On the afternoon of Friday, March 8th, I got word that Jan-Michael Vincent had died. Or rather, I saw it on Instagram, a shot of tan, chiseled, square-jawed Matt Johnson holding his board, and the caption “RIP Matt Johnson” beneath it. The proper way to say it would be “JMV’s character Matt Johnson from Big Wednesday,” but it never felt like that. Matt Johnson was more real to me than many real-life surfers I know.
In the opening scene of Big Wednesday, Matt crosses the pearly gates to The Point, still drunk from the night before. His friends Jack Barlow and Leroy the Masochist hold him up. The waves are smoking, they want to go surfing, but Matt does not have a board.
There are a couple of gremmies sitting there. Leroy approaches one of them, asks if his buddy Matt Johnson can borrow his board. They don’t believe that it’s Matt Johnson, who is now on hands and knees in the sand.
“Can’t lend my stick to some hodad, man,” says the kid.
Leroy gets pissed off. The other kid lends him his board.
Matt stumbles to the water, sloppily mounts the board, and drunkenly paddles out. A wave comes. He turns, strokes, catches it. As soon as he pops to his feet some deeper part of himself takes over. He hooks this beautiful bottom turn, head dips, and proceeds to tear the bag out of the wave.
“That is Matt Johnson!” says the gremmies.
It’s a familiar theme we’ve seen in many an idiot savant surfer—they’re more at home on water than they are on land.
JMV/Matt Johnson’s surf double in Big Wednesday was J Riddle, one of Malibu’s finest in the late ‘70s. In my first year or two of surfing, I used to watch him tear the bag out of Third Point. And much like the gremmies in Big Wednesday, my surf buddies and I would go, “That’s J Riddle!”
And to further the Big Wednesday-blurring-with-real-life theme, in the late ‘80s I house-sat for my friend Alison at her spacious home that overlooked Zuma Beach. She lived down the street from JMV. Alison was tan, blond, beautiful. If they were casting a female surfer role for Big Wednesday, she’d have been perfect. Alison told me that JMV would get drunk at the now defunct Dume Room, an infamous Malibu dive bar, and come knocking on her door late at night.
But back to Matt Johnson. He was king of The Point. His highline-kiss-to-cross-step-to-nose-ride knew no bounds. But when summer ended, and the demands of adulthood rested heavy on his Adonis shoulders, he fell apart. That was the thing about Big Wednesday. For me, having first saw it at age 13, it was foretelling what I’d be seeing a whole lot of in the not too distant future: how surfing can maroon; how, by putting all eggs in that one wave-filled basket, it can leave you bereft.
There’s a scene in Big Wednesday where post-summer, on-the-skids Matt Johnson is stumbling along the coast highway next to The Point (all paths lead to The Point). A car comes. Matt holds his raggedy blanket up like a matador, pretending that the car is a charging bull—and he causes a car crash. There’s a scene where Matt—now a husband, a father, and a pool man—tries to order a couple of cheeseburgers and two Cokes at a hippie restaurant and the tie-dyed waiter says, “No, we’re off that trip, uh-uh, we don’t serve animal hostility.” Matt gets pissed off. The world’s changing—Matt’s not changing with it. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Matt brings his wife and daughter to Liquid Dreams, a new surf movie in which Matt has a part. The audience is all hoots and whistles when Gerry Lopez is on screen. But when it turns to Matt’s couple of waves they go silent. Someone yells, “Don’t fall.” What he hoped would be an ego-booster turns into a humiliation.
Matt Johnson in Big Wednesday had a real weakness for the sauce, and so did Jan-Michael Vincent. There were DUIs, car accidents, bar room brawls, rehabs, multiple arrests, a prison stint. In 2012 he contracted an infection in his right leg and had to get it amputated just below the knee. For the last years of his life he walked with a prosthetic limb—or was in a wheelchair.
Big Wednesday was a big movie for me because it helped to explain the plight of the idiot savant/super-gifted surfer. Like the child actor syndrome, it’s that curse of peaking too early in life. What are you supposed to do for the rest of your years? How do find those same highs? It’s an equation that so easily leads to addiction.
But there are redemptive moments. The actual Big Wednesday—the giant swell—comes when Matt’s well past his surfing prime. But he rises majestically. And in the climax scene, on the wave of the day, we see it from his POV: a gorgeous, spiraling, nirvanic tube.
I hope that Jan-Michael Vincent is seeing the same.