Continuing from here.
In The Last Beach Movie article from 1975 (reprinted and revised in The Dark Stuff), Nick Kent talks about Cabinessence:
the instrumental track juxtaposed both highly-advanced Western and Eastern musical references. There was the basic Cowboy and Indian thing as well as this indefinable oriental presence osmosing through the lavish arrangement.
Brian Wilson explained it all later:
“The song was about railroads..and I wondered what the perspective was of the spike…those Chinese labourers working on the railroads…like, they’d be hitting the thing…but looking away too, and noticing, say a crow flying over head…the oriental mind going off on a different track”
Because of Smile‘s ‘untouchable’ status (to The Beach Boys, and then to Brian Wilson himself), and then everything else that followed, there is little actual explanation of what these songs mean.
The Brian Wilson quotation above is used again and again, in part because it’s pretty much all he ever said about Cabinessence. We’re very lucky to have his explication of Surf’s Up, as told to Jules Siegel for his October 1967 Goodbye Surfing, Hello God article (reprinted in LLVS – read Jules Siegel’s own notes on it here):
At home, as the black acetate dub turned on his bedroom hi-fi set, Wilson tried to explain the words.
“It’s a man at a concert,” he said. “All around him there’s the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life. Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn.
“The music begins to take over. Columnated ruins domino. Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes.
“He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything. The music hall a costly bow. Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is.
“Canvas the town and brush the backdrop. He’s off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he’s creating it like a dream. Dove-nested towers. Europe, a long time ago. The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne. The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing.
“Then there’s the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea. While at port a do or die. Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing.
“A choke of grief. At his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life. because he can’t even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering.
“And then, hope. Surf’s up!…Come about hard and join the once and often spring you gave. Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood.
“‘I heard the word of God; Wonderful thing; the joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song! And then there’s the song itself; the song of children; the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children.”
The record was over. Wilson went into the kitchen and squirted Reddi-Whip direct from the can into his mouth; made himself a choclate Great Shake, and ate a couple of candy bars.
It has been left to other people to try to divine the intention behind the Smile songs, and the album as a whole – but Brian’s casual definition of Surf’s Up to Jules Siegel (and of a song that remained unreleased until 1971, and then only as an approximation of what it might have been) suggests that, at one time, every song could be as clearly explained, metaphors and all.
After 45 years, there are a myriad of different Smile perspectives. A multiplicity is one thing; ‘anything meaning anything else’ is another. Interpretations vary. And sometimes it can seem like the whole conceit is only as clever as its interpreters.
While Domenic Priore, in 1988, via Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, sowed the seed of a personal resequencing, and also volunteered a meaning, which he reiterates in his 2005 Smile book, anyone is entitled to disagree. There isn’t really anyone left who remembers anyway. This guy might, but he isn’t that much help:
Mike Love: I didn’t resonate well with what was going on at that time – he was writing these songs under the influence of various substances, and it didn’t make any sense to me! (from here).
Any hope that – as maybe the more ‘enlightened’ member of The Beach Boys (through his adherence to TM) – he might be more open, and thus more forthcoming, is a vain hope, that is dashed further every time he is asked about Smile. Mike Love would probably not indulge ideas as ‘out there’ as, for instance, a Zen Interpretation; wrong discipline.
I couldn’t approximate an ‘interpretation’ of Cabin Essence, despite twenty five years of familiarity with it. The Project Smile CD-ROM is your one-stop for Smile‘s library of interpretations. Unless this song can really ‘say it all, depth breadth and flow, break its banks in flood yet still be a song’ (to quote David Toop), which interpretation is ‘correct’? How could I even start? Maybe that’s how it keeps its mystery for me. I don’t know.
Another obstacle is music itself – I cannot play an instrument, nor read music. When I listen to music, its mechanics are likewise a mystery to me. I can dissect it, but all that gives me is pieces.
However, I received an unsolicited email a few weeks ago, commenting upon this, and I have had sporadic communication with its author since. As this correspondent was a composer, help was offered on the stuff I didn’t understand – and then I was sent what follows; reproduced in full, with permission, and with picture, quotations and emphases intact.
Wheat Field with Crows, made on an elongated canvas, depicts a dramatic, cloudy sky filled with crows over a wheat field. The wind-swept wheat field fills two thirds of the canvas. Jules Michelet, one of Van Gogh’s favorite authors, wrote of the crow: “They interest themselves in everything, and observe everything. The ancients, who lived far more completely than ourselves in and with nature, found it no small profit to follow, in a hundred obscure things where human experience as yet affords no light, the directions of so prudent and sage a bird.” Kathleen Erickson finds the painting as expressing both sorrow and a sense of his life coming to an end. The crows are used by Van Gogh as a symbol of death and rebirth, or of resurrection.. The road, in contrasting colors of red and green, is said by Erickson to be a metaphor for a sermon he gave based on Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” where the pilgrim is sorrowful that the road is so long, yet rejoices because the Eternal City waits at the journey’s end.
