ARCHIVE: Looking for Michael, Finding Beau

Beau+Young

Step out of liquid: Australian surfing champ Beau Young trades the longboard for the fretboard when he appears at Asbury’s Carousel building this Friday night, on a program with the film SEARCHING FOR MICHAEL PETERSON.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit September 30, 2009)

There’s rock stars, and then there’s rock stars — and for most of the decade of the 1970s, Michael Peterson was the rock star of the Australian surf scene — a two-time national champion who cut a memorable figure out on the waves and backed it up, both with an aggressive style and his own innovative approach to board shaping.

The rockstar thing carried over to dry land, where Peterson’s penchant for heroin and multiple scrapes with the law — culminating in an infamous high-speed chase with over 20 police cars — combined with an eventual diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia to end his career by the early 1980s. Still alive and well as can be at age 57, the legend maintains a fairly low public profile these days — preferring to let his many devoted fans and biographers do the heavy lifting, such as with the widely acclaimed, no-punches-pulled new documentary film Searching For Michael Peterson.

Then there’s Beau Young. A two-time (2000 and 2003) world pro surfing champion with his own fervent following, his own living-legend status — and his own awesome pedigree, being the son of longboard pioneer and exponent Nat Young. Like “MP” before him, Beau also walked away from competitive surfing — but rather than fade into a netherworld of erratic behavior and incarceration, the younger Young made it his calling to pursue a new career as a singer and writer of original songs.

Beginning with the 2005 release (only in Australia and Japan at first) of his debut album Waves of Change, Young reintroduced himself to public life with a brand of largely acoustic songcraft that examines life and love through the perspective of a guy who’s centered but forever seeking — songs that are given a pleasantly surprising drive by the singer’s passionately bluesy, Cat Stevens-inflected voice. Whatever calling card Young may employ when he enters your field of awareness — surfer, singer or composer of music for the Australian-made Wild Anamalz toy line, with whose creators he collaborated on a set of songs for kids in 2007 — the man comes across as anything but a dilettante or dabbler.

Here in the post-Labor Day wind-down of 2009, Beau Young rides in to the Jersey Shore for the first time, promoting a new “grownup” album (One Step at a Time) and touring the States barnstorm-style in tandem with Michael Peterson — as seen on screen in the Searching doc.

On Friday the second of October, the Peterson film will screen in the quirky roundhouse setting of Asbury Park’s historic Carousel building (most recently pressed into duty as playhouse for the ReVision Theatre company’s The Full Monty), accompanied by director Jolyon Hoff and special musical guest Beau Young. It’s a co-presentation of the Asbury Park Film Initiative, whose founding mom Marilyn Schlossbach has pretty much cemented Asbury’s place as a regional capital for the burgeoning genre of the modern surf film. And it’s all due to be followed by what’s likely the last of the season’s beach bonfires, out on the chilly sands of the autumnal Atlantic.

Young spoke to Red Bank oRBit from his down-under homebase on the eve of his first official U.S. tour. Here’s what he had to say…

DownloadedFileRED BANK ORBIT: This event in Asbury Park takes place in a pretty novel setting, right off the ocean in a strange old building that used to house a carved wood carousel. It’s part of what’s being called your first “official” tour of the States, and I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that. Have you played a handful of odd gigs here in the past?

BEAU YOUNG: I actually toured around the toy trade shows, children’s toy shows and such, with my songs for children. I have about four albums worth of animal songs that I did for the Anamalz. But what I’m doing now is definitely not for kids.

It’s an interesting route to travel — to go from being the well-known athlete to the breakout musician, by way of being a children’s entertainer.

I never stick to specific boundaries, in surfing as in music. I’ve done a large array of both short and longboard surfing, predominantly based upon 1970s style surfing. And there are as many ways of surfing as there are of playing the guitar — both art forms leave me feeling this sense of discovery. They’re both time consuming to master, but they’re both like meditation in a way.

To most observers it would seem like you just shut one door in your life and opened another, but I’d wager that this transition from pro surfer to singer kind of evolved organically over some period of time. What were some of the sounds that influenced this process? 

I remember trips to the ocean back in the day with my father, listening to earlyBowieRolling StonesCreedence. And I’m into the sounds of the originals likeDylanVan MorrisonCat StevensDonovan — the first Donovan — as well as an electrified, kind of indie pop style.

Would you liken your attraction to the sort of longboard surfing that your father popularized, to your affinity for music that’s rooted in the 1960s? Is it an altogether different approach to the sport?

It’s very different equipment, a much heavier board than many surfers are used to, with one fin. It can be grueling, exhausting, challenging — but it’s becoming more popular now as a craft; there’s a real difference in the way that the board feels, the way it flows through water.

So what kind of sounds go through your head when you’re out there on the waves? Does the pipeline really sound like Dick Dale and the Del-Tones?

No, what I experience is this amazing feeling, both in terms of raw acoustics and an electric sort of sound. It depends upon the mood — your mood, and the mood of the ocean that day.

I’m sure it’s a difficult thing to define to an old landlubber like myself, but does this feeling of which you speak manage to find its way into your music? Do you have ways of expressing it either instrumentally or through your lyrics?

I think so. The title track of my first album, “Waves of Change,” was written when I broke up with the girl of my dreams. It’s about how you can always go to the ocean to find what you’re looking for. And “Gliding on Glass” is kind of a similar thing; it’s about how nothing else really matters when you’re out there on the ocean.

What exactly will be seeing when your tour hits the Jersey Shore? Do you play a solo set or with a band? And is it the same set each time out?

I’ll be playing solo for a half hour or so before the film. Then the director, Jolyon, will be there at each show to talk about the film. And I do mess with the set somewhat — I like to begin in a relatively laid back mood, and the tracks get quicker as I go along. Although my style’s not what you could call crazy.

I would say your style, for the relatively short time in which you’ve been putting it out to the public, is something very much your own. Do you find the same sense of discovery in playing music, developing new facets of your style, as you did over the course of developing your surfing technique?

Humans have a broad palate for music, you know; it’s good to have a broad understanding of things, and music is one of the best ways toward getting to that understanding. I’m constantly learning — I’m happy to say that I’ll die learning; I’ll leave this planet still learning something new.

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