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Heroes,Villains,Obsessions - By - March 22, 1995 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Heroes,Villains,Obsessions

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.

“Those two books excited other people, too,” Priore says. “Finding the very first Smile tapes that were coming out of the vaults was a big deal.”

Brian Wilson — a composer with a knack for swallowing the best efforts of his friendly competitors (Phil Spector, the Beatles, the Byrds) and burping up his own radiant gems — had from the earliest days written, arranged and engineered the Beach Boys' mounting string of hits. As the most creative force in a troupe of musically inclined boys from the tract homes of Hawthorne, California, Wilson took the compact sounds of the region's innumerable garage combos and embellished them with startling new ideas. His reference points ranged from syrupy West Coast jazz harmonizers like the Four Freshmen to accessible symphonies such as Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” and adolescent sing-alongs like “When You Wish Upon a Star.” But Wilson's brittle psyche hastened his dismissal from the Beach Boys' world tours. By 1966, he was left at home on a full-time basis to mastermind the band's recorded output; his brothers, his cousin, a good friend and a rotation of alternates roamed the globe to the bubbly adulation of the baby boom. That same year, the demonic whiz kid defined the concept of pop auteur with a critically acclaimed double whammy, the ruminative Pet Sounds LP and the lush, orchestral single, “Good Vibrations.” In the year-end polls of music fans in trend-conscious England, the Beach Boys eked out a much-ballyhooed victory as group of the year over the seemingly invincible Beatles. [page]

At a time when the possibilities of popular music were hurtling skyward at a dizzying clip, Wilson's next project, Smile, was to be the apex of his artistic maturation — what he dubbed his “teenage symphony to God.” Instead, the project's stillbirth became synonymous with a different kind of worship: the crippling weight of pop idolatry. A substitute release, 1967's Smiley Smile, was an embarrassment to the Beach Boys, reprising the hits “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” and filling out the rest of the album with a paltry assortment of sonic leftovers from Smile. Mortified, incapacitated, benumbed — for whatever reason — Brian Wilson retired into a seclusion that would become legendary in its own right.

To the young fan Priore, chasing the scattered remnants of Smile seemed increasingly like a calling. After years of wrestling with Wilson's reclusive behavior, the remaining Beach Boys — Carl and Dennis Wilson (the latter since deceased), Mike Love and Al Jardine — were “starting to put this music down” in the early 1980s, Priore relates. “I said fuck them! They are geeks — they don't even know their own best music.”

In 1987, with the help of his friend Audrey Moorehead, a DJ at L.A.'s Cavern Club, Priore put together the first issue of his fanzine, the Dumb Angel Gazette, named after Smile's original working title. “Since the Beach Boys in a contemporary sense were so out of it,” says Priore, “I really had to focus on Brian Wilson.

“The main thing about Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys,” Priore explains, “is you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, with the Beach Boys — their stupidity and nostalgia — on one end. And then you've got the work that Brian Wilson did in the '60s … Brian was a cutting-edge artist in '66. In '67, he was told to stop.”

Like many before him, Priore vigorously defends Wilson's genius. “Time [back then] is crucial,” Priore contends. “Brian's gonna be the first guy with a new sound, and Paul [McCartney] flies to L.A. … plays him a dub of 'A Day in the Life,' and Brian shits.” Mere weeks after the junked release date of Smile, the Beatles released their benchmark Sgt. Pepper LP.

Beach Boys biographers have suggested that Wilson scrapped Smile after a strange coincidence frayed his already raw nerves. As he conducted a string orchestra on the song “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow” (intended as the “fire” movement of a suite called “The Elements”), a rash of fires broke out not far from the recording facility. On learning the news, the story goes, Brian had a frightening vision and he “burned the 'Fire' tapes.”

Priore blames more earthbound factors: a snag-filled lawsuit over proposals for the Beach Boys' business venture (Brother Records) and the other Boys' irritability with Wilson's increasingly cryptic songwriting collaborations with artists like Van Dyke Parks. Whatever the reasons, the breathlessly awaited Smile faded into the nether reaches of the recording world. The first collectors' bootlegs of the sessions didn't surface until the early '80s.

“I think I definitely helped create more of an interest in Smile,” Priore says. “Since my book came out, there have been about 15 different bootlegs.” Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! collects archival material from the Smile period that reaffirms the work's hypnotic spell on an earlier generation of pop fans. Priore also compiled effusive essays by other Beach Boys aficionados, rare photos, cut-and-paste artworks and photocopied clues to the Smile puzzle, such as recording-session logsheets from the vaults of Capitol Records.

Seven years after the completion of Priore's book, publisher Ron Turner knows he has picked a good time to issue an expanded version of Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! When the Monkees made a comeback, Turner says his company, Last Gasp, had the only book about the group on the market. “We sold 60,000 copies,” he says. “It bought our computer system … I don't see the Beach Boys capturing MTV in the same way, but they're still definitely part of an era.” Reaping the benefit of Turner's backing, Look! Listen! has been expanded by 60 pages, including more rare photos and a new essay by Priore.

Thirty-four years after the Beach Boys' debut, 1995 is shaping up as one of the group's last gasps, as their contributions to pop music enjoy yet another critical interrogation. In addition to Priore's reissued book and Capitol's proposed Smile package, Billboard editor Timothy White has just published a meandering, Michener-esque opus on Brian Wilson's role in shaping the California myth (The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys and the Southern California Experience, Henry Holt). Wilson himself will step back onto the pop conveyor belt, with contributions to a new LP by old friend Parks, including the single “Orange Crate Art,” said to be Wilson's best work in years. He is also scheduled to meet with cousin Mike Love for their first songwriting sessions (according to Wilson) in 18 years.

