Steve Pezman is a California surfer/publisher who is the creator of The Surfer’s Journal. Pezman has brought surfing to the level of scholarship and merit and is often quoted in films and publications. We spoke with Pezman about his life and philosophy.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in 1941and I grew up in Los Angeles. My family lived in Los Feliz originally, and then later moved to Brentwood, above the city, in the Santa Monica mountain area. We eventually ended up in Long Beach in an area called Naples—a little community of canals. This introduced me to life at the ocean versus an annual trip to the beach every summer with the family.
I started off skin diving, in the mid 50s, in the Alamitos Bay area. Surfing was just starting to happen in ’56 or ’57. By 1957, I was beginning to surf at Ray Bay in Seal Beach and the Huntington Cliffs. The Huntington Pier beckoned but we were afraid to go there until we had “earned our bones”. Over the following years, I called the Seal Beach/Huntington zone home and began surfing Trestles in 1960, hit Mazatlan in 1961 and then Hawaii in ’62.
I lived on the North Shore when only a dozen or so surfers lived out there, so although that had been happening for five years, it still felt like we were pioneering. I rode Waimea, Sunset and Laniakea—had that foundational surfing experience. I ended up coming back, lifeguarding, doing other odd jobs, then shipping out as a civilian in the Merchant Marine (to Vietnam) in 1965 carrying a cargo of stale beer to the PX’s. When I came home, I was a partner in a silk screening business. Then we started the Good Earth Health Food Bar at George’s Surf Center in Huntington with some money I had inherited.
Later, I learned to shape surfboards. I shaped momentarily for several labels, including Weber, Hobie, and did longer stints with Vardeman and Chuck Dent. Next, a friend, Stu Herz , and I built an experimental shaping machine and started the first private label surfboard manufacturing business out of Goat Hill in Costa Mesa—making boards for shops in Texas and the East Coast. Later, we started our own label, Creative Designs Surfboards, first on P.C.H. in Newport Beach then smack-dab in Surf City, downtown Huntington, in ’68 and ‘69.
How did you get started in publishing?
Duke Boyd, who started Hang Ten, was also serving as managing editor at Petersen’s International Surfing magazine. He was helping publisher Dick Graham reposition his title as competition to Surfer. Duke was hip enough to merchandise the magazine around the Huntington Underground, which was flowing back and forth between there and the North Shore, at a time when Surfer was still a bit oblivious to what was going on. This was the latter 60s. He invited Stu and I to write surfboard articles and later brought me in as an assistant editor.
After Surfing folded six months later (the adverts stuck with Surfer), I went down to Surfer to see if I could freelance and they hired me as an inside editor. Six months later, I fell into the publisher’s job because John (Severson) had sold the magazine and was looking for someone to fill that chair. I stayed as publisher for about 20 years until 1992, when my wife Debbee (who had been marketing director at Surfer) and I left and started The Surfer’s Journal.
Tell us about your relationship to surfing.
Magazine-wise, I’ve been a student of the sport for over 40 years in the sense of observing it and thinking about it and writing about it, and being responsible for describing it to other surfers in an accurate way. When you pay attention to something for that long, you acquire a sense of its historical timeline and that gives you reference points with which to understand much more of it—to be able to examine it and have a relationship with it.
My life has been about articulating that relationship. I’ve been lucky to earn a living involved with something that I really care about deeply, which is better than welding bridges or something. (Laughs)
With The Surfer’s Journal, do you see yourself as the curator of the sport?
I am one of the curators. Fortunately, or unfortunately, when you print information, it has the tendency to be taken as the truth … and it seldom is the whole truth. That is a big responsibility—if you take it seriously—which I do. It’s also a rewarding creative process. It’s like being an art gallery owner who loves art and gets to install a new show every two months. Every issue is articulated through a matrix of hundreds of people who must join together just so to make this thing come out. It’s really a miracle that it gets done. You become the conductor of that ensemble and the results reflect the team. It’s like we put ourselves out there, standing naked before the world, and the readers give you thumbs up … or thumbs down. We get plenty of both.
