Thursday, January 25, 2007

Beautiful Sadness & the origin of the Surf Poets - Driving Minnie's Piano

Excerpt from Driving Minnie's Piano
By Lesley Choyce

So we had one song in our canon and no where to go but up. But we were not out of the basement yet. In my own head, I was formulating a “SurfPoet philosophy” in hopes that we might eventually become bigger than the Beach Boys or their arch-rival the Beatles and I’d actually have some profound ideas to share with the world. I was formulating surfing, poetry, music ideology and had configured love into it as well. Unlike the Beatles who proffered, “All you need is love,” I was offering a more complex recipe, something like, “All you need is love, poetry, music, and surfing.”

It was around that time that local radio was getting rid of DJs who were not at all cost effective and replacing them with walls of CD machines programmed to play music punctuated at plentiful intervals with commercials. DJs were being fired left, right and centre and that included a friend of Doug’s named Stan Carew, a.k.a. A.J. Stanley. Stan became a local legend on his last shift of live radio at rock station Q104. Just as he was about to be replaced by twenty-five CD players, Stan gave a distinguished sermon on air about how pissed-off he was that automation was taking over and then he left the building, leaving the radio audience to sample ten minutes of dead air.

With loads of free time on his hands, Stan was lured into the SurfPoet conspiracy still hatching in the recording studio basement of the same building where a young alternative group called Sloan had cut their first recordings. Sloan was already huge in a Canadian alternative sort of way and we knew that soon we’d go upstairs and cut similar hits.

Now, Doug surfed a longboard he had brought down from Toronto, which is only a semi-surfing town, if you count surfing on Lake Ontario. Surfer kids who come to Nova Scotia from Ontario say they like to surf near the nuclear power plant back home “because it’s warmer there.” Nova Scotia surfing, as you know, is very cold. And it’s the cold surfing experience that is primal to SurfPoet music. Stan Carew, however, has never surfed. But he was a lead singer in a country band. He also played acoustic guitar and ushered in two new innovative concepts to the SurfPoets. The first was the idea of adding a second chord to our songs.

I was opposed to using a second chord at first. I thought A minor was fine. But not Stan. I wanted to kick him out of the band but Doug, usually a sombre, quiet keyboardist, was militant that Stan was “in.” I was afraid that shifting chords on my guitar while trying to recite my poetry would throw me and the audience off. The compromise was that one of the chords be A minor and the second one also a minor chord – an easy one: E minor.

I had decided that it would be a cliché if all the SurfPoet songs were about surfing – not that we’d done any songs yet about surfing, just the one about cars – so I decided to use a poem I had written called “Beautiful Sadness.” It was a bittersweet, melancholy love poem about the concept of beauty and sadness. Sad things can be beautiful, it seemed to say. It was, I argued, a very Celtic idea inspired by sad Cape Breton fiddle airs. So Doug found a sampled slow hip-hop loop, I found my two chords, Stan would strum acoustic and sing backup. Doug also had sampled recordings of women in a church singing the Lord’s Prayer, which Doug added – only those recorded elements were played backwards, just like on the old Black Sabbath records.

And so emerged a kind of spoken word hip-hop love song that made you feel really sad – but good. During coffee break, Stan introduced one more concept that would revolutionize the SurfPoets forever. He took me aside and told me a song should have a chorus – if it was going to be a hit. It really should.

I told him in no uncertain terms that we were not in it for the money and if all he wanted was commercial success, he should get the hell out of the basement and out of the band. I actually camouflaged my anger and said this politely. But it was still a SurfPoet chastisement of monumental proportions. I saw the look on Stan’s face and then I remembered that Stan had recently been fired after his public on-air stand against automated radio and, suddenly realizing I had hurt his feelings, I relented. Okay, we could try a chorus. “You mean like ‘Help me Rhonda, Help, Help me Rhonda?’” I asked.

“Yeah,” Stan said. “Or ‘Round, round get around, I get around.’”

We were talking sacred texts here.

I mulled and mired over it. I did not want us to be “like every other band” using a flashy elaborate number of chords, harmonies, and choruses up the ying yang. But I had a fairly small pool of talent and realized I needed my band members more than they needed me. Okay, I said again.

I went out onto the street then to breathe in the diesel fumes from a couple of buses going by and watch kids spray-painting their names on empty store fronts. In my poem, I had already configured beauty as a character: the abstract represented by an ideal. She was a shadowy, beautiful woman who herself was the embodiment of beauty and sadness at once. She was a kind of fatal attraction as well. The narrator in the poem was me-but-not-really-me: also a sad, but not beautiful, character. Deep down I envisioned myself as a very sad, lonely person even though I really wasn’t. It was a pose like that of the public persona of so many other poets before me. Poets must really like to feel sorry for themselves even though they have nothing to feel sorry about.

The streets were slushy that day. Slush was good for musical melancholia. I would later enshrine that slush as well as my old car, an insanely unreliable Skoda, in the poem/song:

I was always afraid of Beautiful Sadness
Because I believed she was friends with despair and misery
But now, driving on the slushy Halifax street
I realize I want to know Beautiful Sadness.
I’m only driving a small Czechoslovakian car
But I want to stop and open all the doors to the beautifully lost
I want to drive them anywhere they want to go because someday
I know I’ll be one of them and I want to know what it’s like.

And so it was time to introduce a chorus. Something basic, Stan had said, something regular people could relate to. (I didn’t know what he meant by regular – people who were not SurfPoets, I figured.) I’m in love with Beautiful Sadness? I’m a fool for Beautiful Sadness?

Back inside, Stan suggested, “A date with Beautiful Sadness . . . Got a date with Beautiful Sadness.”

I didn’t know if people even still used the word “date.” I figured it came from the country music world Stan had been escaping to since he had stormed off the radio. Oh, what the hell. I gave in altogether. A chorus was born:

Got a date with Beautiful Sadness
Down by the corner of possible madness
Turn right at fear
In a desperate year.

Here's the video for Beautiful Sadness:

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