Tell Us the Name of Your Favorite Vega-Table

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Here is the paper I read at the recent AMS meeting (Pacific Southwest Chapter). I hope you don't have anything to do for the next 30 minutes. Reading through it again, it feels kind of jumbled and abrupt in places. I had to cut a bunch of stuff at the last minute to try to get it into the available time. Enjoy ... or something like that.

Pet Sounds, released in May, 1966, is generally considered the pinnacle of Brian Wilson’s musical career. Despite its relatively lackluster commercial response, Pet Sounds was almost universally lauded by critics and musicians. Paul McCartney famously said that the Beatles would not have made Sgt. Pepper’s without first hearing Pet Sounds. Most publications that put forward so-called “Best-Albums-in-History” lists (Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, and the like), place Pet Sounds somewhere among the five greatest albums of all time.

Pet Sounds is markedly different from the band’s earlier work. Pet Sounds abandons the band’s lyrical clichés and greatly expands the group’s timbral palette. Indeed, where the song “Surfin’ Safari” featured an electric guitar, electric bass, and drums, the orchestra behind “God Only Knows” includes a french horn, a harpsichord, flutes, strings, and sleigh bells. And, while “Little Deuce Coupe” is a trite song about a fast car, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is an introspective lament about alienation and self-doubt.

Pet Sounds Cover

By the time Pet Sounds was released, Brian Wilson had retreated from touring and performing with the Beach Boys for over a year-and-a-half. From the band’s earliest days, Brian was clearly the band’s most talented member. Brian wrote nearly every one of the Beach Boys’ original songs, with his cousin (and fellow Beach Boy) Mike Love serving as lyricist. Additionally, Brian served as the band’s primary producer, arranger, and artistic director for most of the 1960s. While Mike Love was the band’s frontman, it was certainly no mystery that Brian Wilson was the band’s actual leader. But, after Brian decided that he no longer wanted to tour with the band, his role therein changed.

Sad Brian Wilson

There is 1966 photograph of Brian Wilson holding a picture of the Beach Boys. A dejected-looking Brian is sitting behind the photo while his brothers, cousin, and friends smile from within the frame. This is a tragic image. As the photo suggests, Brian Wilson is not really a member of the Beach Boys any longer, but a man who supports, even carries them, from “behind the scenes,” so to speak. The 1966 UK tour booklets have the words “Beach Boys” emblazoned across the front; in the picture below are the faces of five men … none of them is Brian Wilson.

Tour Booklet

No longer troubled by the pressures of near-constant performing and touring, Brian was able to focus his attention on record production. Los Angeles in the mid-1960s was the crucible of the burgeoning art. There, Phil Spector was the de facto record-production-king du jour.

Brian Wilson thought so highly of Phil Spector that he once compared him to Bach. Of hearing the Spector-produced song “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” for the first time, Brian said that the recording “opened up a door of creativity for me like you wouldn’t believe. Some people say drugs open that door. But Spector opened it for me.” Wilson has described how studying Spector’s work changed him, stating “I was unable to really think as a producer until the time I really got familiar with Spector’s work. … That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song.”

And this was what made Pet Sounds so special. With Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson created a sonic atmosphere that was consistent and engrossing across the album. Rather than the album serving merely as a vehicle for a hit single, Pet Sounds was an album-length statement.

Pet Sounds is often cited as the first “concept album.” Nearly everyone cites the album’s (supposed) narrative structure as the album’s “concept,” but the narrative isn’t the point (if it is there, at all). Brian Wilson himself has said that his “concept” for Pet Sounds was not lyrical, stating “it wasn’t really a concept album, or lyrically a concept album. … It was a production concept album.” Hence, Brian Wilson’s vision for the album had far more to do with a timbral consistency than any sort of lyrical cohesion. (Never mind the fact that, as usual, the lyrics are not Wilson’s, so any commentary that dwells on Pet Sounds’ lyrics should remember that they are Tony Asher’s. If there is a lyrical “narrative,” Asher deserves credit, not Wilson. Thus, if Pet Sounds is a “concept album” based purely on lyrical cohesion, this makes it Tony Asher’s “concept album,” not Brian Wilson’s.)

In the midst of the Pet Sounds sessions, Brian began work on the song “Good Vibrations,” but as the deadline drew nearer, Brian decided to abandon the song in order to finish the album.

In total, Brian Wilson dedicated some twenty-two sessions to “Good Vibrations,” spread out over an eight-month period. The song took so long because of Wilson’s new methodology. Essentially, the song was written and recorded in disparate chunks. Wilson would record, for example, a single phras only to later edit and rearrange it (along with countless other chunks) to form a cohesive song. Thus, the song was constructed by assembling various modules, rather than a more traditional, linear process.

It is important to note that almost all of the writing and recording work for “Good Vibrations” was done without the other members of the Beach Boys. In fact, the Beach Boys’ only contributions to the song were lead and backing vocals and a bit of percussion, bass, and organ. Expressing his displeasure with Brian’s orchestrational extravagances, Mike Love pointed out that “none of the Beach Boys play[ed] the cello.” Remembering this fact highlights how distant Brian’s relationship with the Beach Boys had grown. Basically, Brian was toiling away on his “pocket symphonies,” diving deeper into the creative possibilities the recording studio offered, while the Beach Boys were touring the world playing their “some-old” songs.

Brian Wilson was so excited about “Good Vibrations,” that he decided to expand this “modular” compositional and recording process to compose an entire album. And, given “Good Vibrations”’ commercial successes, Capitol Records was happy to support Brian’s new experiments. Eventually, the new album was given the title, SMiLE.

SMiLE cover

The longer the Beach Boys were away, it seems, the more freedom Brian felt to explore and experiment with new ideas. His creative curiosities eventually brought him into contact with some of Los Angeles’ “hipper” crowd. His association with people like David Anderle, Terry Melcher, and Michael Vosse lead him to introduction to the young Van Dyke Parks.

Parks had built quite a reputation for himself among Los Angeles’ more artistically-inclined population. Brian Wilson was as enamored as anyone; Parks immediately impressed him. After a brief conversation, Brian asked Van Dyke, point blank, if he had ever written lyrics before. Van Dyke said that he had (which Parks Later said was a lie). Brian asked he if he would be interested in working together, and within a few days Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks were sitting at Brian’s sand-boxed piano, working their way through one of Wilson’s half-written songs, titled “Heroes and Villains”

Eventually, Brian would become obsessed with the song. He spent more time on it than on any other song during the SMiLE sessions. In many cases, “Heroes and Villains” served as the foundation upon which the entire project was based. Many of the later songs contained snippets from “Heroes and Villains” sessions; various experiments and tangents from “Heroes” sessions ended up being expanded into entirely new songs.

Brian Wilson’s dedication to “Heroes and Villains” lasted the entire length of the SMiLE project. As stated earlier, many of the SMiLE songs, or, rather modules of songs, are connected to “Heroes.” A rather quirky song, titled “Vegetables,” sometimes spelled “Vega-Tables,” is among these compositions (though its connection to “Heroes” is not as strong as others).

“Vegetables” was written by Wilson and Parks sometime before October 17, 1966. For a brief period in the summer of sixty-six, Brian Wilson was extolling the benefits of healthy eating and living. At one point he had all of his furniture removed to make room for a living room full of exercise equipment. (Curiously, though, Brian didn’t really seem all that interested in using any of the exercise equipment. To quote biographer Peter Ames Carlin, “the mostly sedentary, increasingly chunky musician contented himself with giving evangelical lectures about fitness—[often] while digging into a big, fat hamburger.”) However superficial, this obsession with health and fitness coincided with “Vega-Tables”’ composition. 

Another one of Brian Wilson’s pre-occupations in the mid-1960s was with so-called new-age spirituality. He came to a belief that the mind was most receptive to spiritual enlightenment through physical activity that “cleared the mind.” He decided that laughter was the most effective way to achieve this clarity. Some of the earliest recordings of “Vegetables” suggest that this was one of Brian’s goals for the song. Put simply, “Vegetables” is supposed to be silly.

Traces of this effort toward comedy are apparent from the first recordings of the song. The earliest recording was made on October 17, 1966. This recording features Mike Love and Brian Wilson (also on piano) alternating the lead vocals, with Brian’s wife, sister-in-law, and the other Beach Boys performing backing vocals and laughter. The second half of the song features nothing but piano and hysterical laughter, not to mention the funny-sounding interjections provided by the backing vocals throughout the song.

Lyrically, the song is rather silly as well. Basically, the song talks about how much the singer likes vegetables. He says, “I’m gonna be round my vegetables, I’m gonna chow down my vegetables. I love you most of all, my favorite vega-table” and “ If you brought a big brown bag of them home, I’d jump up and down and hope you’d toss me a carrot.”

The second “Vegetables” session was held on November 4. In this recording, you can hear the takes from October 17 in the background while members of the Beach Boys are rhythmically chomping on vegetables. Again, what could be sillier than carrots and celery as percussion instruments, in a song about vegetables?

The third appearance of material related to “Vegetables” is in a spoken-word recording made on November 11. This track, listed as “Hal Blaine - Vegetables Promo” in the 2011 SMiLE Sessions collection, is a pseudo-improvised argument between Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine (the famous studio drummer). The scenario unfolds: Brian has stepped in Mr. Blaine’s vegetable garden. Mr. Blaine is upset and threatens Brian. Brian asks if he can just keep a few of the vegetables. Mr. Blaine tells Brian (whom he has previously called a “meat head” and a “punk”) to go get a job and buy his own vegetables. The fact that this dialog exists, and was kept on file, strengthens the idea that Wilson had, at least some humorous intentions for “Vegetables.”

There is a set of lyrics that were only used on the October 17 recording. It is not clear why they were abandoned during later iterations of the song. The lyrics in the second verse say, “Tripped on a cornucopia, stripped a stalk green, and I hope ya like me the most of all, my favorite vega-table.” The backing vocal lines of, “Running all around, dig a hole in the ground,” and, “Popping all the buttons right off of my shirt” disappear as well. In subsequent versions of the song, the second verse is, “I’m gonna keep well, my vegetables, cart of and sell, my vegetables. I love you most of all, my favorite vega-table.” Luckily, Van Dyke Parks’ wit isn’t lost (despite the deletion of his pun on the word “cornucopia”); this new lyric is just as clever. The phrase “cart of and” is a play on the German word, Kartofeln (or, “potatoes”). In general, the lyrics to “Vegetables,” even without these puns and alliterations, are quite funny, if for no other reason than the fact that this is a song about a topic as mundane as vegetables.

After the November 11 dialog recording, Wilson would wait until the following April to revisit the song. In the meantime, he worked on twelve others, including some new songs. As was the case with many of the SMiLE-era songs, some recordings from a “Heroes and Villains” session eventually found their way into “Vegetables.” A “Heroes” session, cataloged as “Heroes and Villains: Do A Lot,” contains a rather large amount of material that was later absorbed into “Vegetables.” As the title suggests, this is the portion that features the lyrics, “Eat a lot, sleep a lot, brush ’em like crazy. Run a lot, do a lot, never be lazy.” This “module” doesn’t make another appearance until it is folded into “Vegetables.”

The fourth session for the song took place on April 4, 1967. Ostensibly, Brian Wilson had left “Vegetables” more-or-less untouched for over four months. It is likely not a coincidence, though, that Brian’s first work on the song since November of sixty-six began with the “Do A Lot” material from the January 3 “Heroes” session. Here, it becomes clear that the “Do A Lot” section is considered as part of “Vegetables;” on that date, Brian recorded a piano backing track for the “Do A Lot” section, alongside other portions of “Vegetables.” In fact, Brian spent April 4–7, and 10–14 working solely on “Vegetables,” and much of that time working on the newly-added “Do A Lot” section.

These eight consecutive sessions dedicated to only one song are the first time Brian has dedicated so much undivided time to one song since completing “Good Vibrations” last September.

On April 4, Brian held a recording session that effectively picked up where the January 3 “Heroes and Villains” session left off. The April 4 session consisted of a basic piano and backing vocals track for the verse and chorus sections. Additional backing vocals were added on April 5. On April 6, upright bass and miscellaneous percussion instruments were added to the track. The percussion in this session is made mostly of random noises, though there is a reliable meter.

On April 10 the lead vocals and vegetable chomping were added. (Previous to this, the original veggie chomping [from November] could still be heard in the newer mixes). A more elaborate accompaniment was recorded on April 11, including electric harpsichord and xylophone, though only for the “Do A Lot” sections. Additionally, the band experimented with adding some guttural moans and grunts, chanting “Ooh la, day ooh la,” and “Row, row, row.” Harmonically, these chants sounds as if they are meant to accompany the song’s ending (which then gets recorded on April 14). Brian records a section he is calling “Fade” on April 12. This contains a string ensemble accompanied by ukulele, percussion, and bass guitar. At first, it is not entirely clear where this recording fits into the portions of the song we have yet encountered.

The material shows up in a 1993 reconstruction as part of the song’s ending. Neither the 2004 or 2011 versions use this material, however. Finally, on April 14, Brian adds a section called “Ballad Insert.” This phrase is quite different from everything we have heard from “Vegetables” thus far. It consists of the Beach Boys sustaining chords on the syllable “hmm.” The lead vocal, when added, sings “I know that you’ll feel better when you send us in your letter, and tell us the name of your favorite vega-table.” Interestingly, this exact recording gets recast into “Vegetables”’ next incarnation (on Smiley Smile), despite the fact that it is completely out of context there.

The time period in question is also within a month of SMiLE completely falling apart, having the majority of its music shelved indefinitely. Though one can only conjecture Brian’s thought processes and motivations during this time period, it is interesting that he suddenly turned his attention to two songs that had been lying around, untouched, for a while, namely “Vegetables” and “Love to Say Dada.” The last more-or-less official SMiLE session was held on May 18 (which included work on “Love to Say Dada”).

The reasons for SMiLE’s collapse are complex. One thing was clear immediately afterward, however: Brian Wilson was deeply damaged. He retreated into his home, refusing to leave for months on end. He rarely even came out of his bedroom. His mind was filled with paranoia. Among other things, he was afraid that Phil Spector had bugged his house and was stalking him (Given semi-recent events concerning Mr. Spector’s criminal behavior, maybe Brian wasn’t so crazy after all!).

The band was under pressure from Capitol Records to release an album, as SMiLE was now over five months late. Due to Brian’s condition, significant portions of Smiley Smile were recorded inside his home. While Brian Wilson certainly had one of L.A.’s most sophisticated home-studios, it was still a far cry from Brian’s usual territory. As a result, the new, confusingly-named album, Smiley Smile, sounds very different from anything the Beach Boys had done, especially considering that it was coming on the heels of the band’s “masterpiece,” Pet Sounds.

The first official Smiley Smile session was on June 3. The first song that Brian and the Beach Boys recorded under their new circumstances was “Vegetables.” Unfortunately, Brian was so scarred by SMiLE’s collapse, that he all but refused to listen to any of the leftover material. It would have certainly made sense to simply compile a version of “Vegetables” from the more-than-adequate leftover recordings. But, apparently, this was simply out of the question. So, the Beach Boys recorded a new rendition of the song. In all, the band completes five sessions related to the Smiley Smile version of “Vegetables.”

It is fairly clear that Brian’s level of meticulousness and curiosity is all but gone by June, 1967. The Smiley Smile version of “Vegetables” (and a few other SMiLE songs) end up stripped of all of Brian’s meticulous layering and orchestrational experiments. For lack of a better explanation, Brian Wilson is now just the sixth member of the Beach Boys; he is no longer the band’s resident genius, no longer their guiding artist. So, with Smiley Smile, the Beach Boys (now including Brian Wilson) were left to fend for themselves, and with a looming deadline to make matters worse.

Smiley Smile Cover

Smiley Smile’s version of “Vegetables” has been drastically scaled down. The “orchestra” now consist of a single electric bass, the sound of some water being poured, and air being blown across the top of jug. The vegetable-chomping-as-percussion part enters in the same places it did during the SMiLE-era recordings. Curiously, the section Brian had called “Ballad Insert” gets edited into the Smiley Smile version; the shift in timbre and production quality is shocking, to say the least. According to several sources, this edit was done by Capitol Records, after the band had turned over the masters for Smiley Smile. Perhaps Capitol had good intentions—they simply wanted to make the song  better—but a worse way of exposing the band’s naked state and lack of sophistication would be difficult to find. After the interruption, the less-reverberant, less-produced, one might say less-beautiful version of the song returns, now with the addition of a xylophone playing a countermelody.

What is missing from the Smiley Smile version is any mention of the “Do A Lot” section inherited from “Heroes and Villains.” This is especially disappointing in that Brian had spent so much attention on this small portion of the song just before SMiLE’s collapse. The Smiley Smile version assumes this never happened, and that “Do A Lot” was simply not part of the song altogether.

Smiley Smile was officially released on September 18, 1967.

Then, in December, 1967, the Beach Boys release yet another album, this time titled Wild Honey. Wild Honey was equally out of place amongst the rest of the band’s oeuvre; it featured some country and Americana leanings … a far cry from “Fun, Fun, Fun.” As became a habit for Capitol Records over the next several years, the label used some of SMiLE’s leftovers to “fill out” the album. In the case of Wild Honey, Capitol inserted various semi-experimental takes of the “Do A Lot” section from “Heroes and Villains/Vegetables.” The album lists this “song” as “Mama Says.” It is a cappella, nothing but variations in the performance of the “Eat a lot, sleep a lot” section. Only about three weeks shy of one year ago, this phrase was conceived as part of the epic “Heroes and Villains,” and is now being treated like the composer’s sloppy seconds.

Wild Honey Cover

In each of these cases, it is clear that Brian Wilson had simply lost interest in assuring an amount of “quality control” over his music. He had spent several years toiling over lush, beautiful orchestrations, experimenting with minute subtleties … but always ending with nothing less that gorgeous results. Now, he was simply another member of the Beach Boys, one who, like the others, was waiting for someone to provide the guidance and quality assurance they needed.

Without access to Los Angeles’ best recording facilities, Brian Wilson showed how much he truly relied upon them for the realization of his masterworks. For this reason, “Vegetables” is one of Wilson’s most important compositions from the SMiLE era. Few of the other pieces show how drastically his lack of resources effected his work. This is especially important given that “Vegetables” was one of the last songs Wilson treated before abandoning SMiLE and was the first he resurrected afterward.

Without sounding too disrespectful, Smiley Smile is evidence to what would happen if Mike Love were left in charge of the Beach Boys’ music.

Brian Wilson Presents: SMiLE