The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, August 06, 2002

If you give even a cursory glance to Benjamin's Arcades Project, you perhaps might be relieved that all the information and insight here was not neatly wrapped up, tidied up and made into a legitimate book. Was it a dialectic laboratory, or just a long-standing talisman which could never be turned into base paper? In some odd (non-surrealist) way, wasn't the apparent disorganisation, or catalogued organisation, the point of the project?

Similar feelings have come to me when listening to Smile by the Beach Boys, which I have started doing again recently. Now, there are numerous versions of this on the market, both downloadable and obtainable in a host of questionable forms from various sources. Mine is the 33-track, 71-minute CD (probably of Japanese origin) which I got about ten years ago and which is probably the definitive collection of everything usable that was recorded for this abandoned wreck of an album. Sources are variable; some (like the original instrumental and vocal tracks for "Surf's Up") clearly stem from the Capitol box set, others are scratchy and warbly and obviously derive from third-generation tapes. Some tracks, notably the full-length nine-minute version of "Heroes and Villains," segue different sections from differing sources.

Listening to it from start to finish, in as optimal and logical an order as one could hope to compile such diverse scraps, the "album" does take on a hue which would, even in 1967, have been unutterably alien. Long sections of instrumental/orchestral pieces integrated with songs of varying lyrical diffuseness (none of the easy-to-follow heart-wrenching of Pet Sounds here); it has its own, strangely hypnotic and compelling effect. Lesser talents such as the High Llamas have spent entire careers trying to square this particular equation. Yet, as with the golf course seen at the beginning of Citizen Kane, which looks as though it had been built to look purposely wrecked, the wreckage of Smile is kind of its point. It more properly resembles a one-man White Album rather than Sgt Pepper, but perhaps more coherent, even when presented in this way. It ambles, discurses, and very often moves the listener to the threshold of immobility; not just in expectedly beautiful (because inscrutable) songs such as "Wonderful" (and how good would it have been to hear Jeff Buckley tackling "Surf's Up"?) but in unbearably poignant moments like the instrumental snippets "Look" and "Holidays" which are so tragic in their joyousness, knowing of the limitations of life yet still wanting to transcend them - no one, excepting maybe Arthur Lee (and with entirely opposing motives), was doing anything like this in '66/7.

Who would have wanted any of this to be sculpted into a "definitive rock classic"? Isn't the fact that it wasn't what makes it unique? As with Parker's alto, the most telling and poignant moments occur in the outtakes, the bits you don't hear. Admittedly there are no "outtakes" here - the astonishing freeform brass workout "George Fell Into His French Horn" only appears in edited form (the full 10 minutes are available on other bootlegs, e.g. The Alternative Smile Collection) - but the passion unfulfilled is felt brightly still.

Sometimes, memories live better than records do, to warp a quote. The London Improvisers' Orchestra's CDs are "interesting" in a please-kill-me sort of way, but cannot even hope to produce the same effect as they did on me in Conway Hall on a hot Sunday night a couple of months back; the electricity and palpable tension generated by the real-life relationships and responses to the music played, the relationship of the music to the room space, the visible interaction between individual musicians, the awestruck hush which greeted the sonorities of multiple cassette recorders, all differently timed, playing distortions/modifications of what the orchestra had just been playing? You cannot recapture that on digitalia. So Mike Love could have swallowed his beard and persevered with the barnyard impersonations, it could have gone out, and maybe (as the unintentionally poignant ad at the end states) "be sure to shift a million units." But would it still be worshipped, or else have long been consigned to the £2.99 bins of unauthorised music history?

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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"It is really this life of leisure which has enabled me to grow. - It causes me great detriment - for leisure without fortune breeds debts - but also causes me great profit as regards sensitivity and meditation. Other men of letters, for the most part, are base ignorant wretches."

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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