This post is for anyone who comes across my blog, but I am writing it keeping in mind that a number of Professors in Loyola’s English department will in a week or so be given a stack of senior theses, neatly typed up and printed out, and somewhere in the pile will be a single piece of paper with the URL that leads to this blog. What once was a creative diversion has become my senior thesis, and while I write for a general audience, this blog serves a dual purpose as the capstone of my college experience.
When I graduated high school, My best friend and I would go surfing every morning, riding up the PCH or the 101, parking along the road-side and paddling out at Surfer’s Point or Rincon or Solimar. Back home I have a 9’6 Weber and a 6’2 board by an Oxnard shaper named Klaus Jones, and as much as I suck at surfing, I’ve never stayed upset when I got into the water. Even on the flattest days (and California has plenty of those), bobbing like a cork in the water was a peaceful experience. Surfing is like the white-noise in California coastal life. Even for those completely immersed in it, we don’t often trouble its meaning. It is an escape, a pleasure, a challenge: play. Somehow, while quasi-landlocked in New Orleans, I ended up thinking about surfing a lot. I blame this on Roland Barthes, David Foster Wallace, and Dr. Christopher Schaberg.
Barthes’ Mythologies showed how anything could be complicated. Mythologies takes objects as varied as wooden blocks and rocket-men and extrapolates what it is that we invest in those things. He unpacks the relationship between the sign and the signifier. But most importantly to me, he writes beautiful short pieces that make me reconsider everything. For one of Dr. Schaberg’s classes, each of us was assigned an article at random, on which we had to write a Barthes-type piece. Mine was based on an advertisement for Delta Airlines promoting free on-board wi-fi. What I wrote became a short piece on Airplanereading.org entitled “Expect the Internet.” Writing that piece and others like it pushed my pre-conceived notions of genre away. While I never believed that there were any strict rules concerning genre, I did not do much to push against the concept. My fiction was fiction. My essays were essays. But when you write the Barthian piece, you must simultaneously be analytical, critical, playful and artistic. You aim as much to be insightful as you do to be entertaining. And what’s more, the thing that you write about becomes simultaneously emphasized and diminished, because you show its individual importance, and in doing so, you show that everything contains this sort of importance. You could write about an armchair or a wig or a coconut or skin flakes. Anything can be exploded. And this action is important to emphasize, because the end-goal of each piece is not to come to a conclusion, but to send bits of shrapnel off in every direction, and those bits have effects wherever they land, and they are in themselves new affects.
If Barthes was the ideological framework, David Foster Wallace was the model. Everything from Infinite Jest to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again rests atop a foundation of personal experience, critical theory, philosophy and spectacular literary pyrotechnics used to stunning effect. And in this case, what was most important to me was the fact that David Foster Wallace didn’t confine himself to genre or style. He was just a writer. Book reviews, essays, dictionary entries, anthology introductions, epic tomes, post-modern short stories, jokes, speeches, screenplays (as embedded into a footnote in Infinite Jest); Wallace was what I want to be. And what was most fascinating to me is that he found meaning, beauty, truth and sincerity in topics that would, to the average person, be considered mundane.
While surfing has particular meanings for me, what I want to emphasize is that it didn’t matter what I chose to write about. It mattered that I picked a singular idea and followed it wherever it led. For this reason, my thesis is not clean and uniform, and coming to the end will not bring about any sort of catharsis (not in its online incarnation). When you write on the Internet, you abandon some of that formality. You write faster, looser and with a different consideration of audience. And in fact, my blog is technically an online failure. It has achieved no degree of virality and no steady following. In over two years, I have gotten around 1,600 views, which amounts to just over two views per day over the two year period. You almost have to try to get that unnoticed on the internet.
But let’s look at that data in another way. The typical thesis will usually be read by the author, his or her advisor, a committee of reviewers and maybe two or three really good friends. Generously, we’re talking ten to twenty people. The Deep Water Breaks has been available to a wide audience since its inception, and while it averages out to two a day, the fact is that such an analysis isn’t telling. The viewership on my blog has actually grown. Initially, months would pass without any traffic. But since about June of 2012, the daily average has been more around fifteen, with spikes up to thirty or forty.
As websites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the Huffington Post demonstrate, there is a whole social psychology to viral content, and this psychology is embedded into a concept known as click-bait. I’d love to explain click-bait, but this isn’t the time or place. I’m running out of words. Suffice to say, what I do isn’t intended to generate traffic. It’s main goal is to wrestle with ideas.
