#381: The Beach Boys, "The Smile Sessions" (2011)

I have a few theories about why my sister loved the Beach Boys:

They’re fun to sing along with.

The songs are happy. And they sound happy singing them.

The harmonies, duh.

They take you to the beach—to a different time.

But I have this other cosmic thought. About Brian Wilson’s sandbox, where he sat in 1966 and 1967 while the anticipated album Smile was periled over and never executed and where Smiley Smile was settled on in ‘67. Wilson, like a child, sat on his simulated beach, composing commotion, ordering the orchestras to stop and start again, the swirl and chaos of hundreds of instruments around him punctuated by the false start of harmonies. I imagine how utterly alone he was, though surrounded by so many people who only wanted to see it all work out. Then I think of my seven-year-old sister outside in the neighbor’s sandbox, being fussed over, loved by so many, attended by even more, back when they were trying to save her. As a kid, she wouldn’t have known, the way we do now, about the pain Brian Wilson was living with back then, but maybe, I imagine, my sister heard in Smiley Smile something recognizable. They shared the kind of isolation brought on by suffering—by expectations you can’t uphold. For both of them, it was not possible to command hope into result. But, they lived for the sound of beautiful, ecstatic things.


Up and down the stairs of our home—to sleepovers and hospital stays—my sister lugged with her a large trash bag full of cassette tapes. I still remember the pre-song rattle of the tapes clanking against each other, even the bag’s plastic skin, worn soft by the tapes. Among them were Summer Days, Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, and a handful of compilation hits by the Beach Boys.

As an elementary schooler in the early ‘90s, her friends were singing into hairbrush microphones to Michael Jackson, Ace of Base, and Cyndi Lauper. Like a strange seven-year-old Santa incarnate, she’d throw her trash bag over her shoulder, walk to their houses and insist to choreograph elaborate dance routines to the Beach Boys instead. She wasn’t just hooked on “God Only Knows,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”—she was a kid into deep cuts. That’s how I know the offbeat, cast-off songs from Smiley Smile. One of her favorites was “Heroes and Villains,” the larger-than-life epic narrative, quite unlike any other Beach Boys single. During one of her birthday parties at this place called Superstar Studios—where you dance, lip-sync and play faux-instruments in front of a green screen yielding all sorts of special effects—she asked for “Heroes and Villains.” They didn’t have that song available.


The Smile Sessions came out in 2011, thirty-five years after the forty-one initial recordings were made. Smile, the epic album the Beach Boys labored over and intended to release after the iconic Pet Sounds, was shelved due to ‘internal conflict’ in 1967. Instead, Smiley Smile was thrown together to fulfill their contract with Capitol. Smiley Smile has some overlap with The Smile Sessions, which tells a far more in-depth story of the attempt to bring this life-size—maybe galaxy-size, all-of-time-size—concept to life. On it, you can hear almost a half hour in takes trying to get “Heroes and Villains” right.


My sister was diagnosed with a rare form of terminal brain cancer when she was seven years old after having a seizure at school. She was sick, enduring surgeries, treatments and false hopes, for two years. She died when I was five and a half. I have grown up wondering, speculating, what it was about these songs that she attached to. For years I have searched the lyrics for clues—if there was a message provided, straight from Brian Wilson himself. I imagine she lit up when “California Girls” declared east coast girls hip; the boys really digging the styles they wear. I cringe to think of her hearing, asking: Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older… I find solace thinking of her comforted by “Don’t Worry Baby”’s repetition of that line.

But Smiley Smiley’s strange psychedelic songs, many seemingly ironic in their lyrics’ juvenility, don’t lay the path to my sister’s mind. Even though she was young and silly, I can’t imagine my sister around the dinner table singing: I'm gonna chow down my vegetables, I love you most of all, my favorite vegetable. “Little Pad”’s  Dit du du, Da da da do do, dim duh did doo, Did did did doo Dim duh dum did doo Do do doesn’t give many clues, either. There is one song on “Smiley Smile” though, that I know she could relate to.

