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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 132
Mon. June 10, 2013

“Cabin Essence”
The Beach Boys

1968

“♫ Who
ran the
iron
horse?
♫”

After Brian Wilson’s successful Smile tour of 2004 and solo album release of his 1968 opus, The Beach Boys finally relented and released The Smile Sessions in 2011. Why would it take forty-five years for The Beach Boys to release Brian Wilson’s literal Pièce de résistance, Smile?

The whole controversy during the turbulent Smile Sessions centered on Wilson and his collaborator Van Dyke Parks tripped out song creation— “Cabin Essence.” Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love couldn’t grasp the meaning of Parks and Wilson’s lyrics, “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.” And with Parks being unable to explain his poetic imagery to Love’s liking, the whole Smile project was left shelved and unfinished. Carl Wilson recalled Mike’s struggle with Brian and Van Dyke’s lyrics when he recalled in Keith Badman’s book, The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio, “A lot was said about Mike not liking the Smile music. His main problem was the lyrics were not relatable. They were so artistic, to him, airy-fairy and too abstract. Personally, I loved it.”

Mike Love honestly admitted his misunderstanding of “Cabin Essence” lyrics” in The Beach Boys 1998 documentary Endless Harmony, when he said “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!” But even though, Love had objections to the lyrics, as noted by David Beard in his Goldmine article, “Discover the story behind Smile,” when he wrote, “In regard to “Cabin Essence,” it’s worth noting Love’s vocal of “Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield …” can be heard on the coda of the song. Mike didn’t seem to understand what he was particularly singing, but he still sang what he was asked to sing.”

So true, but if Love and the rest of The Beach Boys had so much problem with the lyrics in 1967, why was it okay for the band to approve the release of two Smile songs on 1969’s 20/20 album? Maybe, in 1969, The Beach Boys eventually relented with the release of “Cabin Essence” because as Mojo Magazine noted that Wilson and Parks song was ““Smile” in a microcosm.” The only response I could find was from Beach Boys engineer Steve Desper who explained in, “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.”

Brian Wilson eventually shared his own interpretation of “Cabin Essence” when he said, “The song was about railroads. and I wondered what the perspective was of the spike…those Chinese laborers 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.” How could a song about trains cause so much controversy in one of the most influential bands in American rock history? Unfortunately, the other Beach Boys lack of faith in Brian’s Smile project directly lead to the downfall of Wilson and the band’s popularity in the 1970s. Author Dominic Priore said it best in his book Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Lost Masterpiece, when he wrote, “When 20/20 hit the streets, response to these tracks [Smile’s “Our Prayer” and “Cabin Essence”] served only to make clearer how Mike’s resistance to Smile had tanked The Beach Boys.”

Love held his ground during the documentary Endless Summer, defending his questioning the release ability of Wilson and Park’s Smile when he explained, “Some of the fans like that kind of stuff from Smile, but I associate with it too directly, I’m too subjective about it.” Parks reiterated his non-confrontational stance when Van Dyke explained a 1995 meeting with Mike Love, “For the first time in 30 years,[Mike Love] was able to ask me directly, once again, ‘What do those lyrics — Over and over the crow flies, uncover the cornfield — mean? 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.”

What ever the meaning, The Beach Boys did release “Cabin Essence” with Carl Wilson’s overdubbed vocal in 1969 and Wilson’s original recordings did eventually see the light of day when The Smile Sessions was resurrected with it’s own release in 2011. Still “Cabin’s” essence is in the tripped out rhythms and very poetically abstract lyrics penned by songwriting mastermind Van Dyke Parks. When I hear “Cabin Essence” it reminds me of Steve Jobs last words, “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow!” before he departed this life.

R.I.P. Carl Wilson & Dennis Wilson

[Editor’s Note: Steve Jobs being a devoted Dylan and The Beatles enthusiast, I would love to think Jobs was also a Brian Wilson and Beach Boys fan.] It makes you wonder what he witnessed before passing over to the other side as Jobs sister Mona Simpson shared in The Guardian UK, “He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze. His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, and purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before. His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey.” Could “Cabin Essence” be Wilson’s musical journey to the hereafter? Maybe the iron horse that Wilson and Parks were singing about was the metaphorical train to the next world?

Even though the behind the scene battle of Parks vs. Love overshadowed the trippy brilliance of Van Dyke and Brian Wilson’s lyrical legacy; I urge you to give “Cabin Essence” another spin. If Smile is truly Brian Wilson’s “teenage symphony for God;” maybe “Cabin Essence” is the soundtrack to the ultimate head trip our eventual afterlife?

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