on brian wilson and SMiLE (a convoluted conversation part 2)

Estimated reading time is 18 minutes.

THIS ARTICLE ADDRESSES BRIAN WILSON and the inspiration for his legendary SMiLE album. It bears the unwieldy title of “On Brian Wilson And SMiLE (A Convoluted Conversation Part 2),” because it is the second of a three-part article. Please find Part 1, which is an introduction to Arthur Koestler, and read it before continuing with this article.


 Convoluted Conversation Part 2: cover of original Beach Boys SMILE album 1966-1967.

This is the cover for Capitol DT-2580, the Beach Boys SMILE. It was scheduled or release in August or September 1966. Not only was the album not ready for release at that time, but the featured single Good Vibrations wasn’t ready! Nonetheless, slicks for the jacket were printed and then destroyed. A few have survived and are valuable, but beware: counterfeits exist.

Convoluted conversation part 2

This is the first part(s) of the conversation between Bill Tobelman and Neal Umphred. It gets the “part 2” above from being the second part of a three-part article about Bill and me. You will find my statements (NU) in serif typeface (like the rest of this article) while Bill’s comments (BT) are in san serif typeface (like the font in this parenthetical phrase) and indented.

NU: When did you become aware of SMiLE?

BT: I read David Leaf’s book The Beach Boys And The California Myth when I was at college in the early ’80s, but nothing really clicked. When my wife was pregnant in 1990, I bought Domenic Priore’s Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! at Coliseum Books in mid-town Manhattan and it became, in my wife’s words, “the bible.”

What really got to me was Priore’s intro about how cool the unreleased music reportedly was. He laid out how SMiLE fit into Brian’s artistic ascent, pointing out that when one track from the SMiLE-era got released, Good Vibrations, it was the biggest smash ever!

NU: Yes, but Good Vibrations was conceived, written, and partially recorded during the PET SOUNDS sessions. Brian even considered giving it away to another artist or group! Only after enough people made him realize what he had created did he begin to devote time to finishing the single, apparently prior to even contemplating SMiLE.

While I also assume that it would have been on any SMiLE album that would have come out in 1967, Good Vibrations does not sound or feel anything like any of the other SMiLE tracks. I think of it as being a project of its own—like the man without a country, it’s a single without an album.

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

Oh, and Leaf’s book remains my favorite biography of Brian. Did you know that David submitted the book as Brian Wilson And The California Myth (1978)? The publishers didn’t think that enough people would know who Brian Wilson was, so they made the title change.

And Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! (1990) is the ultimate fan-dream: a scrapbook turned into an actual, published book! It’s a fun and educational read that will probably never get old.


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: cover of Domenic Priore's LOOK! LISTEN! VIBRATE! SMILE!! book.

Domenic Priore’s Look! Listen! VIBRATE! SMiLE! was essentially a professionally bound scrapbook, with oodles and oodles of photos and advertisements and clipped articles and blurbs about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys’ activities surrounding their new recordings in 1966-67.

Look listen vibrate smile

BT: Priore’s point about Good Vibrations illustrates Wilson’s artistic path and the potential of SMiLE. To me, Good Vibrations can be thought of in numerous ways, but it all boils down to two versions. The PET SOUNDS version has the Tony Asher lyrics, and the instrumental track that was recorded in a single take.

The version released as a single has the Mike Love lyrics—Brian asked Van Dyke Parks if he’d take over for Love but Parks declined—and the track was done in sections and later pieced together in a fashion closer to SMiLE than PET SOUNDS.

It’s interesting to note that before Brian undertook the vast majority of the work on the Good Vibrations 45, he was in the studio trying out Heroes And Villains. This, along with the way the single was pieced together, seems to tie Good Vibrations a little closer to SMiLE than PET SOUNDS.

I’ll admit, Love’s boy/girl lyrics fit in more with PET SOUNDS than they do SMiLE. Heck, even Tony Asher’s PET SOUNDS-era lyrics for Good Vibrations are more far-out than Love’s lyrics! What does that tell you?

