Why Mike Love and Van Dyke Parks Butted Heads Over ‘Cabinessence’
As soon as it was abandoned around the summer of 1967, the Beach Boys’ Smile became the stuff of legend. After all, it was going to be mastermind Brian Wilson’s insurmountably ambitious, artsy and abstract follow-up to 1966’s Pet Sounds, a record that pushed new creative and technical boundaries not only for the band but for popular music in general.
There were many reasons why Wilson stopped working on his self-proclaimed “teenage symphony to God,” such as his problems with drugs, self-doubt and mental illness. Yet, one of the most damaging and tangible blows came on Dec. 6, 1966, when lyricist Van Dyke Parks and Beach Boys singer Mike Love had an argument over the words to one of Smile’s greatest compositions, “Cabinessence.” Three months later, Parks left the project; without his support, Wilson felt that the weight of Smile was too much to bear.
It's worth noting that the then-fledgling Parks was not Wilson’s first outside lyricist; for Pet Sounds he replaced his usual writing partner – Love – with Tony Asher. If Love didn’t see the decision as an out-and-out betrayal, he at least disagreed with the more intellectual and conceptual direction Asher and Wilson took. For example, and as explained by Mojo’s Rob Chapman in 2002, Love objected to “Hang On to Your Ego” (eventually renamed “I Know There’s an Answer”) and “made jibes about Brian’s ‘ego music.’”
Love was already upset about Pet Sounds when he decided that Smile was shaping up to similarly “fuck with the formula” that had worked so well before (like pop tunes about surfing, girls, cars and high school).
“Cabinessence” wasn’t the first Smile song Love questioned. Previously, he’d taken issue with a line from “Surf’s Up” – “Columnated ruins domino” – and, in 1998’s Endless Harmony documentary, confessed: “I didn’t resonate well with what was going on at that time – [Brian] was writing these songs under the influence of various substances, and it didn’t make any sense to me!” Such frustration over the marketability and meaning of Wilson and Parks’ collaborations, as well as Love feeling “a little upset” at having “literally nothing to do” with Smile, fueled a fire that was bound to explode.
And explode it did.
Listen to the Beach Boys' 'Surf's Up'
According to Peter Ames Carlin’s book Catch a Wave, things came to a head on that December day in 1966 when Love was recording overdubs for “Cabinessence” and became distraught over the phrase, “Over and over, the crow cries / Uncover the cornfield." Love rebelled against Parks’ “acid alliteration” and the assumption that he was singing about drugs; in response, Wilson called Parks to the studio to explain his words, which Parks couldn’t do.
In his book Heroes and Villains, biographer Steven Gaines asserted that Parks and Wilson agreed that “Cabinessence” was envisioned as “a rock 'n' roll waltz” that would “end on a freeze frame of the Union Pacific Railroad.” That said, Parks was unable to give Love a clear and satisfactory interpretation of the lyrics themselves. Rather, they – like many of his words – were intended to offer powerful imagery and rhythms without necessarily containing literal messages or objectives.
The disagreement wasn’t the only thing that led to Parks leaving Smile in early March 1967. He was becoming weary of exacerbating tensions among the group as well as of Wilson’s perpetual lack of focus and need to be dominant. Yet, Parks claimed the clash with Love was when “the whole house of cards began tumbling down,” and as inferred by Clinton Heylin in The Act You’ve Known for All These Years, Love either directly or indirectly steered Wilson’s “change of opinion” regarding Parks’ involvement.
Either way, Parks chose to depart, telling The Guardian in 2013: “It just got too much for me. ... I walked away from that funhouse.”
In the years since, both Parks and Love have commented on what happened. Love admitted to Rolling Stone that he wanted to “make a commercially successful pop record, so [he] might have complained about some of the lyrics.” As reported by Carlin, he also clarified that "just because I said I didn’t know what [the words] meant didn’t mean I didn’t like them.”
Listen to the Beach Boys' 'Cabinessence'
Producer Terry Melcher invited Parks and Love to his home in the early '90s to discuss 1992’s Summer in Paradise , so Love had another chance to ask about “Cabinessence.” In 1995, Parks reflected: “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.”
In 2013, he told The Quietus’ Taylor Parkes: "I think I did a damn good job creating a highly decorative lyrical accompaniment to some really beautiful melodic patterns. ... I think the music created the problem for Mike, and it was perfectly understandable that he was terribly jealous of me, as it became evident that he wanted my job. ... And with that, and with the famous – we can say infamous – stories about Brian Wilson's psychological collapse, and his buffoonery ... I walked away from the job."
While Smile was never released as Wilson envisioned, it has been diced up, reworked and repacked in various ways over the past few decades. Specifically, “Cabinessence” appeared on 1969’s 20/20, while 1967’s Smiley Smile offered inferior versions of several Smile songs. Surf’s Up, from 1971, contained the title track, and 2004’s Brian Wilson Presents Smile found Wilson reteam with Parks to provide the most accurate rendition of Smile. (The Smile Sessions, a 2011 box set, presented many outtakes and even an assumed proper track order, but it's still not considered the final word on the subject.)
One can only speculate what might have been had “Cabinessence” not led to Love and Parks’ debate, and the subsequent abandonment of Smile. But what has emerged from Smile was worth the wait and hardships.