During the Log Renaissance of the late '90s and early '00s, CJ Nelson emerged as longboarding's dark knight, a brash, heavily tattooed goofyfoot with unparalleled noseriding talent. In 2002, Thomas Campbell's film Sprout showed Nelson in top form, his highly technical yet fluid surfing perfectly matching the ruler-straight peelers of Scorpion Bay.
In the following decade, Nelson slid into a cycle of substance abuse, gaining a reputation among his peers as a bridge-burning drunk. Those hard-lived years started to affect his surfing and his health, and, like so many brilliant talents before him--from Dewey Weber to Butch Van Artsdalen--Nelson seemed destined for an early grave. But after losing his father to cancer in 2012, Nelson took a hard look at his life, put down the bottle, and recommitted to surfing. He's reemerged a humbler, gentler man, interested in making amends and, as he told me one night in Mexico, "keeping the fire lit." Today, Nelson's more in love with surfing than ever before, living clean and consciously, doing what he can to inspire the next generation of log stylists.
AG: Can you talk about those early days, making Sprout--where your head was at as far as your surfing life?
CN: I was so caught up with that punk-rock mentality. That whole trip to Scorpion Bay, I was just drunk. I remember the afternoon we filmed, I'd probably smoked two packs of cigarettes and was just pounding cases of beer in the middle of nowhere, for no f–king reason. It's not like there was a party going on.
“That Joe Strummer, anti-establishment spirit still lives inside of me. I can still say f–k you to the right people, in the right way.”
I look back on it now and it would have been so much more meaningful if I'd had the outlook I have today. Back then, I wanted to be GG Allin, get drunk and eat glass. I was like, "Who cares who Mark Occhilupo is? I want to be Joe f–king Strummer." It's hard, because I can't tell you details from that trip because I don't remember. I was drunk. And that's really sad, you know?
AG: How'd that trip come about?
CJ: Thomas rode his bike over to my house in Santa Cruz and gave me The Seedling. He said, "I'm making a sequel, and I want to get you in it." And so he invited me to go to Scorps with him, Dan [Malloy], Monica [Rose], and Dane Perlee. We were down there for, like, three weeks, filming all over Baja. We camped at The Sisters, then at a few of Thomas' mysto points. At one spot there was this 100-foot cliff where you had to climb down this crazy valley to this beautiful sand-bottom point.
A lot of it didn't make the cut, because that one afternoon we got Scorpion Bay was just so good, it overshadowed the rest of the footage. We got bigger waves, and different stuff, but nothing like that.
AG: To a lot of people that film seemed like a highlight for you. But you seem to feel like it was a low point.
CJ: It's so hard because when I see Dan [Malloy] or someone who came across me at that point in my life, I think, "Goddamnit, I wish I could have been more together so I could be friends with these beautiful people in a genuine way." In reality I am that kind of guy. I am a caring, compassionate person who can value friendship. But I shortchanged myself in a lot of relationships.
AG: When did you start to look at how you were living and question it? You had a pretty long period where you sort of fell off the radar, right?
CJ: After Sprout, I moved in with [Alex] Knost and Jared Mell in Orange County [California]. You can imagine what it was like with me being drunk and nuts, and Knost being an impressionable kid. Mell was even younger, coming from a hard spot in his life. We were f–king crazy, but Knost was amazing. I've got to give that guy credit: he was up every morning at seven and down at Blackies no matter what we did the night before. He was probably still drunk 90 percent of the time, but he was there; I wasn't. Surfing took a back seat in my life at that point. I was still surfing well, but I was getting really out of shape. I was super tired and gassed, more concerned with when I was gonna get my next drink than when I was gonna get my next wave. I was working a lot in Japan, and with Steve Cleveland on films. We did Another State of Mind, then Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables. God bless Cleve for always believing in me and putting me in his movies, but I can't watch them because, at this point, it doesn't make me feel good.
AG: Where was that darkness coming from? What was keeping you from being happy with your life and with surfing?
CJ: I feel like my ego got the better of me. I wasn't ready to have all these people expecting shit from me. I got to the age where people were over my behavior, and I just wasn't ready to apologize or change. I don't know what was going on upstairs; I just blocked it out. And it got worse and worse.
AG: When was the breaking point?
CJ: I went to visit my mother in Texas for Thanksgiving and I was just pickled. My mom was drinking, so I was just drinking with her. At the end of the trip, we had a conversation about my dad, who was back in Santa Cruz. She told me, "Your father probably misses you so much."
