No Longer Undercover, Surftone Takes the Lead

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She was told that her voice was “too low for a girl,” that females can’t play lead guitar—and that they certainly don’t belong in the FBI.

Despite those detractors, Susan Surftone followed her dreams.

“I got into them because I wanted to…. I wasn’t going to not do them because people were making it difficult,” she said in an interview in the weeks before a rare public performance, when she joined “An Evening of Acoustic Music” in North Hollywood.



Filling an FBI agent’s shoes is a badass position, regardless of gender. And Surftone admits she’s saddened by the current Administration’s efforts to discredit the Bureau. She defends the agents who “swear to uphold the Constitution, regardless of who’s president.”

Ronald Reagan, for instance, was the nation’s leader when she joined the FBI. 

“I didn’t vote for him but … I just did my job,” she said. “That’s what you do, no matter who’s president. I think agents today are doing the same thing. When you become an agent you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States, not to the president. So that’s what it’s all about.”

After several years with the FBI, her concerns about getting kicked out for being gay coincided with a desire for a music career. Eventually that combination motivated her to leave the Bureau.

“Living my life undercover was not something that I wanted to do,” she says. “I always felt in the back of my mind they probably would find out at some point. Personally, I think some of the agents knew, and they didn’t care … as along as you do your job.”

But the big question was also, “will you be happy when you’re 63, if you don’t do it?, and the answer was no.”

She loved surf music growing up in New York, learning to play the guitar from an instructor who taught her Ventures songs.

“I heard ‘Pipeline’ and enough of those kinds of surf songs that I liked it,” she said. 

With Susan and the SurfTones, she earned acclaim as the queen of surf rock, touring Europe and earning commercial success, with Nissan picking up one of her covers and one original song for commercials in Italy. MTV also used two original songs in their “Real World” series. 

Her reception in the United States, where Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and the Beach Boys had ignited the surf music craze from Southern California, posed a bigger challenge. 

“I think because I was a woman playing lead guitar that it was a little tougher [in the U.S.] to get established. I think we’re over that hump now.

“It seemed like Europe was open to [a woman on lead guitar], it didn’t bother them—in fact I think they liked it. We pulled some pretty good crowds on those tours, and they enjoyed the fact that a woman was fronting the band.”

She grew up singing Elvis, Everly Brothers and the Beatles, but didn’t sing on her own recordings until recently. That old negativity—“your voice is too low for a girl”—kept her focused on honing her guitar skills.

In 2011 she began performing as Susan SurfTone, and came out with her first solo CD, “Shore.” She also came out as gay. This year she released an album, “2nd to One,” as an homage to Elvis.

I mention that her voice on one of the songs I listened to has hints of Patsy Cline.

“I’m doing a little Patsy Cline on the next record,” she says excitedly.  That record, “Dicey After Dark,” is slated to come out in early 2019.

“It will have a Patsy Cline cover on it,” she says, “with obscure Patsy Cline songs. It’s tough to sing her, she has a great voice. I know kd lang did a good job with it, but I picked a song that few people know. I don’t have a wide range … I’d be crazy to sing ‘Crazy.’”

With her FBI background, it’s inevitable that the conversation returns to the scrutiny that the FBI is under following criticism by the Trump Administration.

“You kind of wonder where it’s going to end up,” she says. “Much of what Trump is doing makes me crazy. It’s really difficult to know where the end is going to be.

“That’s why the election in November is so important,” she adds. “You hear that about every election, it’s the most important election of your life. But I think for this one it’s really true.” 

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Journalist Laurie Schenden covers the entertainment industry, with many of her notable celebrity interviews appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other national and international publications. As a longtime columnist and feature writer for the LA Times, she also covered events and California destinations for the lifestyle, Outdoors and Travel sections. Laurie Schenden's international pieces include the long-running Where Are They Now celebrity feature for Spotlight Magazine, published in five languages. Laurie has also contributed to numerous documentary films, and produces content via Saving Grace Films.

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