I asked my dad recently if he was disappointed or puzzled or otherwise confounded by the insane amount of time I spent surfing. He thought about it. I watched him think about it. He’d gone along with my new interest way back when, no problem, backed it even, got me a SURFER subscription for Christmas, paid for or did matching funds on my first half-dozen boards, drove me two or three times a year from our Venice home to Swami’s, where I found my version of enlightenment in those long mushy rights below the gilded domes of the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship Temple. But I think he was just putting the time in, as a good person and a caring father. Two years earlier I’d been briefly but intensely into drag racing. Surfing would no doubt go the same way. But no. It went from obsession to career, and the career eventually funneled down into this seven-day-a-week website. There is no unbraiding me from surfing, at this point.
So maybe the question caught my dad a bit off guard. Finally he replied. At first, and for some years after, he didn’t understand why I was so taken with surfing. “Then,” he finished, “I saw it was your art, at which point it all made sense.”
I smiled. We both did. A nice moment.
Except he’s kidding himself, or kidding me, maybe both, and possibly without meaning to. I’m in my 60s, my dad turns 95 next month, and a long time ago, about 10 years ago, an unspoken deal was made between us to knock any and all edges off our relationship and as a rule steer at all times toward the positive. So I didn’t disabuse him on this generous and very likely made-up-on-the-spot take on my surfing obsession.
But for the record, Dad, no, surfing was never my art. Not for a moment. And I gave the matter a lot of thought, I had to, it was forced upon me, coming of age as I did in the late ’60s and early ’70s when surfing’s “sport-art-lifestyle” debate was at its flowery navel-gazing Ram Dass-boosted peak. “Here we are gathered together on this planet,” one article, by John Severson no less, begins, “and it’s 1970, and we dig surfing—whatever that means. We’re surfers, and it seems strange, but we can’t agree on what we're doing or why. Is it a sport, art, or soul experience? What’s in our brother's head?” This kind of warmed-over hippy mash was served up every issue. Mind you, it was surrounded by Art Brewer photos, so it went down easier.
Surfing is beautiful. Spiritual, sometimes, if you lean that way. There is without question an artistic component to what we do—or what Tom Curren does, anyway. Surfing, furthermore, does not fit comfortably in the world of sport, as the WSL inadvertently reminds us on a near-weekly basis. We were planted, and grew, and thrived, on a remote and isolated corner of the sporting landscape, where almost all sports-world metrics and terms—points scored, win-loss percentage, buzzer-beaters, ratings—have to be imported and jerry-rigged into service.
But still . . . sport, not art, is the box that should be ticked.
If you agree, and were here in Queen Anne, we could adjourn to a nearby watering hole (I vote for Targy’s) and barstool our way to a dozen good arguments in support. Here’s one that came to me just recently.
Artists sometimes produce great work as seniors. Let’s say 65-plus. A tiny percentage of surfers can still ride well at that age, but only relative to how the rest of us geezers surf. Past 30—or let’s be generous, past 40; we don't know yet for sure that Kelly Slater is not a secret Sunday Joint reader—all we do is dig our leathery and hopefully skin-cancer-free heels in as deep as possible and try to slow the rate of decline. Same as any other full-body aerobic-based fast-twitch athlete does. We see these happy silver-topped pensioners and are rightfully impressed, cheered-up, inspired.
But there is no surfing version of what 79-year-old Bob Dylan did with 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways. I will never not feel slow-witted while listening to Dylan, which at times makes me resentful of his entire trip, but “Murder Most Foul” grabbed me from the jump and held me for all 17 droning history-spiked minutes. Or how about Al Green, just a few months ago, age 77, dropping a knockout Memphis soul version of Velvet Underground’s “Perfect Day”? Chrissie Hynde’s latest, an album of Dylan covers, is okay, not great, but her 2019 jazz LP sounds old and new at the same time, and her 68-year-old voice is nimbler, smoother, more chill, more stiletto and fatale and perfect than it’s ever been.
Changing the medium from music to painting, I yield to Edo-period printmaker Hokusai, who at age 89 said, “If Heaven will grant me but ten more years, I promise to be a truly great artist.”
We don’t do that. We get to ride waves. They get to make art.
And EOS gets to trim smoothly into 2024, thanks in large part to all you Sunday Jointers who not only subscribe to EOS but also dropped some dollars into the recent fundraiser. I’m still waiting on a final tally (some of the donations will not arrive until January), and my guess is that there will be some belt-tightening in the months ahead, but we absolutely got a last-minute Joint-boosted surge, and THANK YOU for that, some of you even donated twice, and my Christmas cup of good cheer is overflowing.
Happy Holidays, and see you next week!
PS: Hold up.
PPS: Fred Hemmings.
PPPS: Part of my problem with accepting or even thinking about surfing as an art form, and I've admitted this elsewhere but it should be acknowledged again here, is linguistic. Art-leaning phrases when applied to surfing put me off. Art-leaning phrases when applied to art, for that matter, put me off. So for example, when it is suggested that what I’m doing in the surf makes me “a dancer on a moving stage” (Severson again), I take off running in the opposite direction. And waiting for me there with that big jock-snapping grin is of course Fred Hemmings, who famously and succintly told us that surfing is a “clean, healthy S-P-O-R-T” so I think I’ve just played myself with this Joint because I have what amounts to a sideline career eye-rolling Fred Hemmings.
I still think it's a sport. But maybe not S-P-O-R-T.
[Photo grid, clockwise from top left: John Severson does a coffin; Swami Vivekananda; Tom Curren by Rick Goddard; Chrissie Hynde; football fan; “The Great Wave” by Hokusai. Surfer-artist Chris Lassen in 1980, by Dana Edmunds. Detail from 1970 Rick Surfboards ad. Dorian Paskowitz. Bob Dylan.]