(Al prays for surf – or fans: The Beach Boys, 1969. ‘Which one’s Brian?’)
Mike Love’s notorious objection to the coda of “Cabin Essence” – “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield” — was founded in reasonable doubt. Could these songs charge the emotions and pleasure points as effectively as “Don’t Worry Baby”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “California Girls”, “God Only Knows”‘? Love’s lyrics to “Good Vibrations” say yes — approximating hip and sexy without Parks and his columnated ruins domino. But “folks sing a song of the grange”; once words are released from the pen then Love’s groovy excitations look a little constricted.
Can a song say it all, depth breadth and flow, break its banks in flood yet still be a song? A related question was asked by James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, taking the form of one river and all rivers to carry afloat a family narrative that could move in every direction, not just the line of the text and the flat of the page but in air through the voice and through history, the multiplicity and duplicity of its words.
(David Toop, in A Grin Without A Cat [about The SMiLE Sessions release], November 2011, The Wire Magazine)
Cabinesssence is Smile in microcosm. Vast in scope, unprecedented in its ambition and as much an unsolved sonic riddle as the album it had been written for, this was the misunderstood masterpiece that caused Mike Love to crack and the project to flounder.
(Number 11 in The 50 Greatest Beach Boys Songs, June 2012, Mojo Magazine)
This post is the last in a series about Cabinessence.
20/20′s Vision? (22 September 2011)
When I played 20/20 in 1985 for the first time, I considered The Beach Boys as a joke band. The first track on Side One confirmed my expectations; the end of Side Two changed my mind.
Cabin Essence, lost and found… (28 October 2011)
When one considers the structure and component parts of Cabinessence, it can be broken down into parts – and each of those parts can be broken down further: but even a mere five second snippet of Home On The Range could only be from Smile. Cabinessence is unlike any other music of its day.
Cabinessence, uncovering the cornfield… (31 October 2011)
When one actually looks for ‘meaning’ (rather than just reacting to Mike Love’s declaration of none), it’s surprising what you can find; when you ask someone for their ideas, and be lucky enough to get an essay (On Cabinessence) in response, some observations about contemporary (mid-sixties) US culture offer yet more meanings.
Canibessence, doobie doo or not doobie… (3 May 2012)
When one tries to extend a perceived ‘cannabis essence’ onto a broader canvas, ‘meaning’ stretches beyond Cabinessence itself: disparate pieces of Smile interconnect in unexpected ways.
The catalyst for my own Smile obsession was Cabinessence, and it has become a kind of ‘central theme’ throughout all of this. That particular song also has a key role in Smile‘s ‘mythology’, and its lyrics (along with those of Surf’s Up) were a perceived breaking point for the whole ‘project’.
But I didn’t really know much about this when I first heard their 1969 album 20/20, in the mid-80s – first copy I had was a non-gatefold reissue, and I’m skinning up on the back cover photo thinking: ‘which one of these idiots is Brian Wilson? Obviously not that creepy ponce at the back’:
(The Beach Boys, 1969 – dig those hip threads!)
With everything read, heard and watched since then, it seems more than a little bizarre that Cabinessence (formerly Cabin Essence) thus materialised, complete, as the last track on 20/20, with Mike Love singing the lyrics he took such offence over in 66/67.
That Cabinessence was prefaced with Our Prayer (formerly just Prayer), another Smile recording, seems stranger yet.
The Prayer vocal sessions, as bootlegged, and then finally released on The Smile Sessions (Disc 2, Tracks 1 & 2, 9:38 in total) opens with dialogue:
Carl: This could be considered a track…?
Brian: er not really no, we don’t wanna do that,
Carl: …it’s beautiful…
Brian: this is a little intro to the album
That ‘a little intro to the album’ prefaces the salvaged Cabin Essence on 20/20 is even stranger.
I’m not aware of any explanation why these two tracks, in that order, in this album sequence, end 20/20. As The Beach Boys themselves cared little more than fulfilling their label remit, Our Prayer and Cabinessence just happened to be ‘90% finished’, and were placed where they were.