At the recent Sundance Film Festival, producer Don Was debuted his documentary on the eccentric Beach Boy, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times, to a rapt and responsive audience. Now Was reveals that he's recently held discussions with Todd Rundgren about collaborating to release Smile as an interactive work. “We were thinking,” says Was, “that the way to get it to people — without having to go back 30 years and make decisions about it — is to let people make their own versions.” [page]

Asked about Capitol's Smile, the normally sheltered Wilson replies, “I don't know if it'll happen. It is good music,” he adds impishly, “but we were on drugs. Like, I was on hashish — remember hashish?”

Though he carefully agrees that “it's starting to look like Smile has a purpose,” Wilson clearly feels the matter is out of his hands. “Who knows what they're gonna do?” he asks. “What do you think we should do?” In a moment of resolve, Wilson says he believes Smile is too unlike the popular image of the Beach Boys to engender mass appeal. “I don't think it's good enough the way it is,” he adds candidly, munching a tuna fish sandwich. “The body of work called Smile really is not a completed work of music … The Smile tapes are more of an industrial thing, the recording industry. There is fascination in the recording industry about it, but in the public I don't think there is.”

Despite the artist's reservations, however, this latest flurry of activity surrounding the Beach Boys is sure to spark yet another round of interest. If the Smile project comes about, Priore calls for faithfulness to the work as it stood before its demise — even if that means disregarding the wishes of the precariously perched Brian Wilson.

For the 1993 Beach Boys boxed set, Priore says, Capitol took song fragments “that were meantas link tracks [bridges between two full-length songs], stuck them all together and tried to create a long version of 'Heroes and Villains.' That's shitty. That's fucking with his art.” Intended as insight into the creative process, the boxed set's studio chatter “sounds like a mess,” Priore complains. “It takes away the focus of what Brian's art really was.

“I'm very, very concerned about this,” he insists. “There's 50 minutes of completed productions that Brian did for Smile, whether anybody at Capitol knows it or wants to face it … Brushstrokes are fine, but don't bore everybody when there's 50 minutes of music.”

Gathering steam, Priore says he fears the reaction of “People magazine-mentality critics” to a sloppy Smile: “'Oh, Brian was wacked out on drugs.' They're gonna make Brian seem like he wasn't coherent at the time, but he was!”

Beach Boys biographer David Leaf is slated to provide the liner notes for Smile (as he did for the Good Vibrations boxed set). Leaf considers Priore to be “one of a small circle of people who have studied the Smile era extensively,” but he's unable to say whether Priore will have a hand in the packaging of the forthcoming collection.

Leaf says he gets “mildly annoyed at people who claim to have solved the riddle of Smile. Where Domenic and I disagree is that I believe the only person who can put the puzzle together is Brian.”

Priore counters, “To me, it's useless to talk to Brian Wilson now about what Smile was. Because he's going to bullshit you. Or, if he doesn't, he may not have a clear memory about it. [He's] talking from a place of pain.”

Despite his obvious preoccupation with the Smile sessions, Priore claims he's more objective about Wilson's art than other observers. To be sure, his affinity for music stretches far beyond the Beach Boys. “I'm not one of these geek collectors who grabbed all the things by one group and couldn't get into Louis Jordan,” he says.

Kindred spirit Moorehead says she wouldn't really call Priore a fan. Nor would she call him a historian, a term which conjures up “that whole nostalgia thing,” she says.

“For us it's a lifestyle,” Moorehead explains. “He's so into creating this little world of ours.”

Without question, Priore is a man out of time. “I wish I was 65 right now,” he claims. “Then I could've seen the whole '50s.”

Beyond simply re-creating a scene, however, Priore is determined to introduce it to the hipsters of a latter day. In recent years, Priore and Moorehead have committed their “little world” to tape, filming dozens of episodes of It's Happening, a cable-access dance show modeled on Hollywood A-Go-Go, Shindig, Hullabaloo and other period-piece TV programs. Their low-budget Hollywood features a contemporary studio audience decked out in mod garb, wriggling to the nuggets of rock's golden years and live performances by throwback bands like the Lyres, the Phantom Surfers and the Loved Ones.

Currently, It's Happening airs Friday nights on San Francisco cable-access TV. Priore has booked his series on stations in eight other markets around the country; it just began playing in Chicago and is set for a run in New Orleans. Sinking his own money into the show, Priore considers It's Happening to be his video rŽsumŽ, an advertisement for his services as a skilled TV producer with a boss wardrobe.

“I barely get by,” he admits.
In his only paying gig for television, Priore spent a year as a production assistant for Hard Copy. Helming an episode called “Rock and Roll Babylon,” he recounted the final months of rock's first decade, when “Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochrane died, Elvis went into the Army, Chuck Berry got busted, Jerry Lee Lewis had his big scandal and Little Richard found God — all at once.”

When the current Smile activity dies down once more, Priore vows he'll be ready for new projects. He says he'd like to work on other “lost” LPs such as the Who's Lifehouse and the Buffalo Springfield's Stampede. He'd also like to compile books about the nightclubs and theme parks of Los Angeles.

Having pegged his passions 30 years ago as his big sister's tag-along, Priore has a lingering career goal that he states simply: “I want to be hired by people to dredge things up. [page]