INTERVIEW BY STEVE OLSON
INTRODUCTION BY STEVE OLSON
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE FLETCHER FAMILY ARCHIVES
The Thrill is Back… For some, it never really left… Left-right, doesn’t matter. What matters is what matters. Herb… Been there, done that, seems to be what Herb could say about the things he’s been through or seen or done… From chargin’ Pipe back in the ’60s to jet skiing close-out Waimea Bay… Or carving an empty swimming pool in ’63… Raising a family, two sick ass kids, a wife that’s just outrageous, art, videos, inventing, riding, doing what most never would or could… That’s what makes this Cat an original… Unlike any other, he is a true original… Take it away, Herbie.“STYLE WAS EVERYTHING. STYLE WAS THE SOUL. IF YOU HAD NO STYLE, YOU HAD NO SOUL.”
Is Herbie there?
It’s me, Steve. What’s up?
So, you want to do an article?
I want to do a movie on you, but I’m not Schnabel.
Where’s the money coming from?
Don’t worry about that. Do you have time to do an interview?
What do you want to talk about?
I want to talk about you and your whole life. The same interviews that I always do…
I don’t know about your interviews.
That’s okay. We’ll soon find out if they turn out good or not.
Okay, where do you want to start?
I want to start with where you were raised.
I grew up in Huntington Beach. It was a pretty tough town, but it was pretty awesome because there was always surf. There were always the best surfers coming through town. They had the contests where you’d get to see all the Hawaiians and all the good surfers in California come down and surf. There was a whole scene going on at the beach.
What year was this?
This was about ’61 or ’62?
Is this orange helmet era?
That happened in ’65. This is pre-helmet.
Did any of the Australians roll over like Nat or anyone?
No, I don’t even think Midget was there. Nat was not a factor yet.
How old were you then?
I was thirteen. I was surfing in the seventeen and under division. Then I got to surf with the Huntington Beach boys.
Who were some of the guys you were surfing against?
In H.B., there was Robert Coogan, Bob Leonardo and John Boozer. They were all good surfers. They were all rivals.
Let’s go even further back. When did you start surfing?
In ’57, at low tide at T-Street, I remember seeing these kids out surfing. They’d lose their surfboards because they didn’t have leashes and the boards were all big. I’d go grab them, paddle around and try to surf a little inside soup. I was only 9 years old. Then I got a paper route, and I bought my first surfboard at age 10. It was a balsa wood Velzy-Jacobs.
This is pre-wetsuits, too, right?
Yeah. They had dive suits, but none of the surfers thought they were cool enough to wear.
Fashion was considered even then?
Yeah, we all wore big fur coats to stay warm after we got out of the water. I had a big fur coat. Then there were all of the ho-dads and greasers from Long Beach.
Did you surf against the Long Beach Surf Club?
That started happening in ’63 or ’64. The older guys were in it. I was still a young kid, so I wasn’t in it. By the time I was 14, I got put in the Bay Cities Surf Club. There were a bunch of young guys in that. We were rivaling the older guys, but we were young and we were just coming on. We were rivals with Windansea, Long Beach and the Malibu Surfing Association. Malibu wasn’t a threat.
Malibu was no threat?
Malibu was not a threat at all. The threat was Long Beach or Windansea.
Who was your main threat?
David Nuuhiwa was always number one. Everyone always tried to get away from David. He was hot. As the years went on, he was always number one and I was always number two. Nobody could beat David.
He was untouchable?
Yeah, he had so much style and so much grace. He was fast, and slinky like a snake. He didn’t go to school, so he’d go surfing all the time.
When did you make your first trip to the Islands?
My first trip to Hawaii was in 1965. That was 39 years ago. How old are you?
Me? I’m 43.
When you were five, I was surfing Pipeline. It had only been surfed for three or four years, at the most, before I got there. I was on a Phil Edwards board the first time I surfed Pipeline. Phil Edwards was like my mentor.
How gnarly was it your first time out at Pipe?
Well, I grew up in Huntington. When the swells get really big at the Pier, it gets gnarly. Paddling out at Pipeline, it was like 6-8 foot. It was pretty gnarly. I did not want to get hit by a giant set. I was on a 9′ 6″ Phil Edwards pine fin. It’s a speed board made for California waves. Dropping in, I just ate shit. I wasn’t ready for the drop. But that got me used to it. I paddled back out and the next wave, I got so tubed. I’ve got pictures of it. It was insane.
What about that picture of you skating that pool in ’63?
Well, on the Huntington Pier, there was a skating rink. My best friend Bob Leonardo and I went down there and bought some skates. We cut them in half and put them on our custom-made skateboards, so we had clay wheels. Huntington Beach was full of sidewalks, so I’d skate to the beach every day. Anyway, we found this pool in Stanton. It was a burned down ranch, and they had a pool. It was called The Pool. David Nuuhiwa, Jackie Baxter and I went up there to skate it. Those guys didn’t skate much, but I was totally into it. It was sort of like surfing. We skated hills in Laguna and San Clemente, when they were building new streets. We’d skate hills after we’d go surfing.
Did you use skateboarding as cross-training for surfing?
No, we just skated for fun. It was just another thing to do besides surfing. You had your skateboard and your surfboard. I’d hitchhike surfing a lot. I’d get a ride wherever I could. I’d come down South because it would blow out in Huntington midday. We’d go surf Trestles or Doheny, then we’d skate Laguna on the way home.
How crowded were the waves then?
It wasn’t too bad. I was just a little kid, but I hung out with all the heavyweights. I always lived at Huntington Pier. I was just a local.