And that the 20/20 album begins with Do It Again (the beginning of the end of The Beach Boys artistic career, and the seed of the start of Beach Boys™), but that Do It Again ends with a fadeout incorporating the banging and clatter of Smile’s ‘workshop’ (The Smile Sessions Disc 1, Track 13, 0:30 in)…it kind of defies explanation.
And I asked someone who might know for an explanation, and found that Steve Desper (as 20/20 engineer) said:
Simple answer is that Carl decided to put it there because at the time, it looked as if the Smile project was dead and that those sessions would not be released. We just wanted to do something with the sounds and stuck it on the end.
It just happened.
This is how myths are born.
A very helpful caution was offered here, this part being particularly pertinent:
Ultimate conclusions, like comparisons, are not so much odious but best avoided if at all possible. Hypotheses, being open-ended by design, are far more interesting and ultimately valuable.
However, before even starting this, research into my original speculations has yielded almost nothing to either support it – but, more importantly, nothing to contradict it either. And I’d really hoped that The Smile Sessions releases, book, thesis would have something to negate personal speculative conclusions, however many years ago. This hasn’t happened. No thesis was offered – or explanation. Baffling.
20/20, as my own introduction to Smile, retains its elusiveness, a quarter of a century later. It has actually taken on more significance, rather than less.
I do not understand how or why.
So, firstly, a tentative Cabinessence ‘conclusion’.
Consider Cabinesssence’ as Smile ‘in microcosm‘ (as the Mojo comment observes). If each small segment of Cabinessence individually embodies the essence of Smile, and if Smile itself, in its fragmentary nature, as expressed negatively through Beach Boys fictions through the years:
‘Carl’: It’s all just pieces Brian. Just…pieces. (from here)
Bruce: The Smile album had the brilliant little track sections that he never connected, and then he abandoned Smile. (here)
or in any interview or comment that Mike Love might ever have made about Smile being ‘a shell’, or nothing at all – if every one of Smile‘s ‘brilliant little track sections’ were each microcosmically-related to the larger Smile macrocosm (and I believe that they were, and were always intended to be), then, with Our Prayer as ‘a little intro to the album’, and a 20/20 listener’s own ‘intro’ to Cabinessence – then its last two tracks, taken together, are also Smile.
A complete Smile.
(Smile, in microcosm, c.1969)
A complete little Smile that, since 1969, has always been there.
And, as far as I know, no one really noticed – least of all The Beach Boys.
Now would be the place to say clever things like ‘it was hidden in plain sight’ – or, better yet, ‘lost and found, it still remains there’…but the point of this is neither to trumpet a ‘new theory’, nor take claim for a ‘discovery’. But can a song say it all, depth breadth and flow, break its banks in flood yet still be a song? I believe that it can, and, in Cabinessence, it did – ‘saying it all’ is embodying everything that Smile would have been – to borrow from Frank Holmes’ own themes for his illustrations (in his Smile Sessions Conjured Image essay), Cabinessence embodies
American Imperialism aided by The Transcontinental Railroad, and Manifest Destiny, and the westward expansion that led to the encroachment of the Native Americans. Some general themes were Travel, Nature, History, Communications, Love Stories, Virtue, Betrayal, Bucolic Splendor, Astrology, Mystery and a connection with childhood innocence and humor.
It’s almost impossible for me to articulate what attracted me to Cabinessence, bar its inherent attractiveness (and this is something I’ll try to address later, with a few comparable examples from other artforms)- and it’s this embodiment of Smile‘s essence in every note of Cabin Essence, in its composition, construction and performance – as it breaks its banks in flood, yet still remains a song – that has given Smile itself its endless magnetism: it is because its fabric, its nature, attracts.
But I believe that, had that boundless song not been prefaced by Smile‘s proposed opening Prayer, this magnetism, for me, might not have been anywhere near as strong. I never separated these two tracks when adding them to tape comps, because they seemed somehow bound to each other.
