With only mustard! No ketchup nor grilled onions nor sauerkraut!
The heart of surf is beating strong but not up in Lemoore, California where wide-stance’d European girls check-turn monotonous green waves. Where Adriano de Souza is not coming out of a tiny barrel to confused applause. No. It is beating strong underneath the fluorescent lights of an out-building at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
For it is here that the fucking surfers, the goddamn nerds, are mingling, caressing glassed rails, watching Peter Schroff stalk, listening to Devon Howard redefine the egg as a “big boy trike,” talking about surf and surfboards and surfboard rails and the weird minutia that turns us all on and by “all us” I mean the fucking surfers. The goddamn nerds.
Surf Ranch Founders’ Cup is playing on a few televisions but nobody is crowding to witness. It looks slow. It looks uninspired and the few stragglers stopping by seem genuinely confused by it. I ask a handsome boy, “What do you think?” He shrugs. I ask an older man, “What do you think?” He says, “About?”
I go outside and watch Jon Pyzel buy a hotdog. A hotdog with just a bun and the hotdog and mustard. No ketchup nor grilled onions nor sauerkraut. No flair just high performance, straight to the point, get ‘er done.
And here is the damned thing. I’d rather watch Jon Pyzel, extraordinary shaper, John John’s secret weapon, 2x Stab in the Dark winner, eat a hotdog than a competition at Surf Ranch and that is God’s honest truth.
There are no innocents and there are no winners in a war on drugs.
Where were you when Andy died? Is it significant enough to stand out?
I remember the day clear as a cut diamond. Glorious day. An early season east swell had provided beautiful surf. I was back on the screen, lit up, anonymously commenting on BlasphemyRottmouth.com, the premier black ops surf site of the time.
2.58 pm Pacific Standard time, just before 10 am Australian Eastern Daylight Time, a poster named Mark dropped the bomb that Andy was found alone and dead in a Dallas hotel room. Exactly 44 mins passed, 3.42 PST to demolish the Dengue Fever cause of death being propagated by Billabong and the surf media.
It was a biological impossibility given the timeline.
In the febrile hours that followed, amidst the shock and the grief, a protection racket that the surf media had perfected in over 30 years of turning a deliberate blind eye to maintain a return on investment by the largest surf companies on Earth collided with the reality of the most famous addict in surf dying alone at the age of 32.
Andy’s death released a long developing tsunami of bullshit to swamp the World. Kissed by God goes someway to wandering among the wreckage left behind by that tsunami and finally exposing it to the light of day.
There is no real revelation in watching Andy’s story unfold on screen. That belonged natively to the two long form pieces Brad Melekian wrote in the weeks and months following the death for Outside magazine: Last Dropand Crashing Down.
They were strange days. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser had reported methadone found in the hotel room and the mainstream media was awash with the news that the death was being investigated as an overdose. I emailed the editor and he confirmed the paper was standing by the reporting.
Yet Nick Carroll* in the Sydney Morning Herald described rumours of drug overdose as “unavoidable but probably untrue.” In the same article Mark Occhilupo was quoted as saying he did not believe rumours that drug use was behind AI’s death and doubled down on the Dengue fever fiction.
In edition 308 of Surfing World magazine, devoted to Kelly Slater’s Tenth World Title and Andy’s legacy, veteran surf writer Sean Doherty* in a piece entitled Rainbows End which details the last days of AI and the days that followed (Doherty was on Puerto Rico at the time of Andy’s withdrawal from the Search event) fails completely to mention drug use or mental illness as contributing factors in Andy’s downfall.
Could both men, surf journalists for decades with deep friendships amongst the pro surfer ranks, really have plausible deniability about Andy’s rampant drug addiction and mood disorders?
The effect was eery, dissonant. Everyone, including the wider world, could see the Godzilla in the room, the drug use, the crazy mood swings, but in the surf world our most trusted journalists were still making soothing noises and telling us there was nothing to see here. That black was white: just a wayward mosquito bite.
What could cause this deliberate blindness? Of course a desire to protect a friend, a family member, relationships makes perfect sense. But maybe it goes deeper.
The more one gets used to turning a blind eye to protect surfers, sponsors, advertisers the more the blind spot grows until, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, it becomes completely second nature to deny reality, to self-censor the truth.
Melekian’s first article, Last Drop, fell like a bombshell onto this eerie post-truth landscape. It laid out some of the episodes shown in vivid detail in Kissed by God. The near-fatal booze and drug binge in Indo, the stints in rehab, the desire he had to come clean with the public. I figured that article had crossed the rubicon, that there would be a reckoning in surf media at least, maybe the industry: mea culpas from those who had seen and said nothing, and even denied what had become increasingly obvious. The protection racket was doomed. But I was wrong.
