First published on 16 Nov 2011. Updated on 17 Jul 2012.
Bondi Beach wasn’t always a beautiful place for beautiful people. Back in the 50s and 60s it was Shitsville - a working-class catchment for crims, deviants, wastrels, the unemployed... and surfers. It was a place that smelt of sewage and saltwater, a seaside slum of zero population growth. Kevin Brennan was a classic Bondi boy - tough, damaged, lost. Dad shot through early. Mum drank. Her boyfriends monstered the boy. “Troublesome, jockey-sized, with an Irish pugnacity, an improper regard to discipline, a feral cunning and admirable deftness in the surf,” as decribed by surfing commentator Peter Bowes, Kev’s tiny frame and mega-bonce saw him dubbed ‘The Head’. And with his home-made haircut, busted teeth and appetite for danger, he was the archetypal delinquent for whom the Bondi surf was both babysitter and battlefield. But Kevin Brennan was a genius on the water. Despite his size, the boy’s ability to control the heavy boards of the era seemed effortless. He switched stance at will, performed floaters and re-entries 15 years before they even had names, and was always perfectly balanced, eyes intent on the breaking line, feet feeling out a path. Back on land, Kev’s footing was less assured. “Legend has it Kevin could pick your pocket, suck your dick and betray you within the hour,” says Damien Lovelock, frontman of the Celibate Rifles and author of their 1994 song ‘Kev the Head’ and an as-yet-unfilmed screenplay on Brennan. “Australian surf culture took off through these tough kids locked out of home. Kevin was one of them - a lone boundary rider travelling an uncharted interior landscape.”
Even before he hit manhood Kev was mythic. There were tales of him being caught breaking into the Bondi Boardriders clubhouse, bashed senseless, pissed on, then tied up by his thumbs to bake in the south-Bondi swelter all day. But Kev could take a beating - and give one. Maybe his pre-surf breakfast gave him the balls - reported by his friend Bowes to have been double milk and two raw eggs, a teaspoon of vanilla essence and a slab of ice cream whipped up hard with an overripe banana and a squirt of cream, all chased with a Cherry Ripe. But myth merged with legend in 1965. It was the year the Beach Boys outsold the Beatles and over 30,000 Sydneysiders packed Bondi Beach to see the 140cm, 42kg Kevin Brennan easily win both the juniors and men’s divisions of the NSW State titles on a borrowed board with a busted fin, beating the cream of Australian surfing including future world champ Midget Farrelly. Suddenly Kev was front-page news the twintitle feat had never been achieved before (to this day it has never been replicated) - but photos of that day show the Head clutching a trophy almost as big as he is with a look in his eyes, not of pride or joy but of distrust and foreboding. That was Kevin Brennan’s day in the sun. Although his snap-turns at Noosa and Burleigh found fame via the 1967 film Hot Generation, Kev fell into the drug scene, flipping out on LSD and getting himself hooked on heroin. While Midget made a motza, Kev crashed and burned - the first casualty of Australian surfing. In the years that followed Kev Brennan lapsed into lore. The last sighting of the Head was of a shambling figure in red Speedos and trenchcoat walking into huge storm surf at Bondi with his Volley OCs still on, dropping in, wiping out.
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