Back From The Brink
Buttons Kaluhiokalani revolutionized surfing, but when the establishment couldn't accept his free-wheeling approach it nearly killed him
It was a late ‘70’s Saturday night in a small town somewhere on the Australian coast. The local town hall was bristling with surfers; weed-whipped old boys, goon-buzzed teenagers, every surfing reprobate from miles around crammed into the old wooden building to watch a traveling surf movie called Many Classic Moments. Halfway through the film, the screen was suddenly filled by a small planet of hair with a smiling equator of teeth, their owner skateboarding downhill full tilt with flip-flops on his hands for brakes. He then comically crunched his way through a piece of driftwood before paddling out at Velzyland and blowing our pickled little minds. He jived across the waves like he was on stage with George Clinton, doing things on a surfboard we’d never even dreamed of. We were getting dizzy just watching him, and when halfway through a forehand reo he switched stance and came down goofy, the place went nuts. Shortly after, the projector caught fire and the hall evacuated, but as we fled we knew we’d just seen the most carefree, coolest surfer in the world.
The following morning on our local beach everyone was trying the switchfoot reo with, you’d say, limited success. On banks up and down the beach kids were trying to spin recalcitrant single-fins. Middle-aged Australian men were trying to surf like Hawaiian teenagers. One even tried eating driftwood. Buttons Kaluhiokalani had a lot to answer for.
Twenty years later, I finally met Buttons in person. Clearly they’d been a long 20 years. He was sitting on a curb outside the Sunset Beach gas station. Clutching a brown paper bag, contents unknown, he looked up with dark, vacant eyes. He looked old, lost, and haunted. The firework hair was gone, and the superstar smile could no longer crack through the stony facade of his face. Sitting just across the road from Sunset, the palm-framed waves he’d once toyed with were now just wallpaper for his more shadowy adventures. Ever since that Saturday night as a kid, I’d grown up in awe of Buttons—his surfing gave you no choice—but standing next to him that day I had no idea it was even him until my Hawaiian friend pointed him out. The guy who’d once embodied everything free and fun and boundless about surfing was now sitting on his haunches asking me for change, another North Shore casualty, Hawaiian royalty in the gutter.
Now, 10 years after that day at the gas station, I’m once again sitting beside Buttons. We’re looking out at Off The Wall from the back deck of a 1930s beach shack, one of the few along the Pipeline stretch that has avoided a date with a bulldozer. He thinks he may have been here before at some point in time, but he’s had plenty of missing years and can’t say for sure. “Five years, brah,” he says, nodding. “No, hang on…four and a half.” Any former addict keeps that number close and recites it as an affirming mantra.
Physically, Buttons is unrecognizable from the gas station ghost. At 53 he has the physique of a 23-year-old, chiseled from Hawaiian stone, the result of daily workouts and too much surfing. But it’s in the eyes that you really see it, a deep humanity that’s resurfaced. He’s got his life back. He’s regenerated. You can see it in the way he surfs. You see it when he picks up his baby girl, Nawai, the latest arrival of his seven children. The carefree kid who 30 years ago revolutionized surfing is once again seeing a world full of tomorrows. “I was nothing for so long. I lived in a world of nothingness.” He draws a long breath, drawing in the aroma of the old house’s rich timber before gesturing with an open hand out to the Pacific. “But for me now, brah, the world’s a beautiful place. Look at it.”
“The first time I met Buttons,” recalls Hawaiian revolutionary, Larry Bertlemann, “I was a couple of years older and I’d already left school, but they paid me to come back and teach elementary school English. That’s where I met him, and right down the block is where we started surfing—surfing the Waikiki Wall every day after school. Remember those plastic lunch trays from McDonalds? We’d be out surfing on those, cause we had no money and didn’t have boards so we had to surf whatever we could. And you know, Buttons got real good on them, brah, just spinning around, spinning around.”