NU: Good points and your argument works for me as a demarcation between a PET SOUNDS version of Good Vibrations versus a SMiLE version (the single). I agree with Bill on the lyrics, but since my faverave record of all time is Hound Dog, I have to confess that I love lyrics that don’t get in the way of something bigger. So, for me, Mike Love’s lyrics for Good Vibrations are damn near perfect!

BT: That’s interesting about David Leaf changing the title of his book. The late Jules Siegel did the same thing with the title of his Cheetah magazine article when he originally put it online. It went from “The Religious Conversion of Brian Wilson” to “The Religious Conversion of the Beach Boys.” 1


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: cover of October 1967 CHEETAH magazine.

The new kid on the block Cheetah (début issue cover-dated October 1967) published Jules Siegel’s article on Brian Wilson that The Saturday Evening Post had commissioned and then rejected because it was too laudatory of the West Coast whizkid!

From Zen to Koestler

NU: Well, David was given no choice, as the publisher dictated the change. And I can understand their thinking. I haven’t spoken with David in ages, so I wonder if he sees their argument that “Beach Boys” in the title had a greater commercial allure back then than “Brian Wilson,” who was far from a household name! So, what motivated you to make a site devoted to SMiLE?

BT: I had ideas about the album that were different from anything else ever said about SMiLE. It seems like once you’re on the right track, or even close to the right track, things start to all come together and start to make sense.

And once the ball starts rolling, it keeps picking up new things that add to its momentum. Keeping all the new discoveries to myself wasn’t very therapeutic. Keeping a secret about how great SMiLE is isn’t easy.

Having a website allowed me to present findings as they came along and gave me an outlet for my obsession. And, supposedly, My Obsession from the BETWEEN THE BUTTONS album—which was recorded at the same time as the SMiLE sessions—is Brian’s favorite Rolling Stones song! 2

NU: When I first stumbled over your site, you were working on the idea that SMiLE was not unlike a Zen koan. You have since discovered new sources that you believe more important to understanding Brian and SMiLE, but I really liked the Zen approach. Did you keep copies of the old Zen-based site?

“I think of the Koestler-influenced approach to SMiLE as a modern form of enlightenment transmission.”

BT: The earliest versions of the website are long gone but the basic Zen-interpretation stuff is still online. The first version of the site contrasted images inspired by the Old West with Zen-flavored images.

SMiLE artist Frank Holmes liked this direction and later on, when he wrote about two points of view combined as in a dream, I could see why he liked the original direction of the website’s art.

I think of the Arthur Koestler-influenced approach to SMiLE as a modern form of enlightenment transmission if you will. Koestler knew his ideas and thought processes were comparable to Zen; proof of this can be found in an end-note in The Act Of Creation.

He’d previously written about Zen in The Lotus And The Robot. So I would say that the new material and ideas on the website are very much in the spirit of the site’s original material.

One problem I have is that both Brian and Van Dyke have told interviewers that there is no Zen influence on SMiLE. My new Koestler-influenced approach shows that Brian’s and Van Dyke’s statements are technically correct but only by a hair.

If Brian was influenced by The Act Of Creation in the mid-’60s—which it appears that he was (see the 2011 interview linked below)—and Koestler was influenced by Zen—which it appears that he was—then Brian was indirectly influenced by Zen through his assimilation of Koestler’s ideas. And so was Parks indirectly influenced by Zen through his assimilation of Brian’s ideas.



“You know, any sane magician would never reveal his method of deception—and I don’t think that any sensible musician would either.” – Van Dyke Parks

The promise of the SMiLE era

BT: The idea that SMiLE was to bring about spiritual enlightenment is pretty far-out, and probably my theory’s biggest hurdle, but the promise of the SMiLE era can accommodate the idea. We’re told things along the lines that “Brian knew no boundaries or limits,” “he was working on another level of consciousness,” and “anything was deemed possible through sheer force of creativity.”

I don’t know anyone personally who believes that music, art, film, poetry, story, or even events could bring about “spiritual enlightenment” believes that that is “far out” if “far out” is intended to be pejorative. It may be residual Sixties-itis (and that has nothing to do with my years), but in the ’60s, so many things seemed possible that didn’t before and haven’t since.