The lack of digital success for The Deep Water Breaks is not an indication that the project has been a failure. My research has led to publications in various mediums. I reviewed Krista Comer’s book Surfer Girls in the New World Order, a cultural study for feminism and globalization, for Interstitial: a Journal of Modern Culture and Events; I’ve published an essay on Apple’s new operating system OSX Mavericks, titled “Apple’s Private Beach” in The Millions, which is currently considered one of the best literary sites on the web; most recently I published a short story titled “Breaking Pierpont” at Lent Mag, a hip new literary journal run out of Ol’ Miss’s graduate MFA program. The latter was actually the first piece I wrote for the blog, but it has been taken down in anticipation of its publication.
The other exciting aspect of this project is that there are very few other people doing what I am doing. Matt Warshaw and Ben Marcus have worked tirelessly to chronicle the history of surfing, capturing and preserving oral histories and rare texts. Krista Comer has worked to create room in academia for critical approaches to surfing. Novelists like Tim Winton and Kem Nunn have produced beautiful works like Breathe and Tapping the Source, while Tom Wolfe’s essay “The Pump House Gang” has elicited the ire of the very surfers he portrayed, who would love the opportunity to knock Wolfe clean out of his dapper white suit. But overall, the field is wide open to exploration, and this project has been as much about me finding work to model as it has been about setting the stage for my own literary experiments.
The project is far from over. As I write this, I am preparing to travel to Port Fourchon and Grand Isle, where I will view the only two surfable beaches on Louisiana’s coast, both of which have gone unsurfed since the BP oil spill. And in the long run, these pieces will join a collection of essays that I hope to publish as a book. Beyond that, the material is all working to toward a larger piece of fiction, whose form I am a long way from fully understanding.
To the readers reviewing this project: I’ve gussied up the website in order to present a more coherent narrative. Normally, a blog would be viewed in a reverse-chronological order, and most of the time the reader will simply select which pieces he or she would like to read. As you read my blog, you will be able to scroll down the page, and read the pieces starting at the top with the first piece I wrote, and continuing on until you reach the most current ones. I’ve made this change so that the reader can see how this project has changed over the course of the last two years. Further, I have made significant edits to most of the pieces, and I have removed posts that I deemed unfit or irrelevant. I wrestled with whether or not I should do any editing beyond proofing, but when I went back over the old pieces, I realized that often I didn’t fully understand what I was writing, and I had written most of those pieces in the interest of time. I have learned so much about surf-culture that it has been exciting to go back and revise from a more informed perspective. So, in effect, reading this is not so much an exploration of a preserved artifact, necessarily. But what I fought to preserve was the ideological and stylistic elements employed in each post. You will see the changes and the stumbles. You will see me learning how to stand on my board.
If surfing is a sport, it’s an existential one. It consists of two futile motions repeated in perpetuity with infinite variation: paddling out against the tide, and then setting yourself up on the wave, riding it nearly to shore before you dismount and do it all again. One of the reasons it is so constantly linked to something vast and spiritual is because the performance of these two acts is almost like a mantra, or Hail Mary’s. Beyond that, surfing has for most of its history been a solitary venture. Even when travelling in groups, or during competition, the primary concern is how the surfer is relating to the ocean.
In the sixties and seventies, this notion of individuality in surfing’s insider culture was visible in the independent films produced mainly by and for surfers. The posters advertising these films depicted young (primarily) white males exploring coastal terrain, or otherwise charging down the face of world-famous breaks, on their own against the elements.
Endless Summer (1966)
The Morning of the Earth, (1972)
These films all were all produced around the beginning of what Matt Warshaw calls surfing’s Boom Years. Surfing exploded in popularity in the late sixties as youth culture and the automobile took on a new hyper-emphasized place in American life. This boom would culminate in what has become the bane of every surfer’s existence: crowds. By 1968 there was not a surf able break on the West Coast of the United States (or anywhere in Hawaii) that wasn’t filled beyond capacity (a capacity often defined by wealth, class and race). And this trend has continued through to the present, because while the sixties might have been considered the boom years, there are more surfers on the planet now than ever before. And further, the technology available to surfers has made that search for the perfect wave an excursion available to anyone who can afford it.
An article in Australia’s Surfing Life explores the ramifications of these new technologies. Matt Miller’s piece, Surf Forecasting: A Gift or A Curse? weighing its pro’s and cons of websites like surf line, which report local conditions on breaks around the world, including wave height, tides, conditions, and in many cases there are cameras which allow viewers to scope out breaks from the comfort of their couches.
