Andy's death released a tsunami of bullshit.
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 Drop and 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.
Writer JFK Miller spent years as a journalist in Communist China. He describes a process whereby the real victory of the Chinese censors is that the writer eventually self censors. The habituation to avoid offence and fall foul of the authorities makes the writer install their own “killer inside me”.
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.