Camp Chronicles (4): Paul Johnson and Let's Rock!

Editor’s Note: This is one of our “letters” from Sierra Surf Music Camp.  It is not close to real time because we are too cheap - or technology impaired - to have wireless internet.  Besides, we were having too much fun!

Two "faculty" members were left out of our last post.  Jim Lee is a surf artist whose art adorns the Pyronauts’ “Surf and Destroy” CD.  In addition to being a great guy, his role was to provide a creative outlet for the non-musician campers like Becky and Jean and teach Tai Chi.  We will get to him in a later post.

The star of the faculty -- the Noble Laureate for surf music -- was Paul Johnson.  His easy-going manner, accessibility and humility run contrary to what we get from "stars" today.

His story is legendary.  He and Eddie Bertrand rode to and from school together on a bus, discovered their mutual love for instrumental music, and started playing guitar together.  That led to the Belairs.  Their playing together without drums or bass created the percussive sounds which are the basis for much surf music.  A reverb effect had not been invented yet.  As a teenager, Paul Johnson wrote two enduring surf classics:  “Mr. Moto” and “Squad Car.”

The first surf song that I heard was “Mr. Moto,” which was getting airplay in Los Angeles around the same time as Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’.”  Dick Dale quickly crowned himself the “King of the Surf Guitar.”  But in my mind, Paul Johnson easily could have ordained himself as the “Inventor of the Surf Sound.”  Spend any time with him and you realize that he is too well-grounded and self-confident to need such a nom de plume

His merely telling us the history of and influences on surf music was enough for us to know his place in the history of the music which we love and came to make.  He did so with a smile -- which was always present during camp -- and without pretense.  Paul Johnson's oral history was Surf Music 101 - the first class of Sierra Surf Music Camp.

Surf Music 101 ended, and we headed to dinner.  Somehow, we seemed to be off schedule.  Camp Director Paul tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “You guys ready to play?”  Huh?  I had semi-forgotten in the excitement of the first day of camp that the Lava Pups were going to play before The Pyronauts.

We headed upstairs.  Tune.  Plug in.  Sound check.  Talk a little with the few folks who had moved upstairs from dinner.  Some questions swirled about in my mind.  “Will Paul Johnson and Dusty Watson be in the audience?”  “Why didn’t I practice today?”  “Is anybody coming upstairs to watch us?”

People were trickling in.  Paul said, “Let’s start.  That will get the rest of them upstairs!”  He announced into the microphone.  “Bill T is one of my long-time students.  He wrote and recorded some songs.  Here are the Lava Pups and some of those songs.”

Paul started up “Link Man.”  Don, Glenn, and I came in together.  We were underway.  No turning back now.  Finish.  Applause.  With the first song down, I leaned into the mic and said, “Man, I am as nervous as a whore in church.”  We followed with “Sea Witch,” “Pacifica Blue,” and “Lava Tube.”  We were picking up confidence, and the set ended.  Four songs.  Fifteen minutes in front of the campers, Dusty Watson, and Paul Johnson.  I thought, "that was a fast fifteen minutes."

We did our job.  We got the people upstairs for The Pyronauts, who then delivered their brand of energized instrumental music.  As they played, Paul brought some of his students into play.  This was what surf instrumental music is about.  Fun.  Energy.  Participation. 

They closed with “Sifaka,” and the campers headed off to bed in the dorms, campsites, and cabins.  Sleep might be difficult as the music reverberated in everybody’s head along with anticipation of the next day’s events including private lessons with an All-Star faculty.


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