Meet Susan SurfTone: From FBI agent to lesbian surf-rocker

As a former FBI agent who endured tear gas as part of her training, surf guitarist Susan SurfTone knows physical danger. Sometimes, however, she would prefer another round of the painful chemical weapon rather than face a disappointed audience of music lovers.

“If a gig starts out a little rough, I would have to say I’ve been lucky and can usually pull it back,” SurfTone said during a telephone interview from her home in Oregon. “But one gig stands out in particular here in Portland where there was nothing that I could do.

“That night, I would have picked the tear gas,” she said. “Both experiences are very similar. You know you were going to survive, but you couldn’t wait for them to be over.”

FROM THE FBI TO LESBIAN SURF-ROCKER

Since the smoke has cleared, SurfTone (aka Susan Yasinksi) has enjoyed her life as a lesbian surf rocker.

SurfTone, 63, was a New York FBI agent monitoring Russian KGB agents in the early 1980s and then worked at the New York Housing Authority and New York Police Department on evicting drug dealers from public housing.

She also moonlighted as a guitarist in the band Black Tights.

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In 1990, the New York native formed Susan and the Surftones, a surf rock band that recorded more than 10 albums and became breakout stars in Europe.

SOLO MUSICIAN

SurfTone went solo in 2011, and last year, after more than five decades of playing guitar, performing and recording music, she sang vocals for the first time on her CD “The Magician,” including two Elvis covers.

Earlier this year, SurfTone released a seven-track EP, “Making Waves Again,” which also featured her smooth vocals.

SurfTone’s “Out of My Dreams” track is featured on the “Love Is” compilation from Bongo Boy Records.

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Susan SurfTone is a surf rocker, whose latest CD is “Making Waves Again.” Photo: Robbie McClaran.

In an interview with Q Voice News, SurfTone talks about coming out as a singer, wanting to be George Harrison, and leaving the FBI to pursue her dream of being a lesbian surf-rocker.

Here are some excerpts.

Singing when nobody was listening

“I spent, oh God, my whole life singing with nobody around,” SurfTone said. “When I was a kid, I had a very low voice, and I was not encouraged to sing because my voice was not typical for a little girl. I was a big Elvis fan. I sung to Elvis Presley records, and then I sung to Beatles records.

Wanting to be George Harrison

“Then when I got my guitar lessons, I was pretty good at it right off the bat. I wanted to be a lead guitar player like George Harrison,” SurfTone said. “He was the best out of The Beatles because he was the lead guitar player and he was kind of quiet, and so was I.”

Time to come out as a vocalist

“The musical career just developed all around instrumental music. I still sang to Elvis though, when nobody was listening,” SurfTone said. “There was a lot of thinking about it, but the instrumental music was going really well. There was just no need to do the vocals. A lot of fans in instrumental music prefer not to have the vocals. It’s not instrumental surf anymore if you sing.

“I was ready. My music career was kind of moving away from straight surf music,” she said. “Finally, I hit a certain age where it was one of these, You’re either gonna do it now or you’re never gonna do it.”

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Staying a closet musician while working at the FBI

“Because I was in the Bureau, and I was a special agent, I had to ask them, of course, if I could play in the clubs in New York City,” SurfTone said. “They said no because there would be bad elements in the clubs that would potential compromise all of this.

“I had to think long and hard. I can’t do both so I’m gonna do one of them,” she said. “It was ultimately music.”

Seeing The Ramones in concert, John Lennon’s murder motivated her to quite the FBI and pursue music

“When I was in the FBI, I would go see the Ramones. It was like, I can do that. I know I can do that. That was what really kicked me into gear. That and the fact that John Lennon got murdered.  That made me think, I really am not doing what I want to do with my life with the FBI.”

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About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBT community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBT students.