Tag Archives: Surf’s Up

Water Colors – Janis Ian

Janis Ian achieved national prominence at an incredibly early age. At the age of 13, she wrote Society’s Child, a song about a romance between a white girl and a black boy (and more specifically about the hypocrisy of teachers and parents who put a stop to it without ever quite coming out and saying why, and the narrator’s failed attempt to defy their wishes). Released several times between 1965 and 1967, the song was eventually a substantial hit, despite resistance from radio programmers in many markets. A lot of this had to do with Leonard Bernstein and his producer, who, impressed with the song, featured it in his CBS special, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution (the same show that also featured an early version of Brian Wilson’s Surf’s Up).

Society’s Child is an honourable song, impressively written for someone so young, but it pales when set beside the best of her work from the mid-1970s, by which point she was a different songwriter entirely. Between the Lines (1975, 1.9m sold in the US, Billboard #1) was the high point, containing both At Seventeen and the astonishing Water Colors.

As enduringly poignant as At Seventeen is, Water Colors cuts deeper still. Rich with detail, heavy with sadness and regret, and possessed of a centre of completely still self-confidence, this is the work of a singer and songwriter at the top of her game. The arrangement is, likewise, considered and perfectly executed (I like the subtle nods to Bookends-era Simon & Garfunkel: the descending sequence into the first verse echoes the chord sequence to America, the string arrangement in the second verse seems to quote Old Friends and the bridge, with its shift to Cmaj7 (the song is in D) again recalls America.

But while its musically enthralling (with a magnificent performance from double bassist Richard Davis, who played with such diverse jazz players as Charles Mingus, Cal Tjader and Elvin Jones), what’s most striking for me is Ian’s willingness to portray herself as behaving poorly in one of her own songs, but not with any irony towards or distance from her from her creation. Or, if one reads the song as not autobiographical, to do so knowing that’s how it would probably be heard.

In the song, Ian’s lover, aware of his own jealousy and finding it hard to be apart from his famous girlfriend while she tours, tries to end things between them. His words go beyond regretful into reproachful (his allusion to “stagehand lovers” suggests that she’s already strayed, but that may be his own paranoia). Despite his passive agression, the character is not drawn unsympathetically. The narrator, though, escalates things with a melodramatic outburst (“I said, ‘Do you wish me dead’?”) and a mean-spirited questioning of his masculinity, in which he is accused of riding her coattails. However one interprets the events, it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless and it’s a braver portrait of the artist than just about any other songwriter has ever managed, with characters so acutely drawn that I feel like I know these people from one 5-minute song.

Between the Lines, in fairness, doesn’t contain anything else as good as Water Colors, but this is the kind of song that a writer can spend a whole career trying to match without success. It is no crime to achieve perfection only once.

Janis
Janis Ian

*It’s a measure of the lyric’s quality that a different reading is very possible, in which the narrator’s anger is justified by her lover’s passive aggression. Certainly it’s fair to say that neither is guiltless in the episode the song relates.

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Surf’s Up – The Beach Boys

Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys’ songwriter, arranger, producer, lead singer, bass player and guiding artistic force) is a fragile soul, a naïve and unworldly man. It doesn’t seem a particularly deep insight to suggest that he was damaged by his relationship with his abusive, domineering father or that rarely was there a psyche less suited to full-scale immersion in the world of hallucinogens and psychotropic drugs.

The leader of a phenomenally successful band yet overawed by Phil Spector’s records from a few years earlier and increasingly envious of the critical and commercial success of the Beatles, Wilson quit touring in 1965 to concentrate on turning the Beach Boys into a genuine artistic force in the studio, while his band (brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and schoolfriend Al Jardine) went on the road to promote the group’s records. This allowed him to journey deeper inside himself as a writer and arranger. Unfortunately, it also allowed him the time and freedom to ingest industrial quantities of marijuana and LSD.

After Pet Sounds (a record whose melodic grace and complex arrangements have inspired volumes of scholarly analysis) flopped commercially in the US, having already created a rift in the band by “fucking with the formula” (as the always fearlessly artistsic Mike Love put it), Wilson retreated further into drug use and found a new lyricist to work with: Van Dyke Parks. Together the pair began work on what Wilson had alluded to in the press as “a teen symphony to God”, to be called Dumb Angel.

Smile, as the album would be retitled, went unfinished, and the effort (against a backdrop of band in-fighting) nearly finished Wilson, but some of the songs found their way on to other projects: several were packaged together in sketchy demo form on Smiley Smile, which was savaged in 1967 as half-baked and slapdash, but is actually an excellent record with an almost singular atmosphere. Two of Smile’s greatest achievements, Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains, were of course known to the public anyway, having been released as singles. But the unfinished record’s other masterpiece, Surf’s Up, wouldn’t surface until 1971, and then against Wilson’s wishes; he remained scared of the work he’d created four years earlier and wished to keep it all under wraps lest its bad vibes overwhelm him again. The song, meanwhile, had taken on semi-legendary status among fans.

A 3-section suite, Surf’s Up contains some of Parks’s greatest lyrics, a stream of consciousness so pure it’s indistinguishable from surrealism, as well as three remarkable lead vocals: the initial section by Carl (replacing Brian’s 1967 effort, which was for some reason considered lacking), the middle section with Brian’s original vocal (the part that Brian had performed for Leonard Bernstein’s TV programme, Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution) and the ‘child is father of the man’ section, lead sung by Al Jardine.

Obscure lyrically but captivating melodically, Surf’s Up cast a long shadow over the music Wilson made afterwards – he never again wrote songs that balanced his experimental urges and his commercial pop sense so successfully. By the late seventies he weighed over 300 pounds and was a psychological cripple. Entrusting him to a controversial (OK, let’s be frank: exploitative and megalomaniacal) psychiatrist named Eugene Landy, the rest of the Beach Boys hit the road to make yet more money off the back of Wilson’s talent, desecrating his legacy as they did so. Kokomo. Sitcom guest spots. Republican conventions. They sunk to unimaginable depths.

Wilson emerged again in the nineties, slimmed down, somewhat vacant but much more together than he had any right to be. Crucially, he was now free of the odious Landy’s malign influence (Landy had appointed himself Wilson’s co-writer and had seemingly programmed Wilson to behave as some sort of servant – ‘a good dog always obeys his master!’ Wilson once told a startled interviewer, evidently not referring to a family pooch) and was now able to begin writing and performing again with sympathetic and patient co-producer Darian Sahanaja and his band the Wondermints, finally finishing and releasing Smile in 2004 to rapturous reviews**.

So the story has a happy ending of sorts. But I’ll never get used to the version on Brian Wilson presents Smile. The mix feels wrong to me. I’m used to Carl’s 1971 vocal rather than Brian’s 1967 take, and the vocal seems to sit on top of the music. The ultimate version of the song remains the 1971 release, cobbled together by Carl from the pieces Brian just couldn’t seem to fit in place in 1967 as his mind came apart.

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Wilson with Van Dyke Parks, 1967

*Bernstein: “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”

** I have to admit to more than a few reservations about Brian Wilson presents Smile. Age and substance abuse wrecked Wilson’s voice – I’m sorry, but there is no polite way of putting it – and the joins between the newly recorded music and the original material are all too audible. They have a tendency to jump out at you and prevent you listening to the thing as a whole work. Sahanaja’s work with Wilson was valiant and well-intentioned, but clocks cannot be turned back.