A feature from the December 2012 issue of SURFER.
Alex Knost has come unstuck in time.
"Holy shit! Are you ok?"
Alex pondered the question, his back burning on the hot pavement. Slowly he opened his eyes and squinted at the midday sun. His mind reeled with the kind of panicked confusion normally reserved for early morning after getting blackout drunk. The last thing he could remember was surfing Blackie's all morning. He hadn't been to the bar. No, it was the middle of the day, and he was in the middle of the street.
"You just appeared out of nowhere, man!" said the tan, mustachioed face coming into focus. Alex lifted his head off the ground, saw the car parked nearly on top of him and his board several feet away, and realized he had just been in a car accident. "Sorry about your board. Here's a few bucks to get it fixed, but I've gotta jet! I've got tickets to 'The Price is Right'! Can you beat that? I'm gonna meet Bob Barker!"
The man dropped a few slips of green paper on the ground. Alex climbed to his feet as the man slam-med the door and fired up the engine of a bright orange, vintage Pontiac GTO, and sped away.
Alex picked up the bills and noticed something slightly off about them. Abraham Lincoln's head looked oddly small.
Another car passed by. It was vintage as well: a blue '70s Dodge Ram Van--similar to Alex's own. He picked up his board as it drove by, and another late-'60s wagon behind it, and another, and another. Alex took a seat on the curb next to a snow cone vendor, feeling the splintered fiberglass of his board and pondering "The Price is Right." "Isn't Drew Carey the host now?" Alex thought.
The sound of the snow cone vendor's radio drowned out his thoughts. "You are listening to KROQ-FM on this scorcher, and don't touch that dial because we've got a brand new track from the Rolling Stones just in time for the end of summer."
He heard Keith Richards' melan-choly chords as the 1973 track "Angie" came through the fuzzy speakers of the portable radio. A single bead of cold sweat rolled down his forehead and landed softly on the deck of his board. "My God, I've traveled through time..."
The Man in the HTML Mask
Alex had no idea how he came to be in 1973. The only person who did know was sitting in a dimly lit room, huddled around the warm glow of an LED display in 2012. This man's parents gave him a good name, but Hipster_H8r was the visage he preferred in all of his electronic interactions.
Hipster_H8r is a reasonably nice fellow if you meet him in line at Ralph's, but in the blogosphere he is fire and brimstone. The list of things he likes about surfing is small. The things he hates about surfing is an ever expanding and contradictory list dictated by the whims of a vitriolic, anonymous mob. Alex Knost is on that list. Hipster_H8r hates Alex for a few reasons: because Alex's style and quiver are constantly in flux, because inconsistency makes you a liar, and because he must be using his lies to make money at the expense of "real" surfers.
This angry man is not alone. Whenever images or videos of Alex Knost appear online, they act as a laxative for Internet comments. He's called pretentious, contrived, a disgrace to surfing, or worse.
"I think that whenever someone puts themselves out there, by being creative, making music, making weird art house films, surfing differently, or dressing differently, it makes people feel good to just say that they suck, or that they're phony," Dane Reynolds once said. "Someone who isn't brave enough to do it themselves can instantly feel superior by cutting them down. Five years down the road, the same dude that was calling him a fag is now dressing like him because it has become socially normal...and he's still probably calling him a fag. Maybe that's validating: When people cut you down, that means you are doing something good. Because otherwise people would ignore it."
In very simple homophobic terms, Hipster_H8r was usually content to call Alex a "fag" on the Internet and move on, looking for other surfers to expose as "fags." But after a particularly "faggy" video, which showed Alex surfing a self-shaped mid-length, he decided words were not enough.
Somewhere between commenting on surf websites, perusing the darkest corners of Internet pornography, and reading up on HTML code, Hipster_H8r came across something truly intriguing. He found a line of code that could be used to send a person back in time, and in it, the key to ending Alex Knost's existence in the present.
It seemed to be a fitting way to handle the problem. To Hipster_H8r, Alex didn't belong in the present anyway. The old surfboards, the long locks, the obsession with film photography and cassette tapes--the past wasn't just where he should be, but where Alex surely wanted to be.
