Surf’s up, dudes. At least it has been for those of us who have been watching the wide array of surf flicks that have shown up on cable this winter. It’s smart programming: repeated showings of The Endless Summer have helped get some of us through the apparently endless winter we’ve been experiencing.
But I’ve been a surf-flick fan from way back when, from the first time I saw the first Endless Summer in high school, and so getting to see all the newer surf films-Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer II; Step Into Liquid, by his son, Dana; Blue Crush (the one based on the Susan Orlean story); and Stacy Peralta’s Riding Giants-has been an unexpected pleasure, whatever the rationale.
And a reminder of just how important-and neglected-an aspect of American culture surf culture has been. How important-and neglected-the peculiarly American form of spirituality that surfing has evolved is. And, in particular, how important, vital-and neglected-an aspect of American Bohemian culture, American counterculture, Thoreauvian transcendentalist culture surfing has been.
It was this latter aspect-surfing’s longevity as an underappreciated counterculture that Riding Giant s-the new surf documentary with some old, old film footage of early surf culture, dating back to the 40’s and 50’s-made apparent. Made me rethink the place of surf culture. However commercialized and commodified and impure most of its manifestations have become, it retains both a historical and a contemporary relevance that deserves greater respect.
Surf culture: When you think about it, it’s the Third Wave, so to speak, of 20th-century bohemian culture. As influential in its own way as previous, more literary, more celebrated and archived bohemian waves such as Beat and Hip.
Surf culture is the unsung tradition, the Ghost at the Feast, the sea coast of Bohemia. Well, that’s not quite true: It’s very well sung (do I need to invoke Brian Wilson?). It’s just not as copiously documented in words, and maybe that’s really why it hasn’t received its just place in the Eastern intellectual narrative of alternative and/or subversive cultural forces, which focuses on the more easily accessible and anthologizable Beat and Hip movements.
I mean, libraries are buying up Allen Ginsberg’s archives for millions of dollars; Kerouac is a secular saint. But the lesser-known-barely known-often anonymous mythic figures of early surfdom are known but to a few devotees who surf, and those, like myself, who don’t surf, but envy the Life.
Surf culture may be the Ghost at the Feast, but a ghost that may turn out to have more of a life, or an afterlife more influential than the canonical Bohemians. The only one that survives and thrives, on its own, without the need for the academic embalming that the Beats are getting.
Was it Norman Mailer who first framed the Great Debate about the origins and nature of 20th-century American counterculture (hate that word; let’s call it alterna-culture) as Beat vs. Hip? In the oversimplified version of the argument, Beat was more about Being, about Knowing the Mind and achieving Mindfulness-or was it Mindlessness?- or maybe it was fusion of both.
Hip was more about action, about blowing the mind rather than knowing the mind. Beat was about being invisible to the System, Hip was about subverting and destabilizing the System. Beat was contemplative, Hip was confrontational. (Thus the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests. For Beats, the biggest Test was the extra shot of espresso.)
Hip was about changing the System, taking over the System, rather than transcending the System by ignoring it. Beat was more spiritual, Hip more political. A simple dichotomy which Surf Culture disrupts and transcends: It’s bliss-‘n’-ecstasy-seeking like Beat, but it’s action-oriented like Hip.
Surf culture, like Beat culture ,was about dropping out of the system, about devoting yourself to ecstasy, but not in Zen sitting positions. It’s the action-oriented Western version of Zen, Racing Zen, ecstasy in motion, the pursuit of transcendence riding waves rather than the pursuit of ecstasy in the ocean within.
I was thinking about this when reading Ed Sanders’ massive new four-volumes-in-one collection, Tales of Beatnik Glory, while watching Riding Giants on cable. (O.K., I multi-task-I’m not looking for inner peace. To tell the truth, all my life I’ve been fleeing from it.)
Mr. Sanders, the gifted poet, great storyteller, Egyptologist, novelist (check out my fave, Shards of God), Manson investigator ( The Family), mystic and co-founder of the Fugs (with the inimitable Tuli Kupferberg), is to my mind the Last Great Original Beat. He may come to be remembered for having given us a more dimensional, less pretentious vision of Beat culture than Ginsberg and Kerouac, whose great subject was the Beat saint and exemplar, Neal Cassaday, the Dean Moriarty of On the Road-and, frankly, more a speed-freak surfer type than his worshipful Beat acolytes and their academic avatars.
