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.