Andy surfing in a way only Andy could. Photo: DJ Struntz
Andy Irons And The Death Of Rebellion
A reflection on the 3x champ and the current state of surf culture.
(Ed note: Andy Irons' birthday was yesterday, the 24th of July.)
I couldn’t sleep the night after I watched Kissed By God.
It had premiered near me, but I didn’t want to watch it like that.So I watched it at home, alone, sober, and it fucked me right up.
In 2002, when Andy Irons won his first World Title, I was a 12-year-old kid falling in love with surfing. I’d already surfed for most of my life — thanks Dad — and I don’t have a memory of starting. I just remember it being something that you do, something normal. However, around age 12, surfing transformed into an obsession. It became my life instead of occupying a small territory in the summertime haze of my youth.
Then came the DVDs and the every-last-word consumption of the magazines Dad was already subscribed to — then came the culture of surfing. All of the sudden, it had an attitude, a look, a feel and perhaps a meaning. Surfing became something much bigger than the simple act of riding waves.
The more I saw, the more I was drawn in. I eventually found the ...Lost Movies and it all looked so cool to me. The partying, the reckless behavior, the sex I assumed they were having when they were not tackling each other into garbage cans. There was something rebellious about it and I sensed an identity to be forged.
At that age, it’s not like you analyze the whole of humanity and cherry-pick traits from a variety of influences. When you’re young and passionate about something, you idolize people who do it well — simply because they show you what is possible. The wild side of the surfing lifestyle resonated with me back then and it’s impossible to draw the line of emulation at the water’s edge.
While I was falling in love with surfing, and that side of it, Andy was No. 1. The champion of the world and maybe the champion of a culture. I began to understand that Kelly was everything that was sporty and vanilla and Andy was everything that was neither. In the magazines, he appeared like a rock star. His face looked larger than life. His face still looks larger than life.
I don’t think I realized it then, but Andy’s surfing — his actual surfing — seemed to embody that rebellious energy I was drawn to. It had an element of fuck you in it.
Most — not all, but most — of the best surfers in the world today can’t go near the way Andy approached bigger waves. They look calculated, like they feel good in their bodies and trust them to do exactly what they’ve trained them to do in that specific circumstance. Impressive, but far from raw.
It takes a certain type of person to stare up at the lip of an 8-foot wave and think, I’m going to fuck you up. I didn’t really know who that person was until I watched Kissed By God.
Maybe you need demons to surf that way, maybe the demons fuel that approach. But understanding, for the first time, what was going on behind the scenes and seeing the torment an idol was enduring makes you think while it prohibits you from sleeping. Andy is a decade gone this year, and a lot has changed.
Vegan boat trips and surf yoga retreats. Puffy jackets and careful haircuts. Exercise bikes and swiss balls. Bad partnerships and even worse content. Coaches, wave pools, personal trainers, Not all of these things are new to surfing, but they seem more magnified now.
Less magnified is that rebellious spirit. After Andy died, it felt like professional surfers became athletes overnight.
Is all of this somehow bad?
I don’t think a 12-year-old falling in love with surfing right now would have degenerate notions carved into the putty of their skulls. Just because that attitude drew some of us in doesn’t mean modern surf culture has any responsibility to keep it alive. Without a doubt, that spirit has led me to some trouble in life. But it also shaped the way I perceive the world.
Rebellion isn’t about partying or drug use. It’s about embracing individuality, even if it’s not compatible with whatever system you’re meant to adhere to. To tune into that is to reject blind acceptance, to see things differently, to do things differently, and to express yourself even if it comes with a side of fuck you.
Andy, with all of his issues, in all of his glory, embodied that every time he stood up on a wave.
I wonder how modern surf culture would treat another Andy Irons. There is no stopping a World Champion from winning — but it’s easy to think that another Andy would be sent to expensive PR courses and taught societal robotics.
However, there’s typically a gap between something that is easy to believe and reality. Deep down, I think another Andy would be embraced, loved, hated, cherished, punished, avoided, worried about and praised all over again. There’s a gravity to that type of person, something that transcends their accomplishments on paper, something you can feel. And, with all due respect to everyone pursuing their best in surfing, I don’t think waking up at 5 AM to train every day and supplying all the right answers in interviews will ever be as compelling as individuality and rebellion.
That’s why we still talk so much about Andy. Why 10 years after his death and 16 years after his most recent world title, he’s still an important figure in the surfing of today.
Nobody attacks waves like him and nobody has that truly rebellious spirit. No matter what surf culture becomes, there will always be a draw to that. Maybe, someday, another one like Andy will come along — but until then we’ll be looking back at him feeling sad and inspired and most of all, in love with surfing.