Memories of a surfing legend
Michael Peterson in ‘Morning of the Earth’, February 1971. © Albert Falzon
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There are good and bad surf shops. Cluttered piles of major-label beachwear, too-loud rock muzak and indifferent staff mark the latter; the good ones you feel as you enter. The retail space is smaller, and yet despite the limitations a veritable museum will be carefully displayed of everything that surfing was and is to the present day. Gleaming nine-foot-plus Malibu boards at $1500 a pop stand like sentinels at the door, while a waterlogged holiday surfer walks in to return a rented board. If you’re lucky, some early-’70s Santana will be wafting from a large pair of woolly-sounding speakers that are also from the early ’70s. DVDs and surfing magazines will be arranged on the counter with a plethora of other surfing-related art and merchandise, and invariably somewhere amid all of this there shall sit a copy of Morning of the Earth, the Citizen Kane of Australian surf movies: for if a surf shop is worth its sea salt, especially one located in Queensland or northern New South Wales, it will be one other thing – a shrine to Michael Peterson.
Underground Surf, located in Noosaville, is just such a place. Andre, the owner, indicated a signed poster of ‘the man’ high above his head. I’d already picked up the vibe after noticing that five copies of Sean Doherty’s excellent Peterson biography, MP, constituted the shop’s book section. What was new, however, were pairs of the surfer’s iconic red board-shorts, as seen in photos and film from his surfing prime. Andre informed me that the company making them had ceased production and that the few items on the racks were the last he had in stock. I had to have a pair even if they didn’t fit – and they didn’t, the largest size being a 34 to my 36. An hour later I was floating on my back in the emerald-green waters of Tea Tree Bay – a place where Peterson had surfed – the board shorts expanding a little in the water as I communed with a boyhood hero of mine, the most charismatic surfer of his generation, who died earlier this year at the age of 59.
Michael Peterson, commonly known as ‘MP’, was born in Brisbane and grew up on the Gold Coast; not amid the burgeoning high-rise and glitz of Surfers Paradise, but at the funkier, poorer end of the coast near the New South Wales border. Here was a jutting headland of wave-grabbing beaches – Kirra, Greenmount, Snapper Rocks, Duranbah – that provided Peterson with a ringside seat to the evolution of boardriding until his own immersion in the sport during the mid ’60s. He was a working-class kid, so surfboards were scrounged, borrowed and ‘borrowed’ from those he didn’t know. His mother, Joan, bought him his first new board in 1968, and he had already won junior surfing titles and was competing in senior events when the filmmaker Alby Falzon pulled into Kirra with a movie camera in February 1971.
Falzon had co-founded Tracks, a recently established monthly magazine that chronicled the exploding surfing world and the influences affecting the scene. So, amid the smudgy black-and-white photos of Nat Young, Wayne Lynch and Midget Farrelly riding six-foot breaks off obscure coastal towns, there was reportage encoded with an environmental awareness and a touch of politics, as well as music reviews – the whole shebang imbued with heavy counter-cultural overtones that informed those lucky enough to live on the coast, and those daydreaming weekend surfers stuck in the city. Peterson was relatively unknown when Falzon filmed him blitzing good-sized Kirra swells, though he would appear in the seventh issue of Tracks soon after.
There are three minutes of Peterson in Morning of the Earth – sufficient time to make him a star. And from this sequence Falzon extracted a still frame to be used in the artwork of the film’s gold record–selling soundtrack and in the promotion of the movie. It is the most famous image in Australian surfing, one of the great captured moments of Australian sport, and potent enough 39 years later to grace the front cover of Tracks’ 40th-anniversary issue. In the ‘photo’ Peterson is executing a cutback – having gained momentum from the wave he is turning to re-enter the rushing wall of breaking water on his left, where he will once again swerve to be spat out for another manoeuvre. This, though, is a very radical cutback, executed not long after surfing shifted from twinkle-toed blond gods walking up and down Malibus to younger wild-haired men arching and curving on shorter boards. It’s the start of modern surfing; the 19-year-old Peterson is at the forefront of what can be done on a surfboard (another contemporary surf film title, The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun, suggesting the possibilities) and this catches him in full flight.
