Cabinessence

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"Cabinessence"
Song by The Beach Boys from the album 20/20
Released February 10, 1969 (1969-02-10)
Recorded October—December, 1966,
Gold Star Studios and CBS Columbia Square
November 20, 1968 (1968-11-20),
Brian Wilson's home studio, California
Genre Psychedelic rock, progressive rock, folk
Length 3:34
Label Capitol
Writer Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks
Producer The Beach Boys
20/20 track listing
Music sample
"Cabin Essence"
Single by The Beach Boys
from the album The Smile Sessions
B-side "Wonderful"
Released June 15, 2011 (2011-06-15)
Format 7"
Label Capitol/MOJO
Producer(s) Brian Wilson
The Beach Boys singles chronology
"Don't Fight the Sea"
(2011)
"Cabin Essence"
(2011)
"That's Why God Made the Radio"
(2012)
The Smile Sessions track listing

"Cabinessence" (alternately spelled "Cabin Essence") is a song written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for the American rock band the Beach Boys released on their 1969 album 20/20. It was originally conceived for release on the abandoned Smile album.

The subject of the song is said by Wilson to be "about railroads," as he intended to encapsulate the image of Chinese laborers pounding rail spikes while their minds go "off on a different track" after noticing a crow flying overhead.[1][2] According to journalist Nick Kent, the song "juxtaposed both highly-advanced Western and Eastern musical references" with an "oriental presence", making use of the banjo and harmonica as well as percussion in the chorus designed to emulate the sound of workers assembling train tracks.[2]

"Cabinessence" has received much acclaim over the years as the stand-out track on 20/20.[3] Biographer Jon Stebbins observed the song's "demonic chanting" which he believed exemplified "some of the most haunting, manic, evil-sounding music the Beach Boys ever made".[4] MOJO described Cabinessence as "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."[5]

Composition[edit]

Brian Wilson stated that he and Van Dyke Parks wrote the song along with "Heroes and Villains" "Wonderful" and "Surf's Up" in a giant sandbox with a piano in it that Wilson had built in his living room.[citation needed]. "Cabinessence" was one of a number of Smile tracks which contained lyrics that the other band members did not approve of,[6] being infamously oblique and replete with wordplay. The seemingly-surreal couplet of the closing "Grand Coulee Dam" section are as follows,

Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield
Over and over the thresher and hovers the wheatfield

If the listener rearranges the last half of each line, they get "over and over the crow cries and hovers the wheatfield / over and over the thresher uncovers the cornfield", which makes them clearer. Parks penned additional lyrics to Cabinessence not heard on any official release, nor bootlegged. They are unknown to have ever been recorded during tracking sessions.[nb 1] Clarifying the song's historical references, Parks says:

The whole thing seems to be about the taking of the territory. Folks sing a song of the grange. Granges were collectives of farms that would pool their resources so they could set their own prices, so that they weren't competing so much with each other, but so they were finding a reasonable return for their endeavors. Of course, that’s almost a thing of the past, with the family farm disappearing from the country now and agribusiness the way it is, but the grange system was the backbone of the American farm. And we had to bring the Chinese into this equation, because they were working on the railroad, and the prairie was absolutely dependent on the railroads.[8]

Recording[edit]

The song has three distinct sections: "Home on the Range", "Who Ran the Iron Horse", and "The Grand Coulee Dam" in the form of ABABC. "Home on the Range" may be seen as the verse, and "Who Ran the Iron Horse" as the chorus. While "Home on the Range" is in 4/4, or "common time", "Who Ran the Iron Horse" is a waltz. "The Grand Coulee Dam" is in 3/4 time as well. The chorus features the repeated line, "Who ran the Iron Horse?" over "aah" harmonies in mixolydian mode, and patterned to an I7—V7 progression in the implied key of F major. In the second iteration of this section, there are barely-audible lyrics sung by Dennis Wilson underneath the harmonies. In 1969, Brian Wilson wrote:

All my life I’ve been fascinated by waltzes. By this album I rolled around to doin’ what I call a rock and roll waltz with "Cabin Essence." The night I cut the instrumental part of it no one could believe that a waltz could rock that hard. I had the 6-string bass player play electric fuzz tones. This got it goin’ good. I was sure that I had recorded the most rockin’ waltz ever recorded.[9]

Musician Mark Johnson refers to the banjo in "Cabinessence" as "traditionally the Great American folk instrument," with it being used "like part of the soundtrack to a lost Twilight Zone episode," and that the song "could be an exploration a la John Steinbeck of what American music's function really is. To simply fill a room, while we go about our days and nights."[10] The track was largely mixed and completed in December 1966, lacking only a lead vocal and a coherent structure.[11] An alternate work-in-progress version was described by friend and Smile participant Michael Vosse in 1969.

Van and Brian played us two things they were doing on the album: one was part of the thing that turned into "Cabinessence." This was originally part of "Who Ran the Iron Horse," which was about this Chinese cat working on the railroad; it had the "crow" line in it. And another song, "Bicycle Rider," was to be integrated with it; they thought they'd put together these two separate songs. . . "Cabinessence" started out as a wholly different trip—Dennis was going to sing it by himself and sound like a funky cat up in the mountains somewhere singing to a chick by a fireplace; very simple—and that's all there was to it. . . . In the original, "Who Ran the Iron Horse," he had a very definite visual image in mind of a train in motion, and suddenly he stopped in the middle of the song with the "Grand Coolie" refrain.[11]

Dennis Wilson sings a heavily syncopated vocal rap during the song's second chorus. He says, "I got off so much on doing that. It's mixed way down in the track, and it’s syncopated all the way through. Right there is my biggest turn-on." The lines are: "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. / Catching 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."[8]

Conflict[edit]

The only person I had had any interchange with before that was Dennis, who had responded very favorably to "Heroes and Villains" and "Surf’s Up". Based on that, I gathered that the work would be approved. But then, with no warning whatsoever, I got that phone call from Brian. And that’s when the whole house of cards came tumbling down.

Van Dyke Parks[12]

A recording session for the "The Grand Coulee Dam" vocal overdubs on December 6, 1966 reportedly saw tensions within the band boil over when Love was instructed by Wilson to sing the song's lyrics. Bemused, Love demanded that Wilson call lyricist Parks to the recording session to explain the meaning of the coda line "Over and over, the crow cries, uncover the cornfield. Over and over, the thresher and plover, the wheatfield". Wilson complied, and asked Parks if he was willing to come down to the studio to sort out Love's complaints. Upon arriving at the studio, Love questioned the lyrics reportedly in an aggressive fashion. Unable to come up with an answer that satisfied Love and unwilling to be drawn into an argument about the quality of his work, Parks responded by simply stating he didn't know the meaning of the lyric.[13] Consequently, Parks left the session feeling as though he was intruding on a family feud with roots and motivations that had nothing to do with him, and would eventually leave the project in the spring of 1967.[14] Some consider this to have doomed the album already months overdue, though close to completion.[6][13] Defending himself in later years, Love has rebutted:

I think Van Dyke is really talented, brilliant, and fun. He’s got a sense of humor. I ask[ed] Van Dyke Parks, "What the hell does 'Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield' mean?" And he said, "I haven’t a clue, Mike!"…I don’t know if he was saying that just because I was there in his face. But I always liked lyrics that are boy-girl, or made sense, or connected to the mind of people.…And who says I didn't like the words? Just because I said I didn't know what they meant didn't mean I didn't like them. I have zero against Van Dyke Parks. That’s why I said, "What the fuck does that mean?" It's not meant to be an insult. He didn't get insulted. He just said, 'I haven’t a clue!' And it wasn't like I was against his lyrics. But people don’t know the way I think. And they don’t give a fuck about the way I think, either. But that’s okay. I'm a big boy, and I can take that. I was just asking: What did it mean?[15]

