Sunday, July 29, 2012

Orange Sunshine, Rainbow Bridge

The link between surfing and spiritual enlightenment is cliché and cause for ridicule.  Nevermind that it’s true; there are only a few pursuits that allow you to harness the power of nature or experience its wrath.  Either way surfing can induce awe in nature and its link to a higher power.  It’s no surprise therefore that during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s many people were drawn to surfing as it represented a pure and beautiful form of expression that allowed a closer connection to God and enlightenment. 

Too deep?  Yeah, probably.  But you can see how hippies would totally eat this stuff up, can’t you?  To mix things up a bit, imagine a twist to all this peace and love and expression.  How about some organized crime?  How about some international drug trafficking, money laundering, narcotics manufacturing and distribution, identity theft and fraud?  And what if surfers made up many of the central figures of this twisted tale?  Throw in some Hendrix and Hawaii and now you’ve really got something.

As implausible as this may seem, it really happened.  I just finished a fascinating book by Nicholas Schou titled Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love and its Quest to Spread Peace, Love, and Acid to the World.  Nicknamed the “hippie mafia” by Rolling Stone magazine, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love started out as a bunch of surfers, hoodlums and petty crooks who experimented with LSD in the canyons and beaches in and around Laguna Beach.  They fell in love with the spiritual effects of the drug and sought to turn as many people onto it as they possibly could.  Turning people on cost money though and so in order to fund their mission, the Brotherhood leveraged and expanded their pot smuggling skills to build an international network.  As many members of the Brotherhood were already successful pot smugglers, the challenge of smuggling hash from Afghanistan became an exciting pursuit that challenged their creativity. 

A few weeks later, [Brotherhood member Dave] Hall borrowed a surfboard from Mike Hynson that had been hollowed out so Hynson could carry pot with him when he flew to Hawaii or Mexico in search of the perfect wave.  Hall took the board to the airport, flew to Portugal, and then from there to New Delhi.  After a few days in India, he flew home with a board full of hash.  A curious customs inspector at the airport started to give Hall a hard time about his surfboard, not knowing what it was, but Hall had brought along a copy of Surfer magazine for just the occasion.  He helpfully pointed at the photographs to explain his bizarre baggage.  Hynson now says he regrets telling smugglers like Hall how easy it was to hid hash inside a surfboard.  ‘People started doing that too much—using the same boards over and over,’ he says.  ‘It was just stupid.’  In any case, Hall returned to California safe and sound and eager to share his wares.  ‘I sold ten pounds in one day,’ Hall says.  ‘I made ten thousand dollars in one hour.  Nobody could get enough of that stuff.  Everyone loved it.  And soon guys were coming and going like gangbusters.  It was literally the Wild West hashish trail.

David Nuuhiwa, John Gale, and a whole lot of hookah and cosmic art; Laguna Canyon, 1971

While drug dealing and drug smuggling would soon become a multi-billion dollar business defined by greed, bling, gang violence and turf wars, it’s virtually inconceivable to imagine the Brotherhood were genuinely in it to build and support a way of life that celebrated spiritual enlightenment and communal living.  The Brotherhood subscribed to friend Timothy Leary’s call to action: tune in, turn on, and drop out and their very own topical island seemed like the ideal place to start a commune.  While purchasing an island never materialized, many did lay down roots on Maui.  And staying true to their cause, they introduced acid and hash to the island residents and Maui Wowie to the mainland. 

Honolua Bay, the Crown Jewel

But they also surfed.  Honolua Bay in particular.  This was a special wave and surfing it well when it was really on became a rite of passage for many in the Brotherhood.  This idyllic setting of surfing, nature, narcotics and transcendental meditation attracted members of the Brotherhood but also others outside their growing circle who were curious, adventurous or hip.  This included a movie director named Chuck Wein and a talent manager named Michael Jeffery, who had managed to hitch his cart to another 60s icon: Jimi Hendrix.  Their collaboration with the Brotherhood led to the 1972 film “Rainbow Bridge” which was less a Hendrix concert film and more a “psychedelic mishmash of New Age philosophy, surfing, vegetarianism, astrology, and belief in extraterrestrials.”

Rainbow Bridge Promo Poster, 1972

While Hendrix’s music had clearly turned on the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood were eager to return the favor and turn Hendrix on to their art form, namely surfing.   Hendrix was eager and willing however Jeffery talked him out of it, fearing for the international rock star’s safety (in hindsight, a very wise move).

Inevitably, the mouse can only outsmart the cat for so long and the heat from the police and their efforts to shut down the Brotherhood’s international drug smuggling ring became too much.  Cooperation among different law enforcement agencies, better intelligence (aided by a disenchanted member who turned state’s evidence and became an informant) and a series of successful sting operations brought an end to the operation and ultimately broke up the Brotherhood.  Many were arrested, went independent and began dealing cocaine or heroin, or walked away and went surfing.  Ironically, it was surfing that led to the Brotherhood’s eventual downfall:

While busting dealers, [Laguna Beach Police Officer] Romaine often had found in their wallets business cards for Rainbow Surfboards, a company formed in 1969 by Johnny Gale [a particularly notorious member of the Brotherhood], who in 1970 coached the U.S. national surfing team, and Mike Hynson, who shaped the boards, which featured psychedelic airbrush patterns designed by Bill Ogden and Ted Shields, one of which was shown being cracked open by Hynson in Rainbow Bridge.  When the film opened in Laguna Beach in 1972, Hynson gave Gale all the tickets as a birthday present.  Half of the audience was rumored to be narcs.  ‘The room smoked up so much you couldn’t see the stage,’ Hynson says.  ‘We had all these Rainbow Surfboards up on the stage, and when the movie showed the board being opened up, it got the police crazy.  They were constantly on our ass.  Anybody who had a Rainbow Surfboard in their car got pulled over.’  Indeed, by that time, customs inspectors at the airport in Honolulu had seized several of Gale’s hash-filled boards.  ‘It started to become a real pattern,’ Romaine recalls.  ‘We started to realize that everything we were seeing had to do with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love.  We just knew there was something bigger than anyone realized going on, that they were getting all this marijuana from Mexico and that the hash was coming in from Kabul.’

Orange Sunshine is a fascinating tale of an eclectic group of surfers, hoods, and hippies who in their own age of enlightenment turned countless people onto LSD (as well as hash and premium grass) for years, right under the noses of law enforcement.  Like Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, you can’t help but route for the outlaws.  It’s a real page turner of a story and I recommend the book highly. 

Until next time, may your waves be head high and glassy.