It has been this webpage's contention from the start that the Beach Boys' SMiLE album was, in essence, a Zen koan or riddle. Ever since this idea first came to me (based upon a single Zen reference: that being from Jules Siegel's article) there has been a continuous stream of information that has solidified my original position, and so, from this writer's point of view--SMiLE definitely appears to some sort of Zen koan; Brian Wilson's musical version of a Zen riddle.
In 1998 my wife and I set about presenting my findings to the general public by making a website (click on the link in the margin to the left to access the original webpage). But I messed up by making the site too Zen oriented, and also by trying to prove my case using analogies. It didn't work and few were swayed by the presentation.
Frankly, the "Zen" thing may simply turn people off. That's okay. If people want to go with the idea that SMiLE is in no way Zen, but rather, a "mystery" presented to promote spiritual enlightenment, that would be an acceptable explanation.
But to this day, there is not a single mention of any such "mystery" or "Zen" to be found in books, articles, or even the award winning DVD about the story of SMiLE. Brian Wilson has even given interviews in which he has basically said there was no Zen influence at all in SMiLE (thanks go out to Ear Candy & ESQ for asking the question).
Brian's insistence that there was no Zen influence flys in the face of some pretty solid evidence that this is not the case. The Jules Siegel article, the Humble Harve "I'm In Great Shape" preview, David Oppenheim's film notes, as well as some actual SMiLE lyrics seem to indicate a definite Zen influence.
So why then won't Brian just admit that it was just another passing topic of interest at the time (like health, vegetables, chants, swimming, I Ching, etc.)? Maybe by not saying, Brian is perserving the "mystery."
"You know, any sane magician would never reveal his method of deception. And I don't think that a sensible musician would either."
-Van Dyke Parks
In any case, the webpage you're now reading exists to prove to you that SMiLE is essentially a Zen riddle. And since the burden of proof belongs to those who make the claims, here's yet another attempt to prove that SMiLE was, and is, some form of Zen koan....
"Well, the first thing Brian will come up with is a concept,
an album concept..."
Domenic Priore does something commendable in his recent SMiLE book. He locates the reader in the mid sixties at the time of SMiLE and lets you know some of the events going on at the time of SMiLE's creation (and if you check out Domenic's new Riot On Sunset Strip book you'll see the inflence of beat culture upon the scene as well). Good idea. But Priore fails to dive deeply enough into the spiritual basis of the youth culture. He cites the April, 1967 TV show, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, quoting members of the younger generation. But what Priore misses is that what the younger people are really trying to say gets missed in the translation. The kids understand each other but can't seem to express themselves in a way in which the older generation will understand. There is a lack of common experience (the psychedelic experience) and this creates a division between the two groups.
Brian Wilson understood this division between the psychedelicized "enlightened" people and everybody else. He knew there were problems in communicating the experience to those who hadn't experienced it firsthand. "I can't teach you, or tell you, what I learned from taking it (LSD)," Wilson told Tom Nolan, "but I consider it a very religious experience." Another time Wilson said, "...if you don't know, man, don't expect anyone to tell you." Brian understood that the only way for people to understand the experience was to experience it firsthand.
Brian's LSD experience, at least the one he wanted to express through SMiLE, had been a very religious event, and this experience was the basis for his new "spiritual" musical direction, the direction for SMiLE. Brian ("...the seeming leader of a potentially-revolutionary movement in pop music") outlined all of this for writer Tom Nolan but what is missing from Nolan's article is the term "psychedelic."
Brian once stated that, "psychedelic music will cover the face of the world and color the whole popular music scene. Anybody happening is psychedelic" and it should be noted that at the heart of true psychedelic art is the artist's desire to express & communicate the psychedelic experience. This is exactly what Wilson wanted to do via SMiLE. Most people seem to miss this point. Brian Wilson's "teenage symphony to God" is based upon the religious psychedelic experience. It is a spiritual work because Wilson's psychedelic experience was a spiritual experience. SMiLE is psychedelic art; art meant to communicate the spiritual psychedelic experience.
But if, as was stated before, the experience can only be experienced firsthand (a concept Wilson understood) then how can the religious psychedelic experience be expressed in a manner that recreates the experience in others? Or maybe the better question to ask first is--is there any real sign that Brian Wilson was actually thinking in such terms? Is there anything to support the notion that Wilson was trying to help people have a spiritual experience?
In the Beautiful Dreamer DVD Michael Vosse states that Brian, "...felt that the moment somebody laughed, that while they're laughing, that all control was gone, they cannot control themselves. And that, at that moment, they can have a spiritual experience." SMiLE, as David Leaf once noted, is Brian's humor album. Humor, resulting in laughter, could be used to help trigger a spiritual experience.
Another time, Brian told Vosse, "I want people to turn on to vegetables, good natural food, organic food. Health is an important ingredient in spiritual enlightenment," and so Wilson created a SMiLE song to promote vegetables and health. The apparent reason for this, based on his own quote, was that he wanted to promote these things because they were, "an important ingredient in spiritual enlightenment." Brian wanted you to eat vegetables & be healthy in order to promote spiritual enlightenment.