“The rise and rise of internet surf forecasting websites…[has] brought simple and easy-to-read forecasting to the masses. Now everyone is scoring the best waves, we all know when the next swell’s coming and what day the wind’s swinging offshore. But is that necessarily a good thing?”
Miller compares surf forecasting to farmers utilization of advanced technologies to better plan for their crops. Surfers have used the technology to plan surf competitions with pinpoint accuracy based on conditions. But at the same time, the new trend has resulted in the overcrowding of once coveted surf spots. Take this example of a swell he and his friend had tracked in a specific location and flew out to catch:
“We got to Lakey’s two days before the swell was predicted and the whole place was deserted. The next day there were 40 surfers in the water by lunchtime. Every one of them using the same internet surf forecasting sites as us. Everyone is now a weather expert.”
There are practical reasons to want to limit the number of people out in the line-up. Overcrowding means less opportunity to surf. This increases competition, localism and aggressions. And it also decreases the number of people who have gone through the process of mentorship and trial and error that teaches us the etiquette of surfing, sometimes referred to as The Ten Commandments of Surfing. The physical environment suffers from compacted line-ups as well. Delicate ecosystems are damaged, suffering the wear of hundreds of people swarming en masse for short periods of time. Many of the world’s best waves are outside of city limits, with little resources for upkeep or cleanup efforts.
But then there’s the deeper soul-sucking threat—the idea that shakes the surfer’s psyche. The search for the perfect wave is over. The Endless Summer (a myth in and of itself, since the world’s best waves occur during the winter) is cooling down. There is no more sitting, waiting, wishing and praying that you are in the right spot at the right time. If the surfer claims a spot in the American Pantheon alongside the cowboy and the transcendental poet, he also suffers the same fate: the almost inevitable extinction of his ideals. Just as the cowboy is almost irrelevant in the era of big agriculture, the soul-surfer must also succumb to modernity.
…gives way to this.
Bob Burns only has to turn right or left to see the hordes waiting for the set to come in, kicking their legs in their Rip Curl suits, to know that his coveted locale has already gone viral. Miller began his essay with an anecdote about his father:
“My old mans mate, Jonesy, a renowned sea dog and synoptic guru, always had a huge advantage by putting himself in the right place on the right day, constantly one step ahead of the crowds. The internet has changed that forever.”
Delta Airlines wants you to take a trip to ease your mind. And to make it easier, they want you to buy a Delta Rewards card, offering 35,000 bonus miles and your first bag free. Now, I don’t work for Delta, and I have no intention of selling anyone a premier rewards card. I just happened to see on their screen that this advertisement includes two satisfied surfers stepping out of the water and walking towards a piece of plastic hovering in the air next to them.
I’m supposed be compelled to purchase a rewards card because these surfers convey a sense of ease, leisure and satisfaction. They clearly don’t have any worries about credit card debt. So why not book a trip to some beachfront hotel, catch a few waves?
The emphasis of this screenshot, and the point of the image, is to sell the AmEx credit card with the frequent flyer package. How do two surfers slogging ashore in the sunset achieve this goal? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to view the surfer in the ocean, paddling to catch a wave? Or at least to see these two guys walk into the ocean as the swell builds.
Forget it. Placid sea. Content surfers. Setting sun. The fact is, using someone who is actually surfing might more readily convey a sense of effort, difficulty and work. It’s much easier to think of the action as already being completed, moving into a moment when there is nothing to do. A moment where play consists of sitting on a beach drinking mojitos. The advertiser might want to the card to signify the same notion of completion that we ascribe to the surfers stepping out from the ocean. The surfer’s boards point to the credit card. They walk towards it. By spending with AmEx, we now are saving little by little to afford the trip we desire. But like surfer’s walking away from the ocean, perhaps we are moving in the wrong direction.
As a staple of Americana, surfing readily lends itself to advertisement. If the mark of late-capitalism is the consumer using his or her spending power to demonstrate leisure, then indeed surfing is the paragon. Using just a few images and videos, we can examine the way this leisure activity has been employed to sell you a wide variety of shit.
Cars and Surf Culture
The Woody is as big a surf icon as the board itself in Southern California. After all, how could a person get a ten-foot board to the beach without a car? Moving from air to land, there is plenty of visual culture linking the two. The Beach Boys had at least as many songs about cars as they did about surfing. And the truth is that surfing’s broad acceptance in Southern California is in no small way indebted to the automobile and the massive infrastructure created in Southern California.
