"A stallion, a revelation, god-like!"
One week or so ago, on the occasion of surf icon Terry Fitzgerald’s birthday, Seattle scrabble aficionado and surf archivist Matt Warshaw published a moving tribute on his Encylopedia of Surfing website called, Ode to a Sultan and which you should read, and published without Warshaw’s permission, below.
Fitz was a rock star. Not in our newly popularized middle-management use of the phrase (“thanks for getting these numbers to me so fast, you’re a rock star!”), but more like he belongs to a species of performer that includes Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, more so than Gerry Lopez and Jeff Hakman. Had Fitzgerland picked up a guitar instead of a surfboard, his biography would be spiked with trashed hotel rooms, dozens of groupie-spawned bastard children, and a messed-up hush-hush story involving a mudshark.
Anyway, as it was, Fitz played stadiums (Sunset and J-Bay), and performed all the way to the back seats. Striking poses. Moving and grinding that 28-inch-waist. At the end of a well-executed ride, it would have been fully appropriate, rather than throwing a two-fisted claim, for Fitz to bang a huge flaming gong.
Two or three weeks ago, Lewis Samuels got up in my business after one of my periodic Barry Kanaiaupuni swoons. BK’s surfing, Lewis said via Twitter, “hasn’t aged well,” and I’m 97% sure that Samuels’ feels the same about Fitzgerald. I’m so sure, in fact, that it makes me wonder if I am maybe a bit too enamored of my little gang of Zeppelin-age favorites. Fitz, especially, is open to critique. If the surf didn’t have the requisite push and thrust, he’d try and make up the difference by amping up the hip wiggles and arm gyrations. Oversell. I cringe a little when I see those clips. (And edit my own clips accordingly, using just the flower-top stuff.)
On the other hand, Fitz was operating in shortboard surfing’s Great Age of Style. In terms of basic performance—cutbacks, bottom turns, off the tops—those gunned-out, wide-point-forward single-fins everybody was using were being ridden to their outermost limit. Twins and tri-fins would reset everything, but those were still a few years off. What to do in the meantime? When 15 other top surfers have a fiberglass-buckling bottom turn and a G-force line off the top, how do set yourself apart? Form. Interpretation. Presence. “Skill and style,” said Wayne Bartholomew, who came of age in this period, “has never been more closely related than in the early ’70s.” Nobody understood this better than the Terry Fitzgerald.
As much as any other single surfer, Fitzgerald made the early ’70s. But the early ’70s also made Fitzgerald. I can’t imagine him in the pre-shortboard-era. And in the multi-fin era, Fitz’ vogue-heavy style of riding was left in the dust. Other surfers of the period, you can trace their stylistic progeny: Lopez to Machado to Craig Anderson. MP to Kong to Bourez. The Fitzgerald method, though, began and ended with Fitzgerald. (Derek Hynd was and remains a great Fitz disciple, but Derek, true to the master’s example, crafted his own unique way of riding waves.)
When I was a kid, older guys raved about Joey Cabell and “speed surfing,” but nobody in years to come picked up on his style, and looking back at video of Cabell from the late ’60s I don’t really get what the big deal was.
Will the same thing happen to Fitz? I wonder. I’ll put this question to anybody reading this under the age of 35: in the clip posted at the top of the page, the last shot, of Fitz going Mach 3 at Jeffreys Bay—does that ride sing to you at all? Or am I a sentimental old fool?
(Editor’s note: You gotta subscribe, here, to see the vid and the photo.)
All pretty above board, yeah?
The great Nick Carroll, howevs, was having none of it.
“Matt, there’s a lot of cheap shots in this mate. Not cool,” Nick wrote on Facebook, prompting surfing’s first men’s world champion Peter Townend to chime in, “Agreed! As one of my peer group, slightly older, Fitz had his unique approach to his surfing as many of us did as well as the equipment we shaped and road, that was the beauty of that Seventies era!”
Warshaw, of course, ain’t afraid even of mighty Nick and superstar PT, although he was diplomatic.
“What about the part where it goes: “you might say—I would, for sure—that Terry Fitzgerald is one of the greatest surfers of all time, just as surely as Robert Plant is one of the greatest rock singers of all time… My take on Fitz is just that he’s maybe the ultimate “horses for courses” surfer. But on the courses that counted most—Sunset and J-Bay—he was a stallion, a revelation, god-like. Less so in waves that didn’t suit his style, or that bored him. Same could be said for half or more of those in the all-time-greatest pantheon, to which Terry is a platinum-card member. Apologies if my comments came off disrespectful, that was not my intention.”
Now, where are the cheap shots? Can you find?