Cassady and Kerouac burned out or guttered out, but Mr. Sanders and his Tales are less about pyrotechnic saints than about the culture of seekers they left in their wake. The ones who tried to make a life outside the mainstream, both physically and metaphysically. The Lower East Side (not East Village-that was already more Hip than Beat) culture of mimeographed free verse screeds, coffeehouse savants, cold-water crash pads peopled by mad eccentrics. The culture Bob Dylan captured in the first and last chapters of Chronicles. If you want more of that-that innocence and irony, that seeking and scrounging sensibility-you’ve got to read Ed Sanders, who brings an enlightened sense of humor largely lacking in Beat literature.
Still, with the perspective of some decades now, it certainly looks like Beat as a culture has, at its best, preserved an integrity-call it detachment-that Hip quickly lost because it was far more marketable. Hip went from counterculture to over-the-counter culture in about five minutes, and left little great literature behind.
Sure, you could say surf culture has been just as commodified and commercialized as Hip, if not more. ( Riding Giants has the courage to concede that it wasn’t the goofy but authentic Endless Summer that created surf culture as a mass-culture phenomenon, but the idiot teensploitation film Gidget. According to Riding Giants, in 1959, before Gidget, there were fewer than 10,000 surfers in America. By 1963, after Gidget: two to three million.)
But a case could be made that, despite millions of crappy, kitschy material emblems, surf culture hasn’t completely lost its soul. Indeed, it’s given birth to an anti-materialist surf subculture explicitly called “soul surfing.”
Surf Culture is insidious and subversive in precisely that way. Some of the spirit survives even in the simulacra and infects bystanders like myself.
I’ve followed surf culture since high school, when-even on Long Island, of all places-there was an embryonic surf culture centered around the South Shore’s Gilgo Beach, and some of my high-school friends virtually dropped out to ride the puny Guyland waves. And then a California guy I knew at Yale dropped out to surf, too.
Through them, I was introduced to various surf legends who were Gurus of the Sublime Surf Drop-Out before Timothy Leary turned it into chemical orthodoxy. To the idea that surfing wasn’t a sport so much as a mission, a spiritual quest, the cosmic vision of the Ride. The Wave as some mystical Eternal Form that allows one union with some Higher Source.
Years later, I was reminded of all that when I was interviewing a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar who happened to live in Huntington Beach, Calif. Huntington Beach, I’m sure you know, happens to be the home of the International Surfing Museum (one of several such competing institutions) and claimed to be the real Surf City of Jan and Dean song fame (another honor hotly fought over by various surftown chambers of commerce).
But Huntington Beach was also home to various spiritual, soul-surfing and even Christian surfer tribes, and I began to pick up on similarities in the rhetoric of their language and the literature of the Dead Sea Scroll writers. (A wave is a kind of scroll unrolling, isn’t it, dude?)
Most scholars believe the Scroll writers were members of a first-century A.D. purist separatist sect known as the Essenes, based at Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea. Qumran was, let’s face it, an ancient beach town! Inhabited by purists who rejected the materialism and orthodoxy of the mainstream culture of the time and sought a more spiritual existence.
Of course, you can’t surf the Dead Sea (at least I think you can’t, but maybe Christian surfers would say that Jesus “walking” on the waters of Galilee was an early surfing reference?). But the Essenes, like the early surfers, were transcendentalists, searching-like Emerson’s seekers-for an encounter with the Oversoul, in one form or another.
O.K., it’s a long way from the Essenes and Emerson’s “Oversoul” to Bodhi and Spicoli. But I’d argue that these deeply, well, compromised and derivative surf icons have had an insidious subversive influence on the culture that in their own way might surpass that of Dean Moriarty, at least outside academia.
Just about everybody knows Jeff Spicoli, the surfer stoner dude from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (see my column on “Dude” in the July 7, 2003, Observer). You laugh at the idea of Spicoli as a bohemian icon, and yes, Spicoli’s a comic character, a caricature, a clown-but it’s a great Sean Penn role, and he somehow endows Spicoli with a dignity that one senses comes from the integrity of his deep engagement with The Wave.
