When Frank Holmes was a young art student in Los Angeles, he landed the plum job to do the new Beach Boys album, "Smile," which was widely presumed to be the forthcoming masterpiece of the musical genius behind the group, Brian Wilson. Although he didn't know it at the time, Holmes would be drawing the cover of the most famous unreleased album in rock history.
Almost 40 years later, Wilson got back together last year with his "Smile" musical collaborator Van Dyke Parks and finished the landmark album. The Beach Boys mastermind performed "Smile" 10 days ago at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre.
That same weekend a throng of Beach Boys fans turned up for the Sunday afternoon opening of the first public exhibition of Holmes' drawings for the cover and the booklet that was supposed to accompany the 1967 album at the North Beach cultural institution, Enrico's, where his drawings will remain for the next two months.
Holmes and his old pal Parks, who worked with him at the Hermosa Beach nightclub the Insomniac in 1959 and who got him the "Smile" job in the first place, stood by the piano at Enrico's and signed dozens of prints of the famous unreleased album cover.
"While I was doing my thesis, I got the job," Holmes said. "I thought that was a good way to leave art school. It was a boost. Then it went away. I just forgot about it."
Holmes, now 67, went to work at art museums and moved to San Francisco in 1971. He has pursued a long and active career in the arts -- fine arts lithography, painting, teaching. A framed copy of the abortive album's cover hung in his Precita Park living room. "But I didn't talk about it," he said.
"Smile" may not have been officially released, but the album's legend only grew over the years. There have been magazines devoted to the subject. Both nonfiction and fiction books have been written about the album. Bootlegs have flourished, and the Beach Boys' record company has released various tantalizing bits and pieces of the project over the years, long before Wilson himself decided to finally finish the record. Prints of Holmes' album cover circulated. So did reproductions of the booklet. Holmes first came across the cover again as a two-page centerfold in a deluxe book on the Beach Boys. About 10 years ago, a friend called to say he saw someone with a tattoo of Holmes' drawing.
"That stunned me," he said.
Having lost touch with Parks for more than 25 years, Holmes drafted a letter to his old associate and gave it to a mutual friend, singer-songwriter Steve Young, to deliver. "I got a phone call from Van Dyke," said Holmes. " 'Surf's up' he said."
Parks put him in touch with the producers of the Beach Boys boxed set, who introduced him to the Capitol Records art director, who suggested he finish the drawings. For the original booklet, Holmes produced illustrations for seven of the songs. Like Wilson, he went back to the project many years later after it refused to go away. He did the other 12 songs almost 30 years later. He sells prints around the world.
He first met Wilson at the Hollywood apartment Van Dyke and his brother Carson Parks shared. "They were in the thick of Hollywood," said Holmes. "I used to meet all sorts of rock people there -- Frank Zappa, Danny Hutton, Stephen Stills. People were always coming and going. It was a pretty exciting place to visit. One day, there was Brian Wilson."
Holmes joined Wilson on a walk a couple of blocks to Wilson's in-laws' house. They chatted and, when they returned to the Parks' apartment, he pitched Wilson on drawing the cover. When Holmes brought him a preliminary sketch, Wilson gave him the job. "Brian took it to Capitol Records and told them this is what he wanted," Holmes said.
"They printed 500,000 album covers and booklets. They sat in a warehouse. When the project collapsed, they were destroyed. They tell me something like six covers and six booklets still exist."
Holmes finished the cover and booklet art far in advance. He took a job at the Long Beach Museum of Art and went about his professional life.
"I waited and waited," he said. "I couldn't even get my copy from the art director."
He found out that the album had been shelved only after the rest of the Beach Boys stepped in and finished an inferior version of brother Brian's masterwork, called "Smiley Smile" and featuring entirely different cover art. When he heard the album was finally out, he went to the record store, only to discover a new album with a new cover.
"Another big disappointment," he said. "I was a little upset. Well, more than a little upset."
The whimsical drawing based on a dilapidated downtown Pasadena jewelry store was influenced by the Chicago school of artists called the Hairy Who, who brought some of the techniques of cartooning to fine art in the '60s. Holmes said although his art training steeped him in classicism, he was trying to find more childlike simplicity in his work at the time.
"I was trying to find another way to approach art," he said, "like the drawings I did as a child. I was trying to do my work in that fashion -- spontaneous, no retakes, no seconds. I was looking for a fresh, alive quality I wanted in my work."
Holmes, almost coincidentally, captured the innocence Wilson was reaching for in his music on the album. Although he attended one of the recording sessions that produced "Good Vibrations," Holmes never heard much of the work in progress. Wilson and Parks supplied him with some lyrics and told him they wanted something comic for the cover. Parks' lyrics for these songs are notoriously oblique.
"So here comes the allegorical artwork via Van Dyke's metaphorical lyrics," said Holmes.
The cover art for the 2004 version was done by another artist, Mark London, but Holmes doesn't mind. "It just seems best to leave it in the past," he said. "It seems to fit in the past. 'Smile' -- now and then -- that's how I look at it."
The exhibition in the restaurant is the first major showing of Holmes' "Smile" drawings. The 12 recent additional drawings have never really been seen before and the other drawings from the original "Smile" album cover and booklet have only been reproduced from copies. The original drawings disappeared from Capitol Records long ago.
"I made up a new original," said Holmes. "I am an artist."