"If Alex Knost wants to look like Iggy Pop, then I'll send him back to the time of The Stooges," he thought, as he hit the enter key.
At that moment, exiting the water at Blackie's Beach in Newport, miles from Hipster_H8r's computer screen, Alex Knost vanished. Only two damp footprints remained on the hot asphalt, and they were drying quickly.
The Unfortunate Coolness of Alex Knost
In the present, people see his unusual surfing, they see his long hair and obscure tattoos, and they hear his band, Tomorrow's Tulips. The sum of his visible parts isn't familiar, so people begin to extrapolate. They see pretention and inaccessibility--a surfer who is far too cool for his fellow surfers. They think that Alex is the flourishing test-tube baby of equal parts surf talent and clever marketing ploys.
"Surf journalists always want to talk about my band and these things that don't pertain to surfing," says Alex. "They probably think that gives me some sort of relevance--some sort of gimmick--I guess. Like, 'Oh, he does all this other stuff so it kind of makes it interesting.' But that's not my choice. To me, the thing that's cool about surfing is surfing. I like surfing and making music and a lot of other things, but it's not like they're in bed together."
As a professional surfer, it doesn't always behoove you to have passions outside of surfing. Anything that casts your core-ness in doubt can be leveraged against you. But if you see Alex during a California winter, his comically contrasting wetsuit tan is like a banner of aquatic dedication.
"Surfing is so multi-dimensional, you can't even really explain what's important about it at its base. All I know is that I love the sensations you get from riding waves," says Alex. "Surfing is exciting right now, especially the younger kids that are surfing, whether they're riding longboards, shortboards, or anything. It's all about the brotherhood and the camaraderie and the common interest--and not taking it seriously. Because at the end of the day, you're a surf bum, and that's the golden ticket."
Alex fares a little better than many surf bums thanks to various brands, which are more than happy to leverage his coolness in the pursuit of selling T-shirts. His look is edgy, he is polarizing, and that makes image-obsessed kids want to buy what-ever he happens to throw on in the morning. But as unique as his appearance is on land, the way that Knost surfs is even more so.
"His surfing kind of demands attention in a way," says Tyler Warren. "We started doing longboard contests together when we were 12 or 13, and I remember the first time I ever saw him surf. We were at Doheny for this menehune contest and he was wearing some grass hat, surfing second spot and just shredding. He was riding his log, picking off these waves by himself, noseriding and just running up and down the board like mad. You could tell already that he had something special. He's real poised all the time, but he also has this methodical craziness. He is very controlled, but flamboyant and stylish as well. His surfing is very loud and that's what draws people to it."
People first took note of Alex's surfing because of his prowess on a single-fin longboard. When he stands up on a log, his line is unmistakable. The bottom turning, the cross-stepping, the noseriding, the carving--unlike any other surfer in the world. But Alex's curiosity takes him in many directions. At times he's been enamored with displacement hulls, transition-era mid-lengths, twin-fins, and even shortboards. The crafts change, and his style adapts accordingly.
"He's one of those people where when they have an idea, they just go sprinting in that direction," says Warren. "He's very proactive in that way. When he was 16 or 17 we used to watch 156 Tricks, and then he got super focused on shortboarding and started doing airs all the time. He would be a really good shortboarder if he wanted to stick with that."
Alex didn't want to stick to that, nor has he wanted to stick with much of anything besides remaining completely malleable. Looking at photos of Alex through the years is like looking at a high school yearbook--he is constantly in flux as his interests manifest themselves in different ways. This state of change is what alienates him from a large population of surfers, but his bread-and-butter has always been his exceptional talent at riding a single-fin log--a craft that has remained relatively unchanged for 50 years.
Coming to Terms with Time
Alex felt dizzy. The air in 1973 smelled different somehow. He lurched toward the gutter and threw up. He paused, took a deep breath, and tried to remember the awesome stories he had heard about Newport in the '70s from his dad, Jim. He looked around. There were less cars in the street, fewer people on the sidewalk, and not a single Starbucks within a thousand miles. "Things could be worse," Alex reminded himself, and he stood up and took his first awkward steps in the past.
