The surfer-shaper icon turns seventy today!
Did you know that the Hawaiian surfer Gerry Lopez turns seventy today? Oh of course you didn’t. We eat up our stars, lick the bones and then go back to our crass digital lives.
A seventy-year-old man? Eee-yew!
And so we turn, again, to Matt Warshaw, the Seattle historian whose Encyclopedia of Surfing stands as a lone bulwark against what Dane Reynolds calls the “pandering bullshit and exploitation of surfing”.
Recently, Matt flew down to Ventura, California, to be a talking head on a new Gerry Lopez documentary produced by Patagonia.
BeachGrit: First, can you believe that swinging Asian ripper who steals the show in Big Wednesday, who catwalked Pipe etc, is seventy today?
Nobody catwalked Pipe before Gerry. Jock Sutherland, my third-favorite surfer as a kid, rode Pipeline like he had a stick of dynamite up his ass. Lopez rode it like Audrey Hepburn stepping out of a cab on 5th Ave.
Did Lopez also not catwalk Pipe?
No, he catwalked the hell out of it. He invented it. Nobody catwalked Pipe before Gerry. Jock Sutherland, my third-favorite surfer as a kid, rode Pipeline like he had a stick of dynamite up his ass. Lopez rode it like Audrey Hepburn stepping out of a cab on 5th Ave.
There’s a dignity to Gerry that is, I think, non-existent in surfing. One of my first gigs in the biz was to interview Lopez for a caption and he referred to himself as a “broke-dick.” Washed up, nothing. He must’ve been forty-five.
There is towering dignity, yes. But the self-effacing bit is nonsense. Or not nonsense, exactly. It is strategic and disarming. Lopez, and I say this with the utmost respect, is incredibly calculating and shrewd. You only ever see what he wants you to see, when and where he wants you to see it. Which makes him, in this live-streaming tell-everything age, all the more attractive. He’s the last mysterious man in surfing.
How significant a surfer was Gerry in the early to mid-seventies?
At the height of his powers, if you’d stacked the reputation of every other big-dick surfer into a pile, it would have come up just below Gerry’s chin. David Nuuhiwa was like that too, but a few years earlier.
Where do you place him in the pantheon of surf greats?
Duke, Dora, Lopez, Slater, Curren.
Talk me through his pivotal moments: Pipe, G-Land pioneer, shift to Hollywood etc.
I think it really just comes down to Pipe. The Hollywood thing was a bust. G-land— he was great there, but not first, and Peter McCabe was hot on his tail. What Gerry did at Pipeline between 1969 and 1974, though, was just breathtaking. It still moves me, today, how beautiful he was, how fluid. He stuck vertical drops, threaded huge tubes, came out in a huge cloud of spit, and didn’t even change expression. Kept his hands low, knees and shoulders and hips relaxed. Rory Russell got as a deep as Gerry at Pipeline, but Rory sort of looked like a plucked chicken by comparison.
Do you believe his move to Oregon and the world of snow in 1992 was reflective of his belief that if he’d stayed on the North Shore he would’ve been, I dunno, poisoned by the crowds, the scene?
At some point, if you’re thinking big-picture, you move on to the next thing. How many tubes do you need? I’m not saying that rhetorically. It’s a hard question to answer, and back then surfers weren’t gorging on Skeleton Bay or Surf Ranch, so tube-time was harder to clock. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Gerry hit a point where he just felt he didn’t need to spend all that time and energy doing something he’d been doing, at the highest possible level, for 15 or 20 years. You move on to the next thing. You try something else. And hopefully, as Gerry has done, you keep in touch with the old thing too. He’s ridden a lot of great waves in the last 25 years.
Is any of his cool confected? Is there a dark or a darkish side to Gerry?
For sure yes on the first question — except I think that’s true for almost every cool person. Confecting isn’t a crime if you do it as well as Gerry does. It is, arguably, part of the cool itself. As far as a possible dark side, yeah, I think so. I don’t actually know much about Gerry, what he’d done all these decades. He is and always has been the most insular of our surf legends. But I do know that you don’t Zen your way to the top at Pipeline. By one method or another, you reach up and claw down every guy ahead of you until there’s nobody left. John Lennon once said that while people all thought the Beatles were happy loveable moptops, he and the three lads were actually the four biggest bastards in the world. I always think of Lopez when I hear that. It doesn’t make me think less of him. Just the opposite.
Gerry is sitting in on this right now. What do you tell him?
Bring back the mustache.