The Waterfront (Part I)
In Memoriam: Edis Begovic (Amicus)
you won’t see them often
for wherever the crowd is
these odd ones, not
but from them
and from the
best of the
— Charles Bukowski (“the strongest of the strange”)
Amicus. Edis Begovic was my friend. He died 16 years ago today: July 20, 2005. His death was premature, unnecessary, and tragic. Untimely. Edis OD’d (overdosed) on heroin. He was a grown man. He knew what he was doing — no one forced him to shoot that shit into his vein; but he shouldn’t have gone down like that. At least not in my opinion. On the other hand, the Universe is perfect. Isn’t it? There are no mistakes. Everything is necessary.
Edis was born in 1962. I’m not sure where, but my guess is somewhere either in Southern California or up in Washington. These are the places he grew up, although he was also Croatian. It’s altogether possible, now that I think about it, that Edis was born in Croatia, what used to be (during the Cold War) Yugoslavia. His family (parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) all came from Croatia and settled in the United States around the time he was born, escaping Communism of the former Soviet Bloc would be my guess.
Edis’ early years were up in Washington, near Aberdeen, as he told the story. He lived with his parents, his aunts and uncles, and cousins. Aberdeen — “The Gateway to the Olympic Peninsula” — is a waterfront harbor town (a city really); and shipping is big business. As I understand it, many Croatians are historically dock workers (stevedores), a vocation that goes back centuries, if not millennia, to the famous and beautiful “Dalmatian Coast” on the azure Adriatic Sea, which separates Croatia (to the East) and the Italian Peninsula (to the West). The port town of Zadar is full of Roman and Venetian ruins of antiquity, remnants of the intercourse and trade of those long-lost Empires. His people worked the waterfront, which is presumably what took them to the docks of the West Coast after migrating to the United States.
Aberdeen is also known as the birthplace of the “Grunge” music scene and the hometown of the punk band (sort of “punk” in my view — we’d argue about this point into the night) Nirvana. His cousin Kris (a.k.a. Kirst) Novoselic had a friend in the early 1980s named Kurt. They went to Aberdeen High School together. Kurt Cobain.
Edis and Kris and Kurt would get drunk and loaded and listen to music, mostly old cowboy tunes and Yugoslavian folk music (Edis had the same old vinyl records they played then in Aberdeen; and we would listen to them together often in Sunset Beach — I still have the tapes I made from those albums), in addition to all the rock and punk (real punk) standards: Sex Pistols, The Stooges, The Clash, Black Flag, Devo, The Pixies, The Meat Puppets, The Butthole Surfers; along with everything else — Beatles, Zeppelin, Neil Young, The Velvet Underground, Bowie, Sabbath, etc. Lots of Country music, too (that’s the secret to Nirvana’s genius I think). Edis loved Country music. We both do. A favorite was (and remains) “In the Pines” (apparently this was Kurt’s favorite song, period).
Anyway, these guys would jam together. Kris played bass. Kurt on guitar. Edis would play drums or guitar. There were other guys around, too, of course; I don’t know who they were. This was all before Dave Grohl hooked up with the band — there was no “band” at this point. Eventually, a band was formed (Nirvana), but by that point Edis had moved down the West Coast to San Pedro, another waterfront port town. The “Port of Los Angeles” and a place thousands of Croatians had migrated to and settled, mostly working the docks as stevedores. This was when and where Edis discovered surfing. San Pedro (“Pedro”) is known for its hardcore surfing locals. Pedro is located on the South side of the infamous Palos Verdes (PV) peninsula, also known for notorious locals of the forbidden deep-water peaks off the point of Lunada Bay. The Pedro boys are gnarlier than the Lunada guys, so it’s said.
Regardless of all that, Edis discovered surfing and gravitated not to the rocky points and coves of PV so much as the perfectly foiled, cobblestone and sand-bottom peelers of Malibu, to the North. He had a friend and mentor named Whitey (I met and surfed with him years later at Sunset) who would take the young Gremmie Edis up to Malibu where they’d surf all day on clean single fin pintails. Edis regaled me with stories of surfing Malibu in full forward trim — “blowin’ soul!” — and all the crazy shit that went down in and around the parking lot and the “Wall.” He became enamored with this wildman named Angie Reno, a rather infamous “legend” in the surfing world of the 1970s.
Born in Hollywood and raised in the despised Valley, Reno was a good surfer. He certainly was a great “switchfoot” (meaning he could surf equally well with either foot forward — ambidextrously — facing the wave). Reno appears in a number of classic surf movies from the early ‘70s: Pacific Vibrations, Super Sessions, Liquid Space, Five Summer Stories (which some herald as the “finest surf movie ever made” — not me: my favorite is “Cosmic Children”), etc. Reno was a hot surfer, that’s for sure. Yet he was deeply troubled and probably crazy. No, not “probably,” he was totally crazy — for example, Edis told me stories of Reno chasing a guy around the Malibu parking lot with an ax because the goon had dropped in on him. Etc. There were a lot of guys like this at the time; every surf spot had a few, they actually serve a constructive purpose, in terms of keeping people on their toes (i.e., deferential and discreet, etc.) around the locals. Renos’ trip didn’t work out too well for him on the North Shore, however; and he was invited to leave or end up in a sugar cane field as pig food. He elected for the former and it was around that time (post Hawaii) that Edis got to know him.
The point is that Edis was drawn to the strange ones, these legendary Dark Knights. He had this fascination with the aesthetic as much as the athletic prowess of such reckless nonconformists — that’s the punk rock spirit he never lost. Edis recognized something of himself in these exemplars of The Strange, those that walk a fine line between creativity and madness. Of course, I recognized myself in him (and them) in such respects, as well. That’s what drew us together, no doubt, as much as the time and circumstance of our meeting one another years later. Whitey and Angie Reno led to others, like Michael Peterson, Owl Chapman, and Eric Haas. The best of the strange ones. Soul surfers.
