The Ghosts of Dogtown
|Photos by Larry Hirshowitz|
If it wasn't for them, skating would have gone straight into Toys "R" Us. It was like roller-skating. There wasn't anything aggressive about it. They made it aggressive. They gave it that rebellious image.
-- Aaron Meza, editor of Skateboarder magazine
THEY PROBABLY DON'T KNOW THEY'RE ripping on holy ground, but it holds out the promise of something sacred for them just the same.
"We're 27. We're too old to run from the law anymore," says the shorter of the two. Both are dressed in khakis, white tees and flat shoes -- standard gear for the practicing faithful -- and both are sweating after a few drop-ins each. "We come here so we won't get hassled."
"Although we did get run out once by the park ranger," says the taller one, grinning.
In this devotion, persecution is an honor.
They don't know that Tony Alva used to come to this very same cement ditch in a not-to-be-named canyon in the Hollywood Hills. They don't know that he was photographed right here for Heckler magazine as recently as six years ago, captured on film being unmistakably Tony Alva -- aggressive, fluid, strong, stylish. But they do know who Tony Alva is. Sort of.
"He was the guy who made skateboarding punk, right?" one of them says reverently.
HE WAS ONE OF THE GUYS WHO DID, for sure. But did he make skateboarding punk, or did his skateboarding make punk punk? That's a chicken-and-egg question that could be argued into the night. One thing is certain, though: If they didn't start the religion of extreme sports, Alva and the Z-Boys were the ones who built the church in which the great mass of incorrigible young -- and young at heart -- now worship. The Z-Boys defined the language, made the idols, built the myths, established the canon, bled and bruised the sacraments, and in the end forged the aesthetic that skateboarding, and by extension modern youth culture, adheres to still.
Currently there is a fundamentalist revival in full sweat. Pilgrims are returning to the source. There's a documentary winning awards, a feature film in the making, Web sites popping up on the Net, books in the works. All of it dedicated to the Z-Boys. It's like the theologians, after the blasphemy of the ages, are digging back through the relics, lies, politics, truths and half-truths to find the real gospel according to Jesus.
Part of the interest is prompted by the surging popularity of skateboarding itself. Like the Beatles in their time, skateboarding is bigger than Christ -- with kids, anyway. It's the unsanctioned activity that ate America, that made mothers, fathers and civic leaders adapt to it rather than the other way around.
How big is it? There are an estimated 20 million skateboarders worldwide, with half of them residing in the United States, and nearly half the U.S. skaters residing in California. Skateboarding is now a $3 billion-per-year industry, doing $1.5 billion in retail sales; California companies represent 95 percent of those sales. More than 800 skate parks have been built across the country in the past five years, many of them in California, including parks in typically overlooked communities like Lynwood, Bell Gardens and South-Central Los Angeles.
How's this for a sign of the times: In a recent Los Angeles Times story, LAUSD police officer David Anthony enthusiastically supported after-school skating at downtown Berendo Middle School. "It's going to turn this site around because this right here is a hard-hit area," he said. "Why make outlaws out of them? Skating is the thing. The kids aren't going to stop."
Twenty-five years ago, when the Z-Boys were one step ahead of the law (most of the time), no one could have foreseen this. But the cop's right, skateboarding is not going to stop. More kids are jumping on skateboards these days than are signing up for Little League baseball. While it used to bubble above ground and then go under depending on how many advertising dollars were available to support magazines like Skateboarder, it's too big to go underground again.
Nostalgia also is playing its part in this revival. Those in control of the means of production are the same ones who were fucking shit up back when. Guys like Stacy Peralta, Craig Stecyk and Glen E. Friedman, all original Z-Boys, have grown up and teamed up on the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys: A Film About the Birth of the Now, which won Peralta a best-director award and also picked up an audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Just as skateboarding's soul seems in danger of immolation by its own institutionalization, there is a groundswell desire to reconnect with what was real and pure. The Zephyr Competition Skate Team was and is skateboarding's pure soul.
It could only have happened in Los Angeles. It could only have happened in Dogtown.
WHEN SKIP ENGBLOM WAS A BOY, HE LIVED NEAR a roller rink on Sunset Boulevard where roller-derby matches were still held. He claims he was making crude skateboards out of old roller skates back in 1956, when he was 8. It was a Los Angeles that is hard to imagine today. His mom worked at the Farmers Market on Fairfax, which also hosted class-AAA professional baseball. The Dodgers, straight out of Brooklyn, were playing daytime games at the Coliseum. Back then, you could ride a trolley to the Catalina terminal, and the only freeway in town, the Hollywood, was considered a blessing, not a blight.
"It was a completely golden time in Los Angeles," says Engblom, who would grow up (sort of) to be a forebear of the Z-Boys. "There were still Red Cars running."
Although he spends mornings scouting waves to surf, he looks and carries himself like a retired pro wrestler. Come to find out his dad actually was a pro who, according to Engblom, went on to become one of wrestling's original carnival barkers, using now-familiar characters and storylines to promote the sport. Their house was a way station for midget wrestlers and guys like Haystack Calhoun, the giant who wore a chain around his neck with a horseshoe dangling from it. "I didn't see anything strange about it," Engblom says. "These were just the people who would show up."