The son of a black serviceman from Texas and a local Hawaiian girl, Montgomery Ernest Thomas Kaluhiokalani was born in dire need of a nickname, and when his grandmother saw the tightly wound curls on the child’s head she simply called him “Buttons.” Growing up a block back from the beach at Waikiki, he soon teamed up with Bertlemann and school friend Mark Liddell, and the freewheeling trio forming their own ministry of good times. When there was swell they’d surf town waves like Ala Moana and Kaisers, and when there wasn’t they’d skate the concrete slopes of Uluwatu and Wallows. The lines between their aquatic and terrestrial dances soon blurred, and they began drawing skate lines in the surf.
“It had a lot to do with me both skating and surfing,” recalls Buttons of the cross-pollination. “I was watching [Tony] Alva, watching Jay Adams, watching them skate and I connected the dots. Those guys looked up to us, the way we surfed, and we looked up to them and the way they skated because that’s what us surfers did when there were no waves. No waves, go skate; waves, go surf. When I was a kid I was taking my surfboard out with no fins just doing these donuts—spinning around long before I ever rode a board with fins. But surfing and skating for me, one plus one equals two, surf-skate, skate-surf. It all evolved in that era.”
Purely spontaneous, not even Buttons was sure where his next turn was coming from. “I was doing stuff I couldn’t even dream of doing. I did some crazy things. But you know, brah, I just did stuff that felt good.”
Buttons and Liddell, with Bertlemann as sensei, soon became their own movement. The skate influence was unmistakable, but beyond that their whole act exuded a contagious sense of fun that defined it more than anything. “Surfing should be an expression of you,” offers Bertlemann, “and if your surfing reflects you, it’s good surfing. And just look at us, we were showmen. We had too much fun. If it wasn’t fun it wasn’t worth doing for us. And we loved blowing peoples’ minds, showing them something they’d never seen before. And the real fun part was seeing them trying the same stuff and falling and trying and falling…then blaming their boards.”
Ben Aipa, shaper to all three, had shortened their surfboards and moved the fin radically forward, so their Stingers suddenly surfed more like skateboards and could keep pace with their imaginations. Then once they got these boards into the waves of the North Shore, especially a wave like Velzyland that broke like a saltwater skate park, their three-man revolution really kicked into gear. “It’s a special wave,” says Buttons of V-Land. “It’s a dream wave, even today. That’s where I learned how to do a lot of tricks because it was a free-loving, free-spirit kind of wave. But the whole North Shore was a playground for us. I could create and surf freely and do whatever I wanted without being competitive. It was all about being free and having fun in the ocean.”
Self-avowed Buttons disciple, Derek Hynd, describes the dynamic between Buttons and Liddell. “From as early as ’77 they were just superstars. They were twins, just a little different in style; Liddell was faster, Buttons more crazy. They were the deadly duo. They did the same moves in the same sessions and were inseparable in any number of ways. I was completely drowned in wonder at who Buttons was, and how someone could not only lift himself out of the shadow of someone as great as Bertlemann, but actually rise above him. It was a generation within a generation.”
Meanwhile, just down the beach from the fun and games at Velzyland, serious business was afoot at Sunset and Pipe. The contrast was stark. It was the dawn of the professional era, and surfers were busting down doors—and each other—to make names for themselves. Pro surfing in Hawaii had become a colossal chest-thump, competition and machismo the dominant paradigms, and the flamboyant and flippant Buttons soon found himself as a sideshow. The great irony of this, however, was that Buttons—the Dane Reynolds of his era—harbored dreams of being its Slater. “Maybe I could have been world champ,” he ponders today. “I had an opportunity. If I could turn back the pages I could have been world champion. I was told I had to go promote my company when all I wanted to do was go on Tour. I never got the opportunity.” Bertlemann, like Buttons, would soon become disenchanted with pro surfing, as the system struggled to keep pace with what they were doing. “It was really frustrating,” recalls Bertlemann. “But I wasn’t prostituting myself to the five judges, I was going out there to surf for me and I was going out to surf for the public. It was only after everybody else started doing it years later that they started recognizing us. I was like, ‘How the hell can you judge me when you have never seen anything I’ve done before?’”
