Surf Poets

Sea Level i-inside cover

At the heart of the Surf Poets was a creative cocktail of three great elemental forces of the universe: music, poetry and surfing. While we did not emulate old surf music from the sixties, we did have an underpinning of surf language, surf stories and surfer philosophy that carries the intellectual weight of the band’s “message.” And I decided early on that our songs should mostly have just two or three chords repeated over and over. I get easily confused by too many chord changes.

A great array of irrational factors led me back to performing music after a hiatus of nearly thirty years. Music has always brought out the best and the worst in me. I’m a mediocre singer at best but have always assured myself that I have character in my voice if I use it properly. The world can thank Bob Dylan for this. People like me who can’t hit the right notes figure out interesting, insidious ways to do something with the words until it sounds, well, at least interesting.

Sea Level by Lesley Choyce & the Surf Poets

Nonetheless, music was in me and it wanted some form of expression. Minnie was the one who had taught me my first few notes on the piano. “Chop Sticks” was the only tune in my repertoire for nearly eight weeks. And then, one day, not long after my sixth birthday, she sat me down at her baby grand piano. “Just hit the black notes,” she said, “in any order you like.” I did and the results were magnificent. That’s when I realized music was not just memorization and structure but it had limitless random possibilities. (The six-year-old me would not have expressed it this way but I felt it in my bones.)

There was no particular logical path to my musical career and still there is none. It was a costly enterprise financially and even emotionally. It involved a lot of complicated equipment that could and would screw up. All of the cohorts involved in my brand of music seemed to be as complex, moody and unstable as I am. Sometimes it all turned to mush. Other times to shit. And then, every once in a while, the band slipped into some other universe entirely where the words and the music created their own rules, and their own beautiful codified enthusiasm for a celebration of life. And then we soared above our individual frail human limitations.

Sea Level - backAt the heart of the Surf Poets was a creative cocktail of three great elemental forces of the universe: music, poetry and surfing. While we did not emulate old surf music from the sixties, we did have an underpinning of surf language, surf stories and surfer philosophy that carries the intellectual weight of the band’s “message.” And I decided early on that our songs should mostly have just two or three chords repeated over and over. I get easily confused by too many chord changes.

Like all bands, ours has evolved. We began in the basement of a recording studio on Gottingen Street in Halifax, six blocks up from Halifax Harbour. Halifax is the biggest surf town on the east coast of Canada, even though many people in Nova Scotia will still state with inaccurate bravado that “Nobody surfs in Nova Scotia.” Some ideas die hard and I think it’s a generational thing. What they really mean is, “Nobody surfed in Nova Scoita in the nineteenth century.” Which was probably mostly true — the exception being the odd Mi’kmaq canoeist who put to sea and then caught a wave back to the beach on a warm summer day.

But people do surf in Nova Scotia and they also create surf poetry and record it on CDs for public consumption. This occurs even though there is a minuscule audience of surf poetry in Canada and in spite of the fact that many Nova Scotians believe there is no surfing in Nova Scotia. In truth, most Canadians would tell you that there is no surfing in all of Canada. The problem there is that most Canadians live hundreds of miles from the three oceans.

Of course, the Surf Poets ignored all of these realities and went ahead and coalesced there in the basement on Gottingen Street in late February of 1993. Actually there were only two surf poets coalescing: myself and Doug Barron (aka Hal Harbour). Doug had a keyboard that sampled beats and sounds. I had an electric guitar with a fuzz box and the masterful skill of strumming an A minor chord over and over again. Years later I would tell the press: “Life is like an A minor chord.” If you know what an A minor chord sounds like on an electric guitar, you’ll know what I mean.

Long Lost Planet by Lesley Choyce & the Surf PoetsI also had sheafs of unpublished poetry, some of it even about surfing. Our first ever tune was called “Traction.” It was about cars, not surfing. Now the Beach Boys did surfing and then cars. We did cars first and then surfing. Brian Wilson, after coming out of a couple of decades of seclusion and mental illness, would explain to the media that the Beach Boys actually sat around trying to determine the next popular obsession to sing about after they milked surfing to death. Brian would say something like, “So we had done surfing and it worked, even though most of the country didn’t have an ocean nearby. But then we realized that everybody had a car.”