I say that with a sense of awe at the wonderment that a small but potent percentage of the human race felt then. I also say that with a sense of wonder at the contempt that a large percentage of the human racewho were never a part of ithold that wonderment today. They didn’t get it then, they don’t get it now.

And Arthur Koestler’s new ideas were the unknown reason behind the glowing promise of the era. In a 2011 interview, Brian stated that his favorite book was The Act Of Creation (1964) and that Arthur Koestler had “said things that hadn’t been said in print.”

Any act of creation requires active participation on the part of the creator or re-creator. We can see this across Koestler’s spectrum of creativity. The person who gets a joke has to make the humorous connections by themselves. The scientist that exclaims “Eureka!” has made a discovery on his or her own, and the aesthetic experience can only be truly had on a personal level.

This is why SMiLE is unexplained—to explain it would take away its power.

“Brian knew no boundaries or limits [and] was working on another level of consciousness [where] anything was deemed possible through sheer force of creativity.”

NU: So, tell me more about Koestler and Brian and SMiLE.

BT: Brian’s favorite book was The Act Of Creation. Wilson also read metaphysical books, but Koestler had the biggest influence on him. It was a bold work of original thought that attempted to spell out the process behind all original creation. The dynamics of Koestler’s creative process and the outcomes of the said process could even be thought comparable to aspects of the spiritual LSD experience.

NU: You shouldn’t say this, as you cannot know it to be so. I and others would have to argue that nothing ever put on paper is remotely “comparable” to a “spiritual experience.”

BT: But if what’s put on paper theorizes that any state of mind is possible by following the prescribed formula: in theory it’s possible. Here are a few lines from Koestler’s summary of art’s aesthetic experience:

“The aesthetic experience aroused by a work of art is derived from a series of bisociative processes which happen virtually at once and cannot be rendered in verbal language without suffering impoverishment and distortion. Perception is loaded with unconscious inferences, from the visual constancies, through spatial projection, empathy, and synesthesia.”


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: Frank Holmes's illustration for WONDERFUL.

This is one of Frank Holmes’s illustration for the obtuse lyrics to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ songs. This is titled “Wonderful.”

A spiritual LSD experience

NU: Koestler’s “theory” addresses the creative act; you are applying it to the “spiritual LSD experience,” which is not the same thing. Bill, I am just trying to keep you from making inane statements. If you want to make this statement and be able to argue it, do LSD a hundred times. Of course, then you would not make the above statement!

BT: I’m glad you brought this up. What really matters here is not what I think or what you think. We’re not discussing our piece of art. It’s Brian and company’s art. I have a website that attempts to explain, as best I can, what that art is about. Everything there can be traced back to trying to figure out where Brian’s head was at in 1966.

Wilson has been labeled as innocent and naïve. Tony Asher hinted that Brian was taken in by ‘marshmallow mystics.’ 3

Some of Brian’s statements about Arthur Koestler and The Act Of Creation are difficult to substantiate. For example, in the Don Was film, Brian states that Koestler’s position is that the first rule of ego is the desire to be funny, humor. This position is difficult to find in The Act Of Creation but it can be inferred through the book if one is willing to bend over backward to make the point.

The point I’d like to make is that there is some projection going on here. To a degree, The Act Of Creation is the Rorschach test and Brian is seeing what he wants to see in Koestler. In 1966, I believe Brian saw Koestler’s creative theory as a way to make an album capable of bringing about the spiritual experience.

If one wants to see LSD-like outcomes in Koestler’s ideas and statements bad enough, I believe they can find what they’re looking for in The Act Of Creation.

So when I make the claim that the dynamics of Koestler’s creative process and the outcomes of said process could even be thought comparable to aspects of the spiritual LSD experience—that’s where I’m coming from. I guess I could word the sentence better. My main hope is that I’m starting to make a little sense.


