It’s another sun-kissed morning on Oahu’s north shore, an hour’s drive and a world away from the high-rises and freeway cloverleafs of Honolulu. This is surfing’s epicenter – home, every December, to the Pipeline Masters, the last surfing contest of the year on the pro circuit. Today, the surf is bluish emerald and fairly tranquil, chest-high at best. Fathers are paddling out with their preteen daughters, and two dozen surfers bob like pelicans in the lineup at the Ehukai break, just north of Banzai Pipeline.
It’s family day for Jack Johnson, too, a North Shore local who also happens to be a platinum-selling singer-songwriter, a highly regarded filmmaker, and a former pro surfer himself. He crosses the sand with a yellow single-fin board of seventies vintage that he recently unearthed at a thrift shop. His wife, Kim, follows, along with his father, Jeff, a 59-year-old contractor and accomplished longboarder who sailed solo to Hawaii from California in the 1960s and decided to stick around. The Johnsons take turns dropping in on the gently curling faces: Kim accepts slight pushes from her husband to help her catch waves, then cruises gracefully to the sand. Jeff, with his steel-wool beard, stands tall on his board, taking tiny steps to steady his balance, like a man walking the aisle on a commuter train. All around them, the teenagers surf as if they’re in a liquid mosh pit, slashing sharp turns and stomping their boards, trying to punish the waves into submission. And then there’s Jack, tracing a fluent sine wave up and down the faces, milking every last inch of propulsion before the rollers dissolve into froth, wielding his board as elegantly as a painter’s brush. He seems not to confront the water so much as collaborate with it.
That’s how it is with Jack these days, making everything look easy, in or out of the water. His second album, ‘On and On,’ went on sale in May, a few months after his debut record, ‘Brushfire Fairytales,’ a stripped-down collection of catchy acoustic songs, sold its millionth copy. The first album’s sales chart since its release, in January 2001, mimics the remarkably slow but steady surge in the 27-year-old’s popularity: During its first year out on the tiny label Enjoy Records, ‘Brushfire’ sold 100,000 copies, its sales fueled less by a lavish promotion budget – there wasn’t one – than by word of mouth. All that soon caught the eye of Universal Records, which signed a distribution deal for the record in early 2002 and helped muscle it into more stores. Appearances on Leno and Letterman soon followed, and this summer Jack is co-headlining a U.S. tour with fellow roots-rocker Ben Harper. Meanwhile, ‘Brushfire’ has lingered for more than a year on Billboard’s top 200 chart (peaking at number 34), and it reached number one in New Zealand.
All this attention has astonished no one more than Jack himself, whose name until about two years ago rang a bell only among fellow wave riders acquainted with his surf films, ‘Thicker Than Water‘ and ‘The September Sessions.‘ “The first record was honestly just a side project,” he says. “I thought I was making it just for surfers. It was like, Put it out, maybe sell some, and then probably just make another film.” Kim laughs when she recalls his reaction when the record company told him it was initially pressing 5,000 copies. “Jack was like, ‘What? I don’t know 5,000 people!’ “
Jack met Kim, a brown-eyed babe-next-door type, during their freshman year, 1993, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then married her in the summer of 2000. A former high school math teacher, she’s currently acting as Jack’s personal manager and muse, often accompanying him on tour. Judging by a look around the Johnsons’ pleasant but unassuming white frame house, bright and airy and furnished with tropic-print lounge chairs, success hasn’t upended their lifestyle much. They bought the house last year, and it’s no more than a mile from where Jack grew up as “a local haole kid,” near the old sugar-mill town of Haleiwa (population 2,225) and close enough to the shore that the windows rattle when the waves get big. Although there’s a smattering of galleries and restaurants among the area’s tropical greenery, hotels are few, and a two-lane highway serves as the only main drag. Salt spray from the thunderous surf has corroded most inanimate objects around here, and a good percentage of the locals. Chickens shriek duets with car alarms. Somebody’s always pounding nails into something. It’s appealing in an unmanicured way. Eden after the skeeters showed up.
There are a few splurges in the Johnsons’ new home, most notably a soundproof studio built by Jack’s brother Petey in what was the garage. This is where Jack and his bandmates, drummer Adam Topol and bass player Merlo Todlewski, recorded ‘On and On‘ last August. But actually, Jack is just as stoked about the fruit trees behind the house (a couple of papayas, a banana, a litchi, a palm that yields mutant hollow coconuts), his new composting setup (a plastic garbage pail stashed off the front deck), the stray chickens that wander into his yard (he throws them bread crumbs, and he’s trained a few to strut right up to him), and the geckos scuttering over a few rusted beach cruisers propped against a wall.
Walking down from the yard, he lures one of the lizards onto a stick. He clutches the stick at both ends, and the baffled animal darts back and forth along it. Sometimes the geckos get in the house, and he’ll spot them crossing the bedroom ceiling. “You get a lot of gecko poop in your bed,” he says, then pauses. “Well, not too much. Just enough to bum you out.”
Which is to say, if you’re Jack Johnson, there’s not much to be bummed about. “Jack’s lifestyle before any of this was the best in the world,” says J.P. Plunier, who produced ‘Brushfire Fairytales’ after a mutual friend and fellow surfer gave him a demo tape Jack had recorded. “So now he just has it with more money. The guy grew up on Pipeline. He was already in heaven.”