This advertisement for the Triumph Spitfire Mk2 ascribes all the sexiness, power and fluidity of surfing and surf culture to the car.
In this ad by Jeep, the car and the board become synonymous. In the Spitfire ad the car embodies surf culture. It is inactive, leisurely, and not serving any particular purpose. If the advertisers wanted to demonstrate superior handling or any of the aspects mentioned in the writing below the image, it would make much more sense to place the vehicle on the road. In the Jeep ad, the vehicle enables the possibility of “Fun.” The car facilitates the journey, but it is also a part of it. In fact, the car isn’t even present in the image. It embodies surfing as much as surfing embodies the car.
This ad is a partnership between MiniCooper and Malamalama Board Shorts. The catch: Malamalama board shorts don’t exist. Mini-cooper invented a board-shorts company and purchased additional ad-space to produce this eye-catching ad. Like the Delta photo, the Malamalama ad features the surfers looking away from the beach, while their friend peers over the edge of the advertisement to the adjacent wall. Just as the surfers in the AmEx frequent flyer card draw our attention to the card, we are similarly drawn to the MiniCooper. And if we could look straight on at the Mini-Cooper ad, it would look a lot like the Jeep ad. Meta-Culture, Ad-Hoc.
Look back at the Malamalama ad and it’s slogan:
CUT FOR THE SURFING GENERATION
Just because Malamalama is a fake company does not mean that this is a poorly constructed board shorts ad. The same sex appeal, power and edginess of the Spitfire advertisement is embodied in the line of surfers on the beach. The slogan is designed to simultaneously make the wearer feel unique and part of cultural movement.Even the word “Malamalama” is both validated and invalidated by it’s presence. In Hawaiian its roughly translated meaning is “Light of knowledge; clarity of thinking or explanation; shining, clear.”
The Other Side of Surf
the above advertisements, as we’ve seen, appeal to the idea of leisure and play. But in other cases advertisements have sought to eek out the more harsh and intimidating, life-threatening or otherwise unfathomable scope of surfing. The following advertisement was crated by Pepsi for their “Dare for More” campaign.
It’s hard not to appreciate the brilliance and beauty that advertisements are capable of. In this case, Pepsi has impregnated its entirely abstract logo with all the meanings of epic surf and stormy red skies. The brand loses nothing and gains everything. The viewer is first hit with abstraction, and then it’s a toss-up as to what first becomes apparent. Our eyes look to the corner and see the traditional Pepsi logo embedded in the new slogan, and looking back to the whole image we might begin to discern the shape of that same logo, and then realize it’s a wave if we haven’t already. But certainly the last thing to come to light will be the minuscule surfer careening down the wave, who may as well be one of the shipwrecked passengers on Stephen Crane’s “Open Boat.”
It’s worth noting that while Pepsi is urging us to “Dare for More,” it is also clear that that wave, and by association the Pepsi-Cola company, are far more vast and powerful than the individual, who can ride the wave, but he cannot conquer or alter it. Though, in fact, the wave will eventually lose its form, become amorphous and crash, and ultimately dwindle down to ripples sucked back out into the sea.
That same power is evoked in an ad campaign by Guinness. The following video was ranked the most popular advertisement in British history. It is by all accounts a technical marvel. there is no computer animation. All of the effects are created through super-imposing different footage, creating a narrative that delivers an impressive punch. The narrative running through the ad is composed of quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The whole point is to convey Guinness’s new slogan: “Good things come to those who…”
It’s not possible to see the conflict by looking at one advertisement, but when the whole array of surf ads is analyzed, the duality of surfing’s representation become apparent. Intense power and Taoist passivity come together in the sport, but cannot be represented simultaneously in the media. It doesn’t sell.
Adam Knox has seen the world from every surfable coast. This week The Deep Water Breaks had the opportunity to get his take on surf culture. Knox gave us his thoughts on everything from the fundamentals of surf to his relationship with the late, great Andy Irons.
DWB: Do you feel like surfers are pro athletes?
KNOX: Yes and no. I consider myself a professional athlete but not in the same degree as my buddy Victor Ortiz. I hang out with him for one day and I feel like saying that I’m a professional athlete is kind of just a sham, you know? We are and we aren’t. Surfing is the hardest sport out there. Guaranteed. You can be the most talented athlete in the world and it’s still gonna take you four or five years to get good at it. Victor would say the same thing. In the sense of talent and being athletic and having the will to survive, but really we kind of have more of a kicked-back lifestyle. We surf when we want. We don’t have many coaches, even though that all seems to be changing now. A lot of new guys have coaches. It’s getting there, but it’s not quite there.
