Stab Magazine | "If You're Going To Shoot Me Then Shoot Me!"

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“If You’re Going To Shoot Me Then Shoot Me!”

Art Brewer recalls his time as Bunker Spreckels’ personal photographer. 

news // Oct 29, 2016
Words by Jake Howard
Reading Time: 8 minutes

“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,” recounts 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. 

“He came in on top of this guy, straddled him, and in mid air he’d pulled a knife out of his pocket and now had it at this guy’s throat. He goes, ‘Why don’t you bring some of your friends outside and we’ll talk about this?’ So the next day the headline in the paper reads ‘Surfer wields knife in Durban hotel.’ So some guys come looking for Bunker.”

The stepson of Clark Gabel and heir to the Spreckels sugar fortune, Bunker’s story is an exercise in eccentricity and opulence. By happenstance, 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 hearing it from the horse’s mouth, the following are highlights from a four-hour lunch conversation with Brewer: 

North Shore, Oahu
The whole thing started in 1969. That was when I met Bunker for the first time and shot a roll of film of him on and around the beach at Pipeline. He was 19 when I met him, and I was 18. I ended up not seeing him for a few years when he was off inheriting his money and we’d had a bit of 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 and into ’74. He came by a friend’s house and asked me if I wanted to surf and shoot a few photos. So we went and rode some waves at Rocky Rights. I shot a few photos. Didn’t see him for about a week or so, then he came back around. When I had the photos developed he asked to see them. Then he asked me if I’d ever wanted to go to Kauai. I said yeah, and he told me that he’d pay my way, feed me and we’d just go surf and fuck around. So I went and did that a few times with him. 

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London, England
Back on the North Shore there was a party at somebody’s house. He came up to me and asked what I was doing during the upcoming summer. It was winter 1974, and I was hoping to go to Puerto Escondido. 

Bunker asked me, “You ever thought of going to South Africa?” 

And I said, “Yeah, I always thought of it, but have never had the opportunity or the money.” 

And he goes, “How’d you like to go?” 

I said, “Yeah, of course.” 

We sort of dropped the subject and didn’t talk about it anymore. Then about three months later I got a phone call asking if I had a passport. I told him I did and he said, “Well, grab your passport and meet me in Town.” 

I asked him what for, and he said, “Just meet me at the PanAm office in Honolulu.” 

I met him and Ellie [Bunker’s girlfriend] in Honolulu at the PanAm office, we had to show our passports, and he bought three round-trip tickets to go to South Africa. We were routed through L.A. to London, then London to Durban. And on the way back we were set to go through Paris. We were hoping to go to Biarritz and then back to L.A. 

All he wanted me to do was to come along and take pictures. I built a special water housing for the trip that was kind of state-of-the-art at the time. And we stopped in L.A. and bought a bunch of used Super 8 equipment–because Bunker wanted to film everything. We stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and I met with his lawyer. We drew up a contract saying if I was fired he’d pay my way back, but if I quit I had to pay my own way back. And I wasn’t being paid, I was just going along to take pictures and at the end of it all I owned everything. There wasn’t anything specific about it, but I took it seriously. It was a funny little show and I thought, fuck, I have to document this. And so I took pictures of them in different situations, doing different things, interacting with different people. 

Landing in London, Bunker knew Steve Miller and his band were over there. Steve was a friend of his from L.A., and Pink Floyd was playing with him out in the countryside at this music festival. So we took a limo out there and visited with Steve as he was doing his sound check. The guys from Pink Floyd were hanging around. It was a good start to the trip, but also a good indication that things might get weird.

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Durban, South Africa
We were there for the Gunston 500 and Bunker surfed in it. There were parties and different events. Rory [Russell] got in some heat at one point. Some guy head butted him and Bunker stepped in. It was at this discotheque and what had happened was Rory had kissed this guy’s girlfriend, so the guy knocked Rory’s tooth loose and then came after Bunker. So 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. 

You 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, who trained and certified Ed Parker, who later trained Elvis Presley and all that. Bunker worked with Chow for probably two years, and Chow was this humble, little, kick ass Chinese guy out of the hotel street area in Honolulu. He trained Bunker to basically kill somebody if he had to. 

So Bunker grabbed Rory and drug him to the car. Finally everyone’s in the car and this mob is kicking the door panels in and Bunker’s just outraged. We’re speeding down the street and he pulled out his 32 and 25 calibre handguns and started 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.” There was a bunch of that kind of shit going on. It was a cartoon.

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Jeffreys Bay, South Africa
In July it was Bunker’s birthday, so we’re at the beach hotel, he sets it up and invites the whole town to his birthday party. There was food and all the drinks you could want. The guests started showing up, then he made his entrance. He’s wearing stretch, white, women’s bellbottom pants and a double breasted blue blazer with brass buttons, a turtleneck, with slicked back hair. He’s got on these German riding boots that came up to his knees, smoking cigarettes and he looked like a fucking U Boat commander. He’s high on ritalin, cane spirits and God knows what else. 

This local South African farmer started dancing with Ellie. She was laughing, having a good time and Bunker got pissed. He grabbed her and told her to go to her room. She resisted and he threw her across the room. She slammed into a plate glass window and it shattered. She didn’t get cut, and after that went up to the room. I snuck away from the group and checked on her. She locked the door and wouldn’t coming out. Then up came Bunker, he started slamming on the door, pretty much to the point where he’s going to break it down. Meanwhile, the farmer had gone around back to Ellie’s window and she escaped with him. He took her to what they thought was safety. 

Bunker ended up getting more fucked up and terrorising the town. He got in one of his Mercedes and drove around 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 proceeded to drive the van off the road. Everyone was alright, but Bunker totalled his Mercedes, so he went back and got his other Mercedes and went crazy in it. He basically ran the wheels off of it. He got three flat tires and did something to destroy the motor. I locked the door to my room and went to bed. 

In the morning I went down to have some breakfast, I sat there having tea, looked out at the ocean. The surf was no good. So as I’m sitting there looking out to sea. 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 emergd. He’s in the same clothes he went to the party in, but he’s tattered. He’s covered in mud, the jacket’s torn. It’s just like, what the fuck? He cames in and I didn’t say anything. He walked by me, looked down, and gave me this crazy grin.

 

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Kitchen Window’s, South Africa
I was over it. I told him I thought I needed to go down to Kitchen Window’s and stay with Peter Daniels. And he agreed that was cool, but he had these Australian guys with him and was giving them pitchers of beer. They were getting all fucked up while I was just there off to the side. He asked me to come and join them so I went over and sat down.

Bunker starts taking matches, lighting them and flicking them at me. By this point I’ve had it. 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 got there Bunker’s was there throwing all my gear out of the car. He took out my water housing, threw and it shattered it. 

I was pissed. I told him to cool out and he goes, “Fuck you!” 

Then he kicked a one-gallon glass bottle of developer with his German riding boots. So I grabbed these little eight-ounce jars I had in my kit for developing black and white photos, I must have had a dozen of them, and started pelting him with them. I hit him upside the head, all that kind of shit. Then he runs back to the car and goes for the glove compartment and pulls out the 25 caliber. 

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

Then Tony van den Heuvel tackled me just as a bullet flies over my head and ricochet’s off the wall of Peter’s house. That was it. He disappeared and I didn’t see him for a week. He eventually came back, apologised and told me it was a misunderstanding. 

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