Flying back, I landed in Long Beach and I remember sitting in my car for like 45 minutes in the airport parking lot, thinking it just felt wrong to drive south. I ended up calling my dad, and told him, "I think I'm gonna come up to Santa Cruz for a little bit." And, of course, he was like, "Come on home!" I turned the car north, drove all night, and pulled in at sunrise. Dad was waiting there for me with coffee. I remember walking in and thinking, "How have I been gone for so long?" Right after that, he was diagnosed and ended up passing away eleven and a half months later.
AG: Was that a huge wakeup call or did that just send you deeper?
CJ: The next year, I was a mess. I moved all my stuff into the house I grew up in, thinking, "I'm going to have all my friends move in and get wasted all the time. I'm gonna say, 'F–k it.' I'll probably lose everything, and my whole life will just be f–ked, but I'm over it."
AG: What was rock bottom and what got you back on your feet?
CJ: I was at the bar one morning and I had been on a 10-day tear, up the whole time, near death. I looked around and thought, "I never want to feel this way again." My dad would have been so ashamed of me. I couldn't even ride my bike home, I was so wasted. I walked home and locked myself in my dad's old house and slept for a week. I would wake up and have the worst shakes. Honestly, I should have gone to the hospital, because what I did could have killed me.
I got the courage to tell my friends, "Listen, I can't drink anymore. I'm going to die; this is serious." Everyone respected my dad and our relationship, so when I told people I felt like I was dishonoring my father, they got it.
AG: Is that around the same time you started surfing again?
CJ: Yeah, I bought an old epoxy CJ Nelson model off Craigslist. [Laughs.] A Surftech. I took it into my backyard and painted it white, and just started surfing hard every day, losing weight and feeling better. I started thinking, "Well, f–k, I'm feeling good, I might as well start eating well. This is exciting; let's see how good can I feel." And everything just started to click.
AG: It seems like now you're really disciplined with meditation and diet and everything.
CJ: The decision to be sober and treat myself with respect carried into so many facets of my life, as did learning more about Buddhism and mindfulness and eating well. I definitely want to continue being positive, and I feel like everybody who wants to make their life good will eventually go in that direction--whether they want to admit it now or later. Everyone should cross these bridges if they're lucky enough.
AG: Now on the other side of it, how has your relationship to surfing changed?
CJ: For me, it's just about keeping that fire lit. When I look back at what I was doing when I was uninspired and just drinking and partying, I can't believe it. If you'd come up to me when I was 15--when I was winning contests and surfing with my family--and told me that one day I'd be just full of smoke and booze and that I'd be completely uninspired by surfing, I'd have laughed at you. And that's the way I feel today--like I'm 15. I'm so inspired. Surfing's like a relationship. If you abuse and neglect it, it's not going to be there for you. You have to give to it. You have to spend time with it and think about it. You have to love it. That's the only way it'll give back and continue to inspire you.
AG: Is any of that punk-rock anger still there, and if not, what's replaced it?
CJ: That Joe Strummer, anti-establishment spirit still lives inside of me. I can still say f–k you to the right people, in the right way. But I'm just living more mindfully now, taking time in the mornings to take a breath and enjoy my coffee. When I'm paddling out, I focus on my hand going through the water with each stroke until I'm in position to catch a wave, and then I focus on that. I don't let the whole big ball of what's happening sit in my head. I have to take it one moment at a time, for what it is.
AG: Your surfing seems to have found a similar patience and humility. You don't seem to be trying to prove anything anymore.
CJ: When I look back at my surfing before, I was like a dancing monkey. I was a circus act. You may as well put on a neon outfit and hula-hoop on the beach and do backflips. There was no nobility in it. It's ridiculous to take off on a wave and just do one thing. Hanging ten is great, but nowadays I tell groms, "Don't look for hang tens; just keep doing cutbacks until a hang ten comes to you." Good surfing requires restraint, and I never got that until recently.
It was hard for me to reinvent myself. When I got sober, I was like, "OK, nobody cares what I do anymore. I'll just go surf." And I had always appreciated that style of slashy longboarding that Nat Young was doing in the late '60s, or guys like Skip [Frye] or Steve Bigler. They can go out and hang ten on every wave. But they don't. Because they're f–king men. And men don't dance for nobody.
[This feature originally appeared in “Reborn,” our November 2016 Issue, on newsstands and available for download now]