It hurts to listen to “She’s Goin’ Bald,” knowing she’d known it—surely had it memorized. It is a playful, trippy track with a pinch of their recognizable beachy harmonies at the beginning. Wilson sings, Silken hair, more silken hair fell on her face and no wind was blowin / She's goin' bald / Silken hair, more silken hair lay near her pillbox down at her feet. But the song rockets into a rock opera-esque joke, the punchline its bald subject. On first listen, it feels tacky, tasteless—a “too far” moment for Wilson. But when I think of her hearing it as a child losing beautiful waist-long waves, I wonder if its wildness and bounce, its lack of seriousness and sensitivity, was a relief. That maybe someone far away in space and time was giving her the gift of being the focus of a light, upbeat story—not a sufferer.


In 1967, Smiley Smile hit number 41 on the U.S. Billboard charts. It was the lowest ranking that the Beach Boys ever had. Smiley Smile is often regarded as their worst received album to date. By critics, fans, and even members of the band, it was considered a humiliating, cartoonish, plummet for them, especially as a follow up to Pet Sounds. There’s much supposition that Brian Wilson’s mental, physical and spiritual state contributed to Smile’s dysfunctional recording and the chart failure of Smiley Smile. I wonder if this is album he needed to make—one seemingly void of emotional resonance. One not of suffering.


Though I remember the oldies that orbited my sister clearly, a lot of my memories of my sister are fabricated, pieced together by clips of home videos or suggested by photographs. This image of her is my favorite: She is on the beach, standing on the sand in front of the boardwalk amusements. A Ferris wheel halos her bare head and she is smiling. The tulip bathing suit she is wearing was handed down to me. By the time I grew into it, she was gone.

I don’t remember this day—I’m not even sure if I was there. But it was a Beach Boys concert in 1993 in Ocean City, Maryland. I think by then the doctors and my parents knew that she couldn’t be saved. They drove her four hours to the beach to see her favorite band, wanting to give her any final, beautiful moments they could.

I envision that day, filling it in with all the things I assume. I wonder if she noticed being one of the youngest diehard Beach Boys fans—that the other kids were not singing along, but building sand castles at their parents’, not ever having considered the other side of life. I also wonder if, by then, she did.


The Smile Sessions was released as a box set with almost 400 fatiguing minutes of audio—many 20 second tracks. These clips of chaos and unresolved melodies don’t feel like songs at all. The recordings were made over nine months during eighty different sessions in Brian Wilson’s home studio. Listening to it is an exhausting eavesdrop for those willing to endure frustration for the blessing of bearing witness to these painful, private moments. This album gives a gritty glimpse of why Smile was never produced and its flop replacement Smiley Smile was released instead. Although, it is worth mentioning that since its mediocre reception, many critics and fans alike have recanted harsh reviews of Smiley Smile. Though it didn’t place on the RS 500, it is at least now better embraced.


Though I will never know, I decide that my sister initially loved the Beach Boys for the simple, instinctual reasons we love music and that those feelings complicated and evolved as she lived. Maybe the range of high notes warmed by lows offered her heaven-sounds—beckoning her beautifully to a place that, I decide, she believed in.

The Smile Sessions opens with a rough cut of “Our Prayer.” These are the familiar harmonies that I imagine soothed my sister into acceptance. Something that I hope was uncomplicated—just peaceful. As I listen to “Our Prayer,” I sense this is what Brian Wilson was trying to muddle through. That he was trying to coordinate pitches and speed and purpose to find the peace these voices and sounds would offer.


I am not sure what Smile would have sounded like if they’d made of it what they wanted. Neither Smiley Smile nor The Smile Sessions give us more than gentle nudges. But here: I am just trying to decode the smiles they provided.

I am not sure what my sister’s story would be if I knew all her truths—why she loved the Beach Boys being only one of the million mysteries I strive to solve.

After toiling toward answers, I realize that maybe I relate more to Brian Wilson that my sister ever did. Like him, I am writing this for a deadline. Like him, I missed it. Maybe in forty years I will be able to release the scribbles of edits, sessions of notes—the evidence that I worked trying to get each of them right.

I think I will always magnify moments of her short life, investigating what was meaningful to her. I will throw together all my labored breaths, re-tries, my visible tensions: the struggled words of trying to do justice to such a gigantic, bigger-than-time story. Smile, Smiley Smile, Smile Sessions—they gave it so many gos. And without shame, I will release my tired 20-second tracks—this is among them. I will try and re-try, making sure like in “Our Prayer”—like in all the tracks— the harmonies synch up and hurt just right. And just like Wilson, through the struggle and strain, in each stab at it I take, I’ll hope for a Smile.

—Elise Burke