Young Skipper, as he was known, used to ride his bike down to see his mother at work. One day he kept going, all the way down Santa Monica Boulevard to where the road meets the sand. There was a little stand there renting inflatable rafts, and Skipper took one out into the water, where he saw a guy get up on a surfboard and ride a wave. "I completely flipped. It was probably the defining moment of my existence. I knew it was all I ever wanted to do," says Engblom. "I needed to do that more than anything." On weekends he'd ride his bike from Hollywood to the beach at 5 a.m., just to see the ocean.
In 1958, the year Engblom's mom finally gave in to her son's beach imperative and moved the family to Ennis Place, behind Venice Circle, the ghost of Abbot Kinney was once again rising from the sand. After making his fortune in the tobacco business back east, New Jerseyborn Kinney literally sailed the seven seas. The asthmatic insomniac settled in Southern California in 1880 after discovering (oh, the irony!) that he could both breathe and sleep here. It wasn't long before he started turning a marshy backwater south of Santa Monica into a seaside approximation of his beloved Venice, Italy.
Kinney hoped his Ocean Park Pier, a grand amusement park thrusting hundreds of feet into the surf, would be the main attraction of his resort, and for decades it was a smashing success. Following a devastating fire in 1924, it was rebuilt bigger and better with fireproof concrete and steel. But the Great Depression, World War II and television eventually dimmed the luster of Kinney's dream. By the time the Engbloms moved to the beach, the pier was all but closing down. CBS tried to revive it with $10 million and visions of a nautical theme park to rival Disneyland, and for a brief stretch the new Pacific Ocean Park, or P.O.P., would outperform the Magic Kingdom.
It didn't last. One of the problems with P.O.P. that nobody could solve was that visitors had to negotiate its environs to gain access to its pleasures. Those environs were falling on increasingly hard times as the money along the beach gravitated north and south, and Santa Monica began an urban-renewal project that turned buildings to rubble. After a while, braving the winos and broken glass proved more than the park's clientele could stomach.
P.O.P. closed down for good on October 6, 1967. For six more years it would crumble into the waves, a fitting symbol of the no man's land between Venice and Santa Monica that generations of skate rats would come to revere as Dogtown.
STROLLING THE YUPPIE WONDERLAND THAT IS Santa Monica's Main Street today, it's hard to imagine how neglected the area was back then. Main Street itself was a wasteland of vacant storefronts. Enterprises that were open for business included the Vixen Theater, a gentlemen's club not known for upscale talent, and the Pink Elephant, a transvestite bar. There was Synanon, a drug rehab place up toward Pico whose patients were dubbed "the eggplant people" because they were made to shave their heads and wear dark clothes. Across the street from the venerable Star Liquor, popular in the day because it sold Thunderbird wine, was Sunrise Mission -- what was called an insane asylum back then. Go down the wrong street and you were in gang territory marked by vato graffiti.
Until it was torn down in 1973, Pacific Ocean Park loomed over everything in its monolithic failure. It was picked over by Hollywood vultures, who used it as the set for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and The Fugitive and just about every cop show from Dragnet to The Mod Squad. Underneath the pier hippies, homosexuals, drug addicts, surfers and hustlers sought sanctuary. Cops from either side, Santa Monica to the north and Venice to the south, were loath to claim jurisdiction.
Some residents, though, saw this neglect as benign.
"Back then we were like a depressed ghetto," says Skip Engblom. "Main Street had all these junk shops, Sunrise Mission, winos, hookers, junkies. I enjoyed it immensely because you weren't bothered much. You could roam freely, pursue your own interests, and that was a great thing."
Others felt the same way, and in the mid-'60s the area was a bohemian hotbed that could have shamed Greenwich Village. Setting up shop on the side streets were the Chambers Brothers, Tim Buckley, the Doors, Canned Heat and Spirit, to name just a few of the musicians. Photographers William Wegman and John Baldessari had studios off Bay Street, behind what would become the Zephyr surf shop, future birthplace of the Z-Boys skate team.
The low-culture art of the booming modified-car scene competed with the lingering legacy of former resident artists David Alfaro Siqueiros and Stanton MacDonald-Wright, a founder of the synchronism movement in the early 1900s who went on to administer the WPA in the '30s. Muralists Dana Woolfe and Wayne Holwick, whose portrait of Anna on the wall of a house at Neilson and Hart still stubbornly defies urban renewal and acid rain, were igniting a public-art movement. "We were exposed to art and culture continuously," says Engblom.
Another local surfer, named Craig R. Stecyk III, was as attuned to these variant cultural influences as anybody. His father was in the Army Signal Corps (he was one of the first to document the aftermath of Hiroshima), and Stecyk had access to photo equipment not readily available to most young people then. Early on, he became enthralled with legendary beach-life photographers like Peter Gowland and Joe Quigg.
Like many rooted in the urban beach culture of that area, Stecyk's father was into modified cars. For a while he was in business with George Barris, who customized some of the most celebrated lowriders of the '40s and '50s. Through his father, Stecyk met and became friends with outlaw car artists Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Von Dutch, and later with Roth's art director and eventual founder of Zap Comix, Robert Williams.
