SMiLE (5/?) The Americana Tracks

In these next three sections of my SMiLE “thesis” I will examine the individual tracks which comprise the album according to their common themes (or in the final essay, the lack thereof.)

Heroes and Villains

I think this song works so well for the simple reason that it fleshes out the narrator…or at least a narrator…so we can get a glimpse of what life in the old American west was like as opposed to the more removed “Greek chorus” like condemnations of most other Americana tracks. This one is a lot more humorous and lighthearted than Cabin Essence or Do You Like Worms, just as real people tend to ignore the shittier aspects of society in their day to day lives, using humor to deal with uncomfortable topics. (You could argue Brian is doing the same with the entire album.) As a result, Heroes grounds the Americana side and keeps it from being too dreary or preachy while still allowing some hard reflections on society. Brian believed that humor opened a person up to being more inclined to learn and experience enlightenment. For this reason, book-ending the Americana tracks with Heroes and Vega-Tables (the two funniest songs) might be a good idea, as it forces the listener to be open to learning from the beginning and then inspires a period of reflection after the side of vinyl has ended.

In Heroes, we see our narrator take an interest in an innocent girl who was later shot to death in this violent cowboy town he lives in. If we assume the Cantina girl (Margarita?) is the same person as his dead partner (and I do) then she was also forced to work at a seedy place with unpleasant men treating her like a piece of meat. There’s some hope in that the narrator has his kids and takes comfort in the idea that they’ve gained wisdom in their lives. But despite its upbeat tempo and humor, this song is pretty dark under the surface. Yet, when I actually listen, it makes me feel happy and carefree. It’s only after stopping to reflect on the lyrics that the melancholy undertones take hold. This apparent contradiction could be explained by that same theory of Brian’s that humor opens a person to learning, and it may also represent the duality between our heroic picture of the west and how terrible it would have been to actually live through.

It’s interesting how the narrator doesn’t tell us who these Heroes and Villains are either, nor are they ever really explored individually. It’s always a dual co-existence. If I may speculate I really think the idea is that we, collectively, are all Heroes and Villains simultaneously. We’re both, depending on the situation and the interpretation of others. Society itself is both Heroic and Villainous as the album will explore. I think this song introduces the concept that the happy, fun, patriotic ideals we have about America are wrong, and that both our past and present have dark undertones nobody wants to acknowledge. It introduces the concept of Heroes and Villains to make us question this built-in black and white morality we’ve been raised to believe in all our lives. (Ex: Cowboys good, Indians bad/Capitalists good, Socialists bad/Christians good, other religions bad.)

How should H&V be finished? Not even Brian ever really knew that, I don’t think. The speculation on this song is a lot more wide open than any other SMiLE track for sure. I personally prefer my version to go “Ive been in this town so long”/”Once a night Cotillion” then Cantina interlude, then “My Children Were Raised”/”Threescore and Five”/”Lalala-Stand a fore” then either one of the many chants, then Western Theme Bridge (I believe its real name is “Prelude to Fade”) then the slower verse and then either the Barnshine fade or another of my own invention. I prefer Heroes versions that don’t go on too long–anything beyond 4:30 or so and I start to lose interest. It becomes less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s boring but I also prefer a verse / chorus(Cantina) / verse / chorus(Chant) /bridge / reprise / fade which isn’t too different from a standard pop song structure. I believe the song flows a lot better that way, where if one were to try to mix in too many random chants and outtakes into the mix, it gets too messy.

Do You Like Worms?

Along with Heroes, this is the best candidate for the opening track in my opinion. Prayer, which Brian dubbed the “intro to the album,” flows so well into the opening bars. Not only that, but Worms begins with the lyrics “Once Upon” and Prayer goes well thematically with the “church of the American Indian” lyrics. We’re confronted with the hypocrisy of our ancestors coming here for religious freedom yet denying it to the people who were here first.