Macrocosmic manifestations of 20/20‘s template Smile appear and reappear – Prayer opened many a fan mix pre-2004; and Cabinessence, eventually,just has to function as an ending.
Take Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE: in three parts (over three sides); opens with Prayer – and closes with Cabinessence. Part One of Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE is thus, also, another complete Smile, in microcosm. Even though it’s just a third of the actual album/performance.
And, as Michael Leddy observed in ‘that (in)famous line‘,
The long o sounds also echo roll and over in “Roll Plymouth Rock.” So this line is rich in melopoeia in itself and in relation to another part of SMiLE.
Cabinessence thus echoes Do You Like Worms. And Frank Holmes’ illustrations – and explications – connect Cabinessence and Surf’s Up in otherwise unseen ways. And Do You Like Worms echoes every extant ‘fragment’ of Heroes and Villains, and each piece also embodies that track’s whole…
It was all designed to fit together – obviously; the fan mix mentality has spent years trying to find working sequences, and, obviously, only Brian Wilson knew how. But part of what brings people back to Smile is not necessarily that unresolveable puzzle…or rather, yeah, it was its puzzles – but each snippet of Smile was its own puzzle. But also a ‘unified and singular culture, with a clearly defined set of characteristics’.
the SMiLE album was a new spiritual form of music, comparable to Zen riddles, with the potential to promote spiritual enlightenment.As such it deserves a place among the finest examples of psychedelic art ever made.
One could attribute each snippet as the ‘Zen koans’ Mr. Tobelman discusses.
More about this to follow.
But even without a ‘spiritual’ interpretation, each small segment of Smile is Smile; Smile is, and always was, designed to be holographic – ie. each part contains and represents the whole.
And whether this is ‘hypothesis’ or ‘conclusive’ is difficult to say – but, of course, there is no one to ask, either way.
‘Bollocks’ you say (or ‘bullshit‘ if you’re American, and, like some of these people, feel I have no right to comment upon ‘America’s Band’). ‘Speculation, nothing more. More Smile bollocks – he’s obviously a Brianista‘. But my capacity to construct a decent cup of coffee has no real bearing upon this discussion.
Firstly, any affiliation I might have to the music of Brian Wilson is because of the music; my own dislike of The Beach Boys’ work, post Smile, mostly without Brian, is because, as music, it lacks just about everything that makes Brian Wilson’s own work so valuable, and so endlessly rewarding. I’ve never had any tolerance for second (or third) raters – or even second or third rate releases by people whose better music I hold dear. And, with The Beach Boys post-67, the mediocrity quotient is extraordinarily high – it’s rare to see an intelligent and supportive fanbase so abjectly apologetic.
An example: I think that Faust‘s first four albums (1971-74 – 1, 2, 3, IV) are absolutely essential – crucial advances in rock music’s language and vocabulary. Their ‘reunion album’, Rien (1994, as produced/constructed by Jim O’Rourke) was, for me, the last Faust album. All their later work feels redundant – they had said it all on these five albums. But Faust’s fans do not fall into infantile camps of fan rivalry – despite the fact that, as of 2012, ‘Faust now exists in two completely different incarnations, both active and each reflecting different aspects of the original group’.
Their fans are a little more mature about what makes music worthwhile. And if any champions of their post-Rien work find this and read this, they won’t post attacks upon my point of view, because Faust’s audience are not factional, petty-minded, overgrown children, with a commensurate children’s fan-club mind.
And the band members themselves are not riven by a drive to subsume one Faust with another.
Brian Wilson’s best music is cursed by the custodianship of factional fans, and (still-living) ‘bandmates’, who choose to bind Brian Wilson to some kind of atrophied ‘fan’ mindset.
