Chas Smith is a surf journalist, but more than that he’s a professional troublemaker. His website, Beach Grit, is a scathing, absurd and often hilarious take on all things surf, whether that means shaming WSL employees for putting their fins in backwards or publishing tabloid-esque articles about “Quasi-Kardashian” surfers. It should come as no surprise, then, that Smith’s new book veers toward the sensational. “Cocaine + Surfing: A Sordid History of Surfing’s Greatest Love Affair,” is exactly what is sounds like–a deep dive into the long-standing relationship between cocaine and surf culture. It’s a fraught topic, filled with dark tales and tragic characters, but through Smith’s lens of absurdity and self deprecation, “Cocaine + Surfing” manages to find glimmers of humor in the darkness.
“[Smith] understands, to the finest degree, that drugs are horrible but funny and surfing is amazing but pointless,” says Encyclopedia of Surfing author Matt Warshaw in the introduction to Smith’s book. “Which makes Cocaine and Surfing a high-wire act. Comedy leads, but other, darker elements are present at all times. There are shadows behind the laughter.”
Following the release of “Cocaine + Surfing,” I sat down with Smith to talk about drugs, waves and a culture uncomfortable with its past.
Do you think that, historically, cocaine has been especially prevalent in surfing compared to other subcultures? I mean, from politicians to actors to musicians, it’s not like the rest of society has avoided the stuff.
I write about it a little bit in the book, but basically cocaine goes in and out of style in mainstream culture–you can read through old police logs and look at the drug busts, and there have been stretches when cocaine is much less prevalent. But in surfing, it’s always there, and it’s always been there. I think there is genuinely something special about surfers and their love for cocaine, and that love never wanes. I also think surfers are just generally more prone to addictive behavior. Every surfer is addicted to surfing on some level, and if you think about everything you’ve given up, or all the responsibilities you’ve blown off because of surfing, I’m sure it’s a long, long list.
I think a lot of surfers have a vague awareness of the history of drugs in surf culture, but they probably don’t know the extent of it or take the wildest stories to be myth. Do you think a lot of surfers would be surprised by just how much of that history is true?
Completely. Even with hard examples of cocaine in surf culture, like with Andy Irons, I know so many surfers who think, “Sure, Andy Irons partied, but it wasn’t that bad, right?” There are facts tying cocaine to surf culture and surf history, but I think people tend to discount that information because it wasn’t acknowledged by surf media. I’ve consumed surf media my entire life, but I wasn’t aware of surfing’s relationship to drugs at all until I was on the other side actually starting to write about surfing professionally. I remember one of the early interviews I did, the subject asked if he could bring his friends, and I said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” So me and about five professional surfers went out to dinner, and they kept going to the bathroom the entire time, just doing circles. And I was like, “Wow, why are these guys peeing so much?” After the tenth lap or so, one of them came out with a bunch of white stuff on his nose, and only then did it dawn on me that those guys were doing cocaine. Then I started noticing it at every surf event, and that’s when I decided to start researching the history a bit and found out about Jeff Hackman glassing cocaine into his fins in the early days and all these seemingly larger-than-life stories that are actually true.
Looking at surfing’s history, what do you see as a kind of prime example of this relationship between surfing and cocaine?
To me, it’s Michael Tomson, who founded Gotcha and was part of the Bustin’ Down the Door crew. Matt Warshaw told me that Michael Tomson wasn’t nearly as talented as Shaun [his brother, the 1977 World Champion], but Michael would throw himself over the ledge at Pipe like nobody else. He just doggedly pursued surfing, and then I think just doggedly pursued cocaine in the same way. There are the wildest stories of excess from when Gotcha was at its peak, and since then MT got busted twice for possession, and the second one he got an intent to distribute charge, and that means that you’ve got a lot more than just your pinky nail full of blow. Tomson is kind of the center of this book because, to me, he’s the most pure and unapologetic vision of what the surf industry really is–and almost what the surf industry should be, to be quite honest. Because whatever troubles MT has, I think he honestly represents who he is. In the book, he says something along the lines of, “I am who I am, I’ve done what I’ve done, I’ve paid my price, so sue me.” I’d love to see the rest of the surf industry do that–not have dalliances with cocaine, but say, “This is honestly who we are, this is honestly what we’ve done. It is what it is.”
It’s pretty clear with this book that you want to reach a wider audience than just core surfers, which means that you’ve got to walk a tightrope between alienating the mainstream and boring the core. How’d you approach that?
It’s really, really, really hard. Writing my first book, “Welcome to Paradise, Now Go To Hell,” I dealt with this, and I kept asking myself, “How do you explain surf terms to a non-surf audience without totally annoying the surf audience?” Because you have two entirely separate groups with little relation to each other in terms of shared vocabulary and their understandings of the world. Trying to appeal to both feels absolutely impossible, and don’t know that I succeed in that at all. I’m sure that a lot of non-surfers will read the book and be like, “What the hell is this? This doesn’t make any sense,” while some surfers will read the book and be like, “Thanks for writing a Sesame Street surf book. You don’t have to explain to me what the fucking barrel is.” I tried really hard to bridge that gap, but Finnegan [William Finnegan, author of “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life”] may be the only person who ever really did it by writing a surf book that, as far as I can tell, is universally adored by surfers and also won the Pulitzer Prize. So I guess it can be done.
You talked about your last book being a potential bridge burner, but you said that didn’t really turn out to be the case. Will this book finally torch those bridges? Do you think you’ll reach a point where your subjects stop picking up the phone?
Maybe. I didn’t think that when I was writing it. When I was writing it, I was thinking that I was going to be really frank and honest and pull no punches, but I’ve done that in the past, so I didn’t think this book was going to cause any new problems for me when I finished it. But when my wife read it, she said, “You did not spare anyone in this stupid thing.” Which made me think, “Oops, maybe I went too hard on this.” I figured we all knew a lot of this stuff on some level already, I was just going to write it. I didn’t think I was being unduly unfair about anything, but my wife was like, “No, you were an asshole to everyone.”
In Warshaw’s introduction to your book, he says, “Drugs are funny. Not always. Not often, in fact. But often enough.” But how do you perceive the relationship between surfing and drugs now that the book is done? Do you still find humor in it? Is it mostly tragic?
Going into the book, I was thinking it was going to be a lot funnier than it was. But three quarters of the way through the book, I realized just how terrible cocaine actually is. Without any kind of moralism applied to it, I do think cocaine is one of the real soul-sucking drugs. If you fall in love with cocaine, I think it’s very hard to be in love with anything else. So the way I perceived cocaine in surfing totally flipped from when I started the book to when I finished it. I’ve always hated moralism in surfing. I thought, “This isn’t a religion, this is dancing on the water, and if you want to moralize you should go to church.” But coming out the other side, maybe we’re moralistic about some things because you can’t ignore that they’re deeply, profoundly damaging. We can laugh about some drug stories, but with cocaine, the laughs are more hollow and more painful than I thought they’d be when I embarked on writing the book.