wilson" that ap­peared on the Beach Boys' SHUT DOWN VOL. 2 al­bum (1964). That track con­sisted mostly of Mike "Cas­sius" Love ver­bally spar­ring with Brian "Sonny" Wilson, a quick and easy way to fill up 3:30 worth of space on a long-player at a time when Brian was writ­ing, ar­rang­ing, pro­duc­ing, and per­form­ing three al­bums per year.

The nick­names given Love and Wilson for this record­ing were taken from the world of box­ing: the first bout be­tween Cas­sius Clay (the-artist-soon-to-be-known-as-Muhammad Ali) and Sonny Lis­ton for World Heavy­weight Cham­pi­onship was held in Feb­ru­ary 1964. Sports Il­lus­trated mag­a­zine named it the fourth great­est sports mo­ment of the 20th cen­tury.

2   Peri­stal­sis is the “suc­ces­sive waves of in­vol­un­tary con­trac­tion pass­ing along the walls of a hol­low mus­cu­lar structure—as the esoph­a­gus or intestine—and forc­ing the con­tents on­ward.” (Merriam-Webster)

3   Capi­tol sup­pos­edly or­dered as many as 400,000 jack­ets, ex­pect­ing the tapes to be handed over so that 400,000 records could be pressed to ac­com­pany the jack­ets. Front cover slicks were printed but the back cover slicks were not, so jack­ets were never com­pleted. Most of the slicks were de­stroyed by Capi­tol in the '60s, but a lim­ited edi­tion print was made in 1978 from color neg­a­tives.

Convoluted Conversation Part 1: photo of Brian Wilson shopping for books in 1966.

Brian brows­ing books in 1966, hold­ing on to a copy of Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics ("A New Tech­nique for Us­ing Your Sub­con­scious Power"), re­quired read­ing for all as­pir­ing pop ge­niuses in the mid 1960s.

What did Arthur Koestler and biso­ci­a­tion have to do with Brian Wilson and SMiLE? Click To Tweet


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