No Idiot’s Guide this week, amigos — as the list of artists about whom I am qualified to expound at length continues to dwindle, I will be required to plan further ahead for these things, and I didn’t do that this week. Bad Jefito, no donut. But never fear, because we’re making another short detour into one of my favorite places — yes, that’s right, Bootleg City — to take a look at another album that has yet to see an official release:
Brian Wilson – Sweet Insanity (1991)
There’s a great, possibly apocryphal story about Brian Wilson in the 1970s, and it goes something like this: One night, after a concert (I forget whose concert exactly — I think it might have been Alice Cooper), Graham Nash, David Crosby, and Iggy Pop headed over to a party at Wilson’s place. Expecting the usual wacky reclusive rock-star antics, the trio was instead treated to an evening of Wilson sitting behind the piano and directing his guests in rounds of “Shortnin’ Bread.” (Yeah, you know: Mama’s little baby loves shortnin’, shortnin…)
The first to freak out, somewhat fittingly, was Iggy Pop. The guy who made a name for himself by slicing up his body onstage said “This shit is too weird for me, I gotta go,” and split.
The story sounds to good to be true, but in all probability, it actually happened. For one thing, “Shortnin’ Bread” was supposed to be a track on Wilson’s first unreleased solo album, Adult Child, which was recorded in the mid-to-late ’70s (and which we might take a look at in the future at some point); for another, Brian Wilson is fucking crazy. He’s my favorite songwriter of all time, and responsible for some of the most beautiful music of the 20th century, but he was never what you’d call emotionally stable, and by the late ’60s, he’d completely lost his moorings.
You probably know most of the stories — the piano in the sandbox; 350-pound Brian staying in his bedroom for two years; his quack psychiatrist and the enormous list of prescription drugs; et cetera — just as you may remember the endless series of “BRIAN’S BACK!” articles that inevitably went along with any level of musical activity on Wilson’s part in the ’70s and ’80s. (The Beach Boys even recorded a song called “Brian’s Back,” and it’s as horrible as you might imagine.) These stories are interesting, but not really the point; what I’m getting at here is that you don’t listen to Brian Wilson songs if you’re at all bothered by the possibility that every once in awhile, he may just get really goofy on you. It would be like listening to Ted Nugent if you didn’t like guitar solos. So when, in 1991, Warner Bros. Records rejected Sweet Insanity on the grounds that it wasn’t commercial enough for release, the minds of Brian Wilson fans everywhere positively boggled.
First of all, as I said, Wilson’s always been somewhat loopy — this is the guy who tacked an EP onto Holland consisting of a musical fairytale involving a transistor radio. But more importantly, Warner Bros. was the label that released said EP, along with much of Brian’s strangest work; the guys who ran WB in those days were music lovers, first and foremost, and held almost as much reverence for Wilson as the rest of us. If they weren’t willing to release Sweet Insanity, it had to be positively bizarre.
Only it isn’t. Well, okay, there are some interstellar moments here — the “duet” with Bob Dylan, “Spirit Of Rock and Roll” (download) is the kind of thing you need to hear to believe, and then never hear again — but for the most part, Sweet Insanity is actually more accessible than 1988’s Brian Wilson. “Don’t Let Her Know (She’s An Angel)” (download), “Rainbow Eyes” (download), and “Make A Wish” (download) all rank among his most pleasantly melodic (if totally innocuous) songs, which is probably why they wound up on Gettin’ In Over My Head in 2004. The album is more or less of a piece with the rest of his solo work — kind of sad and sometimes a little embarrassing, but usually in a really endearing way. Like Wilson himself, actually.
Except “Smart Girls.”
My good friend Fred is probably even more of a rabid Brian Wilson fan than I am — watching the 1995 Wilson doc I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times with him was probably the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve had in my adult life — so it was with great pleasure that I played Sweet Insanity for him one afternoon. Like me, he was initially nonplussed; as I said, the bulk of the album might be a little kooky, but no more or less than anything else Wilson’s ever done, and some of the songs are actually sort of robust. But Fred hadn’t heard “Smart Girls,” the last full-length song on the album, and undoubtedly most of the reason this album has never been, and most likely never will be, officially released.
Let me see if I can paint you a picture that will at least partially convey the — well, it isn’t awfulness, really; no, the complete and total insanity of this song. Imagine a baker’s dozen of Wilson’s greatest hits with the Beach Boys: Unimpeachable classics like “God Only Knows,” beloved trifles such as “Help Me Rhonda,” and many more. Now imagine splicing them up over a tinny hip-hop beat and asking Wilson to rap over this disjointed mess. It begins with Brian saying “My name is Brian and I’m the man/I write hit songs with a wave of my hand,” and it’s a steep, terrifying downhill tumble from there. The look on Fred’s face as he heard “Smart Girls” (download) conveyed the wounded betrayal felt by most of us who engaged in Brian Wilson hero worship. Yes, it’s true, Wilson’s maniac psychiatrist, Eugene Landy, can probably be blamed for “Smart Girls” and everything else that sucks about Sweet Insanity; his foul influence is draped over this and Brian Wilson like a wet wool coat. But the very idea that the man who wrote “Caroline, No” would even consider for a single moment recording this terrible satire…well, it suggested that maybe our hero was just as clay-footed as the rest.
Sadly, this has more or less been proven to be true since Sweet Insanity’s non-release; the two studio albums of new material that Wilson released between 1990 and 2004 consist largely of warmed-over treacle.1 We no longer have Eugene Landy or Mike Love to blame (though it’s always fun — and accurate surprisingly often — to blame Love for everything wrong with the entire world). Wilson is in charge of his own career now. 1998’s Imagination had some enjoyable moments, but they were derived chiefly from the joy of hearing Wilson’s sunny harmonies again; the songs themselves were mostly adult-contemporary cotton candy. And the less said about Gettin’ In Over My Head, the better. I keep hoping for a brilliant final act, but in all probability, Wilson’s muse has left him, and you know what? That’s just fine. He’s given us more wonderful music than most, and for a brief, shining moment, he actually managed to rewrite the rules of American popular music.
(That being said, I will not be buying his upcoming Christmas album. Even hero worship has its limits.)
Anyway, even museless Brian Wilson can be entertaining. Here’s Sweet Insanity in all its intended glory:
And, as an added bonus, here’s a CD’s worth of various Wilson outtakes, not all from the Sweet Insanity sessions. You’ve got to hear “Metal Beach”:
Let’s Get Tonight
Save the Day
Concert Tonight (full version)
Daddy’s Little Girl
Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car
Too Much Sugar
Being With the One You Love
He Couldn’t Get His Poor Old Body To Move
1Orange Crate Art doesn’t count. It sucks, but Wilson didn’t write any of the songs, so he doesn’t deserve the blame.