Matt Warshaw obits on surf culture pioneer John Severson, dead at eighty-three.
On Friday, the surf media pioneer John Severson affixed his angel wings and soared to heaven, perhaps bumping into BeachGrit’s Michael Kocher in the queue.
Now, Severson, who was eighty three, really was something. A hell of an artist, a swinging filmmaker and a businessman who turned the childish act of balancing on a surfboard into a fabulously profitable enterprise via the magazine Surfer.
Obits on the old man are everywhere. But no one can articulate a fellow surfer’s legacy better than surf historian Matt Warshaw.
BeachGrit: Here’s a story you’ll like. I was visiting the office of The Surfer’s Journal, being shown around the joint by its editor when I was introduced to the owner. Oh, Mr Severson, I cried. What a pleasure it is to meet you. You’re the voice, the creator of surf media. Of course, as you know, it wasn’t Severson but Steve Pezman. So who the hell was John Severson and why does he matter?
Warshaw: You made Steve Pezman’s day. A hot young gun making a fool of himself, and the idea that he (Pez) could be mistaken for the great Sevo. Steve’s a big gentle honey bear, but he’s got some bastard deep inside, and he can be as insecure as the rest of us, so that’s a double win for him.
In 1968 when the psychedelic train pulled into town, John, who was 35, ancient, climbed onboard, rang the bell, and drove the fucking thing.
BeachGrit: Fuck, wait a minute, that’s a lazy open-ended question. I might’ve just said, how about you write an obit for free? Okay. You know him? What kind of man was he?
Warshaw:John was first and foremost an artist. Sort of like Andrew Kidman or Thomas Campbell, where the first thought every morning is to pick up a camera or a brush or a pencil and just start making something. The big difference between Severson and all those guys is that he was also a business genius. SURFER was a hit from issue #1. He spun off all kinds of things, posters, shirts, books, even mugs, and he just never seemed to put a foot wrong when making a deal. And then finally, and most spectacularly, in 1968 when the psychedelic train pulled into town, John, who was 35, ancient, climbed onboard, rang the bell, and drove the fucking thing.
BeachGrit: God he could draw, couldn’t he.
Warshaw: The early stuff is fantastic, the later stuff is sentimental shit. John was the Rod Stewart of surf artists.
BeachGrit: First question. Severson sure do matter. One of the first surf filmmakers. A massive influence in that regard, yes?
Warshaw:He’s famous for starting SURFER, the “Bible of the Sport” and everything, and that’s what will go on his tombstone. But he was probably a better filmmaker than he was a publisher. Or at least just as good. Pacific Vibrations is his magus opus, and it’s kind of too big a bummer for its own good, what with all the dire environmental messaging and everything. But as a craftsman, I think he was the best, and that includes Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman there.
BeachGrit: And then he started a magazine with the best name ever, The Surfer, which later became Surfer. So he kicked off the whole surf media thing, yeah?
Warshaw:There were a couple shitty little surf magazines just before surfer. Greg Noll did one, and it was fish wrap. SURFER made it stick.
The early stuff is fantastic, the later stuff is sentimental shit. John was the Rod Stewart of surf artists.
BeachGrit: He had this fabulous role call of talent, the artist Rick Griffin, photographer Ron Stoner, write Drew Kampion, and, yeah, Steve Pezman. It wasn’t as if surf media kicked off with some crummy zine. What do you think Severson’s opinion of current surf media would be?
Warshaw:He had the best eye for talent, like nobody before or since. He knew who was great and who was just merely very good, and he also knew how to develop talent. Ron Stoner was promising when he first arrived at SURFER, but John arguably turned him into the Stoner we now revere. John paid Ron, for starters, buffed him out with the best equipment, and most importantly was able to express to Ron—John himself was an excellent photographer—how to move around a lineup, try different angles, experiment. Ron needed that.
BeachGrit:You think he’d be enjoying Surfer, as is, 2017?
Warshaw:John had a huge friendly ever-present smile, but he was a shark, maybe the biggest surf media shark ever, it’s how he did what he did for that amazing 12-year run. Velvet glove, iron fist, John didn’t invent it, but it applied it better than anyone in surf. All that said, at his core John was really upbeat and positive. Loved his work, loved his hobbies, I don’t ever saw much of a distinction between the two. He viewed his life and one continuous art piece, and demanded a lot of himself and others, but also was stood back often and beamed at how it was all turning out. I think he’d find things to enjoy about SURFER today, and I’m sure he’d be thinking, always, of how he could improve it.
BeachGrit: Had a bitchin joint at Cottons, yeah? Did he surf into dotage?
Warshaw:He had the best beachfront house at Cottons, back when the Marines were still keeping the place mostly on lockdown. John lived next door to Nixon, and it turned out that the President either had John’s house bugged, or was monitoring all the comings and goings, and John and his family got freaked out enough by all the Secret Service guys, and the weird clicks on the phone, the whole early ‘70s paranoia, that John sold the magazine, handed the publisher keys to Pezman, and moved to Maui. Retired for good at age 36. Surfed and painted right up to the end, I believe.
BeachGrit:How do you think his iconic quote stacks up in 2017: “In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”
Warshaw: Isn’t that why we still do it?