The Beach Boys Smile


smileSmile isn’t an album, it’s an obsession.

It started out innocent enough, when my bootleg connection’s email of recent acquisitions included a CD of the unreleased Beach Boys album Smile. Being a huge Pet Sounds fan, and somewhat aware of the stories surrounding the Smile record, I decided to pick it up and see what it was all about.

Initially, I didn’t really get it. Sure there were certainly some interesting tracks on there, but it certainly was no Pet Sounds. What’s up with Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, anyways? Why is he singing about Vegetables? What IS this mess? It got a few spins before getting retired to the shelves as a curiosity, and I went back to whatever else was in heavy rotation at the time.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. This weird little album had planted some sort of seed in my subconscious, and it was starting to bear copious amounts of fruit. The haunting tones of Surf’s Up, and its tip of the hat to the band’s past while plowing into unknown musical territory swirled around in my head like the ultimate unshakable ear worm. No, Smile was no Pet Sounds, but it was something nonetheless, something much harder to wrap one’s head around. The disc went back into the player, and immediately into heavy rotation.

As I listened, read, and discovered more about this album, I came to realize that there was no definitive Smile album, but more like a collection of studio sessions compiled into some sembalance of order. The original prototype album sleeves made by Capitol showed no track order, so bootleggers were left to their own devices to come up with a listing that made sense. most of these boots, including the one I had, started with Prayer, followed by Heroes and Villains, and ended with Surf’s Up. Whether or not this is what Brian intended was anyone’s guess (until 2004 at least), but it seemed to make sense.

I also came to realize that most of the material I had purchased had already been released on the Beach Boys box set (which included about 70% of a “complete” smile record), outtakes from the Smiley Smile CD, and several other bootlegs, most notably the GEMA (the Japanese release that spawned a new interest in the Smile material in the late 80s), Vigotone, Unsurpassed Masters, and Sea of Tunes (SoT) releases. Of course, I HAD to have those boots, and began scouring several torrent sites (anyone remember SharingTheGroove?). I never did find the SoT release, but I did manage to track down the Vigotone version, complete with the outtake of Brian looking for more hash brownies.

Around this time,  I also discovered the world of fan compilations, including  Mok’s amazingly well done take on the Smile record. He’d taken fragments of songs from multiple releases, and corrected them for timing and pitch differences in ProTools to create a truly remarkable work of art in its own right. Of course it wasn’t historically accurate, but it worked, and it worked well. Anne Wallace came out with her own fan mix around this time as well, but I will be darned if I ever remember acquiring it. That is an error I am doing my best to correct.

While I was busy acquiring every Smile release I could get my hands on, someone else decided to join the remix party. In 2004, Brian Wilson released his own re-recording of Smile, complete with a tracking order that no one was expecting. Not only was Surf’s Up in the middle of the album, he ended up closing it with a lyrically very different version of Good Vibrations! This inspired many to go back to their old bootlegs and create the ‘new’ album from the old tapes. PurpleChick (who’s deluxe editions of the Beatles albums are must owns for any hardcore Beatle fan) gets the gold star in this category, with her seamless mending of snippets and fragments from 1967 into the new 2004 order.

Of course, you could say Brian trumped everyone with the eventual release of the Smile sessions in 2011, a sprawling five CD set consisting of the complete album in the 2004 running order and a slew out session outtakes. He conquered his personal demons, delivered his 1967 masterpiece 45 years later, and we all lived happily ever after.

But this isn’t a mere record anymore, its an obsession. And while I am happy for Brian, and I love his take on the sessions, I see them as just that: his take. Its a take from someone who was obviously much closer to the project than any of the rest of us, but I’m not sure I’d call it definitive. Like the Dylan fanatics who heard the original New York version of Blood on the Tracks and found it superior to the official Columbia release, I cannot un-hear what I’ve heard. Whether it’s Mok’s take on Heroes and Villains, or the intense seven minute version of Surf’s Up on my original Smile bootleg, there’s a lot of room for second guessing.

Fifteen years after this album first hit my CD player, I think it still has more to reveal. In my search for the Anne Wallace version of Smile, I have re-acquired both the Mok and PurpleChick releases, and discovered another version called the “Kal Mix”, which promises 24 bit audio. I haven’t managed to track it down just yet, but the hunt continues.

The obsession continues.