During the 1990s, Love reportedly asked Parks about the lyrics again. According to Parks, "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. Maybe I meant nothing, but I was trying to follow Brian Wilson's vision at that time."[16][nb 2]

Release[edit]

In April 1969, Vosse stated: "The recording of it on 20/20 is new, because before his ear operation about a year ago, Brian could not hear in stereo."[11] Although the final Smile version would have most likely been released in monoaural sound, the track was eventually released in stereo as "Cabinessence" on their 1969 album 20/20, with a lead vocal overdub by Carl Wilson recorded on November 20, 1968.[17] It was met with interest and praise upon its release in 1969 following "Our Prayer" due to its roots in the much publicized Smile project three years earlier.

[re: "Our Prayer"] The remaking of the song "Cabinessence," all feels of which were recorded in 1966 for inclusion on Smile, was more complicated. Apparently, Brian had done a great deal of preliminary assembly work but had not been able to come up with a consistent plan for final assembly. "Reportedly," writes David Leaf, "there were twenty-five different mixes and combinations of that song all put on separate acetate discs before they put out one version. To add to the confusion, the song in its released form contains portions of 'Who Ran the Iron Horse' and 'The Grand Coolie Dam.' It is true that "Cabinessence" seems lyricially disorganized and more episodic than even the alternate version of "Heroes and Villains," but it does have that aura of manic brilliance that characterized Brian's work before the collapse of Smile, and thus this narration problem is easily forgiven and forgotten The contrast between these songs and Brian's five newly composed songs for 20/20 is stark and poignant.

Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis[3]

Alternate versions[edit]

An instrumental version can be found on the Beach Boys' 1993 Good Vibrations box set. The song was rerecorded by Brian Wilson as a solo artist and released on his 2004 version of Smile. A mono mix of the Beach Boys version of the song was prepared in 2011 for The Smile Sessions. This mix was released as a promotional single within the June 2011 issue of Mojo.

Personnel[edit]

The Beach Boys
Additional musicians

Notes[edit]

  1. ^

    Reconnected telephone direct / Dialing / Different color cords to your / Extension / Don’t forget to mention / This is a recording

    Even though the echoes through / My mind / Have filtered through the pines / I came and found my peace / And this is not a recording /

    Doobie doo / Doobie doo / Or not doobie[7]

  2. ^ The New York Times: Parks recalls he saw Love one final time when Melcher called him to Monterey to play synthesizer on the Beach Boys' final album, recorded without Brian, 1992's dreadful Summer in Paradise. A neighbor offered to fly the musician to Monterey in his one-engine plane if Parks agreed to cover gas and other expenses. When he got there, Love was meditating in Melcher's living room. "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. Maybe I meant nothing, but I was trying to follow Brian Wilson's vision at that time." Parks says Love asked if he could fly back to L.A. in the plane with him. "We had a nice chat and he insisted that he wanted to split the cost of the flight with me, so he gave me a card with his number on it. The next morning, I called to discover it was a disconnected number. And that was the last time I saw Mike Love."[16]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ Preiss 1979.
  2. ^ a b Kent 1975.
  3. ^ a b Covach 1997.
  4. ^ Stebbins 2011.
  5. ^ "The 50 Greatest Beach Boys Songs". Mojo Magazine. June 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Nolan 1971.
  7. ^ Frank Holmes (Endless Summer Quarterly, March 1997)
  8. ^ a b Priore 2005, p. 69.
  9. ^ Leaf, David. "Friends / 20/20 liner notes". 
  10. ^ "Smile: The Magazine". Fishwrap. Winter 2001. 
  11. ^ a b c Vosse, Michael (April 14, 1969). "Michael Vosse Talks About Smile". Fusion. 
  12. ^ Carlin 2006, p. 116.
  13. ^ a b Carlin 2006, p. 117.
  14. ^ Carlin 2006, pp. 117, 119.
  15. ^ Carlin 2006, p. 313.
  16. ^ a b The New York Times. April 6, 2000. 
  17. ^ Badman 2004, p. 188.

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]