When the first issue of the Surfer rolled off the press in 1960, it looked more like a hastily thrown-together yearbook than the glossy magazine it would become.
There were black-and-white photos of towering waves with surfers zipping across their glassy faces, cartoons, sketches, a cluster of ads from surfboard makers and shapers, and even a short piece of fiction.
John Severson had put up $3,000 to pull it off and when he got a call from his brother that there had been a near riot at a San Clemente surf shop when he dropped off the first bundle of magazines, the young publisher cringed. Great, he told himself — stuck with a garage-full of magazines nobody wants.
“No,” Severson’s brother reassured him. “The riot was to buy the magazine. They’re lined up around the block.”
Like that, Severson became a publisher.
A lifelong surfer, artist, filmmaker and publisher who helped define the early outlines of Southern California’s surf culture, Severson died Friday at his home near Lahaina in Maui. He was 83.
To many — particularly the rugged few who first challenged the waves from San Diego to Malibu with crudely made boards and still-emerging skills — Severson stood as a patriarch of the sport and offered surfers a voice and sense of identity with his magazine.
“Before John Severson, there was no surf media, no surf industry, and no surf culture,” editor Sam George wrote in a 1999 appreciation in Surfer Magazine.
The first edition of the Surfer was more an homage to the low-budget surf movies Severson began filming while stationed in Hawaii during a stint with the U.S. Army than a realistic commercial venture. He hadn’t counted on a second edition. But when all 10,000 copies of the magazine sold out, Severson began publishing Surfer Quarterly. One year in, and with success building, he hired his first staffers and began publishing Surfer Magazine monthly.
By the time he sold the magazine in 1970, its monthly circulation had surpassed 100,000 and it was roundly regarded as the bible of all surfdom, an authoritative catalog of articles, how-do guides, travel tips and dazzling photos that seemed to beckon California to the seashore.
Steve Pezman, who took over as publisher when Severson sold out, said the magazine defined his youthful interest in surfing.
“I remember walking into Ole’s Surfboards on [Pacific] Coast Highway in Sunset Beach and seeing a little flier that said, ‘The Surfer Is Coming,’” Pezman told The Times in 1985. “I promptly stole the flier off the wall of the surf shop, which is how hungry we were for validation.”
Born Dec. 12, 1933, Severson lived in Pasadena until his father moved the family to San Clemente. Near the beach, he began not only riding the waves but photographing them, painting them, wondering whether, in fact, each was a singular piece of art.
Years later, he tried to explain the Zen-like experience of riding a wave to the contemporary culture magazine 032c.
“It’s like a beautiful sensation of dance with the added dimension of being in nature,” Severson said. “There’s this whole force of moving water, and as you ride, you harness this water. Then, as your abilities increase, you can go farther and deeper into the wave, and into more radical positions – like off the top, off the bottom – and there are these weightless sensations. It’s another dimension.”
Severson went on to earn a master’s degree in art from Cal State Long Beach and spent a year teaching before he was drafted and — fortuitously, perhaps — stationed in Hawaii, where he began filming a movie simply called “Surf.” Unrestricted by plotlines or narrative, the film was a sensory explosion of water and foam.
He followed with “Surf Safari” and then “Surf Fever” and “Big Wednesday,” which inspired the 1978 coming-of-age film of the same name starring Jan-Michael Vincent and Gary Busey. In 1970, he released “Pacific Vibrations,” likely his most acclaimed film.
Along with filmmakers such as Bruce Browne and Greg Noll, Severson would barnstorm his films up and down the California coastline. The films, in part, were a reaction to the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach party, surf-a-go-go films that Severson thought cheapened the sport.
In 1969, Severson found himself with a new neighbor along San Clemente’s beachfront — Richard Nixon. And with the president came greater restrictions on ocean access, especially at one of Severson’s favorite breaks, Trestles.
“Imagine living next to the president of the United States,” Severson told Surfer Magazine in 2012. “Walkie-talkies screeching in the night, cameras trained on our house, and our phones tapped by the Secret Service. We had started making noise about the Vietnam War in the magazine, too, and they informed me that they read every word we published.”
Success as a magazine publisher had its costs. Severson had set aside filmmaking and had fewer free moments to surf. So he sold the magazine and the beachfront home to move to Maui with his wife and two daughters.
In an interview with his old magazine, Severson said he spent his days surfing and working on his paintings, which sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Occasionally he designed prints for Hawaiian shirts. In 2014, “Surf,” a coffee-table collection of his photographs and artwork, was published.
But it was neither Nixon nor the rigors of magazine publishing that drove him to Hawaii and early retirement, Severson said in 2014.
“I wanted to live an easier life – not as a starving artist, but as a semi-starving artist,” he said. “Sometimes plans like that don’t work out, but this one did. It worked.”