on brian wilson and SMiLE (a convoluted conversation part 3)

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 3),” be­cause it is the second of a three part ar­ticle. Please find Parts 1 and 2 and read them be­fore con­tin­uing with this ar­ticle.


 Convoluted Conversation Part 3: cover of the original Beach Boys' SMILE album 1966.

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 3

The sec­tions below are the final parts of the con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Bill To­belman and Neal Umphred. 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.

BT: The three main cre­ators, Wilson, Parks, and Holmes, have never as­serted that SMiLE is a log­ical mess. Holmes once men­tioned ‘paradox’ while looking at SMiLE from the view­point of out­side. They’ve never cited con­tra­dic­tions or any­thing of the sort. For this reason I like Sasaki’s de­f­i­n­i­tion of koan: it seems more in the spirit of SMiLE.

NU: SMiLE is 90% Brian Wilson and 10% Van Dyke Parks and Frank Holmes just did some draw­ings that you like a lot and I like a little. I do not mean that I do not like Holmes’s art; I mean that I do not like the in­clu­sion of the draw­ings with the album!

I do not want someone else’s vi­sion of the Wilson-Parks’ im­ages and al­lu­sions as­so­ci­ated with the album con­sid­ered con­clu­sive or de­fin­i­tive.


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


BT: In my humble opinion, Frank was just fol­lowing the cre­ative process used for the album. How did you ar­rive at your per­cent­ages?

NU: Fine, but un­der­stand that it is not what most people who know the word koan think of when they see the word koan. I know what the word moot means (look it up!) and I know that more than half the writers who use it don’t.

But, so many writers misuse the word that the in­cor­rect de­f­i­n­i­tion is now turning up in de­scrip­tive dic­tio­naries, so the in­cor­rect use af­fects the way others read me when I use it cor­rectly.

Re­member, you can say what­ever you like and I will argue with you if that is what you want. It may stir up some in­ter­ac­tion with Zen-knowledgeable readers.

As for the per­cent­ages above—I made them up, of course. (If we ac­cept SMiLE as a con­cep­tual whole, then my per­cent­ages are ab­surd. Making up new per­cent­ages as I type this, I might say that SMiLE was 65% Wilson, 30% Parks, and 5% Holmes.)

BT: As I stated ear­lier, the de­f­i­n­i­tions you prefer are just dandy. The Sasaki de­f­i­n­i­tion re­ally worked like a charm for me to par­tially figure out where Wilson, Parks, and Holmes were coming from. If you think it’s of no value, fine. Sim­i­larly Koestler main­tains that the con­sumer of art, by way of the cre­ative act, recre­ates the mind of the artist.

NU: Well, I am as­suming that you mean that the con­sumer’s “cre­ative act” is in the viewing and aes­thetic emo­tional spir­i­tual in­ter­acting with the work. That’s a po­si­tion that I find dif­fi­cult to sup­port in all but the most “sen­si­tive” of art-lovers. But, what the hell do I know?

BT: We can also apply Koestler’s process to Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cos­mology, in which Watts de­scribes his LSD trip ex­pe­ri­ences (as best he can using words). There are two planes at work: there is the ex­pe­ri­ence it­self and then there is Watt’s mind at work trans­lating the ex­pe­ri­ence.

At times Watts laughs, at times Watts dis­covers new in­sight and truths he’d never thought of be­fore, and at times he has a mar­veling, tran­scending, aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence.


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: cover of the first hardback edition of THE JOYOUS COSMOLOGY by Alan Watts.

The first US edi­tion of The Joyous Cos­mology was pub­lished by Pan­theon Books (1962). The only book on LSD to boldly go where no book on LSD had gone be­fore: to use the word in its title that best de­scribed the real psy­che­delic experience—joyous.


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: cover of the first paperback edition of THE JOYOUS COSMOLOGY by Alan Watts.

The first US pa­per­back edi­tion of The Joyous Cos­mology was pub­lished by Vin­tage Giant (1965). This is the edi­tion that everyone that I knew read in the ’60s and ’70s.

