Surfing icon Michael Tomson was put into an induced coma over a week ago after suffering a seizure at home. He has not come out of it and, yesterday, was taken off life-support.
Damn it all.
We hurried our memorials up because I wanted Michael to read them. I pictured him lounging in a hospital bed, morphine dripping, scrolling through the stories, the comments, with that Cheshire cat grin spreading across his face.
He had the best Cheshire cat grin.
I wanted him to feel his impact, his influence. Chuckle at the snarky asides, hot takes. Absorb the bookends of a life fabulously lived. To see the path he hacked through surfing’s manicured garden.
He was, is, surfing’s only bonafide rock-n-roller and I called his great friend, one-time Gotcha designer, Jim Zapala to hope that Michael might have been able to read his headstone.
“No, man, I wish. He never came out of the coma. The doctors thought he would die last night but he’s still holding on, stubborn bastard. But it’s over. I knew this moment would come, he hasn’t been in the best physical shape for a while, but now that it’s actually here it…
…it’s hard. I was digging around, yesterday, for one of the first Gotcha logos I came up with. It had some cheesy 80s font but also had Michael charging Pipeline in the ‘O’ and the phrase ‘To hell with the consequences’ below. That was him…
…that was him.”
To hell with the consequences.
Michael Tomson will be remembered singularly for never, not ever, pulling a punch.
Stories of his generosity, his not-yet-fully appreciated writing, his fashion anarchy, his ability to Pipeline will certainly flow and I have no doubt, when the dust settles, he will be carved into surfing’s Mount Rushmore between Duke Kahanamoku and a pack of Laird Hamilton’s SuperFood Coffee Creamer but, until then, pour one out for an icon.
He was what we hope to be. What we are generally not.
Godspeed, Michael Tomson.
Award-winning filmmaker Stephen Gaghan tapped to write, direct cinematic version of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days!
"A beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life."
But where are you on the book-to-film debate? A purist who believes the written word should never be polluted by celluloid? An illiterate who foregoes ink and paper, waiting for the pichures to moov? Somewhere in between?
I love when books get turned into film so much. I love when good books get turned into bad films, when bad books get turned into good films and especially, especially when an iconic writer is interpreted by an iconic director.
Which is why I was very excited to read yesterday that William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days shall be written and directed by Syriana’s own Stephan Gaghan.
Oscar-winning Traffic scribe Stephen Gaghan will write and direct Barbarian Days for Amazon Studios, based on William Finnegan’s bestselling memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016.
Gaghan will produce alongside Ted Hope, who will produce under his multi-picture deal with the studio. Finnegan will also be executive producer.
Barbarian Days tells the story of Finnegan’s lifelong love affair with surfing. He describes it as an obsession, a beautiful addiction, a demanding course of study, a morally dangerous pastime, a way of life. The tale starts when the author was an 8-year old kid who caught the surf bug.
Exciting but who do you think should play young Finnegan? What about slightly older Finnegan?
Swinging 70s G-Land Finnegan?
I think maybe James Franco.
Is he still cancelled?
Incredible drone footage: All beaches around Ballina closed after former world #1 Matt Wilkinson bumped by large bull shark or great white, “If it got any closer it would’ve been sucking my toes!”
"The shark had kind of come at me from in front and then went around the back and had a little go at my legs…"
At around three this afternoon, the former world number one Matt Wilkinson felt, but didn’t see, a wild splash near his feet while paddling at Sharpes Beach, a lonely stretch of water between Ballina and Lennox.
A clubby drone operator, who filmed the encounter, told Wilko via the little chopper’s speaker that there was a dangerous shark in the area.
Wilko came in, saw the footage and oowee.
#SHARK // @wsl surfer Matt Wilkinson has had a close encounter with a shark while surfing at #Ballina today. The arrival of a #drone overhead alerted Matt via a warning over the speaker, at the same time a 1.5m shark appeared.
“The shark had kind of come at me from in front and then went around the back and had a little go at my legs, then last minute decided that my feet stunk or something and turned away,” Wilko told ABC North Coast.“It was probably about eight-foot long, it looked like it was a few feet longer than me…I’m feeling pretty lucky. We get to see sharks a little bit out in the surf but that was definitely my closest encounter and I hope it doesn’t get any closer than that.”
Comparing his encounter with Mick Fanning’s famous episode in 2015, the newly wed thirty two year old said,“His one was a little bit more wild than mine, but I guess I got to feel that weird, heart-sinking but lucky feeling when I saw that footage. But I’m still here in one piece and I’ll live to surf another day.”
Long Read: Michael Tomson from Cocaine and Surfing, a Sordid History of Surfing’s Greatest Love Affair: “I can hear a whistling in his nose where a septum once was…”
MT was always unapologetic. He always seemed like if people cared about his lifestyle, then that was their problem, not his.
