In an entry dated January 20, 2013 in the long running “Steely Dan Sunday” series on Something Else Reviews, S. Victor Aaron concludes his brief look at the song Surf And/Or Die with the question, “Could this be the high point, the crowning achievement of 11 Tracks of Whack?” Mr. Aaron then provides the answer to the rhetorical with a simple, “Yeah, I’m saying that.”
As I write this, some eight years removed from that review and more than a quarter of a century after the release of Walter Becker’s solo debut, I’m inclined to agree. While it wasn’t the first song from 11 Tracks of Whack to grab my attention (that honor belongs to the album opener, Down In The Bottom), nor the one that’s garnered the most praise from fans (that’s Book of Liars, played live at Steely Dan shows in the 90s, included on the Steely Dan live album Alive in America, and played again sparingly by the band at a handful of shows as a tribute after Walter’s death in September of 2017), Surf seems to be the track with the most staying power.
Maybe that's because it’s the furthest from the demo aesthetic that dominates Tracks. Maybe it’s the stark imagery of the loss of a friend and the devastating aftermath, from wondering what to do with the man’s car to the idea of having to be the one to tell grandmother that “your boy’s home for Christmas, it was a hell of a ride.” Whatever the case, it is an unlikely track to rise to the heights of album best. For all of its strengths, Surf has to overcome the lack of a standard Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Chorus structure. Indeed, there seem to be no chorus or bridge sections, and certainly no room for lyrical repetition. In order to fit in the fullness of the story there is no space for harkening backwards.
Some of Walter Becker's songs, both solo and with Steely Dan, sound just as complex as they are. Listen again to the intro to Paging Audrey, the chord progression in the solo section of West of Hollywood, or the extensions in Glamour Profession. In discussing the song Peg on the Making of Aja documentary, guitarist Dean Parks comments that contrary to widely held opinion, perfection was not the ultimate goal. "Perfection is not what they're after. They were after something you want to listen to over and over again. So we would work, then, past the perfection point until it became natural—until it sounded almost improvised."
If the ultimate goal of a song is to work past the point of perfection and towards something that sounds both correct and somehow effortless, then Surf And/Or Die might be viewed as one of Walter's most successful tracks. The structure of the lyrics and their derivation from a real life event, the incredible technical complexity of the composition, and the inclusion of a Buddhist chant tying together both the song's lyrical themes and harmonic and melodic structure belies the underlying genius of the musician behind it. Lyrically and narratively, Surf stand out as a singularity both in pop music and in the catalog of Walter Becker and Steely Dan songs. Walter's typical approach to lyrics demonstrates his preference for sharing a detailed moment or glimpse at a situation without all of the preface required to fully illuminate the actual circumstance to the listener. Here the story is straight forward. A poetic letter to the victim of an accident, detailing the aftermath—nay the consequence—of this friend's preference for the adrenaline rush provided by “extreme sports,” in this case daredevil style hang-gliding. A brief mention in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from December 7, 1991 provides the narrative outline of the song:
In the form of a posthumously written letter or message to the victim, Walter recalls the flash of scenes and realizations experienced upon hearing of the accident: A voicemail message about the purchase of meticulously hand-woven funeral shrouds from Bali, received too late for response; a white Dodge Aries surely picked over by vandals as it sat parked, the keys either gone or well-hidden; a grieving widow searching frantically for the phone number of a grandmother in preparation of delivering the awful news; small children and a lifetime ahead of them knowing their father only in the past tense, now left merely “the hypothetical spectre, your gilt-edged soul;” thoughts back to all of the other near-death escapes of a life filled with a “ration of enchantment and fear;” culmination in the accident, with a cinematically lyrical description of a hang-glider tumbling out of control as the pilot futilely clutches at the ripcord at his chest to release a parachute too late, serving as a nylon substitute for the intricate weft of the funereal ikats of the initial voicemail.
Finally, the moment when the narrator is confronted with the harsh reality of letting the grandmother know that life lived to the extreme by her beloved grandson has led to an inevitably brutal end. And despite this, the narrator expresses a hope that if he were reunited with his daredevil friend in the afterlife, that friend might show him those Balinese textile funeral cloths that so engendered shared fascination and express that in spite of it all, “There was never any question, it was always all or nothing. Surf and/or die.”
The initial poem, written soon after Walter heard about the accident, is very close to the final lyrics, though the names of the children would be changed at some point prior to the recorded version. A significant portion of the second half of the song appears to have been composed later, as it is not in the initial poem, titled HOME FOR CHRISTMAS.
The latter addition covers some of Becker’s most vivid verse in a career filled with amazing lyrics.
In a near random universe there are still certain combinations
Picked out from all other possible ones
Which, when given some time and the just-right circumstances
Not too far from the earth or too close to the sun
They will dance and they'll spin in the embrace of the trade winds
Playing havoc with the hearts and the upturned faces down below
Until the laws of curved spacetime, susponed without warning
Kick back in with a vengeance for the last act of the show
The final addition, that of the song’s final line, “There was never any question / It was always all or nothing / Surf and/or die,” seems to reveal that Becker’s view of the situation softened somewhat between the two periods of writing. In the end, it had to be this way. The song's title and final line implies a kind of false choice—a Schrodinger's Catastrophe waiting to happen, wherein the old adage "Surf or Die" is altered to show that the line between the "and" and the "or" is incredibly thin, prone to disappear when viewed against the horizon. The hang glider pilot could no more forgo his life-affirming peril than Becker could his own life of writing and recording music, given up when he abandoned the mainland and headed to Hawaii in a bid for personal change in the wake of his life’s first act as a rock star of no little significance. In the end, we are what we are, for better or worse, not only to and for ourselves but to and for those hearts and upturned faces down below. Do we not in the end owe it to ourselves to be ourselves, regardless of all else?
