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? Click To Tweet

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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