Andy Irons is in the passenger seat as the car barrels across the flat red Never Never of the Australian desert. “Brah, did we just turn back there?”
The steering wheel had inched maybe three degrees to the left on the faintest, most imperceptible chicane, the only deviation in hours on this long, lonely, hot slash of highway.
Irons is on the road to becoming someone else, but for now he’s Lil Wayne. He’s deep into the playlist, scrolls to “A Milli” and the subwoofers start shaking coins in the center console while he’s all shakas and gangster hands. After six hours of featureless desert, Irons is no longer in the passenger seat; he’s in the music video for “A Milli,” standing on the hood of a brand-new Maserati. The song ends. “F–k yeah, Parko!” he yells in brogue-ish Hawaiian. “I’m so f–king psssssyched to get barreled, brah!”
Three days later and the pair are sleeping under the stars. “We’d surfed for three days straight, exhausted, big dinner, and I’d passed out,” recalls Joel Parkinson, “but I feel him fidgeting around and then hear this clicking sound. Over and over, this clicking sound. It’s his iPod, which by this stage has been dead for three days. He keeps clicking it over and over, thinking it’s somehow miraculously charged itself in the desert just so he could listen to Lil Wayne before bed. That was his bedtime music and it was killing him that he couldn’t listen to it.”
Irons is in the desert looking for some peace in his life, but, as Parkinson puts it, “It didn’t matter where you took him; that inner peace was always the hard thing for Andy to find.”
While Irons had lived like a rock star, surfed like a rock star, and had even riffed about the “rock-star ending” in interviews, few imagined it would actually end the way it did: the most incandescent surfer of his generation, a guy with a huge appetite for life, found dead in a Dallas hotel room, nowhere near his Hawaiian home, nowhere near his wife and unborn child, nowhere near anything. It was a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky. It seemed like twisted satire. It still does today. It was an unfathomably sad and tempestuous time that split surfing into two camps: those who wanted a legend, and those who wanted answers.
Five years after his death, the story of Andy Irons will finally be told. Not just once, but twice. One account will tell his story from the inside out; the other will tell it from the outside in.
The genie will be out of the bottle.
Irons’ family and those who were closest to him are finishing a documentary about his life. It’s their story, told on their terms and in their own time. The process has been cathartic. While Irons might have been an international surf icon, he was first a son, a brother, a husband, an expecting father, and a friend. His death was a private tragedy before it became public property, and the Irons family has had to deal with it on both fronts. They’ve promised candor and they’ve promised heart. It will go deep. Kelly Slater’s interview alone took five hours, during which time he didn’t even get up to piss.
A book on Irons’ life will be published around the same time and is set to provide some journalistic rigor to the story.
Its author, former SURFER Managing Editor Brad Melekian, went looking for answers in the days after Irons’ passing in 2010 and penned the only thing close to the truth for Outside Magazine. Irons’ death had originally been attributed in a press release to dengue fever, but Melekian—and pretty much everyone else—knew that people with the life force of Andy Irons don’t simply die of dengue in their prime in hotel rooms. He joined the dots of Irons’ final nights and preempted an autopsy that would eventually reveal a mix of prescription and street drugs. The surfing world, however, is a stuffy little planet, and the story broke an unwritten code. It prompted equal measures of praise and contempt amongst surfers. Photographer Art Brewer disclosed an account of Irons almost drinking himself to death in Indonesia on his 21st birthday, and one outraged, slightly confused reader went straight out and set fire to the Dick Brewer surfboard in his garage in protest.
Irons was the people’s champ. He even jokingly referred to himself in the third person as the people’s champ. He was a magnetic soul whose passing moved strangers to tears because we knew Andy Irons.
In many ways, Irons was totally knowable in the same way Slater was impossible to read. Sometimes you’d run into Slater and feel like you were meeting him for the first time, even after 15 years of knowing him. Irons, meanwhile, made you feel like you’d known him for several lifetimes. He would hug strangers and take life advice from people on the street. He would offer frank and unsolicited character assessments. He was gloriously unfiltered and unalloyed. He’d try to punch you one minute—as I found out—before pouring his heart out to you the next. Irons put it all out there to the universe.
We knew Andy Irons like a brother, but then we woke up one morning to the news he’d died in a hotel room in Dallas and suddenly we didn’t know him at all.
If you were searching for the real Andy Irons, the two-year period before his death would be a good place to start. Those were years when Andy himself was searching for the real Andy.