Nothing happened. No-one was called to account, in the industry or the media. About the best we got was a lukewarm mea culpa from Sean Doherty in Stab magazine three years ago: “One story that was covered and probably wasn’t covered that deeply at all was Andy Irons’ death,” Sean tells us. “Everything that was written around that time posed more questions than were answered. And: “I don’t think there’s any real journalism actually done in surf magazines, really. It’s just guys trying to avoid meaningful employment and increase their surf time.”
Nick Carroll in his biography of Tom Carroll published three years after Andy’s death offered an even more equivocal accounting of the role of surf journalism musing “Someone’s going to write about this [drug use] one day. I wonder if I should. I’m supposed to be a journalist after all.”
Kissed by God makes both of those positions look blackly comic in hindsight. Billabong was a billion dollar company, Andy Irons was a world-renowned athlete earning millions, triple world champ and a human torch burning up in full view of the public. There was no bigger story, no stronger calling for journalism, despite the ethical minefield involved.
Despite that a viewing of Kissed By God has softened my views. Bruce Irons states in the movie that finger pointing is easy but he and his brother were monsters when it came to drugs. They had agency. According to fellow Kauian Kai Garcia, “What are you going to tell the guy, he’s a grown man”. Taking the failures of surf journalism to the mat is one thing but taking the high ground on drug use is moral hubris of an entirely different order.
If Andy had one thing, it was what Sartre called “radical freedom”. From the age of 16 he was cut loose on the world, cashed up and dealing with screaming highs and crushing lows. According to Soren Kierkegaard the inescapable upshot of this “dizziness of freedom” is anxiety. The greater the anxiety the greater the man in his view. Kissed by God shows with full force how Andy was both attracted by the power of his surfing talent and repelled by the demands and confusions it imposed on him. The pressure to be great, the anxiety, was unrelenting. Surfing is an anxiolytic. And so are drugs and alcohol. Andy was liberal, unencumbered by any restraints, in his embrace of both.
It killed me when Bruce Irons led us barefoot down the path to it to tell the story of their childhood and brutal brotherly rivalry. It killed me late in the film when a desperately drug sick Andy was trying to get home to his pregnant wife. He had it. He was so close. So fucking close…
The film begins, and ends, in the Garden of Eden of Hanalei Bay. In a small green shack with a faded corrugated iron roof. For whatever reason, that little green shack killed me. It killed me when Bruce Irons led us barefoot down the path to it to tell the story of their childhood and brutal brotherly rivalry. It killed me late in the film when a desperately drug sick Andy was trying to get home to his pregnant wife. He had it. He was so close. So fucking close to pulling the return that Genghis Khan spoke of when he came back to the village: “ I return once more to simplicity, I return to purity”. The sweet, kind babe, the little green shack, the unborn son all there waiting for him. But he never made it and that broke my heart. We all know how the story ends.
Bruce carries the weight of the narrative load through the film and he is brilliant. Candid, thoughtful, articulate and brutally honest. The mania and the depression, the drug use, the booze, the pride in the greatness of his brother, the complicity in the downfall, the parasitic out-stretched hands who fed off the man, the sadness. It’s all there.
In his prime, and the film does a terrific job of documenting it, Andy was a magnificent beast. Prime specimen, even if some of his genius can be attributed to “pre-psychotic brilliance”. His battles with Kelly feature but this isn’t the definitive document of the intensity of that rivalry. That honour belongs to Jack McCoy’s Blue Horizon.
If the film is notable for it’s candour, it’s equally notable for it’s absences. There is Graham Stapleburg, former Billabong exec, but no Paul Naude. There are childhood friends and fellow Kauaians but no Blair Marlin, Andy’s interventionist manager. No Blake Petitt, the Billabong team handler who was on Puerto Rico at the time. Questions of professional judgement and duty of care remain unanswered. His people knew. Where were his people?
Andy had that docile blissed out opioid look about him. Was he high? We’ll never know but it’s safe to speculate now that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably off it’s tits on oxycontin. Andy spent most of the session sitting there blissed out. Occasionally an impossibly perfect wave would rear out of the glassy ocean and he would casually spear it riding deep in the tube to the channel.
Andy came back from his sabbatical in 2009 into the 2010 Pro Tour humbled and fragile. I saw him walk up the hill behind Snapper Rocks after an early round loss. Shoulders slumped, leaning into the rain, Lyndie dutifully following behind at a respectful distance. A broken man. He had no place in that circus. But he wanted one more win. That’s all he wanted. And he got it. In Tahiti.