Musically, Surf and/or Die combines the guitar work, driving drums, and funk bass of Lost Tribe’s Adam Rogers, Ben Perowsky, and Fima Ephron. At least to my ears, this song was deceptive inasmuch as the playing disguises quite a bit of sophisticated harmony and chord structure, which we might have come to expect from Becker if it weren’t for the straightforward nature of the rest of the 11 Tracks of Whack album.
A listen to the initial demo of the song is revealing. Becker's demo contains many of the final elements of the song; the distinctive drum pattern, the bass figure, and the haunting synth changes—switched to guitar for the final track—are all present.
Early takes reveal that each player is given an opportunity to stretch their proverbial muscles, with subsequent takes venturing further and further away from the initial demo before tightening closer to Walter's original vision over time. The band seems to very much enjoy this song, and often jams over an extended verse at the end of a take, broken only by Walter's voice intoning "Chart 2 3 4!" to steer the ensemble back to the beginning for another attempt.
The song’s tonal center is G, and the majority of the action takes place over a G pedal. The distinctive bass pattern is created with an octave end note, or doubled note, at the end of each figure, with the occasional D - E replacing the octave G to keep things interesting. The second half of the verse travels to a D in the bass at the lyric up on Makapu'u Street and stays there for two lines before dropping to C (and so what about her?), back to D (and little Eldon and Layla?) before returning to the tonic note of G for the rest of the verse.
The shimmering guitar chords that are so foundational to the song are immediately recognizable to anyone who has studied or attempted to play Steely Dan music, and share with that music the unique voicings that often subtly shift the tonal character of a chord.
In many cases, the chord voicing eliminates the tonic note, leaving the bass part to convey the key. For example the G9 and Dm7 over the line Is fair game for the vandals up on Makapu'u Street are voiced F-A-B-D and A-C-D-F, with the bass playing its figure on G for the first chord and D for the second. The progression at the end of the verse is voiced as F-A-B-D (G7), Bb-D-E-G (Gm6), Eb-G-A-C (Cm6/G), E-G-A-C (C6/G), G-C-Eb (Cm/G), and G-D-F (G7no5).
[Tablature by Dan Begelman. Further discussion here.]
Early takes reveal that Walter intended a full verse progression featuring a guitar solo by Dean Parks. Perhaps the later decision to include the Tibetan chant necessitated the removal of the solo verse for the sake of song length. It certainly seems that the idea to add the chanting was a late addition to the song, based on Walter's telling in the Words & Music supplement to the 11 Tracks of Whack album:
'Surf and/or Die' was a song that I wrote about an incident that happened with some friends of ours in Hawaii where a young guy was killed in an accident and it was very shocking, for a young, healthy person that you know well, and that you loved the family, and everything, to suddenly not be there one day. And I remember going to the, they had a little sort of a memorial service for him, and one of the Tibetan lamas from the Dharma Center in Paia, the town I live in in Hawaii, came and said a little piece there. And it was very moving, and I could see how his perspective on the continuum of life and death and the whole Tibetan Buddhist thing kind of made the whole thing a little less meaningless and senseless-seeming. And anyway, I wrote this poem about it later and it became the song... At some point after that, my wife said, hey, she had met four of these monks that were hanging out in Paia, a couple had come over from Tibet, and said how'd you like these guys to come up and say a prayer or blessing in your studio? And I said, great. And I started thinking, well, I've got this track here, I'll just, why don't we just record the blessing, I thought. And I thought, why don't I just record the blessing right on this piece of tape with the song on it and see what happens, and not play the song for them or anything, but let's just let them go in and do the chant. And then they went in and they did these prayers, it's actually a series of prayers that they do, and we recorded them. And then after they left, we listened to the track with the prayers on it along with the rest of the music, right, just to see what it sounded like, and it was in the same key, and it was right in rhythm with the track, and everything else. And it was the prayer for the departed and so on, so I figured, great.... And the song itself is basically a kind of a pedal point bassline, drone underneath there and everything, so we ended up using it.
The blessing provides a holy and solemn ending to the profane and poignant tale. This juxtaposition of diametrically opposed points appears elsewhere in the song: the delicately woven ikats contrasts with the manufactured white nylon parachute; the hopefulness of a call home at Christmas with the devastation of the intended message; and the imagery of Icarus of Greek myth flying too close to the sun with a cosmological understanding of the laws of curved spacetime. These disparate images are combined here with such a rare skill and observation of the songwriter's craft that they could have been created by perhaps only one musician. In the halcyon days of Dandom, on the alt.music.steely-dan newsgroup, frequent poster Diana opined that "it's Walter's 'Aja,' in some ways." We are as far removed from 11 Tracks of Whack today as we were from Steely Dan's Aja album then, and with the passage of time, I ask myself if Surf and/or Die holds up under such demanding scrutiny. Was Diana right that this was in some way Walter's Aja? Was S. Victor Aaron correct that this was the high point, the crowning achievement of 11 Tracks of Whack? Yeah, I’m saying that. [This piece is on the library shelves of Walter Becker University]