DWB. When you look at skateboarding and surfing, they seem similar enough, but why is Tony Hawk a household name while Taylor Knox and Kelly Slater aren’t?
KNOX. You can skate anywhere. By the beach. In Arizona. In the middle of the U.S. Everyone can do it. And you can practice on the same rail over and over again. You get to understand the progression a lot quicker. You fall in love with the sport a lot faster. When you go surfing, you paddle out, the water’s cold, the waves are big, it’s raining, you have to put a wet suit on. People don’t want to deal with that. People don’t understand the feeling once you get that first turn down on a wave. I don’t remember what that feels like any more but I know that’s what caught me. You can’t just walk up to the beach and surf and understand it.
DWB. It’s different than skating the same bowl every day…
KNOX. Yeah, you’re not going to be skating and have the sidewalk collapse on you and hold you down. And if you hit the ground and scrape your head or break your back, it’s not like you’ll suffocate to death on top of everything. When I get hurt underwater it’s not like I can just sit there and wait for the pain to go away. First I have to get thrown around on the reef and get cut up, holding my breath, then come up. Hopefully.
DWB. So when you consider that aspect of surfing, the psychology and the risk, how does that make you feel about man-made waves? Does surfing in a wave pool even count?
KNOX. Indoor surf parks have a long way to go. It’ll be surfing when it actually helps your progression. When you can practice your airs and you don’t need a jet-ski assist, maybe then. When the wave produces power and a little bit of a threat, then you can call it surfing.
DWB. How much of surfing is just that fear of the unknown?
KNOX. The X factor. It’s hard for me to say. I’ve been travelling around and surfing all the waves, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the breaks. But it all comes down to knowing the risk. It’s worth risking your life if you come out with the best wave of your life. But I’m not one of those guys who go out and surf mavericks just to get my rocks off. There are scary days, but when you finally get off the beach after a close call, it’s kind of like going through war and making it out again.
DWB. So in all these places you’ve been, what’s the strangest place you’ve surfed?
KNOX. I went to El Salvador a few years back with this magazine called Surf Shod. They had had a civil war not too long ago, and it’s also where MS 13 is from. Two guards picked up the six of us and our photographers. They had shotguns on them. They jumped in the van with us and took us to our camp and the guy there had a shotgun. Even when I went to the store I dropped a candy bar on the ground and I went to pick it up. When I looked up, the clerk had his hand on a shotgun pointed at me. It was probably the best trip I’ve ever been on waves-wise. But we had a party down at the beach and somebody shot at us for being too loud.
Virginia Beach was weirder than getting shot at. I was there for ASP (world Qualifying Series). The waves were tiny. The ocean was covered in Jelly Fish. Our heats kept getting interrupted by freight boats. If a boat came by in your heat you wouldn’t get a wave. There were also “No Cussing” signs on the street, confederate flags everywhere, and probably 1,000 sixteen year old girls on the beach looking up at our hotel room. I was twenty at the time, trying to figure out where all the older people were. Just kids and jellyfish.
DWB. Like other sports, a lot of surfers tended to grow up on the less-affluent side of things. At least that seemed to be the case where I came from. Is it like that on the national stage?
KNOX. A lot of the pro surfers come from, well not really poverty, but they’re not rich by any means. I think the reason for that is that beach communities are tight. When you don’t have that much money growing up you gotta find something to do, right? A lot of families use the beach as a way to pass the time. There’s a lot of other things going on around you, so if you stick to surfing or something then hopefully you can make it out.
Knox at Solimar in Ventura, California
DWB.What’s a specific image that represents surfing to you?
KNOX. There are two surfers whose image represents surfing for me. Dane Reynold went through his “I don’t care” routine, and I think he was being himself, but he didn’t know how to word it. But then he got to travel, to get a little more worldly, met some cool people and found himself. From an article I read recently, and just from conversations I’ve had with him, he seems to have got it figured out. He’s all about cruising and having fun. He was able to set himself aside to finally become the best and strangest surfer, and to make that work.
Mick Fanning is a good friend of mine and I always admired the way he carries himself. He’s a contest surfer and he’s got the best rail ever. He’s the type of guy who likes to have fun and party, but he can definitely focus. When need be.
DWB. Those guys make me think of the flip side of that image. Someone like Andy Irons.
KNOX. Yeah, he’s a good friend of mine. What happened was a bummer. It happens, but you can’t take anything away from Andy.
DWB. Are stories like his common in the pro surfing world?