Then there’s Peterson himself. Pigeon-chested, arms wide, his long bandy legs of steel planted in perfect balance to give his surfing poise and attack. The hair is like fire. The image screams freedom – and it’s the no-bullshit brand of the early ’70s. Linked to this, and catching the eye, is the board’s shark-like fin inches from breaking the water’s surface. Peterson is pushing hard here, and the eerie presence of a part of the board built to sit perpendicular under the water, and not be jammed sideways at the end of a remarkable arc of sea spray, is what ultimately instils the photo with its power. It certainly impressed other surfers; a hall full of them turned up at Peterson’s alma mater, Miami High School, for the film’s Gold Coast opening in January 1972. Joan drove Michael to the premiere. He didn’t go in. He couldn’t.
Three times in Doherty’s biography, when reaching for comparisons to explain Peterson’s genius and erratic temperament, he invokes the pianist David Helfgott and the prize-winning mathematician John Nash. Both were schizophrenic, and so was Peterson. His diagnosis didn’t come until 1983, and for ten years he fought and was flayed by a little-understood condition in the glare of public acclaim and attention. Mental illness, though, was not the only thing in the mix: a heavy drug intake, endemic in surfing circles at the time, also played into the Peterson mood, as did a knockabout upbringing as the eldest of four children raised by a single mum. With schizophrenia not usually flaring till the mid 20s, the Peterson legend was already in place when his behaviour began to become stranger. By then the surfing world had split into those who wanted the sport to become a media-friendly, sponsored concern, and those who didn’t, or didn’t care. Peterson was never going to be the poster boy for the new professionalism, and as surf accessories and boardriding quickly grew into a billion-dollar business, there were those who remembered freer times and a wilful champion who answered to no one. For if the cutback is the greatest image in surfing, the biggest myth is that of Michael Peterson.
He was different, possessing an intensity of focus and an almost animal-like sense of territory and cunning that allowed him to win surfing competitions and hassle the best waves. On land these qualities helped bequeath him the role of enigmatic loner. In surfing communities, and the emerging world of surfing contests – both amateur and professional – tales of Peterson were exchanged with the same frequency as ‘secret’ surfing locations and second-hand boards. He would arrive unnoticed at contests and paddle out away from the other competitors. His acceptance speeches were rarely longer than a sentence, “Yeah, I deserve this” being one. He didn’t drink alcohol, and breakfasted on muesli, soy milk, dried fruit, nuts and an organic fruit smoothie, to the soundtrack of Deep Purple in Rock. Then he’d smoke a joint. His most famed utterance is from a 1976 interview with the esteemed surfing journo Phil Jarratt: “I could say, but I won’t say.” The surfing, you could say, did the talking: three times winner of the Bells Beach Pro Classic (1973–75) and a cluster of other tournaments.
His last major win would be the 1977 Stubbies at Burleigh Heads, and six years later he was finished with surfing. It was on 9 August 1983 that an event known in Peterson lore as ‘the chase’ occurred: a high-speed police pursuit ending with Peterson being arrested for dangerous driving at a blockade on Brisbane’s Story Bridge. The long-postponed diagnosis of schizophrenia came in Boggo Road Jail. On release he was a changed man; his demons calmed by medication, the temptations of drugs, women and surfing withheld in the regimented confines of prison – a system of survival Peterson was happy to submit to and follow for the rest of his life in hospitals, hostels and at home in Coolangatta with his mother and family.
Meanwhile, the days when hippie filmmakers rolled into town to turn surfers into heroes were gone. Gone, too, were fibro beach shacks anywhere near a Gold Coast beach. Gone and not forgotten was Michael Peterson. In his later years a series of rapprochements took place – with his past, and his supporters and peers, who often struggled to recognise the corpulent, balding man in the cap as the lithe, wired, wave-smoking animal of yore.