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Surfer, writer and musician Denny Aaberg seen recently surfing at the Moores Cancer Center Luau and Longboard Invitational. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: Denny’s ‘Big Wednesday’

I know the above title sounds like a special for a particular fast-food breakfast joint, but it’s not about food. It’s about a surfer, a musician, a writer and a friend of mine named Denny Aaberg.

As the younger brother of famed early ’60s surf star Kemp Aaberg, Denny had a big wake to follow. As a surfer, Aaberg the younger would  initially hold his own and better.

By the early 1970s he was considered to be among the top young wave riders to emerge from the Malibu area. Like his older brother, Denny was also a brilliant musician and a solid writer. And writing was where he has made his biggest impact so far.

It was in a college writing course where Denny wrote about what he knew best, surfing. I assume he got an A for the short story titled “No Pants Mance,” a piece I first read in the Australian tabloid Tracks when I lived near Sydney in 1973. It was thinly disguised as fiction, but everyone in the know realized that Denny was talking about his hero, Malibu’s top dog and favorite character, Lance Carson.

As I understand it, the story caught the attention of John Milius, a Malibu surfer turned screenwriter — not just a screenwriter mind you, but the writer credited with such oft-repeated lines as “Go ahead, make my day” (“Dirty Harry”) and “Charlie don’t surf” (“Apocalypse Now”). Yeah, that John Milius.

Milius had been working on a book about his youth as a Malibu surfer, but he never finished it  —meaning both his youth and the book. Then, when “No Pants” came into his sights, he hired Denny and together they wrote “Big Wednesday,” a title borrowed from the timeless 16mm 1961 surf film by John Severson.

The result was a feature film widely considered the best of the surf movie feature film genre. A mix of great story telling, decent one-liners and authentic surfing combined with a bit of Hollywood cornpone to create surf stoke.

The best of “Big Wednesday” still holds up today. My favorite scene occurs at the opening when Peter Townend, doubling for William Katt, who is doubling for the straight-laced Jack Barlow, is doubling for big bro Aaberg and is filmed surfing from a high angle while Milius’s lines are delivered, coming as they do from the deep guts of a surf-infected heart concerning the blessing known as surfing.

Also memorable is Gary “the Masochist” Busey busting through a door at the Army Induction Center. (Busey once told me that the door was not a stunt door, but a real door and his charging through it was something he improvised.)

One of the softer scenes occurs on small glassy day at a location I will not disclose. It is there that Denny Aaberg playing the “Candy man,” shows his surf skills riding along with surfers Ian Cairns, Townend and Billy Hamilton and actors Katt and Jean Michael Vincent.  The scene is all the more magical because it is played against the surf tune “Crumple Car,” an ode to an old jalopy left rusting in the shorebreak, written and performed by Denny Aaberg.

Denny continues surfing, writing and performing music with his band, “The Wrinkled Teenagers.” You can catch the “too cool for summer school” act at various locations, especially in and around the Malibu area.

The “Big Wednesday” book was completed in 1978, the year after the movie was released. In 2018 it was revised and released in paperback, and recently in hard cover.  

To order “Big Wednesday” from Amazon, click here.

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