KNOX. No. Andy was a beautiful surfer and just a beautiful person. I got the chance to hang out with him in some different places. I dated his wife’s little sister, so I knew them really well. You could be the best surfer in the world and still have all these problems, or call them demons or whatever, whatever makes people do things that are self-destructive. Andy’s a human. He’s not gonna sugarcoat anything for you. Or for himself. He’s just a real person and uh, shit happens I guess.
DWB. Considering your own family legacy, and the changes in surfing from Taylor Knox to you, what is a piece of advice you’d give to the next generation of surfers.
KNOX. When it comes to surfing in general, just don’t forget where surfing came from. It all comes from the rail. Get your basics down. Make sure you can do a cutback and a bottom turn before you try aerials.
Knox receiving advice from his big brother Taylor.
DWB.In three words, what is surfing to you?
KNOX. Speed. Power. Slow. That’s surfing in a nutshell. It’s not really the emotional or personal feel of surfing. But it’s the core.
Adam Knox is a professional surfer and is currently working on a reality show called “Hard Knox Life” featuring himself and his brothers. He is sponsored and supported by JetPilot Clothing, Roberts Surfboards, Olaf Mexican Grill, Aerial 7 Headphones and A-Frame Surf Shop.Knox is also a surfing coach.
The surf drought that has plagued the California central coast for most of the summer hasn’t kept me out of the water. It has a cold bite, even in July. Here in the silence of an un-undulating coast, I float. My board hardly stirs a ripple at Surfer’s Point. It’s times like these when a surfer can actually reflect on the cultural white-wash about how we experience peace and harmony with the ocean. We feel a part of it. Not so much like a molecule of water, but like stalks of sea weed.
Die-Hards watch the horizon awaiting the second coming of a swell they heard was here yesterday, was promised today, and has yet to materialize. They keep the faith. Gristled old men with brine in their beards and weathered crows’ feet under their eyes lean over the cold aluminum rails of the Ventura Promenade. They don’t move much. They’ll be there every morning in flannel and jeans. They’ll smoke cigarettes and drink strong coffee black from styrofoam cups. Their mustaches will yellow. The old men will die. The Die-Hards will age.
Salty: the flavor of the air you breathe; the texture of the particulate oxidizing aging automobiles; a sea-dog’s voice; your mouth’s bitter flavor when you bail off your board; the corrosion of the coast; this way of life.
We embrace it. We let the salt seep into the crevices of our skin. It settles into our lungs’ bronchial tubes. We oxidize. We rust. We become pillars of salt forever looking back at the sun setting and rising like the flickering flames of Gomorrah. This is a dead sea in the summer.
Somehow, this is peaceful.
What’s amazing about sound is how incredibly fast it travels, approximately 768 miles per hour in dry air. It moves in invisible waves that become apparent as soon as they make contact with an open field, a hanging tuft of hair, or your delicate and precise personal eardrum. There was a time when it seemed almost as impossible to break the speed of sound as we believe it is to move faster than light. Now jets fly at two-to-three multiples of the sound barrier, casting off single or double sonic booms that make us crane our necks to the sky, so surprising that birds burst into the open air and fly home early for the winter—a boom that continues to make us marvel at our species’ ingenuity.
I experienced the breadth and universality of sound two weeks ago at The Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. Sound waves are no different than any other type of wave. If I clink my Heineken against Matt’s Pabst, the sonic waves will disperse in concentric spheres from the source of impact and continue until friction or the force of too many objects dissipates it to an infinitesimal trace of itself. That night the sonic wave from our brown glasses clanked against the hard body of a Fender Stratocaster in the hands of the man who brought the original Strat prominence, Dick Dale. Like most people, the sounds he emitted, or rather the sounds he coaxed from his instruments, traveled faster and farther than he ever could. They collided with other sounds and formed new types of music, just as the sonic tides of so many others reverberated and influenced Dale.
When waves collide they don’t impact and shatter like cars or bones. They move through each other and culminate into some sort of absolute value. If two waves move in the same direction, one larger than the other, by the time the faster wave catches up to the front-runner, the two will collide and form a larger wave. But if their frequencies are significantly different, the result is more like static: white noise. Dick Dale represents one of those moments when waves come together to form something more significant than was possible before the culmination. He is considered the man who invented the surf rock sound by attempting to recreate the rhythms he experienced while surfing in Orange County.
