Image © Viktoria Gavrilina
Every winter, Pacific storms turn Oahu’s North Shore into a surfer’s paradise. You’ve probably seen the videos, maybe even recognize the names of the beastly ocean breaks: Pipeline, Backdoor, or Off the Wall. These are the waves that create legends, send the unfortunate to their watery graves, and provide the glorious backdrop for a boisterous 24-hour-a-day party.
Chas Smith is the type of journalist who finds trouble, be it criss-crossing Yemen, getting taken captive in Lebanon, or imbedding himself with the natives of the North Shore. In his new book Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell, the veteran of Surfing, Stab, Vice and Playboy, takes readers into the heart of darkness, to the drug-infested underbelly of the North Shore’s massive waves. It's a place Smith describes as, "Hellfire, death, anger, volcanoes, blood, war, sunken battleships, bashed skulls, crushed rib bones, strangled necks...An eruption. A forever eruption. Violence, amen."
Smith, thirty-seven, progenitor of "Trash Prose," spoke with Biographile about what goes on beneath the surface, when the berserk outlaw culture butts heads with billion-dollar corporations, and comes in standing up.
Biographile: Before we get into the book, let’s talk a bit about your writing life. Which came first, journalism or the desire to see the parts of the world most people fear to tread?
Chas Smith: The idea, for me, has always been to get out there and do something. I've been attracted to danger my whole life. At first, I didn't even consider it journalism. My buddies and I would come up with outlandish ideas and pitch them to magazines, which used to pay us up front. Off we’d go.
BIOG: Have most of your adventures lived up to your expectations?
CS: I thought when I went to Azerbaijan that we’d find dirty money and gangsters tied to the oil industry. It was something else entirely, but I think that’s the only time I was disappointed. I have a good track record for finding trouble.
BIOG: Has getting older, and being a father with a baby, changed your outlook on gonzo journalism?
CS: I wish it would. Everyone wants it to, but I want to get back in the field. I think my next book is going to be about our recent wars...
BIOG: What will the theme of that book be?
CS: I want to retrace the steps of the Iraq War, travel from Kuwait City to Baghdad, and then onto to Syria, retelling the story of the war’s heyday. It’s coming together and I think it’s going to be good.
BIOG: Is it the case that gonzo journalism makes you feel more alive?
CS: (Laughs) No, that’s the funny thing. I am alive while planning it out, but once I get on the plane, I feel awful. The entire flight I ask myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing? This is the worst idea ever.’
BIOG: What about the hard-living side of it, which has killed peers like Michael Hastings, is that appealing or do you keep yourself in check?
CS: That’s the reputation I have, but I’m basically a good clean-living Christian boy. I enjoy a nice cocktail, but my addiction is adventure. I read something about Hunter Thompson that stuck with me, that he spent the second half of his life living up to the character he created. That’s not my goal. I just love being out in the world. It’s how I’m wired.
BIOG: I thought Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell was going to be a total work of Chas Smith’s gonzo journalism, but it’s not, it’s more of a look at an amazing corner of the world that lives by its own rules...
CS: The North Shore is as tight-knit a community as there is on Earth. I’ve surfed all over, but I didn’t grow up there, wasn’t born and raised there. It’s an incredible place and I’m giving readers a snapshot of what it’s like there as an outsider.
BIOG: It’s interesting because many indigenous communities in America lost everything, they were forced onto reservations or whatever, but the people of the North Shore have power because in a sense, the waves belong to them...
CS: That’s the most fascinating dynamic about the North Shore. Here you have a classically Native people who have something they can fight for, so they are always wary of outsiders, and they maintain control. That being said, the most powerful guy in the North Shore is a Jew from Philadelphia.
BIOG: Tell us about Eddie Rothman, a man you describe as, “scary beyond sheer physical menace...”
CS: He’s older now, sixty-three, so his sense of memory is all over the place, but basically when he moved to the North Shore forty-some years ago, he made the right friends and would go farther than anyone else. He was tougher and willing to do anything. I asked him about being adopted by the local community, and he said, ‘They didn't adopt shit. I had to fight for everything I got.’
BIOG: Your book is constructed around Rothman going into the Billabong surfhouse where he ‘knocked the shit out of anyone and everyone...Like a tornado. Like a raging bull.’ When you first heard about the brawl, did you know it would become the centerpiece of Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell?
CS: That literally happened while I was flying to Hawaii. Everyone was talking about it through the ‘Coconut Wireless’ gossip train. It reverberated throughout the entire season, so when I landed, I knew I had to pay Eddie a visit.
BIOG: It seems like the hard-partying days of the past have been whitewashed from major sports, except in surfing. How prevalent is drug use?
CS: The top twenty surfers in the world, guys like Kelly Slater, consider themselves athletes and are generally clean. But locally? There is a lot of cocaine and plenty of surfers use crystal meth. Hawaii is a major drug center. There used to be heroin, but now a lot of surfers smoke ice or take prescription pills. A lot of surfers don’t consider themselves athletes, and it’s the one sport where drugs don’t necessarily have a negative affect on performance. They might be totally stoned when they have the best ride of their life, so there's no incentive to surf sober.
BIOG: I was surprised that there isn't a section about you surfing the North Shore, how would you rate your skills?
CS: I've surfed my whole life, but won’t pretend that I’m at max level out there on the Pipe. I've surfed the North Shore quite a bit, but I prefer California and Indonesia. I’m a character in the book, but I didn't tell my own surfing tales because to me, they're just not that interesting. I wanted to focus on the people who've lived and breathed the North Shore their whole lives.
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