We wrap up Beach Boys Week, in celebration of #94 in the 33 1/3 series, Beach Boys’ Smile by Luis Sanchez (out now!) with a video vault in celebration of “Surf’s Up” and Smile’s place in the canon.
When I interviewed Van Dyke Parks in 2009 about his thoughts and recollections of being a working musician in 1960s Southern California and his creative relationship with Brian Wilson, he shared something that made a lasting impression on me. On the subject of what makes Smile such a vital work of art, Parks said:
“I think that Smile attempted, surreptitiously—and it was felt—to question. And that’s what I like. That’s what I like in all art. In Brian Wilson’s case, the work we did—I think tragicomic is the best generic that can be applied to it. It’s something that you find in, to me, the works that I find most engaging, where I’m not being told what to think, but I’m left laughing or crying.”
It wasn’t until some time after our conversation, as I was listening to some of the Smile recordings, that Parks’ words came back to mind, and helped me hear one particular song in a wholly different way.
The demo version of “Surf’s Up” was the first cut from Smile I’d ever heard. I think part of me has been trapped inside the song ever since. The melody is exquisite, Brian’s voice haunts, and Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics evoke like crazy. As with many of Smile’s fragments, the song was indefinitely shelved until a finished version of it eventually appeared with added production on the Beach Boys’ 1971 album of the same name. Despite the different versions, something about the song’s beauty beguiles in a way that none of the Beach Boys’ other recordings do. For all their familiarity and catchiness, the reason the Beach Boys’ early hits stand up to the group’s brand of Southern California optimism is that the music never rings false. If the surface glint of those records ever feels easy or callow, the things that exist just below the surface—fortitude, emotion, conviction—are completely genuine: this is the mark of great pop music. What makes “Surf’s Up” so vital, I realized, is the way it tests itself, artistically, emotionally, against everything Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys stood for, and validates it, with pathos. As Parks says, the song—from its ever-winding melody to its poignant lyrics to its droll title—questions without telling you what to think, and moves you with its impact.
So, to end Beach Boys week, I wanted to share some footage of Brian performing “Surf’s Up” in two radically different contexts to hopefully illustrate the dimension of its beauty.
The first features a demo version of song that was filmed for a 1967 television documentary. Shot at Brian’s home in December 1966, the footage captures the stark beauty of the song at a moment when it was at the forefront of Brian and Parks’ creative collaboration, and at a time when popular music was at a cultural turning point, a theme I develop further in my book.
The second video shows Brian performing “Surf’s Up” during his 2004 Brian Wilson Presents Smile tour, with a full live backing band. By any account, a redefining moment for both Brian and the tragic genius myth that preceded this music.