There’s a scene in Big Wednesday where the protagonists, Matt, Jack and Leroy, get caught up in a street carnival in Mexico. Amid the noisy festivities, a local beckons them from a shadowy doorway. “Hey kid,” he says in an urgent whisper. They all turn and look. He holds up a cigarette, and says in an evil foreign accent: “Marijuana!”
The kids laugh in a wholesome, Californian way and keep walking.
I watched it as a young teenager with my mates. We had never smoked a joint before, but we had all devoured the debauched Captain Goodvibes comic in Tracks mag, so even we knew that the Big Wednesday scene was contrived.
We lampooned it constantly in the schoolyard until, a few years afterwards, we started smoking the shit ourselves – at which time we found even sillier things to laugh about.
It is astonishing that a person could be so famous, successful and wasted and still have a mental illness undiagnosed.
The scene established a formula for the media’s treatment of drugs in surfing: acknowledge its presence, but leave it to the viewer to make an abstract connection with its actual use. Drugs in surfing became like paedophilia in the Catholic church – everyone knew it was going on, and could even see the consequences, but only occasionally was the issue openly discussed.
Almost 30 years later, the formula established by Big Wednesday was still being used: in Lords of Dogtown – a similar coming-of-age movie – there’s a party scene where the Z-Boys gather around a giant tiki, puff smoke through long pipes and chant mysteriously. If I had still been a teenager, I probably would have lampooned that, too. But I wasn’t, and the joke had long since worn off.
I’m not sanctimonious about drugs. If there is one thing about drugs that I hate, it is the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of those who oppose them. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve tried almost every drug except ice – which, if my past is anything to go by, I only avoided because by the time it came around I’d grown up. Phew.
Big Wednesday was made in 1978. It was set in the more innocent 1960s, which was an easy thing to do at the time because, by then, surfers had moved on to much harder things than mere pot.
“I still hear shop owners talk about the day the devil came to Coolangatta,” Wayne Bartholomew recalls in his autobiography, Bustin’ Down the Door.
“It was in 1975, and he was standing on the hill at Snapper Rocks, with a big Grim Reaper’s overcoat on, calling guys in from the surf with these pockets full of smack.”
Heroin cut down a fair chunk of that generation of surfers in Australia, Hawaii and California.
Hawaiian champ Jeff Hakman discovered it in Bali that same year, along with many other soul surfers – people who, according to his biography Mr Sunset, “seemed to bob up on Maui or Mauritius, Hossegor or Hanalei Bay, Kuta or Cactus, wherever there was a chance of a surf and a constant supply of recreational drugs”.
You wouldn’t have envisaged it 30 years ago, but these days surfers are clean-cut mummy’s boys compared to Lindsay, Britney and Paris.
Mr Sunset recounts Hakman’s often tragic affair with heroin, but the Grim Reaper’s ultimate scalp at the time was Michael Peterson, who was probably the best surfer in the world. The Reaper first got his claws into him in 1974. MP escaped with his life, but not his sanity. He slowly stopped competing, started behaving strangely, and finally – in 1983 – was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Needless to say, he never fulfilled his potential in the water.
It is astonishing that a person could be so famous, successful and wasted and still have a mental illness undiagnosed. But those were the times.
The mainstream’s impression of surfers throughout the 1970s was one of wariness and intrigue. The only time most people encountered surfers was at the beach – and there was an expectation that the more eccentric a surfer’s personality, the harder he ripped.
In this, surfers were happy to oblige. There was so much for the best, most dedicated surfers to explore: new surfing frontiers, strange design ideas (stingers, flyers, asymmetrical boards) and, of course, surfing itself, which was still only skirting around the most powerful part of the wave.
New psychological states were simply an extension of the adventure.
Tracks editor Phil Jarratt articulated it best at the time by reporting on the aquatic action and après-surf partying of the pro tour as if they were one seamless phenomenon – understandable only to those who were wasted themselves.
