Smile was meant to be The One. Conceived as the follow-up to the Beach Boys' groundbreaking 1966 Pet Sounds album, it was intended as the band's masterpiece, as well as writer-producer-arranger Brian Wilson's boldest challenge to The Beatles as supreme dictators of progressive mid-'60s pop-rock. For three years prior, Wilson had been combining a more refined version of Phil Spector's “wall of sound” with lyrics and vocals that insisted on despair and isolation. The result was not only gorgeous, radio-perfect pop but also a personal style both resounding and delicate, booming and haunting.
At least since the Holocaust and the bomb, there's been a corner of America's pop marketplace where the ghouls are allowed to come out to play. Not ethereal spirits whispering from beyond, but lurching zombies and cackling demons. In the '50s, there were EC Comics and Screaming Jay Hawkins; in the '60s, Bobby "Boris" Pickett and Herschell Gordon Lewis movies. The imagery in this netherworld is willfully disgusting and extreme, even when comic; the implements of fun are worms, hatchets, and body parts; and the setting is the graveyard, real or symbolic, where it's Halloween all year long. Every popular medium has felt a need to explore this territory, or at least to exploit its commercial potential.
"So he emerges," author David Thomson wrote of the late Dennis Potter, "as some kind of sprite or devil, from out of the woods ..."
Potter, certainly the greatest writer ever to take television drama as his primary medium, was born in the Royal Forest of Dean, two hours west of London. It is one of England's oldest surviving woodlands; for many years, the region was also a major source of coal and ore. Potter found his great themes there: the bucolic set against the commercial, the gold dust of dreams mingling with the soot of social determinism. His characters lead double lives in the forests of imagination and the factory towns of reality; his is a world where either a pixie or a beast might spring from the dark.
Two harrowing hours of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 drew to a close, and we watched as George W. Bush's brain, on display in Tennessee, got lost in the convolutions of an old axiom: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." That's what Bush meant to say; but the logic of the line escaped him, and as it scampered away, the widening silence threatened to admit laughter from the assembled elite. So, famously quick thinker that he is, Bush cut to the chase: "You can't get fooled again."
Music may be a universal language, but many pop fans never study anything beyond a handful of its more common dialects. The mainstream audience remains as segregated by style, slang, and collective sound as a high-school cafeteria, each clique guarding its primacy and its prejudices. Hip-hop history regularly revises itself by referring to any rappers preceding the currently popular crop as "old school," while a significant wing of the self-righteous refuse to believe that pop has produced a single worthy fizz since 1980, or 1977, or 1969.