Matt Warshaw dissects the man behind the legend of Bunker Spreckels.
Bunker77 is a documentary, or shrine, built to celebrate the surfer Bunker Spreckels, who died aged 27 after walloping a fifty-mill inheritance in six years. The film was made by fan-boy Takuji Masuda and features animations, talking heads, montages, you know the style.
I’ve always liked the photos and stories that surrounded Adolph Bernard Spreckels III, the great-grandson of German-born sugar baron Claus Spreckels and stepson to the movie star Clarke Gable. Bunker was lucky enough to pal up with the Californian photographer Art Brewer and writer Craig Stecyk just as his star was starting to rise.
Good-looking, dangerous stud with money meets a brilliant young photographer and writer equals…posterity.
Is the film good? The Hollywood Reporter writes:
“Masuda seldom penetrates Spreckels’ dazzling levels of artifice and reinvention in a way that yields much psychological or sociological insight, instead retreating into repetitive waves of oh-gee-wow hagiography.
“Bunker77 is yet another paean to a reckless, instinctive ground-breaking whose own stylistic stance is familiar to the point of cliche.”
It might be heretic to ask, but the review raised a good point. Was Bunker Spreckels the surfer, the man, anything even close to the legend?
Who else dare we ask but Matt Warshaw, custodian of all things surf etc.
BeachGrit: So the movie Bunker77 is doing the rounds. It is a beautifully made film, even if it is cut from the same cloth stylistically as Dogtown, Bustin Down the Door etc, with terrific archival shots and talking head interviews. Watch it and you’re convinced Bunker Spreckels is the “true American rebel” and the “most radical surfer on the North Shore”. Are these posits true?
Warshaw: Bunker came up with the tucked-under rail, which a lot of people who know more than I do about board design claim was the last big important piece of the shortboard revolution to lock into place. He was one of the first guys to ride Backdoor. But “most radical surfer on the North Shore” is way overcooked. 1969 was Bunker’s big push in Hawaii, and on the North Shore that year you got Lopez, BK, Reno, Jock, Hakman, Hamilton, Cabel, Sam Hawk, Jimmy Lucas — it was Murderer’s Row. Bunker was good, but he wasn’t gonna out-radical any of those guys.
How about the “rebel” part?
Well, he sure looked the part. Starts off super pretty, with a touch of fuck-off, then the fuck-off takes over and takes him from pretty to louche. Ends up kinda paunchy, hairline in retreat, but still cool as fuck. Beyond that, I guess you can make a case that surfing was such a powerful force that it led Bunker to torch his life, more or less. People think that’s romantic — chase the dream, light the whole box of matches at once, rather than normalize your trip.
You can roll your eyes and the excess, and the waste, and the pointless OD. But Bunker also followed a surfing path that wasn’t laid out for him. Pro surfing wasn’t a thing hit his peak, and even if it had been he was never going to head in that direction. So he took his big bag of cash, walked away from the family connections and career opportunities, and went full swashbuckler
Sounds like you’re not buying the rebel deal.
I’m not immune to that kind of glamour, or whatever you’d call it. I spent my childhood tagging along after Jay Adams, and I still go pretty swoony over Mickey Dora. Beautiful people full of id and flair and aggression. But if I think about it for more than a few seconds, the ridiculousness comes through. Especially when the rebel in question isn’t rebelling against anything that matters. Jay Adams never actually rebelled, he was just hardcore ADD. Christian Fletcher rebelling against Damien Hardman, when Christian’s getting all the magazine covers? Fuck off. Rebellious and radical and platinum-grade cool, I mean, that’s Ali and Bowie and not many others. Dora, if you insist on putting a surfer in there. But Dora surfed like Miles Davis played trumpet, and if his life choices were questionable — criminal, even — he invented a surf-at-all-costs ethos that the rest of us can relate to, if not emulate. Bunker, to me, comes down to good looks, a decent skill set in the water, huge charisma, and a willingness to blow through stacks of money. I don’t know. Give him points for style, but a train wreck is still a train wreck. I’ll watch like anybody else, and maybe even feel a twinge of jealously. I appreciate cool. But I love being 56 and healthy. “Hope I die before I get old” — Pete Townsend’s been cringing about that since his late 20s.
Starts off super pretty, with a touch of fuck-off, then the fuck-off takes over and takes him from pretty to louche. Ends up kinda paunchy, hairline in retreat, but still cool as fuck.
You ever talk to Art Brewer, Spreckels’ personal photographer, about his time with Bunker?
No, but the stories I believe are epic. And I should add that, without all those incredible Brewer photos, we wouldn’t even be talking about Bunker Spreckels. Bunker in many ways was Art’s muse. He made Art a better photographer, helped bring out the genius. That whole corrupted Golden Boy thing Bunker had going on was powerful enough that Art had to pay attention, had to lift his game, had to shoot more than just guys riding waves. Art and Bunker were very good for each other.
Why lionise a drug-fucked man who was consumed by vanity ? Is it a retro-fashion thing, the way he looks in his fur coats and headbands? The move in surfing towards going straight on thick, no-rockered boards, skill replaced by showiness?
Fashion and showiness, for sure. But I think more. You can roll your eyes and the excess, and the waste, and the pointless OD. But Bunker also followed a surfing path that wasn’t laid out for him. Pro surfing wasn’t a thing when he hit his peak, and even if it had been he was never going to head in that direction. So he took his big bag of cash, walked away from the family connections and career opportunities, and went full swashbuckler —became a Zap Comix surfing cartoon character. Rock-and-rolled it to death. I mean, who knows? Most of us are as boring as we are because we don’t have a choice. Give a person enough money and charm and good looks and maybe it’d be hard not to become Bunker Spreckels.