I shared the lineup with him on the evening before the win. It was a holy afternoon at Teahupoo. Soft golden light, glassed out. Fragrant smoke from cooking fires drifting out across the lagoon into the lineup. Andy had that docile blissed out opioid look about him. Was he high? We’ll never know but it’s safe to speculate now that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably off it’s tits on oxycontin. Andy spent most of the session sitting there blissed out. Occasionally an impossibly perfect wave would rear out of the glassy ocean and he would casually spear it riding deep in the tube to the channel.
Towards sunset I found myself sitting next to him as a set wave reared up. It was his wave. He just turned and looked at me and said “You go brah”. He had no reason to give an anonymous donkey – the Bribie analogue of what Henry Miller termed “just a Brooklyn boy” – a prime set wave at the location he was due to surf professionally the next day.
There’s nothing more beautiful in this life than the view from the interior of a Teahupoo set wave at sunset, nothing except the first sight of your newborn child. It was so weird I paddled in ecstatic and faintly troubled.
In Tahiti, even in that moment of his Final triumph the shadow of death seemed to be upon him.
Like Bruce says in the movie, when Lindy was screaming at his door, he knew. He knew straight away Andy was dead. It didn’t surprise. Him or me. In Tahiti, even in that moment of his Final triumph the shadow of death seemed to be upon him.
Kissed by God will ventilate many issues. Framed by the current opioid epidemic and crises in Mental Health, the life and death of Andy Irons will serve to make it possible to “come out”….to say , ‘Yeah I’m fucked up, I got a problem” and not be seen as a pariah or a liability. If you have seen someone close by struggle with bi-polar or deal with unruly thoughts and unrelenting moods yourself that is a liberation. A liberation from the sickly and subterranean lying and hiding the truth. Redundant chumps who have no fucking idea what it is like to wish the ghosts in your head would go to sleep will continue to call for an endless war on drugs. A war against millions of years of evolution. A war against Humanity, a war against Life itself.
The other great question is legacy. BeachGrit principal Derek Rielly said in a 2015 interview that he wasn’t sure Andy had left a legacy, that “ Everything moves forward at such a rate that no one’s looking in the rear view mirror anymore”.
I hold a different view. Paradoxically, by pulling back the curtain on the fatal flaws that made Andy fly too close to the sun, Kissed by God will only strengthen the hold his tragic life and surfing greatness has on surfing’s collective consciousness. His mythical status will strengthen over time, especially as Pro Surfing tightens it’s embrace of the mainstream, making the chances of another Andy increasingly remote. For good and ill. I conclude: Go see the fucking movie, it’s epic.
*I only choose Nick Carroll and Shaun Doherty as representatives of the surf media response, not to grind an axe: au contraire, but because I believe they have easiest right of reply and I can be accountable to them, face to face. I detest cowards but I will run like a squealing pig from Dustin Barca, Kai Garcia, Chava Greenlee or any other member of the WolfPak, no shit.
(Ed. Note: Of all the various medias sending witnesses to Surf Ranch I can authoritatively say we have the best. Jen See will be our eyes and our ears today and we are blessed.)
It’s 4 a.m. We’re in a bus. I try to pretend it’s a boat trip, but it’s not really working. There’s no splishy splashy water sounds, no scent of salt in the air. We’re pointed away from the coast. Landlocked, and destined to be more so.
It’s dark. The lighted signs of Southern California strip malls slide by on repeat. McDonalds. Starbucks. Chevron. Another McDonalds. Maybe the bus is just taking us to the boat. But no, not this time. There’s no boats involved. Just a bus.
In prehistoric time, California’s Central Valley was a sea floor, but not lately. A bunch of geology happened and it became a flat expanse of grasslands. More recently, industrial agriculture, which is neither especially aesthetic nor easy on the nose, took it over. John Muir wrote ecstatically — I think the dude used more exclamation marks than Chas — about the valley’s wildflowers and boundless life. On the slopes of the hills above Gorman, where poppies tint the terrain orange, you can still see a hint of what got Muir so excited.
A week ago I was doing 80 on the 99. I’d been on my way to do an interview at Surf Ranch when the whole thing got monkey wrenched. The Monkey Wrench is such a constant presence in media work that I’m always amazed when anything goes the way it’s planned. The 99 is one of two straight highway ribbons that unwind the length of the valley, which is tilted just slightly. The northern end is a few inches higher than the south. Drive up the map, drive up the terrain.
I’d pulled off the freeway in Tipton, a small town somewhere south of Visalia. An old man sat in the gas station, waiting. If you have a banjo handy, you might give it a little strum about now. Meat sizzled on an expanse of barbecue grills out front. There was another gas station across the street and a Denny’s after that. A loudspeaker called a school girl to the office somewhere nearby. The persistent wind riffled the trees’ leaves. Except for the highway, Tipton’s small grid of streets sat silent.
