Men, always men, who come into the lives of great surfers offering success, happiness, friendship and just a little fairy dust…
It really is difficult to release grip on a fabulous story. Elo Logan’s masterful touch on the documentary Sound Waves: Kelly Slater, Surf Ranch has inspired stories, here, here, here and we’ll deliberate on it again, below.
The subject today is surfing’s Svengalis, men, always men, who come into the lives of great surfers offering success, happiness, friendship and just a little fairy dust.
I wondered aloud to Matt Warshaw, custodian of surfing’s historical archive and which you can subscribe to and access here, if he’d seen the Slater ep and if he would take time out of his busy Scrabble schedule to give BeachGrit readers an insight into the magical world of the Surf Svengali.
BeachGrit: I’m guessing you saw Sound Waves: Kelly Slater, Surf Ranch, where Kelly, beset by insecurities and an apparent unhappiness, is attended to by an Australian faith healer.
Warshaw: I watched it the day it came out, and twice since. It’s almost druggy. Like MDMA, but the opposite, where everything, every exchange, every moment bends toward low-grade stress and tension. That scene at the beginning where Kelly’s watching somebody surf a left and says “Who’s that?” Zeke Lau says “Kaipo,” and Kelly says “I hope he’s super nervous,” then they both force a laugh, then Strider walks by and the mirthless banter continues. On it goes. The scenes with Kelly and his girlfriend, that awkward backstage moment with Jack White, and yes especially the bits with Kelly and the spoon-bender — there isn’t a relaxed frame in the whole thing. At some level I’m super impressed that WSL put it out there. It feels incredibly fifth column. It’s like if Wild Wild Country was released as a promo for Rajneesh.
But back to Charlie Goldsmith, named onscreen as “Kelly’s Friend.” It reminds me that pro surfers, in particular it seems, perhaps because of the arbitrary nature of how success for ‘em is measured, heat by heat, every wave out of ten, are susceptible to, how should we call ‘em, Svengalis? Is that your take?
I don’t know. Probably not. All athletes at that level, I’m guessing, are looking for any kind of edge or advantage they can find, mental and physical. Kelly has Goldsmith, Italo has God. If putting your faith in some person or entity gives you peace of mind, relaxes you, distracts from the pressure, then it works. Goldsmith laying that New Age hoodoo on Kelly makes more sense than his girlfriend telling him again and again to “have fun.”
My fav moment involving a surfer and his Svengali is Cheyne Horan’s pal and mentor, name of Kerry, in the vastly underrated movie Scream in Blue. He paces up and down their Burleigh Heads apartment after a bad heat at the Stubbies saying, “You weren’t doing any snaps! Why weren’t you doing any snaps? You have to do more snaps!” Do you remember that fabulous moment? What was Cheyne’s deal?
Scream in Blue was my greatest VHS treasure. A few years ago I plugged my ancient VCR into my MacBook to digitize everything I have, and the fucking machine ate Scream in Blue. I felt like Strider getting laughingly kicked in the nuts by Kelly. I’d kill for another copy. But yes, I remember the scene you’re describing well! That same year, I think it was 1987, I flew Matt George to Australia to do a profile on Cheyne, and Matt fully embedded himself in the Kerry-led commune up in the hills behind Byron. Yeah, there are similarities between what Kelly is looking for with Charlie, and what Cheyne was looking for with Kerry. Guidance, I guess. Maybe a short-cut to knowledge. But Kelly, by the looks of it, is just flirting with his guru; he’s halfway to looking at the camera and giving us an eye-roll. Cheyne went all in, just drank the Kerry Kool-Aid by the gallon. Cheyne’s deal with Kerry, to me anyway, looked almost dangerous, like brainwashing. I wonder what ended up happening there. At some point Cheyne broke away, but I don’t know when.
Another great mentor is the surf photographer Paul Sargeant, also called Sarge, who disappeared in a poof of smoke after allegations of sexual assault on a popular surf journalist, and which was sensationally brought to light by the writer Fred Pawle in Stab. (Read The Bottomless Vortex of Indugence here and subscribe to Sarge’s new YouTube channel here.) For a very long time, almost every young Australian surfer rode under his LMB banner, an abbreviation of various things, but initially, Lick My Balls.
I don’t know much about Sarge except what I read in Fred’s article.
Oh you dirty diplomat. How about Derek Hynd? Rip Curl coach for a lot of years, but some Svengali in there too, maybe?
For sure. I mean, you can’t put young and not especially educated surfers on tour, with that kind of pressure, and not have them grab onto an older, more experienced person. There’d be plenty of cases, a huge majority in fact, where it works out fine. The older surfer advising and looking out for the younger guys. But it can get weird and maybe even abusive, and now and then the rest of us hear about it. I interviewed Sunny Garcia a few years ago, and he said Derek “was a dick to everyone” and talked about how Derek would lock him out of his room and make him sleep in the hotel hallway. All in the name of getting Sunny to do better in heats. On the other hand, Sunny said it worked. On the other other hand, Sunny probably wasn’t the best person to argue the case one way or the other.
You’re the gatekeeper to surf history. Who else is there? We talked about Thor Svenson before. He was a wildcat.
In the 1960s, Thor made the Windansea Surf Club into a really big deal, almost completely on his own. Huge ambition. Got things done. Ronald Regan, when he was governor of California, gave Svenson and WIndansea a letter of introduction when the team flew off to Australia in 1967. Thor is another guy I only know about from articles, but there was always a creepy vibe around him, and after I posted about Windansea I got a few replies from surfers in Australia that were disturbing — nothing I was able to track down, although I didn’t try very hard.
What is most interesting about surf’s Svengalis is how few of ’em actually pick up a surfboard. What’s the attraction to be around gorgeous young men at the peak of their physical prowess you think?
I’ll check that one to the guy who founded a “sophisticated men’s interest magazine with an emphasis on high-performance surfing.” 😀