Hallucinations, delusions, and raptures

NU: The Joyous Cos­mology and other books by Watts were ex­tremely helpful to me. I do want to say here that my re­sponse was not the re­sponse of the ma­jority of trip­pers. For most people, it was a great time, loads of fun, far out, or, as poor Arthur Koestler ex­pe­ri­enced, “hal­lu­ci­na­tions, delu­sions, and rap­tures” that were merely “con­fi­dence tricks played on one’s own ner­vous system.”

Back to ba­sics: Bill, I am old enough to have read the Paul Williams/Brian Wilson in­ter­views as they came out in Craw­daddy way back in the ’60s. I have never been much of a joiner, so I never found my­self in with the camp of Beach Boys fans that had ac­cess to un­re­leased tapes.

I re­member when there was no raw SMiLE record­ings, years be­fore the re­lease of ma­te­rial on the GOOD VIBRATIONS boxed set (1993). Once upon a time, if you wanted SMiLE, you made your own cas­sette from Beach Boys al­bums. This was my cas­sette ver­sion: 

• Good Vi­bra­tions (single, 1966)
You’re Wel­come (single, 1967)
He­roes And Vil­lains (single, 1967)
Wind Chimes (SMILEY SMiLE, 1967)
Veg­eta­bles (SMILEY SMiLE, 1967)
Won­derful (SMILEY SMiLE, 1967)
Cab­i­nessence (20/20, 1969)

• Our Prayer (20/20, 1969)
• Cool Cool Water (SUNFLOWER, 1970)
• Surf’s Up/Child Is The Fa­ther To The Man (SURF’S UP, 1971)

Even that tape was marvelous—I im­pressed a lot of non-Beach Boys fans with that com­pi­la­tion. And, of course, it only hinted at the sub­lime power that was/is SMiLE!

The first bootlegs with ac­tual 1966-67 record­ings that found their way into col­lec­tors’ hands in the ’80s were manna sent from above by Wholly Grom­mett!

But I’m di­gressing and bab­bling. Your turn.

BT: Your cas­sette tape ver­sion of SMiLE was very sim­ilar to the ear­liest SMiLE bootlegs. Cool. Think I may have found my first bootleg in New Haven. After that I would go to New York City to find them. This was back when there were still record stores.

Like you, I’d put to­gether home­made ver­sions of SMiLE on cas­sette. If you re­duced the cover of Look! Listen! Vi­brate! Smile! on a copy ma­chine, the smaller image fits per­fectly into a cas­sette case. I made loads of home­made ver­sions, trying out idea after idea. Think I prob­ably spent more money on cas­sette tapes than bootlegs.

NU: Yeah yeah yeah! I went from cheap cas­settes to chrome this and oxide that and Dolby I and II and prob­ably would have moved on to DAT if the record com­pa­nies had al­lowed me to!

By this time, To­belman and Umphred were all smiled out and we simply ended the cor­re­spon­dence so that we could take a break and pursue other en­deavors while I made sense of the emails.


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: cover of a bootleg album of the Beach Boys' SMILE album.

In the 1980s, an en­ter­prising person put to­gether a rea­son­ably sane and smart SMiLE and is­sued it as a bootleg to the col­lec­tors market. Need­less to say, I had one and was hen able to toss my cas­sette tape of my home­made SMiLE. This was the re­vised and im­proved second edi­tion of the album.

Turn on and tune in to vegetables

In the ’60s, Brian was turned on to the healthful ben­e­fits of good food—especially veg­eta­bles. Not only did he write a song about them (Veg­eta­bles), but he even­tu­ally be­came part owner in a health food store, the Ra­diant Radish (1969−70). He seemed gen­uinely con­cerned about other peo­ple’s well-being: “I want people to turn on to veg­eta­bles, good nat­ural food, or­ganic food—health is an im­por­tant in­gre­dient in spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment.”