Was there full localism then?
Yeah, pretty much. If you didn’t live there, you didn’t surf there.
They were pretty hardcore about that?
Well, yeah. There were a lot of ho-dads that surfed there from Long Beach. It was a hard town. There were a lot of oil wells, so you’d get all those kids down there. It was tough to hang out in Huntington. Most people went to the bluffs, but they didn’t come to the Pier.
They’d surf the cliffs, but not the pier?
Yeah, it was usually crowded with local talent.
Who were some of the heavyweights that you surfed with then?
They were the derelicts. Well, not the derelicts, but they were the tougher guys. They were older. They hung out in bars. Huntington Beach had a lot of bars, up the Pacific Coast Highway and on Main Street. There was the Buzz Inn, which was a little coffee house. Everyone would hang out there in the morning and check the waves. Jack Haley would come down. He was more like a cop from Seal Beach. Nobody is going to know the names of the hardcore guys, because they just didn’t go far. They were done right then. They came in tough guys and got put in jail and stuff.
Was this before Huntington Beach was ‘Surf City USA’?
Well, nobody thought of it as ‘Surf City USA’. We just went surfing. All of the big names from California came to Huntington because there was consistent surf. All the Hawaiians traveled through like Barry Kanaiaupuni, Tiger Aspere and guys that went off the air like savages. Then there was Dynomite. Ilima Kalama would come up from Newport. He was just insane. People from around Seal Beach, like Danny Lenahan and Bill Fury, came down. Bill Fury was really good. David Nuuhiwa was good, of course. There was Corky Carroll who lived up in Sunset. Robert August, Skip Frye and Mike Hynson would come along. I could go on and on down the chain, but the tough guys weren’t the good surfers, usually.
They were just the enforcers?
Yeah, they would just hang out.
Were there bikers, low riders, surfers and jocks?
Well, there weren’t jocks. There may have been a couple. They were older guys like coaches and stuff. They’d come down on their Harleys or their lowered Chevys and hang out. A lot of the street guys from Santa Ana would come down. They ended up turning on and being flower children.
Rock n roll was happening when you first started surfing, right?
Oh, yeah. The guys I hung out with were into jazz. There was a nightclub across the street from the pier called The Golden Bear. Paul Butterfield and Janis Joplin would come by. Then they started another place next door called the Salty Cellar. It was more pop music. The Seeds and people like that would come by. It was always jamming at the beach in Huntington. They had surf shops, liquor stores and bars.
What happened after the early ’60s?
I moved to Hawaii in ’66. Huntington was chaos. I didn’t want to be with all those idiots and everything that was going on there. In Hawaii, there was nothing going on but surf. I couldn’t even find anyone to surf with in Hawaii.
Were drugs happening then?
Oh, yeah, pot and LSD.
LSD was just coming on the scene?
LSD was still legal in ’63 and ’64.
Would you trip and go surf? You don’t have to say you did, but were guys tripping surfing?
Yeah. You’d take it at 2AM in the morning, watch the sunrise and then go surfing. That was a whole different form of surfing. That’s when things started changing heavily. At first, it was more of a soul session. Then it became more of a science.
When did the foam boards come into the scene?
Foam boards came in during the ’50s. For a starter board, it was ’58. They were still making balsa wood boards. Foam was just starting to happen. Hobie made foam boards, but it was a big deal to have a foam board. I didn’t have the money to buy a foam board. My family wasn’t rich or anything.
How much was a foam board then?
It was probably around $100.
That’s a lot of cash back then.
Yeah, it was a lot of cash for a board with just a stringer and no color. If you started adding stringers, it was more money. Minimum wage was 50 cents at the time. A hundred bucks was a lot of money. That’s 200 hours of work.
Tell me about the revolution of going from longer boards to the shorter v-bottoms.
Going to Hawaii, we were still riding Phil Edwards boards. Mike Hynson came on the scene. He was really progressing. Then Dick Brewer came on the scene. Before that, the rails were just round. Phil Edwards was doing turns, so he came up with rails on his board. It was a newer outline. He’d been to Hawaii and experienced a lot of things. We started to move in that direction – soul surfing – we called it. It was a different frame of mind. We started putting edges on our surfboards. Then the noses started changing and getting pulled in because we were turning more. We started arching more into our turns. This whole soul movement came on. We were going surfing all of these different places. We were so anti-establishment. We wouldn’t talk to the manufacturers, the magazines, the photographers or any of that. We just started creating surfboards. When the World Contest came, Nat Young had a shorter board. He came off a 10′ 4″ to a 9′ 2″. That was a foot drop for him. That changed what everyone was doing. We started making shorter boards and trying to the same thing. We were all into soul surfing. It was a different world, turning. It was a different type of soul with more arches in the tube. We started surfing Backdoor. Then we started making mini guns. None of those guys like Hobie, Gordon and Smith, Jacobs, Bing and Dewey went to the beach anymore.
They were just in the factory?
They just didn’t go to the beach. They lost all contact with what was going on down there. It was our generation, the kids. We started making mini guns at Backdoor. People in California started making fishes. They tried to bring them to Hawaii, and we just laughed at them. The Aussies had the v-bottom. They were doing their thing down in Australia, but it was all going on at Backdoor. There were no photos. There were only a handful of us there. It was Hynson, Gary Chapman, BK, Hackman, Tiger Aspere, BuckWheat, Nixon and I.
Why were you anti-establishment then?
We were anti-establishment, because we were taking LSD. We were shunning the social and cultivating the elemental. It was hard to communicate with the straight people.