My phone lit up to tell me to turn around. I wasn’t going to the Surf Ranch this week. I didn’t need to be told twice. I pinned it south. Somewhere past Bakersfield I stopped at a gas station. I bought a bag of peanut M&M’s and poured it into my mouth. I chased it with the remains of a coffee of unspecified vintage. It wasn’t good.
By then, I was delirious from the truck fumes. I began to think this was all some kind of cruel joke that Kelly has decided to play on us all. Wha’d I ever do to you, man? You came to my town, you surfed our waves, I never dropped in on you. I didn’t snake you at the grocery store check-out line or eat out of your salad bowl. Maybe it was something I said. But really, I’m sure I never did anything to deserve this turn. I’m stuck in the Central Valley, miles from any ocean. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Back over the Grapevine where the dumbasses swerve in and out of the truck lane. I curse them vigorously. Then, the hard right turn across the Santa Clara river valley to Ventura. Back to the coast, I breathe more deeply. I made it home in time to surf with dolphins. No regrets.
Now I’m trying again with the whole Surf Ranch thing. That’s the point of this whole 4 a.m. bus trip. It’s Founders Cup weekend. I still don’t quite understand how this thing is supposed to work, but I figure I’ve got three hours in a bus to figure it out. There’s something with teams and rounds. Points, maybe. Someone will win, that seems certain.
And there’s a train that pulls a sled through the water to make a wave every four minutes. The Promethean analogy feels so obvious that it’s all but impossible to ignore. It’s like that footstool in the middle of the room that you keep tripping over, but can’t be bothered to move. It’s just right there.
The sun rises over Gorman. We drink truck stop coffee. I forgot to bring a banjo.
Construction worker says he hasn't had a job in two years since Surf Ranch injury…
On the eve of the wildly anticipated Founders Cup, a former worker at Surf Ranch has appeared with a claim that he was severely injured during its construction.
In response to a post by Kelly, @decayrook, owned by the relatively notable drop-knee bodyboarder Louie Robles, wrote: “I been a wave rider my whole life and an #ironworker for half. I love my job almost as much as getting spat outa the pit. The #WSLsurfranch took both my job and passion. Unfortunately I took fall off the square tube/beam the vessel rolls on I haven’t worked since April 12 2016. As you can imagine, workman’s comp insurance claims suck. Please help turn this tragedy around for one or two of the #ironworkers who built this wave out of a wakeboard pool when all was kept secret Even if it’s for one ride @kellyslater help me out here man. I built your stoke machine please let me ride what we worked on for so long.”
“I’d love to see you ride a wave one day here. That’s why it’s for after all. Thank you for your work on it I/We do appreciate all the time and efforts people have put into the project. I’m sorry about your injury. I never heard about it or the details and I hope you heal up. I take a slight offence to you saying it ‘took your job and passion’ but I really don’t know what occurred to injure you or cause the accident. Can you enlighten me as to how it happened?”
And, from Robles,
“I DM’d you the details but I fell into the vessel trench breaking my scaphoid bone in two preventing me from working and surfing, my two passions, until the surgery is approved, which is a whole other issue. But fortunately it’s being resolved/approved and surgery scheduled soon. Since you have responded it seems progress is being made. Thank you for your time and inspiration.”
Both Kelly and Louie have been contacted for comment.
When Nick Carroll writes I read and under the latest piece revealing the World Surf League’s fascist tendencies in restricting what the surfers participating in tomorrow’s Founders’ Cup can post on social media he wrote:
Where are all the agents in this whole shitshow? Didn’t they used to run ragged over the surf cos on a regular basis? What are they thinking in connection with the WSL and its direction?
And I thought, “Yeah! What do sport’s agents think?” So I called the best one in all of action sport, read the World Surf League’s missive to athletes and pressed record.
To take something that really should be public domain, surfing in the ocean, and putting it behind a wall is already offensive in its lack of democratic visibility. That aside, the above-the-line restriction is counter-intuitive. Surfers have their own identities. It’s not like a real league, like baseball or basketball, where everyone wears the same uniform. The surfers are individuals and have always been individuals. If they’re going to restrict the individual athletes’ participation on tour then they need to pay them a salary.
It would be like competing in X-Games and not being able to promote the partners that got you there. This letter sounds like the Olympics, rule 40, which prohibits athlete sponsors from promoting them, or athletes promoting the brands during the Olympic period. It’s problematic because it restricts the athletes from benefiting the partners who facilitate their participation.
This happening during the time of massive market contraction is a disservice to the industry that for years has encouraged participation and enthusiasm. It really is fascist. I can’t believe it.
And there you go.
The fucking bastards. I haven’t been this incensed since… since… Tom Ford sent me a pair of sunglasses that have very loose arms and they slide down my nose and make my head look extra thin.