Cool for the Ages

Matt Warshaw on the evolution of "cool" in the surf world, from our May issue

Barry Kanaiaupuni, the coolest surfer ever, according to Warshaw. Photo: Wilkings

For more from our May issue, available on newsstands now, click here.

Matt Warshaw's latest project-of-epic-proportions is to take his celebrated Encyclopedia of Surfing online. Warshaw used to raise the requisite funds to take surfing's largest body of work into the digital era, which means it will remain free from corporate influence, bias, and will be delivered just the way he intended it. We thought we'd ask him his thoughts on the tenuous relationship between surfers and cool while it's all still fresh in his memory.

Looking back over the expanse of surf history, can you say with any certainty that surfers are cool?

Surfers really just did one cool thing, which was to be counterculture with a smile. To be really for something and not especially against anything; to be counterculture and athletic at the same time. Beats were pretty much anti- everything. Jazz guys were all drug addicts. Surfers weren't "for" anything that mattered all that much. All we did, as Barton Lynch said, was find another way to make ourselves happy. But it was a nice, happy, well-toned, brainless form of counterculture. It looked good. "Cool" is one of those words that makes my head hurt a little, trying to think of what it actually means, but yeah, surfing was cool for a while there. Malibu, after the war. That was a good scene. Warm, tucked away, independent. And when surfing wasn't cool anymore, it became, and will forever remain, one of the great marketing mother-lodes of cool.

It seems there is a growing need, at least in professional surfing, to have something more than surfing ability. In order to be successful pro you need a shtick. Is this a new phenomenon?

There were red-hot surfers from 50 years ago, like Dewey Weber and Mike Doyle, who poured bleach and peroxide over their heads to get that "surfer" look. And Weber with the matching bright-red board and trunks. People want to stand out. That's forever.

Barry Kanaiaupuni. Photo: Barrett

Do you think cool is a cover for lesser ability on a surfboard?

Cool can't do it on its own, no. But there are lots of surfers for whom cool has bumped up their rep. Dora, Lopez, Dane, they're bigger figures in surfing for having tended and cultivated their stock of cool. And I think it's there in all of our heads, to some degree, that if they're cool, then we're cool by association. Just because we do the same thing they do. Then again, three-quarters of what is thought of as cool is just how good-looking you are. Matt Kivlin was better looking than Joe Quigg, so he gets to be the coolest Malibu surfer from the early '50s. There aren't any ugly cool surfers, right? Poor Mark Richards, who in my estimation is one of the deep-down coolest surfers ever, seems to be losing a bit of luster as the years pass, and my guess is that's because he's got a weak chin and rocked the mullet. He never looked the part. And never tried to look the part. More credit to him.

Who do you think is the most egregious example of exploiting cool?

Probably the worst was Bad Boys using Johnny-Boy Gomes to invent the whole surf-thug thing. Those ads with Gomes in a woolen watch cap, and that murdering snarl on his face. The dude lives in Hawaii, surfs for a living, gets every wave he wants, and is still the angriest man in surfing? And okay, yeah, he really was the angriest man in surfing. The problem was that Bad Boys viewed Gomes' anger, and all that implied violence, as a great marketing hook. And in fact that wasn't really even the real problem. The real problem is that is was a great marketing hook. The surfing public, a good part of it anyway, ate that shit up.

Who, in your opinion, is the coolest surfer ever?

Barry Kanaiaupuni. He surfed exactly the way he wanted to surf, which was like nobody else. He won contests, but didn't really care about competing. Never looked to be hero-worshipped but was good enough to accommodate it. I saw an old interview clip with BK recently, and he was laughing at himself, saying he raised his hand on the beach at Waimea the morning they were trying to figure out if they should hold the finals of the Smirnoff, when the surf was like 40 feet. Greatest power surfer of all time, and he raised his hand and said he didn't want anything to do with those waves. He got voted down, shrugged, went out, caught the bomb of the day, and got annihilated. Listening to him recall that episode, I had the same thought as when I watch clips of him surfing: that this is the coolest man to ever set foot on a board.