For Proto-Los Angeles surf star Mike Purpus, today feels a hell of a lot like 1974.
By Joe Donnelly
Light / Dark
Mike Purpus is waiting on the second rung of the staircase that leads to his second-story apartment in South Redondo Beach. Purpus is used to waiting. He hasn’t had a driver’s license since he was a kid, so he waits for rides to El Porto, to run errands, to get anywhere that isn’t within a spry 74-year-old’s pedestrian capacity.
I roll past him in an old Volvo and, knowing what I know about Purpus’ tortured relationship with the powers that be, can’t help but wonder if the old surfer is also waiting for the tides of history—surfing history, anyway—to turn in his favor. Purpus will have something to say about that, too.
I’m dusty with the stale air of the scorched inlands still lingering in my station wagon as it putters down a Redondo Beach main drag. The street is the kind of near-beach boulevard upon which multi-unit apartment buildings and luxury condo complexes now stack up like bowling pins. Purpus squats gnome-like on his stoop in the middle of some kind of paradise, his glorious blond hair, puka-shell necklaces, and pornstache gone but not forgotten. It’s clear from the searching look in his eyes that he’s eager for this reckoning. Seventy-four is what it is and even Mike Purpus, whose concessions to age are highly specific, knows there isn’t much time left to carve out his place for posterity.
I get it, but it’s a tall order. History is overstuffed these days, and we’ve all been forced to triage what we give a shit about. Still, here we are at the bottom of the stairs that lead up to the apartment where a revisionist-minded surfer, facing the autumn of his endless summer and living with some guy who looks to be about half his age, and who is now descending the stairs in a cloud of smoke with an old pit bull mix on a leash. The dog is friendly enough, but this seems like an inauspicious start to the people’s history of Mike Purpus.
The apartment is on the top floor of one of those utilitarian, two-story jobs found all over North Hollywood and Glendale. It’s a modest relic amid all the bland, upscale redevelopment that has turned formerly middle-class Redondo Beach into the latest tech-bro-topia. In a mild concession to the changing times, the building’s exterior has been given a half-hearted gentrification paint job.
In spite of all this desperate capitalism, one can still tumble a half block to the promenade, face the ocean, and look left to where Palos Verdes Cove glistens in the soft sunshine like a kept promise. Plus, the air is fresh. History could take a permanent vacation here.
Inside Purpus’ apartment, surfboards, wetsuits, skateboards, mountain bikes, guitar cases, posters, clothes, and dishes fight for space on the walls, ceilings, coffee tables, bookshelves, and countertops. In the bathroom, a stack of Easy Reader newspapers sits neatly on a black countertop between hair conditioner and a hairbrush. One of the many dichotomies of Purpus is that he started penning an often-insightful column for the long-running South Bay paper in 1974, when he was still at the peak of his surfing powers and doing pitched battle with the prevailing surfing mores.
Purpus was the paper’s inaugural staffer, he informs me when I ask how his days now pass, aside from surfing. The circumstantial evidence points to not as easily as we might hope.
“Well, I write. I was the first guy to ever write for the Easy Rider newspaper in the South Bay,” he says, and adds, while he’s thinking about it, “And my brother was gay and he wrote a gay column…that was the one that died of alcoholism and stuff. But, anyway, I still write for the Easy Reader.”
His brother was two years younger than him. He has another, much younger brother who lives in Oceanside. He says they’re friends, but not very close. They see each other once or twice a year. He says his mom, who passed just last year, designed the Hermosa Beach logo you can still see on all the street signs. His dad passed a long time ago. Seventy-four is for real.
We’ve been talking on a brown, leather couch that faces the kitchen alcove. The furniture is worn and the apartment is lived in, but things are in their place. For example, hanging on the wall above the bar is the infamous surfboard featuring a nearly life-size airbrush of a naked blond girl. In the painting, she’s holding the December 1978 issue of Surfing magazine, featuring Purpus on its coverhacking away mightily at a Jeffrey’s Bay bomb.
She’s not holding the magazine strategically and it’s a bit startling how young she appears to be. When I ask about it, Purpus says she was 16 when she modeled for the paint job. He was her boyfriend at the time—not quite twice her age.
