At least, that's who Wilson says it is. His recollections aren't always reliable because he was using a lot of drugs at the time. It was the fall of 1966. His band, the Beach Boys, had just released the instant classic Pet Sounds and was waging a lonely resistance against the British Invasion. It was in the midst of this rivalry with the Beatles that McCartney stopped by the studio where Wilson was working on his next record, what he hoped would be "a teen-aged symphony to God."
"He came by, and we had a big pile of vegetables on the table there, and I said, 'Here, Paul, chew up this stalk of celery while we sing Vega-Tables,' " Wilson says now, on the phone from Los Angeles. "He just laughed his head off."
Wilson says he wasn't rattled by McCartney's presence, but that's hard to imagine. The two bands were both in the middle of creating experimental albums that would redefine their medium, racing to see who would be first to present their new sound to the world. It was a race that the Beatles would win, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in June 1967.
The Beach Boys were beaten, and Smile was shelved. Wilson suffered a psychological breakdown and retreated to his home, an emotional wreck. He rarely spoke of Smile again. But now, almost four decades later, Wilson has remade his lost masterpiece. On Tuesday, Smile will finally be released, in a new recording, and Wilson will kick off a five-week tour that will bring him to Washington on Oct. 10.
"It's quite a relief. We finally did it," Wilson says, his voice still clear and strong at 62. "It was like a legendary kind of [lost] album for 38 years, and now the Smile dream has been realized."
Only one of the Beach Boys was actually a beach boy. That would be Dennis Wilson, the middle of three Wilson brothers growing up in Hawthorne, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. He was drawn to the California coast in the early '60s, when the surfing culture was taking hold. The oldest brother, Brian, preferred his bedroom, where he spent hours listening to early rock and doo-wop and teaching his youngest brother, Carl, to sing with him.
When Brian wanted to form a band, Dennis suggested he write a song about surfing. And so, with his cousin, Mike Love, he wrote a song called "Surfin'." The song was taken to Capitol Records, reworked as "Surfin' Safari" and released in May 1962. By August, it had reached No. 14 on the Billboard pop charts and the Beach Boys were on their way.
In the next three years, the band would place 16 songs in the Top 40 with a formula that revolved around girls, cars and surfing. "I wish they all could be California girls," they would sing. They also wished everyone "had an ocean / across the USA / Then everybody'd be surfin' / like Californ-i-a." And they had "fun, fun, fun, till her daddy takes the T-bird away."
The music was sunny and good-hearted in its optimism. The songs evoked an idealized vision of California and spoke of the transforming power of love. Brian Wilson talked a lot about love, and of his hope to share it with the world. But he was facing demons of his own.
Still reeling from a violent childhood - his father, who was later his manager, routinely administered beatings to the three boys when they fell short of perfection, including one that left Brian deaf in one ear - and exhausted by the rigors of touring and writing songs nonstop, Brian Wilson suffered his first nervous breakdown in late 1964. In January 1965, he left the road altogether and stayed home to work on his music, presenting it to the other band members when they stopped home between tours.
Meanwhile, the Beatles and the Beach Boys were trading punches across the Atlantic. The Beatles' Rubber Soul came out in late 1965; the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds followed in May 1966. And while the Beatles worked on Sgt. Pepper that year, Wilson worked on Smile. As it seemed everyone was embracing all things British, he turned inward to America.
"It was an iconoclastic, maverick thing to do," says Van Dyke Parks, who was a young poet and musician in the burgeoning L.A. arts scene when he began working with Wilson on Smile in 1966. "Things American were gauche. Everything Brit was happening. And that codified itself in a competition. It was a culture war between Brian Wilson, the man, and the Beatles, plus their great producer [George Martin]. One man was up against that.
"He was like a moth rebelling against the chloroform just before they snap [the jar] shut," Parks says. "This guy decided to fly right out."
Smile was originally written and recorded with the aid of a giant sand pit constructed in Wilson's living room, an Arabian tent in the den (intended as a place for gathering, it became a place for smoking marijuana) and a studio full of musicians wearing plastic firemen's helmets.
"This was all part of the process. These were not indulgences," says David Leaf, director of Beautiful Dreamer, a Showtime documentary on Smile that will air Oct. 5. "It was all about vibe and feeling, and feeling is paramount in Brian's creative process."
Wilson wanted to make an optimistic but honest album about America, and he enlisted Parks to put his feelings into words. In 17 songs, Smile tells the story of America, of the settlers landing at Plymouth Rock and traveling westward, pausing in California to look back before pushing forward to Hawaii.
"It's who we are," Parks says. "Who us as Americans are, not with some Technicolor bath, but in black and white. And when Brian says [on Smile], 'Is it hot as hell in here, or is it just me? It really is a mystery,' that's a man confessing in the present tense that he went through a lot and this really is an expensive little bijou. This is harmonicas and cymbals and hammer dulcimers and horns and strings and voices going in all the right places with powerful anecdotes."
(Smile is also, in fact, about the value of eating vegetables, showing Wilson to be a pioneer in food as well as music. While making the album, Wilson came to believe in the health benefits of vegetables; he made his musicians eat them and wrote "Vega-Tables" about them.)
