January 05, 2005

Surf's Up! (an interpretation)

[I tried to post this last night. I thought I did, buy it looks like I didn't. D'oh! Luckily I saved it in wordpad! :)]

It was the spring of 1981. I was a senior in High School and had become disenamored with the current trend in punk rock. All L.A. hardcore all the time and all sounding the same: crash and burn and scream and moan. So, I looked backward and re-discovered the Beach Boys.

All I had at the time was the double-album Endless Summer and the single disks Best Of... and Best of...Vol. 2. (They were mainly what was on Endless Summer, but was some added flair -- most notably "Kiss Me, Baby".)

So, in the spring of '81 I borrowed the Beach Boys' album Surf's Up from the local library.

I liked Mike Love's opening song "Don't Drink The Water" just 'cause it was an environmental song with a neat message. I also liked Bruce Johnston's "Disney Girls" for some reason.

But there were two tracks on that album that stood head and frickin' shoulders above the rest; "'Till I Die" and "Surf's Up".

"'Till I Die" is a morose little ditty. Perfect listening for an angst-ridden teenager who wants to "relax". Beautiful harmonies put to a swooning melody. A boy could sink into oblivion listening to that song in the headphones.

I like it less today because it's so pessimistic. Just the idea that a man older than I was at the time wrote that. But I also like it even more today because I can better appreciate the craftsmanship of the arrangement. It can still make me swoon so long as I forget about the meaning of the lyric.

So, there were four songs from that album that I taped to cassette. By far the most interesting one was "Surf's Up".
I didn't know anything about Smile at the time. To me this was just another song on their album of 1971. But, this one was different from the rest. While my fascination with it was mainly for the sound of it, I'd also always been fascinated by the lyric. It was like a painting set to music; and a puzzle of sorts. For years and years I've listened to this song and figured that the words were just word-association fun-time gibberish along the lines of "I Am The Walrus" or "Come Together".

I now know that I was wrong. Having heard Brian Wilson's new rendition of Smile on New Years Eve, I've been running this tune through my head nearly non-stop, and I think I finally get it.

Now, and without further ado, let's delve into Van Dyke Parks' masterpiece: the heel-to-the-brimstone-written "Surf's Up". It takes place, initially, in a concert hall. Imagine you're in Royal Albert Hall watching a symphony sounding....

A diamond necklace played the pawn

Firstly, I think of a chess pawn: the player of least value; the one that's most easily sacrificed for the good of the whole. Then, there's the diamond necklace; presumably a thing of great value. The most becomes the least in this "play".

Or, maybe it's just that the narrator has pawned a diamond necklace for the price of admission to this song. Either way it works for me, though it's probably just a pun that was thrown out as an opening line. Word has it that Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson wrote this at a piano in, like, five minutes or something.

Hand in hand some drummed along,
o-o-oh.. To a handsome man and baton

See the conductor waving the baton whilst noticing that others in the hall are drumming along. But there's something more to be heard: the background vocal sighs "by God, by God..." God is the conductor, or the music, or the orchestra, or, most likely, I think, the entire package.

A blind class aristocracy

As opposed to a "class blind" society, we're imagining a more real and immediate "blind class aristocracy". The wealthy dowager raising her glasses to her eyes.

Back through the opera glass you see
the pit and the pendulum dra-a-awn...

The orchestra pit is reflected as the pendulum motion of the baton is swaying upward. This also introduces the painting theme with "pendulum dra-a-a-a-wn...". The conductor looks a painter making very broad strokes that result in the fine intricacies of the music. Which brings us to the most seemingly convoluted lyric of '60s popular music:

columnated ruins domino

Imagine Carnegie Hall or some other grand music hall. There are columns, and what happens inside them is what's going on here. The narrator is sleepy and wondering where and when the next music will be made. So, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson weren't writing about themselves, they were writing about this song! As they wrote it! (It's a neat thought, anyway.)

Okay. That goes along with the visual image of ancient columns falling into each other like dominos. But, a "domino" has another definition. It's a masquarade, a cloak, or "half-mask". (Think Phantom Of The Opera.)
The "domino" in the lyric is could be the half-mask; or, that eye-mask on a stick that looks like an opera glass.

Or, the entire theater, or life itself, could be the domino - the masquarade. What kind of domino is it? Why, it's a columnated ruins domino. And this song is about getting past the very mask it presents, and so we have the outward and encouraging:
(I imagine the conductor's pendulum-like baton movements to be not unlike a painter's brushstrokes and, on first hearing it, "canvass" sounds like "canvas".)

Canvass the town and brush the backdrop

Taverse the town, search it's essence, yet just brush (ssshh) the backdrop like a passing stranger. Just a passerby to what may or may not be permanant, for the sake of interacting with what may or may not be beautiful. I wonder if the next line is partly an in-joke...

Are you sleeping?