Prudishly, I guess, I ask how her parents felt about all of this. Turns out they put a $1,000 bounty on the board, a lot of money in 1978. I’m sure it’d be worth a lot more now, considering Henry Lund did the airbrushing, except: “Now, I’d be in jail for having that board,” Purpus says, nodding in its direction. If this is perhaps a moment for reflection, it passes unheeded. Purpus says he’ll never part with the board, not for whatever libertine posture it once signified, but out of respect for Lund. “Best airbrusher in the world,” he says.
Not that Purpus is demure about sharing some of the tawdry details of the relationship. The name of Traci Lords, the girl’s fellow Redondo Union High School classmate, is summoned. Those were different times, I guess. Of the girl on the board, he says, “She was a surf groupie that I fell in love with.”
Besides, he reveals, she grew up just fine, married a cop in Big Bear who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. “And she’s only up to here on me,” says Purpus, raising his arm to his neckline, which is not very high above the ground.
Short or not, Purpus was quite the playboy back in the day, and he seemed to want everyone to know it. He burst onto the national scene in the late 1960s, blond, buff, and unapologetic about his desire for attention, accolades, money, and Raquel Welch at a time when surfing was suffering from a bad case of over earnestness. Initially dismissed as a small-wave, longboarding hot-dogger, Purpus found his place among the avant-garde of surfing’s transition into the modern era.
A long time ago, he told Surfing magazine that he wanted to burn brightly and be remembered. Surfing has many legendary characters, but few legends. Is Mike Purpus one of them? Would there have been an 80s at Echo Beach, for example, without the dichotomy of his insistence on progression alongside his, flaunting, albeit self-conscious persona.
“My philosophy in life and surfing is that you got to do a really radical thing. At least one radical thing before you get out of the water,” he says. “All those guys that are making a zillion dollars [now], it’s the exact same things I was trying to do back in the late 60s and everyone shunned me, except for when I got to Hawaii.”
He went to Hawaii for the first time in 1962 with the Windansea Club. Accommodations were a barrack with a bathroom down the hall, plus two meals a day. The round-trip ticket cost $100. He sold raffle tickets to raise the money, a color TV being the prize. His father helped.
“My dad was the chief physical therapist [for the city] up the street and had the whole top floor of the clinic,” he says. “He charged all his patients $2 extra and gave them two raffle tickets for an appointment. He took care of all the lifeguards and the cops and everybody in the South Bay. So, he helped sell the tickets. The plane trip was a propeller plane and it took 10 hours to get to Hawaii. I was 14 and I got my first taste. I almost drowned out at Makaha.”
But there’s more to that story. Some of it is staring me in the face in the form of a framed poster of a very young, very blond, Purpus taking a Makaha monster to the house with all the stink-bug moxie he could muster. Leroy Grannis took the shot just before he kicked Purpus and Kent Layton out of the lineup, because the surf was rising to dangerous proportions.
“We caught about three or four giant waves,” Purpus says, “and Leroy Grannis goes, ‘You gotta get out of the water right now.’ And I go, ‘Why?’ And he goes, ‘I don’t know what the hell you’re doing out here in the first place. You guys are a couple of kids. If you eat it on a set wave coming in, I’m not going to risk my life trying to pull you out of the water.’”
Besides, Grannis told them, they were risking their lives for nothing—he’d already gotten all the shots he was going to get.
“The same company that had the Tom Selleck poster and the Farrah Fawcett poster bought the photo from Leroy and made a poster out of it,” says Purpus, who got $25 out of the deal. Meanwhile the poster was sold in college bookstores across the land. I was just stoked to get my picture on a big wave,” he says.
You can bet there are a lot more Hawaii hijinks, but you probably know the narrative: haole goes over with a big head, gets regulated, proves himself, is accepted into the fold by Eddie Aikau and the like, and then goes on to pose nude for Playgirl and bring even more sanctimony down on his leather hatted, puka-shelled, jailbait-surfboard-toting ass. Clear away the grandiose, self-perpetuating persona trap, though, and a yeoman’s respect for surfing burns through the bluster.
A 1974 piece in Surfing, offers some retrospective insight: “I always dreamed bigger than my friends. While they were content with a Bay Cities Surf Club jacket, which allowed unlimited pickups at school or the beach, I would spend all my time in the water—two hours a day no matter how bad the waves were…if the surf was good, I’d stay the whole day. I never had a steady girlfriend: surfing came first and everything else tied for second…
“The way I see myself is, I still want to be a star. I want to be the best. Every time I complete a radical maneuver and blow someone out who’s watching, I get a feeling of accomplishment…
A lot of people resent me, saying I have as much soul as a go-ahead. I found out a long time ago that all the soul in the world can’t buy you breakfast. Suring is a beautiful sport and I consider myself the luckiest person in the world to be able to make a living.”
