Summer, 1975. I was seventeen and living with my family on Long Island when I heard the rumor that the Rolling Stones were recording an album at Andy Warhol’s place in Montauk. My friend Oscar and I packed up our instruments in his ‘71 Plymouth Valiant and headed for Montauk and, we were convinced, rock-and-roll history. We possessed the keys to a house belonging to the parents of someone my brother was dating and a belief in our own greatness completely disproportionate to our talents. We found the house at about two in the morning and immediately began playing as loud as we could with the doors and windows open. At this point, I might mention that our instruments were a slide trombone and a drum set. Needless to say, Mick, Keith, Charlie, and Ron didn’t take notice—but the neighbors sure did. We spent the next two days in an almost constant state of motion, driving from one end of the little fishing community to the next. While we never jammed with, or even saw the Stones (“You should have been here last night, they played for two hours right on that stage there,”) we did discover a place that seemed far removed from suburban civilian. The beaches were unspoiled, there was real surfing going on, and the girls looked, well, like they didn’t belong on Long Island.
I returned to Montauk many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. More than once, I came with my parents. Always, I was the outsider. It wasn’t that the locals were mean (although some were). They just had a good thing going and they weren’t keen on sharing it with the whole world. Montauk was, and is, a fishing town that’s fighting to keep from becoming the next Hamptons, the next Fire Island, the next fill-in-the-blank. It’s 100 miles from Manhattan yet almost no one locks their doors and the taco stand extends credit. Everyone knows the freewheeling vibe can’t last; they’re just determined that it won’t disappear on their watch.
It was the desire to record something before it faded away that was the catalyst for this project. These images were supposed to chronicle one two-week period in the life of the town but it took me two weeks to realize I didn’t want to be constrained by any self-imposed rules (rules not being what Montauk is about). Two weeks turned into a summer. I focused on the subjects I was most interested in, the surfers. By and large, these are kids who are the same age I was when I first fell in love with the place. They are beautiful and sexy and tribal in a way no one who hasn’t been part of a surf community can understand. I can tell myself that I knew Montauk when it was better, when the beaches were less crowded and the summer crush could barely fill the two roadside motels. I can’t delude myself into thinking that I ever surfed as well, looked as good, or partied as hard as the young people who let me take their pictures. If the crew at Ditch were bitter over missing the Rolling Stones or Andy Warhol, they sure didn’t show it.
When I go to Montauk now, it’s often in the company of my wife and two children. My wife and daughter are already surfing and my son, I don’t doubt, will be graduating from his boogie board soon. What will the place look like when they’re old enough to chase a rock band or fall in love with someone they see peeling off a wetsuit in the parking lot? Now that I’ve been coming here long enough that I no longer worry about my car being vandalized if I surf at one of the hidden breaks, I don’t want any outsiders arriving with notions of building big houses, opening a real hotel or, heaven forbid, paving any more roads. I don’t want anyone coming to Montauk who I don’t know. Period.
It’s always been my hope that the men and women who let me take their pictures see this book and think that I’ve paid them and their town a high compliment. But if my book, even in some small way, hastens the demise of the lifestyle it seeks to glorify, then I’ve shot myself in the foot. It’s taken me 28 years just to get some of the residents of Montauk to say hello to me. If they believe that I’ve brought the whole world down on them, I’ll have to start parking under streetlights again. And there are damn few streetlights in Montauk.
That’s the way it always goes, isn’t it? Everyone who makes it to the fallout shelter tries to bolt the door behind him. It’s like some graffiti I read in the stall at the Shagwong Tavern. “Welcome to Montauk. Take a picture and get the f--- out.”
Here are my pictures. Please, please stay away just a little longer.
As Fitzgerald wrote of an earlier, greener Long Island: “...for a transitory enchanted moment, man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Game wardens from Mt. Kenya and the Aberdare Forest, from the Serengeti and Tsavo, visited me here in Montauk throughout the 1970’s and 80’s “wondering” and wondering aloud... In those days we were all naively attending concerned citizens meetings, South Fork, Town Board, town planners, D.E.C., etc. Unanimously, every conservation head from everywhere around the globe agreed that Africa’s problems and the world’s problems, are remarkably similar to ours here: “POPULATION POLLUTION IN EXCESS OF CARRYING-CAPACITY” beyond the water supply, plenty of sewage and chemicals thrown into the bargain...
Loss of rural integrity, ARCHITORTURE...Tin God bureaucrats and town lawyers, petty permits, ridiculous rules, higher taxes, higher penalties, performance bonds, months and years of lawyers, urban atmosphere, loss of authenticity! In short, as they say in East Africa on a daily basis: brace yourself for the “The Galloping Rot.”