Irons and his wife, Lyndie, arrived in Australia in the winter of 2009 for six weeks of country soul rehab. Irons had already been through the L.A. version and the turnstiles were still spinning. Back at home, his drug problems had broken containment lines; he’d walked away from the Tour, he was pale, nudging 200 pounds, and it didn’t look like he’d surfed in a while. The superhuman aura was long gone, but he remained in good spirits. “No contest, no stress,” he’d say. I asked Irons how things were at home on Kauai and he looked at me, laughed, and said cryptically that he just couldn’t be there right now. He never said why. He and Lyndie were instead staying in a little place on Pacific Street in Angourie, the sleepy north-coast surf town made famous in Morning of the Earth.
Joel Parkinson, meanwhile, was world No. 1 and in the middle of what was shaping up to be a world-title run, but was always going to be there for his old friend. He’d organized his trainer and secret weapon, Wes Berg, to work with Irons for those six weeks. Irons hadn’t heard the word “no” in a while, and besides whipping the champ into surf shape, Berg had mainly been brought on to say no. The short game was to clear his head. The long game was a return to the Tour, although that seemed to be less Irons’ goal and more everyone else’s.
Berg’s initial assessment was frank. “I saw a guy who was so in love with surfing, he could talk for 20 minutes about one wave he’d caught at Teahupoo. But I also saw a guy who’d had the life squeezed out of him by the Tour, by winning, by sponsors, by who he was. That takes its toll if you don’t get away from it, and Andy got to a very dark place. I wanted to peel it back. Get him back to the simple things in life so it wasn’t about who he was or what he’d done anymore.”
“I saw a guy who was so in love with surfing, he could talk for 20 minutes about one wave he’d caught at Teahupoo. But I also saw a guy who’d had the life squeezed out of him by the Tour, by winning, by sponsors, by who he was. That takes its toll if you don’t get away from it, and Andy got to a very dark place. I wanted to peel it back. Get him back to the simple things in life so it wasn’t about who he was or what he’d done anymore.”
The first thing Berg did was get him out of bed.
“I woke him up one morning in that first week and made him come down to the point at Angourie and watch the sunrise. He goes, ‘Why are we watching a sunrise?’ I said, ‘I want you to realize how lucky you are.'” Berg got him eating well—Irons wouldn’t even touch a beer—and he spent the days training and surfing. Irons was squeaky clean and a two-hour drive from any temptation.
“Of course there were times when Andy would be a pain in the ass to me, and times when we’d have arguments,” recalls Berg, “but when I’d agreed to work with him, the one condition was that he had to do what I asked. One day he asked me what we were doing next, and I told him, ‘Floaters.’ He goes, ‘Floaters? What the f–k’s that going to do for me?’ At the time, his surfing had no flow. Plus, Andy thought so much on a wave that I wanted to stop him from thinking for a while and just surf. We were just stripping everything back at that point, including his surfing.”
The furious psychological engine that had driven Irons to world titles was simply idling by this stage, and if he were ever going to reprise his role on Tour, it would need to roar.
Irons and Parkinson did heat drills one day at Pippy’s Beach, just down from a local club contest for grommets. Afterward, Irons held court with the kids for an hour. He was joking, talking surf, eating a steak sandwich from the club barbecue. He eventually made it back to the car, where Parkinson was eating a bag of li hing mango that Irons had brought over from Hawaii. “Joel, have you checked out what’s in that shit?” Irons, a new convert to clean living, pointed to the list of chemical additives on the packet. “Brah, enjoy your cancer mango.” Irons fetched two boards and a wetsuit from the back of the car and gave them to the kids to raffle for the club.
That morning at Pippy’s Beach cuts to the heart of the conflict within Andy. Every time he crossed the waterline, there was the expectation he’d transform from man of the people to natural-born killer, and then switch straight back again. He was both white knight and black knight. That schism was never easy for him to reconcile and created a tension in his cells. It was why he’d been frustrated by Blue Horizon, a 2004 film that followed Irons on Tour and painted him as an unapologetic hothead competitor. He didn’t want the world to think he was an asshole. Irons very much wanted to be liked. And as he was getting older, it got harder for him to play both parts. But the competitive fire never went out completely.
“It was week five out of six, and he woke up one morning and goes, ‘So, we’re gonna surf, right?'” says Berg. “I went, ‘Well, today I actually wanted us to run into Yamba three miles away.’
“He goes, ‘You’re f–king kidding me, brah! I’m not running into Yamba!’ He finally agreed, so we run the three miles, meet Lyndie there for breakfast, and he gets up and goes, ‘Okay, let’s surf!’
“I said, ‘Well, we’re actually running back to Angourie.’
