Watching the Republican debates recently, Susan SurfTone bristled at Newt Gingrich's revisionist history. “He said he and Ronald Reagan took down the Soviet Union,” the female guitarist, who plays this Saturday at the Redwood Bar & Grill, says over the phone from her home in Portland. “No. Ronald Reagan and I took it down!”
She's not exaggerating. In the early '80s, SurfTone (real name: Susan Yasinski) was an FBI agent in New York, chosen to monitor KGB agents assigned to UN headquarters. The Soviets weren't allowed to travel more than 25 miles outside New York City, so she would run surveillance and occasionally go undercover to sniff out their motives and next moves.
Sexy job, but she became worried about her future within the bureau. For a lesbian, upward mobility was not going to come easily. Plenty of Hoover men were still in place at the FBI, and “don't ask, don't tell” was the prevailing attitude. It grew increasingly more difficult to make excuses for not dating, and she knew the rumors eventually would prevent a promotion, anyway. “Of course there were more of us,” she says. “My girlfriend finally got sick of not being able to go to gay bars. We walked in, and sitting at the bar was another agent.”
But something other than the challenge of hiding her sexual orientation ultimately led to her resignation from the FBI. Though staking out KGB agents was fun, she wanted to play CBGB's.
Growing up with a mother who loved rock n' roll, SurfTone remembers imitating Elvis by strumming a tennis racket like a guitar when she was seven years old. She idolized the Beatles and begged for a guitar. In 1964, when she was nine, she got one and began taking lessons at a music shop in her hometown of Hudson, NY.
As a little girl, her teacher took her determination seriously. But she got a reality check in high school. The boys in bands admired her talent, but they wouldn't let her join because she wasn't a singer. (“I can't sing at all,” she says.) The fire she felt at being denied fueled her for years, although she only played recreationally during her college years at Smith and through law school at Boston University.
Leaving the FBI pushed SurfTone to form bands of her own, though the lead singer would always drop out and she'd be back at the starting gate. Finally, in 1993, she decided to form a surf instrumental band, the genre Dick Dale developed in Orange County in the early '60s, which is characterized by a reverb-fuzzy, frenetically plucked guitar. The next year, Pulp Fiction and its surf music-heavy soundtrack captivated the country. “It's the one time in my life I had good timing,” she says, laughing.
Susan and the Surftones went on to record more than 10 albums, became breakout stars in Europe and even had a couple of their songs featured on a season of The Real World.
In the early 2000s, SurfTone's old friend from Smith, keyboardist Avory Gray, called from Portland and said she was getting a divorce. SurfTone decided to relocate to Oregon from Rochester, New York.
Since then, she's dabbled in different careers — including lawyer and security guard at the Oregon Zoo — and, in 2009, she finally came out publicly after the death of her mother. “My mother was Italian-American, and being gay was just not accepted in her culture,” she says. Perhaps that freedom contributed to her decision to record her first solo album, Shore, released late last year. No one seemed to notice her the previous 12 years, but suddenly she's getting good press again.
Even though it's 2012, she still encounters prejudice — but not always the kind you'd expect. “Unless you listen to Rick Santorum, most people don't have a problem with [homosexuality],” she says. But, during a gig in L.A., she says another surf group wouldn't shake hands with the male members of her band.
“It's because they were playing with me. Some of them like it to be the way it was in '62,” she says. In other words, stop playing with our toys. Too late.