The surfing world lost an icon in Michael Peterson. The following piece appeared in the August 2009 issue of SURFER as part of The 50 Greatest SURFER’s of All Time. MP finished 16th on the list. The author, Sean Doherty, was also MP’s biographer (MP: The Life of Michael Peterson).-Ed
Michael Peterson still sports the very same pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses he wore during the ’70s. They’re a bit beat up these days, the frame held together by sticky tape, but they still work just fine. For MP, the leather jackets, jeans, and panama hats may have been all about fashion, but the sunglasses were pure function. They formed a reflective barrier against the outside world. Behind them he couldn’t be read. Behind them he could plot the downfall of the guys he was surfing against, size up the chick across the room, scope out a dealer for a bag of exotic candy. Behind Michael Peterson’s glasses spun several worlds, some real, some imagined, one occasionally bleeding into the other.
Five years after Nat Young was christened “The Animal,” a gangly, scruffy kid from Coolangatta came along who made Nat look like a koala bear by comparison. Aloof, awkward, and monosyllabic on land, Michael Peterson was transformed upon immersion into saltwater. His surfing was frenetic and savage, a personal blitzkrieg on the idyllic green walls running down into Rainbow Bay.
Growing up during the golden age of Kirra, Peterson, along with sparring partners Rabbit Bartholomew and Peter Townend, explored the innermost limits of tube-riding. MP had shaped the rocker apex back into the middle of his boards, a simple yet beautiful idea—front foot meant go, back foot, stop. And if any potential interloper dared even look at one of the King Of Kirra’s waves he’d be warned off by a shrill whistle from inside the cavernous chamber. Pathologically shy, MP would later attribute his love of being inside the barrel to the fact that no one could see him in there.
While America had Dora, Australia had MP. No Australian surfer embodied the zeitgeist of the ’70s better than he did, and the fact that he revolutionized both surfing and surfboards along the way almost became lost behind the supernatural aura he generated. He was a walking totem with a loyal following of disciples, but loathed the limelight his surfing powers generated.
For the three years between ’73 and ’75 Peterson burned white hot, winning every professional contest in Australia. His success was a blend of obscene talent and rat cunning. This domination, however, never made it off Australian soil. So used to being top dog in the water and hassling accordingly, a left hook to the jaw in Hawaii quickly took the wind from his sails. And despite being one of the first guys to surf Backdoor (“the Hawaiians wouldn’t let me go left”), he never really shone on surfing’s biggest stage.
By ’76 the wheels were falling off. Loaded to the eyeballs on a smorgasbord of opiates and hallucinogens, he’d be occasionally sighted at the Bamboo Flute restaurant in Coolangatta devouring avocado ice cream. His appearances in the lineup, meanwhile, were dwindling, and he’d even shaved off his trademark mustache. Living in the shadows, his behavior was spiking far beyond simple eccentricity, and it was clear something was going on with the guy. Most assumed it was his ravenous drug intake… but they were only partly right.
Michael Peterson was poison to the new, clean-cut professional regime that was taking over surfing. This was symbolized poetically when he pulled into the Sunset Beach car park so close to a car containing the “Bronzed Aussies” that they couldn’t open the door. He wound down the window, toked violently on a joint, cocked his head, and dead smoked the unsuspecting trio in matching T-shirts.
MP still had one last fight in him though. The 1977 Stubbies at Burleigh saw the introduction of man-on-man surfing, although the five grand prizemoney was the real carrot. After smoking a pre-final scoob in the car park, MP paddled out in front of 20,000 people on Burleigh headland and dusted a young Mark Richards. He took the five grand and disappeared.
Michael Peterson loved Pink Floyd, and would soon go the same way as Syd Barrett. The voices were speaking to him by this stage. The cocktail of chemicals in his brain, both naturally occurring and supplemented from the street, were fuelling a cacophony inside his head. MP was a textbook schizophrenic years before medical science knew what a schizophrenic was.
His descent was equally spectacular and tragic. While sleeping in his car on the side of the highway between the Gold Coast and Brisbane, he was woken by police sirens heading the other way and panicked. He sped off, quickly. A hundred miles and 35 police cars later he was eventually stopped on the Storey Bridge in Brisbane, telling the arresting officer he’d successfully outrun the aliens.
Jailed, then institutionalized, MP was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, medicated, and placed in the care of his mother, Joan. He stopped surfing altogether. For the next 20 years surfing saw little of him, as he was busy hiding from open sky. A daily handful of prescription drugs quieted the voices but also saw his weight balloon, and a daily walk down the road to sit under his favorite mango tree was about as adventurous as he got. But the longer he stayed out of the spotlight, the more his legend grew.
In the past five years he has made tentative steps back into the surfing fold. Mingling with his heyday peers during the annual Gold Coast World Tour contest, Peterson offers flashes of that same razor-sharp mind that brought them undone all those years ago. Occasionally, even the sunglasses come off, his eyes darting back and forth nervously, hinting at vulnerability he’d always kept hidden.
“Take him out of his generation, put him anywhere, he was the whole act,” says Rabbit Bartholomew. “But he was more than the whole act, he was too much. It couldn’t last.” Michael’s disease may have lit a fire under his surfing, but it also meant it would only burn for a few brief years.