Updated: Feb 19, 2019
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 incredible technical complexity of the composition, the structure of the lyrics and their derivation from a real life event, 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. 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 six years from that review and nearly 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 room for harking backwards.
The story itself is fairly unique in Walter’s catalog of work. Both solo and in Steely Dan, Walter long demonstrated a preference for sharing a detailed moment or glimpse at a situation without perhaps 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 a 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 aforementioned form of a letter written posthumously to the man, Walter recalls the flash of scenes and realizations 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 beloved grandmother in preparation of delivering the awful news. Small children and a lifetime of not knowing their father, 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 visual of a hang-glider tumbling out of control as the pilot clutches futilely to 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 inevitable 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.”
A look into the collection of the Walter Becker Estate is illuminating. The initial poem, written so soon after Walter heard about the accident, is very close to the final lyrics, though the names of the children have been altered to protect the innocent. 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 best lyrics 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,” might be read in such a way as 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 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 ourselves but to those hearts and upturned faces down below. Do we not 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 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 "1 2 3 Chart!" 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 Makapuu 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 Makapuu 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). 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:
The blessing provides a holy and solemn ending to the profane and poignant tale, a juxtaposition of diametrically opposed points that appears elsewhere in the song, from the delicately woven ikat to 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 and the modern 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.