The title on its face value is silly and childish, but has a deeper meaning–like the album itself buried in childish cover art. It establishes the idea of a trip across America immediately which is one of the most well known themes/motifs that SMiLE was supposed to explore. And as our narrator journeys to all these landmarks from Plymouth to Diamond Head, he reminisces of how they were created by the ruthless slaughter of the Native Americans. This contradiction serves as the proverbial worms underneath Plymouth Rock, the dark unspoken story of American history. Right away it’s clear this is not a propaganda piece nor a happy go lucky vacation highlighting how great America is. This album doesn’t hold back, and encourages us to question blind nationalism and patriotism. This civilized, advanced democracy we’re so proud of was founded by right of conquest, similar to the primitive nations of old. When I listen to this song, I feel guilty and sad about what happened, the fade especially sounds like something out of a documentary on American atrocities somehow. The pilgrims never bothered to learn from the Indians or appreciate their way of life, and that’s a mistake which perhaps we ought to correct in the modern age going forward…

How should this song be finished? Well…the missing verse lyrics, obviously. And the lost “Ribbon of Concrete” chorus vocals as well. Tack Prayer to the beginning. I think the melody Brian sings on the session tape might have been a counter-melody perhaps which was never recorded. I like the idea others have thrown out about the “East or West Indies, we always get them confused” lyrics coming over the fade. On the boxset, there are two different versions of the chorus: the first one has nothing but “boo-da-bah” backing vocals, the second has the Bicycle Rider lyrics. In the real song, obviously it would have been the “Ribbon of Concrete” vocals on the first chorus and then Bicycle Rider, but I think those “boo-da-bah” vocalizations would have been played at the same time, buried lower in the mix. You know what I mean? Like ROC/BR would be the main lyrics, and that “boo-da-bah” part would be the backing vocals corresponding to it. Also, there’s a section you can hear on the sessions (HERE) that isn’t on the final track, however you can start to hear it come in right before the fade on the Disc 1 version of the song and then it gets cut off. This is tough to explain, but listen to the song again from when the Hawaiian chants end and you’ll eventually know what I’m referring to. I prefer to add that haunting section of music back in when I remix this track. I can’t say whether Brian would have done the same, but I think he should have.

Cabin Essence

It had to be pointed out to me, but the title is a play on “Cannabis.” And it fits, since like weed this song can go from very calming to heightening anxiety as we fluctuate between the soft verses and the booming chorus. It makes me feel conflicted and on edge, like I don’t know what could happen next. I believe the idea of this song is the contradiction between the settlers (and modern people I guess) going off into the Western wilderness to find some peace and quiet while it took deafening, chaotic trains to make that possible. It’s hard to “find a meadow filled with reindeer” and enjoy a tranquil “home on the range” when there’s the constant march of polluting, inescapable industry coming along with you. This song is about the mixed blessing of opening up that last frontier. Once again, you can notice this theme of contradictions in the Americana tracks, where the first impression you get from the subject matter is often discredited upon further reflection. The biting social commentary is hidden under the beautiful music (and occasionally, the humor.)

The way the fade begins, you think the Beach Boys are singing about the Grand Coulee Dam, but then they transition into the Asian coolies who built the railroads, another reminder that for every monument and accomplishment, there’s an oppressed group to thank for it. (From women in brothels, to the Indians whose land we stole, to exploited immigrant laborers.) As trains are referred to as Iron Horses earlier in the song, I’ve come to interpret the crow flying over the cornfield to be crop duster planes. It fits with that theme of unnatural, polluting, loud industry infiltrating the previously untamed world. Where once it was horses grazing and crows flying now it’s mechanical trains and planes that are taking their place in our modern era.

Cabin Essence and Worms are already linked with the softer verses and more robust choruses combined with references to exploited minorities. I think they also share a motif of referencing modes of transportation. There’s the Ocean Liners and Bikes in one, and Trains, Automobiles (Truck Driving Man) and now Planes in the other. It’s been said that CE and Worms juggled sections between each other during the sessions, and it makes sense since these two are probably the most closely related tracks in all of SMiLE. But I think Brian made the right choice eventually putting Bicycle Rider and Who Ran the Iron Horse where they ultimately ended up. While it might be fun to experiment with switching them around, I don’t think it would sound as good.

How should it be finished? I think it pretty much is already, except for the missing and criminally ignored “Reconnected Telephones” lyrics. I believe they would have been buried deep in the mix over the first chorus like Truck Driving Man is buried in the second. And notice again how telephone lines criss-crossing the once beautiful countryside also fits with the themes I’ve mentioned above. They opened up the West (via communication) just the same as the trains…but that natural beauty was tarnished in the process.