It’s here I’d like to interpose my Maynard G. Krebs Dog-Whistle Theory of the pop-culture transmission of subversive, sometimes spiritual ideas. The unacknowledged influence of stupid pop-culture icons on the dissident tradition in American life.
You may not recall Maynard G. Krebs, but he was the “beatnik” on the idiot 60’s sitcom Dobie Gillis.
Played by Bob Denver (later, of course, famous for Gilligan’s Island), Maynard G. Krebs was about as inauthentic a representation of Beat culture as you could possibly get. With his beret and goatee signifiers and his unconvincing invocation of Thelonious Monk, he was a travesty.
And yet, it is the mysterious, inexorable power of mass culture in America to have this effect: If just a tiny fraction of those millions who saw Maynard G. Krebs were motivated enough to listen to Thelonious Monk, and only a tiny fraction of those who listened to Monk made the transition, crossed over from the culture of Maynard G. Krebs to the culture of Thelonious Monk, it was enough to sustain an entire alterna-culture. You just needed a few people to hear the siren’s song, the dog’s whistle inaudible to most. I’ve met old Beats who told me they were turned on by reading about Beats in Life magazine when they were kids in Kansas. Ed Sanders was one.
With Spicoli, it wasn’t as if he created surfer culture, but comic as his character was designed to be, he communicated a blithe, good-natured, blissed-out surfer Attitude that was universally appealing, again thanks to something Sean Penn brought to the role. Maybe it was a kind of demented Detachment, stupid-fresh Surfer Soul.
Dignity: Penn gave Spicoli’s recurrent refusal to come to class on time a surprising depth; it became a gesture akin to Bartleby the Scrivener’s cosmic “I would prefer not to.” (And Melville wrote about surfing-true story! In an excerpt from Mardi, published in Matt Warshaw’s excellent surf-lit anthology Zero Break, Melville even refers to the wave as a “scroll.”)
That was what made Riding Giants so interesting. The casual, cheerful rejection by early surfers of conventional American life in almost all its aspects: ambition, career, conventionality. Theirs was a great “No” in a sunburnt California way. They lived a nomad life, without a roof over their heads much of the time, unconcerned with material possessions beyond their boards, living for the ever-receding dream of the Perfect Wave. What could be more Transcendental?
Which brings us to Bodhi, the contemporary incarnation of old-school surf sensibility and spirituality-with a couple dozen bank robberies thrown in.
You probably recall the plot of Kathryn Bigelow’s myth-making Point Break. Keanu Reeves is an F.B.I. agent investigating a gang of surfers suspected of pulling off bank jobs wearing the masks of Nixon, Reagan and Johnson-“The Ex-Presidents,” as they call themselves. They steal not to get rich, but to support their Search for Great Waves. And they are led by, yes, Bodhi, short for Bodhisattva, the enlightenment-seeking Buddha.
Bodhi is given to making gurulike pronouncements to his followers (when they’re not robbing banks) about how surfing shows “those dead souls inching along the freeways in their metal coffins [that] the human spirit is still alive.”
Bodhi is an ambiguous figure. Played ( don’t laugh) by Patrick Swayze. Who (I’m telling you, don’t laugh) is really better than you’d imagine, if you discount the carefully feathered hair that makes it seem like he spends more time in the salon than in the surf.
Nonetheless, Bodhi is representative of a certain genuine type. I know: One of my high-school friends became a Christian surfer, and I’ve heard the whole Mystical Wave Rap (though he doesn’t, so far as I know, rob banks). The politicized crimes in Point Break (“Presidents” robbing banks) gives Bodhi his ambiguous, sinister edge-like Gandhi if he held up liquor stores). Spicoli is the Beat, Bodhi the Hip surf icon.
Sometimes I feel the rebellious part of me torn between the Bodhi and the Spicoli archetypes. I’m grateful to surf culture and its icons. To the old-school, pre- Gidget, bohemian surfers for their anti-materialist, anti-careerist, anti-conventionalist sentiment: They opened up a space for that in American culture, a Walden Pond of the mind that we’d miss if not for them.
Surf culture: long may it wave.