Smiles from 1967, 2004, 2011 and even 2002

After releasing Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” in 1966, Brian Wilson tried to keep it all going with Smile in 1967. Things didn’t work out, so Smile became rock music’s most famous, most well-regarded, unfinished, semi-existing album. Brian and the other Beach Boys went on to lesser things (as did Brian’s lyricist for the project, Van Dyke Parks), while the legend of Smile grew.

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I use the word “legend” because in this case it’s appropriate. The story was told again and again. Unreleased recordings were quietly shared. Speculation abounded among certain Beach Boys fans. Would the group ever finish Smile? What would it be like when we finally got to hear it? What would people have thought in 1967 if Smile had come out before Sergeant Pepper? The Beach Boys and Beatles were having a friendly competition in the mid-60s. We know how that came out.

Brian Wilson, having begun a solo career in the 80s, changed the Smile story in a big way in 2004. Overcoming considerable obstacles, he and his band debuted Smile at a February concert in London. From The Guardian:

So how good, finally, is Smile, the great lost song cycle that Brian Wilson kept the world waiting 37 years to hear? The only possible answer, after Friday night’s world premiere in London, is that it is better than anyone dared hope. Multiple spontaneous ovations were the reward for the former Beach Boy and his musicians, whose pristine performance breathed life into a 45-minute work previously known only through various shattered and dispersed fragments.

Seven months later, Brian Wilson presented us with Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Metacritic, a site that tries to synthesize critical opinion, has it down as the third-best reviewed album of the 21st century:

Well, better 37 years late than never. Originally intended to be the Beach Boys’ 1967 follow-up to their legendary ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Smile’ was finally recorded as originally intended in April 2004 by Wilson and his current band, including co-songwriter Van Dyke Parks.

“Originally intended” is a stretch, since nobody, including Mr. Wilson, really knows how he intended to put Smile‘s pieces together in 1967. (Not being able to put the pieces together was a very big part of the problem.)

In 2011, Capitol Records released a big set of Beach Boys recordings from the 60s, The Smile Sessions, also to great acclaim. And that was that.

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Except that while we were waiting those 37 years, a number of us (hundreds of us? thousands?) created our own versions of Smile, using whatever pieces were available (legally and otherwise). I did one in 2002, two years before Brian did. If only he’d asked me for help in 1967!

Mine differs from the typical unofficial arrangement, mainly in two ways. I started with something someone put together from mostly instrumental tracks and called “The Elements”. I think it’s an excellent prelude to what comes later. I also used a version of the song “Wonderful” from the Smiley Smile album (what the Beach Boys released in lieu of Smile), not the original “Wonderful” with a harpsichord that most fans seem to prefer. I like the later one a lot more.

Anyway, here’s my Smile from 2002 in two formats up in the Microsoft cloud (YouTube objected due to copyright):

Audio only (MP3, 55 mb)

Audio plus unsophisticated video that identifies the tracks (MP4, 52 mb)

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(By the way, whether or not you watched any of that ridiculous “debate”, please vote and send the maniac back to private life and almost certain criminal prosecution.)

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.

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

http://beachboyssongs.com/lyrics-page-1/lyrics-cabinessence/

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

http://arkhonia.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/%E2%80%98smile%E2%80%99-%E2%80%93-my-first-25-years-cabin-essence-lost-and-found/

An English professor adds some professional commentary:

http://mleddy.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/that-infamous-line.html

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