Thursday, March 25, 2021

Surf's Up - Step by Step

Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson's ultimate achievement, but it shouldn't have been. The distinction should have gone to SMiLE (whatever "should haves" are worth). For this writer, SMiLE doesn't even exist, except as "the most famous unreleased album of all time." It's release in 2004 as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE wasn't what we wanted. (Purists, like me, just want it to go away.)  It's interesting, though, how much we still need to talk about it, or write about it and speculate; if wishes were fishes, we'd all have aquariums.  

When you get as messed up as Brian during the SMiLE sessions, doctors and psychologists, or our own personal gurus, are bound to suggest that you "take it easy" and "step back from the edge," and that's what we got. Over a long stretch that included the LPs Smiley's Smile, Sunflower and Surf's Up, we got a watered-down version of what we wanted. This was Brian Wilson's sturm und drang, and if we're fair (mostly to ourselves), we'd be best served to go back and listen, to find the storm and stress, and to realize just how good what we got was.  The point being, we didn't get SMiLE, we got Surf's Up, Sunflower and Smiley's Smile, with Wild Honey thrown in on the side, and each is a joy in themselves; but more than anything else, we got "Surf's Up."

On the Inside Pop television special in 1967, Leonard Bernstein described "Surf's Up": "There is a new song, too complex to get all of first time around. It could come only out of the ferment that characterizes today's pop music scene. Brian Wilson, leader of the famous Beach Boys, and one of today’s most important pop musicians, sings his own 'Surf’s Up.' Poetic, beautiful even in its obscurity, 'Surf’s Up' is one aspect of new things happening in pop music today. As such, it is a symbol of the change many of these young musicians see in our future…" Pretty high praise from an American master.

In Jules Siegel’s 1967 article, "Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!" Brian plays Siegel an acetate dub of the song on his bedroom hi-fi and tries to explain the words (Wilson and Van Dyke parks collaborated on the lyrics).

A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand some drummed along, oh
To a handsome man and baton
A blind class aristocracy

"It's a man at a concert. All around him there's the audience, playing their roles, dressed up in fancy clothes, looking through opera glasses, but so far away from the drama, from life."

Back through the opera glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn

"The music begins to take over."

Columnated ruins domino

"Empires, ideas, lives, institutions; everything has to fall, tumbling like dominoes."

Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn

"He begins to awaken to the music; sees the pretentiousness of everything."

The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter swan

"Then even the music is gone, turned into a trumpeter swan, into what the music really is."

Columnated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, Brother John?

"He's off in his vision, on a trip. Reality is gone; he's creating it like a dream."


Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog

"Europe, a long time ago."

Two-Step to lamp lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne

"The poor people in the cellar taverns, trying to make themselves happy by singing. Then there's the parties, the drinking, trying to forget the wars, the battles at sea."


The glass was raised, the fired rose
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die

"Ships in the harbor, battling it out. A kind of Roman empire thing."

A choke of grief
Heart hardened I
Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry

"At his own sorrow and the emptiness of his life. Because he can't even cry for the suffering in the world, for his own suffering. And then, hope."

Surf’s Up
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave

"Go back to the kids, to the beach, to childhood."

I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children’s song

"The joy of enlightenment, of seeing God. And what is it? A children’s song! And then there's the song itself; the song of children; the song of the universe rising and falling in wave after wave, the song of God, hiding the love from us, but always letting us find it again, like a mother singing to her children."

Brian fails to mention the coda, the intricate and delicate interpolation of "child" repeated and "[That's why] A child is father to the man."

The song itself is an amazing concoction of troubled and complex lyricism amidst what may be the most beautiful arrangement in pop music. But for many it went even further. Jimmy Webb ("MacArthur Park") said, "It almost seems to me that 'Surf's Up' is like a premonition of what was going to happen to our generation, and what was going to happen to music; that some great tragedy, that we could absolutely not imagine, was about to befall our world. There are really some very disturbing clairvoyant images in 'Surf's Up' that seem to say, 'Watch out, this is not gonna last.'"