MP: The passing of an icon

With the passing of one of surfing’s greatest legends yesterday, it put me in mind of a piece I wrote about him for Adrenalin magazine a decade ago. RIP Michael Peterson 1952 – 2012. _CN

Michael Peterson / The Missing Link

The young policeman looks down at the sheet he’s tapping out letter by letter on the heavy, black typewriter. M-I-C-H-A-E-L space P-E-T-E-R-S-O-N. As he hits the shift key, the name literally rings a bell. He leans back, the chair rising onto two legs. He studies the features of the thirty year old guy slumped at the next table. He looks tired, grey, his eyes sunken, but there is no mistaking those features that defined a generation – handsome face, long hair, trademark moustache. If the enduring Che Guevarra poster was the icon of 70′s politics, MP was the icon of 70′s surfing. As a grommet the policeman had watched Peterson from the rocks, he’d seen him shine at Kirra in the classic cyclone swell of 1970. But how did he get here, thirteen years later facing a very different line-up.

Alby Falzon has a problem. Editing the cyclone footage from Kirra is proving harder than he thought. He is watching the same waves, the same moment in time – not to the hoots and the cheers of the on-looking crowd but to the sound track of the whirring projector. The sixties has faded into a new decade and this footage will be one of the highlights of his new film ‘Morning of the Earth’. “It is very difficult to know exactly what to do with the 25 minutes of Kirra, because there is quite a variety of good surfing from several surfers,” explains Falzon. “The more I look at it, the more interesting Michael Peterson’s waves become. His timing, his choice of waves, his positioning is just so much better than anyone else’s that I’ve found myself gradually eliminating all but his rides. He knows exactly what each wave is going to do. He doesn’t fight it but seems to fit into its curves and flow with its energy. He has a beautiful feeling for the wave and the wave for him.” The end result is three classic minutes of Peterson, pushing boundaries, opening new doors.

In the early seventies Lopez took the surf magazine reader into the barrel and suddenly there was a new Holy Grail. Get inside; get deep; make it look casual and surf movies led the retreat back into the shadows. But MP’s performances at Kirra were making people scratch their heads. Why was he out on the open face when he could be inside? Power surfing had arrived and they had seen nothing like it before. Big turns and hard carves, buried rails and fans of spray. Australian surfing was out there and Peterson took his show to the huge walls of Hawaii. Cairns, Townend and Rabbit followed suit and for three years MP was the man to beat. Focused, determined and aggressive in the water, surfing was not prepared for his onslaught. Between 1973 and ‘75 he won every major event he entered from the Coke Surfabout to a hat-trick of Bells titles. In 1977 he won the pro tour’s first ever event, The Stubbies, beating Mark Richards into second and Rabbit into third. He was the most successful competitive surfer of that era, the missing link between Wayne Lynch and Tom Carroll. But MP was a much more complex character than the others. It was the dawning of the new age of professionalism and while most were seeking out the limelight and all the opportunities that came with it, MP went from missing link to missing in action.


“MP: from missing link to missing in action”


Accepting a ‘Bell’ is supposed to be the highlight of a surfer’s career. But Ian Cairns is looking a bit sheepish, not something he does very often or very well. In a world dominated by small, skinny guys, Cairns – with his huge frame, huge surfing and huge attitude, would look more at home as the event security. He cradles the 1975 Bells Easter Classic trophy on behalf of the actual winner. Peterson should be taking the plaudits, but is instead taking cover, ensconced in the nearby shrubbery. To some in the surfing world, he is merely taking the piss.

There were those in MP’s peer group, those embracing surfing’s new polished image and the rewards it brought, that felt he was holding the sport back. But they were missing the point. Surfing has always been a haven. Those who did not exactly fit in with the rest of society always found a home in the surfing family. They were accepted for all their faults, or may be because of them. Surfing was never about conforming. In the fifties some surfers even wore Nazi uniforms; not because of any political views, but because it was the most offensive thing you could do in an America fresh out of WW2. It was the equivalent of wearing a pro Bin Laden T-shirt in post 9/11 New York. Surfers have always admired both the achievers and the rebels. It’s the reason why many didn’t relate to the hippie movement. Although the flower children were non-conformists, they weren’t motivated to actively achieve anything. Peterson, however, fulfilled the criteria on both counts. He was the ultimate achiever; he pushed surfing to new places, drew new lines. Then, at the dawn of professionalism, he was gone. To the core surfer looking on it was simple; he wasn’t in it for the money or the fame, it was all about the surfing. But privately for MP, the glare of publicity burned like sunlight through a magnifying glass. He had a new struggle to contend with; he was now battling his own demons.

