You’ve probably heard the one about all the celeb obituaries all being already written; where Guardian feature writers, on slow news days, fully aware the title is spaffing an unrecouped £2mil/week in a ‘changing media landscape’ make use of their time by updating the Queen or David Beckham’s obits, so that they may be rapidly deployed in the event of sudden drive-by.
Surfing (the sport, not Surfing the magazine (1964-2017)) as death-obsessed as any of the other best cults (Catholicism, association football) is as forthcoming with its tributes, which tend to come in somewhere between the detached, factual newspaper obit and an Irish keening. We take the opportunity to pay sentimental homage to the fallen, while simultaneously placing ourselves in the recently closed chapter of surf history.
Perhaps not just because surfers are necessarily more self-absorbed or aggrandising (ahem), but more because our steamy little ecosystem is just about the right size for those associations to flourish. Big enough for some genuine measure of fame or repute to manifest, small enough for almost everyone to have been within one degree of separation, if you’ve been doing it for a few seasons.
And so the death of Surfer Magazine (1960-2020) late last week was chiefly heralded either by surfers who made the cover, or late middle aged men who’d taken cover photos, lamenting a time long since passed when the self proclaimed ‘Bible of the Sport’ (although Tracks also claimed that moniker) actually sold, and more importantly, mattered. As well as of course, the occasional Home Counties super fan who’d go into WH Smiths in hot anticipation at least half a dozen times before each new issue came out, who would later very occasionally feature as a contributor, like yours truly.
Former editor Matt Warshaw wrote on The ‘Grit that Surfer had probably been dangling by a thread since it was taken over by the National Enquirer publishers in 2019 (or when the Internet was invented), but it might be several years before that. While the surf brand advertising model finally flatlined in the Covid spring after years of decline, much as how a person’s legal time is death is recorded at the time a pulse is no longer present, its soul spirited off into the afterlife when it slipped into unconsciousness several years ago.
While The Surfer’s Journal, not so much a Surfer spin off (by former publisher Steve Pezman) as a successful root graft dominates the ‘coffee table’ periodical model, any such ground having long been ceded by the retreating Surfer, other more youthful, swaggering digital entities seemed much more of a natural fit to today’s screen based mediascape.
Surfer was getting it both ends. Or rather, not getting it.
Perhaps the dispatch was merciful more than tragic; maybe better off dead than having a once revered institution stripped of relevance and dignity, to endure in a semi vegetative state of social post article headlines whiffing of dad dance.
I’d sort of forgotten it was even still going, having only seen it in person a couple of times in the past five years; the last of which was last year at a high end Scandinavian surf camp in Portugal. Thumbing through, I gasped at its painful thinness, while a group of Swedes who’d just flown in business class next to me ordered the vegan ‘poke’ bowl while booking the late afternoon vinyasa/guided group session combo via the camp’s smartphone app. Several signs of the apocalypse too many.
My own passionate Surfer Mag relationship started in 1991, by default more than anything else. At the time, UK mags were Wavelength and something called Surf, Carve came a year or two later. I bought the UK mags, but never really loved them. At the time, Surfing still had a garish 80’s feel, bright and cheap-looking. Meanwhile, Surfer had Dave Carson in the art department, one of the most distinctive (and overrated, depending on whom you ask) graphic designers in surf magazine history. Its aesthetic reflected the death and rebirth vibe of the grunge/recession era just so, while still imparting green shoots of aspirational stoke. My very first issue happened to be the Carson dropped font redesign first issue, with Steve Hawk (Tony’s brother) as the editor.
Hawk was good enough to explain all in his credo. The big 80’s were out. Insane! Radical! Red hot stoke! cover exclamations were out, as was glossy, spot varnish cover stock in favour of matt (but let’s not get bogged down in printing chat). It was measured cool with a little bit of edge, but authentic. A great fit for the emerging New School generation and their one sponsor sticker per board aesthetic. Hawk successfully walked a tightrope of somehow retaining hallowed status as the keeper of the flame, but relevant to the youth. It certainly felt like the real deal.