“Andy goes, ‘You’re f–king kidding me, brah! I am not running back out there! Lyndie! Where’s the car?’ Anyway, so we’re running through the rainforest and we’re halfway back to Angourie when this kid on a dirt bike motors past us, realizes it’s Andy Irons, and doubles back. It was an open secret he was in town by this stage. The kid stopped 20 yards in front of us, looked at Andy, flipped the bird at him, popped the clutch, and sped off. Andy lost it. ‘F–kin punk! Wes! You see that shit?’ Anyway, Andy starts chasing the guy on foot, screaming about he’s a punk and how he’s gonna get this guy. I’d always heard about how competitive Andy was, but that was the moment I really saw it. He was so pissed that he was willing to sprint through the jungle to chase the guy down. In that moment, Andy’s comeback didn’t feel like a lost cause.”
One week and one Lil Wayne playlist later, Irons was up in the Western Australian desert, chasing a swell. I interviewed Irons afterward about the trip. He spoke of an afternoon when he, Parkinson, and Mark Occhilupo had hiked to the top of a sand dune to watch the sunset.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Irons said. “We get to the top of this sand dune and look out at the horizon and you could actually see the curve of the Earth. As corny as it sounds, I’m straight sober now, so I wasn’t seeing shit. I could actually see the bend in the horizon. Weirdest thing I’d ever seen. It was wild. Then we had the green-flash sunset to top it off. It was Occ’s birthday, we’d had 10-foot surf all day, we’re in the middle of the desert…I’m like, ‘Shit, how good is this?'”
This was Perspective Country and Irons was drinking it in. On the final day of the trip, Irons and Parkinson surfed a wave called Monuments. “It was just the two of us,” recalls Parkinson. “It was one of the most phenomenal surfs I’ve ever had in my life. It was oil glass and the way the sun rose over the cliffs and filled the tube, standing in them felt like standing in a tube of lava. There was no element of competition, and I didn’t get any sense of him versus me, which was odd. That had melted away by then. He was calling me into waves, hooting, and there was just that pure love of surfing. There was no ‘F–k you, Joel! You got the best one,’ or him needing to get a better one than me. That was all gone.”
Irons’ weeks in Australia had been a circuit breaker, but they were only the start of a long journey back. “He lived at such a fast pace that it was really nice to see him drop a few gears and just enjoy a slower pace of life for those months in Australia,” recalls Parkinson. “I think he needed it, but that was also never him. He kept saying he was loving it, but he was also bored. When we were in the desert, he kept clicking that dead iPod all trip. The slow life? He hated it, but he loved it, but he hated it.”
Three weeks later, I was in San Diego. I’d just been to the premiere of the new Billabong movie, Still Filthy, in the cavernous and gaudy Hard Rock Hotel. Big crowd. Boozy night. People were spilling out onto the street. I was standing in the foyer, buzzed, when I saw Irons headed out with a group of a half a dozen guys, none of whom I recognized. He had a red plastic cup in his hand, he was sweating, and the top two buttons of his shirt were missing. He spotted me. “Dorridy!” The Hawaiian accent has always struggled with the Irish phonetics of my surname, and Irons mangled it better than most. He swaggered over and suddenly his forehead was resting on mine, his arms spread wide with gangster fingers.
“Hmm,” I thought, “this’ll be good.”
“What. The. F–k. You writing shit about me?” It was neither a question nor a statement, but fell somewhere in the middle. He inched in closer, if that was possible. “You writing shit about me?” By this stage his head was rumbling like Krakatoa, his neck cords were vulcanizing, and I reached the obvious conclusion that he was about to snap. Meanwhile, I was flicking through pages in my head, trying to remember what I’d written, but I concluded with some certainty I hadn’t actually written a single word. I knew how fragile his orbit had been and I’d respected it. Turns out it didn’t matter. I was about to scrap over a story I’d never written.
We wrestled into the street, the punches started, but it was quickly extinguished by two fridge-sized hotel security guards.
One dragged me inside; the other dragged him out. As he disappeared down the street, he yelled something I couldn’t for the life of me make out, but interpreted as “See you in Hawaii, brah.” The North Shore season was a mere six weeks away.
Well, it turned out I’d see him the very next night. The SURFER Poll Awards were held at The Grove in Anaheim. I was ushered down the steps to my table and shown to my seat, and in the dark I tried to work out whom I’d been seated with. I turned to my left and there he was, sitting right next to me. Of the 3,000 people in the venue, the Gods of Assigned Seating had put me next to Irons. He spun around.