According to Derek Hynd, Buttons and Liddell met their competitive end at Stubbies in 1979. “Lidell pulled the perfect loop, at speed, running down the line at Burleigh Cove in a heat,” says Hynd. “It was the ultimate Buttons move, but Liddell was assassinated by the judges for it. They gave him a 5. It was regarded as a trick and therefore assumed it must be easy to pull. It was anything but. That move changed my life, but it also ran them both out of the IPS World Tour.” Pro surfing, still in its fledgling years, was awash with designs, styles, and individuality, and the judges’ response to this evolutionary soup was to champion structure and conservatism. Buttons was doomed. “It came into the judging mentality,” recalls Hynd, “putting a pattern into play where you had a set sequence of moves you could pull. That’s what the Thruster did, it fostered standardization and the judges didn’t mind that at all because it made their job easier. But it was to the great detriment of the creative elements of the sport that it went that way.”
Buttons’ frustrations with the Tour metastasized in the years following, and he famously confronted the judges during the semis of the ’81 Pipe Masters when he was called on an interference. It prompted a bunch of local boys to storm the judging tower, and the judges to flee to the safety of a nearby house. Half an hour and a swift reinterpretation of the rulebook later, the Pipe Masters final paddled out with seven surfers. Buttons was one of them. He then flagrantly dropped straight in on Allan Byrne—somehow missed by everyone on the judging panel—and went on to finish third. He’d end the year 27th on the IPS ratings, his best—and last—result on Tour. Pro surfing soon took off and left Buttons far behind. And with much of the fun long since gone from his surfing, Buttons, as he puts it, “crossed to the dark side.”
“It was everywhere,” says Buttons of the bad candy he dabbled in. “But I didn’t start till I was older. I smoked a lot of pot and drank alcohol, tried a little cocaine. There was a lot of it around back in those days. But you make your own choices and I made my choice to try something heavier. Being a little kid and a young man I had no guidance. No one told me. No one warned me. I never was told the difference between using and not using. It just started out as fun like everything else. I got involved with drugs but I never thought I was ever doing the wrong thing.” What followed was an on-and-off street drug dependency that chased him for years. His journey started at coke, ended with heroin, and stopped off along at several other exotic destinations along the way. “I lost my surfing at one point, but I didn’t care about that. It took away the beauty of the ocean, but I lost bigger things than surfing. I lost my family, I lost everything.” Buttons has five children from his first marriage, and admits they were as much the victims of his addiction as he was. “I think about my kids and I wasn’t always there for them. I was there, but I wasn’t. I was deep in my addiction.”
When I ask him how deep he went, his reply comes easily. “Well, I died twice from overdoses. Brah…” he says, scanning the horizon, “I was DOA on the table and they saved me, but I went right back out and used and did it again. I died a second time. Overdose. Can you imagine being that stupid?” There are stories of him being chained to a pole in a garage for a fortnight in an effort to get him clean. “I had to totally bottom out before I knew. Sometimes it takes that for a person to realize. I should be dead or institutionalized. I’ve been down to the bottom, brah. I’ve been in the gutter.”
Having long since disappeared from the surfing landscape, Buttons’ plight, while common knowledge on the North Shore, was largely unknown to his cult following around the world. But when in 2007 he “guest starred” on an episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter, his private struggle perversely became primetime entertainment. Even “Dog” himself, a real-life bounty hunter who between his fake tan and feather earrings borders on self-parody, was moved by the pathos of the surfing legend living in the back of his van at Point Panic.
As undignified and downright sad as it seemed at the time, having his addiction exposed to the world on cable TV actually provided a catalyst for Buttons to get himself clean. Earlier, I’d asked Buttons about his family’s history in Hawaii, and he informed me he was descended from Hawaiian royalty. In the late 1800s his great-great grandfather had been a kahu—a guardian and a healer—in the court of King Kalakaua, the last Hawaiian king. Well, it was now time for Buttons to channel the family trade and heal himself.
Buttons is wrestling on the back deck with his young son, Nuutea, who is laughing hysterically. “You see, I got this little boy, right? He’s a super kid, brah. I wake up every morning looking at my kids and think why would I ever wanna go back to the dark side? I got seven kids and eight grandkids. I been busy-busy. Apart from the youngest two, all my kids are grown up; got kids of their own. We come together every once in a while, every April or May we get together for a family gathering. But to get better I had to know what I was fighting for. Now I look at my kids every day and I got a reason to stay healthy.”
