I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.
I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.
It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.
Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”
Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.
Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music. Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.
What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?
I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.
No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”. Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.
The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.
When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone. All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.
In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:
If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.
Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.
Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But neither is really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.
Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.
For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.
He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?
Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?
We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.
So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’ 139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor) 047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”) Brian Wilson Songs of The Week Paul Simon Songs of The Week