It really is a wonder that cocaine transitioned from the disco dance floor to the go-go eighties without losing any steam.
Gaining steam, even.
Becoming a necessary component of yuppie life alongside skinny piano ties and giant mobile phones. It somehow didn’t retain any disco taint—the wacky hair and glittery pantsuits, the Earth, Wind & Fire—even though it was so closely associated with the era.
Maybe it was because Ollie North had flooded the market, making it cheaper and more accessible than ever and further farm crises in South America kept coca as the most lucrative crop. Maybe because yuppies needed to wake up earlier to make all that fast money and go to bed later, after 11:00 p.m. reservations at Dorsia.
Maybe because cocaine paired with rayon even better than it did with polyester. Whatever the case, by the mid-1980s the cocaine market was absolutely saturated.
It was a time of greed, Gordon Gecko, and Gotcha — Michael Tomson’s surf fashion label that turned the industry into an actual force.
Michael was born in Durban, South Africa, to European parents, and had surfed professionally during the 1970s, most notably in Hawaii, where he was part of a brash pack that changed the approach to the world’s most famous wave. He was fearless at the Banzai Pipeline. Aggressive, raw, and powerful in his approach. Up to that time, Pipe was considered a goofyfoot’s domain since they rode facing the wave. Michael, and a small crew of Australians and his cousin Shaun, showed that it could be ridden just as gorgeously backside as frontside.
Professional surfing couldn’t hold all of Michael’s attention, though, and toward the late 1970s he became a full-fledged surf journalist as well as a par-time competitor, starting his own magazine in Durban and becoming an assistant editor at Surfing in America. The same Surfing where I was once a retained writer and editor-at-living-large. The same
Surfing that is now dead.
Michael knew, always knew, that surfing wasn’t for everyone and couldn’t be marketed to the masses—at least not as a sport. He wrote, “Potential surf fans in Ohio and Michigan want a blood-busting winner, one they can understand because they can see the bastard who gets from A to B first.” He also knew, however, that professionalism in an of itself was death. That to reform surfing in the shape of Ohio and Michigan was the end.
* * *
And I wonder why Michael Tomson moved to San Clemente as I drive past Salt Creek, past Dana Point, past Capistrano Beach. Past Audi A4, Audi A8, Audi Q3, and even the odd Audi Allroad. He was Laguna Beach. He defined the city as much as the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. More than the Pageant of the Masters, Laguna’s sad art festival where people dress as classical works of art and stand around like dimwits while even bigger dimwits “ooh” and “aah” at the misbegotten majesty.
He told me the story once before. “I was living in San Clemente. I remember Bob McKnight, from Quiksilver, was pissed off at me because I was starting Gotcha. Anyway, San Clemente seemed too far south, so I said to my friend, ‘Let’s just drive north a bit and see what there is.’ Driving through Laguna, I looked up and thought, ‘This place looks cool.’ So we pull over. That afternoon we found a house and that’s where we actually formed Gotcha. That’s how it happened. Over time, Laguna became THE surf town. Really. And it is. It’s the center of the industry.”
That was in 1979, and Gotcha set off like a rocket. I remember seeing it in the surf shops where I loitered as a petrified Oregonian youth. The fluorescent colors, the cuts, the boldness, the half-fish /half-man Gotcha logo. It was all so cool, so impossibly cool, and I knew I didn’t belong so I would buy cheap knockoff brands like Pirate Surf and past-their-prime Op and Maui & Sons instead. My cousins down in California wore Gotcha and sassed their parents.
I remember seeing the Gotcha ads in the few surf magazines I would buy: Full double-pagers featuring some kook on the first page in black and white. A bald old man holding a brown paper sack. A skinny kid with a tucked-in T-shirt and an egg-shaped head. Two very fat kids wearing tank tops. The words IF YOU DON’T SURF, DON’T START printed beneath their sad frames. The second page featuring some amazing Gotcha team rider, always fit, always tan, always totally ripping. And the words IF YOU SURF, NEVER STOP.
My mom thought the ads were mean-spirited. She thought the surf magazines were morally bankrupt in general, with their objectification of women and glorification of a viscerally shallow pursuit, but it was Gotcha’s sneering “get lost” that got her the worst. She would get angry at me for pinning them on my bedroom walls, and she was right. They were mean-spirited but that is what made Gotcha the dream. It was exclusive, and you weren’t invited, and I wasn’t invited, but son of a bitch I wanted to be as I lounged in my tiny Coos Bay bedroom. I wanted to be more than anything in the entire world and even thought about sassing my mom and telling her to get lost. That was what surfing always should have been. A repudiation of big-tent growth, of professionalism, of conservatism. A celebration of the tiny few.