Buttons has remarried his “Tahitian princess,” Hiriata—the sister of Teahupoo surfer Raimana Von Bastolaer—and they have two children, Nuutea and a baby girl, Nawai. He runs a surf school that bears his name down on the beach at Chuns Reef. He’s surfing 5’8″s at 8-foot Backyards. He’s tow-surfed Teahupoo bigger than he cared to. And the first Saturday of every month Buttons turns up at White Plains Beach on the Westside to give surfing to people who need it more than he ever did. “I don’t think I’ve missed one in five years. The group is called Access Hawaii, and we take paraplegics, quadriplegics, and autistic kids surfing. We take these big boards out and we take special kids out into the ocean. And you should see their faces, brah. You should see their faces. The smiles, the families, the moms and dads. The kids love it; ‘Uncle Buttons, Uncle Buttons, can you take me surfing?’ I work with kids with cystic fibrosis as well and I also work with wounded soldiers, taking them all surfing. It’s a great feeling. It’s rewarding to see their faces smiling and it gives me a good feeling in my heart and soul. We need to spread surfing out, brah. I look at it as a healing tool. It healed me. It soothes you, it balances you, and it’s fun.”
Buttons is afforded a deep respect on the North Shore. And while he may have disappeared from magazines and movies long ago, he maintains a cult following the world over. There are a lot of surfers who still see him as an avatar for the sense of freedom and fun they believe is the beating heart of surfing. This surprises him when I bring it up. “Wow, that makes me feel good, man. I feel connected. Maybe it’s because I’m more of a free spirit kind of guy, real laidback, and I don’t let nothing get in my head. I’m no different from everybody else; I keep my feet on the ground. But I love meeting people; that’s the way I was brought up. That part was from my Mom, she taught me all that.” And while his surfing has made him an icon, it’s the humility and resilience he’s displayed in getting his life back that’s earned him respect as a human being. “People have seen me at my worst, and today they get to see me at my best.”
At a time when the sport’s Big Bang is spreading surfing around the globe in a million different colors and forms, where boards can be ridden however you damn well please with dwindling judgments of right or wrong, what Buttons was doing 35 years ago at V-Land suddenly seems less like a kid goofing off, and more like the work of a visionary. “I like to think I was a little ahead of my time when I was a kid,” he laughs. “But, you know, I was just doing what was fun. I didn’t really set out to change anything.” And yet, echoes of those V-Land sessions live on today in Kelly’s carving 360, Jamie’s switch-tubes at Pipe, and Derek Hynd drifting finless down the line at J-Bay. Buttons watches modern surfing intently. He loves the surfing of Kelly and Dane. He loves the surfing of the Fletchers and says he looks up in awe to Jamie O’ Brien. And he’d love to think that at some stage all these guys might have, just once even, seen him surf and enjoyed it. “Well, the great thing about history is that eventually the truth comes out,” says Hynd of Buttons’ surfing legacy. “Maybe 10 years from now people, through attrition, will realize what was really going on with surfing in the late ’70s, acknowledge Buttons’ place in it, and that it wasn’t just about the pro tour.”
Buttons, meanwhile, has been busy teaching Nuutea to surf. “He’s surfed since he was six months old, and now he goes out and he’s catching waves to the beach. He’ll go out and catch one wave goofyfoot, then the next one regularfoot. We’re programmed to teach kids one way; there’s a right way and a wrong way. It’s what we do. My boy, he surfs both goofy and regular and I don’t tell him one way is right and one way is wrong. I’m hoping he’ll be both. I just let him do what he wants out there. The ocean’s supposed to be free. When he gets back on the beach, that’s where right and wrong starts. That’s where you got choices to make. I made the choice to do what I did and I got caught up in all my wrongdoings. I have to live by the choices I made. I have to make amends for the choices I made…and I have to make sure my kids don’t make the same choices I did. It’s everywhere and it’s not going to go away and you need to be ready to make that choice. And if you’ve made the wrong choice, there’s help out there. If you need help, call me.”