Surfin’ Bird

You know, if I’d taken more time to think of better questions when I interviewed Richard Meltzer back in 2000, I’d almost certainly have asked him, “Why did you open The Aesthetics of Rock with the lyrics of ‘Surfin’ Bird’?” I’ve since, and often, hypothesized about this very thing:

1) he liked the song
2) it came on the radio one evening while he was stoned out of his gourd and working on the text, and — hey, why the hell not?
3) it was his way of insisting on the relevance-equivalence of crudity-profundity (i.e., you’ll understand Bob Dylan much better if you also understand the Trashmen, and vice versa) (though I think what Meltzer does is take it further than Trashmen-Dylan, he goes Trashmen-Plato)
4) it’s a (p)review of what follows, “Well-a everybody’s heard” suggesting the already past-tenseness of the moment Meltzer’s trying to summon forth, and providing a nice setup for his own first self-penned sentence in the book, “This is a sequel…”

Today, I can add a fifth “what-if” to the pile. In “Along Comes Maybe,” his editorial in the fourth (1966, month unknown) issue of Crawdaddy!*, Paul Williams writes: “Nobody used to take rock ‘n’ roll very seriously. The newsmagazines would get a kick out of printing the lyrics to ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ the fans would debate over who was greater, Elvis or Fabian (who?), the deejays would play any record that was backed up by the old payola, and the listeners would be only too happy to run out and buy it…” Hmm, was RM’s printing of the lyrics to “Surfin’ Bird” perhaps his way of turning the tables on Williams’s words, to begin to collapse altogether the distinctions Williams is (implicitly) insisting on (i.e., setting up a serious vs. trivial divide rather than collusion)? In other words, to set up a counter-argument with Williams (his first publisher) by suggesting that those “newsmagazines” were pointing to something worth taking seriously — inadvertently, of course, maybe even counter-intuitively, which makes it no less true — by splashing Trashmen lyrics across their pages? Maybe, maybe not. Coming across that sentence, though, in the very least, it struck me as a highly interesting coincidence (and my instincts tell me it wasn’t one, hence my reason for this babble in the first place).

* Highly recommended: The Crawdaddy! Book, a compendium of the earliest issues of that ‘zine.

One thought on “Surfin’ Bird

  1. Suggestion 3 still seems the best: this is a carefully chosen song. It is not a difficult song to parse by onseself (e.g. Louie Louie), so the transcription reads like a proof or demonstration rather than mere information. It is remarkably repetitive, but that makes the small variations appear momentous. It also has some peculiar instances of the unsayable near the end, the vocal effects which Meltzer interprets as ‘prolonged sound of vomiting’ (a favorite theme?), and the Oooh-mow-mow segment with its implicit equivalence to the bird phrases suggesting the equivalence of all nonsense. Also, though Meltzer hates video, one must suppose he knew the wonderfully Ed Sullivan appearance of the group, with the electric flashing toucan.

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