By Mike Perry
Photos by John Kiewit
At the Hotel California, I was the New Kid In Town living Life In The Fast Lane making sure that there was no Wasted Time. A hopeless Victim Of Love with all those Pretty Maids In A Row... but I'd try and try and Try And Love Again. One day, many years later, I would realize that this place was not just a Point Breaker even a place on the map. Malibu was indeed... The Last Resort.
The list of the songs within the Eagles hit 1976 album Hotel California reads pretty well as the story of many people's experiences in Malibu in the 1970s. It was the time that Malibu finally, slowly and effortlessly yielded up her soul. Succumbing to The Great Progress, she was stitched up with concrete, poisoned with effluent, and slowly lay down her beautiful form under the weight of 20th century sin and spatter paint. The Malibu died an unnatural death, but it took a decade to crush her spirit. The ants who dwelt within the close confines of her few miles of coastline labored day and night to keep busy, keep high, keep on keeping on. When is life a style? When is style a life? Rest in peace fair Malibu, for having killed you once they cannot do it again. All that they can now do is gild the carcass and put up the parking lots.
Malibu in the 70s was an understanding. No one lived there who didn't get the jokes or the horror stories. You didn't notice the actors unless they noticed you. The Sheriffs and the CHPs (Two types of cops for a city the size of the North Shore?) were very efficient and no black man ever drove through Malibu without getting pulled over at least once. Everything, and I mean everything East of Topanga or inland of the PCH was 'Town' and one did not go into Town unless one absolutely had to.
Some, of course, always had to. So, while the maids from El Salvador and the gardeners from Michoacán walked the solemn hallways of their mogul master's estates, enjoying the sunrises and the sunsets in laborious silence; their bosses screamed their way to a quadruple bypass, fighting to support their 'Malibu Lifestyles' from deep within the bowels of 'Town.'
After '69 and the war and the acid and the... oh shit, just everything that came with that decade, the '70s were seemingly quiet. Peace and love for your brother became 'peace for me' and 'love as many as you can.' The city of Los Angeles was in the middle stages of fermentation and Malibu was, to most, a quiet suburb out North where some movie stars lived. It was in fact the last line of nature on the edge of the surreal time bomb that was becoming L.A.
Mountain lions still survived in the remoter areas, and some of the older residents up Encinal and Decker Canyons still shot deer for food and burned wood for their winter's warmth. And though Porsches ('Malibu Volkswagens') were common, you could still see unknown old movie stars hanging up, but not out, at the Malibu Inn for breakfast; same as they had since the forties. No one sensed that it wasn't really Mickey who was 'the next candidate for crucifixion.' It was the stage upon which he'd danced his finest tangos, Malibu herself. It was a time of colossal, if slippery change, and the 'Bu' reflected and concentrated the juices. As surely as there is a beginning there is always an end. The 1970s marked the clinical end of the old way of life in the Malibu.
Two types of people have always surfed Malibu: The Residents and The Rest Of The World.
For The Rest Of The World, Malibu was a good, solid point break famous for opening the doors of the plague of surfing popularity. Sandra Dee and Annette were only connected to Crazy Kate by a thin strand of DNA and X chromosomes, but the connection was tenacious and Malibu got used, and used hard for her fruitful First Point. Straight over the Santa Monica Mountains through Malibu Canyon, Topanga Canyon and later, Dume Kanan Road, the 'Valleys' poured into the one surf spot, augmented by a never ending river of shorter, brighter surfboards traveling up from town on the main vein, the Pacific Coast Highway.
Many surfers from town were good. Very good. Glen, Allan, Willy and Nathan to name a few. And some were so regular that they were nearly local. Nearly. But when the sun went down, when the disasters struck and when the winter's full moon swells arrived, they weren't there. That special experience was reserved for the ones who gave up as much as they got from the place, just to live there. Most Malibu surfers of the '70s simply wouldn't live anywhere else. It was a complete little satellite with all the things you'd ever need. You could breathe the air and speak the language as well. You might have had to live by your wits or off of someone else's, but if you could make a buck, you were already home. Funny. I can't remember anyone ever living on welfare in Malibu; although more than a few probably could have qualified.
Malibu may have been used by the surfers, but she had her way with them too. Malibu surfers had a look. They developed a style and a manner that was classy, yet casual. They had the best of the longboard era's cool neatly married together with the crushing charge of the new age of aggression. What essence of style had Lance dropped on those sands? What powerful spirits had Mickey left behind with his last flyaway kickout? Some of Nat's power was there also; a legacy of the great swells of '67 and '69. Those influences and in fact all influences stained forever the surfing of Malibu. A melting pot always retains some traces after each meltdown.
As for the Residents; The three best Surfers in Malibu in the '70s came from Topanga Beach. Dave Hilton, Jay Riddle and George Trafton, in that order. They might not agree, but it's my call and I'll wear the heat. (Apologies to Mike Stevenson, you are a legend.)
Davey Boy was taught by Rabbit Kekai, and it gleamed through his style like a beacon. Fearless and contemptuous in a crisis, Davey's whole aura was an equal match for the sea. Dave was every bit the California equivalent of Gerry Lopez. He was an intense and private individual with a craving for perfect waves. He had no need for publicity though, and like his close friend George Trafton, he remained a near mystery to the general population. Apart from some rare footage in Cosmic Children and a brief photo or two at Secrets and Hollywood By The Sea, Dave's powerful performances were on show only to those who were at the right places at the right times, the same as he. Knowing how to be at just the right place at just the right time was only the beginning of Davey's immense repertoire of surf skills. By comparison, the rest of the surfing world hardly knew the time of day.
