The music of the waves
By Brian Doyle
August 15, 2014
Like any other American child, I was riveted and thrilled the first time I heard the Beach Boys on the radio. Their cheerful melodic and harmonic genius was especially savory for me, because up to that moment I had been sentenced by my sister to a steady mind-numbing diet of folk music, and you can only endure so much of the Limelighters or the Kingston Trio before going stark raving mad and shaving your head and starting a thrash-metal band. So when I heard the songs of Brian Wilson for the first time, I was delighted to discover that all music coming out of the radio was not the sad whimper and drone of classical music, or the atonal honking and bleating of the bebop my dad would play sometimes in the basement when the Mets set yet another record for errors in an inning, or the Herb Alpert records my mom would play after she and dad had their annual martini in July, or the manic tinny bounce of Peter, Paul, and Mary, whom our oldest brother would play before his dates, as he drenched himself in seas of aftershave, though he had nothing on his face to actually shave, that we had ever noticed.
But then, but then! The heavens opened, and blessings rained from the sky like excellent bacon-and-tomato sandwiches on rye toast, and out of the radio one afternoon there came the power and the glory of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, who invented surf music, with its tidal waves of ringing guitars and shimmering reverb, and that was it for me. After that, I was a boy on a mission to find and hear every surf music record ever made, for I adored that wild merry sound, which had sunlight and laughter and Americanness and grinning girls in it; and I rushed to the seedy record store on Sunrise Highway, near the expressway to Jones Beach, and bought, one at a time, at the rate of about two per week there for a while, at 50 cents each, every blessed used 45 rpm record they had of the Chantays, and the Surfaris, and the Challengers, and the Rivieras, and the Ventures, and the Rip Chords, and the Surftones. This went for years, and it led to my absorption in surf movies, and in oceanic and maritime matters, and sea logs, and accounts of voyages, and sea novels, and the islands of the Pacific, and on and on to this day.
My dad, who had and has a wonderful way of asking seemingly innocent questions in order to gently make a point, once asked me how I could be so happily addled by surf music, when as far as he could tell I had only been surfing a few times, and was by my own admission terrible at the sport, not to mention we lived in suburban New York, where surfing was not exactly a cultural obsession, and I said how come you love Charlie Parker so much, when you do not play the alto sax and do not have major personal problems? He agreed that this was a good point, and even now, years later, I still marvel at the way we are utterly drawn to some things and not at all to others, often for no reason we can tell or explain. In my case, along with basketball and essays and hawks and chess, it was surf music, and it still is surf music, which I play consistently all year long, from modern surf bands like the Aqua Velvets to pillars of the form like the Ventures. This morning, for example, a brilliant summer morning, I drove to work humming along with the Chantays; and on many a wet cold gray winter day, as I huddled in the car under the thrum of the rain, and watched a morose heron lumber toward the river for his working day, I have plugged in some surf music, and suddenly there I am in Surf City, blinking happily in the crisp sun, wondering whether the tide is going out or coming in; and it seems somehow, in those moments, to always be coming in.
Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland magazine and the author of many books, most recently the novel Chicago.