“For the first time in 30 years, he was able to ask me directly, once again, ‘What do those lyrics — Over and over the crow flies, uncover the cornfield — mean?'” Parks said about that meeting in ’95. “And I was able to tell him, once again, ‘I don’t know.’ I have no idea what those words mean. I was perhaps thinking of Van Gogh’s wheat field or an idealized agrarian environment.
(from an interview with Van Dyke Parks, quoted here)
It’s interesting how ‘Cabinessence’ has become a word in its own right over the years (it’s a popular internet username). It seems to define a universal feeling, as well as perhaps being the Smile track which best encapsulates what is being attempted and revealed in the album as a whole: in many ways a distillation of the album musically, thematically and lyrically. Perhaps as Frank Holmes says it’s a play on ‘cannabis’, perhaps a home on the range where man can get shelter from nature, a lamp in the darkness where themes drift in and out attracted by the light like binaural mosquitoes.
This pocket symphony, which has often been considered the ‘most finished’ track as it was pretty much complete by December 1966 according to the log sheets, certainly contains the whole story of the pros and cons of civilisation, the benefits and costs, but given the ambition of Smile as ‘white spiritual music’ for teenagers, perhaps there is more synthesis here than hippie protest.
Ideas about the loss of the natural world under the weight of industrial capitalism, which were clearly de rigueur in 1968, have strong roots in Rousseau’s Noble Savage and similar Romantic visions, but these are often misunderstood as a simple glorification of nature, the idea that something important has been lost by human beings as they embrace the machine, ideas which were made for these times, where enlightenment meant a ‘return’ to something simple, rural, vegetarian and childlike.
But a closer look at both Rousseau and Cabinessence shows something else is going on. Something modern, something new. Alex Ross has written very persuasively that the most important new music in any era does not want to be part of the past. He argues that to compartmentalise classical music, for example, as a ‘luxury good’ creates a false canon, a virtual body of work which was never intended to be seen as such, and how shock and awe always accompany new musical ideas which go too far too fast and break with their surroundings. Smile was ‘not appropriate music’ for the Beach Boys, as Brian said, because it was too new, causing as much upset to the pop scene as Stravinsky et al did to the classical.
But there’s an important difference.
What’s so striking about Smile is that all these things are here simultaneously with the loud pedal held down.
Once you uncover the corny field tilled by Rousseau’s placard waving disciples you find that he was not in fact eulogising a lost rural idyll, but saying that without civilisation, man is just an animal. Hang on to your bicycles kids, a timely hello welcomes the time for a change.
Let’s have a closer look.
Once we light the camp fire mellow we have already got one over on nature before we’ve even started. Fire plays a large part in Smile, not just in its frightening elemental form, but as something welcome created by man. The song starts in Eb major, typical of Brian to use these warm friendly flat keys, often preferred by keyboard players, and easier for horn players than the sharp keys such as E and G which suited guitarists, were more common in pop music. The banjo and harmonica paint a camp fire feeling, the essence of a wooden cabin for sure, and the programmatic nature of the album is well known. Tom Nolan remarked that Brian didn’t want to just get a sound from a carrot, “he would really liked to have made music that WAS a carrot” and we are creating a scene in sound which is recognisable, evocative and transporting.
But the other place that banjos figured large in the mid-twentieth century was in Broadway musicals. The Gm to Cm shift and the drop from Eb to Eb7, echoed in the bassline in Home on the Range, is exactly what happens in Hello Dolly, and a well known arranger of stage musicals once told me that the banjo part in that song ‘was the most important instrument by far and must be loud in the mix or the song doesn’t work’. Smile is of course Americana writ large, sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent, sometimes transparent, a kaleidoscopic selection of Brian’s famous ‘feels’: chordal, rhythmic and sonic elements which zoom and flash through American history in ways familiar to the TV remote holding generation. Brian treats television in Smile much the same way as Joyce treats radio in Ulysses, as an electric creator of fragmentation, single gags, separated ideas and phrases, half heard when one whizzes through the dial, but, to an extraterrestial tuning in, would seem far more homogenous and cohesive than to the average human listener as, cosmologically speaking, on their planet, it would represent a pretty unified and singular culture, with a clearly defined set of characteristics. In other words we are beginning to fuse American cultural memes and tropes rather than simply polarising them.
