Remembering Dire Straits Guitarist Jack Sonni, AKA 'The Other Surfer'

Sonni was mostly a guitarist. But he was also a surfer. Photo: Wikipedia

The Inertia

In early September news came that musician Jack Sonni had passed away following a period of declining health. A multi-instrument prodigy since his earliest days, Sonni, who was 68 years old at the time of his death, was best known as “The Other Guitarist” in the hugely successful group Dire Straits, accompanying legendary axe-man Mark Knopfler  on their multi-platinum 1985 album Brothers In Arms.

Garbed in his trademark red coat, Sonni also performed with the group on stage at the epic Wembley Stadium “Live Aid” benefit concert that same year, in a broadcast seen by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. Suffice it to say that this cat knew how to perform well under pressure. And in the summer of 1986, Jack Sonni would definitely have to do just that during what, in my opinion, had to be one of his heaviest gigs: accompanying another virtuoso on a very different sort of trip, traveling to one of the gnarliest beachbreaks known to man, having been told it was a perfectly fine place to learn how to surf. 

Let me back up a bit. All the way to the Channel Islands surf shop in Santa Barbara where Sonni, having developed an interest in surfing while on a leave of absence from Dire Straits day job, met fellow musician and 1985 ASP World Champion Tom Curren, the two striking up an instant rapport (Sonni obviously having a knack for this sort of advantageous serendipity, having met Mark Knopfler while perusing a guitar shop). In his typically understated fashion, Curren suggested that Sonni join him on a tour-break surfari, throwing in with fellow California ‘CT warrior (and fellow eccentric) Dave Parmenter and myself with plans of meeting up with Surfing magazine photographer Aaron Chang in mainland Mexico, at a break called Pascuales. 

That’s right. Pascuales, pound-for-pound one of the heaviest, most difficult-even-to paddle-out-let-alone-surf beachbreaks in the world, currently the epicenter of jet-ski step-off surfing, simply because it’s the only remotely reasonable way to approach this stretch of absolutely ferocious, peak shifting, ear-drum busting, black-sand pounding barrels. Sure, perfect place to take up a new sport. But hey, this was a guy who once stood up on the Wembley stage with Knopfler and Sting in front of a billion fans. He probably felt that by comparison, surf lessons with Tommy Curren on a beautiful, tropical Mexican beach would be a walk in the park.

So now fast forward a week or so. Jack, Tommy and Dave, having flown from LAX to Manzanillo, where they met up with Chang and a crew of Coronado hot shots, including tube-hounds Kelly Krause and Alan Cleland, took the scenic, 90-minute taxi ride south through the town of Tecomán, then west to the beach at Boca de Pascuales at the mouth of the Rio Almeria. Here, we were told, could be found picturesque, inexpensive accommodations – rustic bungalows and palapas – lining the beachfront, just a quick stroll across the sand from the region’s fabulous tubes. As it turned out, they got the inexpensive part right. 

I eventually caught up with the guys a day late. Having opted for a cheaper flight out of Tijuana, which naturally was delayed, I missed connecting with the crew in Mexico City and was relegated to an overnight, third-class bus ride through the mountains to Manzanillo. Then a three-hour taxi ride to Pascuales, which I shared with a friendly, 100-pound pig who first had to be dropped off at an abuela’s farm on the way. What I found looked most like someone’s idea of a beach resort after a tsunami had hit: roofless, half-built cinder-block structures piled with garbage, tilting palm-thatched palapas, dusty, open air, tin-roof tiendas, the walls patched with faded Negro Modelo beer posters. Just the sort of place traveling surfers used to love before the age of boat charters and surf resorts. 

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We eventually settled into a scruffy, beachside bungalow – threadbare mattresses laid on concrete under tattered mosquito nets – un-packed our 6’6”s (the biggest boards we’d thought we’d need) and set about trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube nature of aligning proper positioning in the Pascuales lineup to have at a least a snowball’s chance in hell of connecting with one of the spot’s elusive barrels. Feel free to substitute “elusive” with “makeable” – this place was the Wembley Stadium of closeouts. Gnarly, bruising closeouts, the sort that would blast you off your board and pin you down onto the lava-hard black sand bottom, just long enough to let you come up for a quick breath before the next malevolent curl would unload on your head, repeating the whole awful process until you’d swear to never again leave benevolent home waters.

And that was just for me, Tommy and Dave, all fairly accomplished, lifelong surfers. Imagine what it was like for Jack Sonni, who’d grown up in Pennsylvania playing piano and guitar, with sensitive hands obviously better suited to chord progressions than desperately clutching the rails of his borrowed Al Merrick thruster as he was repeatedly swept down the beach in churning rip currents, plunged prone over the falls while futilely attempting to get to his feet and later dragging himself back up the burning berm, Tommy’s reassuring, and, in fact, the only, surf advice offered (“Don’t worry, you’ll get it.”) no doubt ringing in his sand-clogged ears. 

But like a fighter taking tremendous punishment in a losing bout, Jack kept getting back up off the mat; kept making those futile attempts to paddle back out, kept plunging over the falls with his board between his legs. And came up smiling every time, somehow stoked on the whole wild program of being “the other surfer” on a surf mag trip to Mexico with Tommy Curren and friends, playing backup on a very different type of stage. 

The guy’s stoke was infectious, too, and despite the closeouts and the heat and the sketchy food and the rock-hard mattresses and see-through mosquito nets (“Mosquito aviaries,” Dave called them) we all had a great time. Great, that is, until all three of us came down with sudden onset gastroenteritis from eating contaminated ropa viejo con frijoles, the spectacularly explosive results eventually facilitating the move to a relatively hygienic motel in nearby Tecomán, where at least we had a functioning sink in which to periodically rinse out our surf trunks between swigs of Pepto-Bismol. Then it was back to our respective lives north of the border: Tommy and Dave on the ASP Tour, me at the mag and Jack in the studio. None of us having successfully ridden many Mexican tubes; all of us enjoying the fine sort of friendship that’s forged under duress. 

In the years that followed, Tommy would eventually win two more world titles on his way to achieving icon status, Dave would become a well-respected shaper/designer and I’d continue to make a living as a surfing storyteller. Jack Sonni, on the other hand, would hang up his trademark red coat and convert his stagecraft to business moves, eventually becoming the vice-president of marketing at Guitar Center – all about the axe until the end. Which, sadly for everyone who knew him, came far too soon. Posting recently on his website, Jack described himself as, “a writer, musician, nomadic raconteur” with a philosophy of “live well and live now, creating memorable moments with friends and family.”

Jack Sonni certainly did that. Including those we shared on that crazy, altogether  memorable trip to Mexico, back when we were barefoot brothers in arms.


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