To add to nothing that I said when discussing Mr. Van Dyke Parks on Mr. Bailie’s show the other evening…
To give Mr. Mike Love credit where he has earned it (and, if others followed this example, I doubt he would have made anything from royalties in his whole career), he had the decency to ask Mr. Parks to explain his lyrics before having the latter ousted from The Beach Boys SMiLE project. It was the impressionistic tenor of the lyrics that Mr. Love objected to, claiming the conch on behalf of all those beached boys overshadowed by Mr. Brian Wilson, but legend has brought the disagreement to bear on one line, a refrain that appears towards the end of Cabinessence: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfields.”
ML – “What does (see above) mean?”
VDP – “I don’t know.”
The honesty of this answer seemed not to fill Mr. Love with confidence. Since the announcement of the “Teenage Symphony for G-d,” he had been hoping for some assurance, but the young lyricist was really not the person to go to. The exchange would not be the end of the SMiLE sessions, but it was the end of Mr. Parks’ initial involvement. A cool, distant animosity would continue between the pair long after, barely altering when they met at another Beach Boys session in 1992. Just enough time had passed that, as Mr. Parks recalled in a 1995 interview:
“For the first time in 30 years, he was able to ask me directly, once again, ‘What do those lyrics — Over and over the crow flies uncover the cornfield — mean?’” (…) “And I was able to tell him, once again, ‘I don’t know.’”
Being, at least, as honest as Mr. Parks, I can admit that I have no idea myself.
An article posted on Mr. Parks’ website gives an interesting analysis of the line, without trying to show up its author: the assonance of over/uncover; the O sound of over and crow; the hard C of cover and cornfield; the double meaning of cries, which not only allows multiple interpretations of the word, but alters the structure of the sentence as a whole – is the hinge word a noun or a verb? The intricacies of the different poetic devices used beg the question “What does it mean?”. And it is these qualities that set it apart from other equally hard to master lines written at the time, say: “I want to watch your windblown facing/Waves of wheat for your embracing” (from the same song) or “Back through the op’ra glass you see/The pit and the pendulum drawn/Columnated ruins domino” (from Surf’s Up, from the same project).
However, the question of what it means is not so interesting as the question of why Mr. Love asked it. For, certainly, he did not blurt out the query due to intrigue alone. He inquired, again claiming to speak for all of the lads, out of concern; the Beach Boys’ success was based on singing of coups and boards and broads and dudes and all the concerns of young teen consumers, to turn away from that now, not to something more serious, but to something nonsensical, would compromise that achievement. Even the songs on Pet Sounds had been, for the most part, about love, although, perhaps, a more mature kind. And the lyric to Good Vibrations, the single that would bridge Pet Sounds and SMiLE, appears almost regressive.
Mr. Wilson had approached Mr. Parks to re-write the words to Good Vibrations during the recording sessions, as the composer was embarrassed by his then-collaborator, Mr. Love’s work: “She’s giving me excitations” being hard to comprehend in a manner distinct from the way one might struggle with “Over and over…”. Mr. Parks declined the offer, preferring not to interfere with a colleague’s completed work and explaining that no one listens to the lyrics so closely, especially when set to music like that.
Mr. Love obviously did listen that closely and seemed to think the audience would too. Thus far, The Beach Boys’ fans had been buying up songs about things with which they could identify, so the American patchwork of SMiLE, with its cornfields and columnated ruins, could only serve to alienate them.
However, Mr. Parks himself had a modicum of success writing hit singles for Harper’s Bizarre and Ms. DeShannon. And these songs (High Coin, Come to the Sunshine, etc.) were, lyrically, precursors to the purposeful motley of his work on SMiLE. It was for the vaulting wordplay in these songs that he was initially praised, although his later feelings about that work are mostly variations on bashful:
“I had taken too many drugs to make a really objective evaluation of what lyrics writing should be, but at the time I thought that lyrics could be applied to a song without reference to transitive thought, that if you put a word that sounded good on a note that that would be enough. Well, how wrong I was.”
This seems to confirm Mr. Love’s most blunt dismissal of Mr. Parks’ lyrics, that they were mere “acid alliteration.” It sets up a tasty opposition between, on one hand, the corporate moneygrabber and, on the other, the reckless hippy, even if, in reality, it was Mr. Parks who was on the payroll at Warner Brothers and Mr. Love who would soon record a Charles Manson song.
