From the height of a privileged Hawaiian upbringing
tto his drug-saturated death, the wild ride of Adolph Bunker
Spreckels is surf culture’s most decadent tale.
WORDS MICHAEL FORDHAM
PHOTOGRAPHY ART BREWER
Scenes from a life: a bare- chested Nordic Uberman rests a rifle over his shoulder – tight, high-waisted trousers hugging his hips, his eyes hidden behind gold-rimmed aviators; the Teuton’s right hand clasps the rifled horn of the antelope he has just slain. A blond kid
kissed by sun and sea hugs a stubby, disc-shaped surfboard and stares impassively into the lens. A side-burned geezer in a low-necked surf T-shirt skateboards across a European city square, rocking a skin-tight, pearl-white set of flares. A whacked-out, moustached freak stares into the lens against the backdrop of a wrecked hotel room – his expression haunted. A quiver of strange surfboards is laid out like the spokes of a wheel, at the centre of which stands a camp figure in a smoking jacket on a leopard skin rug.
Adolph ‘Bunker’ Spreckels was a shape-shifter. The essence of what he was metamorphosed moment-to-moment, year-to-year. By the time his story came to a close in 1977 he was synonymous with the edgier, creative side of surfing at a time of cataclysmic cultural change, and a poster child for drug-riddled celebrity excess.
Bunker was born heir to a Maui sugar fortune and an inheritor of a legacy intertwined with Hawaiian culture. His great grandfather, a sugar-plantation oligarch, defended Hawaiian independence in the face of colonial and missionary pressure, and as a friend to the Royal Hawaiian Line was regarded as the reincarnation of a prince by the old kahunas, custodians of island lore.
He was taught arcane rituals by the Hawaiians, and was schooled in ways unknown to other haoles [foreigners]. He was an anointed one. He played at Waikiki and private breaks in California and became a highly skilled surfer, sipping sweet nectar from the family’s silver spoon. In 1955, Bunker’s mother married Clark Gable when the actor was at the absolute height of his wealth, fame and influence, and the Spreckels profile shot into the stratosphere.
“I am proud of my heritage,” he told writer- artist C.R. Stecyk III during a series of interviews in 1976, right at the end of his short life. “But it has its drawbacks. I think in the long run I’ll be able to win the game that I’m playing. It’s kind of a hard thing for people to understand, the type of egos, the type of relationships that I’ve dealt with and put up with through my life. Even if I sat down and spelled it out to them, they still wouldn’t understand it because they haven’t lived that way and they don’t know what it’s like.”
A biography in brief: Bunker is taught to hunt by his stepfather in Africa. He swans in the Hollywood limelight in between trips up and down the coast – to Malibu and to Rincon, and of course trips back to the Hawaiian Islands for the big waves of winter. At some point Bunker goes off the rails, and his family blame the freewheeling crew he meets at ’Bu. At Malibu no one cares who he is, or who his family are, or who his stepfather is. It’s how you surf and how you hold yourself that truly matters. Dark prince of the ’Bu, Miki Dora himself, names Bunker ‘Genetic Space Child’, and in the period that spans the mid-to-late ’60s, the Space Child ventures into the realms of the unknown, sprinkled with psychedelic stardust and pioneering trips to outlying surfing outposts. Each winter in Hawaii, Bunker returns to the North Shore to ride some of the shortest, strangest, most radical shortboard designs, developing on the way the first manifestations of the down-railed surfboard.
Despite the ubiquity of psychedelics in his surf career, it was in the surf where Bunker perhaps came closest to the essence of himself. Outside of the surf, it seemed, he needed too many external influences to define him. “I think that the only drugs that really brought surfing through to another level were the psychedelic types,” he told Stecyk, “mushrooms, mescaline, psilocybin. Other drugs are like anesthesia. They make you so numb that they shut your senses down so you can’t feel the currents around you. They make you numb.”
It was in the autumn of 1969 that surf photographer Art Brewer bumped into Bunker walking along the beach at Pipeline. “I’d heard of Bunker before,” Art tells me down the line from his home in Dana Point, California, “from when he used to surf the obscure spots around point Loma – then I saw him with this strange little red board on this evening with a full moon.” The picture he took of Bunker at that moment has become a defining image of the particularly colourful period in surf culture known as the shortboard revolution.
