There are eight million artist stories in the city. This is mine. This one is called “Surfin’”.
“Everybody’s gone surfin’, surfing USA.” You know the song. I’m sure you do. It was a game-changer of sorts, allowing the music business to take a bit of a left turn, out toward the sunny beaches of Southern California. Toward a sunny life. With The Beach Boys. And surf guitar. Just prior to the British Invasion, which rode across the Atlantic on the shoulders of four lads from Liverpool, England. I’m sure you know their songs too. “She Loves You” was released in the United States in August of 1963, followed by “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in November. Both held the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Both came after the Beach Boy’s hit, released March 4, 1963. Kids were surfing before they were screaming. We think about the music changing that year and it is easy to think about the Invasion: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, so many more. And by the way, leading the invasions of the Brits was none other than Dusty Springfield, her hit “I Only Want To Be With You” also released November, 1963, Dusty appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show that month, three months before you know who.
But The Beach Boys were first. “Surfing Safari” had already been released in October of 1962. Then came “Surfin’ USA”. – “If everybody had an ocean. Across the USA. Then everybody’d be surfing, like Californi-A.” I remember singing those songs, amazed by them, and the hits that followed: “Surfer Girl”, “I Get Around”, “Girls On the Beach”, “Keep An Eye On Summer”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, and The Warmth Of the Sun” to name a few. A couple of “car” songs in there, but it was all the California, surfing, beach scene sound. I dug it. I dreamed about it. I fantasized about it. That line – “Everybody’s gone surfin’”.
But not everybody. Not me. If lightning were to strike me down tomorrow; if aliens were to beam me up and spirit me away; if a monster west coast earthquake were to open the ground and swallow me whole; were I to leave this mortal coil tomorrow and find myself at heaven’s golden gates; and were I asked the question, “Do you have any regrets?”; my answer would be – after not figuring out how to bring about world peace, how to end hunger and homelessness, how to end every single last incident of violence on the planet – my answer would be: “I didn’t go surfing.” Really.
In June of 1977 I had three friends from Salem State College drop me at Logan Airport in Boston, from which I would fly to LA, to follow my friend Bob Zimmerman, to crash on his floor, to begin an absolutely incredibly amazing new life amidst the sunshine and palms and movies stars and California girls, and TO GO SURFING. Some of that happened and more of it didn’t, but what did not happen was me ever putting my feet up on a surf board and riding the crest of a wave, shooting the curl, walking the nose, hanging ten. I would have been thrilled to hang one. But I never did . I did body surf, kind of Mickey Mouse to Godzilla, but still thrilling in its own way. I body surfed at Venice Beach and most often got my butt kicked under the water like I was in a washing machine with a bad attitude. There were times though, a few, when I timed my turn back toward the beach and my paddle-like-crazy just right, and a four or five foot wave would lift me up and hold me up – just hold me up there for a few precious moments – and it was like nothing else. “Catch a wave and your sitting on top of the world”.
But I never did catch a wave. Not on a surf board. Not when I lived in California then. Not when I went back in 1982 and was regularly around Doheney and San Onofre and Redondo and Hermosa. Not when I went back again to run a program in San Francisco in 2006. Not when I’ve gone to visit my wife’s parents in San Diego these past two summers. Nevermind not when I grew up hard by the Atlantic Ocean, and went to college on Cape Cod. Nevermind when I lived a mile away from the Atlantic Ocean in Florida for nearly five years.
A year ago, around this time, I was sitting in The Rocking Frog Cafe in Portland having a coffee with my friend Mike. We were talking about surfing. Mike is a big time surfer, regularly straps his board to the top of his car and drives an hour and a half or two to the Oregon Coast, tucked in a wet suit to ward off the cold Pacific water, catching a wave, sitting on top of the world. And Mike is from New Jersey. In-land New Jersey. He just wanted to be a surfer and so he became one, first on the east coast, now out here. I told Mike I had always wanted to surf, that it was a lifelong dream for me. Mike said he would show me how, would take me with him later in the summer, find me a board and a wet suit and get me up, get me surfing. But the summer came and went and Mike was busy like he is and I wasn’t like I’m not and I never asked him about it again.
So – I can relate when the Beach Boys sing, “In my room I lock out all my worries and my fears”. I can relate with “forgot all about the library like I told my old man now”. I can relate with “God only knows what I’d be without you”. And relate with, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times”. But relate with “Everybody’s gone surfin’”? No. Not yet. But who knows. Maybe I can find a way. Heck, maybe I can take a leap.
Tell Saint Peter I’m surfin’, surfin’ USA.
On Monday, May 11, 2015 — with my wife Susan watching from shore, and with the guidance from surf instructor Karen Gallagher — I stood up on a surf board in the Pacific Ocean at Kaiaka Beach on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii, and surfed for the very first time. At age 66.
Now you can tell the teacher…..and Saint Peter. Surfin’ USA.