Being physically fit also seems to be part of the spiritual experience equation. Brian especially liked the swimming pool during SMiLE. "A lot of swimming. It's physical; really Zen, right? The whole spiritual thing is very physical. Swimming really does it sometimes." The "it" that swimming does may well be to trigger the "spiritual thing" but then again I may be reaching. In any case it is interesting to note Brian's connecting of swimming and the physical to the spiritual and to Zen (for those who seek a simple explanation of Zen; Zen is about attaining spiritual enlightenment).
The humor of SMiLE along with the promoting of vegetables, health and fitness, all seem part of the same goal; to help people have a spiritual experience.
Zen's koan is another "device" that promotes the spiritual experience and so it would make perfect sense if Brian Wilson employed the koan via SMiLE. But what evidence is there that Brian even knew of Zen koans?
It is fairly well known that Brian Wilson loved the comedy album How To Speak Hip during this time. Brian even memorized bits & pieces from the LP. At one point in the album John Brent (playing the part of Geets Romo) says, '"Like in Zen...the Zen Buddhists have these koans, you know, they're riddles that you meditate on. And the whole purpose of the riddles is to hang you up, like, "We know the sound of two hands but what is the sound of one hand?" Now that's had Buddhist monks hung up for years."' How To Speak Hip is pretty definite proof that Brian had some exposure to the idea of Zen koans.
Another way in which Brian could have learned about koans is through his influential friend Loren Schwartz. Schwartz was once described as being, "....very skillful at asking people what 'the sound of one hand clapping' was," which indicates that Loren was likely familiar with Zen koans.
Brian's biography tells of an acid flashback that Brian has in a bookstore. After the flashback Brian remembers, "Loren once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles, mysteries full of meaning," which would not only further indicate Loren's knowledge of koans but also Brian's exposure to such knowledge through Schwartz.
Loren Schwartz also seems to have encouraged Brian in the spiritual direction. Brian states in his bio, "I'd definitely developed a spiritual awareness. Loren was always discoursing on spirituality, religious books, inspiring me to make music that would evoke such feelings." The last part of that quote seems worth repeating ("...inspiring me to make music that would evoke such feelings") as it meshes with the goals outlined for SMiLE earlier in this essay. One way to accomplish this goal would be to employ the Zen riddle, a concept that both Schwartz and Wilson were familiar with.
When Brian was searching for inspiration for what would eventually become Pet Sounds he consulted his astrologer. "I then told the astrologer about the hallucination I'd had in the bookstore last December, presenting it as a riddle. Genevelyn thought about it for a moment, then explained something that made perfect sense to me. If I wasn't able to find inspiration for songs outside myself, as in books, then I had to look someplace else. I had to look inward. I had to write about the spirituality I felt in my heart." This quote is a mind-blower.
Brian tells Genevelyn about the hallucination (after which Brian recalled, "Loren once explaining that hallucinations were comparable to Zen riddles...") in riddle form! And this riddle is presented as Brian seeks inspiration for his next album!
It really isn't too far a logical leap from this point to figure out that there is a great possibility that Brian employed the Zen riddle concept for the SMiLE album. The Zen koan idea is completely in line with SMiLE's spiritual goals as well as with the goals of the early psychedelic movement. It's totally far-out AND it totally makes sense.
It's too bad that the same people who claim the loftiest of goals for SMiLE and the supreme hipness of Brian Wilson do not embrace a viewpoint that truly substantiates such claims. They miss the big picture.
Often people compartmentalize SMiLE in order to explain it. They divide SMiLE into various "themes" (i.e.- God, Americana, laughter, childhood, cycle of life, earth, air, fire, water, ecology, etc.) and relate those themes to Brian's life, his work, and the world around him.
Brian Wilson, however, never spoke in such diverse terms when explaining SMiLE. For Brian, it was always about the experience, the religious spiritual experience. Those so-called "themes" are all related to the spiritual experience.
There also seems to be a trend on the part of SMiLE chroniclers to bring Brian Wilson's mental problems into the story of SMiLE. I've been criticized in the past for claiming that these problems have nothing to do with SMiLE as originally conceived. But as you can see by the essay you are now reading, the whole mental illness issue need not enter into an explanation of what SMiLE actually is.
At this point the chroniclers claim that there was no original conception of SMiLE (therefore reducing all claimed on this webpage to coincidence and fabrication) and once again I have to disagree. Historians are misinterpreting Wilson's impulsive working methods as SMiLE's raison d'etre. Brian had a definite direction planned for Pet Sounds though Tony Asher was unaware of any overarching concept. So why then don't SMiLE historians pick up on the idea that Brian may have had a predetermined direction for SMiLE?
Wilson has stated that SMiLE was "too advanced" for the sixties. And based up recent books, articles, and DVDs it appears that SMiLE is still "too advanced" for those who attempt to explain it.
In Brian's bio he describes his best acid trip as "...the ultimate in LSD joyrides...four hours of enlightenment and spirituality" and my research reveals SMiLE to be this trip (the ultimate joyride) presented as a riddle (similar to the way Brian presented his bookstore hallucination experience as a riddle to Genevelyn for LP inspiration). The riddle is to help people attain "enlightenment and spirituality."