The psychedelically motored changes that were gaining pace in the wider world were mirrored and intensified within surfing. And Bunker (also known as Anthony to friends) was at the forefront of these imaginative leaps right from the start. “You could tell right away that the kid was a little different. He was kind of spacey and fairly gaunt and otherworldly. But as well as this aspect of him he was a really brilliant surfer, so he was interesting on so many different levels.”
In this period Bunker helped to re-invent the vision of what it is to ride a wave, and expressed this vision in pioneering the seldom-ridden right- handers that reel off the peak at Pipeline. Riding prone, kneeling, crouching and straight-legged – sometimes on the same wave – Bunker threw out the style sheet and expressed each ride in a radically new grammar.
Art became friends with Bunker and saw him regularly in the winter seasons on the North Shore, and also over on the Californian coast.
As the 1970s arrived, Bunker started spending a lot of time in California with Tony Alva and C.R. Stecyk III, of the original Dogtown skate crew. Bunker was responsible to a great extent, according to Art, for the vision that made Tony Alva a skateboarding superstar. “He was a cultural terrorist, for sure,” Art tells me, “he could see what the potentials were for surfing and skateboarding to become huge global industries driven by superstars. It was Bunker, for example, who scored Mick Jagger’s jumpsuit for Alva. He taught him to play up on his personality, treat skateboarding like a real sport, and to cultivate a radical persona.”
Just as the shortboard revolution came to its full fruition, Bunker finally inherited his family’s fortune. That was when things really started to get freaky. The world truly became Bunker’s chalice. And he began to drink heartily of that cup. Retaining a coterie of writers, artists,
photographers and filmmakers, he became the lead character in a globally unfolding docudrama.
“There was all sort of talk about how much he inherited,” says Art. “People spoke about fifty-million dollars and stuff, but I don’t even think there was that much. I’m pretty sure he would have run out eventually, and instead made his own money becoming some sort of entertainment industry guru.” However much he actually inherited, the money accelerated Bunker’s self-created myth. There were endless parties, endless hangers-on, endless Bunker groupies and ridiculous adventures, usually involving coteries of beautiful girls, surfer druggies and souped-up Honolulu mincers on the lig. But nestling at the heart of the Spreckels mission was the spark of a creative endeavour, albeit the ultimate in artistic self-indulgence.
“Bunker called me up one day and just asked me if I had a passport,” Art says. “I said I had and he said if I wanted to come to South Africa with him, to meet up with him at Honolulu Airport.” In the early 1970s, of course, the world- travelling circus that is the professional surfing tour hadn’t even been imagined. Bunker saw the future. He saw that to document a round-the-world journey with himself at the centre of the drama – drawing in waves, wildlife and wild times – just might be the way to sell the edgy lifestyle of surfing to the masses. “We met up at the airport and he walked up to the Pan Am desk and just bought us first class, round- the-world tickets.” The crew eventually made it to South West Africa (now Namibia) via London. They surfed obscure waves. They dressed up in outfits. They hunted antelope. By the time the home leg of the trip was due, Art knew he had to get off the ride before things got out of control.
Madcap adventures soon became the texture of things. There was a constantly recycling roster of glamorous females, fast cars, outrageous costumes and drugs, drugs, drugs. Bunker becomes ‘the player’– a character in his own self-created drama: and eventually, this composite begins to assume a colossus-like position straddling over the charred and battered remnants of his identity.
By late 1976, Bunker begins to exist only in the mediated reality that he created for himself. He is found dead in January of the following year, at the age of twenty-seven, in a hotel room in Paris. The coroner reports the death to be of natural causes. Perhaps when you cross so much natural creative energy with untrammelled wealth, the coroner was making a point.
“The appeal of Bunker’s story is that he was like this shooting star that blazed real bright, but then just had to fall back to earth,” says Art. “Bunker had everything going for him, but in the end it destroyed him.”
BUNKER: THE VISUAL RIDE OF ADOLPH BERNARD SPRECKELS III THROUGH THE LENS OF ART BREWER IS AVAILABLE IN TWO 12”X12” VOLUMES FROM WWW.BLURB.COM.