Hang On To Your Ego

by Matthew Lyon

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Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world

The Beach Boys didn’t have a clue. If they did, they would have been singing, Catch a wave and you’ll be sitting in a fucking wheelchair and eating pudding for a month. Or how about, Rent a plank and humiliate yourself. Risk a spinal, a drowning, coral infections, man-o-wars and ray barbs. Lose your legs to a bull shark that mistook you for a jelly donut. You won’t be “sittin” anywhere. You will be laying limp and lifeless on the bottom of the sea, or if luck carries you to safety, in a gurney collecting bed sores.

The Beach Boys’ sunny portrayal of surfing misled an entire nation on the realities of the sport. Not one song mentions what it’s like to choke on seawater. There were zero songs on the Billboard charts about sun poisoning.

In the 1960’s, thousands of teenagers dropped out of school, moved to California and sold their grandfather’s Swiss pocket watch for a surfboard. Since there were no songs about the hypothermic water of the Pacific, most kids spent a week in the water, a week at St. Joe’s Infirmary, and the next four months collecting bus fare back from whence they came. The Beach Boys took no responsibility, and paid no medical bills or child support.

Brian Wilson, the group’s primary writer, knew better; he rarely even left his house, afraid of everything—fame, recognition, and especially the perils of the sea. His brother, and the drummer in the group, Dennis, was the only Beach Boy who actually surfed, and ironically, didn’t write any early songs. When he wasn’t surfing, Denny was busy drinking and hobnobbing with Charles Manson. “Charlie is a talented artist, and a hell of a guy.” How’s that for sound judgment? Catch a wave and you’re eggs deep in a murderous cult.

During his really bad years, strung on out vodka and pills, Denny admitted to the press that The Beach Boys, with their immense influence, did recommend some dubious behavior. Let’s not forget, they suggested amateur drag racing was Fun, Fun, Fun and never answered media criticism for a sharp increase in vehicular homicides.

Meanwhile, the nation’s dropouts were still parading into southern California with promises of water-born adrenaline and blonde women.  One of the band’s more irresponsible singles in 1964 told every loser in the nation that “the girls on the beach are all within reach.” Many listeners missed the next line, a disclaimer written in fine print. Your success with these girls with “tans of golden brown” depended on recognized and practiced skills of seduction. Yes, these honeys can be gotten, the band sang, “if you know what to do.” Aha! It was a colorfully bright and hopeful tune, though rather vague, and in the end, like most romantic commentary, completely useless advice.

Denny was the most popular Beach Boy with the ladies, which made him, statistically, one of the greatest worldwide womanizers in the early 1960s. His shaggy hair and dimples stood supreme in a group of otherwise average-looking stiffs in tight white pants; the trousers were woefully short on defined manhood.

Denny was a drummer after all, and fell in line with a drummer’s wild fate—a quick and efficient, well-timed self-immolation, in the grip of addicting substances and toxic women. It was rumored that Denny collected every item tossed on stage (a variety of erotic female sacrifices). He framed and hung these exotic trophies next to his gold records. The coincidence that the bras and panties matched the pastel walls of his enormous living space in Malibu overshadowed the fact that most of this itty-bitty-teeny-weeny contraband belonged to girls as young as fourteen (14!).

Denny’s expansive (expensive) persona paralleled his reputation as a surfer. As a musician and a sportsman he was all at once passionate and careless, reckless and calculating. He thrilled the West coast with a multi-dimensional allure. This emasculated surfing fanatics who assumed his collection of women was the result of a lone-star-beach-bum status. How could you not account for heaps of cash and an endless string of Top Ten hits?

Denny personified the gorge of truth between the band’s bubblegum PR copy and their rock-razzled Hollywood private lives. He blamed himself and management (his father) for any damage done, but wasn’t feeling all too guilty. He said he typically buried any old (or new) regrets with a big bad bender. He did, however, admit it was foolish to forever validate the already burgeoning vanity of native-born “California Girls.”