This isn’t a review or retrospective on Dick Dale. Its not an ode to surf rock. It is a consideration of the elements, or waves, that culminated in the mind of Dick Dale and his contemporaries in the early 1960’s—elements that to this day are inseparable from popular surf iconography. This is a jumping off point, the initial chord in a string of notes meant to examine what the sound of surf is and how it came to be. To start, here is a chronology of one of Dick Dale’s most famous songs, “Misirlou,” originally composed by Tito Demetriades in 1927.
The song is Greek in origin, but the title Misirlou means “Egyptian Girl,” which explains the more Arabic music style.
It wouldn’t be until later in the 1940’s that Misirlou would make it State side, but by the time it does orchestras in New York are ready to increase the tempo, jazz it up and make it their own. Some people opted to add in their own lyrics, but most renditions dropped the vocals completely, which is as important to bear in mind as is the ethnography of the song.
But around 1961 the song was popularized by Dick Dale in a version most people of my generation are familiar with not by association with Dick Dale, but by Quentin Tarantino.
Along with the adaptation of the song to suit a rock combo, Dale also included elements of Latin American Mariachi music by use of trumpets.
Misirlou encapsulates what Dick Dale determined to be the sound of surf. Perhaps. Maybe he never really found the sound, but the popularity of this particular sound became a permanent fixture of surf pop culture. There are three main sounds that culminate in Misirlou: The Arabic transient desert sound, the Latin American mariachi sound, and the sound of the rock guitar which was being invented as it was played by Dick Dale. His original contributions (the use of an electric instead of an acoustic bass, single instead of double-coil pick-ups, quasi-heavy metal tempo, screaming animalistic lyricism)along with the adaptation of classic elements acted like frequencies culminating into more potent waves.
Again, this is an introduction to this whole topic. It’s meant to do what seeing Dick dale perform did for me, which is mainly to explode a topic that you might not have given much consideration. These are thoughts on the association of sound and action; ruminations on how humans ascribe tones and meanings to actions. In the next few posts there will be a lot of ground to cover between Tito Demetriades and this:
but perhaps not as much as it seems…
I feel obligated to say something about this clip, and there is, truly, a lot to say. But I don’t know where to start. So for now, consider this clip a curious peek at what you might find when you google 1960’s surf scenes.
Comer, Krista. Surfer Girls in the New World Order
Duke University Press, 2010, $23.95
The following review originally appeared in Interstitial: A Journal of Modern Culture and Events.
Krista Comer’s Surfer Girls in the New World Order reads as if you are surfing it. Reading the introduction feels like paddling arm over arm through the beach-breaks, constantly duck-diving, reverting to each of the footnotes, emerging just outside the breaks having navigated an intellectual confluence of feminist theory, ethnography, and regional studies. The next two hundred pages are the equivalent of what the author describes as blue skies and the perfect ride on a glassy wave. This is not because Comer ceases her academic rigor. Rather, Comer provides the necessary skill-set that the reader needs to combine often seemingly disparate notions of place and femininity. The author has crafted an effective and scintillating critical examination that considers the political, environmental and social ramifications of surfing. The text illustrates these points through events like the 2002 terrorist attacks in Bali, Indonesia and eco-tourism in Sayulitas, Mexico. Comer’s ‘surfer girl’ is an example of how localisms and globalization are inextricably combined.
As Comer describes this figure, the surfer girl is not a sub-set of a counter-cultural movement, but one of the several complex and hazily defined points of engagement in a conversation of globalization, localism, environmentalism, and feminism. Comer’s research emphasizes how every ‘local’ is the result of a global model or logic. To illustrate this shifting world of surfing sites and meanings, she draws on ten years of research, varying from close readings of books and pop-culture, to studies in feminism and globalization. Comer deals as succinctly with surf films such as Endless Summer and Blue Crush as she does with Fredric Jameson’s studies of globalization and the “untotalizable totality”(13).
There is as much care given to descriptions of boats “pushing off and returning to shore, leaving gasoline rainbows trailing behind in the water” (1) as there is to the subtle and at times astounding contradictions of surf culture. Comer’s method is that of “transdisciplinary scholarship” working “between textuality, media, global tourism, and subcultural material life” (11). With this method she takes sources as diverse as the Gidget novels and films of the late fifties and early sixties, and the development of Roxy Girl Surf wear and the “burkini”—across this wide range of source material, Comer carefully subjects each text to a uniquely critical and flexible practice of close reading.
