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Some New Notes In The Bunker Spreckels Song

“I was right there in the bar, right in the middle of a knife fight – well, it would have been a knife fight if the other guy had a knife,” begins Art Brewer.

Sitting in his studio in Dana Point, Art offers up the “condensed version” of his year on the road with the late Bunker Spreckels in 1973/74. The stepson of Clark Gable and heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, Bunker’s story is eccentric and opulent, and Brewer was the photographer tasked with documenting it all. The soon to be released film Bunker 77 captures the story in vivid detail, but because there’s nothing quite like first hard recollection, what follows are highlights from a four-hour lunch conversation with Brewer…

North Shore, Oahu.

The whole thing started in 1969, when I met Bunker for the first time and shot a roll of film of him on the beach at Pipeline. He was 19, I was 18. But I ended up not seeing him for a few years when he was off inheriting his money, after we’d had a falling out. Bunker was taking a lot of psychedelics at the time and he had a problem with one of the images I’d taken of him. He said he could see the devil on one side of his face and God on the other because there was a shadow across his face. Popular Photography wanted to run it as a cover but couldn’t, because I couldn’t get a model release from him, because he was so freaked out. I told him to go fuck himself and didn’t see him for about three years. I ran into him again at the end of ’73 on the North Shore. He came up to me at a house party and asked me if I’d ever wanted to go to South Africa. I said, “Of course.”

Three months later I get a phone call from him. He said, “Grab your passport and meet me at the PanAm office in Honolulu.”

I met him and Ellie (Bunker’s girlfriend) at the PanAm office, we had to show our passports, and he bought three round-trip tickets to go to South Africa.

All he wanted me to do was to come along and take pictures. I thought, fuck, I have to document this.

*

Durban, South Africa.

We were there for the Gunston 500. There’s parties and events. At one point, Rory (Russell) gets in some heat at this discotheque. Rory had kissed this guy’s girlfriend, so the guy head-butted Rory, knocked his tooth loose and Bunker stepped in. It escalates and Bunker gets into it with, I don’t know, eight people out in front of this discotheque, and he’s just fucking flailing. Hitting, kicking, chopping, you know, just going nuts.

See, Bunker had been trained by Professor Chow back in Hawaii after an incident. People knew Bunker had money, but some people also thought he had drugs on him, and one night they blocked off the road into Haena, ran him off the side of the road and beat the fuck out of him. After that he went and trained with Professor Chow for two years. Chow was this humble, little, kick ass Chinese guy. He trained Bunker how to basically kill somebody if he had to. 

So Bunker grabs Rory and drags him to the car. This mob is kicking the door panels in and Bunker’s just outraged. We’re speeding down the street and he pulls out his 32 and 25 calibre handguns and starts shooting out all the stoplights in Durban. He was pissed off, not only because of Rory, but Eddie Aikau, Reno Abellira and Dennis Pang were being treated really badly because of the colour of their skin. He’d tried to get them into the dining room of the restaurant and they wouldn’t let them in because they were “coloured.”

*

Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa.

In July it was Bunker’s birthday, so he sets up the beach hotel and invites the whole town to his party. There’s food and all the drinks you could want. He’s got music. Guests start showing up and then he makes his entrance. He’s wearing stretch, white, women’s bellbottom pants with a double breasted blue blazer with brass buttons, a turtleneck, and his hair’s slicked back. He’s got on these German riding boots that came up to his knees, smoking cigarettes and he looks like he’s a fucking U Boat commander. He’s on Ritalin, cane spirits and God knows what else.

The party proceeds when this local South African farmer starts dancing with Ellie. She’s laughing, having a good time and Bunker gets pissed. He grabs her and tells her to go to her room. She resists and he throws her across the room. She slams into a plate glass window and it shatters. She doesn’t get cut, but she went up to her room after that. I kind of snuck away to regroup and went and checked on her. She’d locked the door and wasn’t coming out. Then up comes Bunker and he starts slamming on the door, almost breaking it down. Meanwhile, the farmer had gone around back to Ellie’s window and she escaped with him.

Bunker ends up getting more fucked up and terrorising the town. He gets in one of the Mercedes looking for Ellie. There was this California surfer from Santa Barbara there, Robbie Robinson I believe, and he was driving his van with his girlfriend. Bunker thought she was Ellie so he proceeds to drive the van off the road. Everyone was alright, but Bunker totalled his Mercedes, so he goes back and gets the other one. He got three flat tires and destroyed the motor. I locked the door to my room and went to bed.

In the morning I went down to have breakfast, and I’m sitting there having some tea, looking out at the ocean. Not too far out in front of me is this wall that drops down to an empty lot, and all of a sudden I see this hand reach up over the top of the wall. Then another hand. Then Bunker slowly emerges. He’s in the same party clothes, but he’s just tattered. He’s covered in mud, the jacket’s torn. I don’t say anything. He sort of walks by me, looks down, and gives me this crazy grin.

*

Kitchen Windows, South Africa.

I was over it. I told him I really needed to go down to Kitchen Windows and stay with Peter Daniels. And he agreed that was cool, but he’s got these Australian guys with him and is giving them pitchers of beer, getting all fucked up.

Bunker starts lighting matches and flicking them at me. By this point I’ve had it and things get more intense. He lights a whole pack and throws it at me. So I picked up a pitcher of beer and doused him. I’d had enough.

I’d already put all of my stuff in the car to move and went back to my room to get one more thing. When I came back he was gone. So I bummed a ride down to Peter Daniels’ place and when I get there Bunker’s already there pulling all of my gear out of his car. He’s just throwing it. He takes a water housing, throws it and it shatters.

I’m pissed. I tell him to cool out and he’s going, “Fuck you!” 

Then he kicks a one-gallon glass bottle of developer with his German riding boots. So I grabbed these little eight-ounce jars I had for developing black and white photos, and started pelting him with them. I hit him upside the head. Then he runs back to the car and goes for the glove compartment and pulls out the 25 calibre.

So I say, “Go ahead and shoot me you motherfucker. If you’re going to shoot me then shoot me. Fuck you, you fucking prick!”

Tony van den Heuvel tackles me just as a bullet flies over my head. That was it. He disappeared and I didn’t see him for a week. He eventually comes back, apologises, tells me it’s a misunderstanding, sort of courts me and convinces me to come back.

*

Los Angeles, California.

We fly into LA and get into customs. I separate from them because I knew that they had shit in their bags. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew they were holding. He had leopard skins and got flagged. He does his dance and we finally got out. The Playboy limousine service is there waiting for us. And they took us to the Beverly Hills Hotel and I see these guys that I knew. They’d owned Dick Brewer Surfboards in Honolulu – fucking creeps, heroin users. So we go up to Bunker’s suite with these guys – there’s probably five of them and some weird chick from the valley doing a weird French impression. They sat down at a table in the suite, put a bag on the table, and the bag had a pound of China white in it. I go, “Uh, I’m leaving.” I picked up my bags and walked out. The guy from the Playboy limousine service gave me a ride back home to Laguna. I divorced myself from the scene after that, I was finally somewhere that I could run.

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