More than anyone else, the late John Severson created a shared surf culture. Through his art, writing, photography, films, and magazine, he documented surfing during its defining moments in the 1960s. Not only did Severson become one of the most important figures in the history of surfing, but he did so while always maintaining great humility, grace, and humor. These traits stand front and center in the following interview—an excerpt from Severson’s excellent hardcover book, SURF—which ran in SURFER’s December 2014 issue. It serves as a reminder of the kind of man Severson was: immensely talented, incredibly passionate, and above all, a consummate surfer.
Interview by Nathan Howe
Can you describe the atmosphere in Southern California post–World War II?
We came out of the war into an unstable economy and strikes, but California missed a lot of that. Leisure time opened up. There were more jobs, and the economy was more up than down. It was easier to get a cheap car, and technology was changing things. The attitude was looser and more playful. The guys coming out of the service had been through a lot. Many of those who surfed went back to it. The big redwood boards were obsolete, with the balsa wood “Malibu Chip” revolutionizing surfing. Balsa wood was short in supply, and by the mid-’60s, fiberglassed polyurethane foam replaced the wood. The kids were faced with nuclear threats and the Cold War, hiding under a table to escape a bomb. “Hell with that. We’re going surfing!”
When you purchased your 16mm movie camera in the early ’50s, were you planning to produce a surf film?
No, but that was the best trade of my life: my trumpet for the Keystone 16mm. It was new to me and, at the time, just an expensive hobby. Surfing was my passion and naturally it became my subject. My first roll stunned us and I was immediately captivated by filmmaking. Right away, I had to get a projector. I’m making cents per hour pumping gas and saving for college, so shooting film was a reckless direction. Then I needed editing equipment so I could put the title at the beginning and the best shot at the end. I began showing my collection in my brother’s garage at two bits a head, with a free beer.
The young audiences at surf movies would often interrupt the films with chaos. What provoked the trouble with the gremmies?
The first gremmie troubles could probably be attributed to Mickey Dora and his attention-getting firecrackers. By 1960, Santa Monica High School had banned surf movies. I took a chance and rented the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, where they later put on the Academy Awards. It held 3,000—a big risk. I’ve never put up so many posters, and they were disappearing as fast as I put them up. But we filled the house, and it was an amazing show. We showed films where we could—high schools, clubs, Seamen’s Halls, Podunk places—but the big venues made our year. The newness of the films kept everyone’s attention for a few years, but by ’63 or ’64 trouble was back, full on. A boring film invited the audience to provide the entertainment. The most attractive caper was sailing bottle caps. Imagine an auditorium full of flying bottle caps. Luckily there were no eyes lost. Audiences were crazed; temporary insanity.
What was your wildest night?
That would have been a nightmare at Mira Costa High, in the California South Bay area, when surfers were at their worst. I was showing Surf Safari, from the previous year. At 8 p.m. I walked out on the stage to introduce the film to 1,200 people packed in a gym, ending with, “Now if we can have the lights, we’ll have the action.” At exactly the moment I said “action,” the lights and power went off and a crackle of lightning flashed across the skylight. Then black…and silence. I said again, “If we can have the lights, we’ll have the action!” My voice fell flat, and I realized we were completely down. It was quiet for a few minutes, followed by a rustling and then low chanting. After a while, somebody began yelling “Sieg heil!” in a military cadence, and a few people started to pick up on it. My brother rushed up to the stage and said he was taking the film and the money to the car. A few minutes later, the “Sieg heil!”–er was on the stage, yelling at the top of his lungs in an effort to conduct the blind audience. I pushed him off the stage, but the audience started going crazy, stomping and chanting, “SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL! SIEG HEIL!” I thought the grandstands would come down and the place could collapse! It was mass hysteria, pitch black, screaming and stomping in unison, and things were getting very scary—a riot! At that moment the gym doors flew open and a police car drove in, red lights flashing and siren blaring. The police ordered the crowd to silence with bullhorns and whistles, slowly…calming them down. It took a while… Finally, everyone got a ticket for next week, and it was over. I later found out that the transformer for the whole block had blown. This imagery is what I would later fight against at SURFER magazine.
At the beginning of your tenure as publisher and editor of SURFER, you worked to counteract the Hollywood distorted image of surfing and help legitimize the sport. You called the Gidget and beach-blanket movies “mistaken-identity films.” Were you conscious that SURFER was at the helm of image-making for an entire generation?
Surfers hated those Hollywood surf films, and I could see that SURFER could create a truer image of the sport. The Gidget-inspired kids wanted to go surfing, or at least be a part of this underground culture. Their role models were Hollywood stereotypes, and the sport quickly picked up a bad name. Wannabes came into the sport as rebels, pranksters, vandals, and thieves, wearing Nazi imagery—helmets and iron crosses. It was the best and worst of times to start a surfing magazine. Surfing had no financial base, no political clout, and we were becoming known for the actions of those seeking attention. Cities were shutting surfing down, legislating against the sport. The only group effort available was through the magazine, so I simply explained the situation: Clean up or lose our surf spots. We tried to redirect these misguided surf rebels as they wandered into the sport. They couldn’t help but find SURFER and soon realized that maybe there was a purer way to relate to the sport. It was a battle for survival. With editorials and the help of our cartoonist, Rick Griffin, we campaigned for better relations with the public. Griffin created Murphy, a naïve character who set good examples that our readers could relate to. The kids paid attention and became a group of temporarily well-groomed, clean-cut, nice-acting young men you’d like to have your daughter go out with. We found we could communicate, and a wave of more-responsible surfers took charge. The United States Surfing Association was formed. Slowly we improved our image, and by the mid-’60s we had reclaimed some respectability. But the rebel soul of the surfer was only dormant.
From 1960 to ’64 at SURFER, you produced four major surf films, ending with the coda of Surf Classics. In ’69, after a long silence in filmmaking, you commenced on your seventh and final film: Pacific Vibrations. What mobilized you to return to surf film?
It was meant to be homage to the ocean and surfing, and an environmental wake-up call. It seemed like a message I owed the sport, and SURFER was the perfect springboard for the project.
Pacific Vibrations was the first surfing film that had an ecological undertone. When did you become interested in surfing’s relationship to the environment?
I can trace it back to a day in ’59 when I filmed a dead seagull, oil soaked and washing in the Malibu shorebreak. The shot went in Surf Fever and always elicited gasps. It introduced the idea of a finite ocean and our careless approach. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and went to a lecture by Jacques Cousteau. As the magazine evolved, I became conscious of the messages I was delivering to the surfers. As the decade went on, it became apparent that the environment was the most important issue, and that if I couldn’t go to all the meetings, perhaps 20 or 30 young surfers could, or 100 or 1,000. We wanted surfers to know that their involvement could make a difference. That’s why I made the film.
Did you retire from filmmaking after Pacific Vibrations?
“Retire” is a joke; I actually worked harder, in different directions. I wanted to make experimental films involving art and movement and music and color, but film was becoming very expensive. With the cost of the negative, a work print to edit your film, and then a release print, each film was a losing proposition.
And then you left California…
Richard Nixon had moved in next door, a few hundred feet from our Cotton’s Point Southern California house. We were under surveillance: TV scanners arcing back and forth, phones bugged, and uniformed guards on the beach. I was evolving into a desk-ridden businessman and wanted to get back to the creative parts of life. I remember, stalled on the freeway, letting out a primal howl. It was time to get back to surfing, art, and the land. I moved the family to Maui—gone surfing…