Heroes,Villains,Obsessions

The upcoming release of the Beach Boys' legendary "Smile"session ends super-fan Domenic Priore's Journey to the past

What do you do if you find your Holy Grail and the public thinks it's just another bowling trophy?

In the latest development in one of the longest-running sagas in rock-and-roll history, the folks at Capitol Records are resurrecting Brian Wilson's Smile sessions, buried tapes of the chief Beach Boy's most fertile -- and fragile -- creative period. For years the subject of intense bickering among distraught Beach Boys followers, the eight-track maze of Wilson's illusory pice de rŽsistance should be ready for exploration later this year.

In San Francisco, the pre-eminent curator of Smile arcana isn't exactly beaming over the impending release. Domenic Priore is a surf-culture historian who's immersed himself in an obsessive 10-year investigation of Wilson's artistic collapse. "I figured, there's a mystery involved here," Priore says. "There's something that needs to be revealed."

In 1988 Priore produced an entire book on the subject, called Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! "No one believed in it," he says, mimicking his detractors' sourpuss expressions: "They'd say, 'You're gonna do a whole book on an album that never came out?'"

Without benefit of a publisher, Priore sold a remarkable 7,000 copies of his elaborate fanzine, establishing himself as a lead authority -- what he calls "Smile Central" -- on rock's most enduring enigma. An updated version of the book is scheduled for release this month by local publisher Last Gasp.

Despite this good news, Priore feels skittish over Smile's coming-out party. Capitol tinkered with Wilson's unfinished tapes to include snippets of the gold-selling 1993 boxed set Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys. To Priore, the company took unacceptable liberties. He fears they'll do it again for the full-fledged issuance of Smile, limiting the appeal of Wilson's proto-psychedelic experimentation to aging Beach Boys completists and insatiable pop compulsives.

And that simply won't be good enough for Priore, a devout Wilsonian who has dedicated much of his life to the pursuit of this pop culture Grail.

Priore is trying to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, but he's already burnt his cinnamon toast. He's explaining his boundless fascination with surf culture, waving the messy knife in his hand for emphasis.

"When I was almost four," he recalls, still marveling at the incident, "the Beach Boys played across the street [in his hometown, Monterey Park] at the gymnasium, in late 1963, at a sock hop. And they weren't even the headliners! Dick Dale was."

For an early February afternoon, it's unusually cloudless along the Great Highway, and the wide windows in Priore's kitchen are open. Out past the tidy row of tiki ceramics on the sill, the whoosh of Ocean Beach's waves intermittently dampens his words.

Priore spent the better part of the '60s blissfully trailing his older sister and her circle of friends, absorbing their hypersensitivity to style and the burgeoning Southern California music scene. Clinging to those sacred childhood memories, the thinningly mop-topped Priore has pieced together a career as a pop historian, chronicling the period in his articles and essays and re-creating it for his cable-access show, It's Happening.

Today, his Sunset apartment is stuffed with reminders of his adolescence. A red plastic combination TV/45 rpm turntable takes a prominent spot in the living room. A Look magazine dated July 12, 1966, tops a pile of periodicals. Matchbox cars, figurines and display copies of pulp paperbacks and rare records take up all available shelf space; periodically, in mid-conversation, Priore will thrust a choice memento into his visitor's lap for approval.

Like so many kids his age, Priore devoured the head candy of drums and guitars that seemed to roll off an ever-quickening assembly line of pop machinery. After his toddling infatuation with the Beach Boys, the lad flipped for each emergent fad of the decade. His taste for "the art of collecting" began early, with a quest for rare B-sides by the Who and the Beatles.

Wearing white jeans and a sun-bleached striped T-shirt two sizes too small, the 34-year-old Priore recounts his rock-and-roll apprenticeship. He started playing bass guitar at the age of nine, teaming up with two Latino friends to practice "mostly Beatles, Creedence, 'In the Midnight Hour.' It was pretty hard to get a mature band together," Priore says seriously.

Unable to find other musicians who would play mod styles during his teen years -- "I loathed KISS," he snaps -- Priore gave up performing and took up broadcasting. En route to a bachelor's degree in TV production at Pasadena City College, Priore studied with Joe Keene, a producer whose credits included the dance program Hollywood A-Go-Go, which, Priore says, "happened to be my favorite."

Around 1980, a punk-inspired revival of rockabilly and garage bands sprouted renewed interest in surf music -- those familiarly fitful beats led by rippling, staccato guitar leads, a sound created by pioneer Dick Dale to reflect "the feeling of white water caving around your head in a tube ride." With his peers suddenly sharing his enchanted earliest memories, Priore delved into two Beach Boys books (a biography of the band by Byron Preiss and David Leaf's The Beach Boys and the California Myth), and found himself intrigued by the shroud of secrecy hanging over the Smile sessions.

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