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His budding pro surfer career was sidelined after a reef-kissing wipeout at 17 left him with 150 stitches in his face. But Johnson found another way to stay in the swim during his college years, globetrotting in search of his own Endless Summer, making low-budget surf films, which turned out to be hits within the surfing culture.
When the self-penned acoustic music he recorded for the soundtracks began to attract a following of its own -- and after fellow surfer Garrett Dutton, of college radio faves G. Love & Special Sauce, decided to cover Johnson's "Rodeo Clowns" on his band's 1999 album Philadelphonic -- Johnson finally got serious about laying down the tracks for what would become his 2001 debut, Brushfire Fairytales.
But not too serious: First his manager and producer, J.P. Plunier (who also manages current tour mate Ben Harper), had to agree to a lax performing schedule centered on the international surf forecasts. As Plunier shrugged to a Sports Illustrated reporter, "How could I tell a kid who grew up on pipeline not to surf?"
Even today, with enthusiastic music critics already christening Johnson the next Dave Matthews and his concerts drawing the type of dedicated tape-trading pilgrims who follow the modern jam bands, Johnson's guitar case could easily carry a bumper sticker proclaiming, "I'd Rather Be Surfing."
"Music's fun, but I don't always play," he insists. "I get home from touring and I'll put my guitar away for weeks sometimes. I can go a long time without being interested in music at all. I kinda take it or leave it. It's fun sometimes, but it's never been something where I feel like I need to pick up my guitar every day."
Johnson's relationship with his surfboard, however, runs a little deeper. "Surfing's something I never get tired of," he acknowledges. "Whenever I get stressed out, that's where I try to go, either to the ocean or just some body of water."
It's a stress reliever Johnson recommends to other musicians as well. To hear the soft-voiced singer tell it, even Eminem might be jellin' to a happier vibe if only he got out of the house more often.
"I think it's important not to be stuck inside a studio all the time when you're making music," Johnson says simply when asked for the key to the carefree highway. "You gotta get out into nature."
"Sometimes, just for fun, we check out the water parks when we get in a new city," says the singer. "One time we were playing near Disney World in Florida, and some people told us about a place they were going to that was pretty cool. Turns out there are about four different water parks there and we wound up at the wrong one. We spent all day trying to go down these little slides that weren't even pushing us. When we finally met up with those people that night, they said, Man, you went to the kiddy park!' I remember us thinking it was pretty lame."
If Johnson can't always find the waves along his expanding concert treks, he at least manages to bring a bit of the ocean to his landlocked fans. Clint Roberts, a 23-year-old Phoenician who's seen Johnson in concert four times and boasts an extensive fan-traded library of homemade live CDs, testifies that a Jack Johnson concert is the next best thing to riding a tube.
"His show is simple, but it flows," Roberts says. "It sounds kind of dumb, but his music feels like a wave. Because there's no real breaks in the set, it all just kind of washes over you."
Like many of Johnson's faithful followers, who tend to wait outside the concert halls for a personal audience with the mellow-meister, Roberts, a physical therapist who's surfed a little himself around Hawaii and Southern California, would love nothing better than to spend a whole day kicking back with his idol.
"I've met him twice, and he's a totally genuine person," Roberts says. "But if there was one thing I could ask him, I'd just want to know what it's like being Jack Johnson. It seems to me he has such a unique life, making music, films and surfing. I imagine every day must be pretty cool for him."
That it is, Johnson admits. But occasionally the shy surfer does get a little weary of Oakley-wearing wanna-bes jostling for a glimpse through the soggy portal inside his head.
"Sometimes it is hard to cut things short with fans, 'cause they just wanna hang out," Johnson says, laughing. "But if we've just finished a show and we've got nothing important to do before we have to drive to the next city, it's kind of nice to sit around with the fans."
Truth is, Johnson can probably outlast any of his fans when it comes to a slacker staring contest.
"I always find the people who wait outside after the show are the kind of people I can have a good conversation with anyway," he admits. "So most of the time, I'll end up hanging out with them for hours, until I get the bus driver honking at me!"