The Expression Session, first held on the North Shore in 1970, then again in ’71 and ’73, seemed like a great idea. Perfect name, for starters, filled with soulful iambic bounce and zing. "Expression Session." Breath those syllables in. Mmmmmm. Thai bud and purple Waxmate, am I right? This was a non-contest contest. An anti-contest. A happening. The world's best surfers, running their own event, during prime time on the North Shore. Everything all stripped down and natural. Six surfers at a time go into the ocean and do their thing. That's it. No judges, no trophies, no winners, no losers. Everybody gets a nice little appearance check. This was, as invitee Gerry Lopez wrote, "In its very essence, all that a surfer could dream of. An art show rather than a competition. Twenty top surfers expressing themselves without all the usual contest hassles and rules. Just surf to your heart's content and pick up a check for $200."
But the Expression Session failed, for two reasons:
First, we actually want winners and losers. Not everybody. But most of us. Something has to be at stake. Pride, money, points. First place, second place, on down to last place. We want results. We want to argue about the results, agree with the results, call bullshit, turn away in disgust or triumph, then come back next event and do it again. And by "we," I include the surfers involved as well as the audience. Again, not everybody. Not Barry Kanaiaupuni at that first Expression Session, probably. But Joey Cabell, Nat Young, Corky Carroll, James Jones, and some of the other 1970 invitees? Step back, folks. Some real cutthroats in there. Nat talked a good game, soul-wise, but put him in a public situation, with other hot surfers, and competitive bloodlust would cause his eyes to roll shark-like to the back in his head. I want to see that. And over the next 30 minutes, I want to see him destroy the competition. Or even more satisfying, I want to see him destroyed.
Second, the Expression Session, apart from not posting results or giving out trophies, was really just another surf contest, subject to the same pressures and politics and vagaries of every other surf contest. Read this razor-sharp piece of writing, below, by former SURFER editor Drew Kampion, on the opening event of the 1970 Expression Session. Astonishing how closely Kampion's account tracks with 21st century North Shore pro surfing. "History never repeats itself," as Mark Twain said, "but it rhymes."
Take it away Drew:
The first North Shore crew included Buzzy Trent, Fred Van Dyke, Walt Hoffman, George Downing, Jose Angel and a few others. A tight group of locals and imports. Individuals with real hair. In the late '50s, other people began showing up: Rick Grigg, Pat Curren, Greg Noll, Peter Cole, John Severson, Mickey Munoz, etc, and in 1957, on a 15-to-18-foot day, Noll and friends conquered Waimea Bay. End of era, beginning of next phase.
Midget Farrelly's got a million neat little stories about when he was a gremmie on the North Shore, falling into the huge pits formed by the footsteps formed by Buzzy Trent, and everybody ought to write Midget a letter and tell him to do a book about that period in the early '60s when the North Shore began to become all that is it today: a crowded strip of rotting paradise filled with misunderstanding, jealousy and thievery that everyone keeps coming back to every winter because of a fading memory of how it once was.
NOW! Now it's 1970, and…
Pulled up in front of Jeff Hakman's house down in front of Pipeline Rights for the Good Karma Party that will inaugurate the festivities for the Golden Breed Expression Session. The Expression Session is a new-styled surfing experiment. One that would put surfing on a real artistic plane. A session that would unite surfing brothers in a…hold on. Outside is a pickup truck. Six or seven Hawaiians are in the open bed drinking Primo and singing very sad, very nostalgic Hawaiian songs. Other Hawaiians and a few haoles stand around, some joining in, tentatively. The night is very dark. Nat Young, off to one side, looks like he's just seen a ghost, and the small group with which he stands is conspicuously silent.
Inside a few other quiet surfers stand around Hakman's kitchen. Meanwhile, in the living room, it looks as if people are even more subdued. Session organizer Duke Boyd is sitting there with the same expression Nat was wearing outside. (The Session Expression?)
"Oh, well, we've just had a little hassle here."
Apparently, the first act of the Expression Session Good Karma Party went as follows: [Surfing magazine editor] Dick Graham, Jeff Hakman, David Nuuhiwa, Duke, Herbie Fletcher, Ryan Dotson and several others were all here in Jeff's house, right here in Jeff's living room, talking, having a Primo or two, when Butch Van Artsdalen and the Aikau brothers, Clyde and Eddie, and a backup squad of seven or so othes, show up in Jeff Hakma's living room. And Butch and Eddie are very upset. They have not been invited to the Expression Session, whereas, so the gist of it went, a lot of chickenshit California surfers had. After all, Butch was Mr. Pipeline. Eddie was the great hope of his people. Clyde was Eddie's brother for one thing. And wouldn't mind being invited himself, for another. The backup squad nods.
And the swinging starts. Eddie swings. His swing is blocked by and Dick floors him as Clyde Aikau comes flying into Graham at a hundred miles per hour and they fall out the back door. Arms around each other. Like brothers. Like enemies. Like…wow!
While Graham was out back getting welcomed to the North Shore by three of the backup squad, a brief free-for-all ensued in Hakman's living room, during which David hid in the bathroom, Herbie tried to interfere and got punched, Ryan made it out the back and down the road apiece, Duke hid in the bedroom closet with Greg Tucker, and Bob McAlister, head honcho of Golden Breed, invited here for a Good Karma sampling of the North Shore Brotherhood of Surfers (a fairly small, over-50-ish man with big gray sideburns, a quick smile, and a bright Golden Breed luau shirt) high-strided down the beach, figuring it was better to not take sides.
Things cooled down, and eventually everybody began to trickle back in with that, "Are they gone?" look in their eyes. Jeff Hakman's house became an island in the night. Then from outside came the mournful tremor of a sad Hawaiian song.
And now Dick Graham was saying they have to make a decision here. Butch and the Aikaus had threatened to disrupt any attempt at having the Expression Session. There would be repeats of tonight. Dick says how embarrassed he is by the whole thing; apologizes to Jeff and his living room, and says he isn't sure but that the whole thing just might not come off, and all of sudden everyone is talking again, rapping, hashing it over, retelling their version of what just happened, drinking more Primo.
Then Eddie and Clyde stumble in through the back door, flushed, arms thrown around each other's necks. They appear to be weeping. They walk up to Jeff and Clyde says, very slowly, sadly, a bit drunkenly, but very precisely and with dignity: "We wish to apologize to you, Mister Hakman, for…for…" But where's Eddie? Eddie is talking to Dick. Clyde brings his brother over by the arm to face Hakman. Starts over. "We wish to apologize to you, Mister Hakman, for disturbing your evening and coming into your home without your invitation. We are very sorry to have caused any trouble. We apologize. Thank you." Both of them bow deeply, sadly, a bit drunkenly.
After Eddie and Clyde leave, Dick gets up, says he had a speech planned, but it seems out of place now. Instead says, "We never meant to slight anybody. This was not supposed to be a contest in any sense of the word. "This morning I had a talk with Midget Farrelly and told him he wouldn't be getting a start in the Session because he hadn't committed early enough. And Midget told me, 'That's all right, Dick. It'll be fun to just sit on the beach and watch.’"
This makes sense because Midget knows. He knows that Butch is Mr. Pipeline. He knows that Eddie Aikau has to be in it. He knows that a lot of people on the North Shore, in the high circles of Hawaiian surfing, certainly in the Aikau family, expect him to be in it. Depend on him being in it. It is a matter of honor. Of pride. What kind of contest forgets that?
And where is Butch if he isn't invited? What does that do to his years of being there? Years of being Mr. Pipeline? Years of being sure of yourself, cocky maybe, but…he's MR. PIPELINE! It's like not inviting Mickey Dora to an Expression Session at Malibu.
Gradually, the Good Karma festivities come to an end. The Golden Breeders had been zapped. No doubt about it. When you're running something as tenuous and precarious as a surfing contest or a "free expression" exhibition, you need everything and everyone going for you.