Lost albums, lost boys


I was 17 when Tom from college turned up at my parents’ house with an urgent need to talk about Brian Wilson.

At that point, I knew very little about the Beach Boys, and even less about Tom – an intense boy who had to bow to pass through doorways, who dressed in indie beige and stoner moss, and communicated mostly through Chris Morris quotes. We barely spoke in classes and certainly didn’t hang out after hours.

Who were his friends? The double-barrelled weed kids, I suppose, because they wore the same non-uniform uniform and the same carefully unstyled, uncut haircuts. They slouched around together, forming and disbanding songless bands every five minutes, dopey and aloof at the same time.

As Tom barged through the front door and made his way towards my room, distant and half-smiling, I thought, oh no, this is part of some elaborate mockery that will end up with my social status sinking lower than it already is.

He inspected my very small record collection, mostly stolen from Mum and Dad or bought at Woolworths: best-ofs and B-side compilations of the Kinks, the odd 99p Britpop single, some albums by the Jam on tape, and an embarrassing number of Hancock’s Half Hour tapes.

No comment, and then, eyes locked on, “Do you know about Smile?”

Smile? What was that? A band, maybe? I was too startled to reply.

“Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys. Smile.”

The Beach Boys, as in ‘Surfin’ USA’? As in the scratched LPs my uncle kept alongside the Ventures and Chris Rea in his Hi-Fi cabinet? My Dad, cooler than me then and always, had no time for the Beach Boys at all.

“No,” I said, and off Tom went, delivering the kind of passionate monologue that would end up on YouTube these days but back then had to be directed at people from college you barely knew, face to face, on gloomy Wednesday afternoons.

Brian Wilson, Tom said, was a genius but driven mad by LSD while producing what was to be his masterpiece, the album Smile, scheduled for release in 1967. It was a symphony, impossibly complex, like Pet Sounds but ten times more ambitious. And then Wilson, so Tom told it, scrapped the album, retired to his bedroom, and was never seen again. But, he went on, the tapes had leaked, and it was possible, if you were connected, to hear snippets – glimpses of something magical out of reach, of pop music on another level.

I don’t remember that I said anything – I was warily awaiting the punchline, and so gave the odd noncommittal uh-huh and mmmm.

After a while, Tom left, and we continued at college as if this moment had never occurred.

But Smile lingered.

It became my ‘thing’, in fact, for many years. I woke up to ‘Prayer’ every morning and listened to hour after hour of ‘Heroes & Villains’ sessions, trading tapes with oddball Americans and eccentric Scandinavians.

When Brian Wilson performed a finished version of Smile in London in 2004, I was there, laughing and sighing with delight.

Smile was found, but Tom got lost.

What I’d taken to be ironic detachment turned out to be clinical. I heard stories of his decline – that he’d dropped out and become a ghost, stalking our home town, back and forth from bedroom to record shop, shaggy and strange.

A Brian Wilson of our own, I suppose, without the cushion of songwriting royalties or the warmth of the sun.