Red-bearded young American, very well groomed, trunk of a small, arcane sedan: It’s a bold cover image for a surf book in that there’s no surf element. Looking early ’60s Newport Folk Festival—but that it’s actually early ’70s country soul sets the Neverland stage—this is Byron Bay, Australia, lagging 10 years behind the United States. Roy Meisel, in the frame, knows it. He’s run back lost years in America himself, and one in Vietnam was also wiped off the floor.
Tricia Shantz’s book features multiple narratives from Americans and Australians who lived in Byron Bay between 1965 and 1973. Each profile has a lengthy intro and a “what came of them” outro. While Meisel being the only vet is atypical, his auric cover persona is not, and it sets a running entry speed into how a clutch of young Americans of both sexes, largely independent of each other, found bliss far from upheaval. A similar group of Australians bisects. The rub of Neverland is their effect on a hitherto conservative regional farm town.
Letters home from Bob Cooper in ’59, footage of Phil Edwards in ’61, a photo of a three-wave lineup in ’64, and paid migration by the Australian government all set this latter-day Westward Ho! in motion. Regardless of which American arrived and when, their ways were transformative: Can Do. Will Do. Have Done. They changed not only the face of Byron Bay in just a couple of years, but—and not said lightly—the global surf lifestyle, culture, zeitgeist.
Take the least likely to change the planet: Marsha Logan, who, with boyfriend Bill Engler, arrived in ’69. Tired of overloaded San Francisco, she landed in Oz and noted one health-food store on the coast as being an hour drive north through the hills—a radiator graveyard. As much as George Greenough, Bob McTavish, and Nat Young established the design and performance revolution, Logan got to be pretty well seminal through long surfing days, thinking out the function to sustain surfers via watertight cellophane bags of “Marsha’s Muesli,” which would morph into Australia’s first crunchy granola. Well may the genius of fins, flex, and vees be lorded, but Neverland brings to light Logan’s key to historical relevance: sustenance on the run. A morning bag of muesli with fresh milk poured in from the Byron dairy carried the day, day to day, especially on a big east or cyclone swell. If any fare branded Byron surfing, there it was.
Another ’69 arrival was the unassuming, polite-to-the-point-of-meekness Bill Conner. In a car with Young and wife Marilyn, Bill can’t see a yard in front of him without glasses. He pulls up for a Lennox Head surf check. Monster day. No one out. No one else wants it. Sidewinding foamers roll across notorious boulders. Alabama born and bred, great with leatherwork but hamstrung as a surfer, Conner is called on by Young to paddle out with him. Just the act of the jumping and holding tough to his board in days when, well, surfers were surfers, was nigh impossible. What happens next is worth the read alone.
Conner is, in fact, the book’s star. From the moment this teen from the Deep South sees a bumper sticker that reads, America: Love It or Leave It, one senses a near-Gumpian presence and process. From “Good idea. I think I’ll leave America” to “Okay, Nat. I’ll do it” to telling Gordon Merchant, “This is how you press in the waist stud to build a better board short” and “I’ll build you a first leash,” he just about steals Neverland.
Criticism: The drug culture is not detailed. Counterpoint: Allowing narrative leeway, one can read between the lines. How real was the Byron underbelly? Fat. Look not so much at core surfers, but at musicians. Look not so much at core musicians, but at surfers. One local friend rolls her eyes at her memory of being 16 and new in town, taken under the wing of “Mr. Big.” Another will go to his grave without spilling beans on what went down as the manager of a large farm—and not from apprehension of implicating himself. A third, an émigré, agrees to longer sentencing and deportation rather than give up the bigger player. A mentioned Neverland identity reciprocates the scene by migrating across the Pacific—which left Byron shit-small taters. His West Coast criminality? A brilliant career of it—top shelf, never caught. Yet another declines contribution. His wife, in a complete whisper despite the 50-year gap, says, “Neverland is the kindergarten, but many stories build questions. The FBI is still on his mind.” Sleeping-dog wisdom.
The sociologist in Shantz could’ve run deeper had she cared for risk, but some- thing compelling still sits here among the multiple identities’ period candor. Certainly a drug unto itself.
[Feature Image by Kevin Voegtlin.]