Alas, Brian went on to have a gaw­dawful diet that be­came a focus of media at­ten­tion for years, along with his de­cayed state of being in gen­eral. But in 1966-67, he was on top of the world and preparing that world for his greatest cre­ation, SMiLE. And Bill and I keep jab­bering away about it forty-odd years later!

NU: Well, nothing will ever re­place what the album could have been in 1967, but this is close. I thought everyone in­volved did a bril­liant job, tech­ni­cally and aes­thet­i­cally. And, of course, the music is still won-won-wonderful. But I did find the five-disc boxed set over­whelming!

The ma­te­rial could have been re­leased in sep­a­rate CDs, per­haps in order of com­plete­ness or im­por­tance. That way, for someone who bought the es­sen­tial CD (some­thing that re­sem­bled the in­tended 1967 album) and liked it, he could then buy one more disc of out­takes, al­ter­na­tive tracks, etc. A real fan could then pur­chase the next disc, which would per­haps be of sec­ondary, if not merely his­tor­ical, in­terest.

But, who the hel­lza­poppin’ am I to com­plain, right? It’s here and it’s great and it’s near-perfect enough that the sup­posed ex­perts at Rolling Stone placed it at #381 on their 500 Greatest Al­bums of All Time.

The Rolling Stone list would have made some sense had the al­bums been listed chrono­log­i­cally without a nu­mer­ical order. Their hi­er­ar­chical order that ranks su­pe­ri­ority is so far­cical that it seems like they could have written the records on pieces of paper, thrown them in a hat, and pulled them out willy-nilly. But that’s an­other story, so let’s get back to the topic of con­cern.

BT: You have a firm foun­da­tion of pre­con­cep­tions about SMiLE.

NU: I don’t un­der­stand this statement—please re­state dif­fer­ently. I am leaning more and more to­wards just pub­lishing this as is and let­ting readers make of it what they will: es­pe­cially you and I trying to make me un­der­stand your ar­gu­ment.

It’s got a nice Paul Williams/Craw­daddy feel—and I hope to Grom­mett that you have read the lengthy in­ter­view be­tween Paul and David An­derle that ap­peared in Craw­daddy in late 1967.


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: photo of SMILE artist Frank Holmes.

Frank Holmes at home with his SMiLE art­work, of which he still re­mains (rightly) proud and of which he still has sto­ries to tell! (Photo by Chris Hardy)

Working on spiritual music

BT: The Williams/Anderle in­ter­view is typ­ical of SMiLE his­tory as it is told from the point of view of on­lookers rather than the pri­mary par­tic­i­pants. Jules Siegel’s ar­ticle is largely from this point of view though it does doc­u­ment Brian Wilson circa 1966-67 well.

David Leaf’s book used David An­derle, Michael Vosse, and Derek Taylor to tell the story. Peter Ames Car­lin’s book had a fur­ther de­gree of sep­a­ra­tion coming largely from Bob Hanes and Peter Reum—and I know Bob swore by the Williams/Anderle in­ter­views. If you look who typ­i­cally in­forms you about SMiLE it’s usu­ally on­lookers rather than the pri­mary cre­ators of the piece.

To me, these ‘on­lookers’ never got things ex­actly right. Vosse’s de­f­i­n­i­tion of SMiLE was “ba­si­cally a Southern Cal­i­fornia non-country ori­ented, gospel album—on a very so­phis­ti­cated level.” David Leaf used Vosse’s de­scrip­tion to de­fine SMiLE in his book.

Later on, in his film on SMiLE, Mr. Leaf ex­plained things circa 2004, “in part the album was con­ceived as an Amer­ican trav­el­ogue, a journey from Ply­mouth Rock to Di­a­mond Head as seen from the point of view of a bi­cycle rider who flew from coast to coast.” Seems like they have quite a handle on things (note: sar­casm).