* * *
I wind up into the hills of San Clemente, past Molly Bloom’s Irish Bar where Surfing Magazine was put into the ground,past a telephone banner praising the local surfing Gudauskas brothers, past professional surfer super-prodigy turned vague disappointment Kolohe Andino’s last-century mid-modern, around the bend, and park in front of the address Michael had given me. The house is nice but nondescript. Like everything else in Orange County. I ring the doorbell and wonder if he had to move because of cocaine.
During Gotcha’s run, Michael Tomson was a notorious party monster, with cocaine being his belle. After Gotcha’s run, when he became president of the Surf Industry Manufacturing Association, he was a notorious party monster, with cocaine being his dame. Five years ago, he was a notorious party monster, getting busted by the cops with $2,000 of blow in his pocket. His sweetie.
Just last year, he was a notorious party monster, getting busted by the cops in his Laguna home with so much cocaine that they slapped him with an “intent to distribute” charge. The Los Angeles Times put it thusly: “Former professional surfer and cofounder of the Gotcha surfwear company was arrested on suspicion of felony drug trafficking, Laguna Beach police said.
On June 18 officers conducted a probation check of Michael Elliot Tomson’s house on Mar Vista Avenue and found ‘items consistent with selling narcotics and 52 grams of cocaine,’ Sgt. Tim Kleiser wrote in an email.”
His gal. His one and only. And that is a four-decade run. A 40-year dance. Never turning his head. Never taking another out on the floor. David Bowie left cocaine behind in the mid-1980s, saying, “I have an addictive personality, and it took hold of my life. I’m ambivalent about it now. It was an extraordinary thing to have to go through. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I’m sort of glad I did.” Keith Richards had many partners but left cocaine behind over a decade ago when, according to his biography, he fell from a tree while foraging for coconuts after a few bumps and split his head open. Even at the height of his romance, though, he seems too in control to be truly in love, writing, “I was very meticulous about how much I took. I’d never put more in to get a little higher. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me. People think once they’ve got this high, if they take some more they’re going to get a little higher. There’s no such thing. Especially with cocaine.”
And that may be sensible but it ain’t passion. It ain’t out of control. It ain’t burn the stage down. It ain’t Shakespearean.
Michael Tomson is Shakespearean.
He was always unapologetic. He always seemed like if people cared about his lifestyle, then that was their problem, not his. The surf industry, for its part, has always been embarrassed by Tomson, ready to brush him and Gotcha both under the nearest carpet. The surf media somewhere between uninterested and paternalistic. Legendary Australian surf journalist Phil Jarratt, after Tomson’s latest arrest, wrote “I loved to watch Michael surf, but our friendship was built on our shared love of good writing, magazine design concepts and, it has to be said, the devil’s dandruff. This was the seventies and coke was unavoidable, but some people constructed better avoidance plans than we did. There were plenty of all-nighters, washing the stuff down with whiskey and wine, arguing with increasingly scary intensity the relative merits of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I look back on those times with more pleasure than regret, but we all knew it was a phase we were going through. Or most of us did. In the eighties, I dropped back into mainstream journalism and he went into business, and I didn’t see much of Michael for a few years. When we reconnected, Gotcha had made him a millionaire but already he’d put much of the profits up his nose. His coke bingeing was an open secret in the surf industry and he was already on the police watch list. Pulled over for speeding one night on the 405, he threw a vial of coke under the wheels of the thundering freeway traffic before the cops frisked him. They looked him up and down, thinking, only a matter of time.”
Again, the restraint, the let’s-all-grow-up-and-be-adults, is not the stuff of legend. It is the stuff of half measures. Of not falling head over heels. Of hedging. What if Romeo had kept Rosaline on the hook in case Juliet didn’t work out? What if he was sensible? Maybe he would have lived, sure, but what kind of life? Not a glorious romantic one, for damn sure.
* * *
The door flies open and my Romeo is standing there, hair still perfectly frosted and reaching toward the sky, black sweats, black T-shirt. Michael Tomson at 62 is still an imposing figure and his South African bark reaches through the still-warm night and embraces me. “Chas! Welcome. Can you believe this shit? I live in San Clemente now. Come in.”
I follow him through the entryway, down a small flight of stairs to the living room. It is not decorated like his old Laguna house which featured memories of a life well-lived. Gorgeous surf shots of Michael laid back in a gaping Pipeline tube. Coffee table books about Gotcha. This house, instead, is clean but normal. An overstuffed couch. A coffee table with no books.
