No, California is awake and real–as real as the fall Indian summer, now encamped along the coastline, which makes summer endless.
“California” was first a myth based-upon a work of Spanish literature. Today, this myth has become a fragrant state of mind. Its notes are Iberian romance, St. Tropez, the heat of Casa Blanca, the bonsai of Sierra Nevada. This mindset now produces industries devoted to celluloid, silicon, finance and space.
However, if you grew-up in the forties, fifties and sixties of the twentieth century, three out of four of these industries could be found amalgamated on the beaches of California.
Surf culture was their expression.
Surfboards combined Polynesian craft and post-War, industrial design. If you lived near Trancas or Malibu, you lashed your board on your car and sped away in order to paddle, sit and ride. If waves were few, and mudflats close, as in San Francisco Bay, you walked toward the water with wooden discs, thrown ahead and jumped onto, to skeet over the liquefied mud. If you lived inland, you purchased a skateboard and carved turns across endless concrete. If you were uncoordinated, you read the comics of Big Daddy Roth, where Rat Fink attached motors to the skateboards and hauled you aboard.
A Day in the Surf of Life—Fountainhead at the Beach
The soundtrack of surf was the kick of a drum and the ropey line of a bass guitar: The Bel Airs, The Beach Boys and The Pyramids. The rotor of an organ lead to soul music. Young guys related. They pinned album posters on their bedroom walls and lay on single beds behind closed doors—not “barricading” themselves against parents, but looking through windows to their futures. Savagely innocent, the old world mockery of “Back in the USSR,” by The Beatles, was lost on them. Their as-yet-unwritten film was “Rebel with a Cause.”
Once I met a 90 year-old surfer at a Los Angeles book fair. Tall, bright, still active, he described the high-points of California surf culture during the 1940s. He and his buddies spent their days riding waves–and their nights discussing philosophy. They consumed books like sea otters eat urchins and abalone.
Their favorite book presented, not myth, but new moral philosophy. It began with a naked boy laughing at the edge of a cliff—looking out at the surf below.
Jeff Britting, a composer and author, is working on an opera based on Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun and a collection of Hollywood-themed short stories.
(The views expressed here are the author’s. He does not speak for any other person or organization.)