Edis got into the surf scene in and around LA and Southern California more broadly considered. He began working in surf shops, which led to the shaping and glassing bays of places like Bruce Jones Surf Shop. He learned how to glass, fin boards, and sand. He worked in the business from retail (selling shorts and T shirts) to making surfboards. He got a lot better at surfing. In the late 1980s he went to Australia and sought out The Best Surfer in Australia: Michael Peterson.
MP, as he was known, was the best. Australia has all kinds of great surfers — Nat Young, Peter Drouyn, Wayne Lynch, come to mind (it’s a long list) — but MP stands above (and apart) from them all. He had all the talent, just like many others at the top; he also had a unique, singular style and this kinetic energy that distinguished him from everyone else. Nobody else (then or now) surfed with such wild intuitive abandon. He probably suffered from serious mental illness (it would be revealed later: schizophrenia); and he was a drug (heroin) addict. These qualities added to his mystique and, for Edis, the allure. Edis was enchanted or enthralled by the Dark Side; and in MP he found what he was looking for . . .
Edis became an understudy, as it were, to MP and his brother, making surfboards on the Gold Coast of OZ (Australia). It was this experience that, in my view, led Edis to the North Shore and Owl Chapman, not least because MP and Owl had a history together. They were friends — good friends — in the mid to late 1970s; and MP and Owl got into all kinds of crazy escapades together both in and out of the water. That’s where the real notoriety came from (out of the water), tales of drugs and smuggling and what not. It’s not for me to say or repeat stories I’ve heard. Though I have no doubt Edis heard all the same stories (and more) and this experience fueled his migration toward Hawaii.
It was after the OZ sojourn that I met Edis. I remember the moment vividly. Owl and I were driving down the Kam Highway together (Owl at the wheel) in his car. Year was 1993. It was one of those grey, dreary, wet, muddy, rainy days that can be so depressing. Surf was junk. It was the middle of winter. We were most probably on our way to Shima’s (now long gone — there’s a surf shop — Hawaiian Island Creations — there where it used to be) in Haleiwa, Owl’s favorite diner to eat breakfast — a hole in the wall where the waitress took your order, then went into the kitchen to whip it up, brought it back, and served you. Best pancakes in Haleiwa (the whole North Shore): light, thin crépes a’la Française. Owl usually had two eggs and some rice. That’s where we were headed (as I recall) when we saw this lonely looking guy hitchhiking on the side of the road just after Pipeline, in between Off The Wall and Ke Waena (“Rockpiles”). Owl said: “I know this guy” and pulled over.
He had a backpack and looked forlorn. He got in the back seat. He said: “Hi, Owl. Thanks for picking me up.” Owl introduced us: “This is my friend, Andy, Edis.” Something like that. I looked at him in the rear-view mirror first (I didn’t turn around). Our eyes locked for a moment. We were sizing each other up a bit, to tell the truth. So it goes. Owl asked him where he was going and Edis said: “Pupukea.” A mile or so down the road, Owl pulled over by the old fire station (also long gone) and let him out. Edis said: “Thank you Owl. Nice to meet you, Andy” and got out. He was very polite in a genuine, sincere way. I liked him for that. As we pulled away, I looked over my shoulder at Edis as he crossed the Kam Highway and made his way up toward Pupukea. My guess is that he had to walk up the hill.
Soon thereafter I crossed paths with Edis again and we became friends. We shared a mutual interest in books, art, music, ideas; and I recognized myself in him just as surely he did himself with regard for me. We were both in Owl’s stable, too. I could be a little territorial in such respects; and generally, as a rule, I was rather skeptical and standoffish (or worse) with these acolytes that would periodically (inevitably) show up on their quest to connect with the underground legend that’s Craig Elmer “Owl” Chapman. Most of these guys struck me as wannabes and phonies, or just a little too eager, charlatans, hero-worshippers, and interlopers. But not always, I met some pretty cool people over the years through Owl. And Edis was certainly one of them.
Edis was legit. That much was obvious to me (and Owl) from the get go. He was a real surfer and he knew how to make surfboards. That’s how Owl knew him originally: from the glassing shops on the North Shore where Edis found work. And he was in high demand precisely because he knew his craft and was more than a competent glasser, fin guy, and sander. He could do it all; and well. From Bruce Jones days to MP on the Gold Coast, Edis had honed his skills to the point such that he fit right in on the North Shore where the best hand-crafted surfboards in the Universe were made. Therefore, it came as no surprise and was otherwise totally appropriate that he started to work with the best glasser on the North Shore (and Universe) Jack Reeves (JR).
JR’s shop at that stage of the game had moved from Rockies (at Don Bachman’s place) back to Sunset Beach on Paumalu Road, just down the hill from where Jack had built his home and lived with his family. This was and remains the location for where Brewer’s and most (or many) of Owl’s boards are glassed. It’s nondescript other than for the fact that the level or degree of quality and craftsmanship produced here is unparalleled. Sin Qua Non.
As I said, Edis and I became friends. Good friends. We shared a lot in common. Not least of which was the fact that we were both under the spell — to varying degrees —of our shaper and mentor Owl, a relationship that would prove both fated and fateful at the end of the day.
We also shared another mutual friend. Eric Haas. Eric makes guys like Angie Reno, Michael Peterson, and even Owl Chapman look pedestrian, by comparison. To put it very simply: Nobody compares to Walter E. Haas. No one. Not in or out of the water. To call or describe him in superlative terms as The Best Surfer (of all time? Certainly, my generation) is understatement. I leave it at that, for now.
[To be continued . . .]
Huelo Hale Paumalu 2021