I take the couch, he falls into an overstuffed chair and says, “I keep thinking of you. You were telling me before about a pirate boat somewhere. What were you doing there?” The last time I had been with Michael was right before going to Djibouti. I’m surprised he still remembers and tell him about the ketch, Red Sea, Saudi Arabia, terrorism, anti-terrorism legislation, a raging civil war, and a four-foot pirate named Mosquito. I tell him the goal was to actually live bigger than life for a moment, to cast off what I felt were shackles and do something romantic.
He takes it in for a minute and rubs his chin. Staring a hole through me before leaning forward and asking, “Why don’t you write fiction?”
“I can’t. My crusted brain can’t conceive of characters richer or better than ones who exist in real life, like Eddie Rothman. Frankly, I don’t think anyone could. He is impossible to conjure.”
He leans forward and points a tanned finger at me.
“Characters. You’ve got to have characters. Elmore Leonard kind of characters. Whenever I’m reading these things, one of his books, and I’ve read them all twice, some three times, I think, ‘This guy creates characters that do something…”’
—and he barks the word do—
“The what-for is in the characters. The story is in the characters. And they are so fucking hip…”
—and he barks the word fucking—
“…so fucking good it is actually unbelievable. I’ll put a Leonard book down when I’m done with it and think, what was that about? But it was just entertaining. Did you read Leonard’s Djibouti when you were in Djibouti?”
I tell him that I read it as soon as I got home and it was truly amazing. Djibouti is a difficult-to-navigate hell pit. A pirate town but not necessarily in a sexy way. A mad geopolitical ragout where Russia, Germany, the United States, Japan, and France each have large military forces running live weapons drills and carrying out top-secret missions within spitting distance of each other. After hours, those who can get day passes mingle in the decrepit, portico’d town center drinking Heineken in shabby joints, where Ethiopian girls shimmy and pimps offer their services for a night, glaring at each other while melting in oven-like heat. And somehow, even though he had never been, Elmore captured its essence, writing better than I ever could, writing, “The place is the gateway to Islam. Or the back door to the West, the dividing line between
God and Allah.”
Oh, that’s just so damned good, and I tell Michael how delicious Leonard’s description of Djibouti was. He grins a mischievous grin and nods while saying, “It’s all about the characters. He has this dialogue, man. His dialogue was so fucking taut, so fucking—”
“I can’t do dialogue. I can’t create characters…” I cut in. “You exist and you are better than I could create.”
He stops, sits back, and chuckles, “Oh, I’m your guy then.”
And I don’t explain, I don’t mumble some preface. I just ask, “So where the fuck did we go wrong?”
He doesn’t need an explanation. He doesn’t need a preface. He doesn’t even need clarification as to who “we” are.
“I’ll tell you. We fucking drank our own Kool-Aid. That’s what it came down to. Look, it starts with just little surf shops. Little shops selling boards, T-shirts and trunks. Then Gotcha comes along and we’re selling sportswear. Surf fashion. That is the key thing. Surf as a fashion statement. I get nominated for best West Coast men’s designer TWICE, in ’85 and ’87. Milan, Tokyo, New York, Paris. Runways are having surf looks. Surfing has become the thing. It goes from this coastal beach thing in California, Hawaii, Florida, to suddenly Seventh Avenue. You know what I mean? It explodes. Right behind that comes PacSun. Before PacSun the surf industry was small. PacSun brought five hundred doors. Later on Zumiez, but PacSun brought five hundred doors right away. They exploded the footprint. Then, thereafter, it was almost like action sports followed that. It went from surfing to boardsports. We kind of tried with snowboarding stuff, but nobody has ever cracked the skate world. In history. They are a group of people that refuse to be targeted. And they are the perfect underlying fucking customer. So boardsports became Fuel TV and all that. Do you remember that? All that fucking shit. And then suddenly, in combination with fashion going away from surf, from boardsports, to the Internet, the whole thing fucking imploded. The big shakedown happened, starting in 2008.”
PacSun, or Pacific Sunwear of California, began as a small 1980s surf shop in Newport Beach but soon saw the potential of the exploding interest in surf culture and moved into malls across America. Bringing the dream, almost overnight, directly to the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest. Places without surf but with a hunger for the Look. And this was the beginning of the surf industry apocalypse. The slide to oblivion. The Mick Fanning beer-bottle sandals. The brands’ coffers swelled, but all of a sudden there was a new consumer and this consumer didn’t surf.
Thankfully Gotcha died years before this happened, burning up in a big ball of neon fire, growing too big, going too wild, and finally selling to Perry Ellis in the mid-1990s. It changed hands a few times after that but has never come back, with Tomson saying, “My baby turned into a fucking whore.”
But the baby was a mean-spirited little bitch before she was a fucking whore. The baby made my mom question the morality of surf culture and whipped kids into a frenzy. The surf shops couldn’t keep Gotcha in stock and not just because they were selling it. Surf rats with no money would brazenly steal it off the racks. The less brave would steal the fish-man hangtag. It was rebellious, punk, the in-crowd that ruthlessly made fun of the out crowd.
