[8 March 2009]
California, that fount of American cultural invention, has birthed many of our postwar cultural talismans, maybe none more idiosyncratic as popular surf culture. Looking back on it there’s a quaintness to its frantic assertion of the bohemian; we can see it now, with the distance of two generations, as a first innocent acting out on impulses of personal freedom and self-identity that would show up, by turns joyfully and tragically, across the nation before long.
It appeared to have crashed its way into America’s evolving popular culture more or less fully formed; that wave that bombarded the nation from the left coast around 1961 helped widen the idea of the brand of California; it was something that (initially) had nothing to do with the movies, and everything to do with celebrating youth and populism; it further established the Golden State as the capital of possibilities in a nation of possibilities.
What’s been left largely unsaid has been the deeper history of the bohemian surf ethos: its origins not in California but in Asia just after World War II, its deep roots in Polynesia and Hawaii before its statehood, its history stretching back more than 200 years, and the way the sport insinuated itself into every part of modern media. Pop Surf Culture a splashy, capacious and readable history of the scene, brings together the strands of surfing’s multi-sourced past.
The outlaw aspects of surfing made for good PR in the ascendancy of the West Coast surf craze of the 1960s; fortunately, the authors go back further, examining both the sport’s true antecedent roots, and the star of its outlaw status:
The original Hawaiian people had set sail over 2,000 miles from their original home in Bora-Bora somewhere between A.D. 450 and 600. This was a time when seafarers of other civilizations were content to sail beside the bulk of a charted continental coast. These master Polynesia seamen had also figured out how to bodysurf and belly board before reaching Hawaii.
The practice, the authors relate, “had been banished by missionaries who had invaded the islands in the late 1700s.” At that point, surfing largely went underground, an illicit pursuit that never fully went away.
In the early part of the 20th century, a pre jet-setter contingent of European and American culturalities began traveling to various islands in the South Pacific. Artists such as Gauguin, Picasso and Man Ray began to apply tastes of Polynesian, Micronesian and African carving to their Euro bohemian sophistication. Hawaii would become the main tropical outpost that accommodated the exotic wanderlust spirit, as a nightlife center was built on an oceanside swampland in the southeastern section on Honolulu—a township known as Waikiki…
Surfing was the stuff of popular writers; Mark Twain mentions surfing in his early book Roughing It, and Jack London wrote of his first observations of a surfer in 1907.
From Hawaii, surfing vaulted into California. Duke Kahanamoku and George Freeth had a hand in fully reviving the sport in the early years of the 20th century, using Waikiki’s status as surf culture’s epicenter to advance the sport into West Coast life.
California’s status as a kind of entrepreneurial proving ground for populist culture hadn’t fully coalesced; the motion picture industry was the dream factory, of course, but that was an outside-looking-in experience. The moviegoer can only dream of living the larger-than-life existence of a Movie Star. Surf culture filled the participatory void. Surfing was a movie you could be the star of; all you needed was a board and an attitude.
Both were in abundance as surfing took hold in California in the ‘50s. The book briskly recounts, with its own narrative and the views of contemporaries, the work of innovators such as Woody Brown, whose experience as an aeronautical instructor helped him invent the catamaran and introduce aerodynamic principles to surfing; Bob Simmons, the legendary loner who experimented with different, lighter surfboard materials like balsa and fiberglass; talented, charismatic Mickey Dora, the Bob Dylan of the surfing scene, a man whose exploits and persona fused a mystique to the sport, one that dovetailed with the rising cult of rock ‘n’ roll personalities in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The movies—that global popular art form on the rise—would fully cement the surf aesthetic in the mind of the public. One in particular helped mainstream surfing culture. The Endless Summer Bruce Brown’s 1965 travelogue of surfers in search of the perfect wave at beaches around the world, “marked the first time that an authentic surf film hit the consciousness of mainstream cinema.” The authors explain how surf culture tried to adapt to the wider culture well after its heyday in the ‘60s. Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hit film Pulp Fiction gave such songs as “Miserlou” by Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, “Jack the Ripper” by Link Wray and other surf-era classics a new lease of life. But such inspired appropriations of the surf-culture soundtrack were the exception. For the most part, by century’s end surfing had become Surfing Inc.:
Surfing as a bohemian pursuit might as well have been a hundred years ago. Instead, it was replaced by what seemed an aggressive, competitive, extreme-contact sport. Once the opposite of banal, average life, surfing had become just another business model.
Throughout, the authors have the good sense to realize that the power of the surfing story is as much in the showing—the rich visual panorama—as in the telling. No walls of narrative here; every page is crowded with images of the corresponding period, perfectly in keeping with the coffee table book format. Page by page, chapter by chapter, what emerges is a visually-driven history as organic in its expression as it is comprehensive in scope.
Chidester and Priore could have phoned this in; a splashy, cursory overview of the surf scene might have been enough reportage on a lifestyle that has largely faded from public view. Because the authors take it seriously, Pop Surf Culture goes further. More than a catalog of beach-blanket movies or a survey of surf music, it connects the historical dots between the surf culture we experienced domestically, the economic culture that made it marketable, and the foreign cultures that made it possible in the first place.