He picked up his battered longboard, and looked at the broken glass on the deck where fender met stringer just a few minutes ago. He was at the foot of 22nd Street, which meant that he was only a block away from Russell Surfboards.
He entered the shop, and his eyes were drawn to the wood panel wall and the line of freshly glassed surfboards standing ready against it like shiny white soldiers. At the register, one of the shapers and a patron were arguing over something.
"These pintails might be the future, but that doesn't help me much when I can't catch shit on 'em," said the husky middle-aged surfer, holding the craft in question.
"OK, so you don't like the board," said the shaper. "What are we gonna do? What kind of board will make you happy?"
The man's eyes scanned the room in frustration, looking at crafts that barely had enough foam to keep him afloat, before landing on Alex and his 9’6″ plank.
"I want that," he said. "I need something I can catch waves on. None of these new, squirrely little things."
Alex approached the counter with his 9’6″. He looked at the board they had been debating over: it was a brand new, 7’6″ single-fin Russell pintail. Alex had dreamed of having a board like it, and had tried to shape something similar before. But this board was better than his best attempts. This board was perfect.
"What do you think of these things?" the man asked Alex, handing him the pintail.
"Well, I grew up surfing longboards. You know, heavy, '60s-type longboards like this,"
Alex said, nodding at his board. "But I like single-fins in general, just the mechanics of how they work, and how they gain speed and trim. As far as these mid-lengths, it's the same thing. I like the way you can use softer rails and less rocker. I guess I just like the experimentation, you know? I like being on a single-fin, and how the wave dictates how you surf--you're not really generating your own speed; you're using the wave. As opposed to something like a thruster, where you kind of have to ability to speed up and slow down. But that's obviously why people ride thrusters--for that higher performance level. These single-fins are just kind of more about the way it feels, you know?"
The man and the shaper stared at Alex with blank expressions.
"Well I don't know what the fuck you're smoking kid, but it sounds like you're interested in this board," said the man after a lengthy pause. "Your old board has a ding in it, and I'm recently in the market for some extra foam, so how 'bout we swap? I'll just take that home and patch it right up."
Alex was blindsided for the second time that day. He shook the man's hand, grabbed the pintail, and was out the door before anyone had time to change their minds.
He ran down the street to the parking lot at Blackie's and was shocked by what he found--it was almost exactly the same as he remembered it. His favorite bar was still right there, but now the meters out front took coins instead of cards. There was a crew of guys standing at the edge of the lot in trunks, looking at the Pacific. He vaguely recognized a few of them as the tanned, fit versions of the same old locals he had surfed with his entire life. He wanted to say hello, but hesitated. He wouldn't even be talking to the same people--just the bizarre shadows of men he once knew. He followed their gaze out over the water. The swell had picked up since 2012.
Eternally Out of Place
The waves were well overhead, and the wind had switched to light offshore. He had always wanted to ride a board like this at Newport Point, and it looked like the most unlikely stars had somehow aligned. He was off and running, with the hot asphalt sizzling the bottoms of his feet like fleshy pancakes.
He passed unfamiliar structures as he ran. Over the next few decades, the quaint beachside cottages he saw lining the sand would be torn down and rebuilt as two-story mansions and apartment buildings. They would be built bigger and taller to capitalize on every available square foot that overlooked saltwater. Rent would go up, and what was a neighborhood for local surfers and middle-class residents would quickly turn into a decadent escape for wealthy vacationers. But for now, it was all still just a glimmer in the eye of an ambitious developer.
When he reached the sand in front of a more familiar Tower 18, he looked out at the wind-groomed ocean. It was a solid 6- to 8-foot and reeling. There were a few guys out, but by his standards, it was an empty lineup. He had heard stories about localism at Newport Point during this era, but he also heard that most aggression was aimed at anyone who wasn't riding a Russell--at least he had the right board for the job. He paddled to the peak, and waved to the other surfers, who seemed to be sitting strangely far on the shoulder.
A set approached and he turned around and stroked into an overhead bomb. He dropped in, did a late bottom turn, moved forward on his board, and slipped under a thick lip. Several seconds passed as he trimmed through the tunnel before he was spit out onto the shoulder. He moved back toward the tail of the board and did a massive fade at top-speed. It felt incredible.
