Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Song Cycle and “That (In)famous Line”

I’m honored to find myself so mentioned in Richard Henderson’s Song Cycle (New York: Continuum, 2010), a brand-new volume in the “33 1/3” series devoted to Van Dyke Parks’s 1968 album Song Cycle.

The reference is to an essay that I wrote in 2004 about a line from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’s “Cabinessence,” a song from SMiLE, the album abandoned by the Beach Boys in 1967 and finished as a Brian Wilson album in 2004. The line in question: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.” Beach Boy Mike Love is said to have demanded from lyricist Parks an explanation of this line’s meaning, which demand Parks was unable to honor. Thus the line has come to represent the alleged obscurity of Parks’s lyrics. “Acid alliteration,” Mike Love called it.

Richard Henderson has written a terrific book. He begins by recounting his first acquaintance with Song Cycle as a thirteen year-old in 1968 Detroit. He goes on to track Van Dyke Parks’s youthful work in music, film, theater, and television; his entry into studio work and the folk-music scene in California; the rise of Warner Bros. Records; the varieties of “psychedelic” music; the critical success and commercial disappointment of Song Cycle; and Parks’s subsequent endeavors, among them, a stint at Warners’ Audio-Visual Services, where Parks devised the idea of making short promotional films of the label’s performers: “music television,” he called it. The heart of the book, a song-by-song meditation on Song Cycle, offers no code-cracking: the album remains a beautiful, ineffable work of art (thank goodness). Henderson is especially helpful in identifying Song Cycle’s specific inspirations: among them, the rural American poet Will Carleton and Misha Goodatieff, a Russian violinist who played at a Los Angeles restaurant. Goodatieff’s cousins brought the balalaikas that are heard on the album.

If you’d like to read what I wrote about “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield,” here it is: “That (in)famous line.” I stand by every word.

[The Beach Boys’ recording, which appeared on the 1969 album 20/20, is titled “Cabinessence.” Brian Wilson’s 2004 recording is titled “Cabin Essence.”]

comments: 4

stefan said...

That's terrific, Michael. Congratulations! I love Henderson's idea that your clever, helpful essay could have altered the band's history. Would that it were so.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Stefan. Would that a great many things in the Beach Boys’ story be altered.

Rachel said...

I second Stefan: Terrific!

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, RL!