I’ve been nursing the idea of arranging this most exquisite of Brian Wilson songs for multiple guitars for a long time. But two recent developments spurred me to finally do it.
Spirit of ’67
The first was my plan to record my first-ever solo album — a collection of heavily reinterpreted songs from 1967, tentatively titled Sixty-Seven Ghosts, marking the 50th anniversary of that memorable musical year. I was eight years old then, too young to play the music, but old enough that the music’s “ghosts crowded the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” (I quote Jim Morrison, one of many crucial artists who debuted in that year.)
When I started playing music seriously a few years later, I had a sense that I’d missed the party, and that the music of ’67 was simply more meaningful than my early-’70s middle-school soundtrack. (I was wrong, of course. Subsequent decades have proven that if anything, the first years of the new decade produced at least as much great stuff. Yet 1967 had a mythic aura for me, and much of that year’s music has pursued me for a half-century.)
I wasn’t hip to “Surf’s Up” till those middle-school years, when the Beach Boys belatedly included the track on their 1971 album of the same title. The FM radio hits from that disc were “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows” — “Surf’s Up” was simply the record’s quirky coda. A few years later I discovered “Surf’s Up” lyricist Van Dyke Parks’ solo albums, with their similarly surreal lyrics and left-field song structures.
The Smile Mythos
But I had no inkling of the song’s true provenance till some 20 years later, when pop fans began to grow obsessed with Pet Sounds and its “follow-up that never was,” Smile. Only then did I learn that “Surf’s Up” was originally from ’67, the intended centerpiece for that literally legendary album. By then we all knew the Brain Wilson crackup story, with its echoes of Greek tragedy. He’d held the music of the gods in the palm of his hand — so legend had it — only to have it ripped away by demons of self-doubt. Madness and self-destruction ensued.
My personal Smile mythology was heavily influenced by Lewis Shiner’s 1993 novel Glimpses (which I wrote about here). In it, a modern music fan realizes he can go back in time to the moments when great musical masterpieces were lost. (Sounds silly, but trust me — it’s not.) The highlight for me was the Wilson sequence, where our protagonist meets Brian at his peak moment of genius and fragility, right before everything went off the rails. The scene where Brian played the brilliant new songs for his hater bandmates haunted me:
Once we were settled Brian started the tape. First it was “Do Ya Dig Worms” with the chant “Rock, rock, roll, Plymouth Rock roll over.” It went from that into the bicycle rider theme, then a weird kind of Hawaiian chant, punctuated with kettle drums. I started to to feel like I did in the studio when I listened to “George Fell into His French Horn,” only worse. The album seemed totally crazy. There was no way it would work. I looked at Mike Love. His face was completely rigid, expressionless.
Brian put on “Cabinessence” which, at least, had a more obvious melody. Not that it mattered. I already knew what was about to happen. Mike took a ballpoint pen out of his shirt pocket and made notes on a napkin. By halfway through “Surf’s Up” he was shaking his head. Brian saw it and jumped up and shut off the tape.
We all took off our headphones.
“Mike?” Brian said. “Is something wrong?”
Mike took a second or two to get cranked up, then he let fly. “What is this shit? It’s crazy. Why can’t you write songs like you used to?”
Brain said, “Cars and girls and surfing.”
“What’s wrong with that? It’s what people want to hear. You don’t need other people to write lyrics for you than nobody can understand.” I saw Van Dyke flinch; Mike acted like he wasn’t there. “You’re going to blow it, Brian. Stick to the old stuff. Don’t fuck with the formula.”
“I like those lyrics,” Brian said. He said it with a hesitant defiance, like he expected Mike to jump over the table and hit him for it. […]
Mike looked down at his napkin. “‘Crow cries uncover the cornfield?’ Those are the lyrics you like? What the hell is ‘crow cries uncover the cornfield’ supposed to mean?”
He looked up at Brian, who didn’t answer him, and then back at the napkin. “‘Colonnaded ruins domino.’ You want to tell me what you love about that line?”
“Columnated,” Van Dyke said.
He finally looked at Van Dyke. “‘Columnated?’ What the hell kind of word is ‘columnated’? Would you care to explain this song to me?”
