From Agent to Artist: Susan Surftone

by Russ White
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From her FBI years to the time she sent as an NYPD officer working in Harlem, and her prolific career as a surf guitarist, out artist Susan Surftone surely spent her lifetime working with the good old boys! She went from a career working in a government agency that is reputed to be very macho, to another profession known to be heavily male-dominated, namely “surf” music as a guitarist. Yet while the gender ratio wasn’t in her favor, she thrived in both fields. 

QLife caught up with Susan as she's working on her next tour and a live recording called Making Waves Again”. 

QLife: Exactly how does one go from FBI agent to attorney to guitarist?

Susan: You think about it for a long time and ask yourself when the day comes that there is more behind you than ahead of you will you have regrets. That one question made the decision an easy one. Then you deal with the reality of such a drastic change of course in your life like I still have rent to pay. Then you put a band together and book your first gig and off you go. It helps to know how to play the guitar before you do all this.

QLife: Which career was easier or harder as a woman? As a Lesbian?

Susan: Both were hard as a woman in fairly similar ways. In the FBI and the world of playing lead electric guitar the men, in general and not all of them, struggle with their own insecurities in dealing with me. I found the more secure the colleague in his own abilities then less I bothered him. I did make many male friends in each arena. I think I earn the respect of some too. I ignored the detractors but kept an ear open for legitimate criticism and there was some. I quietly learned from it and improved. Constant improvement was important and still is. You beat the detractors by being better than them. It drives them crazy. In the FBI, when I was in the Bureau in the 1980's, being gay was not allowed. We were there and I did know other gay agents but you had to keep it hidden. It was ridiculous and one reason I left. I couldn't see continuing to live my life like that. With the music, I think it's much more subtle. I'm who I am. If anyone doesn't like the fact that I'm gay, well, they don't have to listen to me if it bothers them that much. If I lose an opportunity because I'm gay I am most likely better off for it.

QLife: Your background gives you a perspective on the alleged Russian involvement in our current political arena. Do you feel there’s more substance to this or more paranoia?

Susan: I am confident when I say there is something to it. I have no more information about than is available to the public but I do follow it closely. I see much that is familiar to me in methods and, frankly, the reactions of those alleged to be involved. The emerging information about money is likely to take us somewhere. In the 1980's I surveilled Soviet spys, both KGB and GRU. I sat on electronic surveillance. I even met Robert Hanssen, the famous American spy who was an FBI agent. He was working on a counterintelligence squad the same as I was and an older agent introduced me to him. They called him Dr. Death because he looked like Frankenstein. This was before he started spying for the Soviets. Following the Trump campaign - Russian matter I am amazed at how little has changed since I was in.

QLife: You’re none too quiet in your politics. Why did Hillary lose?

Susan: Hillary lost because everyone thought she would win. During the election Trump campaign - Russian collusion seemed fantastic to most. Sort of The Manchurian Candidate meets Dr. Strangelove when you think of Trump and at the time just too out there to be believed. The Obama Administration didn't want to look partisan by pushing the allegations, the Clinton campaign didn't want to look, well, crazy, by pushing the allegations although they would have had reason to bring it up. Besides nobody would listen when they tried to talk about it. She looked to be the winner and why risk it?  I don't think Comey wanted to help Trump become president but he wanted to cover himself with the Republican Clinton-hater crazies who were out to impeach her the moment she was sworn in. I do believe Comey thought he could protect himself with the October 28th letter and she would still win. Trump thought she would win and we know now Putin thought she would win. Everybody thought she would win. 

QLife: Who are the artists that inspire you?

Susan: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, Link Wray and The Ventures. Janis Joplin because she was the first woman I saw really fronting a band. I didn't know until reading about her life much later what a difficult time she had doing it.

QLife: You started your musical career later in life. What would you tell the gay/lesbian/bi/trans/queer teenager looking to music for their own future to inspire them?

Susan: It's difficult because, to paraphrase John Lennon, it's all been done before but find a unique way to combine influences to come up with a unique voice. Do not take shortcuts and learn to really play an instrument or develop your voice. Even the best vocalist and instrumentalist works hard at it. Natural talent helps but, even if you are lucky enough to have it, you have to work hard. Learn to listen to valid criticism because it will help you improve. Push yourself and try new things. Do not give up if it is really what you want to do. It belongs to those who stay in it. 

QLife: Favorite place you have performed? Dream location you want to perform?

Susan: I played in Hamburg, Germany three time on the Reeperbahn just like The Beatles before they were famous. Nothing like walking in their footsteps just a little bit. Dream location.....anyplace with roadies and a guitar tech...and decent transportation to the location. I did two month-long tours in the winter in Northern Europe in a death-trap van with a suicide knob on the wheel. Never again.

QLife: When did you first pick up a guitar? How did you learn?

Susan: I started playing the guitar in April of 1964 shortly after The Beatles came to the United States and played the fateful Ed Sullivan shows. I took lessons at the local music store in Hudson, NY from the guitarist in the local wedding band. He was a great teacher and turned me on to The Ventures. No looking back after that.

QLife: Do you play other instruments?

Susan: I play bass guitar. I learned when I made the transition to Susan SurfTone from Susan and the SurfTones in 2011. I wanted to play bass on my recordings and I think it helped improve my songwriting.

QLife: What’s family life like? Girlfriend? Wife? Kids? Pets? 

Susan:  Single. I live with an old friend from college, sort of like a buddy movie. There is a dog, Jedgar (think Lillie Tomlin's Ernestine and J. Edgar Hoover), two cats, Bella and Bianca, and a pionus (small parrot) named Schuyler who is also a music critic. Alas, I have not been lucky in love. I'm am an only child raised by a cold, distant and sometime cruel borderline mother. That pattern seemed "normal" to me and I made choices not conducive to a long-term relationship. I think some good music did come out of it, however. I still hold out hope that some day I will write a happy song.

Russ White