“Surfin’ Bird” e o modernismo
family guy, modernismo, trashmen
When we think of modernism, we think of “Surfin’ Bird”. This song, originally recorded in 1964 by the Trashmen, later covered by bands like the Ramones and the Cramps, stands firmly in the tradition of sound poetry (think Schwitters’ Ursonate). There are other links to early modernism: while the nonsensical phrase ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ seems quite similar to the absurdity of the name Père Ubu (Papa Ubu, the lead character of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi), the insistence that “the bird is the word” echoes Augusto de Campos’ definition of concrete poetry as “the tension of thing-words in space-time”. What else is the bird than a ‘thing-word’, surfing in ‘space-time’?
But the idea of “Surfin’ Bird” as a prime example of modernism goes much further than that. The song is a manifestation of the very spirit of modernism: Man trying to cope with the tension between nature and culture, between the primitive and the civilized. Surfin’ Bird is a clear sublimation of this tension, a primal scream made electric. Even the lyrics seem to point to this synthesis of nature and culture, the concept of a surfing bird being an emblematic example of a civilized animal.
But above all, there is the break, the moment in the song where the instruments stop, and the vocals seem caught in a vacuum. It is the break that separates the first part of the song (the ‘bird is the word’ part) from the second part (the ‘papa-oom-mow-wow’ part). It’s a break that cuts through the song like a slash in a Fontana painting, and it gives the song its characteristic duality; the duality that is so typical for manifestations of modernism in general.
In the transcript of the song, included in the following pages, the words that are uttered during this break are described as a “prolonged sound of vomiting”. We very much disagree. What can be heard in the break is in fact a human voice simulating an echo machine, a guitar reverb effect. This thrilling moment, of man imitating machine, is again a clear example of the tension between nature and culture, of modernism in its purest form.