When Stecyk wasn't surfing himself or shooting the locals braving the P.O.P. breaks, he was honing his spray paint and airbrushing skills. Having grown up between rival Chicano gangs, he quickly learned to decipher graffiti and appreciate what could be done with spray paint. He started tagging the walls around Dogtown with his own iconography, perhaps most famously his P.O.P. cross and "rat bones" figure. Later Stecyk would be recognized as a seminal graffiti artist. Back then, though, he was a prototypical tagger, an urban art guerrilla whose pranks confused outsiders and delighted peers. In one infamous antiwar stunt, he "rescued" the Independence Day beach crowd from a dummy bomb he had painted to look Russian and buried in the sand at low tide the night before.
Meanwhile, local boy Larry Stevenson started Makaha, one of the first dedicated skateboard companies, on Colorado Avenue and 26th Street, and also launched Surf Guide magazine. Stecyk became one of his sponsored skateboarders. Famous surfboard shaper Bob Simmons had a factory on Olympic. Vans would start a seedling shoe company in the neighborhood. Underground, backyard board shaping was a thriving cottage industry. You'd take your latest innovation out to the Cove, on the south side of the P.O.P. pier. If you looked good, you might have a sale. "It was kind of like stock-car racing," says Engblom. "Win on Sundays, sell on Mondays."
You could make the argument that Dogtown went multimedia before Warhol had his Factory. To Stecyk, surfboards weren't just surfboards. They were "totems. Functional artifacts."
"You can imagine how crossed my metaphors were," says Stecyk, who cites his girlfriend's residence in Stanton MacDonald-Wright's studio as an example of the heady stew they all simmered in. "I sort of had the high-culture and low-culture influences, although I didn't know what it meant. I just knew what I liked."
He had something else, too, an innate grasp of history, of change, and an intense loyalty to the ghosts of Dogtown. "A tremendous sense of propriety, or maybe even stewardship, came with having grown up with all this," he says.ä
SKIP ENGBLOM WAS 18 WHEN HE MET 16-year-old Craig Stecyk at the 1966 Pismo Beach Clam Festival.
"He came crawling out of this Volks-wagen van that eight other people had crawled out of before him. They had all slept overnight there," recalls Engblom. "We started talking and walked up the street to get breakfast. I thought I'd lead him in there and do a dine and dash. Next thing you know, he and I are both on the street. We both dined and dashed simultaneously, and we both looked at each other and laughed, and we became friends."
Around the same time, a Culver City kid named Jeff Ho was apprenticing at Roberts Surfboards in Playa del Rey under the tutelage of Bob Milner. Milner was a bit of a local legend himself.
"He was a crazy motherfucker. He used to ride his motorcycle up the hill outside the shop. In those days, dirt-bike riding was hill climbing. He had a crazy-ass view on life," says Ho. "He taught me how to build boards, to shape, glass, sand, repair, resin, the whole enchilada."
Pretty soon the shortboard revolution was under way, and Ho was on the front lines, as both a shaper and a surfer. The surfing establishment, though, was late in catching on. Ho would take his boards -- prototypes of today's bullet boards -- to sanctioned contests and meet with either puzzlement or prejudice.
"These guys couldn't comprehend it, whacking the lips and doing S turns," says Ho, talking from Hawaii, where he lives on the North Shore of Oahu. Once in frustration he entered the Santa Monica Open and almost won riding a shortboard blank, right out of the mold. "I'm laughing the whole time. I shaped the board with a claw hammer on the beach. That's when I decided contests were a joke."
Ho found a more receptive audience at the pier, where his high-performance boards proved useful for dodging the pilings and other wreckage of Pacific Ocean Park. He earned a reputation as an iconoclast both in and out of the water. "I was into doing my own things and making my own boards and selling them to people on the beach and to some shops. I was a kid. I was like 18 years old," says Ho. "To me, making a couple hundred bucks was a big thing."
While Ho had heard of Stecyk and Engblom, they had yet to meet, at least in person. They did, however, share the pages of Surfer magazine in 1968. Ho was captured in the center spread slashing a Hawaiian fatty, while Stecyk and Engblom published photos and a story on Santa Monica surfers like Mickey Dora and Johnny Fain. It was an early testament to the roots of the Dogtown vibe titled, in typically cryptic Stecyk fashion, "The Crackerjack Conspiracy."
The optimism and good cheer of the postwar generation, though, was rapidly being worn down by a power structure that seemed hell-bent on folly. Engblom remembers those as the last innocent days of the '60s, before America came apart at the seams and the Doors replaced the Beach Boys as the soundtrack to the California Dream. They were the last days before Robert Kennedy was shot down in front of their eyes, on June 5, 1968.
"Nero fiddled while Rome burned. We surfed while America went down the tubes," says Engblom. "Robert Kennedy, before he got assassinated that day, I walked out of my apartment on Venice Boulevard and he waved at me and my mom, and he was dead a couple hours later. Starting with all that -- John F. Kennedy, then Martin Luther King and then the brother -- you just knew something bad was happening. Any sense that good things were going to follow pretty much died at that moment."
The threat of being drafted, too, hung as heavily over the three kids as the fog during an onshore flow.