Purpus may not have had a steady, but he’s had lots of girlfriends. The beach-boy rock-star image he constructed worked. Sort of. Just not that time he sent puka-shell necklaces from Hawaii back to all his South Bay girlfriends for Christmas presents. When Purpus returned to the mainland, they had all gathered, unbeknownst to each other, to watch him at a contest at the Redondo Breakwater.
The surf was pumping and the place was packed like a football stadium. Purpus caught a wave and, on the beach, looked over at the sea wall and saw a bunch of girls with puka shells sitting on the rocks, talking amongst themselves. Not merrily. Which presented the immediate problem of Purpus being unable to use the break wall to get back out into the lineup. “I couldn’t run out on the rocks. So, every time I caught a wave, I had to paddle back out. It was 8- to 10-feet and I was just getting slammed.” Finally, he packed it in, only to be greeted on the beach by one of the cross young women. “‘You are so busted. None of us are going to go out with you now,’” Purpus recalls them saying. “But,it was my point all through life to just stand out and go the extra distance so people will remember me and never forget.”
So, who remembers Mike Purpus?
Who remembers that he was the only Californian to regularly compete on the newly formed pro tour from the early-to-mid-70s. Or that he was a seven-time USSF Championships finalist across multiple divisions, and spent a good bit of the 60s and 70s ranked in the top ten. Or, that he was invited to the Duke Invitational five times, that he finished sixth in his first one 1972, and that they gave you a trophy and $300 when you got off the plane just because it was that big of an honor just to be invited, and those trophies—Purpus puts a dusty one on the coffee table for inspection—are made by the same people who make the Oscar.
People remember the Playgirl spread, but who remembers that he was featured in some of the era-defining pieces in Surfer and Surfing, or a 1982 feature-article in Esquire, an anthropological dive into the South Bay scene that tried make sense surfing’s transition from hippie to punk for its East Coast readership. In the piece, Purpus is positioned as the godfather figure—sort of like Lou Reed to CBGB. Those small details are lost in the polarizing largeness of his persona and the torturous transition surf culture was undergoing at the time. Maybe he’d be remembered differently if he’d won a world championship. Or even some major contests. But he didn’t. He just finished near the top almost all of the time. Not because he wasn’t great. He just wasn’t great in the way that, say, Shaun Thomson was. In the way that wins contests.
Besides, for all his desire to make a big impression, Purpus wasn’t really trying to win contests. He was trying to do the most radical thing he could in every situation, like the frontside and backside sideslips, and the 270 cutback and the 360 he pioneered. These things would become surfing as we know it, but the degree upon which he insisted on being radical rather than strategic meant he often finished second, third, fourth. “Contests should be an exchange of ideas among those interested in furthering surfing,” Purpus has said.
During his peak, though, the keeps of the flame weren’t interested in that conversation, or at least not in Purpus bringing it up. Something about him rubbed the gatekeepers the wrong way. To some, he lacked gravitas and his charisma seemed practiced. He never quite found solid footing in the space between Corky Carroll and Tomson. He’d get hassled for pursuing the endorsements and crossover fame that Carroll pioneered (Purpus made three appearances on The Dating Game) and which is now de rigueur, and he couldn’t win like Tomson.
“California surfing was in such a weird and mostly dark place then,” says Matt Warshaw. “It was just kind of bitter and humorless. Knowing this is key to understanding why Purpus used to get booed at surf movie screenings of that period. He was flamboyant and loud and colorful and funny—all these great characteristics that people at the time thought were uncool. Mike and Corky Carroll both got roasted during that period for basically refusing to change their approach to surfing and life in order to fit the grim tone of the period. Corky was a little older and pretty much stepped off the scene in 1972. Purpus kept going and, in fact, hit his prime right around then.”
His prime just happened to arrive bearing a loud pornstache, wearing leather jackets and wide-brim Billy Jack hats to the beach, carrying surfboards with naked and underage girls on them.
“I always wanted to be the one that everybody went, ‘Wow, I may hate that guy, but he just made something insane,’” says Purpus, “because I always wanted to stand out. When I was a kid, I was the smallest kid at Mira Costa High School. Three thousand kids, and there was one girl smaller than me. I used to have to get on the third step just to kiss my dates good night. Even when I broke in and started getting the exposure I got, I was like a wrestler that had a cape and always had some hook so the rest of the crowd would notice.”