So back in the ’90s, things weren’t adding up SMiLE-wise to my de­gree of sat­is­fac­tion. It seemed like there had to be an an­swer and I was de­ter­mined to find it. Fig­ured I could trust Brian Wilson not to let me down and PET SOUNDS somehow re­as­sured me of this. The first thing to do was to view SMiLE as spir­i­tual.

The reason for this was be­cause Brian had said he was working on spir­i­tual music. He was a pri­mary in­for­ma­tion source re­garding SMiLE. I was going to rely on Wilson, Parks and Holmes more than any­body else to in­form me about SMiLE.

It wasn’t easy at first to view SMiLE as spir­i­tual. Many of my pre­con­cep­tions still lin­gered and Domenic Pri­ore’s claims from Look! Listen! Vi­brate! Smile! (my “bible,” re­member?) stuck with me. Even­tu­ally, I came to an im­passe that couldn’t be re­solved with the Amer­i­cana stuff on one side of the album and the El­e­mental stuff on the other.

Couldn’t put them to­gether. It seemed il­log­ical. I’d been con­sid­ering Zen be­cause Brian was quoted using the term in the Jules Siegel ar­ticle. So this set the stage for my next step. 1

I used to play the 1993 box set at work and one Sunday I had an eight hour day alone in the ware­house to stack boxes and think about SMiLE. To be honest I even cried trying to figure SMiLE out. I was stacking boxes and crying.

Then an idea came from I Love To Say Dada. I looked up the de­f­i­n­i­tion of Dada (you’re going to be proud of me here, Neal) in the dic­tio­nary and the words, “de­lib­erate ir­ra­tionality” popped out at me.


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: Frank Holmes drawing used for the picture sleeve of VEGA-TABLES single in 2011.

Convoluted Conversation Part 3: Frank Holmes SMILE drawing for Van Dyke Parks lyrics.

Here are two Frank Holmes draw­ings: the one on top was used on a pic­ture sleeve for a single from the boxed SMiLE SESSIONS from 2011. The one on the bottom “il­lus­trates” some of the ob­tuse Van Dyke Parks lyrics and is ti­tled “Lost And Found You Still Re­main There.”

One big Zen koan

NU: Allow me to in­ter­rupt here and in­ter­ject this historical/cultural tidbit: be­lieve it or not, the word dada was sup­pos­edly pulled ran­domly from a French (?) dic­tio­nary and the de­f­i­n­i­tion that Huelsen­beck and Tzara and com­pany had for it was a child’s hobby horse!

BT: Hmmmm, I thought, Zen koans are de­lib­er­ately irrational—the dic­tio­nary said they were “a paradox.” Maybe SMiLE is like one big Zen koan!!!! Then I thought about not being able to put to­gether the Amer­i­cana and the El­e­mental and fig­ured I might be onto some­thing.

Later that day I looked in Bri­an’s bogus au­to­bi­og­raphy and saw the part about hal­lu­ci­na­tions being com­pa­rable to Zen rid­dles and I fig­ured I might be onto some­thing. And after that, I was off to the races finding more and more stuff as I dug deeper and read about Zen.

It was also sort of a curse be­cause when you are seeing things dif­fer­ently than everyone else it’s not an easy po­si­tion to be in. I wished that someone else would take the baton from me and finish the race but it never hap­pened. I was put down for not being in a po­si­tion of au­thority on any mat­ters I was in­vested in.

Who was I to talk about SMiLE?


Who was I to talk about Zen?


Who was I to talk about LSD? The Six­ties? The West Coast?


So ob­vi­ously I was hoping some ex­pert on SMiLE would take over for me, or a Zen au­thority would straighten it all out, or best of all someone with some drug ex­pe­ri­ence would step for­ward and write the kind of stuff about SMiLE that you could read and get your mind blown!

Those hopes have per­sisted for decades but those hopes never materialized—so I was stuck with the job.