Nope, silly. The narrator is in a drowse. He awakens to the strains that seem to fade from here there, now to then, and the ornate music hall surrounds him:

[Incidentally, if that last bit seems out of place it's it is. Originally there was supposed to be a lyricless interlude there, and the whole "canvas the town..." part was to appear only where it appears the second time. In the Brian Wilson solo piano version that appears on the CD box-set Good Vibrations, Brian doesn't sing that part at this time.]

The second verse begins:

Hung velvet overtaken me,
Dim chandelier awaken me
to a song dissolved in the da-a-a-awn

Again, this is followed by the Carl Wilson's soaring and angelic "by God, by God..."

Have y'ever been half-asleep and heard a song on the radio? You're not sure of you dreamed it or not, and if it's a particularly ethereal piece it can be an enchanting experience.
(My most amazing experience of that was hearing Paul Simon's "Run That Body Down" while "half" asleep. If you've never heard a song while half asleep then y'need to take naps more often!)

The "dawn" is, of course, his awakening. This poor sap is still dozing off, though. Either in spite of, or because of, the orchestral beauty that has him surrounded.

The music hall; a costly bow
The music; all is lost for now
to a muted trumpeter's swa-a-a-n

This might be my favorite line. A "swan song" is a farewell; a final performance; a last work; a death wail. The angelic - though "muted" - trumpeter announces the esteemed arrival of the ending of something.
It also introduces the water theme, however slightly. The bow of a ship points where it's heading, but, is it heading for the swan's song?
Again the Music Hall's masquarade establishes it's presence:

Columnated ruins domino-o-o-o...

But the following is a bit curious...:

Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, Brother Jo-o-o-ohn...?

We all know the French lullaby that the is lifted from, and maybe Van Dyke Parks just through it in for laughs. But, I suspect this line may refer to John the Baptist.
Brian always said that Smile was "a child's symphony to God". Invoking John the Baptist would make sense as he is, obviously, associated with important things that happen in the water. The narrator is then asking if the baptism has left him, if John is "sleeping", since he feels so disconnected from the conductor's music.

The song shifts in tempo and meter, and becomes less lush as we are now outside the theater and cabvassing the town at midnight.

Dove nested tower,
the hour was.
Strike the street, quicksilver moon.

Gawd, I love that line. The tower is a clock tower with doves (or pigeons) nestled in it as the hour strikes. It sounds like midnight. I'd always heard the line before as: "the hour was strike. the street. quicksilver moon," which made no sense at all. But, hearing like I wrote it makes all the difference.

In the darkness of midnight the silvery moon is shining above. The beauty of the line is the phrase "quicksilver moon". Quicksilver is metalic mercury. We use mercury in thermometers because it is so close to it's freezing point in our normal temperature range that it's sensitive to subtle changes in ambient temperature.
(The moon is very cold in the shade and very hot in the sun, but we can think of it as being a very cold place for our purposes here.)

So, the light of the cold "quicksilver moon" is invited from above, and then contrasted to light from below:

Carriage across the fog,
Two-Step to lamplight's cellar tune.

The moon slow-dances across the sky while houselights come up from a basement apartment where music is being played/sung, and the narrator makes this observation:

The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne.

It's not only midnight, it's New Year's!
I'm not sure why the laughs are coming hard, though. My best guess is that hearing the sound of laughter from the cellar is difficult for the narrator, as he's in no festive mood at the moment and is feeling left out in the cold.

Then the tempo speeds up dramatically for this phrase:

The glass was raised, the fired rose,
the fullness of the wine,
the dim last toasting...

Woah. A wine glass was raised for a toast as the embers in the fireplace were also rising and toasting. Light from the cold quicksilver moon above, light from the toasty warm cellar below, and the narrator caught between them.

Then there's this delicious pun:

While at port adieu or die

It's a port wine they're toasting with, and the narrator is (nautically speaking) "at port" He then expresses the idea that change is essential to his survival. Either ring out the old and ring in the new, or die. (Which reminds me of the Dylan line "he not busy being born is busy dying".) Our narrator is in need of a change:

The choke of grief, heart hardened,
I, beyond belief, a broken man too tough to cry.

He is "beyond belief", without faith; cold and alone. Then the music shifts slightly and a gentle tune of baptismal realization comes in with:

Surf's Up, mmmm...
board a tidal wave.
Come about hard and join the young and often spring You gave

Onto the water he goes in a big way. The music he heard at the beginning and middle become, in the end, a new beginning:

I heard the word,
Wonderful thing;
A children's so-o-o-o-ng....

The cry that Brian Wilson wails is reminiscent of the last "oh, Caroline, no-o-o-o-o..." from Pet Sounds. But this time it's an epiphany, not sadness. It sounds similar, though. I guess it's because they both represent a kind of surrender; one to fate, one to the future, and sounding like a promise that they're not the same thing.

Posted by Tuning Spork at January 5, 2005 09:53 PM
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