And so the Surf Poets would begin with cars — a long surreal, hyperventilated spoken word poem about a nightmarish landscape that was automotive. It was all just one chord with a synthesised driving beat and an amazing embroidery of sampled sounds and voices that ranged from William Burroughs to a chanting Gregorian choir. It was one long A minor chord (of course) and I played some really frenetic high squeally notes that hurt the Surf Poets’ ears if played too loudly in the basement.

Part of the lyric went like this:

Hands on the rim of all possibility, I’m haunted home
barricaded on four sides by darkness
while up above the universe, unhinged,
dazzles me like a rowdy all-night service station
with check-the-oil slingshot eyes
and how’s the air in the tire politeness.
I know this feeling, this comfortable bucket seat of longing
’cause I’ve been harnessed here before, heading home,
pistons lighting up underneath the hood like nova stars
burning tips off spark plugs down
inside the throat of my ambition.

So we had one song in our canon and no where to go but up. But we were not out of the basement yet. In my own head, I was formulating a “Surf Poet philosophy” in hopes that we might eventually become bigger than the Beach Boys or their arch rival the Beatles and I’d actually have some profound ideas to share with the world. I was formulating the surfing, poetry, music line but had configured love into it as well. Unlike the Beatles who proffered “All you need is love,” I was offering a more complex recipe, something like “All you need is love, poetry, music, and surfing.”

It was around that time that local radio was getting rid of DJs who were not at all cost ineffective and replacing them with walls of CD machines programmed to play music punctuated at plentiful intervals with commercials. DJs were being fired left right and centre and that included a friend of Doug’s named Stan Carew (aka A.J. Stanely). Stan became a local legend on his last shift of live radio at rock station Q104. Just as he was about to be replaced by 25 CD players, Stan gave a distinguished sermon on air about how pissed off he was that automation was taking over and then he left the building, leaving the radio audience to sample ten minutes of dead air.

With loads of free time on his hands, Stan was lured into the Surf Poet conspiracy still hatching in the recording studio basement of the same building where a young alternative group called Sloan had cut their first recordings. Sloan was already huge in a Canadian alternative sort of way and we knew that soon we’d go upstairs and cut similar hits.

Now Doug surfed a long board he had brought down from Toronto, which is only a semi-surfing town, if you count surfing on Lake Ontario. Surfer kids who come to Nova Scotia from Ontario say they like to surf near the nuclear power plant back home “because it’s warmer there.” Nova Scotia surfing, as you know, is very cold. And it’s the cold surfing experience that is primal to Surf Poet music. Stan Carew, however, has never surfed. But he was a lead singer in a country band. He also played acoustic guitar and ushered in two new innovative concepts to the Surf Poets. The first concept was the idea of adding a second chord to our songs.

Inside Sea LevelI was opposed to using a second chord at first. I thought A minor was fine. But not Stan. I wanted to kick him out of the band but Doug, usually a sombre quiet keyboardist, was militant that Stan was “in.” I was afraid that shifting chords on my guitar while trying to recite my poetry would throw me and the audience off. The compromise was that one of the chords be A minor and the second one also a minor chord — an easy one: E minor.

I had decided that it would be a cliche if all the Surf Poet songs were about surfing — not that we’d done any songs yet about surfing, just the one about cars — so I decided to use a poem I had written called “Beautiful Sadness.” It was a bittersweet, melancholy love poem about the concept of beauty and sadness. Sad things can be beautiful, it seemed to say. It was, I argued, a very Celtic idea inspired by sad Cape Breton fiddle airs. So Doug found a sampled slow hip-hop loop, I found my two chords, Stan would strum acoustic and sing back-up. Doug also had sampled recordings of women in a church singing the Lord’s Prayer which Doug added — only those recorded elements were played backwards — just like on the old Black Sabbath records.

