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

Estimated reading time is 8 minutes.

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 and 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 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.

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

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.


BW Smile BW bookstore

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.

Hindu-like image plus 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: 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. 

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.

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


BW Smile Koestler 1000

This is an obviously posed photo of Arthur Koestler (date unknown).. 

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 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.

“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

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 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)

Did Brian Wilson consciously incorporate psychedelics and Zen Buddhism into SMiLE? Share on X

BrianWilson LoveMercy movie poster 1000

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-Wilson, as she is the heart and soul of the movie.



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.


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