Same Old Song

IMG_20161019_110858316When we are younger, we spend a lot of our time thinking about how our lives will turn out when we grow up. We daydream about what kind of job we’ll have, what kind of car we will drive, and where we will live. Now that we are older, and the last ash of all those burned dreams has been carried up into the sky by the dumpster fire of life, we find ourselves trying to re-live our youth. Of course that’s not an option, so we do the next best thing by spending our money on eBay buying things that remind us of those days. Whether it be baseball cards, Star Wars toys, or Barbie dolls, we aren’t just buying the object, we are trying to buy a part of our past. A past that, in retrospect, doesn’t seem as awful now as it did then.

Back in high school, music wasn’t an important part of my life, it was my life. Every new album, or song they played on the college radio station I could barely pick up was like a lifeline to a sad, lonely kid who never fit in anywhere. Bands like REM, X, and, of course, the Replacements somehow or another allowed me to keep my shit somewhat together. None of it would’ve been possible if it wasn’t for a late Christmas gift I got when I was 13.

Back then, I wanted nothing more than a boom box for Christmas. My brother, being a voice of reason, convinced me, and more importantly, my mom, that I didn’t want a boom box, I wanted a stereo. And, under his guidance, we went to the stereo store (they used to have them back then you know) and came home with a real live component system from Sharp, complete with a cassette deck, turntable, and most importantly, a receiver.

While the turntable may have sucked (the platter was warped, and would grind against the base with every turn) and the speakers were blown within two months, I still enjoyed the hell out of that thing, especially the SA-250 receiver. It was through that piece of gear that I discovered college radio, and a world of music I never even knew existed. Do you know how mind blowing something like the Tom Tom Club is to a kid who’s never heard anything more exotic than the local Top 40 station? It was pretty mind blowing to me at least, and that was just the beginning. My friend Mark, the only other person I knew who liked the same bands I did, would bring over albums he’d bought from bands like Guadalcanal Diary and 10,000 Maniacs, which would immediately be taped and added to my growing tape collection.

Later, when I went off to college myself, that receiver came along as well. Paired up with some Infinity RS 1000 speakers, it provided the soundtrack to countless studying sessions, a couple of stereo fights, and a lot of alcohol soaked, late night explorations of the Velvet Underground before finally being retired my senior year in favor of a Pioneer SX-6. the Pioneer had more watts per channel, and a digital readout too! oooh la la! If I remember correctly, I gave the old Sharp to a friend of mine for a wedding present, but I don’t think he kept it very long. Something about it not having a hookup for a TV or something, but who knows? All I know is that I always regretted letting that one go. I may not have needed it anymore, but I sure missed it.

Last week, towards the end of the workday at Job #1 and before the start of Job #2, I found myself looking at old stereo receivers on eBay, and looked up the Sharp SA-250. Sure enough, there were a couple available, and pretty cheap too. A couple of clicks, and several trips to the PayPal website later, I have once again acquired a Sharp SA-250 receiver and a couple of smaller Infinity speakers. No one seemed to have any RS 1000s for sale though, so I upgraded to their big brother, the 2000.

In all honest, I wasn’t expecting a lot from this receiver. My inexperienced, less than critical ears have been replaced by a much wiser, more judgemental pair. These are the same pair that can hear the bright, shrill sound of the Pioneer that replaced it all those years ago, and have developed a somewhat critical sense of what sounds good and what does not. To my surprise, this old dog actually sounds OK. Sure I’ve heard better, but for what it is and what I have wrapped up in it, I can’t complain. My guess is it will sound even better as the new foam surrounds on the RS 2000s.

Of course I didn’t need any of this. Yes, I probably could’ve put this money to better use. Yes, there is a good possibility i am trying to fill some void with material possessions.

No, I don’t care.

At this point, I’ll take my chances with fleeting happiness. I’ve spent too many recent nights watching the glowing embers of my own dumpster fire disappear in the wind. Now I will at least have something to listen to as the last of the coals turn to ash.


The Ultimate Thrift Store Find?

IMG_20160729_214010592It’s kind of remarkable how much home electronics change in such a short period of time. Devices go from being in high demand to thrift store relics seemingly overnight.  Items that we once gladly spent princely sums of money on now sell for pennies on the dollar, if they sell at all. Take a trip to your local Goodwill or Salvation Army and you’re sure to find VCRs, DVD players, and obsolete iPod docks by the dozen, and all for a cost of little to nothing.