"All three of us were in the same boat because of the Vietnam War. I was 1-A from fucking day one. Any day, I'm thinking, I'm fucking gone," recalls Ho. "That whole thing you saw in Big Wednesday, I went through that. I was part of that. I had friends that went to Canada."
"I grew up in Venice around black people, Mexicans and Asians," says Engblom. "The idea that I was going to go over and shoot Asians was totally repugnant to me. I didn't see these guys storming the beaches of Santa Monica."
Stecyk tried for student deferments. Ho fudged his physicals. Engblom hopped a ship in the merchant marines, staying out at sea as much as possible between 1968 and 1970. "I spent the war riding luxury liners," he says. When his ship finally docked, he came back to the beach with some money, but was "essentially unemployable."
THE ARTIST AND THE IMPRESARIO finally met the shaper on a weird winter day in 1970. It had been raining constantly for about a week, and the whole area was practically underwater.
Eventually the storm gave way to a blustery, ornery sunshine. Stecyk and Engblom went down to the beach to check on the surf. They parked in a flooded lot while the tail end of the storm blew through. When they could finally see out of Engblom's old Cadillac, they realized they had parked next to the '48 Chevy truck, the classic surfer's get-around, in which Jeff Ho lived. Stecyk told Engblom he should talk to the notorious outrider about going into business for real.
"These two guys walk up to me and say, 'Hey you, you're Jeff Ho.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, what the fuck do you want?'" says Ho.
They proposed starting up a factory to manufacture surfboards. It sounded good to Ho, who was in love with a white girl from high school whose parents didn't like his Chinese-American ethnicity or his surfing lifestyle.
"Her parents hated me. They thought I was a lowlife," Ho says. "My motivation was to make some money to buy some land on the big island and marry this chick."
They took advantage of their contacts and Ho's clients and started pumping out boards. Ho shaped new designs. Stecyk experimented with airbrushing techniques. They had imagination and a do-it-yourself attitude. Sometimes stunning progress was made.
"[Stecyk] invented the airbrushed surfboard. That was his invention," says Engblom. "I don't care what anybody is telling you, he was making airbrushed surfboards a year or two before anybody was putting them on the market."
They worked hard and played hard. They took surf trips. Stecyk sent pictures of them and their boards to Surfer magazine.
"It was a fucking really good time," says Ho. "The outlook was that everything could blow up tomorrow, so everything we did, we just did. The goal was to make money to do more projects."
Soon their production spilled over into another factory. It became clear they needed their own shop to keep up. Meanwhile, the girl for whom Ho was stuffing away money, "to buy her a left-point break on the big island," left him for family-sanctioned romantic seas. "She started dating some other guy who was actually going to college or something," says Ho. "Instead of buying the land, I bought the shop."
Jeff Ho's Surfboards and Zephyr Productions would occupy the southeast corner of Bay and Main in Santa Monica, across the street from Sunrise Mission and next to Star Liquor. It was the heart of what they would dub Dogtown.
SEVERAL YEARS BEFORE THE SHOP opened, in a bold move for a 7-year-old, a blond-haired little grommet paddled up to an older dude who was ripping the P.O.P. pier and said, "Oh man, that was a really good ride. Who are you?"
"I'm Jeff Ho," the guy answered.
"You make surfboards, don't you?"
"I wish I could have one of your boards."
"Maybe you will. Maybe you will."
In time, Jay Adams was riding one of Ho's boards as part of the Zephyr shop's junior surf team. In a prescient move, by the early '70s Ho and Engblom were sponsoring not only a men's surf team but also a junior division that would keep the next wave of top talent in the pipeline. Adams was one of the youngest members, who also included Tony Alva, Stacy Peralta, Nathan Pratt, Bob Biniak, Wentzle Ruml, Shogo Kubo, Jim Muir and others.
To get on the team, the kids had to prove their mettle in the water at the Cove -- where guys like Engblom and Ho and Zephyr men's team members Ronnie Jay and Wayne Saunders ruled the waves. Before you could even get in the water, though, you might be required to do time on rat patrol. Rat patrol involved bombing interlopers off the beach with stones, bottles, wet sand or whatever else was at hand. This intense localism, which became a part of the Dogtown/Z-Boys ethos, was born in part from the need to keep kooks away from the dangerous breaks of the Cove, where local knowledge could mean the difference between catching a wave and becoming a casualty. But it wasn't just a safety concern. As surf spots go, theirs was small, gritty and barrio-like, and what little they had -- a block of shoreline and one good wave -- they had to protect fiercely.
"We were aware of it because we'd go surfing in Leucadia or Santa Barbara, where everything was beautiful and the trees went down to the beach and there was no smog on the horizon and you didn't have to worry about getting your tires popped," says Stacy Peralta. "We went to the beach here, and there were certain streets you just didn't go down because of the gangs and stuff like that. It wasn't like that in San Diego or in the South Bay."
Most of the Z-Boys came from financially stressed, broken homes, but the team "gave us a sense of family and empowerment," says Engblom. "We had an us-against-them mentality. It was so much more than just the business." The team was like a secret society, whose headquarters was the Zephyr shop. It was the kind of clubhouse a teenager could only dream of, chaperoned as it was by three barely adults.