BW Smile BWphoto 1

“The Act Of Creation is about the logic of laughter. I think a sense of humor is important to understanding what kind of person someone is. Studying metaphysics was also crucial, but Koestler’s book really was the big one for me.” – Brian Wilson

Koestler’s principles and SMiLE

Here we discuss Bill’s interpretation of Brian’s use of Arthur’s principles in making SMiLE while arguing with Neal.

BT: It is my belief/opinion that Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, and Frank Holmes used Arthur Koestler’s principles to create SMiLE. This would create an album with the potential to bring about the spiritual experience.

So for instance, let’s take Neal’s quote: “My initial experience with LSD in 1971 had left me stunned by my total inability to relate or connect what had happened to me to anything in Western culture.” What Koestler would propose for such a person to creatively express this artistically is that they access the visual and scan their unconscious for relatable forms, such as memories, to represent and convey the experience.

The consumer of the work would reverse the process, relying on the unconscious to work in the opposite direction searching for the matching origin of the relatable forms: the artist’s original mind.

The consumer of the art, in this case, would be much like Neal; moving from a world of relatable forms to one beyond all previous conception. In other words, Koestler’s theory has promise as a way to transmit enlightenment.

At the root of the theory is what Koestler termed “bisociation” which is the putting together (association) of two dissimilar things, thought planes, points of view, frames of reference, associative contexts, etc., to create something original which elicits a response across the creative spectrum spanning from laughter, to discovery, to art.

The mondo dialogue form of the Zen koan is a perfect illustration of two dissimilar thought planes coming together. It’s bisociative. For example:

Q:  What is the essential principle of Buddhism?
A:  The cypress tree in the courtyard.

The koan is essentially a document of the enlightened mind. When a koan results sudden enlightenment that mind has been achieved.


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: splash page for Fred Schrier's comix strip A ZEN FABLE.

Fred Schrier’s A Zen Fable is one of my faveravest strips from the Golden Age of Underground Comix (late ’60s and early ’70s and then it was over with, just like the San Francisco Psychedelic Poster Renaissance). This has nothing really nothing to do with this conversation on Brian and SMiLE but it gives me an excuse to point you to my other website where I reprint all four pages of this amazing comic strip!

A document or a riddle?

NU: First, a koan is NOT a document of anything. Second, the statement “When a koan results in sudden enlightenment, that state of consciousness has been achieved” makes NO sense.

BT:Kung-an in Chinese is pronounced in Japan ko-an; literally, it means a public document.” Found it in a footnote from a D.T. Suzuki essay from The Zen Koan As A Means Of Attaining Enlightenment (1994).

NU: Um, I understand a koan is a riddle-like question with no rational answer. Its purpose is to bypass the student’s normal rational thought-process and thereby trigger insight.

Merriam-Webster defines koan as “a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.” So, you want to restate this?

BT: Neal, I’d like to respond to you. The book The Zen Koan by Mirra and Sasaki (1965) definition is different from Merriam-Webster’s definition.

“The koan is not a conundrum to be solved by a nimble wit. It is not a verbal psychiatric device for shocking the disintegrated ego of a student into some kind of stability. Nor, in my opinion, is it ever a paradoxical statement except to those who view it from outside. When the koan is resolved it is realized to be a simple and clear statement made from the state of consciousness which it has helped to awaken.”

This definition jibes with the way I present things here, Koestler, as well as the comments of the three SMiLE creators.


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: Frank Holmes's illustration for CABINESSENCE.

This is one of Frank Holmes’s illustration for the obtuse lyrics to Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’ songs. This is titled “Uncover The Cornfield.”

A paradox that cannot be solved

NU: Other sources say that a koan is a paradoxical question, statement, riddle, or even an anecdote used in Zen Buddhism to provoke doubt in a student. It is intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and thereby provoke enlightenment.

“In the Rinzai school of Zen, a student is given a particular koan to solve in his zazen (seated meditation) practice. Most koans involve a paradox that cannot be solved by reason or intellect. The resolution forces the student into a different level of consciousness or comprehension.” (About.com)

“A Zen koan is a short story or sentence that initially seems paradoxical in nature.
 It is a learning tool intended to alter our perception of reality. Nobody can answer a koan for you.
 It may take years for your mind to see what a koan is telling you—a sudden unexpected flash of insight will occur. Some interpretations you may come across are rather misleading: esoteric, convoluted religious explanations that assume an understanding of Buddhist precepts.