“Would I have achieved what I did had I not been through the experiences of drug addiction? That’s a good question.” He stops for a minute to think about his reply. “I suppose you’re right. If I hadn’t been through all those low points I might not have found the strength to go on and achieve what I did in my personal and business life.” Jeff Hakman pauses, reflecting on the question some more. In 1976 he won at Bells breaking Peterson’s wining streak. Although MP won the ’77 Stubbies, he was never the same again. Jeff went on to battle heroine addiction for 15 years, but won out in the end and is now one of the most respected members of the surf industry. But Peterson had a more complex struggle on his hands, one that was less black and white. While MP’s new power surfing of deep carves and effortlessly graceful tuberiding had made him the hero of the Australian surf community, the late seventies saw him spiral down a dark, shadowy road of despair. While Hakman came out and openly talked about his problems, the silence from Peterson was filled by the whispers of others. Although MP’s dislike of media intrusion has been likened to that of Tom Curran, we at least we know some of Curran’s opinions; on surfboard design, professionalism, the environment. MP only gave a couple of interviews in his time. Even these were vague. “I don’t know the reason why I have a lot of these problems,” Peterson told Backdoor in 1975. “It’s mainly because it’s the way I look. It’s the way I act. I try to be like everybody else, but it’s hard…. I can’t be bothered being that exposed to the media, because then it seems like I’m being…condemned to live like a hermit, to live in a dark room, and just survive. And not come out because as soon as you come out the people start to pick at you.”


“The glare of publicity burned like sunlight through a magnifying glass”


At first the details were sketchy. ‘Former Surfing Champion Arrested Following Car Chase,’ ‘Queensland Police Arrest Surf Star’. Rumours spread through the surf community. After Peterson dropped out in the late 70′s, rumours of drug problems persisted. Then in 1983 he was making the newspaper columns again. But there was to be no comeback. No Occy or Curran style return. What became clear was that Peterson needed help more than detention, he was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He now lives with his mother and stepfather near Kirra, the surf break where he first came to the attention of the world, where the seeds of his dramatic rise and downfall were sown. He no longer surfs. At the time of his arrest many still thought of Peterson as a very gifted individual who had just thrown it all away. In the black and white world of right and wrong, some had thought him a disgrace. Today we understand more about the complexities of psychiatric disorders and, gorged on a diet of Hello magazine and OK, we read minute by minute updates on the pressures of celebrity.

Many try to fit surfers into neat pigeon-holes. Gerry Lopez ‘Mr Pipeline’, Christian Fletcher ‘Aerialist’ or Joel Tudor ‘Old Skool’. Some fight classification while others, like Gary ‘Kong’ Elkerton, demand their label – ‘Power Surfer’. There are a few, however, who just can’t survive in a specimen jar. Michael Peterson is one of those men. He changed surfing, but more than that, he became an icon – an enigma. Despite the lack of interviews, it’s MP’s achievements that speak for themselves. A letter in an old Aussie surf mag once read “Michael Peterson is possibly the most mythological of all Australian folk heroes. I’ve heard Michael’s name silence parties. That’s when the stories start. Him at Kirra in ’74, blokes who gave him a lift and were too afraid to ask if it was him and drove all the way to Tweed in reverent silence. MP is the reason I’ll be getting up tomorrow, checking the surf. The challenge of individual excellence, the pursuit of something you actually believe in. Michael Peterson’s not an embarrassment, he’s a role model.”

November 1992 and a Policeman stops his patrol car at the curb, walks to the kiosk and asks for a packet of Horizon’s. He scans the magazine rack and sees the latest ASL. “Australia’s Fifty Most Influential Surfers” announces the strap line. He picks it up. From the cover, a young, tanned surfer wearing a front zip wetsuit with a safety pin fastening the top is staring back at him. He recognises the handsome face, the long hair, the trademark moustache. He smiles, placing the magazine on the counter. “And this as well.” For this is truly where MP belongs. If not in the line-up at Kirra, then in the line-up of those who changed the art of surfing forever.

Chris Nelson.

This article first appeared in Issue 18; Adrenalin  Magazine, 2003.

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