I honestly can’t even talk to the bitches in LA anymore, he said in a 1966 interview at his third summer home in Tahoe. He sat in a robe, smoking a joint and sipping his morning banana daiquiri. I’ll tell you what I really think: East coast girls were always overdressed and overrated. Cunts, really. Midwest girls were underdressed and underwhelming. Jesus, I mean, read the dailies, girls, razors are readily available. Since we are off the record, he said (not understanding his syndicated agreement), I’ll be straight with you: I’m more into working girls these days, just easier and cleaner, despite what Lou Reed recently reported. You’d know more but Brian has continually left my Orange County Confessions on the studio floor.

The beat went on. Brian was the only member in favor of tinkering with the early formula. He only convinced the others to abandon their sinking ship and climb aboard Pet Sounds with the help of a fresh batch of Wild Honey LSD.

For a few years, Brian remained in his litter box with a piano and a respectable beard. The others plowed ahead with the touring circuit. Right on schedule, Dennis spun himself into a series of addictions. Following his English idols and counterparts, Keith Moon and John Bonham, Denny drowned drunk in the Pacific Ocean, not far from the waves that put himself and his brothers on top of the world.

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Although the band has fifty-five (55!) years of collective songwriting at its disposal, their early surf songs remain their draw, their royalties, and their legacy. As a result, three generations of teenagers in various nations have been swindled by their catchy propaganda, sent into the sea with dreams of waves and babes, and sent home with broken ribs and lacerated scrotums. They never did release any summer hits that addressed what an afternoon of board wax could do to a pair of virgin nipples. Ravaged, red and twisted—that’s what mine looked like at the end of the day. Chewed cherries.

I spent last month trying to surf in southern Nicaragua. Among other absent practicalities, Brian’s sunny hymns failed to warn me that once I paddled and battled an onslaught of rolling cement for twenty minutes, I would be too exhausted to stand up, much less carve a triple-finned paragraph into the foaming tide. Denny never said anything about controlling my fear with forty million gallons of lunar-powered water shoving me 1,000 mph toward sand, rocks and reef.

Hold your breath, kid! Pray to your aquatic Gods! To Venus, to Ariel! I knew that much.

When I surfaced, decades later, the fizzing white water carried me to the beach. I noticed a handful of small pebbles in my pocket before I realized I was limping. I had broken my foot, again. Whoops!

A sandy voice called out to me, Eh, Bro, you alright? I saw you got tumbled pretty hard. I turned and looked at a surfer, smiling, graying and tattooed neck to navel. A pair of scaly dragons on each arm, accompanied by spikes, thorns and other merciless objects. On his chest, two red dragons were roasting a busty mermaid with flaming sputum. He was an illustrated man-child humming a familiar burning mantra: I’ll never grow old! His shorts were slack, inviting a peek at the cleavage of his bronzed backside—the pinnacle misjudgment in modern beach fashion. In typical lopsided surfer physique, he was built like a bison, stacked shoulders, arms and back, with a puny lower half. His feet were teams of callouses, scars and fungus, sun-faded to a dark cowhide.

I haven’t gone over the falls like that in years, Dragon Boy continued. But you’ve got to appreciate the heavy elements at play. He smiled again, and paused to show me a massive bruise on his leg, colored like a mahi mahi, blue-green, violet and yellow. Often seen as territorial and insufferably exclusive, I’ve always known surfers to possess an enviable, unmatched positivity, often related to, or mistaken for a drug problem. I remembered what a local said a week prior: surfers come here all the time and break their face. They seem to have a great time, though.

Dragon Boy pointed a wavering finger at the horizon and talked abstractly about swells, breaks, curls, sets, and flops. Occasionally, in a song or a smile, a surfer can explain what it means to surf. It seemed he was reminding himself as much as lecturing me. He said it was only natural to be humbled by the forces of your playground. The challenge was to simultaneously respect and manipulate the water.

Take a look out there, Bro, he said. It was another sunny day, nice enough to ignore forthcoming swelling and pain. A hundred meters out, a dozen man-children sat patiently on their boards. Floating like pelicans on the undulating sea, they spat low laughs, easy enough to entertain an endless string of quips and pranks. You got this, Bro. Let’s go.

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