Describe what surfing is for you.
At the time I was an accomplished surfer, I would ride maybe 25 to 35 waves or more in a go-out. At that time I was involved in the close-up detail of each ride. The longer I surfed and the older I got, the more basic it became; the relationship became simplified. I was satisfied with a less complicated ride and sought elegance versus busy action—trim versus lot of movement. You begin to see the bigger picture from a higher elevation. A deep takeoff with a pure, clean trim becomes very satisfying. At that point, the number of rides reduces. I would ride maybe three in a go-out instead of 35. However, the pleasure of the whole experience was just as large. It filled the same space that 35 rides had.
You begin to rise away from the detail clutter each year. I’m 68. I hate to think how many years I’ve been surfing. My god, it’s been over 50 years! As you start floating higher and higher above it, you view a broader swatch. You lose the little detail and see the big picture of it all. After a while, just sitting on your board in the lineup becomes joyous. You are immersed in the sensation and you appreciate the perspective it affords.
Tell us more.
There is something cosmic about surfing. Waves are nature’s mode of transferring energy from A to B. They occur in many forms: thought waves, heat waves, radio waves. Ocean waves happen to be something that we can see and then we actually learned to ride them, which in itself seems very improbable, so improbable that the surf culture was detached from the mainstream. Wave riding has always been an integral part of the Hawaiian culture, but in Western culture it was seen as such an anomaly, such an unusual sidebar, that it didn’t seem seriously worth doing.
When you go surfing amongst the many things you might do in a day, it makes the day feel good—somehow round and complete. That connection to the basic cosmic core of energy at the center of Life in the Universe somehow makes wave riding deeply satisfying. It is something that you can spend your time doing and it feels like a life well spent—a non-productive, non-depletive act that is purely aesthetic.
(Timothy) Leary was doing lectures at college campuses in the 70s that he called “Man, The Evolutionary Surfer”. Of course, that caught our attention at Surfer Magazine. We interviewed him and his point was that surfers weren’t the dregs of society. They were the throw-a-heads! Surfers understood that life was all about the aesthetic, not how many acorns you could store in a tree beyond what you needed to eat. Leary felt that the evolution of Man to his highest possible form would be towards a purely aesthetic state of being. Further, Leary believed that surfers were already traveling that path. Therefore, their role amongst mankind in general was to lead us (laughs) to a higher place (more laughter).
As spacey as that might seem to some folks, there is something within that idea that gives surfers a sense of justification about making time for surfing—and that being time well-spent. It’s all a rather verbose, bombastic statement, but I think there is something to it.
What can you tell us about the sensory aspects of surfing?
From a publishing standpoint, surfing itself is so sensory that when a surfer is familiar with the sensation of doing it, looking at a photograph will give him a percentage of that sensation by being mentally connected to it. It’s the basic foundation for the success of surf magazines—you’re providing pretty intense vicarious experiences to surfers who can relate to them.
I actually like myself as a surfer, and my sense of surfing aesthetic. However, I don’t like the way I am deteriorating because of old age. I can’t pop-up any more. (The common old-guy lament.) That destroys your choreography because it means you can’t take off where you want to; you take off where you have to (laughs).
It’s all about feeling trim across the green wall. That’s my dream image. Man yearns to fly. It’s the “Icarus Syndrome”. Surfing is as close to what I imagine swooping and gliding like a bird would be like. The wave is a liquid base. Everything about it is soft and fluid, so the ride itself is a fluid experience, a deeply gratifying flight. It touches something in your soul that makes you feel so good that when you glide out over the back of the wave after a ride, you are still flushed with the sensation, and you paddle out compelled to have another one … and another one … and another one.
The Surfer’s Journal, a publication by Steve Pezman can be found here.