Alex paddled back out, beaming with excitement. For the first time that day, he wasn't worried about anything. He got back outside and waited for the next wave. He caught another grinding right, tucked in again, this time coming out to do a hard carve off the top, then compressing and extending through semi-spastic pumps before transitioning into an improvised one-footed floater on the closeout section.
Slowly, the other surfers started paddling over to where Alex was sitting. They spoke to each other in whispers with eyes locked on Alex, as if he were some sort of alien. He was used to the reaction, but hadn't expected it here and now.
He waited for five minutes...10 minutes...20 minutes, but another set never appeared on the horizon. The excitement was wearing off, and he thought again about his present situation. He was trapped in 1973, his best friends weren't born yet, and Richard Nixon was President. Alex was afraid.
Thoughts swirled in his head like a dark cloud. His eyes locked on the horizon, waiting for another wave--a wave that, he prayed, would take him back to a more familiar shore. The thick crowds, the more developed coastline, the Internet angst--suddenly even the worst aspects of our time had a certain appeal.
Ripples Through Time
A day had passed since Hipster_H8r had sent Alex to 1973, and he hadn't given the decision a second thought. He went to work, got home in time for "The O'Reilly Factor," drank beers on his couch, and went to bed early with the intent of surfing at dawn the following day.
The next morning, Hipster_H8r was on his way home from an unfruitful surf check when he spotted a yard sale. Classic surfboards were strewn across the front lawn of a quaint suburban home, and he pulled over to see if there was anything valuable he could grab for a steal and later hawk on eBay.
He walked across the grass, looking at a quiver that probably spanned half a century. He looked past tri-fin guns and ultra-thick twins before an old single-fin log caught his eye. An avid shortboarder himself, he nor-mally had no patience for longboards, but for some reason he was drawn to this aged plank with evidence of a shoddy ding repair on the deck.
"You won't believe where I got that one from," said an old, husky man as he stood up from his lawn chair. The man was huge in stature, and the wrinkles upon wrinkles lining his face told of 10,000 sunbaked sessions.
He staggered over to a box of magazines in the garage, grabbed a copy of an old, yellowed issue and carried it over to Hipster_H8r.
"I traded a Russell pintail for it from some young fella back in '73," said the old timer. "Then he took my board and went and got the cover of a magazine on it! Can you believe that? Maybe I shoulda kept that thing!"
Hipster_H8r took the old, faded issue in his hands and started to tremble. A photographer had been on the beach at Newport Point the day Alex had arrived in 1973, and had captured his first wave for all eternity.
"Yep, that Al Knost was sure ahead of his time," said the old man. "Shoot, if you like that board, maybe you'll like some of these magazines too. I've got about 20 years worth of issues, and I'll bet Al is in almost every single one of them. What a freak, eh? SURFER even did something on him in the latest issue."
Hipster_H8r walked over to the old man's lawn chair where the December 2012 issue lay open. He flipped through it until he found the article, which recounted the great feats of Alex Knost and the effect he continues to have on the way surfers ride waves.
"I've been inspired by Alex's surfing," read a bold pull-quote from Dane Reynolds. "Sometimes I'll ride a certain board, like a stubby single- fin that he made or a Sperm Whale, and I realize pretty quickly that I'm just trying to surf like him."
The words faded out of focus, and Hipster_H8r fainted right there on the old man's lawn.
When he came to, Hipster_H8r said nothing to the old man standing over him. He got back into his car and sped down the street.
What Hipster_H8r had failed to realize was that Alex wouldn't blend into any period better than he does in the present. His style is too loud, his surfing too flamboyant. Even now his surfing could arguably be called "futuristic" over "retro." After all, the past is only nostalgic for those who lived it. What Alex brings to surfing is imagination, which is not only timeless, but also contagious.
Hipster_H8r had yet to catch it. When he got home, he opened his laptop and didn't go to a single surf website--he was terrified of how Knost's influence may have manifested itself. Instead he launched the dubious application that started it all, and typed what he hoped would restore balance to the world.
He pressed enter.