I ask Michael why he exacerbated potential customers.
Why did he tell people who didn’t surf not to start?
He smashes a tanned fist into his hand while and begins to growl, starting to find a kinetic rhythm. “That really was at the heart of the matter because surf was so crowded. Longboards had happened. Before that, there were no longboards, man. Longboards were historical but they weren’t a lifestyle. And in the early ’90s they became a lifestyle. Actually the late ’80s. Everyone was riding a fucking longboard. At Lowers! You know what I mean? I couldn’t even surf Lowers anymore. Idiots were dropping in, you know. So that longboard thing happened and brought in all these fucking new customers. Boys, girls, kids, old people, and suddenly the nucleus of surf was being polluted. That’s where ‘if you don’t surf, don’t start’ came from. And it resonated, you know. People dug it.”
Lowers, or Lower Trestles, in San Clemente, is California’s most recognized high-performance wave. The way it pitches and runs is perfect for airs, for progression, and that is exactly what surfing is. Progression. Or at least what it should be. It wasn’t for people looking for a chill time. It wasn’t for sportsmen. It wasn’t for historical buffs. It wasn’t for mellow-soul types. It wasn’t for people who wanted to feel the glide, flow, energy, rhythm of the universe. Surfing belonged to the radical few and Michael was determined to drive a wedge between the in and the out with his brand. The surfers who rode for Gotcha carried this devil-may-care ethos. The advertisements pushed it. And the parties celebrated it.
* * *
Brand managers, team managers, executive vice presidents, surf journalists, and professional surfers still whisper about Gotcha’s parties even though the last one happened 20-odd years ago. Some whisper in tones of hushed reverence. Some with underlying notes of negative moralizing. But all whisper. And so I tell Michael, “Gotcha’s parties are legendary. I still hear people talking about them. People who weren’t even there. I was never there, but I dream. And people always talk about the sheer amount of cocaine.”
He sits back in his chair and groans. It is, at once, the sound of appreciation for a vast monument but also the exhausting toll.
“Nobody throws parties like that anymore. I mean, every surf party has cocaine, maybe even as much as ever, but it is always so hidden. So wrapped up. And the parties don’t feel unhinged. They feel tired. Why?”
“I don’t know,” he says, leaning back into his boring chair, looking deflated for the first time. “Nobody else cares about cocaine. Music, fashion, they don’t give a fuck. In surf, it’s a fucking big no-no—even though more people here do coke than in any other industry. I can tell you right now, there aren’t too many people in positions of power that don’t do it.”
“But why?” I ask, wanting more. Wanting to find the thing, the promise, to bring down the mountain back to the surf industry. Wanting to figure out where the disconnect is. Wanting to break the whole thing open.
Michael leans forward again, breaths deeply, and I can hear a whistling in his nose where a septum once was.
“You are absolutely right. Those fucking parties. Well, at first, they were fashion shows that became parties. We used to do things,” he starts before correcting himself. “Well, I used to do things, like hire James Brown impersonators, and have naked chicks—fully naked—walking down the aisles and dancing. Not a stitch of clothing on and spray-painted in neon colors. It was fucking unreal. It was outrageous!”
And he shouts the word outrageous, letting it bounce off the mostly empty walls of his new San Clemente home.
“What I’m saying here is, at that point in time there wasn’t any history to follow so we were just doing it. I made fucking pants that were short. It was, show me something fucking new or get the fuck out of the office. You know what I mean? And the parties were the same. Everything was new. Everything was big. Everything was fresh. It felt like surfing for the first time.”
Suddenly I’m curious about why he quit surfing on the pro tour. It would have been a dream, I’d imagine, in those early days. Traveling the world without a care, experiencing new places, new waves, competing, smashing opponents, and suddenly I wonder if maybe he is not a competitive person? Surf-wise, anyway.
So I ask.
He pauses, really pondering his internal makeup.
“That’s a good question. I was and I wasn’t. In my mind, I could never only focus on surf. You know what I mean? I was eclectic. There is a certain monotony to winning in a sport. You have to be dedicated and alone in that. You can’t let anything distract you. It’s kind of a weird space. I always just had other interests. I’m competitive at wanting to be the best at something, yeah. But I’m not so competitive at a one-on-one deal. At Pipe, I was competitive. For sure. No question, I was competitive there.”