"Parents would just drop their kids off with lunches and tell them they'd pick them up at five. We're trying to run a business, and I've got this group of kids who are just hanging out continuously," says Engblom. "The thing is, with me being so young and Jeff being so young and Craig being so young, it's hard to drop-kick somebody to the curb."
Given their lifestyles at the time -- the only 12 steps they were following were the ones that would take them to Star Liquor or into the backroom for a toke -- the shop owners weren't exactly in a position to preach about what not to do. Even so, they provided things that were hard to find at home or on the streets for the kids who were hanging around. Sometimes it was something as simple as shoes -- Ho says he was in a constant losing battle to keep good shoes on their feet. Other times it was something more complex.
"All of us knew we weren't going to get respect playing football. We weren't good enough. Or academically," says Peralta. Earning a Zephyr team shirt "was one thing we could make our mark with, so we all wanted to do that."
As Alva puts it, "If it wasn't for Skip, I never would have known there was any door that was open for me to be a professional skateboarder. Skip gave me that kind of attitude where it was like, 'Hey, you got the skills, you got the talent, you got the drive, get out there and kick ass.'"
That attitude would germinate among the kids as they pushed themselves in the surf and on the concrete, waiting for a chance to show the world what they had going. That chance would come in the spring of 1975.
"I knew it was something, I just didn't know what it was," says Engblom. "I could feel it was something special. I mean, these guys used to go out and practice every day on Bicknell Hill, and these were guys that had no sense of discipline or sense of order. But they all showed up every day because they knew that we had to go do this to excel, because somehow, in the back of everybody's mind, we knew this thing down there was going to be something."
Down there was Del Mar's Ocean Festival, where Bahne and Cadillac wheels sponsored the Del Mar Nationals as a showcase for skateboarding's resurgence. The well-behaved community just north of San Diego was the kind of place that seemed to have a Carpenters playlist in permanent rotation. It appeared to be all that was right about the California Dream. It was a different world from Dogtown, and the Z-Boys were intent on going down there to let everybody know it.
"We had to work these people over," says Engblom. "We had to validate our existence."
SKATEBOARDING HAD GONE BACK underground after its brief fling with mainstream popularity in the early '60s. It was perceived to be too dangerous, and the equipment -- with slippery clay wheels -- wasn't really facile enough for the average dilettante. But it had never let up in Dogtown. Most of the surfers skated around town when the waves weren't up. Particularly the ones who would make up the core of the Z-Boys. Skateboarding, however, started booming again in the early '70s, when Cadillac introduced the first urethane wheels. Technology was finally catching up to the imaginations of Tony Alva, Jay Adams and the others who had long been outperforming their equipment.
Several other factors -- a "disharmonic convergence," in Stacy Peralta's words -- would come together to set the stage for the Z-Boys' assault on the Del Mar Nationals.
One was geography. Los Angeles is full of slopes, canyons, drainage gulleys and all sorts of natural assets civic leaders have historically been wont to pave over. Santa Monica and vicinity was particularly rich in playgrounds with high banks. There was Mar Vista Middle School, Paul Revere Junior High in Pacific Palisades, Kenter Canyon, Bellagio. At these spots the waves were always up, and the Z-Boys found them just right for fashioning a new style of skateboarding that emulated their favorite shortboarder, Hawaiian surfer Larry Bertleman.
Los Angeles also has one of the greatest concentrations of backyard pools in the universe. In the mid-'70s, the worst drought in the city's history drained them in unprecedented numbers. For Alva, Adams, Muir, Biniak and the rest, the empty pools were the crown jewels in their delinquent empire. Steep, smooth, the bowls provided unmatched opportunities for aggressive skateboarding.
The Z-Boys would congregate at these playgrounds and pools and drive each other to new levels, refining a low-center-of-gravity, surf-style attack that featured hard slash-backs at the tops of the concrete waves. They called these turns "Berts" in honor of Bertleman. In the pools, the coping on the lips was the line in the sand they were already starting to cross. Their pool prowess made an in-joke of the 1975 Skateboarder re-launch issue that featured a guy on the cover carving a turn barely four feet up a pool wall.
Jimi Hendrix, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin provided the soundtrack to the boys' pool parties and street sessions. The outings were charged with teenage aggression and the adrenaline of dodging the cops as they violated public ordinances or trespassed on private property and even indulged in the occasional breaking and entering. They had a "fuck you" attitude toward authority and convention, and if you fucked with the Z-Boys you would likely get your head knocked.
What do you expect from a bunch of underprivileged, delinquent teenagers? Certainly not genius, but that's what was happening.
The world outside Dogtown would have to wait until the Del Mar competition to get a taste of what the Z-Boys were cooking, but to get an understanding of how radical it was, you have to understand a bit about the accepted standards of skateboarding in the mid-'70s. By and large, it was done on flat surfaces in an upright position. Things like handstands and 360s, tick-tack turns and nose wheelies were the height of proficiency. It looked like synchronized swimming on wheels. It had far less drama than figure skating. It only seems so ridiculous now because of what the Z-Boys did to it.