Where Brian Wilson’s mature music (65-67) is taken seriously (in the world of the rock-myth Mojo-mind) is likewise caught up in ‘rock history’, and rock’s own mythologies – as well as the detritus of rock’s own flabbiness in the years after 1966. Domenic Priore’s ‘link track’ theories (as an explanation of how all Smile‘s fragments ‘fit’) is informed by where rock went after ’66: all over the fucking place. The ‘progressive’ nature of rock music, once it was separated from ‘pop music’ (by Clive Davis and his ilk, post-Monterey, in the making of the modern music industry) was a kind of ‘anything goes’, as long as ‘anything’ sells. Its artistry only mattered for a short period of time – and this was the period that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were working within, and working for. Paul Williams’ December 1967 piece Outlaw Blues (p.23-31 of How Deep Is The Ocean) makes some very pertinent contemporary observations about this. This is where ‘rock as art’ started to go awry.
Rock music is now utterly bound up in its own histories, and in a ‘teleological tale, a goal-obsessed narrative full of great leaps forward’ (‘seminal’ this, the ‘influence’ of that, the ‘importance’ of the other). But it’s all retrospective – all, always, backward-looking.
And the self-made ‘California Saga’ of America’s Band is likewise a construction, with its goal in its own past – there is no current projected future for The Beach Boys; this 2012 version wants to float around the world in a time-bubble, reflecting and refracting some half-imagined, half-remembered, pre-1966 vision of a Californian Dream. And the further the realities of current America get from their little fiction, the more nostalgic it becomes.
(The Beach Boys’ patented Time Bubble Technology™, on an earlier mission
– some crew members were lost)
And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. If the present is unrewarding and disappointing, the past is more attractive; and where they might not be a future to look forward to, which would you choose to treasure? But The Beach Boys Corp., and its self-perpetuated myths LIE, and to an honest and decent audience. Lie through their teeth: auto-tuning? Really?!? That their endless ‘Endless Harmony’ needs electronic augmentation suggests that maybe it’s time to stop this deceit – and this self-deceit.
The music that Brian Wilson made, for The Beach Boys to perform, had nothing at all to do with girls and surfboards and beach parties and ‘fun fun fun’ – but, upon this realisation, the band member with the most to lose from this change took charge, took the reins, and eventually reinvented The Beach Boys in his own image. This 2012 tour and album is his victory.
Brian (dismissing Murry and The Sunrays in the studio in ’66) : It’s no big deal – we’re not even doing this kind of thing any more.
OUTSIDE THE STUDIO.
Mike: Brian, you didn’t mean what you said in there? About the music?
Brian: Yeah, I did. I was gonna tell you – your lyrics are cool, Mike, and you come up with some GREAT hooks. But there are some things I wanna say, things I need to work out. Personal stuff.
Mike: Brian! Hey we’ve always been there for each other – right?
Brian: I need some fresh ideas.
Mike: ‘Fresh ideas’? And who’s gonna give ’em to you? That stoned-out fan club of yours?!? I bet they got PLENTY of ideas!
Brian: They’re my friends.
Mike: They’re not your friends, you just think they are – they’re filling your mind full of JUNK! (emotionally) Those songs – the ones that we wrote together – they’re who we are.
Brian: It’s not who I am.
Mike: You know, my old man he thought he had it made, and then one day – gone. Well I’ve worked TOO hard for that to happen!
Mike: (continuing) Have you considered the fact that maybe you NEED me (choked) as much as I need you? Tell you what, do me a favour – get your fresh ideas, and get ’em out of your system – fast!
Mike made sure that Brian’s ‘fresh ideas’ stayed out of circulation for nigh on four decades. You can get them now – but there’s also a Beach Boys reunion! Yay!!! Etc.
The Guardian review of That’s Why God Made The Radio quotes from the song Spring Vacation, which
opens with a verse in which Mike Love claims to be “living the dream … cruisin’ the town, diggin’ the scene”…You find yourself wondering why on earth a 71-year-old would be cruisin’ the town and diggin’ the scene…
This may describe some of the realities of how Mike Love exercises his leisure time – but it’s also a conscious, deliberate abnegation of any and every part of the artistry of Brian Wilson. And if this craft for self-recreation and self-replication needs special stage and studio tricks, because its performers are now too old to otherwise sing in tune, maybe Mike should just get back to cruisin’, maybe stop co-opting Brian into his miniscule, monomaniacal blinkered little vision.