Jay Riddle was an athlete and a very great talent. A matador with a natural gift. The Riddler always had an inside line going and only he knew where it was headed. Smooth, powerful and acutely aware of style, Jay could ride anything in any condition. Big-shot surfers from near and far shuddered to think of their fate if he'd chosen to compete overseas. An undercurrent; Hilton and Riddle enjoyed a quiet rivalry for years. It was the kind of simmering battle that would do honor to any two athletes, but to outsiders, you'd never know it was going on. Dave and Jay never acknowledged their pushing of each other, but it was there all right. Greatest of friends, but their seething drive to outdo each other in the water levered their abilities to radical, even extreme heights.
George Trafton spent his winters parked at Rights and Lefts... ALL winter, every year. He rusted two brand new Chevy 4X4's to death there. On the inside of the back cover of the Hollister Ranch sales brochure, there's a shot of three people on horseback riding along the 'virtual paradise' that is the foreshore of the Hollister Ranch at minus low tide. Look carefully down the beach and there's George's first Chevy. He's sitting beside it alone, in a beach chair, soaking rays after a long morning's session. Two O'Neill super suits lay across the hood. One warming (for the incoming tide push) and one drying out.
'The Mole' as his friends sometimes called him was a happy guy with a ferocious appetite for fun. The most fun he knew of was surfing, and so he specialized. George probably holds the record for the highest number of perfect waves ridden in California. It would still be a record today. No one's surfed more perfect waves alone at the Ranch and that's for sure. At home in the 'Bu', G.T. had that arrogant, but graceful style that defined the Malibu surfer. His natural ability and his extreme wave knowledge allowed him to make the unmakeable. And tubes? Tunnels are a mole's domain. Hot beyond compare, cool to the acclaim, George was the third member of a very exclusive triumvirate. Hilton, Riddle and Trafton. I'm sorry, but if there were any three better guys around the place at the time, they must have been night surfing. I didn't see them.
With Lance and Mickey off the boil, The Pit bulldozed and the inmates running the asylum, the other local talent faded into the wallpaper. They surfed Dume (not with an accent grave over the 'e' as in a real estate agent's bastardization to de-toxify a place-name that sounded to the potential buyer's wives like 'DOOM!') and they surfed Trancas and they surfed Zuma and they surfed Zero. They discovered new spots, guarded old secrets and they surfed really fucking well. There was so much talent in the Malibu area it would take two pages to list just the hottest guys, and girls.
While the locals were talented, they were also very wary. Crowds killed the fun, and for kids who grew up in a semi-wilderness, the transition to city-styled surfing was unsettling to the core. Their core. They couldn't, wouldn't adapt, so they died or they left. Drugs swiftly filtered out from 'Town' and more than a few kids were swallowed by what they were swallowing. Others looked around and just didn't have the prior experience to enable them to cope. As it was with the Chumash, so it was with the locals. For the first time in their young lives, places other than home were looking good. Parents' guest houses went vacant as their children spread to the far horizons, and for the newcomer, a new rental market bloomed. The County closed the school at Point Dume in the mid-1970s because there simply weren't enough kids to fill it.
So here you have a situation wherein the local surf population with cars and money were considering their options. The younger locals; many affected by the drugs, mags and the crowds were digging-in for the duration. They would survive or die trying. While the stoked-up visitors, accustomed to fighting for their wave space, reveled in the seeming freedom offered by the point wave medium. And hey, it was much nicer to look up toward the Serra Retreat than looking inland from Hermosa, wasn't it?
But the family dynamic was shifting too, and many Malibu families were… uh, experimental. Some were shocking. As the decade moved from hip to hop, from hemp to coke, anarchy reigned in some of the softest cribs in California. Sadly, surfing became the only sanctuary for many and it was this narrow focus, coupled with too much money and too little love, that was the undoing of some fine people. As across the whole of the United States, the rising tide of the cashed up eighties brought with it the deadly flotsam of addiction and excess. The new wave of overflowing self-focus crashed heavily on the sea wall at the Colony as well as other, even more private shelters. People died. People got burned, burned out, and many people just bailed. Too much may have not been enough for some, but it was far, far too much for the rest.
The narrow focus wasn't entirely destructive though. Having surfing as their main outlet led many to great heights both personally and professionally. There rose from the tumult a number of survivors whose skills would go on evolving. Their daily lives metaphorically imprinted by the surfing experience. Their desire to improve with each generation indelibly tarred across their hearts. Surfing may have been the rock upon which they anchored their teenage years, but now it's become the exoskeleton within which they raise their families.
I'm sure you've heard it said that the '70s were merely the time wasted between the '60s and the '80s. The decade that was merely a transition between other more highly decorated decades. 'Bland, flavorless and lacking even in good music...' recent historians haven't been kind. But in that one place, as a perspective from the inside, it was a peak. The best efforts of those who had survived the hippy epoch were applied to the new age and the new equipment with extraordinary results. For many Malibu people, it was the finest minute in lives which are yet to play out their finest hours.