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. 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-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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