Chas SmithNov 6, 2020
Cocaine and Surfing
A Sordid History of Surfing's Greatest Love Affair
Rare Bird Books 2019
Surfers are the ultimate bad boys, living the counter-culture life of decadence and hedonism as they travel the world in search of the perfect wave, partying hard along the way. So, it’s not surprising that these social misfits and dropouts created a sub-culture tied to drugs. While most might associate surfing Jeff Spicoli with smoking marijuana in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or hippies dropping acid in late 1960s Hawai’i, Chas Smith argues that cocaine and surfing are much more intertwined. Actually, it’s not so much surfing as the “surf industry”, the fashion industry’s big money marketing of the surfing lifestyle. In this exploration of the commodification of counter-culture, Chas Smith illustrates the lines from The Clash song: “They think it’s funny, turning rebellion into money”. But like a coke binge, the surf industry has come crashing down and once massive international corporations have gone bankrupt. More gonzo journalism than academic history, Cocaine + Surfing: A Sordid History of Surfing’s Greatest Love Affair (Rare Bird, 2018) is a wild thrill ride through several decades of surfing’s love affair with addiction.
Irreverent, cynical, and surprisingly erudite, Chas Smith tells us time and time again that he hates being a surf journalist and despise the surfing industry. “I was supposed to have waved goodbye to this shallow end of the swimming pool years ago. I was supposed to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning war reporter by now, spilling valuable words on the plight of Syrian refugees while dodging bullets. Or maybe in the White House briefing room being shouted down by the press secretary for speaking truth to power. Or front row at the Fendi show in Paris, across from Anna Wintour … anywhere but here.” But there he is. Bopping about Southern California’s heart of the surfing industry. Driving from surf industry event to surf industry event, surrounded by increasingly desperate surf industry figures grinding their jaws and trying to get into the bathroom to snort a few lines. All the while, he sardonically observes the surfing industry’s free fall as he gulps down yet another vodka cocktail. Doing his best to find meaning in perhaps the shallowest subculture we could imagine. He is a detached and disgusted observer of the surf industry’s apocalypse who delivers his dispatches in insightful and often hilarious prose. Even if you don't know which side on the surfboard to wax, you’ll find it hard not to be drawn into Chas Smith’s history of surfing.
Michael G. Vann is a professor of world history at California State University, Sacramento. A specialist in imperialism and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, he is the author of The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empires, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford, 2018). When he’s not quietly reading or happily talking about new books with smart people, Mike can be found surfing in Santa Cruz, California.