What they did was shift the paradigm. They took it off the beach strands and competition platforms where it had died numerous deaths before, and moved it into the egalitarian province of the streets. They took it back from white-bread, well-to-do Del Mar and claimed it for the multicultural urban core. They gave it to the people in a way the people could use it.
Craig Stecyk, whose words, photos and art would deftly articulate the larger meaning of what was going on, said it best in a 1980 article for Skateboarder. Under his preferred nom de plume, John Smythe, he wrote:
Forget about the mainline and the fast lane; the edge of the glide is all that is of value. The true skater surveys all that is offered, takes all that is given, goes after the rest and leaves nothing to chance. In a society on hold and a planet on self-destruct, the only safe recourse is an insane approach.
We're talking attitude; the ability to deal with a given set of predetermined circumstances and to extract what you want and discard the rest. Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas; the future foragers of the present, working out in a society dictated by principles of the past. The skater makes everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden. The skating urban anarchist employs the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways the original architects could never even dream of; sidewalks for walking, curbs for parking, streets for driving, pipes for liquids, sewers for refuse, etc. have all been re-worked into a new social order.
Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary is a barrage of indelible moments and images that communicate this energy. One of the raddest scenes is of Jay Adams debuting for the Zephyr team at Del Mar.
Entering the competition square, he gets lower and pumps harder than anyone outside of Dogtown had ever imagined. Just when it looks like he's going off the end of the raised platform, he slashes a Bert at the square edge of the skateboarding world. Then, as if to emphasize the point, he bunny-hops back across the platform in front of the judges, in absolute contempt of their rules and limitations. Before his two minutes are up, he skates off the platform and carves a violent turn, proving all over again that the world isn't flat. The other teams shake their heads and complain at this insurrection. The judges don't know what to do. The crowd goes crazy.
"The Dogtown guys came down to that competition and just terrorized everybody," remembers Warren Bolster, who would be the editor of Skateboarder when it re-launched a couple of months later. "These guys were so different and unique. They made quite an impression."
Two years later the world would hear Johnny Rotten proclaim himself an anarchist, but that was arguably the birth of punk.
AS WITH SKATEBOARDING ITSELF, interest in the Z-Boys and Dogtown never really went away. It just went underground or entered the mythology of the culture's inner circle. The current Z-Boy fever, though, can be traced back most directly to a story by Greg Beato, in the March 1999 issue of Spin, titled "The Lords of Dogtown." Beato, a freelance writer, had been given the assignment after an editor saw an advance of Michael Brooke's The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding. The Dogtown sections of the book jumped out at him. Following Spin, Hollywood came knocking. Rights to the life stories of various Z-Boys were purchased, and the machine started its slow, usually futile grind.
At the same time, Stacy Peralta's life and career were at a crossroads. He had left Powell-Peralta, started in 1979 and at one time the most influential skateboarding company in the world, years before. His own foray into television as a director and producer had not been terribly fulfilling. Then there was an emotionally draining divorce. At some point in the middle of all this, he happened upon some old photographs of the Z-Boys in action. The pictures had the same effect on him as they seem to have on everybody.
Peralta went for a hike, thought about the prospects of WB network candy kids playing the roles of Alva and Adams and the rest, and called Craig Stecyk when he came back down. Work on the documentary, funded by Vans (the same company Jeff Ho tried to coerce into giving the kids shoes 30 years ago), began in earnest.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. In skateboarding parlance, it killed. Most of the gang assembled for the premiere. Skip Engblom says it was obvious from the moment he touched down that the Z-Boys, most of whom hadn't seen each other in 25 years, were in full effect.
"I got off a plane. I got on this shuttle. I showed up at this house, and here are Wentzle [Ruml] and [Bob] Biniak sitting at a table. We looked at each other. Stacy walked in. We started laughing. We didn't say anything for the first five minutes. We just cracked up laughing," says Engblom. "We decided to walk into town to get some coffee and something to eat, right? We're walking, and this is a huge event and people don't know who we are or anything, but we're walking down the street and people are responding to us, and what they're responding to is that collectively we have this energy level that is so amazing. It's so intense that people, for whatever reason, they don't even understand it, but they get sucked into it. They get sucked into this black hole of Z-Boydom."
It didn't take long after Del Mar for Z-Boydom to suck the rest of the world in. Then, like a black hole does when the gravity becomes too much, it started collapsing in on itself.
It wasn't just the skateboarding that created this pull, although looking at the overall cultural impact of the Dogtown movement, it's sometimes easy to forget how good these guys were. Tony "Mad Dog" Alva was becoming the archetypal all-around skater in pools, on the banked playgrounds, or going for speed. He had a style and charisma that couldn't be matched. "Bullet" Bob Biniak was considered the fastest skater in the world, and the one many say had the biggest balls. He'd try anything and often be the first to do so. Shogo Kubo was known for strength and flair. Jim Muir was earning a reputation as one of the hottest pool riders around. Stacy Peralta was smooth, precise, able to beat the "down southers" at their own game while subverting it with the Dogtown style. And then there was Jay Adams. Peralta likens Adams to Mozart on wheels.