Surfing, real surfing, and any conversation about real surfing, always inevitably comes back to Pipeline on Oahu’s North Shore. It is the wave that both defines and creates the brightest stars. No surf legend has ever walked without placing a marker on Pipeline. I ask Michael if he still surfs Pipe and he almost jumps out of his chair, screaming, “Never! Wouldn’t even CONSIDER it. It is terrifying, man! There comes a point in time when it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve trained, how fit you are, how many hours you’ve put in, how good your equipment is. Fuck all. You’re still not going to make that drop and it’s because of reflex. At some point you no longer have the reflex. And reflex out there is everything. Once you start questioning your motives, your tactics, your reason for being out there—it’s over.”
Which again makes me wonder about the parallels with surfing and cocaine. Which in turn makes me wonder about the parallels with business and cocaine. Is there a time to quit? Were David Bowie and Keith Richards right? I ask Michael if he feels he could start another brand today, one that would bring the violent fun back to surfing, that would crush the conservative monster—or if it would be like paddling out at Pipeline without his young-man reflexes.
“I couldn’t do it and I’ll tell you why. It’s not necessarily from not having the talent. It’s the technology. The whole way you market products today. I used to know how things were going to go; I could envisage the future. Clearly. That was in the late ’70s up through most of the ’80s. I could not do that today. The Internet, the way consumers use digital. I didn’t grow up digital. It’s a fucking big difference, man. I can hire people to do that, but it isn’t me. And I go through the motions and all this. I do all the fucking things I’m supposed to do but I don’t intuit the way I used to, and that’s the difference right there.”
He gets up, slowly, and says, “Let’s go drink some wine.”
I follow him to the kitchen and watch him move. There are hints of the way he used to surf Pipeline. You still see the confidence, the arrogance. But you also see the stiffness. The lifestyle has clearly taken a physical toll. The cocaine. The Matterhorns of cocaine.
He pours me an almost-too-good-to-be-true glass of Sancerre then pours himself one. Crisp, clean. Bracing acidity. Flinty smoke flavors. We both lean on the kitchen island looking at each other. I take a sip, savor, and ask, “Is cocaine a creative drug for you?”
He takes a sip and thinks for a minute.
“You know something, I couldn’t articulate that. I never say to myself, ‘I’m going to drink to do this or do the drug to do that.’ It’s just a lifestyle. I turn on all the inputs and look at different stuff and I start musing and wondering about things. Points of reference, whether they be magazines or online or books or just a way of saying something. I am a huge collector of stuff. An importer, that’s what I am. That was the edge Gotcha had over everyone. I came from a European background and I was all over the world, all the time, importing stuff. Not products. Ideas. While everyone else was here designing in this little enclave of Orange County, I was out in the fucking world.”
I want to hear more.
“I was a furious shopper. I would go down the street in Tokyo, in Paris, in London. I’d walk in, give the guy a credit card, and say hang on to it. Then I’d come back and collect my purchases. I would buy 10K of clothing in a day. The shit I have here right now. Two storage facilities. So much Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto. So much stuff it is frightening. I was out with players, man. Johnny Rotten is like my brother. I made his clothes and could tell you some fucking stories that’d make your hair stand on end.”
“Tell me…” I say, voyeuristically.
He sighs then laughs.
“I can’t say these things. Not about other people. But the drug stories, man. I was doing some really strange things, let’s just put it that way. I once flew out to a meeting in Europe and left the shit at home. So I just went back to the airport, flew home, got it, and flew back. I never told anyone, so nobody knew. Thirty-six hours in the air.”
Not wanting to expose others to his demons is something Michael has mentioned to me before. There is a sort of chivalry to his dance with cocaine. He was generous with it but didn’t want his own slide deeper, deeper, deeper to derail the general good time. Gotcha’s aesthetic, in fact, mirrored the tension between a good time and an off-the-cliff disaster. It was always teetering on the edge.
I ask, “Did it always feel like the whole thing was going to explode in a fiery ball? That everyone was just barely holding on?”
He leans back against a boring marble countertop and says, “It did. There was this one time, I had some guys working for me who decided they were going to have a party in a giant hotel suite. So off we go. Before we even got there I realized it going sideways. Every surf industry executive was there. They were all there. And my guys had these hookers come out and one is giving a guy a blowjob in the middle of the room, in the middle of 50 surf industry people, and while it’s happening her hair comes off in his hand. It’s a wig and she is completely bald. That kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore. If something does happen, it is so locked up. Everything is so punitive, so confined, so restrictive. Back then it was all fun. Society wasn’t all the way it was. Now it is so fucking conservative.”
I nod too vigorously and reach for the bottle of Sancerre, filling my glass too full and spilling a bit but not caring because it is a small thing compared to pulling a hooker’s wig off in the middle of an industry cocaine bash.
