Bells Beach, The eternal summer of 1973.
I’d breezed through the heats, had a dream run in the preliminaries and was now on my way to landing a spot in the semis. I more than looked the part. My salty mop of sun-tinged hair sat atop of a slim, taut body of bronze that rarely wore more than a pair of Golden Breed boardies…and a Rip Curl surfboard umbilically tethered to my ankle. I was cool. I was hot. I was very, very good. And I was competing in my first international surf carnival.
Pine-lime Splices, string bikinis, RC Cola, Chico rolls, campfires on the sand, minimum chips, heat-stressed cassette tapes and the great, great, Great Ocean Road.
Girls? Yeah. Plenty of ’em. But my real love was the water. The waves. The salt. And the spray from the off-shore that’d peel off from the swell like a long lick of gossamer, like free verse, like perfection.
That summer the dance never stopped. On one level it really didn’t matter if I was on my board or not. I never stopped surfing. I’d think it, feel it, breath it in, swivel, flex, bend, plan, conquer, rip through and cut, splay, and embody an endlessness of motion and movement. Muscle, nerve, sinew, skin; like a bird, like a plane, like a superman.
No sunscreen. No multi-coloured zinc. The girls would anoint themselves with Johnson & Johnson baby oil. No hats. No cancer. No fear. Wax, always, between my toes. Sand in my towel. No time. It had stopped. This was a summer without end. A stinker. This particular season dealt out over a dozen total fire bans. Days rolled like waves into and out of each other. There was night and day, but no other semblance of temporal movement.
I got the trophy and the title without even getting wet. I got the gorgeous, golden, goddess girls without a single chat up line. I got caught in a rip of fantasy.
Truth be told, I have never surfed. Can’t even swim to save myself. Never got a tanned, ripped torso because I was so ashamed of my gangly, stick insect body that I’d never go out in the sun without a t-shirt. I was shy, awkward and a danger to myself and others whenever I went near a body of water. And those girls? Nothing more than a series of distant, shimmering mirages. You see, Wizzard’s See My Baby Jive holds so much truth it turned me into a liar.
When I first heard this song, I bought the whole package. Thick, rich, and heady. I don’t believe anyone has ever produced a more humid record. It stumbles desperately out of the blocks and sprints all the way home. It’s overpowering in its sheer, unrelenting, thunderous, breathless, gale force. Everything sounds triple tracked, reverbbed and compressed.
The impassioned lyrics phase in and out of intelligibility but the message is clear in the pounding exhaustion of sound. The muddy mix of drums, bass, saxophones, guitars, keys, backing vocals, cellos, sleigh bells and god knows what the hell else fights for sonic space with Roy Wood’s urgent wailing. Somehow around 4minutes:30, right near the end, See My Baby Jive finally pushes its head above the custard-thick quicksand of sound and draws breath. I wait for this moment, and the crazy, incongruous, slightly flat, French horn lick, every time.
I couldn’t escape the crush (in both senses of the word) the first time I heard it. I was dumped, pulled under and dragged disoriented across the sandy sediment of my adolescent existence. See My Baby Jive was excoriating.
1973 was a long, hard and brittle summer. I felt a lot of lost sadness. The lesson, or what this song is really about, for me at least, is that the madness of music can sometimes overcome the sad, crazy-making, loneliness of longing. It allowed this non-starter, this non-swimmer, to be whoever he chose to imagine himself to be, if only for four minutes and 58 seconds.
Many summers on, I’m in an infinitely better place. But these days when my confidence and self-belief starts to waver, a blast of Roy Wood’s finest five minutes restores my possibility once again.