“I have no excuse, sir,” Van Dyke said.
“Just tell me what the hell the song is supposed to be about.”
“I don’t know what the songs are about. They’re about whatever you feel when you listen to them.” Over by the tape machine Brian nodded.
“What I feel is a headache. How am I supposed to sing lyrics nobody understands? This is gibberish, and it’s going to destroy the group.”
Meanwhile, Beach Boys studio outtakes were becoming available as bootlegs. I was editing for Guitar Player at the time, and on one business call to a manufacturer (I can’t remember who!) a company rep played me the original “Surf’s Up” piano demo with its fragile, tentatively intonated Wilson vocal. Its beauty took my breath away, and I never got it back.
Today we know more of the truth behind Smile. A revivified Wilson reconstructed the album, and many of the once-abandoned original tracks have been released. Turns out, Smile is indeed brilliant, but not quite the unrivaled work of genius we imagined it to be. (Pet Sounds really is better.) The 2014 movie Love & Mercy (which I liked!) even managed to wring a happy ending from the epic.
I wasn’t sure how I’d interpret the song till I listened to it on a long drive back from a high school reunion with a horrifyingly high number. I was riding with two high school pals, Angela and Betsy. I’ve known Angela since middle school, and coincidentally, she also studied music at UCLA while I was there as an undergrad. We played the song on some desolate stretch of Highway 5. Betsy hated it — she’s always loathed the Beach Boys. But Angela and I had the same thought: With its unpredictable melody, constant tempo changes, through-composed structure, and imagistic lyric, “Surf’s Up” is practically a 19th-century art song, like something out of Schumann, Wolf, Fauré, or Schubert.
Then I thought about how Schubert would often write relatively simple songs for voice and piano, but then incorporate the tunes into his more ambitious chamber music works. (For example, his songs “The Trout” and “Death and the Maiden” later inspired string quartet movements.) So I decided to interpret “Surf’s Up” as Schubertian chamber music, with four guitars in lieu of two violins, viola, and cello.
And that’s where the trouble started.
You might have heard me bitch about my relationship with music notation software. My problem is, I write pretty quickly by hand, and I’ve never managed to become equally fluent on computer — entering the data via keyboard was always so slow! (I tried in earnest to master Sibelius at least a half-dozen times.)
A few years ago I switched my allegiance to Notion, a simpler, cheaper program with unrivaled iOS integration. (I used it for the score and parts of my Bartók transcription a few years ago.) I revisited the program for this project, and got much further — but oy, it was a slow process!
Then I took the score and parts into the studio, and realized how many of the ideas I’d heard in my head just didn’t work in practice. My concept was to use a pair of double-course steel-string guitars (my Taylor 150e-12 string and my Veillette Avant Gryphon 12-string) set against a pair of classical-style guitars (the Alvarez-Yairi CY14 I learned on, and my Lowden S-25, both strung with nylon-sounding Classic S strings).
The balances were so different from what I’d imagined! Passages intended to sound light and airy were pompous and oppressive. Many revisions ensured.
The recording was tough, too. The parts aren’t terribly difficult, but matching the touch and phrasing between overdubs took forever. And just when I thought I was in the home stretch, I had to confront my vast Final Cut Pro shortcomings while assembling the video. (You can tell from my many static, continuous take videos how few FCP chops I possess.) I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I screwed up the edit.
But you know what? Even after that ordeal, these melodies still transport me. And for all the bitter cursing I did, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to dive so deeply into one of the most singular pop songs ever written. Thank you forever, Mister Wilson and Mister Parks! Never mind
the bollocks Mike Love!
If you’re curious, check out my score and the individual parts. Note that the four instruments are notated at their actual pitch in the master score, while the individual parts are transposed. The 12-string and Alvarez are both tuned down a whole step, with their 6th strings dropped another whole step to C. The Gryphon is an octave above those two, while the Lowden is at standard pitch (but with a dropped low D). If you don’t want to detune all those instruments, you could perform with the transposed parts at standard tuning, but with the Lowden part capped up two frets. (Sorry, I didn’t include the tab. But if anyone is so inspired, go for it!)