This week, Matt Warshaw dropped a gem from a chapter of his newly digitized History of Surfing, dedicated to one Tracy “Tubesteak” Tracy, the legendary Malibu local (You can read the full chapter here). We got a hold of Warshaw at his home in Seattle, to get his take on what made Tubesteak a true original.
What was it about Tubesteak’s antics, amidst 1950s suburbia, that made him so memorable?
I’ve realized, these last few days, how hard it is to get across just what made Tube so special. Those who knew him way back when, even by reputation, get it. But all you youngsters — like, under 50 — how do I do justice to this man? But let’s try. First of all, like you say, it’s postwar suburbia, clean-cut, mom’s in the kitchen, Father Knows Best. Elvis has barely arrived. “Rock and roll” is mostly still a black thing. You obey your parents, go to school, go to college or get a job, get married, have kids. You follow the script. And here’s this guy living in a shack, drinking beer in the afternoon, living fat and sleek on handouts from friends, visitors, day-trippers. And his name is “Tubesteak!” Those two things right there, the living situations and the nickname, in terms of having one foot outside of the societal norm, are pretty amazing. I mean, he’s more or less homeless, but he’s surfing Malibu by himself every morning, holding court on the beach in the afternoon, and if he puts his hand out somebody fills his palm with a cold beer—that’s amazing, that’s transgressive. And then, of course, Tube was just really funny, very sly, very deadpan. Like, John Belushi funny. Everything was a put-on with Tube, except he wasn’t mean-spirited. Unlike Miki Dora, Tube liked people. He’d mess with you, but not in a humbling or bullying way. You just wanted to be around him, to watch and listen and maybe, hopefully, chime in now and then.
What was it about Malibu—the parking lot scene, the wave, the crowds on the beach—that made its little amphitheater so ripe for characters like Tubesteak?
It’s warm, the coast right there bends in a way that not only makes the waves great, but keeps it from blowing out in the afternoon. You’re off Coast Highway, but not too far off. You’re outside of LA, but not too far outside.
Malibu, like the song title says, was the nearest faraway place. It’s self-contained. The pier, the surf, the lagoon — it holds you in place. Nobody ever hung out on the other side of the pier. Nobody posted up at Third Point, at least not in the ‘50s or ‘60s. First Point was a theater, a village, disguised as a surf break.
So to my mind there’s two different countercultural threads that run through Malibu that Dora and Tubesteak seem to epitomize. Dora’s the dark genius, the talented, conflicted misanthrope; Tubesteak is the oddball showman, the lovable oaf.
Yeah, that’s it. Pretty much. Except I wouldn’t describe Tubesteak as an oaf. He was super bright. Believe it or not, he was well groomed, always clean, nice clothes, Wayfarers. His voice had this kind of affected elegance, except it wasn’t really all affectation. He was elegant, in his way. I think he felt that what he was doing, the life he was living, was in fact very grand. He was king of a small but wonderful dominion. That’s how he played it. It wasn’t just farce. I’m sure he believed there was honor and responsibility involved too.
I’m so fascinated by these characters that loom large during a historical moment, and then walk away when things start to feel differently, or when things change. Because even today, Malibu leaves me with this feeling. Waking up in your truck or on the beach during the summer, a south swell in the water… It’s a magical place. Explain the circumstances around Tubesteak walking away from Malibu in the late-‘50s.
Like he said in the interview with Ben Marcus, once the lifeguards showed up and began regulating, that was it. Tube ruled through charm and good humor. LA County lifeguards ruled through laws and regulations. No beach fires. No alcohol. No shack. Kind of like how, a hundred years earlier, when the missionaries squashed gambling and public nudity, they pretty much squashed surfing, as well. For Tubesteak, if you remove the shack and the beer, what’s the point?
For more, visit the History of Surfing website here.
Photo: Tom McBride