The disagreement is of its time, not because of the narcotic rhetoric of the discussion, but because of a recent change in how pop music was created (whether or not that change was fuelled by drugs is open for you to debate on your own time). Between them, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Bob Dylan ushered in a period where the distinction between performer and creator was broken down; the writer of the song was expected, also, to perform, orchestrate or otherwise form the product.
The two-fold process of record-making (that of first composing the song and then having it performed) became confused as the song turned into something that was written in the studio and was written through successive acts of performance, later edited, rather than being scribbled on a piece of manuscript paper. The act of composition depends upon an idea being shaped or otherwise structured, pruned to its essential components, and then handed to the performer, who, on understanding or interpreting the idea, conveys it to the audience as best they can. As the distinction between the two grew indistinct, the handing over of the idea or the need for interpretation became unnecessary: the writer already knew what they were thinking and should, in principal, being able to convey it directly.
Mr. Love’s role in Mr. Wilson’s wider vision was solely that of performer. It is understandable, then, that he would ask Mr. Parks for clarity as to what exactly he would be singing and what his singing was meant to express.
Equally, Mr. Parks, as mere collaborative composer in Mr. Wilson’s vision, understandably answered “I don’t know.” His idea was honed to its very nub in the process of writing it and, surely, no more lucid distillation of the idea could exist than the words themselves. Mr. Parks was in no position to question them, once written, than Mr. Love was when he first suggested the word “excitation.”
In the end, both parties were quite right. When Heroes & Villains, the first single from SMiLE’s replacement, Smiley Smile, was released, its churn of lyrics (“I’ve been in this town so long/So long to the city/I’m fit with the stuff/to ride in the rough/And sunny down stuff, I’m alright”) followed-up Good Vibrations’ awkward neologism respectably, reaching No. 12 in the US and No. 8 in the UKoGB&NI; Mr. Love’s lyrics unchecked by Mr. Parks, Mr. Parks’ lyrics unchecked by Mr. Love, and both wordsheets happily accepted by the listeners.
When the pop song comes to the listener, it is fully-formed; the ideas of the thing have been refined and they have been sharpened through performance. For most listeners that is enough, as pop music is not seen as an interpretative art, like the classical concert or a stage play, but a branch of auteurship: a definitive statement amongst a wash of definitive statements. In this sense, Mr. Parks was correct, no one really listens to the lyrics; they are just words sounded at different pitches. Let us not forget that ‘Mr. Blobby’ by Mr. Blobby and ‘Doop’ by Doop were hits both.
Mr. Love’s concern was only partially justified, because people only really pay attention to the lyrics once the music has had some effect upon them, whether they love it enough to analysis them or the piece becomes so ubiquitous that the words, simply a rote recitation, that cannot be shaken. While the consumer considers the melody, the lyrics, and the intonation of the two as a whole, it is through the lyrics, as the site of the emotional, intelligible performance, that they convey meaning and, ultimately, seek to identify themselves using the song and the singer. For who amongst us ever heard our lives reflected in a bassline?
Although it is the song – the music – that they love, it is the lyric that the listener can use to convey their own feelings, whether by shouting it aloud or scrawling it on a notebook. The fragmentary nature of the modern pop lyric comes partly from that change in the approach to song writing, that, in writing the song oneself or shaping it in the studio, it does not have to defined to a second or third party before it is recorded and released. In a moment of presumed clarity, the pop star captures themselves in a particular condition; they capture it, rather than stepping back, analysing, and trying to convey it. The listener can press their ear against it and hear fragments of the moment, which they can then use to describe and define their own. It is the motley fashion of the lyric, the blurry whole of the lyric and the music, that is most useful to the song itself, as it is hazy aesthetic of the song – be it cars and girls or simply sad and gloomy – that the listener will make use of, not a wholly sensible reading of the ideas contained within.
As the story suggests, in pop music, lyrics are the main field of discussion. The music, itself, is loved or hated, but seldom examined; few pop fans have the knowledge to do so in any depth. The words, however, are torn apart and will only survive if they can be joined back together again in infinite shapes and forms. Music journalists and critics scrutinize the lyrics with greater interest that their job title suggests they should, but, really, journalists know more about words than they do about notes and critics are paid to make distinctions: lyrics are one of the ways that we use to make distinctions between ourselves and others; how we interpret against how they interpret and what we identify with and what they identify with. The point of all lyrics, then, is to beg the question: “What do they mean?”. Especially for those where the answer is “I don’t know.”