Cassette decks are also a good example of this. What used to be an important part of everyone’s home stereo system is now a technological dinosaur, relegated to the thrift store shelf, hoping to be rescued by middle aged guys like me who may still have a use for them. Even good quality, three head units can be found for a couple of bucks, not to mention a million old audio cassettes to play on them. Still, even with all of this in mind, I never expected to find one of the holy grails of old school analog audio waiting for me at the Salvation Army.

For those who are old enough to remember, the name Nakamichi is synonymous with the best cassette decks ever made. Their Dragon deck was a marvel of 80s engineering, and is still considered by some to be the best cassette deck ever produced. What set the Dragon apart from its contemporaries was its auto-reverse mechanism. When you came to the end of your cassette tape, the Dragon would not only automatically reverse the direction and play the other side, it would also adjust the playback head to maintain the correct angle, and give you the best fidelity possible. While this sounds simple, it was quite the engineering feat.

IMG_20160730_165401567The RX-505, which came a long a little later, solved the problem a little differently. Rather than reversing the direction of the tape, the 505 would actually flip the tape over for you. This eliminated the need for a moving playback head all together, and allowed for the same quality of audio playback at a much lower price. keep in mind that the phrase ‘lower price’ is a relative thing. The Dragon deck retailed for around $4000, while the RX-505 could be picked up for a paltry $1500. Even today, when the cassette tape is as obsolete as the bi-plane and the steel wheeled roller skate, these decks will set you back about a grand on eBay.

Needless to say, I never expected to find a Nakamichi RX-505 at the Salvation Army, let alone one in mint condition, complete with manual, sales brochure, a cut out review from Audiophile Magazine, and a tape head demagnetizer. Hell, the thing even had the original green Nakamichi dust cloth still in its cellophane wrapper! their asking price:


Folks, I may be a lot of things, but dumb enough to pass up a deck like this for $10 is not one of them. After doing a quick test to make sure it powered up, I grabbed that sucker and high tailed it out of that store before they came to their senses.

That was a couple of months ago, and the deck has performed flawlessly since then. It’s been a lot of fun rediscovering my thirty year old cassettes (which still play just fine, by the way), and trying to remember what I was thinking when I put together some of those god awful mixed tapes. I haven’t tried to record anything with it yet, but I just bought a case of blank cassettes still sealed in their original cellophane wrappers for $2 (thank you, Goodwill!), so I’d guess it will be happening. Who knows, maybe my friends will be getting mixed tapes for Christmas?

The technology may be dead, but the dinosaur lives on.

Cruel Summer

It has been my experience that there is no such thing as planning for the future. Sure you can make them, but you better have a plan B and C ready to go, and you better build those with an escape hatch or two in case they start to take on water. Whenever I haven’t done this, and remained focused on my bullet proof, can’t lose Plan A is when I’ve gotten myself in trouble. It doesn’t matter how simple, clever, or well thought out it may be, Plan A really stands for ‘plan to cover your ass’.

Of course, I didn’t follow my own advice. Apparently I needed a refresher course on what happens to the best laid plans of mice and men, or the consequences of counting your chickens before they hatch, and they have been pretty hard lessons indeed.  Without going into details, let’s just say I have attained a hereto unknown realm of broke-ness that will from here on be referred to as “The Tim.”

So what does one do when they screw up like this? Well, after I shook off the feeling of impending doom, and the realization that my life was in a tailspin, I crawled out of my fetal position and did the only thing I could, and that was deal with the situation. I started floating applications for a second job, which has landed me a 20 hour a week position at the sporting goods counter of my friendly local WalMart. It’s not much, but it will allow me to pay off my incurred debt in a much more timely fashion. As an added bonus, they’re paying me more than target offered, AND I’ll be selling guns and ammunition, which always makes me smile. I wonder if I can convince them to carry ARs?

When I re-launched, I figured I’d write a few product reviews here and there, and comment about whatever I felt like writing about at a given time. There might be the occasional interruption from time to time when grad school got heavy, but I’d bounce back when I could with some amusing story or unlikely adventure. Well, I’ve certainly gotten my unlikely adventure, and truth be told? I’m kind of looking forward to this.

I’m planning on it.