Wave of the Future

Surfer magazine's sometimes-wild, sometimes-mild 50-year ride

Following the first issue, Severson met then-16-year-old Rick Griffin, who became The Surfer’s cartoonist, creating the cartoon strip “The Gremmies” in 1961, followed by the introduction of Murphy, the smiling, floppy-haired young cartoon surfer who became a fixture in the magazine and appeared on the cover in 1964.

Over the years, Griffin’s cartoon strips continued in their fun-loving nature but grew more detailed and reflective of the times, specifically by referencing drugs. Griffin relocated to San Francisco in the mid-’60s, disappearing into the counterculture psychedelics scene while still producing pieces forSeverson. At that same time, Griffin’s work also began appearing in the music scene, including a poster for Jimi Hendrix; the original logo for Rolling Stone; and album-cover artwork for the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and Jackson Browne.

By the late ’60s, the changing societal tides were well-represented in the surfing community, as hairstyles went long and acid-splash artwork was common on surfboards.

John Severson at his home office in Maui
Ray Mains
John Severson at his home office in Maui
Severson in the '60s, working from 
San Onofre
Courtesy of John Severson
Severson in the '60s, working from San Onofre

Over the course of the early and mid-’60s, various Southern California-based magazines started up, including InternationalSurfing, which would shorten its name to Surfing.

At this time, Severson began working with Drew Kampion, a freelance writer from Santa Cruz. “In 1967, Santa Cruz was kind of a convergence zone,” says Kampion, now 67 and living on an island in Washington. “The first part of that was alternative culture, which was psychedelics and pot and all that, which was pretty big in Santa Cruz.”

Following his write-up of the Smirnoff Pro-Am, one of the first contests to offer a cash prize ($1,000), Kampion wrote a fictional piece for the magazineabout “a surfer who drops acid, has a bad trip and drowns,” as he explains it. Soon after, Severson hired the then-24-year-old Kampion to be the editor of Surfer.

“It was a risk, yes, but it was riskier not making the change,” Severson says. “Drew was very on top of it; he took us into the shortboard era and opened up a lot, got us more politically involved, more environmentally involved.”

“When I started reading [in the late 1960s], the magazine was publishing a lot of poetry, psychedelia, drug references, lefty political commentary, and Kampion was really the architect of a lot of those things,” Warshaw recalls. “It was the biggest, most abrupt change in the history of the sport—and the magazine.”

Once, Kampion covered the U.S. Championships with a 2,500-word run-on sentence; another of his pieces was titled “Conversations With Spirit Forms.” He was responsible for the addition of poetry. In Warshaw’s recent book, The History of Surfing, one early shortboarder put the era in perspective: “The mood of the times made for a really creative period in surfing, and the mood was largely the result of getting stoned.”

Even before Kampion’s arrival, Severson was considering life after Surfer. “I had started with a 10-year program in mind, which I shared with my wife, Louise, and she liked it,” Severson says. “I was going to work 10 years and sell what I had created and sponsor my ongoing life as a painter and traveler and surfer, and she said, ‘Yeah, that sounds good.’”

In the late ’60s, the small publishing group For Better Living Inc. offered Severson the right deal, including stock and the possibility to contribute while living in Hawaii. Severson stayed on board for several issues before penning his farewell piece in 1971 titled, “Goin’ Surfin’.” He wrote, “I’m going to travel around and find me a perfect hollow right point break around 6 to 10 feet—with offshore winds and only me and a couple of other guys out, and when I find it . . . well . . . what would you do?”

*     *     *

Surfer immediately after Severson faced a changing sport—as well as the rise of its greatest competition, Surfing.

Steve Pezman, a talented surfer, competent shaper and accomplished writer, became publisher after Severson’s departure. He took over as editor as well when Kampion defected to Surfing in 1972.

“Vietnam was at its height; peace and freedom and the hippie movement and do-your-own-thing were in vogue. Being No. 1 was not cool, being competitive was not cool, so competition surfing lost favor,” recalls Pezman, now 69 and publisher of The Surfer’s Journal.

Though that world-view persisted for most of the ’70s, Pezman saw that the sport’s rebellious period was coming to a close: Surfers still wanted to get high and ride waves—but they wanted to make some money while doing so. By the early ’80s, contests popped up around the world and big-name surfers arose.

In 1981, Paul Holmes, an Englishman who had built a shaping and writing career in Australia, assumed the role of editor. He oversaw 100 issues of Surfer as surfing as we know it today took shape. Tom Curren, Tom Carroll and Mark Occhilupo were upcoming stars; mega-brands Quiksilver and Billabong came to the forefront, transforming surfing into a billion-dollar industry.

“There was a lot going on,” Holmes recalls, smiling while looking out on his Laguna Beach back yard. He’s now 61 and lives with his wife in a simple, one-story white house, just up the hill from the water’s edge. His hair is slicked-back, white and wispy, and he’s got a matching patch on his chin. The title on his business card is Media and Marketing Consultant, but he has also written two books and been involved with a half-dozen others. Being the editor of the magazine in surfing lends a guy some credibility.

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