Then, in 1981, Simon Anderson had the brilliant idea of putting a stabilising fin on the back of a trimmed-down twinnie.
The consequences for the sport were profound. With one spectacular innovation, he not only ushered in the era of high-performance, he also brought an end to surfing’s collective experimental, eccentric mindset.
From then on, surfers stopped scoffing at the thought of mainstream acceptance, and sought a drug that was more suited to a sport that was starting to become awash with the cash of commercial success.
While pot remained the staple among the grass roots, those who could afford it (or were smart enough to take surf trips to South America) developed an appetite for cocaine – a drug that enabled surfers to present an apparently sober, even exuberant, face to the world.
Meanwhile, the surf media began to lower its guard about what was really happening on the pro tour, confirming to us ordinary surfers that the sport’s heroes were, as always, doing the same things we did – only a more extreme version.
Leading this gonzo candour was photo-journalist Paul Sargeant.
“I returned from my first trip to Brazil (in 1986) with a raging cocaine habit,” he wrote in Tracks. “I needed to be stoned all day, every day, for a long time – just to come down from that big, white powdery cloud. Getting off the white stuff was a necessity.
“A seriously indulgent amount of the best of the best cost just $50 in Brazil back then. In Australia, the same amount cost about $1200 a day – and for stuff that was usually 50 per cent talcum powder. Within days of returning home, my bank account was empty, and my nose was bleeding like a trooper… I think I sold two shots from that trip, and they were both of Brazilian butts, scantily clad with G-strings.”
As surfing levels improved, the notion of being the most wasted kid on the beach lost its allure. Instead, surfers endeavoured to be the chattiest, most confident cat on the dance floor. In the space of a few years, the coolest on the tour went from curiously eccentric to furiously extroverted, and everyone with half a brain knew what was fuelling the transition.
But the casualties continued to pile up. Californian Dave Eggers and Australian Nicky Wood were the highest profile, but beneath them were countless kids who crashed and burned without even attracting attention. If they were lucky, they dropped off the tour and got jobs repping for their former sponsors, but most wound up back in their shitty coastal home towns working as fishermen or tradies, their youthful dream often perversely warping into an indifferent memory.
“I pretty much threw all my trophies in a garage,” Eggers told a surf website in 2001. “They’re all falling apart – they mean nothing to me. It was fun, but I’m glad it’s over.”
Coke is still the drug of choice on the pro tour, at least among those with the surfer’s traditional predilection for getting vortexed.
The only difference now is that ice – a similar but more powerful and cheaper drug – is also in plentiful supply. Ice cut a swath through the northern beaches of Sydney recently – turning one high-profile pro surfer into a violent, moody nutcase.
While there are still a lot of high jinks going on, the wholesome, competitive attitude that Kelly’s generation brought to the sport has provided a convincing cover.
These days, the sport’s reputation as pop culture’s most fertile ground for narcotic thrill-seekers has been usurped by, of all people, a bunch of overpaid brats from Hollywood.
You wouldn’t have envisaged it 30 years ago, but these days surfers are clean-cut mummy’s boys compared to Lindsay, Britney and Paris – whose reckless antics support a tabloid industry similar in size to the entire surf business.
Of course, the surf industry prefers it that way, which is why the ASP is under no pressure to maintain a thorough drug-testing regime.
These days it’s gauche to flaunt drug-use, but only a fool would think that means it no longer exists. Drugs are as inextricable from surfing as the jittery anticipation of paddling into a sick, uncrowded break and the long anguish of a boring flat spell. From an early age, surfers are conditioned to accept the cruel vicissitudes of life. The whims of the weather send us through cycles of uncontrollable joy and irritable inactivity. A minority of us are able to resist extending these extremes to other aspects of life, but most of us are not. My only advice is that you don’t throw yourself on the scrapheap in the process. Life’s too fun to become a dumb casualty.
WORDS FRED PAWLE
This article originally appeared in Wavelength issue 177