Moving on to the first appearance of the Iron Horse, we change gear to three four time, and a huge wall of sound, and a chord structure which is happy to relentlessly beat out F major and Bb major with no changes. It’s not hard to tell what’s going on here; mankind has arrived, as the manic cellos and voices go up and down the scales like in Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, as if someone was trying to start a fire across the street.
Once the train has passed and we tiptoe back to the lamp light, we pick up where we left off but have been a little changed for our experience, but not necessarily for the worse. Picking up our banjo and harmonica again, back in four four, we ‘witness’ rather than ‘give’ a home on the range. Of course one can over-read these things, but there is a loss of innocence here after having seen the train. Perhaps we now see our cabin as exactly the kind of thin end of the wedge, in terms of mankind’s mastery of nature, as we are accusing the railroad of being?
Unless one lives in a field forever, one has to start somewhere.
Popular critiques of Cabinessence really get into their stride over the second return of the Iron Horse. Again the wall of sound and dumb chord structure, but now we add the half hidden lines from Dennis about the truck driving man. You can still find people claiming that the mix is poor and you can’t hear him properly, and they are obviously missing the point that he is meant to be drowned out by the weight of civilisation (which indeed he sadly was in 1983), but even the conventional wisdom tends to polarise nature and innocence with machinery and commerce, explaining that the noise and confusion of the train is cleverly mixed to obliterate the simple tones of Dennis Wilson. What a metaphor! Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to quite agree with this train of thought as he says “I don’t believe I gotta grieve for this lost world either.”
The Grand Coolie Dam section is an absolutely beautiful round in three four (which we stay in for the rest of the song – perhaps the Iron Horse has won, at least in terms of meter?), using Brian’s wonderful sevenths in a harmonic cycle from C to Eb to F to Ab, Db and Bb. Without going into the whole history of the Dam itself, and the idea of the Chinese workers hitting the spikes in rounds (three people would pile-drive spikes in one, two, three blows) which is well covered in other places, it’s worth noting a couple of points on the construction of these magnificent civil engineering projects (both the railroad and the dam). The Grand Coolie Dam was massively expanded during the months when Cabinessence was written, making the largest hydro-electric power station in the world, and obviously represents man’s mastery of nature, coupled with the exploitation of foreign workers, but the Woody Guthrie song of the same name has lyrics which again actually soften this apparent polarity:
Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,
He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.
In other words we’re not stopping the flow of water for devilish fun, but just saying that if you are heading down to the sea anyway, would you mind driving a turbine along the way, so we can light our homes? The point being that the best kind of modernity and civilisation works in harmony with nature rather than against it.
Finally we get to ‘that’ line that so upset Mr. Love. Perhaps the oriental mind does look up and see a crow whilst he’s working. The Over and Over part of the song does indeed combine the elements of ancient and modern, of East meets West, of an accommodation and fledgling synthesis between the natural and the mechanical. Holding a C7 chord until the fade, the crows cry uncover the cornfield because presumably they now have nowhere to land, as everything has been paved over and turned into tarmacked car parks for shopping malls. It’s a lovely conceit of a lost world: pity the poor crow whose natural habitat has been ruined by The Man. But my local car park is full of crows who seem just as happy with pizza boxes and burger wrappers as they ever were with the droppings of humble organic farmers living their simple lives.
Musically this symbiotic finale blends the Iron Horse accompaniment with the gentle round canon of the Coolies, and the real triumph is that everything is now bathed in the light of the East. The spikey banjo has metamorphosed into the similar sound of the sarod (a stringed instrument from India), and the modal sounding harmonies, making the most of Asian pentatonic scales, hints that the East may well have shaken the West awake, and produced a third thing, neither luddite nor philistine, which is what makes America truly great.
Smile in general and Cabinessence in particular are a patchwork of ideas, sounds, and complex harmonic ‘feels’ which drive the narrative of Coming to America by taking samples from as many iconic American ideas as possible, and stitching them into a childlike, humorous tapestry which seeks not to protest so much as present the idea of a melting pot in full swing, a melting pot which is not quite hot enough to produce a pure result. Exactly as it should be.
The genius is that this synthesis of traditional and modern, of gentle corn fields and Woody Woodpecker cartoons, primarily designed to produce a dumb laugh in beautiful surroundings, thus connects the listener to the Divine. Cabinessence implores the listener to move forward and not back, into a new space where we can be all these things, and individual components are not at odds with each other, unlike the way that either side of the ‘civilisation debate’ would polarise it. Drop your placards hippies and drop your credit cards capitalists and join hands.
Is such a world possible?
Over to you kids.
Which will do nicely.