“So fucking conservative,” I say. “But, why? The whole thing is circling the drain. Companies going bankrupt, mass layoffs, sales numbers through the floor. You’d think everyone would just give up, would do what they feel instead of doing what they think they should. There is more cocaine today, I think, or at least as much, but you never hear fun stories. It’s only chatty, grindy, sweaty. It’s never unhinged. Why not unhinge? It is the fucking apocalypse, after all.”
Michael shakes his head slowly and pours his more Sancerre for himself.
He does not spill.
“Exactly. But the thing is, you know, the Internet is so fucking cruel. I suffer from internet justice. I was beaten to a pulp on the fucking Internet for half a gram. It’s another reason I moved to San Clemente. Because everywhere I go in Laguna I’m so known, too known. I’m under a microscope there. It’s a fucking joke. In San Clemente, nobody knows me from fucking Adam. I’ve seen three cops since I’ve been here. In Laguna, they’d sit outside my house waiting for me to do something.
“People just want to step on you. They get off on it somehow. I don’t know why.”
I change course.
“Why drugs? Why not stinginess or greed or sloth or pride or envy or any one of a hundred thousand different sins? Why cocaine?”
Michael looks defeated for the first time. Utterly worn out.
“I don’t fucking know.”
“Are you running from it anymore?” I ask.
“Well, not anymore,” he says, slumping forward, away from the boring marble counter, back to the nondescript island. “I don’t give a shit. What happened happened. So what. Sue me. I’ve already paid my price. It’s cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the people, yeah, they weigh in. ‘It’s time for Michael to clean up.’ Yeah, yeah, yeah. Until they call me up and say, ‘Hey, do you have some?’ It’s like, don’t try and make me into any kind of anti-role model. Leave the model out. I’m just rolling. How did I inherit that fucking responsibility? You know why? I become the cathartic cleanse for them because they can say, ‘Look how bad Michael Tomson is.’ You know what I’m saying?”
The cathartic cleanse. Look how bad Michael Tomson is. I know exactly what he is saying and suddenly feel drained. Horribly miserable.
We chat a little more about books, about William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning surf book Barbarian Days, which he calls “fucking great” but also says, “I read it closely twice for lack of authenticity and there are only two places. One is when he is writing and he is my age, 62 or 63, and he writes about pulling into a double barrel in New York and I just put the book down and said, ‘FUCK YOU! In your fucking dreams, Bill. Double barrel. Really.’
We chat a little more about how he is flying out to his house on the North Shore tomorrow. About the book he will someday write.
I can’t concentrate on any of it. I feel like I’m getting sick. Like I’m sliding down the throat of a vicious, puking drunk, and it is not because of the Sancerre. Fifteen minutes later, I wish him bon voyage, tell him to hug Eddie for me, and limp into San Clemente’s starry night feeling the worst. I came up to Michael Tomson’s house imagining I was a great prophet. I wanted the stories, big and bold. I wanted the cocaine-fueled nights, a rock that could smash the chains of conservatism that now strangles the very life out of surfing. I wanted to bring these to the people below and stand, still glowing a brilliant cocaine white from being in Michael Tomson’s presence, on a stage made of broken surfboards and bellow, “Come, my children, and listen to a way for us to truly live again! I have been to San Clemente’s mountaintop! I have the truth!”
But it absolutely smashed me hearing him talk about the weight of people’s judgment, of their hypocrisy, of the sacrificial lamb he becomes for their personal sense of morality. Even worse, I was doing the same exact thing except flipped. I need Michael to be a party monster because I don’t have the constitution to be one myself. I come from good Christian parents who refused to drink Australian beer and were internally hurt by mean-spiritedness in surf magazine advertisements. I am an antisocial, generally quiet, introverted thing who is happiest in bed by 10:00 p.m. after three or maybe four vodka sodas and an episode of Big Little Lies, snuggled up next to my wife and daughter. I drag her to church each and every Sunday morning (even though her only real rule is snitches get stitches). I am not and never will be a party monster.
Oh, I know I’m not good. My ex-wfe gave a recent interview in promotion of an album she was trying to Kickstart where I was described thusly: “He’d spent the past two years of their happy marriage fucking his barely legal-age student, then he sold the house they’d bought as newlyweds and kept the money, then he didn’t even wait until their divorce was final to remarry and have a baby.” And I’ve done enough cocaine to know that the feeling is exactly like surfing. A brain firing crescendo that almost instantly dissipates and leaves no memory.
I’m not good but I’m also not brave enough to do what society deems is really bad. I’m not bold enough to be Michael Tomson, so I need him to be Michael Tomson for me and to hell with the price—physical, financial, emotional, mental—that he has to pay.
Surf icon famous for Hawaiian campaigns, game-changing surf brand and “Shakespearean dance with cocaine”, dead of throat cancer. “He was a bull at full charge with six banderillas stuck in his back!”