The book is separated into two parts, the first titled California Goes Global. This section handles the surfer girl within a historical context, examining the evolution of both the public perception of women in surfing and the realities of their circumstances. In doing so, Comer refutes the notion that the progression of the surfer girl has gone from oppressed to some greater degree of counter-cultural acceptance. In other words, there is no clear progressive arc between the first Gidget novel in 1957 and the release of Blue Crush in 2002. In fact, Comer shows how the first Gidget novel set off a series of hostilities in surf culture that were relatively marginalized before its publication. Comer states that “prior to Gidget, gendered power struggles, a kind of leering anger at women in the water, did not characterize sub-cultural identity as it would thereafter” (35).
Gidget represented the “moving center” (37) between the historical and idealized age of surfing based in its Hawaiian traditions and mythologies, and the crowds and “surfaris” (7) of Southern California that followed the film’s release. Malibu ceased to be an actual surfers’ paradise and became a bastion for tourists and baby-boomers. From this center that is not a center, masculine and localist trends sought unsoiled territory beyond California where the mythical surf spot still existed. Comer points to Bruce Brown’s surf film Endless Summer (1966) as the incarnation of these ideologies. The iconic cover photo, still ever-present in the dorm-rooms of adolescent males, is of several surfers holding their boards, walking toward the waves of an untouched beach. To Comer, Endless Summer “made explicit what was at least one conclusion of Gidget; it offered a response to the crowds. Flee” (37).
This was all a reaction to a novel that in many respects created a true counter-cultural female character. Gidget ignored the Cold War norms of motherhood and the nuclear family. She didn’t tie herself down to any boy, and she was not the pretty girl who sat on the beach watching the boys play in the water. She was part of the spectacle, not a mere subject to it.
Comer follows the trends in surf culture from this point. The tensions, performances, the hybridities of work and play that arise in the following years result in the hyper-masculinity of big-wave surf movies, as well as the representation of women in surf advertisements. This section, in relation to the whole, examines how the Malibu localism becomes intrinsically tied to surfing globally (with all its consumerist ramifications).
The surf camps, eco-tourism, and other aspects of global surf culture that arise from the Gidget era again come together in a single cultural object. Through Blue Crush, Comer examines the third-wave feminist surfer girl in the contemporary surfing scene. This time the localism is the significantly more territorial and masculine Pipeline break in Hawaii. Comer neither endorses nor criticizes the film, but she does cause one to pause and re-evaluate what is at play in a film that seems easily dismissed, but in fact focuses and defines the surfer girl in public perception.
The second section of Comer’s book is titled Globalization from Below. Having established critical and historical contexts through the introduction and first part of the book, the final part digs deep into hot spots of eco-tourism. Comer describes trips to the Las Olas surf camp in Sayulitas, described in camp brochures as a “reverse finishing school,” intended to “makes girls out of women” (3). These luxury campers call themselves surfistas, a term that brings together several of the book’s themes. In this complex locus, Comer explores NAFTA, eco-tourism, and even the ins and outs of Mexican international real estate markets.
Nothing in Comer’s research resolves comfortably. Perhaps this is the nature of the New World Order: because a B-movie in Southern California can motivate a generation to turn the pristine oceans of the world into their playground, nothing can ever quite settle, but rather everything is subject to the perturbations of capital and liquid markets. But still one finds earnest hope in the stories of the Paradise Surf Shop, or the inspiring life of Hawaiian surfer Rell Sun. Comer has taken surfing, as examined through her own academic interests, and reflected on both the broad tides of globalization and the small wakes of real people in specific places.
She ends her book in Houston. The last photograph is of her niece Sammie in the North Shore Surf Club. They paddle out from the beaches in Galveston on the Gulf Coast, where surf goes to die. This is a provocative decision, compositionally speaking. Comer’s book provides lessons for other locations, recreations, exoticisms; it says a lot about the products of privilege and the precarious and dangerous possibilities of globalization. The author breathed it as she grew up in Oxnard, California, and now Comer is yet another sort of West Coast expatriate, profoundly influenced by the place she came from, even seeking to reproduce it in a new place. Comer sees the same struggles in place, femininity, and culture as she did in California, combined with the pre-existing social conditions native to Texas.
Here in Louisiana, possibly the only place in the United States with surf worse than Texas, there are a few die-hards who rode the almost mythical breaks at Fourchon Beach. These Cajun surfers have lately been kept from Fourchon as a result of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Meanwhile hurricanes are destroying the beaches faster than tourists at Waimea Bay. Comer’s work applies, even here and especially now.
Finding the confidence and fitness to surf
Feminism, Reproductive Justice, Activism
writer & modern historian
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Surfing's fictions, metaphysics and culture.
Surfing's fictions, metaphysics and culture.