"The movie Amadeus, when Amadeus comes to the court where Salieri is and Salieri plays a piece and then Mozart sits down and says, 'I think I can do this,' and he plays the piece so much better than Salieri could have ever conceived -- he starts playing it, and he adds all this stuff to it without really knowing what he's doing, it just starts coming through him -- that was Jay Adams," says Peralta. "Most people have a 20-amp plug in them. This guy had 100 amps. All the time."
Every time the boys skated together -- especially in the pools they were so fond of crashing -- it seemed like there was a new breakthrough. During these sessions, they started laying down the basic language of modern skateboarding. Pushed by Peralta, Biniak finally nailed a frontside kick turn at vert. Not long after, Peralta started stringing them together from tile to tile and a frontside forever was invented. Today, kids take this stuff for granted. It's part of the lexicon. Back then, it was almost unimaginable.
Not everybody saw what the Z-Boys were doing as progress. In a now-celebrated remark, Skateboarding Association executive director Sally Anne Miller told People magazine that Tony Alva represented "everything that was vile in the sport." This was after Alva had appeared as Leif Garrett's thug rival, Tony Bluetile, in the 1977 movie Skateboard.
The assault on polite society didn't stop with Del Mar. In a series of stories and images that appeared in Skateboarder and then other magazines like Thrasher, Craig Stecyk and his young protégé, photographer Glen E. Friedman, began building the legend of Dogtown and the Z-Boys. In stark black-and-white that fit the mood of their beachside dystopia, Friedman introduced teenagers to Tony Alva flipping them off as his kicktail perched incredibly on the lip of a pool. There were shots of bombed-out buildings and graffiti-splattered walls. Then there was Jay Adams grinding the coping of some fat cat's pool with such disdain it looked like class warfare. Stecyk and Friedman created a raw, unapologetic style of documentation that put the boys' skating in the context of their hardcore, uncompromising lifestyle. It became the aesthetic template for skateboarding and other X-Games staples like snowboarding and BMX.
The Z-Boys' style and attitude resonated across the land. Kids in Michigan spray painted their own versions of Stecyk's Dogtown graffiti -- the notorious cross and "rat bones" that would become as well known as Big Daddy Roth's Rat Fink -- on their homemade halfpipes. San Francisco artist Barry McGee, a.k.a. Twist, is said to have tagged his first wall with the Dogtown cross. In D.C., Ian MacKaye of Fugazi fame was dressing like he was from Venice. (MacKaye, Henry Rollins, Jeff Ament and Sean Penn -- who narrates -- all eagerly signed up to contribute to Peralta's documentary.)
Today, hip contemporary galleries like L.A.'s New Image and New York's Alleged are dominated by skateboarder artists such as Ed Templeton, Mark Gonzales and Thomas Campbell. Rich Jacobs, who curated a show of his peers' work at New Image this summer, explains the impact the Dogtown aesthetic had on him and friends like MacKaye. "I remember going to the skateboard shop in Long Beach and getting Skateboarder and being amazed at what they were doing. Stecyk was really good at documenting what was going on with his friends," he says. "In my personal opinion, it was the spirit and the energy as much as anything, going a little beyond being a rebellious teenager. They were attacking life with a vengeance that seems more raw than just the average teenager.
"Everything else seemed so mellow and laid-back in the '70s. They weren't that way. They seemed crazy to me."
If Sally Anne Miller was trying to protect the sanctity of organized skateboarding, she was fighting a losing battle. Posters of Alva and Adams were being pinned up on teenagers' walls almost as fast as those of Farrah Fawcett-Majors. To not understand why is to not understand the heart of male adolescence. As a young boy in 1976, you may have dreamed of being with Farrah Fawcett, but you dreamed of being Tony Alva or Jay Adams.
THE BUSINESS END OF SKATEBOARDing wasn't as slow on the uptake as was Ms. Miller.
"After we made the scene in Del Mar, there were skate companies coming after us and offering us things. People started turning them down at first, but then, after a while, the team started to unravel," recalls Bob Biniak over coffee at the type of shop that wouldn't have been seen within miles of Main Street back in the day. Compact and still athletic-looking, Biniak is one of a handful of original Z-Boys who never left the area. "We all came from nothing. We wanted the BMWs and we wanted the stuff, and that was partly how we got those things, and it was kind of a sad story."
Jeff Ho did his best to keep things together, but the Zephyr shop just couldn't compete with big companies like Gordon & Smith and Logan Earth Ski. Adding to the uncertainty, there were production problems with a signature line of fiberglass-deck skateboards the shop was trying to roll out with Jay Adams' stepfather, Kent Sherwood. That partnership dissolved and Sherwood started his own Z-Flex label. Adams and others went with him. The shop closed down soon after the team split up.
"The sponsorship money, all the corporate crap, guys wanting to make money and shit. Intellectually, I could understand it, because everybody had to move on and do their own thing, but it ripped everything up," says Ho. "It was just over."
Big sponsors picked the team members off one by one and started trotting out the Dogtown dog-and-pony show. For Biniak there would be a halftime demonstration in front of 85,000 people at a Rams-Raiders game at the Coliseum. For Nathan Pratt it would be a jump stunt in a movie for a fee negotiated by Engblom at $300 per foot (he'd warned that Pratt never jumped less than 15 feet). Alva and Peralta would appear in movies and TV shows. Peralta even made it onto Charlie's Angels.