As true as it is that everybody thinks the music is best during their formative years, so too is it a matter of fact that somebody is actually correct. Remove the prism of subjectivity, and certain eras stand out for quality. The writers at Surfer at the time of my indoctrination, alongside Hawk, included the likes of Steve Barilotti, Bruce Jenkins, Matt Warshaw, Ben Marcus, Sam George and Derek Hynd. I was suitably captivated.
Being landlocked, I made a point of reading and re-reading every word, memorising all the captions. Reading Surfer was my day to day stoke fix, in between skateboarding and curating a general vibe of self importance of the only hardcore surfer in my village. After a brief, regrettable phase of mutilating the magazine and putting the covers on my wall (using Sex Wax instead of BluTack, obvs), I soon transitioned into a worryingly obsessive archivist phase.
The first time I ever heard of the Internet was in the pages of Surfer which I learned was, ‘A global network of computers that can never be switched off’. That weed is in fact highly carcinogenic when smoked, that beef is bad for greenhouses gases came to me across the page from size zero Rob Machado on Gotcha. When I’d encounter real surfers who actually lived on the coast, they seemed bemused by my fetishisation of Surfer, while I was equally dismayed at their clumsy lack of refinement. They’d get the magazines confused, ‘Is that the Aussie one?’ As if all surf mags were more or less the same, something you look at while pooing. I never understood the pooing thing; I’d read the mag for hours in my room, then walk to the toilet when poo was imminent. Not sit on the toilet and wait for it, like fishing.
Alas, my own love affair with Surfer probably hit the skids in January 2005, when I had a feature published in it, something of a childhood dream come true. I’d chanced on a Rip Curl Search trip to Russia with Tom Curren, wrote the story in France, had it published in America, and my dad bought the issue at Waterloo station. I think it might have been the only thing of mine he ever read, he seemed suitably proud at the time. The pay was amazing, but somehow it suddenly all seemed a bit, smaller.
Nevertheless, the following years saw peak surf magazine, the height of the surf mag wars, and the reader was the ultimate winner. Quality, creativity, ambition went through the roof. Surfer was probably edged out by Surfing for a time in the naughties when Evan Slater was editor via the Ing’s world beating roster of staff photogs. But both were very accomplished, thick (with ads), bold, legit consumer mags as opposed to surf versions of other niche offerings. Chris Mauro was a brilliant Surfer editor, a storyteller with a keen sense of the historical significance of the institution.
Whether a phoenix title can rise from the ashes remains to be seen, but apparently none of the A360 Media group’s ‘IP assets’ are up for sale, so it seems unlikely at the moment. A universe where Wavelength, Carve and Surf Session are still going but not Surfer, Surfing and Transworld would seem like some kind of alternative reality, if it didn’t already feel like one due to non-surfing global events. Australia’s Surfing World recently got taken on by Sean Doherty and Jon Frank as a means of saving that historic print title from oblivion. Doherty said on Stab of the acquisition, “If you don’t support this stuff, you’ll be left with your Instagram feed.”
Back in the late 90’s, Surfer started its annual Collector’s Issues, larger, square format editions. The first, in ’98 splashed ‘316 pages: The Biggest Surf Mag Ever’ across the top of the cover. Editor Hawk ran a capitalised caption across the three opening spreads, an opening missive that probably had as profound an affect on me as anything else I’d ever read.
It might have been the first meaningful update to Surfer founding editor John Severson’s celebrated “In this crowded world…”
“Because it still takes a hell of a commitment to figure out how to line up a wave, paddle into it, get to your feet and feel the sweetest of dreamtime feelings, and anyone who cuts down on their work schedule and commits to all the fruitless dawn patrols and humiliations and everything else just for some status-free joy, is putting great values right at the heart of their life.”