Tubesteak Abides

Terry Tracy, waving, Malibu. Photo: Tom McBride
Terry Tracy, Malibu, 1960
Terry Tracy, Malibu, 1957

There were limits to what Dale Velzy and Dewey Weber could do in the name of surf-inspired nonconformity. Velzy was older than the growing ranks of teenage beachgoers, and his abiding interests in hot rods, motorcycles, and horses meant he wasn’t always in the water. Weber would soon launch his Dewey Weber Surfboards empire, which pulled him into a looping routine of staff meetings, inventory checks, and marketing plans. He still walked, talked, and dressed like a surfer, and still rode Malibu like a dervish. But he increasingly thought like a businessman.

Terry Tracy and Miki Dora went further than anybody in defining the Malibu rebel; for putting surfers in general at a louder, more creative remove from the rest of society. Culturally, the time was ripe. In 1950s America, conformity was the rule—but it was a big, rich, freedom-worshipping nation, confident to a fault, and there was a new cachet in not doing what everybody else was doing. As a bit player, the midcentury surfer took his place on a stage already bowing under the gathered iconoclastic weight of Pollack and Presley, Ginsberg and Brando, Charlie Parker, Holden Caulfied, and Alfred E. Neuman.

Nonconformity, of course, had been a hallmark of modern surfing ever since Tom Blake, who in his own way sailed as far from the shores of convention as Dora or Tracy. But Blake was a surfing proselytizer who wanted everyone to enjoy what he enjoyed. From their Malibu vantage point, Dora and Tracy viewed the rest of the world—nonsurfers, beginning and intermediate surfers, nearly all visiting surfers—as real or potential invaders, there to be ignored, mocked, hustled, repelled. The Malibu lineup was getting crowded. A more aggressive rebel stance, above all, was a simple matter of resource hoarding. But establishing rank and position had a lot to do with it, too. First Point was nearly clouded over in the antiauthoritarian charisma that wafted off both Tracy and Dora, and anyone on the beach at Malibu who wanted to be cool—meaning just about everyone—copied their mannerisms, their phrasing, their outlook. “I ruled the beach,” Tracy later explained with a shrug, “Miki ruled the water.” And because Malibu set the tone for the sport up and down the coast, surfers elsewhere also began to view the rest of the world as something to be dodged or pranked, and to line up behind their own rebel surf leaders.

Tracy and Dora both arrived at Malibu in the early 1950s as teenagers from broken homes. They were sharp-tongued and quick with a putdown for newcomers, but Tracy didn’t have Dora’s taste for genuine verbal cruelty. Tracy, in fact, liked people—or he liked the two dozen or so Malibu regulars who gathered around him like courtiers in an area near the base of the point called “the Pit”—and he went to Malibu more to socialize than to ride waves. Dora didn’t hang out on the beach after surfing, unless he was resting up for another session; then, to kill time, he might wander over to the Pit and chat with Tracy’s group. “When there’s surf, I’m totally committed,” Dora explained, years later. “When there’s none, it doesn’t exist.”

Tracy had blond curls and a beer gut, and while on the beach he kept a lit cigarette wedged between the first two fingers of his right hand. He was bright and funny, louche without being gross, and an excellent storyteller. Nobody at Malibu used his given name. He was “Tubesteak”—a nickname of such pitch-perfect raunchiness that it defined the sport’s midfifties departure from respectability all by itself. In the summer of 1956, using driftwood and palm fronds, Tracy built a twelve-by-twelve-foot shack halfway up First Point, just to have a shaded place to drink beer in the afternoon. Not long after it was completed, he installed a cot, decorated the interior with empty wine bottles and a few pennants, and began spending the night.

After living in his shack for two summers in a row (taking an apartment in Santa Monica during the winter months), Tracy became a demigod to any Malibu visitor who wished they too could spend more time on the beach. For the pleasure of his company, surfers brought Tracy food and beer, arranged themselves in a casual semicircle around wherever he happened to be sitting, laughed appreciatively at sidearmed bon mots, and riffed on his stories. Tracy was a decent surfer, although he devised his own performance standard. In the morning he’d ride with Dora and a few others before the crowds arrived. In the afternoon he’d paddle into a now-congested lineup, wait patiently, and ride just one single long wave, first setting his board on an angle and then striking one exaggerated pose after another, beginning with a stiff-legged, arms-spread crucifixion move he called the Royal Hawaiian, then a windmilling back-arch, a stinkbug, a head-dip, and finishing with a drop-knee Royal Hawaiian—all performed to a chorus of approving shouts and whistles from the beach. Stepping from his board to the sand, grinning like Falstaff, sunlight reflecting off his great suntanned belly, Tracy would stop and look up at his still-cheering audience, lift his chin, and grandly raise a hand in acknowledgment.

This was a new kind of surfing eminence. Wave-riding was great, Tracy thought, but the important thing was superabundant leisure, midlevel hedonism, and occasional displays of public showmanship that were intended to mock the squares. For his 1957 imitation of Father Junipero Serra—the eighteenth-century Spaniard who founded California’s chain of missions, as well as a Franciscan friars’ retreat next to Malibu Creek—Tracy dressed up in a burlap sack and rode slowly from the lagoon to First Point on an ancient swayback donkey. After distributing wine and bread and giving a short blessing, Tracy then retreated back to the hills.

Getting something for nothing was a big part of all this. Past generations of West Coast surfers were proud of their ability to feed themselves by pulling lobster and abalone from nearby reefs. Tracy viewed this as way too much work. “No, no, no,” he recalled on 2004, still disdainful fifty years later. “We weren’t divers or fishermen. We were surfers.” Lifeguarding, the surfer’s default occupation, was also too strenuous for Tracy, too much work. To make a few extra bucks, he painted a “For Rent” sign on the nose of his board, propped it up against his shack where everyone could see, and rented it out by the hour to visitors. Surfing itself was a free ride. Tracy didn’t articulate it as such, but he embodied the idea that the ride should extend from the wave zone into the rest of your life.

On the surface, there was a monk-like quality to Tracy’s life at Malibu. He gave up most of modern life’s creature comforts to live what he felt was the purest possible surfing existence. Then again, it was temporary—more like a long camping trip—and Tracy certainly didn’t have any monkish interest in the loss of self. Style was in fact all-important; not just to Tracy, but to everyone at Malibu. Style trumped money, and in some cases even wave-riding skill, and it said a lot about how the sport was developing that an overweight and prematurely bald vagabond like Tracy, without a bank account or a bedroom closet or even fresh running water, equipped with little more than a sharp pair of Wayfarer sunglasses and two pairs of Madras shorts, could by force of character alone become a style king at the world’s best surf break.

It couldn't last. And Tracy, to his credit, didn’t overplay his hand. After two summers, he gave up the shack, and by 1959, he was married and the father of a newborn. That spring he lit a small fire on the beach at First Point, melted half a bar of paraffin wax in a coffee can, and was about to pour the wax onto the deck of a new board for traction, when, he said, “all of a sudden this lifeguard runs up out of nowhere, kicks my coffee can over and screams, ‘No fires on the beach!’”

The Los Angeles County Lifeguards had arrived at Malibu. New rules were in place, and would be enforced. Tracy used the lifeguard incident as the punctuation mark on his surfing career—he left the beach and got on with the rest of his life.

Nobody at Malibu used Terry Tracy's given name. He was “Tubesteak”—a handle of such pitch-perfect raunchiness that it defined the sport’s midfifties departure from respectability all by itself.