“Shaun was a surgeon on those big hollow walls. Michael was a bull at full charge with six banderillas stuck in his back.
“The second part of Michael’s legacy is Gotcha, the wildly innovative and successful company that he co-founded in 1978 and into which he poured all of his fissioning talent, taste, ambition, and vanity.
“The third and final part of Michael’s legacy will be his enduring and literally all-consuming cocaine addiction, which Chas Smith calls ‘Shakespearean . . . a forty-year dance.'”
In 1996, Warshaw interviewed Tomson on pro surfer salaries, an exchange that demonstrates MT’s perpetual forthrightness and entertainment value.
Why are pro surfers’ salaries such a big secret?
Because most of the surf companies aren’t publicaly traded, and as such don’t have to disclose those kinds of things. That and, it isn’t a big media event, what people get paid, the way it is in other sports it is. The salary caps in basketball is a huge deal. It’s an intregal part of building your team. Everybody has to know what everybody else is making in that situation, that’s how the whole system works.
Is it unseemly, to you think, to even bring up money?
No. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. People get rewarded for excellence, and who’s to say that this kind of thing should be paid this much, and that kind of thing paid that much. It’s a free country and it’s a free market, and if someone’s willing to pay for the service, why not take it? Take it and be proud of it.
When we talked a couple days ago you said you’d be willing to tell me how much your guys [at Gotcha] are making.
Fire away. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.
Okay, so let me back up a little. None of these numbers are completely, perfectly precise, okay? Salaries are never a fixed thing. Photo incentives, contest incentives, contract changes, everything goes up and down, it’s always moving. But with Potter, yeah, his salary has just been reduced. I think he makes $60,000 from us, and another $30,000 from our Australian licensee, plus incentives for photos and videos and things.
How does that compare to his best year, earning-wise? [Note: Potter at this point was six years past his world title, and had just retired from competitive surfing]
Less than half. Way less.
I think Rob’s at $185,000 this year. Between 185 and 200. Last year it was 150.
So, in your mind, when you’re thinking about paying somebody $200,000, how does that translate in terms of the companies bottom line? How do you know you’re getting your money’s worth?
You never really know. It’s a game. Does having Rob Machado on the Gotcha team earn the company $200,000 at the end of the year? Who knows? My theory is that 50% of all advertising and promotions are a waste of money, but nobody really knows which 50%.
But you’d never consider not having a surf team.
Not a chance. For anybody positioning themselves in the so-called hardcore surf market, having a kick ass team is one of the most important things
The Gotcha team, apart from Rob and Chris Ward, is getting older . . .
(Pause and a sigh) This is problem. The aging guys, and what to do with them when they’re done.
After all those years, I hear Cheyne Horan is maybe no longer with the company, or no longer getting a salary? Something like that.
(Another pause) That got ugly.
Is it over?
In one way. The friendship isn’t over
Shall we move on?
No, no, that’s okay. Look, Cheyne got to a point where he was chasing something with his career that was going to impossible to obtain. And he was looking to us to support him in that chase, to an extent that I didn’t think we could really afford. Plus his financial situation was just a mess which, you know, wasn’t really my problem. Cheyne didn’t spend his money wisely, back when he was making a lot. But somehow, invariably, with Cheyne, it ends up being my fault, you know?
So he’s off the payroll?
Honestly, I don’t know right now if Cheyne is getting an official salary from Gotcha. If he is, its very small.
He was in right at the beginning. Cheyne was your first team rider.
There was a time when I was paying Cheyne myself, out of my own pocket. Yeah, I mean, these are really hard decisions. In other professional sports, there’s usually enough money left in the pot at the end of your career that you can live comfortably from then on. That’s the case in surfing. The money isn’t big enough in most cases, and when it is big enough, a lot of guys, most guys, don’t manage it properly. So they end up hanging on longer than they should. And, for us, for the company, that becomes really difficult. There’s a lot of emotion involved, a lot of history, a lot of sentiment. You’re talking about somebody you’ve been with—and not just in terms of a paycheck, but surfing with them, living with them, all of that—for 10 or 15 year. So those are really, really tough decisions.
How do think Potts is going to do, as far as moving on to the next stage?
Honestly, I predict a major problem with Potts. There’s someone who really blew a pile of money. Way more than Cheyne. I mean, a huge pile. On Peter Mansted [Potter’s manager], on his entourage, on his own indulgences. And what’s gonna end up happening is he’ll wake up one morning as say, “Shit, I’ve got nothing left.” At the moment, the guy still surfs well, but the kids are surfing better. And wait and see. What’s gonna happen is, he’ll come to us and say, “What have you done for me lately?” And we’ll have to something like, “Look, we’ve gone as far as we can go. This is where you are in your career, and we’ve just signed Chris Ward, so . . . . ”