And so emerged a kind of spoken word hip-hop love song that made you feel really sad — but good. During coffee break, Stan introduced one more concept that would revolutionize the Surf Poets forever. He took me aside and told me a song should have a chorus — if it was going to be a hit. It really should.

I told him in no uncertain terms that we were not in it for the money and if all he wanted was commercial success, he should get the hell out of the basement and out of the band. I actually camouflaged my anger and said this politely. But it was still a Surf Poet chastisement of monumental proportions. I saw the look on Stan’s face and then I remembered that Stan had recently been fired after his public on-air stand against automated radio and, suddenly realising I had hurt his feelings, I relented. Okay, we could try a chorus. “You mean like `Help me Rhonda, Help, Help me Rhonda?'” I asked.

“Yeah,” Stan said, “Or `Round, round get around, I get around.'”

We were talking sacred texts here.

I mulled and mired over it. I did not want us to be “like every other band” — using a flashy elaborate number of chords, harmonies, and choruses up the yin yang.

But I had a fairly small pool of talent and realized I needed my band members more than they needed me. Okay, I said again.

I went out onto the street then to suck in the diesel fumes from a couple of buses going by and watch kids spray painting their names on empty store fronts. In my poem, I had already configured beauty as a character: the abstract represented by an ideal. She was a shadowy, beautiful woman who herself was the embodiment of beauty and sadness at once. She was a kind of fatal attraction as well. The narrator in the poem was me-but-not-really -me: also a sad (but not beautiful character). Deep down I envisioned myself as a very sad, lonely person even though I really wasn’t. It was a pose, I guess, like that the public persona of so many other poets before me. Poets must really like to feel sorry for themselves even though they have nothing to feel sorry about.

The streets were slushy that day. Slush was good for musical melancholia. I would later enshrine that slush as well as my old car, an insanely unreliable Skoda, in the poem/song:

I was always afraid of Beautiful Sadness
Because I believed she was friends with despair and misery
But now, driving on the slushy Halifax street
I realize I want to know Beautiful Sadness.
I’m only driving a small Czechoslovakian car
but I want to stop and open all the doors to the beautifully lost
I want to drive them anywhere they want to go because someday
I know I’ll be one of them and I want to know what it’s like.

And so it was time to introduce a chorus. Something basic, Stan had said, something regular people could relate to. (I didn’t know what he meant by regular — people who were not Surf Poets, I figured.) I’m in love with Beautiful Sadness? I’m a fool for Beautiful Sadness?

Back inside, Stan suggested, “a date with Beautiful Sadness…Got a date with Beautiful Sadness.”

I didn’t know if people even still used the word “date.” I figured it came from the country music world Stan had been escaping to since he had stormed off the radio. Oh what the hell. I gave in altogether. A chorus was born:

Got a date with Beautiful Sadness
Down by the corner of possible madness
Turn right at fear
in a desperate year.
A minor chord after that over and over into infinity.

We recorded those two tracks in Terry Pulliam’s (upstairs) recording studio, Sound Market, and they became cornerstones for a CD called Long Lost Planet. I learned that in the recording studio you could make mistakes over and over and all you had to do was get it right once and get that one “take” on tape. And even if you couldn’t get it right you could sometimes fix up your errors by a kind of cutting and pasting of sound.

We would eventually get back to the roots of surfing with a Ventures-like backdrop for “Big Left” and a rap-like Dylanesque “Nova Scotia Surf Scene Blues.” Over the years the Surf Poets would expand and contract, add and lose saxophones, fiddles, singers, drummers, dreamers and techno-artists. In our own small universe we exploded and imploded and got older all the while. Unlike other pop bands, we refused to ride the wave of other performers’ success. Ours was to make our own wave and ride it like a thirty foot Waimea motherlode. Carving our own path, intermingling music, surfing, poetry as only we knew how. This we would do even if our audience was small or even if we had no audience at all on the beach to watch.

Click here for more Lesley Choyce & the Surf Poets (also available on YouTube.com).

copyright Lesley Choyce © 2005. May not be reprinted without permission.

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