For years, it has been assumed that The Beach Boys cobbled together the version of the song released on 20/20 from several fragments Brian had recorded, including ‘Home On The Range’, ‘Who Ran The Iron Horse’, and ‘The Grand Coulee Dam’. What is now obvious, from a study of the session sheets and hearing “working” versions of “Cabin-Essence” from October and December 1966, is that the arrangement of the various fragments in the released version IS AS BRIAN CONCEIVED IT!
(From Brad Elliott’s 1988 THE FACTS ABOUT SMILE essay, reprinted in Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!)
(This continues from here, and was intended to be the 5th post, not the 21st)
This was the record that started my Smile obsession. Had I heard Smiley Smile, or even Surf’s Up, before finding 20/20, I’m sure I wouldn’t now be counting down the days, in anticipation of the forthcoming Smile Sessions box :
20/20 album fucking changed my life.
OK! No more ‘bad vibrations’, no more sneering at The Beach Boys (for now), no more berating their collective artistic ignorance, their parlous lack of any understanding (or support) for what Brian Wilson was trying to create with Smile. It will, of course, become clear what Smile was meant to be, once the entire music world’s Amazon preorders are fulfilled. I suspect their staff to be busy (current Amazon.com Best Sellers Rank: #43 in Music. And it’s $140/117 quid).
This is not to say that, anywhere within The Smile Sessions box set, sits, waiting, a 1967 Smile album – because whatever that might have been is now long lost, gone, unknown, and has been for a long long time…and it probably disappeared, for ever, some time in the mid-70s. Prior to whatever happened then (and I don’t know, I wasn’t there), it could have been completed. But, while Brian might still dream of it, after 1976, I believe it was over.
But we will get the pieces to play with, and the ultimate fan mix…
The first time I heard Cabinessence, as the last track on The Beach Boys’ 20/20 album, I had no idea what I was listening to – and was aghast: “this is the fucking Beach Boys?!?’ I’ve been playing it ever since, and it hasn’t lost any of its mystery; the more I listen to it, the more I think about it, the more mysterious it becomes. Last place one might find this kind of singular ART would be hidden amongst the back catalogue of one of pop music’s Great Anachronisms.
In a search for ‘interesting’ music, and with a reasonable grip on the ‘lost psych classic’, why hadn’t anybody mentioned Cabinessence?
You see, it’s a fucking masterpiece. In its composition, instrumentation and production; its vocal arrangement and vocal performance; especially its lyrics – and the track’s overall conceit.
If it were the only piece of the Smile jigsaw – if, in 1969, after its (belated) release, Brian Wilson had then died, or disappeared, or was spirited away (through a rift in space-time, by beings from a more enlightened universe, transported to their continuum as an extraplanetary ‘composer in residence’) – academics and historians, musicologists and ‘music snobs’ (in this world Brian left behind) would still be dissecting Cabinessence 200 years from now. This is my belief.
Stuck on the arse end of 20/20, however, a pretty dire hotch-potch of scrag ends from a band well past their use-by date (I said all this here, weeks ago), and with The Beach Boys’ comparably erratic career ever since, anyone could be excused for missing it.
If you don’t know Cabinessence, don’t rush away just yet to hear it (and youtube audio links at end) – a recommendation on a blog (and who the hell am I?) is only a recommendation on a blog. Bear with me. Imagine you’ve never heard Cabinessence; let me try and justify these preposterous claims.
So. Being neither a musician, a music journalist or a musicologist – and, as someone with no fucking idea at all about how music works – here goes.
Brad Elliott continues :
The finished version of “Cabinessence” is structured as follows :
Home On The Range
Who Ran The Iron Horse
Home On The Range (second verse)
Who Ran The Iron Horse
Grand Coulee Dam
“over and over the crow flies” chorus.
You can break down Cabinessence into its 1-2-1-2-3-4 sequencing, and then the three layers of its overall arrangement (track, backing vocals, lead vocal). Home On The Range is used twice (and is the same take, repeated), and likewise Who Ran The Iron Horse – I cannot find the quote that says that Brian Wilson was ‘using digital sequencing before there was digital sequencing’, but Brian’s compositional method, at its best, has always been ‘modular’ – and Cabinessence‘s backing track illustrates this much more systematically than, say, Good Vibrations.
And, as a momentary aside, each section can be subdivided further – for example, Home On The Range is four 10 second segments, and each can be looped seaminglessly in a digital editor – and can then be broken down yet further, into gorgeous little 5 second chunks, playable on an endless repeat:
(Home On The Range)
Lesser pop-music composers would be satisfied with any snippet of Home On The Range, and, should you wish, you could sample one of these 5 second loops and make a whole track…you know, stick some fucking beats on it or some such bollocks.
The full backing track uses the sparest of non-rock instrumentation: banjo, piano, bass flute, and harmonicas (Home On The Range x2); cello and chimes (Who Ran The Iron Horse x2) ; piano and xylophone (Grand Coulee Dam); and finally a combination and a culmination of all these (“over and over“). The entire sequence is underpinned throughout by the lowest of low low electric bass, doubled basses and fuzz bass. No drums, no guitar, and no room for solos. As an instrumental alone it’s a masterpiece of emotional minimalism.
Now add the vocals…
Home On The Range‘s background vocal line is a series of ‘doings‘ (like ‘boings‘, as in Gerald McBoing Boing), an ascending and descending ‘doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing/doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing-doing‘. As an accompaniment to the instrumental track’s staccato piano and banjo phrases, and even without the lead vocal (a ‘working version’ has been bootlegged), it’s maybe one of the most perfect fragments of music I’ve ever heard. For whatever that is worth. And it’s just 42 seconds, and occurs only twice, as the first and third parts of Cabinesssence.
Carl Wilson’s solo vocal on Home On The Range is just gorgeous. While he may (or may not) have been the original Smile lead vocalist, and while the 20/20 version was lashed together as filler, I cannot hear its lead sung any other way. It has all the intimacy necessary for ‘our home/on the range‘.
Who Ran The Iron Horse is a 30 second segment, a chugging driving machine of a riff, and in total contrast (and in a different time signature) to the Cowboy campfire calm of what precedes it. A rising and falling cello and punchy fuzz bass is punctuated by a metallic percussive ding-dong-ding-dong counterpoint. The group’s wordless vocal rises and falls along with the cello, ending on an extended ‘ahhhhhhhhh‘.
However, when all of this is repeated, as Part 4, there is an additional counterpointed solo vocal throughout; mostly inaudible beneath the density of the mix, odd words and half-understood phrases can be discerned. Its full sense could only be apparent with a lyric sheet (which wasn’t supplied with 20/20, and there was also no lyric sheet planned for Smile, despite the proposed booklet). You get a sense of movement, but no real discernible meaning.
The Grand Coulee Dam is 10 seconds of piano and xylophone (the former distant and reverbed, the latter a busier and lighter expansion of the previous section’s ding-dong)
have you seen the grand coolie
have you seen the grand coolie
have you seen the grand coolie
working on the railroad?
A brief cello theme bridges this segment into the repeated
over and over the crow cries
uncover the cornfield
as it alternates with its companion line
over and over the thresher
and hover the wheat field
and as all the earlier musical motifs and instrumental sound-images coalesce, and as a Indian instrument’s glissando ‘answers’ the picked banjo, the fuzz bass and bass flute reappear, as the track slowly fades
on a freeze-frame of the Union Pacific Railroad – the guys turn around to have their picture taken…
Van Dyke Parks says (in Steven Gaines’ Heroes and Villains) that ‘we were trying to write a song that would end’ on this ‘freeze-frame’, and while no specific title is mentioned, I always believed that Van Dyke was talking about Cabin Essence.
The lyrics, as reprinted in the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE booklet are :
light the lamp and fire mellow cabin essence;
timely hello welcomes the time for a change.
lost and found, you still remain there.
you’ll find a meadow filled with rain there.
i’ll give you a home on the range
who ran the iron horse? who ran the iron horse?
i want to watch you, windblown, facing waves of wheat for your embracing.
folks sing a song of the grange.
nestle in a kiss below there, the constellations ebb and flow there and witness our home on the range.
who ran the iron horse? who ran the iron horse?
have you seen the grand coulie workin’ on the railroad?
over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield.
over and over, The thresher and hover the wheat field.
It scans as it is printed, but not as sung, and, the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE booklet excludes Dennis’ solo background vocal in the second Who Ran The Iron Horse.
Domenic Priore published a transcription of the latter in Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, as
truck driving man
do what you can
high-tail your load
off the road, out of night life, it’s a gas man
i don’t believe
i gotta grieve
in and out of luck
with a buck and a booth
catchin’ on to the truth
in the vast past, the last gasp
in the land, in the dust, trust that you must
catch as catch can
and I’ve fixed the lines as they sound to be paced throughout the verse.
But – and maybe it’s just me – I defy anyone to pick up all (or even much) of the above, on a first, or even a fiftieth listen. Without the words in print in front of you, it’s just a cascade of vocal cadences, implying some sort of movement alongside, or in and out of, or across the ‘iron horse‘ , as it churns through the rest of the verse. It’s more distinct in the Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE re-recording, but there is still too much happening to keep track of it.
Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile! also reprints a Cabinessence studio ‘lead sheet’ (‘with permission’ – oh, um…); its copyright IDs (No. EU 90887/Catalogue No. 222) must mean that it is genuine (and is dated 1968, and thus for 20/20 rather than Smile). After a good few years of endlessly replaying this song, seeing these words in print was a real surprise, differing from those I thought I was hearing...’folks sing a song’ was ‘folksinger-song’; the ‘meadow filled with rain there’ was actually ‘filled with gray mare’ (ie. horses) (and has ‘grain‘ on the ’68 lead sheet – which makes the most sense)…
Van Dyke Parks, in an (undated) interview with Earcandy Mag, says about the lyrics of his 1968 Song Cycle album
I’m sorry I was such a James Joyce fanatic. I thought there was a future in free-relating prose. Perhaps that was compounded by my love of beat poetry, I dunno. But I have no doubt that the inaccessibility of the lyrics made [Song Cycle] impossible to popularize…
When asked asked whether ‘the overall ‘theme’ of Song Cycle’ was ‘a continuation of Smile’s concept of an “American Gothic Trip”, he replies that
There was no conscious attempt to relate Song Cycle’s “concept” to Smile. If anything, I’d say it was an effort to detach myself from the aborted Smile project.
Though Smile and Song Cycle‘s ‘concepts’ may differ, the lyrical methodology seems the same:
Writing of lyrics is an out of the body experience. There’s nothing premeditated about it, and it’s largely an unconscious or meditative process.
Van Dyke ‘shows off style’ in ’76, discussing his lyrics for The Beach Boys:
One can only imagine what Brian originally had in mind with Cabinessence in 1966 (and especially when you find there are unused lyrics – where would they fit?). The 2011 Smile Sessions seems to have the 20/20 version, at least on Mojo‘s pre-release 7″
although Brad Elliott does believe that
“Cabin Essence” was undeniably 90% finished and may very well have been completely finished by early 1967, according to the session worksheets…”
I’m not going to attempt an ‘explanation’ of Cabinessence wordplay – but I believe that the words are meant to be ‘felt’ as they were written, as an ‘out of the body experience‘. And I also believe that their sound and their interplay is meant to be ambiguous, and non-linear, but also to contain and retain many different meanings, and consciously (and maybe unconsciously) complementary, rather than contradictory. In Cabinessence all the lines roll together, and so the ‘rain there’ is ‘also grain there’ (and even ‘gray mare’), and all at the same time. The ‘truck-driving man’ and his passage across the path of the ‘iron horse’ isn’t designed to be followed, just felt.
I’m also wary of any speculation about their ‘meaning’, if detached from the entire composition, instrumentation, production and performance. On the page, they’re just words (“I don’t know what these lyrics are about, just throw ’em away. And so they did.‘). They’re written to be heard (and maybe misheard), not to read in isolation from their setting.
And an incidental observation on the words, from user cubist, posted Tue Nov 02, 2004, at 2:56 pm (in the I know what “over and over the crow…” means thread on The Smile Shop Board, and archived on Project Smile):
I think VDP is being quite honest when he says he doesn’t know what it means because I think he just played around with mixing up the final two lines of the song to produce a nice surreal little couplet:
“Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield/Over and over the thresher and hovers the wheatfield”
Take the first half of each line and swop them round – you get
“Over and over the crow cries and hovers the wheatfield/Over and over the thresher uncovers the cornfield”
Which makes it a lot clearer!
If Van Dyke’s lyrics were ‘largely an unconscious or meditative process’, and had The Beach Boys™ actually applied their own TM as a ‘meditative process’ to understand Brian Wilson’s music (rather than as a tool to reach whatever hellish nirvana Mike Love haunts)…if Mike Love had realised this reversal, one significant Smile tale might never have been. He would have had a ‘meaning’. And, whatever his other issues with Van Dyke Parks’ words were in 1966, he performed the offending vocal part seemingly without complaint in 1968. However, his displeasure about another Smile track exists as more than just anecdote…
Strange, surprising and lovely as it was when I first heard it, and as beguiling as it still is a quarter century later – what is it that Cabin Essence does? How does it do it? And why? And, if ‘undeniably 90% finished’, and ‘as Brian conceived it’ (and thus the only unadulterated Smile track ever released by The Beach Boys), what might it say about Smile itself?
Usefully, I can call upon smarter people than me to help with Part 2, cos I’m already way out of my depth here.
Wish I’d not started this now.
20/20 Cabinessence (1968) here
Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE Cabin Essence (2004) here
truck drivin man vocal (isolated with sonic trickery) here
(best youtube comment: ARE YOU A WIZARD)
Good Vibrations Disc 5 backing track seems to have disappeared from youtube. Damn.