THE TRAGIC TALE OF KEVIN ‘THE HEAD’ BRENNANSydney’s Eastern Beaches are awash with tales of talented surfers drowning – not by sea, but to the vices of a hedonistic city. Though no other surfer personifies this phenomenon more supremely than Bondi’s Kevin ‘The Head’ Brennan, nicknamed so for his outrageously large cranium. A jockey-sized petty thief with an almost supernatural surfing ability, Kevin took the surfing world by storm at the age of fifteen but was dead by twenty-five, overdosing on heroin somewhere down the back of a seedy Kings Cross nightclub.
In 1965, Kevin was the standout surfer at Bondi, a wonder kid who would make the best in the world look stale. Were there any doubts about Kevin’s extraordinary talents, he dispelled them that same year after winning – at just fifteen years of age – both the senior and junior Australian surfing titles before a crowd of thousands at Bondi Beach. Along the way, Kevin beat the crème de la crème of Australian surfing, including the likes of Midget Farelley and Nat Young, widely regarded as the world’s best two surfers of the period. Kevin also went on to feature in Paul Witzig’s cult surf film The Hot Generation (1967), thrilling audiences with his switchfoot antics and deep tube riding. As Phil Jarratt writes, “Brennan baffled everyone by surfing brilliantly, drunk or sober, and was the star of the movie.”
Bondi in the 1960s was not the glamorous location we all know today, typically disparaged by newspapers of the time as “a seaside slum with zero population growth”. Flanked by sewage outlets to the north and south, Bondi’s street-smart surfers were accustomed to all manner of trash – both human or otherwise. Led by the legendary Jack Mayes, Bondi’s top boardriders would hang out by the ‘Hep Pit’, a leaky drain at the southern end of the beach, riddled with hepatitis, syringes, and other contagious germs. This is where the phrase ‘Scum Valley’ − a now affectionate name for Bondi, proudly proclaimed by some current locals − takes its roots. But for Kevin, Scum Valley was no nostalgic trip down memory lane. Rather, his short life would cast a tragic reflection of what was a gritty, decaying, and polluted beachside suburb.
Kevin’s surfing achievements – and his downfall – are recognised in weighty surf encyclopaedias, like Matt Warshaw’s The History of Surfing (2010) and Phil Jarratt’s Australia’s Hottest 100 Surfing Legends (2012), but his brief life also makes for pure urban legend – that of a mythic figure, or folk hero.
Roaring tales of Kevin’s mischief-making and surfing masquerades abound; stories of him breaking into board sheds, being bashed senseless, tied to poles, and pissed on after picking one-too-many pockets. The serial school truant who’d run away for weeks on end. A delinquent teen surfer who’d paddle out with a cigarette and ride a wave switchfoot, before taking one last drag and flicking the butt into the shorey. The fast burning candle who, in the ‘live fast, die young’ tradition of Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Bon Scott, fatally choked on his own vomit. There’s even a song called ‘Kev the Head’, performed by iconic 1994 punk rock band The Celibate Rifles, while some other hazy surf-forum sources conjure that, “legend has it Kevin could pick your pocket, suck your dick, and betray you within one hour.”
Riding the wave of his short lived celebrity, Kevin soon became swept up in the burgeoning beachside drug scene of the late 1960s. As board designs rapidly evolved and the age of international professional surfing dawned, Kevin’s spiral into heroin addiction was uncontrollable and ultimately destructive. Little is known of Kevin’s life after this stage, other than local anecdotes and hearsay. Some describe a tragic fringe dweller wandering Bondi’s streets in a dirty trench coat and boardshorts. Others recall an experimental young man turning his back on surfing, opting instead for a Bohemian inner city lifestyle, immersing himself in Sydney’s vibrant – but still illegal – underground gay scene.
When Kevin overdosed in 1975, there was no obituary, nor funeral of any note. Here’s to The Head…