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

Es­ti­mated reading time is 15 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 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 for 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 the 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.

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

Top: 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. Bottom: 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 mere “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 were 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 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.

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 on 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.


BW Smile 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.

Top: Drawing by Frank Holmes used on a pic­ture sleeve for a single from the boxed SMiLE SESSIONS from 2011. Bottom: Drawing by Frank Holmes “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.


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!


BW Smile BVDP2

“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

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-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.”


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