Brian Wilson’s Elements

Brian Wilson probably never studied ancient Greek philosophy, but he knew that, once upon a time, smart people thought the world was composed of four fundamental elements: Earth, Air, Water and Fire. (That’s the list Empedocles came up with in the 5th century BCE.) So when Brian was working on Smile, the famous Beach Boys’ album that didn’t get finished in 1967, he was going to include something called “The Elements”. One of his close friends, David Anderle, remembered it this way:

We were aware, he made us aware, of what fire was going to be, and what water was going to be; we had some idea of air. That was where it stopped. None of us had any ideas as to how it was going to tie together, except that it appeared to us to be an opera. And the story of the fire part I guess is pretty well known by now [Look! Listen! Vibrate! Smile!, p. 230].

As the years went by, tapes from the Smile sessions, as well as completed tracks, showed up here and there. This led to many fans creating their own Smile albums, trying to figure out how Brian would have put the pieces together, or simply wanting an album’s worth of music to listen to.

I acquired several unofficial versions of Smile along the way, but didn’t get around to making my own Smile until 2002. That was 35 years after Brian stopped working on the original and two years before he released his finished version, Brian Wilson Presents Smile (which Metacritic determined to be the best-reviewed album of 2004).

A few days ago, a question from another fan got me to look for my homemade Smile CD. When I played it, I couldn’t remember why I’d picked these particular thirteen tracks or why I’d put them in the sequence I did. I couldn’t even remember where some of the tracks came from. Some were obviously from official Beach Boys albums, but others were from sources unknown.  

This brings me back to “The Elements”. The first track on my Smile is a nine-minute, almost all-instrumental with that title. It’s made up of five tracks from the Smile sessions. Two of them are the tracks everyone agrees were intended to represent Fire and Water. The other three are well-known to serious fans, but don’t clearly fit the Elements concept. I’ve reached out to the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys online community (of course, there is such a thing – it’s the Internet), but so far nobody has answered the question: Where did this version of “The Elements” come from?

If someone eventually answers that question, and I’m able to identify the source of a few more tracks, I might put my Smile CD playlist on YouTube. Meanwhile, here’s “The Elements” or “An Elements Suite” or “Selected Smile Instrumentals”, hot off the computer. 

I like it as the beginning to my Smile because it kind of lays the groundwork for the rest of the album. Plus, the first part, “Look”, could represent Air (that’s what we look through); the second part, “Holidays”, could represent Earth (that’s where we take vacations); and it’s clear what “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow (Fire)” and “I Love To Say Da Da (Water)” represent. It all ends with “I Wanna Be Around / Workshop”, which features the guys banging around in the studio, i.e. putting the musical elements of Smile together.

The Thresher Uncovers the Wheatfield! (Or Not)

I’ve heard there was a time when the lyrics to popular songs were easily understandable. In fact, I heard that from my father more than once. He found it highly amusing when a friend and I played one particular song over and over, trying to make sense of the words, sometime in the late 60s.

Often, however, we were pretty sure what the lyrics were. Take, for example, a Beach Boys song called “Cabinessence” (or “Cabin Essence”). It’s a strangely beautiful, relatively psychedelic song about the American frontier, written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks for the long unfinished Smile album.

“Cabinessence” has a special place in the history of the Beach Boys (and the history of American popular music, for that matter), since conflict concerning its lyrics supposedly contributed to Brian Wilson giving up on Smile, history’s most famous unfinished rock album. The person who famously objected to the lyrics back in 1967 was Mike Love, frequent lead singer and lyricist for the Beach Boys (especially in their early days). Newly appointed lyricist Van Dyke Parks didn’t give Mike a satisfying answer when asked to explain the following lines: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield/Over and over the thresher uncovers the wheatfield”.

I’ve never thought these lyrics were all that mysterious, especially compared to some other lyrics from that period (“The preacher looked so baffled when I asked him why he dressed/With twenty pounds of headlines stapled to his chest”?). What was Mike Love’s problem anyway? Aside from being bald, jealous and relatively untalented?

So it was quite a surprise when I learned the other day that I have apparently misheard the lyrics to “Cabinessence” for the past 46 years. According to the most official sources (lyrics sheets in recent releases), the final words to the song are: “Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield, over and over, the thresher, and hover the wheatfield”.

“And hover?” Not “uncovers”? What the hell does “and hover the wheatfield” mean? It’s not even English. If that’s the line that bothered Mike Love, I suddenly feel (a tiny bit) more sympathetic toward the guy.

Well, it turns out that matters are not quite that simple. A bit of research reveals the following:

1) Sheet music from 1968 says that the song ends with “the crow flies [sic] uncover the cornfield”. There’s no mention of the thresher or the wheatfield at all.

2) Wikipedia has one paragraph indicating that the song ends with “Over and over, the thresher and plover, the wheatfield” (“plover” = a short-billed, gregarious wading bird).

3) In 2004, an anonymous expert on a Smile message board (there used to be such things) suggested that the last two lines make more sense if they are rearranged, as follows: “Over and over the crow cries and hovers the wheatfield/Over and over the thresher uncovers the cornfield”. Which does make more sense grammatically — although in the 19th century you’d expect to find scarecrows in cornfields and threshers in wheatfields, not the other way around.

4) When I listen to the song, I still (think I) hear the thresher uncovering the wheatfield, with no hovering going on at all.

5) The song was written and first recorded in the mid-60s, when lots of people, including Wilson and Parks, weren’t terribly sober, so who knows what the words were?

And, you might ask, who cares? Well, I do. Now every time I listen to the song, I’m going to be wondering: Now what are they saying? I might as well be back on our living room floor with Dean from across the street, playing some damn song over and over again, with my father shaking his head in the background.


What are accepted, apparently by everyone else, as the song’s full lyrics:

Further discussion of “Cabinessence” by someone more obsessed than me:

An English professor adds some professional commentary:

And to hear for yourself, what is probably not a music video from 1967: