Peter Townend Interview

"You gotta put on a show"

"Professional surfing is 80 percent skill," Peter Townend said in 1977. "The other 20 percent is entertainment." You may not agree. You may think that hair gel, jumpsuits, pink boards, preening interviews, and a slavering desire to go Hollywood don't really have a place in a worthwhile surfing ontology, and thus shouldn't be valued at the professional level. Or not at a 20 percent share, anyway. Let's not put on a show. Let's just go surfing. Let us hold up and admire Tom Curren and Phil Edwards and Richard Cram and Jeff Hakman and a hundred other brilliant pros who, consciously or not, made a decision to not go out of their way to entertain the rest of us. I understand this point of view. I respect it. I just think it’s sad.

The older I get, the less serious surfing becomes. The less serious it becomes, the more I enjoy the 20 percent. The more I enjoy the 20 percent, the more I love and appreciate Peter Townend. He did not have a ridiculous natural talent, like Shaun Tomson or Mark Richards. He made up for it with keen intelligence, a fine design eye, and a Rommel-like drive to succeed. Which he did. In competition, certainly—snapping up a world title, thanks very much—but more importantly (to Townend, anyway) as a media star. During PT's prime,  let's say 1972 to 1980, the money in pro surfing was trifling. The world title didn't even exist for some of those years. Image and reputation filled the void, and PT played the image game masterfully. Played it in a way that seems to resonate louder and more clearly as time passes. The soul arch, for example, was a gimmick move at first; a pose. PT in fact struck more poses while surfing than all the other Free Ride surfers combined. But go through all the old pics and movies from the era, and the soul arch jumps out almost as much as Shaun's tuberiding, or MR's off-the-lip. Same with the pink boards. And PT dancing on a tabletop in storm-trooper boots, tight jeans, slicked-back hair, and a torso-hugging white T-shirt with the Fonz printed across the chest? I kiss my fingertips. I imagine a tiny shiver of envy climbing up David Bowie's spine.

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You read any Chas Smith stuff?

Yeah. He's awesome. The book was fantastic. All the shit the magazines have never been game enough to print! It's funny, I'm pretty good friends with Eddie Rothman these days, and this winter I called him on the phone, he picks up and goes "What's up, brah." And I say "Welcome to paradise. Now go to hell."

Did Eddie like the book?

Ahhh, yeah, I think so. The statute of limitations has run out on all the shit that's in there, so yeah, he's cool with it.

Style-wise, who were you influenced by?

Well, David Bowie, of course. Bowie just sort of loomed over everything at the time. The other person that had a big influence on me was Fred Astaire. Just for being so smooth, and so cool. Those two guys, together. And not just for my surfing, but my street sense.

Photo: Steve Core.

Photo: Steve Core.

How do we get from there to the infamous jumpsuits?

During the Big Wednesday shoot I was hanging out a lot with Lopez. One afternoon we were walking down Kalakaua Ave, and we came to this menswear hipster place, and see the mannequin in front has on a gold lamé jumpsuit. Lopez turns to me and goes, "You'd wear that, right?" And I go, "Well, yeah!" So I walked in and bought it.

That was the first jumpsuit?

The matching black ones that Ian [Cairns] and I had, those were the first.

I'm guessing you got the whole thing started.

Everyone thinks that, but Ian did. He'd been wearing 'em for a while, in fact.

Did you end up with closets full of jumpsuits?

No, no, no. Just the two, the black one and the gold one.

Still got 'em?

The black one is in hanging in the Huntington Beach Surfing Museum, right now!

I found a quote from an interview you did with Drew Kampion. "I consider myself an entertainer. That's why I wear flashy clothes. Every day you gotta put on a show."

That's it. We wanted to create attention. We wanted to be rock stars. That was kind of the whole deal.

Was fashion something you came into after you became a pro surfer, as a way to turn people's heads?

I was that way from early on. I was always pretty flamboyant. Drama club in high school, that kind of thing. I played Bill Sikes in Oliver! Up on stage, in front of the whole school!

So you were a born performer.

Yeah, well, but I have to give my mother a lot of credit, too. She was the one who told me to make my boards pink. There was a breakfast conversation we had, at the beginning of the '70s, sitting around the table with all my siblings, and I said "Mom, I'm getting a new board, what color should it be?" And she said, "Son, you should get it hot pink. That way they'll always know it's you." And I've been riding pink boards ever since.

Which surfers are doing a good job entertaining us today?

Of the guys on tour, there's only one who has any sense of flair. Matt Wilkinson. I love what he's doing. Love it! He's fantastic! He's doing it the way we did it.

Except he never wins.

Ah, well, that's the difference, yes. We always wanted to back it up in the events.