By: Joseph Licata
If you have spent any time at all in or around the waters of New York City over the last several years, then you have more than likely met one of the nicest guys you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. Jamie Brisick is that guy. I can talk about the fact that Jamie is a former Pro Surfer, Ex-Surfing Magazine Editor-in-Chief, accomplished writer, author, photographer and film director. But what makes Jamie Jamie is the man you end up knowing and loving. I’ve admired Jamie for some time and am humbled to call him a friend. So it is with great joy to have him as a contributor to Surf Collective; at least for a little while.
Over the next several months Surf Collective will be publishing five stories by Mr. Brisick from a selection of his most favorite and personal pieces. To kick things off I sat down and spoke with Jamie, does email count?, while he was on the west coast to give you a little back story on where things all began.
Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of the interview for the first installment of Jamie’s contribution to these digital pages. Enjoy!
JAMIE BRISICK | FROM THE BEGINNING
Surf Collective: So, how did it all begin?
Jamie Brisick: Started surfing in the late ‘70s on a family trip to Hawaii, fell in with the Malibu crowd of that same period. In 1979 the Sunkist Pro came to Malibu for the first time in my life I saw pro surfing, Larry Bertlemann, Buttons, Dane Kealoha flying all over the waves on bright boards and in bright wetsuits. I suddenly knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Started competing, traveled up and down the California coast chasing contests, did North Shore winters starting in 10th grade, turned pro in ’86 at age 19, did five years on the pro tour with mostly middling results though there were a couple of semi-final finishes, one in Ubatuba, Brazil and another in Durban, South Africa that were hugely memorable. Fell in love for the first time in 1989. My surfing career ended abruptly in 1991, along with the relationship. It felt like my whole identity was stripped from me. I’d been an avid reader and diary keeper during my years on tour. I backdoored my way into writing and editing surf mags. Once I got into the actual writing side I knew I wanted more than just surfing as my subject so I tried to expand, learn, took classes at ArtCenter and Otis in LA, traveled a whole bunch, fell in love with New York, Brazil… Now I write for a living, have been doing so for the last 20 years, I feel dreadfully insecure most days, but that’s just the nature of me and this love/vocation I’ve chosen for myself.
SC: In 1991 you began your career transition from Surfer to Writer and Photographer… Was there ever a time you wanted to give up and go back to surfing?
JB: Oh yeah. Definitely in the first year or so. After all the years of surfing my body was hardwired to be moving, and sitting still in a chair was painful. But there was also this feeling I liken to someone who’s just gotten out of prison after serving a long sentence. Being a pro athlete requires you to put the blinders on and live in this narrow space. When my pro surfing career ended it was as if the blinders came off and suddenly there was this whole fascinating world I’d been missing out on. I was ecstatic. I was totally naïve and trying way too hard but it’s a state of mind I miss.
SC: You have seemed to get further and further away from the mainstream of “surf culture”, has that been a conscience decision?
JB: I moved to NYC in 2001 specifically to get away from the beach. It had been my love from about age 10 onward. I’d done the pro tour for five years, and surfed all the world’s great waves. I saw a lot of my tribal elders getting bitter in their thirties and forties – they’re aging, the young whippersnappers have dethroned them, they’re surfing skills are diminishing… I didn’t want to fall into that. I also took inventory on my life and realized that I’d traveled quite a lot, but mostly just hugging coastlines. There’s a whole world of surfers, but it’s a small world, quite homogenized. I wanted to break out of what felt like the surfer’s prescribed destiny. But surfing is still a big part of my life, I do it every chance I get, I just find myself drawn to people and stories that are more on the fringes of surfing, or maybe surfing is just a small part of who they are, or maybe they have nothing to do with surfing period.
SC: You spend a lot of time traveling, East Coast, West Coast, Australia, and so forth… What makes New York home and the surf scene here different from the rest… for better or worse?
JB: I like the buzz of the city. I like my friends in NYC. I feel stimulated and challenged and vital here. I’ve spent so much time on the beach. I feel guilty when I move too much within the surf world. I know that sounds strange, given what a wonderful lifestyle we surfers have, but I’m aware that it can consume you. When I’m lying awake at 3am thinking of what I want in life, it’s not more beach. So New York in some way is the antidote for that. I wish I was more strongly focused in my wants and dreams, but I’m influenced by what’s around me. So when I’m in suburban beach towns I feel myself slacken. When I’m in NY I feel this spur burning into me, pushing me. Actually that’s not true, I feel like the cookie-cutter suburbia from whence I came (Westlake Village, in the west val of Los Angeles) presented life exactly as I did not want to live it and thus presented something to push against, it fueled my desire to travel and see the world, with surfing as magic carpet.
The surf scene in NY is full of diverse characters. It’s unlike any other surf community I’ve encountered. Most of the people come from non-surfing beginnings, so their foundations are different from their west coast or, say, Floridian counterparts. There are a lot of well-educated high achievers in the NY surf scene, Clark Kents in the water, Supermen and –women in their working lives. I like interesting people.
SC: If you could only surf two breaks in the world, which would you pick and why?
JB: That’s a hard one. If I could zap away the crowds I’d probably go with Superbank on the Gold Coast of Australia and Rincon in California. But wait, I want a left, how about Restaurants in Fiji. But see I like surfing away from people, in solitude, where I can think and dream and talk to myself. Often that leaves me at some lesser-quality peak up the beach…
SC: You capture a lot in both your writing and photography, do you prefer one over the other, or does one fulfill you more than the other?
JB: I was really into both for a long while, from the early ‘90s till about 2002. I’d go on a trip, shoot, write notes, come home, drop my film at the lab, begin writing my piece, pick up the film, inspect it on a light table, use the images to inform the writing. Digital made it so everything was on the computer, and it also eliminated that lovely “Christmas morning” feeling of going to the lab to see how you did. Digital basically doubled my time sitting in a chair, and I struggle with that enough just as a writer. I also had the realization that my priority is writing, and that it needed more attention. I still shoot selectively, and still get totally lost in photography, in a really good, inspired way, but my priority is writing.
SC: If you could talk with anyone right now, past or present, who would they be? And what would you ask them.
JB: That’s a wonderful question, but way too personal for me to answer right now.
SC: What impact would you like your work to have?
JB: I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I follow the stories that inspire me, immerse myself in them, try to be a good honest writer. I’m always thrilled when people say they like something I’ve written, I’m happy if the story or the words inspires them in some way, but really I’m just trying to keep myself stimulated.
I was 10 years old and Dogtown-obsessed. And though I’d yet to actually step foot on a surfboard, I’d seen Super Session twice and had Gerry Lopez’s tube-riding stance so deeply etched in my brain that the vision of a plum tree hanging over the sidewalk at the end of our street was less flora and concrete to me than it was the Banzai Pipeline.