I sized him up in a heartbeat, which was always easy to do with Irons. I sensed he was a bit less incendiary than the previous night. “F–k, brah,” he said, putting his arm on my shoulder. “Did we fight last night?” He seemed genuinely interested in my response, like he was waiting for me to fill in the missing pieces. I informed him that, to the best of my memory, yeah, we did. “Brah, I’m so sorry,” he said. “One of my boys punked me, told me you’d written some shit. We’re cool, right?” At this point I didn’t know if he was genuine or not, but he handed me a beer and we drank. Then the show’s hosts called his name and he shot onto the stage from the crowd with a supernatural leap, six feet straight up, no hands, like a ninja jumping backwards into a tree.
Angourie suddenly seemed like several geological eras ago.
The following year, 2010, Irons was back on Tour. Some trumpeted the Return of the King. Others held their breath.
Irons’ precarious comeback was not without precedent. Back in 1992, Mark Occhilupo returned to the Tour three years after melting down at Huntington and flying home to waste away watching soap operas and eating fried chicken on the couch. When Occhilupo signaled his intention to get back on Tour, the jury was out on whether or not it was a good idea. The Tour—especially in those bacchanalian days—was no place for a fragile psyche. It didn’t act as rehab; it created clients for rehab. Occhilupo went back on Tour that year and by September he was trying to swim to China in his tracksuit pants.
Irons’ return was initially underwhelming. He lost his first heat of the year and drew fellow Kauaian Roy Powers in the next round at Snapper. Staying with Luke Egan, Irons walked into the garage, looked at his boards, and threw up his hands. He went down the beach at Duranbah with five boards to try, but a 14-year-old kid dropped in on him, and Irons lost it and came in. “This is f–ked. I don’t want to do this.”
Irons’ comeback looked like it could be over before it started, but Wes Berg still had some leverage to get him motivated. “When Andy was hurting in the gym, the only thing I needed to talk about to fire him up was Lyndie and his boy.” Lyndie was pregnant, due in December. So was Berg’s wife. Parkinson’s wife, Monica, was due in November. The three of them were planning on doing the whole Tour together that year, with Parkinson and Berg acting as two moderating influences on a guy who didn’t moderate well. They could have held him in orbit.
Of the several dozen Sliding Doors moments that could have resulted in Irons still being with us today, one occurred when Parkinson almost sliced his heel clean off during a freesurf at Snapper in July, sidelining him from the Tour for the majority of the season. Irons was there and helped carry him up the beach and put him in the ambulance. “That was the last time I ever saw him,” recalls Parkinson, “but I have fuzzy memories of him being there in the hospital with me. I was pretty out of it on painkillers, and it felt like I was seeing him in a dream.”
By the time the Tahiti event rolled around, Irons’ comeback was tanking, his surfing a poor facsimile of his prime. He was rated 18th, and with the forecast for the event looking anemic, his Polynesian prospects were dim.
“We had a massive argument in Tahiti,” recalls Berg, who no longer had Parkinson’s help keeping Irons on track. “It was a screaming match. The waves were small and the contest was off, but I wanted him to surf. He wanted to sleep. We hadn’t argued all year, but this went for 20 minutes. He was hard to reason with. I pointed out that the forecast for the contest was terrible, and maybe he should surf some terrible waves to get ready for that. Then I reminded him that he’d given me his word. He said, ‘I don’t want to be the angry guy,’ and I sat there laughing, saying, ‘Mate, I want you to paddle out and be the angry guy!’ I wanted him to give a shit. By the end of our argument, he resembled the Andy I once knew. He got his board and we went surfing.”
The reason Irons was sleeping in was sitting next to his bed. He’d been handed a ream of printed online fan mail, thousands of messages, and was spending hours a day lost in them. Berg remembers, “He’d come out of his room going, ‘Check this guy, brah! Check this chick, brah!’ Every night he was so excited over it. His cortisol and melatonin levels were surging, he couldn’t sleep, and I had to stop him from reading them at night. He carried them around that whole week, going, ‘Brah, this is the shit that makes me want to keep doing this!’ He’d bring them to breakfast every morning, and by the end of the week they were brown and dog-eared and had coffee stains all over them.”
You might be thinking, “This is Andy F–king Irons, and he needed fan mail to pump up his tires?” In 2010, you bet he did. But even when his career was flying, even when he was the undisputed champion of the world, he still needed it. Irons was bulletproof with a gooey center, badass yet vulnerable. As much as Irons put it out to the universe, he needed it back. It was a give-and-take arrangement. It was fuel, and he shoveled those pages into the furnace of his psyche. On an island not renowned for its dynamism, Irons was fired up.