Teddy Roosevelt, “the father of Conservation” put it perfectly at the turn of the century: “populations expand, land does not.”
I was in Southampton during the 1938 hurricane (and also in 1945 for that big one when the Coast Guard were bunkering down in our house – BIG TIME STORM DAMAGE EVERYWHERE.) But what has happened to the quality of life in Southampton, Bridgehampton, East Hampton and Montauk under the careful eye of the so-called PHILISTINES at the Hedgerow is much more horrifying than the worst storms ever imagined.
In fact, forgetting the East End for a moment, let me quote the world’s #1 medical journal THE LANCET September 1990: “If the bomb at Hiroshima had been detonated everyday since August 6, 1945, HUMAN BREEDING WOULD STILL BE WAY AHEAD of the death toll.
Long Island itself is a haunting barometer of decay and decline starting in NYC, Queens and Brooklyn — heading out on the LIE to Westhampton discos, East Hampton shopping mauls, Amagansett, subdivisions, poisoned water (breast cancer rate highest in the country) and last but not least in the punishment department, Montauk Point —LANDS END—Under pressure, and indeed sinking low.
From the vantage of the 2002 wave-crowded summer season, it's difficult to recall the pure, undiluted stoke that we who pioneered surfing in Montauk felt in the 1960s.
The waves here were far better than those we had known to the west on Long Island, although a few of us were lucky enough to have experienced Hawaiian and Californian juice. The stoke had to do with the waves, yes, but it was much more about the untrammeled nature that surrounded us on land and in the waves.
We take for granted a truth that, though shared with other places in the country, is truer on Long Island. The truth is that people are like seals. When too many of them have to share the same rock, a number of them move away. On Long Island, the path of flight is west-to-east away from New York City. I make this observation in order to explain why Montauk, on the very end of the South Fork of Long Island, 120 (which is correct? you say 100 in your essay) miles east of Manhattan, was considered remote even back in the 1960s. Simply put, claustrophobic people did not have to travel so far in 1965 to escape their panic, and the roads of escape were not as straight.
For those of us who were in our late teens, early 20s, Montauk was like the lost world. We camped where we wanted to, built roaring beach fires, drank beer, smoked nature, and surfed waves with nobody else on them. This was long before the saloons were gentrified. The Shagwong Tavern was a fishermen’s bar, like all the others, with pool tables, fish mounts on their walls, and photos of big sharks and tuna, as well as the captains and anglers that have made Montauk the "Fishing capitol of the World." Fitzgeralds down on the docks still had spitoons on the floor. Frank Mundus, the "Monster Man," was in his heyday, the nails of his big toes painted green and red for port and starboard, bringing gigantic white sharks back from offshore.
Many of us tented in the Ditch Plains trailer park for something like $25 a week. Allan Weisbecker had a waterbed outside his tent that heated up during the day, perfect for when the sun went down. Roland Eisenberg and I lived in a cabin we called "Casa Non-Movita" because it sat next to a trailer named the "Casa Movita." Sam Slomon, an interior decorator from the city, had a trailer plot he called "Samalot," where he entertained surfers and their girlfriends, feeding us well, and performing Swan Lake or the Dance of the Seven Veils after dinner. You had to be there. I remember my ensemble at one of Sam's very late night soirées consisted of a wetsuit, dinner jacket, and top hat. You get the picture. Michael Cochran was a "pearl diver," that is, a dishwasher at a local restaurant. We worked in restaurants, bars, for contractors, and those of us who had begun (without knowing it) lifelong careers as commercial fishermen by clamming back west, got jobs crewing on fishing boats.
The jobs supported our habit, which was surfing, and Montauk's unique geology supported the surf. Unlike most of the East Coast, Montauk's surf breaks on rock reefs, and the swells come out of deep water, unslowed by the drag of gradual slope of sand banks. Spots like Turtle Cove, The Ranch, Cavett's Cove, and Air Force Base, produce world-class waves when visited by swells generated by tropical storms. We knew when the swell hit in the night because Montauk's morainal boulders and cobblestones would begin to growl as the pull and push of a distant storm moved them about.
A few surfers were already here. The late Bob Akin, his brother Bill, Bob Aaron, who just died, Gene DePasquale and his young sons. The rest of us made our way slowly, making jobs where none existed in order to stay in close proximity to Montauk’s waves and overall beauty. We have passed surf fever on to our kids—a new tribe of young surf rats claiming its own section of beach each year. We put up with the hordes that make their summer migration to our home knowing that in early spring and late fall, when hurricane swells make secret spots come alive, we will be reunited with the dream that brought us here in the fist place.