Most of the music, however, was abstract and multilayered. It featured saws, whistles, horns, mallets, drills, animal sounds and, yes, vegetable-munching. Themes and verses carried from song to song. It was a long way from the cars-girls-and-surfing formula that had made the Beach Boys famous. And Wilson's band mates weren't happy to hear it.
As Brian was in the studio assembling Smile, the rest of the band was on a triumphant tour of Europe. In Britain, the readers of New Musical Express voted the Beach Boys the best vocal group of 1966; the Beatles came in second. But at the end of its tour, the group came home to find Wilson working with a new band of musicians, making a new kind of music. Mike Love was the loudest dissenter.
"Mike and Dennis both said they hated it," Wilson says. "They thought it was not appropriate for the Beach Boys. I said I want to do it anyway. I wanted to try something experimental. You see, we were taking a lot of drugs - LSD, marijuana, some amphetamines. It got us all spaced out."
Despite their doubts, the members of the Beach Boys started recording the vocals for Smile. Other pressures, though, were building. Wilson's father, Murry, apparently wasn't happy with the group's drug use, and Wilson came to believe that his father had hired detectives to follow him. He also thought his phones were tapped, and insisted on holding business meetings in his pool. His record label, Capitol, was upset that Smile was overdue, and didn't like the sound of it, either. Through it all, Wilson was suffering from what his friends now say was undiagnosed depression.
And then the Beatles put out the single "Strawberry Fields Forever." Wilson was driving in his car when he first heard on it the radio. He pulled over to listen.
"He just shook his head and said, 'They did it already - what I wanted to do with Smile. Maybe it's too late,' " Michael Vosse, a friend of Wilson's who was with him at the time, says in the Showtime documentary. "I started laughing my head off, and he started laughing his head off. ... But the moment he said it, he sounded very serious."
Wilson says that ultimately Smile was shelved because he thought it was too weird and that people wouldn't understand it. Mike Love didn't like it, he said, and work on it stopped being fun. Some band members refused to sing their parts during recording sessions. At the same time, the Beach Boys filed a lawsuit against Capitol Records, accusing the label of cheating them out of much of their royalties. It was too much for Wilson to fight at once.
In the summer of 1967, Smile was abandoned.
The Beach Boys weren't done, but they weren't the same, either.
The music world, and their fans, moved on. The Beach Boys put out new albums through the '70s, but nothing rivaled the power or promise of Pet Sounds and Smile. Bits of Smile appeared on some subsequent Beach Boys records, and "Good Vibrations," now the album closer, was released as a single. But Smile was never heard in its entirety, in the way Wilson intended.
In 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned in the Pacific Ocean that had been celebrated in so many Beach Boys songs. Carl Wilson died of lung cancer in 1998. That left only the oldest, Brian.
He had gone through a dark, lost period in the 1980s, when a psychologist took control of his life and his music. Wilson's family eventually sued and a court ordered the psychologist to stay away. But Wilson really started getting better in 1995, when he married Melinda Ledbetter, a woman from whom he once bought a Cadillac.
He began touring again, and occasionally a song or two from Smile would slip into his sets. He played the album's centerpiece, "Heroes and Villains" at a Christmas party in 2000 and again at a Radio City Music Hall tribute in 2001.
"I've always liked that song a lot," Wilson says. "It's like one of the best lights in your darkest night. It's a savior kind of song for me."
And so in 2003, Wilson announced that he and his band would play Smile - all of Smile - live in London the following year. The old master tapes were hauled out of the Capitol Records vaults. Wilson touched up the music and called in Van Dyke Parks to help write some new lyrics. Parks was stunned to see it happen.
"He could go on tour and recite 'Old Victory' instead of this. This is an old failure," Parks says. "He doesn't need to do this. But what's behind his every move is some altruism, some great empathy. Brian has earned the right to start this task, and it has taken a lot of courage for him to step up to the plate."
In January this year, one month before Smile was to make its premiere in London, Wilson walked out of rehearsals and went to a hospital emergency room. The music was bringing back the old memories, and Wilson was overcome. He didn't check himself into the hospital; he just lay on a gurney in the ER for hours until his wife came to rescue him.
"I had to have a lot of strength to recall the bad memories, to put that behind me and go on with it and learn," he says. "But people are ready for Smile now, and I think we should get on with it."
Paul McCartney was at the Smile premiere in London on Feb. 20 this year. So was Van Dyke Parks. He received an ovation as he walked to his seat. Wilson was joined on stage by his 10-piece band along with additional strings and horns. He played Smile all the way through, and then the audience stood and applauded for 10 long minutes.
The response, Wilson says, was "spiritual" for him.
"He finally let it in," says Leaf, the filmmaker, who was with Wilson that night. "At first he was trying to cut off the applause and introduce Van Dyke, and then he just stood there, and there's a moment where he just lets out a sigh and you can see him letting in the audience reaction.
"He was accepting the fact that after all these years, all these tears, all the pain, Smile has made it out into the world and been received as rapturously as he once had dreamed. In the elevator after the show, he said the Smile dream had come true."
What: Brian Wilson
Where: Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
When: Oct. 10, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $52.50 to $85, available through ticketmaster.com or 410-547-SEAT
On the air
What: Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile (106 minutes, not rated; directed by David Leaf)
When: Oct. 5, 9 p.m.