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Surf's Out

It’s been fifty years since the incredible outpouring of creative inspiration in pop music that was 1973 – as fecund a year as rock has known. Guest music columnist Gianni de Falco channels the voice of a rock critic back in the great year, to write up the latest LPs from one fictional band (Thomas Pynchon’s Surf Rock outfit, the Boards) and one that was surprisingly real.


Hear ye, hear ye: we gather now to pay our respects to California’s psychedelic dream. Although gone too soon, its contributions to the scene will not be forgotten: the twee style of a beflowered middle part; political postures so exaggerated Martha Graham got jealous; the acid-fried putty people of the Haight; and, most importantly, unwieldy songs that with effortless pretension inflated the most mundane insights to Homeric proportions. Oh, and Charlie Manson, of course. 


So far, ’73 hasn’t been nearly the political earthquake that ’71 was, much less ’69. It was that three-year span that killed the beautiful hippie dream. Hard to believe in the revolutionary potential of free love and LSD and collective action once you see that the great state of California birthed not only these convictions but also the mess of evil and violence that ruined it all – consummate forever in our surveilling tormentor Dick Nixon. 


As society goes, so goes pop. Records like Sly and the Family’s There’s a Riot and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, the Stooges’ Fun House and Sabbath’s Master of Reality have forced rock ’n’ roll to take a hard left – into deep grooves and screaming distortions, righteous anger and an unnerving vacillation between ecstasy and strung-out nihilism. But if the ground beneath pop music has been shifting, only now can we see the way we are headed: away from bloated psychedelia, from industry-orchestrated supergroups, from the cult of the rock ’n’ roll Adonis, and toward the weird, wiry, funky, dirty outcast – the city rat in skin-tight leopard-print vinyls, face painted with cherry-red lipstick and cat-eye mascara, carrying a ten-cent dream of two-year stardom and just three chords (always power, never barre). 


On this fetid August day, the past and future materialize before me in the form of two records, both released last week. The Boards are has-beens, as shown by High Surf and the Ritual Mindset, the eleventh studio record by Gordita Beach’s veteran surf rockers. Now, I used to love this band. My teens were spent stranded in an east-coast suburban sprawl perennially besieged by sleet and middle-class manners, so I would escape by retreating to my attic and playing Boards singles until the grooves wore out. The fact that each record featured at least twelve musicians who had not played on the previous record only added to the unpredictability of those frenetic micro-jams. Original in-house lyricist, roadie and acid-wholesaler Asymmetric Bob evoked the allure of California consumerism, an Edenic forever state of teenage pleasure, resplendent with gliding Mustang Fastbacks, pressed pinstripe rompers, and cheeseburgers and cokes that were nothing short of ambrosia. And back when they were playing the tiki dives of Southern California, the Boards harnessed an untamable energy, unleashing wave upon wave of pure treble and tremolo that would crash over every groovy surfer. Piercing chromatic saxophone spasms pushed you to the brink, just before Bob’s fever dreams of an eternal California grounded you right back in the collective fantasy of every contemporary teen across the country. 


Eventually, the band embraced the Hare Krishnas, and Asymmetric Bob got pinched and sentenced to ten years in Fulsom for selling the Manson Family acid. With interest in Surf Rock fading, Cielo Drivin’, the band’s label, wanted to capitalize on the burgeoning obsession with enlightened rock ’n’ roll. They made a no-name Phil Spector assistant-to-an-assistant the band’s new producer, and that’s how High Surf and the Ritual Mindset came into this world. 


Everything that’s rotten at the heart of contemporary pop music can be found on this record. Each song is at least seven minutes long and features a ten-piece orchestra; Fenders have been swapped for Gibsons, tremolo for phaser; and Bob’s replacement, a PhD candidate at Stanford and Timothy Leary acolyte, is penning verses bogged down in Crowleyesque esoterica that, frankly, scares the shit out of me. This a flabby, indulgent record, an insidious collaboration between self-important burnouts and record executives looking to make double the money on yet another gatefold, double LP. The first six-and-a-half minutes of this glorified, oversized coffee-table coaster is an outsized one-note drone that tells you everything you need to know about what’s to follow: the Boards are now Artists, not pop stars, and they no longer have any interest in the pure expression of teenage libidinal desire, as experienced by pop’s most devoted followers. When the political dream of the ’60s died, it turns out, the radical potential of psychedelia in rock ’n’ roll died, too. No longer needing to say something real, rock now has nothing to say at all. 


So who or what will save rock ’n’ roll from itself? My money’s on the New York Dolls and their ramshackle house of insecurity, paranoia and urban nightmares. Their eponymous debut runs hot from its start, stacked with hard-grooved songs that move with a speed-addled energy. While the Dolls’ rhythm section may be merely passable, guitarist Johnny Thunders is a rising star: there’s no resisting his sawed-off double-stops and swinging power chords that privilege danceability over virtuosity. The Dolls embrace messiness and dare you to find dysfunction anything but sexy. Here’s forty minutes of purely intuitive pop music, of raw, powerful angst.


We in the US are currently living through the final moments of an unprecedentedly long period of economic expansion and stability, and part of me believes that the political activity of the last decade was in so small part buoyed by that security. It should be no surprise, then, that the Dolls value indeterminacy so highly, both in their presentation and their words. The spandex and heels, the makeup, the pouts, the pantomimed tough-guy postures – their public personae may be a little perverse, but they’re also uninhibited and free, Staten Island accents and all. Freedom for the Dolls means embracing the fissures opening around and between us, right now –  leaning into the split personality as a concept, just as our own country doubles as the center of soft power and the face of contemporary imperialism. “Your mirrors gettin jammed up with all your friends … Personality /  wonderin how celebrities ever mend,” singer David Johansen howls in the closing minute of the record’s opener. For the psychedelic adventurer, this kind of plurality of the self was aspirational, folding into an ocean-like oneness with others. But not any longer; now, we’re inundated by a multitude of voices, of images blaring from televisions, of different presentations of the self, all of which can be bought for a low price from a Sears catalog. The celebrity idol may create the impression of perfection, of integration and self-confidence, but Johnansen’s too smart to buy what they’re selling. The Dolls are teaching us how to survive in this new media climate – if you can’t be one person, then be many. Embrace play, and dress how you like: a personality crisis is coming for us all and we’ll all have to give in – it’s just a matter of when.


“Frankenstein” – a live staple already legendary among Max’s Kansas City crowds in downtown Manhattan – may be the record’s highlight. It’s an exploding, five-minute mess of distortion and horror that tramples on the fallen dream of pop as a timeless sanctuary, away from all responsibilities and wants. In the universe of “Frankenstein,” the disaffected teens who used to find peace in muscle cars and good fun are getting taken by a Faustian bargain with the monster himself. Tired of the “master / making his demented plans,” teens of the New York suburbs are drawn into the city as an escape from life’s dullness. But – not unlike Dylan’s fallen protagonist in “Like a Rolling Stone” – they think they’re buying one thing, only to get something else. “Is it a crime for you to fall in love with Frankenstein?,” Johnansen asks in a long, deep drawl. By the end of the song, the question transforms from a moral supposition to a straightforward dare: “Do you think you could make it with Frankenstein?” 


It’s a question we’re all reckoning with now. On the other side of idealism, staring into a deepening void at the center of our shared political, social, and cultural lives, are we going to make it with the monster? Or is there another reality to embrace, one beyond the alluring darkness of this overwhelming and onsetting nihilism? 

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