Camp Chronicles (5): Meet the Surf Miners

Editor’s Note: These chronicles started out as “letters” from Sierra Surf Music Camp.  But the story was bigger than a letter.  We hope that they convey how much fun we were having!

Saturday morning came both too soon -- as in, why didn’t I go to bed earlier -- and not soon enough -- as in, I am so excited why do I have to sleep.  The National Weather Service’s forecast was spot on -- unfortunately.  Cold.  Damp.  Rainy.  So we were going to spend the day in the Lodge and the nearby out buildings.

The schedule for the day was handwritten on flip chart sized sheet at the entrance to the Lodge.  Individual lessons began at 10.  Ferenc Dobronyi would teach a course on recording at noon.  Lunch was followed by free time for jamming, etc.  Then “Band Practice.”  Huh?

Another flip chart sized sheet listed 5 “bands” and coaches.  No signup.  The camp staff had picked out the bands.  No selection day television like the NFL or NBA drafts.  No choices made before blazing lights.  Just five “bands” picked by the “camp staff.”

Before camp, Paul the Pyronaut told me that we would be broken into groups of people who had not played together before.  Well, one look at the list of unnamed bands showed that was not completely accurate.  Four of the bands met Paul’s expressed criteria.  For the fifth, 3 of the 4 had played together and were Paul’s prodigy students; I knew that the fourth member had bass chops second only to Don among the campers.  Did this mean that the fix was in?

Looking at the list, I also immediately felt some pressure.  Our coach was Paul Johnson.  We would be working with and representing the inventor of the surf sound and the Noble Laureate of camp.  And I had chosen camp to be a bass player.  Experience level: Can hold instrument; knows where roots are (sorta); played bass three times in the privacy of the Doghouse; sucks at guitar face; but has played in a band and written songs.

Paul the Pyronaut announced the goals for the first “band” practice were coming up with a name and a couple of songs to play for Sunday night.  The next night!  Fortunately, we would have the help of Paul Johnson and Ferenc Dobronyi as our coaching team.

We introduced ourselves.  Bruce was the guitarist for the Reef Riders, a San Francisco Bay Area surf trio.  Over the course of next 24 hours, I would learn that his band had played at Otto’s Shrunken Head in New York and the Hotel Utah and was scheduled for a 3-gig tour of Southern California, culminating in Huntington Beach at the International Surfing Museum.

Robert was our other guitarist.  He had a nice Fender Jaguar, Gretsch tee, and limited experience.  Tim was our drummer.  He came from the San Fernando Valley and had seen the movie “Valley Girl.”  He, however, was not so old as to know the song that Frank Zappa wrote and performed and that did not merit serious consideration for the California State Rock Song in our earlier blog posts.  He played by instinct.

We started to search for songs that we all knew which were not named "Pipeline" or written by Paul Johnson.  How about ___?  Don’t know that one.  How about ___?  Don’t know that one.  We clearly were going nowhere with that.  Maybe we just can start jamming through the blues progression.  What’s that?

We were stuck, and then Bruce started playing a riff.  What is that?  “I don’t know.  It is just something that I’ve been fiddling with.”  Okay, let’s go with it.  What key?  Bruce played.  When are you going to the IV?  What?  The B flat.  Oh, about here.  How many bars?  What?

We played.  The chord changes were not necessarily consistent -- the riff still was jelling in Bruce's head.  So Ferenc wrote the chords down -- a map for the band.  Eight bars of F; two of B flat; back to F.  This was beginning to feel like a song in creation.  What are we going to use for a key change, mood shift, or chorus?  Paul Johnson suggested C and B.  We played that while Robert noodled over it.  He came to something that he thought worked.

Again.  How about doubling the chorus the second time through?  More noodling.  Ferenc updated the chord sheet.  From the top.  Again.  How about some change ups on the drums?  Tim put them in.  From the top.  Again.  Again.

In a little less than two hours, we had written a song.  We did not have a name for the band or the song.  We did not have second song.  But we had an original song.  Watching people dance as they walked by made clear that it was catchy and danceable.

As the allotted practice time ended, Paul Johnson asked, “What will we call the band and the song?”  In keeping with the Donner Mine, we named the song “Muck Bucket.”  In keeping with the theme of the camp, we became the “Surf Miners.”

As we put our gear away and headed off to dinner, we mentioned other possible songs to consider:  “Secret Agent Man,” “Rumble,” Endless Summer,” “Surf Beat,” and “Surf Party.”  Could we possibly become proficient enough at a second song when “Muck Bucket” still was a work in progress?

We would know in 24 hours.

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