In every way, Jack Johnson is a product of his environment: It’s in his music, his laid-back manner, his obsession with surfing. He has salt water in his sinuses (truly, and it drains out at inopportune moments) and in his blood. Some of his earliest memories are of water rushing by as he knelt on the nose of the board while his dad surfed. In high school, his friend Adam Lerner would knock on his bedroom wall every morning to rouse him, and they’d surf until precisely 7:45, scurry up the bank, and drive to school, toweling off and pulling on their shirts along the way. Driving home in the afternoon, they’d case out the breaks from the car, wolfing down snacks before the next session. “Literally, we just lived in the water every moment we could,” Jack says. He and his friends made their own surf movies – ‘Grommets’ and ‘Grommets 2’ – using two VCRs to splice and edit. He palled around with future Pipeline standouts Tamayo Perry, Rob Machado, and eventual six-time world champion Kelly Slater. A promising competitor himself, Jack was sponsored by Quiksilver and Local Motion, and he was asked to enter the Pipe Masters at 16, the youngest surfer ever invited. The summer after his junior year, he spent two months surfing Indonesia.
Then, the winter before graduation, a wave plunked him face first onto the reef at Pipeline. The impact claimed his front teeth, broke his nose, nearly yanked off his upper lip, implanted a hunk of coral in his forehead, and etched his features with permanent scars. It also kept him out of the water for a couple of months, long enough to deepen his interest in guitar. The next fall, he enrolled at UCSB and studied film while playing in a party band called Soil. “He was too nervous to sing,” says Kim, “so he played rhythm guitar.” He also began writing music. He’d spend hours strumming chords until he stumbled onto catchy riffs, then he’d hum along until the hums gradually became words and the words became songs.
After graduation, waves kept nudging him in new directions. In 1998, he shot ‘Thicker Than Water’ off India, Tahiti, and Ireland; like last year’s follow-up, ‘The September Sessions,’ which chronicles an epic session in the Mentawai Islands, off Indonesia, the film won acclaim for its celebration of surfing’s grassroots soul, forsaking the punk soundtracks and quick-cut X Games vibe of most surf videos. Both films have a documentary feel, showing some of the world’s most talented surfers (Slater, Machado, and Shane Dorian, among others) at their happiest: not while winning contests but while slumming around the planet in search of waves.
The similarity to Jack’s own life is hard to miss. “For me, going on tour and playing in front of a lot of people is a big rush,” he says. “But really, I’m happier just surfing perfect waves with a few friends. It keeps everything balanced. I can take or leave all the rest.”
It’s just after dusk now on Jeff and Patti Johnson’s porch over-looking Pipeline, a place where one is never more than 30 feet from either a surfboard or a guitar. A dozen surfboards form the porch ceiling, in fact, wedged between rafters and roof planks on one end and hanging on loops of braided cord on the other. Often during the Pipe Masters, competitors will retreat to the yard and loiter here between heats. Jack’s grandmother lives in the guesthouse; his two older brothers, also skilled surfers, live about ten houses away, one in each direction. Jack’s battle-scarred Nissan pickup sits in the driveway, with balding tires, a tailgate that sticks, and windows that groan when rolled down.
As the sky dims from violet to black, Jack noodles around on an old acoustic fetched from a closet inside. Tapping his bare feet on the deck, he launches into a rendition of the old chestnut “Frankie and Johnny” in his trademark growly whisper. In the background, the surf roars as always. It seems to be a tailor-made setting, with the ideal backbeat, for any Jack Johnson tune. That’s hardly a coincidence. His songs don’t conspicuously address island life, but ultimately his musical roots reach back to impromptu jams like this one, in this very neighborhood. He first learned guitar chords at age 13 or 14 to accompany sing-alongs at family barbecues.
It’s likely that if things had been left to Jack, his tunes would never have left the back porch. “Jack’s not a guy who toots his own horn,” says Emmett Malloy, a Los Angeles-based director who worked with Jack on ‘Thicker Than Water’ and is now his manager and friend. “When I finally listened to some of his songs on tape, it was about a year into knowing him and working with him all the time. He had about 20 songs, and you would’ve never known it. It was like, ‘Jesus, dude, this is the best record I’ve ever heard, and it’s not even a record.’ Even with making films, you just never knew what you had. He just quietly goes about his business, and to this day I don’t know anyone who shoots surfing as well as he does.”
If there’s a lesson to be extracted from this way Jack has of doing things well without really trying – a Theory of Jack – it may be deceptively simple: Spend your time doing only what you love, and let the results speak for themselves. In an industry that feeds on hype, show little interest in promoting yourself. In an age of round-the-clock media saturation, make your records and play your concerts, then paddle back out into obscurity. In an age of self-important Art, refer to your compositions as “barbecue-atmosphere music,” and mean it as a compliment.
Out on his parents’ deck, a warm breeze freshens, and the stars are starting to peek out. You can spot Orion through the palm fronds overhead. The archer’s pointing at Taurus, Jack explains, who’s threatening the Seven Sisters, the faint star cluster also known as the Pleiades. He points out the M-shaped constellation Cassiopeia and explains that in Hawaii they call it the ‘Iwa bird.
He smiles. Another wave breaks. Then he goes back to pointing at the sky, diverting attention in some other direction, quietly enjoying himself as if enjoying himself were his job.
Mike Grudowski told the story of avalanche survivor Evan Weselake in the April ‘Men’s Journal.’ He lives in San Luis Obispo, California.