Surf’s Up Brian Wilson Solo Per­for­mance 1966 (In­side Pop: The Rock Rev­o­lu­tion)

On De­cember 17, 1966, di­rector David Op­pen­heim and his crew set up their gear in Bri­an’s house and filmed him per­forming Surf’s Up. It is a “rough draft” of the as yet un­fin­ished piece, but clearly dis­plays the song’s majesty. This was part of the tele­vi­sion spe­cial In­side Pop – The Rock Rev­o­lu­tion, hosted by Leonard Bern­stein, whose voiceover can be heard on the video above. This spe­cial was broad­cast on April 25, 1967, and was a very spe­cial event for those of us fans of the ‘new music.’

The joy of enlightenment

BT: When I started the web­site it felt great to be the­o­rizing about SMiLE and trying to ad­vance the con­ver­sa­tion. One day I emailed Peter Reum and asked him to check the web­site out. I was most proud of my orig­inal SMiLE ideas but Peter re­sponded that he liked when I quoted other people.

It kind of put me down ego-wise but it was likely good ad­vice be­cause when you have no cred­i­bility what­so­ever in the pub­lic’s eyes it’s a good idea to let others speak for you. That’s why the web­site quotes ex­perts on SMiLE, Zen, and LSD: be­cause I have no ‘cred’ in such mat­ters.

So here it is 2013 and the web­site is still there, thanks to my friend Gavin who en­cour­aged me to put it back up. There are even some new ideas being added, usu­ally quotes from people with cred­i­bility, that I arrange it the order that seems to make the most sense. But no matter how hard I try to spell things out people just never seem to catch on.


Maybe that’s why Brian is a genius—he knows enough not to try and ex­plain this stuff to people.


The new Arthur Koestler ma­te­rial is a case in point. My latest big essay doc­u­ments Koestler’s spelling out of the cre­ative process. The artist starts with the primitive/child picture-mind vi­sual and uses the un­con­scious to match relate-able sounds, words, or im­ages to rep­re­sent the vi­sual. With that process in mind, one can read the first two para­graphs of Frank Holmes’ SMiLE SESSIONS essay and see that he’s using Koestler’s process.

One can also go back to Van Dyke Parks’ 1993 box set com­ment about Bri­an’s “dream-escape,” find dream/escape pas­sages in Koestler, apply those pas­sages to Bri­an’s ex­pla­na­tion of Surf’s Up in Siegel, and find the re­sult of Koestler’s process being, in Bri­an’s words, “the joy of en­light­en­ment, of seeing God.”

No matter how many ways I try to spell it out I fail. I’m a ter­rible com­mu­ni­cator.

Maybe that’s why Brian is a genius—he knows enough not to try and ex­plain this stuff to people!


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: photo of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks at the piano in 1966.

“Dove-nested towers and colum­nated ruins domino over and over the crow cries, un­cover the corn­field; my chil­dren were raised, you know they sud­denly rise. They started slow, long ago, head to toe, healthy wealthy and wise.” Huh? Was Mike Love right all along? Hell, no! Parks’s lyrics teased the brains of those who had a brain to be teased.

Thought I’d take a chance

Yeah yeah yeah, I al­lowed Kid To­belman the last word. And a good word it is. So, go back and read Bill’s last two sen­tences about Brian not ex­plaining him­self. Re­member them the next time you hear these lyrics come blaring through your car radio: “Went to a dance, looking for ro­mance, saw Bar­bara Ann so I thought I’d take a chance.” Silly lyrics to a silly song, but the recording is sheer ge­nius!

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)

Once upon a time, we made our own SMiLE album on cas­sette from Beach Boys records. Click To Tweet

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 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-Wilson as 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.”


Convoluted Conversation Part 3: cover for the 1969 hardback edition of OUTLAW BLUES by Paul Williams.

Outlaw Blues (Dutton, 1969) col­lected the lengthy con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Paul Williams and David An­derle into book form, pre­serving a di­alog that would have been lost as Craw­daddy mag­a­zine’s po­si­tion of em­i­nence was sup­planted by Rolling Stone.


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it seems ok on pt 3 neal, i’ll go back to pt 2 and try my com­ment again

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