When Irons won Tahiti, Slater—whom Irons had beaten in the quarters—held up four fingers from the channel, cryptic champ code for “four world titles.” Irons was now rated seventh in the world, but whether Slater genuinely believed that Irons had a fourth title in him, well…put it this way: Irons’ fourth world title would instead become Slater’s 10th, secured four days after Irons’ passing. If anything, it was an acknowledgement between ancient foes that the win had at least some kind of greater significance.
You might be thinking, “This is Andy F–king Irons, and he needed fan mail to pump up his tires?” In 2010, you bet he did. But even when his career was flying, even when he was the undisputed champion of the world, he still needed it. Irons was bulletproof with a gooey center, badass yet vulnerable. As much as Irons put it out to the universe, he needed it back.
Irons partied hard at the Intercontinental that night—”partied hard” a euphemism that would soon take on new meaning. Tahiti should have been a crescendo for Irons, but it felt more like a coda, the last rally of a tired champion. It was almost like he’d validated himself to the authors of those messages and the authors of his comeback, but his heart clearly wasn’t there. If it had been a visceral win, with Irons grabbing his crotch inside 10-footers as he had in years past, then we’d be having a different conversation. But it seemed like the win meant more to everyone else than it did to Irons. “I just question whether he wanted to come back on Tour or not,” ponders Parkinson. “Even though he won Tahiti and on the surface he was telling everyone he was into it, deep down I wonder if he really did want to be back on Tour and have the pressure of it all.”
Winning an event was one thing, winning a world title was something else entirely, and Irons likely understood the vast chasm between himself and the latter. “He was a bit like Ricky Bobby,” recalls Parkinson. “‘If you’re not first, you’re last.’ He had that line in his head a fair bit. If he wasn’t winning by a country mile, he hated it. He not only wanted to win, he wanted to wipe the floor with you. In his prime he was so fired up, and that aggression, the raw intensity, was so full-on that it couldn’t last. That’s why he was unbeatable in the short term, but he was never going to last in the long run.”
In many ways, Irons’ life paralleled ’70s Australian champion Michael Peterson’s. On a wave, they both had a neurotic, skittish command, Peterson’s manifesting itself in karate arms, Irons’ tension squeezed all the way out to his fingers, which would splay in all directions. Winning for Peterson was pathological, and for three years that’s all he did. Sound familiar? But when Peterson couldn’t win anymore, he didn’t just walk away from the Tour; he stopped surfing altogether. Harangued by his own fame, Peterson also drew a line between MP and Michael, between the surf star and the man. Michael talked about MP in the third person; he talked about how the pressure had beaten MP, and how in the end MP had been killed off, leaving Michael standing there. As 2010 rolled on, it felt like AI was becoming Andy, something more human than superhuman.
Irons made one heat for the rest of the year. He let go entirely and it seemed like he’d made peace with not being the best in the world, and he was good company. I shared a beer with him at the beach after he’d been knocked out early in France. He held up his glass and said, “I lost and I’m still here. I didn’t even smash a board! When would that have happened in the old days?” We talked about kids for half an hour, Irons comically talking up his diaper-changing game. He spoke of a simpler life back on Kauai. He was calm and contemplative. I looked around at the shitty French beachbreak and got the sense this would be the last the Tour would see of him. Ironically, I also thought the same about Slater, who said after making the final in France, “If I’m still chasing a 10th world title at 45, punch me in the face.” I was right about one of them at least.
It was clear that Irons was ready for the next phase of his life, and the birth of his son would see him reborn as well. Torn between who he’d been and who he was becoming, you sensed Irons had finally sorted it out. He was 32, and while it wasn’t going to be life in the ‘burbs—that was never going to be Andy’s deal—Axel would have grounded him. He would have left the Tour behind to surf on his own terms. He would have found peace at home.
Instead of departing from his old life, Irons departed entirely, dying in a hotel room during a layover in Dallas after a bender in Miami. He had left the World Tour event in Puerto Rico and was en route to Kauai. If it hadn’t ended the way it did, it would have been cinematic, poetic even—Irons just dropping everything and traveling halfway around the world to be with the people he loved. It would have been a fitting close to that chapter of his life.
Who was the real Andy Irons? Maybe we were just a few days—a few hours, even—from meeting the guy. If he’d boarded that plane in Dallas, landed in Lihue, then been picked up from the airport by Lyndie, eight months pregnant with Axel, he would have looked over at her in the passenger seat, the angled light of the sun illuminating her face as they drove north to Hanalei, and he would have seen his future rolling out like a road in front of him.
[This feature is from “Home of the Brave,” our 2016 special edition Big Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.]