Look back to April 1967.
(full transcription here)
Inside Pop, the Leonard Bernstein-sanctioned CBS News documentary, was made on the cusp of 1966 and 67. I’d only ever considered this as the home of Brian Wilson’s solo Surf’s Up clip; but seeing that clip in context, and seeing what that context was, suggests that popular music could have gone in a multitude of different directions. Where it actually went, artistically, was not in any way either inevitable or inexorable: and it wasn’t that the possibilities were necessarily endless, more that there were audiences, at that moment, who were receptive to these possibilities.
Rock’s histories and canons hark to its templates and models, and most of these were formulated ‘out of the ferment that characterizes today’s pop music scene’ (to quote David Oppenheim’s Inside Pop narration, ‘today’ being 66/67 – some extended notes on this here). Bernstein himself explains, with technical illustration at the piano, what makes the ‘new music’ new. And the programme ends with
a new song – too complex to get all of first time around…Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own Surf’s Up.
Smile was new music for the future – or for a future.
The Beach Boys had the chance of the gift of an involvement with this new kind of music, and, in a power struggle that’s been misrepresented ever since, the path of least resistance was the path Beach Boys™ has resolutely followed since.
Smile was forcibly cast aside, but just wouldn’t go away. It nags Mike Love’s own vision of The Beach Boys, to this day. 2012 Beach Boys reunion gigs, like 20/20, have opened with their first self-referencing song, Do It Again; the ostensible impetus for their reunion was likewise a rerecording of Do It Again (hear it here, if you must). And, from The Beach Boys’ Crazy Summer by Andrew Romano:
Over lunch, Jardine tells me he’s been urging Love to open the second half of the set with “Our Prayer,” the hushed choral prelude to Smile, but so far, Love has been brushing him off.
But here’s a funny thing.
Alongside 20/20‘s self-contained, miniature, perfect small Smile (snuck somehow onto the albumby The Fates, or Destiny) is another, rather different microcosm: a history, in miniature, of the ultimate fate of Mike Love’s Beach Boys Brand. It’s A Vision Of The Future – and it begins:
it’s automatic when i talk with old friends
the conversation turns to girls we knew when their
hair was soft and long and the beach was the place to go/p>
suntanned bodies and waves of sunshine the
california girls and a beautiful coastline
warmed up weather let’s get together
and do it again
And, as 20/20‘s Do It Again fades out, the ghost of Smile‘s woodshop hammers and banging (‘the rebuilding after the fire’) is briefly heard…
And of course the whole of 20/20 is just a bigger, fuller version of the Do It Again ‘hologram’, because it’s that same history done larger: the album starts with the past, sun, and the girls on the beach – and it ends how? Oh yeah:
over and over, the crow cries, uncover the cornfield
You just couldn’t make this shit up.
And, alas, while it hasn’t worked out that way so far, history will be far kinder to Brian Wilson – and utterly unforgiving of Beach Boys Org, and its grip upon him.
David Toop’s comments above are clever – they put those doubts about Smile‘s multiplicities indirectly into the mouth of Mike Love (pics from here):
…but Brian, my objections are founded in reasonable doubt: can a song say it all, depth breadth and flow, break its banks in flood yet still be a song?
Michael – a related question was asked by James Joyce with Finnegans Wake, taking the form of one river and all rivers to carry afloat a family narrative that could move in every direction, not just the line of the text and the flat of the page but in air through the voice and through history, the multiplicity and duplicity of its words. That’s what Brian and I are trying to do with this Cabin Essence.
That’s exactly the explanation I was praying for! Brian, pass that lyric sheet! (sings) :
over and over the crow cries
uncover the cornfield
over and over the thresher and hover
the wheat field