Old Master Painter

Nobody seems to share my take, but I’m as convinced as possible regarding SMiLE stuff that this song is about loss of faith in God. Maybe not in God himself, or the possibility of divine beings per se, but certainly in organized religion and traditional Christian “values” as defined by 20th Century American social rules. Brian was obviously very spiritual but I think his message was that it’s okay to be a “sinner,” not go to church on Sunday, it’s okay to be gay or do what you want as long as no one is hurt even if it’s not in keeping with “Christian values.” You might say I’m projecting with this interpretation, but let’s look at this for a second.

We have two old standards paired together, which seems pretty boring and almost lazy by SMiLE-Era Brian standards. But when you do a little research and see that OMP itself was a song about God, and that Brian purposefully changed the lyrics for “My Only Sunshine” to be past-tense, suddenly it makes a lot more sense. The pairing introduces God and then has the narrator address him directly, to say that God used to be the narrator’s sunshine, the light of his life, but isn’t anymore. This could be why Brian was looking into Numerology, Astrology, I Ching, Subud and many other alternate New Age ethos at this time. This would also explain why this otherwise lackluster (in comparison to its peers) track should be “the grand finale” as Brian says on the tapes. To anyone still skeptical after reading this, I have to ask, why else would Brian make a song like this? You really think he just randomly chose two songs and there was no other thought put into it at all? I give Brian a lot more credit than that. With all the other care and attention that went into all these songs, I really doubt these two were just chosen at random and slapped on the tracklist at the expense of stellar original material waiting in the can, like Look, Holidays or Dada.

To those who would say “why not just write a song about loss of faith directly then; why use OMP and YAMS to convey that idea?” I’d answer that this was still ’66 when the Beatles got in trouble for saying they were “more popular than Jesus.” For Brian to explicitly say “Catholicism’s repressive rules are wrong. You can live how you want and still be a good person. There’s other ideologies out there worth looking into. Blind adherence to any one organized religion is bad!” I think he and the band would have been crucified. (Pun intended.) Doing it this way, in an extremely subtle and plausibly deniable manner was much safer. If America itself was not above criticism in this album, I don’t see why religion would be either. Finally, to those who would say “but it’s a teenage symphony to God–why knock religion then?” I think Brian’s point wasn’t to slam God and the idea of being religious itself so much as express that the traditional ideas about God and religion no longer held sway for him. This is where certainty crosses into speculation for me, but if he was into astrology it stands to reason Brian was probably aware of the Age of Aquarius which was a popular New Age idea. I won’t go into that in detail here but it’s an idea which has greatly inspired me as well, and I’ll discuss it more in this series’ epilogue.

In any case, it’s clear that Brian was experimenting with his modular strategy on other people’s work with this track, taking two unrelated songs and putting them together to make something new and 100 times more thought provoking. I never liked this track before and always left it off my SMiLEs, but upon coming to this interpretation it has become a must-have in my opinion. And if it’s too much to accept that the song is about Brian, consider that OMP was the ending of Heroes in the earliest SMiLE sessions according to Vosse. It could be that the narrator of Heroes has lost his faith upon seeing his woman being unjustly gunned down in the streets. This song makes me feel like mourning.

How to finish it? Just add the lyrics to OMP in the beginning and it’s done. I personally like to overlay the He Gives Speeches lyrics on the fade, but that’s just me experimenting, not how I imagine it would/should have been like in ’66.

I’m in Great Shape 

This track is really ambiguous and it’s the hardest for me to talk about because I don’t know what it was even supposed to be. I personally like the theory that it would have been a whole new track with verses (these being the IIGS melody on the boxset, with that xylophone instrumentation as heard on the session tapes), then choruses (Mama Says chant) and then a fade (Barnyard?) and would have been an upbeat song about the repetitive yet rewarding life in the country. That could have been a nice counterpoint to H&V–instead of a dangerous but invigorating old west town, it’s a man living in the country in peace running his farm and living by numbing routine. This would have given us listeners a good look at two different slices of life: an American interpretation of Aesop’s Town Mouse and Country Mouse fable. Then we could judge who has it better. 

