TOFU AND WHISKEY Why don't more surfers listen to surf music? I found myself in one of those fuzzy-eyed, web-based black holes, frustrated, rhetorically asking the question through the endless prism of social media a few months back. And furthermore, why don't surfer-musicians play authentic surf rock? While the sound was born in Southern California in the early 1960s, most of the early musicians who incorporated it weren't active participants in the sport for which it was named, save for Dick Dale. The oft-repeated story is that Dale wanted to reflect the sounds he heard in his mind while surfing. And around that time, Santa Ana, Calif. based guitar-maker Fender even ran ads with beach babes and the tag "Fender makes music to surf by."
But in the past few decades at least, the more prominent surfer-musicians seem to mostly vacillate between producing pop-punk, reggae, or more commonly, your ubiquitous, folky, banana pancake-loving Jack Johnson boredom block.
Tom Curren is in an elite class, a world champion surfer and son of legendary big-wave rider Pat Curren, he's an athlete who took all his souped-up energy, and left his sport to pursue...folk rock. He released first album In Plain View in March.
During an ancient ritual in which I participated last week — that would be my honeymoon on Oahu — the bus drivers, tour leaders, cabbies, and general friendly tourist industry folks kept offering up slice-of-life songs for our listening pleasure. You like music? Well, get a load of this beach-ready sound. Cue soft rock (Hawaiian-born) Jack Johnson, or, the late Honolulu singer-ukulele musician Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole. We heard Iz's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World" medley no fewer than 15 times in seven days. I asked my husband, who grew up surfing on the Central Coast, what was up with the surfer/surf rock divide and he quietly responded, "I've never participated in surf culture, I have no idea."
When I returned to work this week, I asked local surf musician Donald Bell of Aloha Screwdriver a similar question, and he shut it down more academically, "I can't speak for surfers. I don't surf. I grew up skateboarding. I don't know a single one of our fans who surf. What's funny is that our biggest fans live in the gloomiest climates. We have a bunch of fans in Seattle." He added, "I think that Californians have a kind of cultural cringe when they hear surf music, because it's the kind of thing that always gets played in the background whenever a California beach scene is shown on TV. It can feel cliché. But once you get outside of California, that baggage tends to disappear and you get treated like an exotic import."
Bell got it though, what I was after. I wanted the explosive electric guitar of Dale and the Trashmen, the wet noodling power of '90s revival acts like Phantom Surfers and Man Or Astro-Man?, or powerful throwback shock of Guantanamo Baywatch or Trashwomen (those last two, by the way, will play the Burger Boogaloo fest July 6-7 in Oakland). OK, so Hawaii wasn't technically the place to find the thriving surf rock stuff; if I'm being fair, I knew the style I desired wasn't based there. Plus, I didn't exactly plow through underground punk shows while visiting, being buried deep in the sand and fruity alcohol-based beverages and all.
So maybe it doesn't matter if professional surfer-musicians are out there playing the music of their cultural ancestors, there's still an avid fan base.
A week earlier, the husband and I walked down the aisle to the Ventures, "Walk Don't Run" ("Pipeline" was considered but ultimately dismissed). See, this was the music I grew up loving. The vroom-vroom-vroom of wild guitar riffs, heavy reverb, Eastern scales, rapid and escalating drumming peaking, crescendoing, wiping out. Proto-beach punk.