One wonders what would have happened if he’d tried not to try so hard. After all, his surfing could have spoken for itself.
“He was not a pretty surfer,” Warshaw explains. “He rode squat and his butt kind of stuck out, but he was powerful and progressive, always looking to move forward, and he was really good in big, heavy waves—Hawaii included. Unlike other big-name surfers, he was also fun to surf with, talkative and funny and generous with his advice.
This, Warshaw notes, stood in contrast to more aloof, godlike stars of the day such as David Nuuhiwa. “You’d sooner get a conversation out of God than you would Nuuhiwa,” says Warshaw, “but Mike was approachable. He loved being a star and played that up, but he wore it lightly.”
He also inspired the next generation of South Bay standouts such as Chris Wells and Davey Latter, and down the coast to Echo Beach where the likes of Danny Kwock and Preston Murray would take Purpus’ panache mainstream.
“I started surfing when I was eight, in 1971 or 72,” says the preternaturally cool and confoundingly handsome Latter, a musician who still resides in the South Bay and rips the El Porto star bars when he isn’t on tour. “I’d see Mike at South Hermosa, like at Second Street and the Breakwall. He’d be out there with Dave Largent, Terry Stevens, early South Bay legends. I’d follow those guys around like a little flea. We tried to emulate them. [Purpus] was super progressive. Longboarding was fading out and he was right on the cusp of that. The 360 was a radical thing back then.”
Purpus is nursing a bit of hangover on the day we meet. Not from drinking, though he did have a rough patch with booze and arthritic hips in his early fifties that left him bloated, broke, and barely able to walk, let alone surf. It was a bad time, not at all what he imagined when he imagined himself a star. He didn’t have the money to replace his hips, and his hips didn’t have anything left to give. He was out of the water and seemed out of luck until Bing Surfboards chipped in a board and Body Glove a wetsuit, and orthopedic surgeon Todd Shrader agreed that was good enough barter to do the work. Purpus lost weight, got back in the water and taught himself to surf all over again. Now, he competes in the masters division of the South Bay Boardriders Club series. “He’s still a really great surfer,” says Latter.
The hangover is of the heartache sort, one kind that ripples through some of the life choices that put Purpus on the steps, waiting.
“I kind of wish I’d gotten married and had kids,” he admits, “rather than have five girlfriends going at the same time. But all my girlfriends—still, to this day—they’re on my Facebook page and they’re all really nice and everything… As soon as they broke up with me, half of them went and got married right away and had about three or four kids. I was famous for that. Every time a girl broke up with me, she’d get married to the next guy.”
And maybe that’s what the girl who recently broke up with him will do. She bailed just as they were about to go to Japan. Purpus is big in Japan. His Hot Lips boards sell out there, he says. The girl had helped set up some deals. It was going to be a business and pleasure trip. But she got cold feet.
“She goes, ‘this would take it to another level, which I’m not ready for yet, because I don’t want to settle down. And I know you’re probably going to ask me to marry you or something.”
She’s a flight attendant, Purpus says, gorgeous and 35.
“She had these shorts made to get my attention,” he says. “She had Purpus embroidered on the butt.”
Now, she’s moved to Hawaii.
“Well, she’s 35 and you’re 74,” I say, which is about all I can offer.
“Yeah, I know. I had to face it right there. It ruined me. I was devastated.”
“Did it occur to you that there was no possibility of you marrying a 35-year-old?”
“No, I didn’t even think about it.”
“I don’t know. Because maybe I’m still living in the fantasy land from the past?”
“Being a surfing star giveth and taketh away, I guess.”
“Yeah, but it never hit me in the face as hard as it did then, I’ll tell you, over her.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“I still went to Japan and I had a nice girlfriend over there.”
Driving back to the dusty interior, I can’t help but think about the past and how at a certain stage it becomes a garden we tend to. Pulling weeds, planting perspectives. Making history.
When I get home, I call Latter and ask if maybe Mike Purpus is stuck in the past.
“Well, of course,” he says, before proceeding to lay bare the question’s banality, “because his past is rad.”
[Feature image: More primal Aussie in approach than California cool, Purpus brought the grunt. Photo by Mike Moir.]