However, it’s also possible the song was always supposed to be what it became on the 2004 solo album (BWPS,) with IIGS proper then I Wanna Be Around, then Workshop. In this context, it works as a musical pun–Great Shape…then broken heart…then sounds of the broken heart being comically rebuilt like a physical structure. However, I don’t think IIGS itself fits particularly well with those other two pieces. It’s extemporaneous to the musical pun–Fire, or perhaps Wonderful (with a girl getting hurt by a boy) ought to be the first part, representing the action of the heart being broken before the next two pieces rebuild it. Personally, I think this BWPS placement is yet another anachronism that never would have occurred on the original ’66 conception of the album. The fact that IIGS was moved to a different place on the boxset Disc 1 sequence is further evidence of this.  

We know from the Humble Harv demos and now the Durrie Parks acetates that IIGS was part of Heroes at one point. I think that, similar to Dada, it was just another “feel,” another fluid fragment that was jumbled around to fill holes all across the album as they appeared. If there were any mistakes made on the December tracklist, I think the inclusion of IIGS as its own standalone track is it. Its inclusion on the tracklist is the one thing I take issue with; it’s the one detail I have trouble reconciling with the evidence or common sense. The fragment itself makes me feel like waking up to a beautiful morning full of possibilities.

How would you finish it? I can’t say because I can’t be sure what the song even is. I prefer leaving IWBA and Barnyard off my SMiLE mixes and using Workshop elsewhere (as part of the Elements or a fade to Wonderful). I like to use IIGS as part of Heroes or use the instrumental version from the sessions as an intro to Wonderful, which otherwise has a very abrupt opening.

Vega-Tables 

There’s a decent amount of evidence that Veggies was an element at some early point in SMiLE. I’ll get into this more later, but I think in addition to transporting the listener into the feeling of each element, that track would also represent human emotions and biological functions in general. Under this context, Veggies is clearly both carefree joy as well as fitness. On its own merits, I personally think Veggies fits snuggly in with the Americana tracks as a celebration of our agricultural heritage. If Heroes is the Wild West of saloons and shoot-outs, Veggies is the fruited plains of the Midwest, the breadbasket of America.

I believe the idiosyncratic spelling of VEGA-Tables is a clue into its placement with the Americana tracks. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, an Eagle (or in some traditions, a vulture) gripping a lyre–Americana music in the sky. The song is riddled with humorous scenarios (shoe flying off, eating a wrapper but not the candy) as well as some not so subtle drug references. The candy bar story could easily be an analogy for buying a blunt, and how you toss out the filling, tobacco, to use the wrapper and roll weed in it. TRIPPED on a cornucopia. Stripped the stalk green could be an allusion to breaking up weed to be smoked (though that might be a stretch.) It’s possible the longer, March ’67 re-recording of this song absorbed Barnyard/Great Shape and took their place as the track about farm life out in the Midwest. If my earlier theory on IIGS is correct, Veggies already occupies that niche which would have made Great Shape an inferior redundancy. Overall, this song makes me feel happy, and it’s one of the few that truly does which when you think about it is really strange given the title of the album.

How should it be finished? I think it already is, for the most part. I never thought very highly of this track on the boots, but the new mix on the boxset really won me over. It made the song fresh and fun rather than annoying. I would just add the piano intro back in the beginning of the single mix, put the cornucopia lyrics back in and it’s just about perfect. On the album cut, I think the Vegetable Argument with Hal Blaine would have been included somewhere. Either buried low in the mix under the choruses like Truck Driving Man was to CE, or over the fade, or before the song starts or after it ends. But there’s no doubt in my mind the argument was supposed to go on there at one point in the album’s development–Brian wouldn’t waste money or Hal’s time recording that stuff in the studio if it wasn’t important. There’s plenty of spoken word humor on the album already, like “You’re Under Arrest!” in Heroes and the “lots of talking” mentioned during the All Day sessions. And there’s plenty of humor in this particular track already so it’s not unusual to assume there might have been more.

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2 Comments

  1. Another well written article Cassandra. Makes me wish I could listen to the album. Do you have a way to listen to the songs? I would like the opportunity to listen to them with you.

    Like

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