 They go against the child-like simplicity and immediacy of Zen.” (Philosophy Study)

BT: The reason that I prefer the Sasaki definition of koan to the ones you cited (that I have no problems with) is that Sasaki is viewing things from the inside rather than outside. This presents a more accurate view of things SMiLE-wise.

NU: I don’t get that at all. But the koan only has value and meaning to the outsider, who needs it to get inside. Once inside, it hardly matters how the koan is perceived. So I could argue that the insider’s view is irrelevant to the conversation.

I know this may be a bit of an extension, but one with which we are all too familiar: it reminds me of the people who are assigned the task of writing manuals for software: by the time they know enough to be able to write the book, they have forgotten what it’s like to not know what they know, and they have forgotten how to give meaningful directions.

BT: It presents the creator’s point of view rather than the point of view of those looking at it from the outside. SMiLE can be viewed as a logical mess; a paradox to say the least. I think it’s safe to say that this is a common view. Mike Love said—I’m paraphrasing here—that SMiLE leads you down little paths only to find roadblocks.

NU: Mike Love may know nothing about much of anything spiritual except its form. (But I can say that about almost anyone, including myself.) Rethinking Mike’s statement, it’s rather clever but would be more accurate and useful if we substitute “puzzles” for “roadblocks,” the latter sounding too final, the last thing that SMiLE seems to be.

BT: If you know of any logical takes on SMiLE please let me know of them. I find that people tend to blame drugs or mental illness to explain away the logical inconsistencies of SMiLE.

NU: Oh, I am perfectly comfortable with there being “logical inconsistencies” with anything creative—unless, of course, the artist means it to be logical and fails. I love SMiLE, love Parks’ lyrics (Columnated ruins domino, ho!), and even love the intellectual looneytunes and non-logical quality of SMILEY SMiLE.


Convoluted Conversation Part 2: cover of Beach Boys' original SMILEY SMILE on 1967.

By the time the Beach Boys’ first album of 1967 was issued in September, all of the magic of Good Vibrations and the promise of amazing, groundbreaking music that several journalists had been lost. SMILEY SMiLE was described by Carl Wilson as a “bunt instead of a grand slam.” Interpreting that baseball metaphor, a grand slam is only possible with the bases loaded, ergo he means that with the bases loaded Brian bunted, scoring a solitary run. Given the reception that the album received, that may be a generous assessment. 

More convoluted conversation

The first part of this article provides some background on Arthur Koestler. The second and third parts are essentially a lengthy gabfest-with-arguing between Bill and myself. We discuss SMiLE at length and argue over its inspiration, motivation, and underpinnings. A basic understanding of Koestler is required to understand this 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)

I love the intellectual looneytunes quality of the Beach Boys’ SMILEY SMILE album. 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 play with the colors to make it different from the other two parts of the three-part article “On Brian Wilson And SMiLE (A Convoluted Conversation).”

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—she is the heart and soul of the movie.



1   Jules Siegel was commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post magazine to basically torpedo the growing reputation of Brian Wilson as a “genius.”

Far from writing a negative piece, Siegel left converted and wrote an article that could have helped Wilson and the Beach Boys greatly had it been published by the widely circulated and highly regarded Post.

It was not; although it was picked up by the far less prestigious, far less read Cheetah magazine (October 1967 issue) as “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God! – The Religious Conversion Of The Beach Boys.”

2   Brian’s supposed infatuation with this track has always struck me as one of his put-ons. But who knows, hennah?

3   By “marshmallow mystics” PET SOUNDS lyricist Asher was referring to such then hip authors as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Kahlil Gibran, Krishnamurti, and even Herman Hesse.


1 thought on “on brian wilson and SMiLE (a convoluted conversation part 2)”

  1. even tho this is not in my area of interest i read it as i always read all your record posts neal. you know i’m more of a rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and rockabilly guy. interesting stuff tho, my girlfriend is a buddhist.


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