‘You’ll never hear surf music again’
– Jimi Hendrix : ‘Third Stone From The Sun’
I have never surfed but I understand the obsessive mentality of bliss seekers; hours, days and sometimes weeks of preparation for maybe ten to fifteen seconds of pure joy before you wipe out.
But enough about my sex life.
Kenneth Anger showed some of his newer works at Shunt Lounge a few years back and I was particularly struck by his short My Surfing Lucifer which he had assembled from footage bequeathed to him by a dead surfer buddy. To a soundtrack of ‘Good Vibrations’, played by Psychic TV, the ageless sorcerer of the edit suite had combined all of the best of the wave shots into one exhilarating, impossible ride.
The star of the film, millionaire playboy Adolf Bunker Spreckles III, committed suicide when he became physically unable to surf.
(Bunker Spreckels montage above is not the unavailable My Surfing Lucifer)
A board, a golden beach and a sun-kissed doll was the type of scenario everybody wanted to dream about in 1963. California lens flare always seemed more attractive than nightmare landscapes of nuclear ash. Even in those far off cold war days the Beach Boys already seemed out of date. They looked more or less like the Barber Shop outfit their father Murray Wilson had always wanted, with preppy haircuts, identical striped shirts and strategic guitars to hide their less-than-athletic frames.
Their music though was another thing entirely: enthusiastic, elegantly mounted and a severe hook fest, so along with Jan and Dean, The Challengers, The Surfaris, Bud Shank and Dick Shaun’s sublime performance in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, the Beach Boys made surf hip…
…for a while. It was only the stubborn genius of Brian Wilson that maintained the Beach Boys’ traction into the late sixties and when that imploded the ‘surf scene’ dropped out of the pop culture mainstream. It never stopped of course and, despite the rise in popularity of other extreme sports, its bronzed adherents remain clear eyed and relentless in their pursuit of the ‘big one’.
Huntington Beach Surf Museum
I was aware that Huntington Beach had competed hard to win the coveted official title of Surf City from Santa Cruz, so I was a tad disappointed on my recent visit to the HB Surf Museum.
As the platinum blonde Jean Harlow told her first husband on their wedding night: ‘I was expecting something bigger.’ It’s more of a large living room filled with surfing knick-knacks than an actual museum. There was no one to greet me as I entered the pleasant looking one story building so I spent ten minutes or alone inspecting legendary boards of legendary surfers, a few vintage posters, a custom guitar donated by Dick Dale and a framed platinum disc of Pet Sounds signed by Brian Wilson.
No American public space can exist without screens so a plasma abomination played The Endless Summer, my least favorite surfing film.
Oh – at one point an attractive young woman sporting a sixties style pony-tail emerged from a side room with large feather duster. Surprisingly she failed to ask me how my day was going and half heartedly began to dust a few championship trophies. It was then that I realized that this was an area designated only for solitary pleasures. Admission was free so I dropped a couple of dollars in a glass bowl as I left.
I’ve had worse experiences but I was no closer to understanding why the surf scene has bewitched my imagination for so long.
Making my way past the hand-painted board stores on Main Street my thoughts turned to the ‘California Death Ray’ that linked Dennis Wilson (the only Beach Boy who could actually surf) to Charles Manson to poor Sharon Tate to Bobby Beausoliel to futuristic race wars conducted on armed dune buggies and back to Baphomet blessed Kenneth Anger.
projecting the dreams
of a dying Sun God
into the ether
I reflected on the great Writer/Director John Milius, who not only made my favorite big wave picture Big Wednesday, but also managed to somehow turn the original Conan the Barbarian into a kind of brutal body-culture surf movie.
I reconciled all of these stray thoughts into the pleasing notion that California is quite simply projecting the dreams of a dying Sun God into the ether. A place where the shimmering surfer dude ghosts of Bill and Ted still haunt the shoreline and even now, somewhere up along the Pacific Coast Highway, a translucent transistor radio is playing Pipeline by the Chantays.
Jimi may have been a certified guitar genius (now playing in an all-star line up on Sirius Minor) but he certainly underestimated the lasting attraction of the wild surf.
Photo: Sean Keenan