It was high times, and the Z-Boys were quick to embrace the fame, fortune and party. Biniak's apartment was the headquarters.
"Every one of the boys would come over. I'd be in there banging chicks, and they'd be going, 'Give me a couple of Thai sticks,' and I'd say, 'Go ahead, take a few,' and they'd go in my laundry basket. I had a wicker laundry basket full of them," Biniak says with a chuckle. "I was on my own from the age of 14. I had no parental guidance. I was running wild. We wanted to skate, party and chase all the richest chicks up in the Palisades and see what we could catch."
Now the boys were running wild with money and license. Rich hangers-on appeared on the scene, wanting to be down with Dogtown. They gravitated to the Hollywood nights. Sponsors sometimes indulged their ever-increasing recreational drug use with freebies.
By 1977, to the outside world, the Dogtown scene was exploding. Jim Muir and Wes Humpston, another local who used to embellish skateboards with his hand-drawn art, trademarked the Dogtown name and went into business with some guys from New York. Peralta left Gordon & Smith and hooked up with George Powell to form what would become Powell-Peralta. An investor backed Tony Alva to start up his own line of skates. Skateboarding was booming, too. Shot out of the double barrel of urethane wheels and an attitude adjustment in the punk-rock personas of the Z-Boys, it had turned into a $400 million business. For a while, Skateboarder was the hottest title on the newsstand.
It was a dizzy, headfirst time, but the inevitable passing of the Zephyr team coincided with the inevitable passing of their youth. Most of the team had graduated or dropped out of high school by 1978, and it was clear that the big world outside Dogtown had different plans for each of them. Before that would happen, though, they had one last brief and brilliant moment together. It was at a place they called Dino's Dogbowl.
Dino was a kid with terminal cancer who looked up to the Z-Boys. In the summer and fall of 1978, he fulfilled a personal "make a wish" and got his dad to drain their pool in wealthy north Santa Monica. It was open only to Z-Boys and their guests, and it became the place where they rekindled the old Dogtown spirit. "It was like back to the old times because it was just us," remembers Peralta. "There weren't any officials, and it wasn't sanctioned. It was pure again for a while."
The Dogbowl sessions are still legendary. The friendly competitive fire was back, and the boys pushed each other further and further above the coping. Then, during one of the sessions, nobody's too sure on which day, Tony Alva barreled up the wall to vert. He blasted past the coping and shot out into open air. He grabbed his board, turned his nose and re-entered. Alva had landed the first aerial. The line in the sand had been crossed, and the Z-Boys had changed skateboarding forever, again.
"It just felt like the ultimate adrenaline rush. We thought hitting the lip was the limit," Alva says of that day. "I realized I had more control over gravity. There was a whole new level to get to now."
The Dogbowl sessions lasted until Marina del Rey built a skatepark that became the place to go. The Z-Boys dispersed, and though they would ride together from time to time, ruling wherever they went, it was never on again like it was at the Dogbowl.
By the end of 1980, skateboarding had faded from view too, going down in a sea of insurance issues, recession and mothers who didn't want their sons to grow up to be Z-Boys. Wentzle Ruml fled to the East Coast to escape the hard-partying lifestyle. Biniak went to college. Even Alva was out of circulation for a while as he tested the waters of higher education before deciding the mainstream world was not for him.
Punk rock, since its West Coast inception, had been the sonic soulmate of the Dogtown scene. In fact, Jim Muir's younger brother, Mike, was the lead singer for seminal hardcore band Suicidal Tendencies. In punk Jay Adams discovered another outlet for the 100 watts of aggression he had brought to skating. Although the Z-Boys had the reputation of never taking any shit, they didn't go looking for fights. With everyone gunning for them, they didn't have to. In the punk-rock scene, however, Adams admits he found an arena for what appeared to be sanctioned violence.
"During that time, I was into L.A. punk rock," Adams writes from jail in Hawaii, where he's serving time on a drug bust. "Life was filled with violence. In order for me to have a good night, somebody else had to have a very bad night. Now that I'm older, I know that shit ain't right, but at the time, it was fun and games."
It stopped being fun and games after a typically chaotic Suicidal show in the Valley. On the way home a tequila-soaked Adams and his crew stopped as usual at Oki Dog in Hollywood. A gay couple, one guy white and the other black, strolled by and met with typical catcalls. Happens all the time, right? Only this time the couple decided to shout back -- something along the lines of "Fuck you, punk-rock assholes."
To Adams, those were fighting words. He and a friend put the guys on the ground and bolted. Unfortunately, the rest of the crowd moved in with steel boots and didn't stop until one of the guys was dead. Initially arrested for murder, Adams ended up serving a six-month sentence for felony assault.
If you wanted to look for a sad epitaph for this story, that would be it. But the Z-Boys' legacy endured. Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva, through their skate companies, introduced the world to the likes of Christian Hosoi, Tommy Guerrero, Mark Gonzales, Steve Alba and, eventually, Tony Hawk. One of the most famous and recognizable athletes in the world, Hawk spent his first 10 years as a professional skateboarder, an original member of Powell-Peralta's famed Bones Brigade.
Craig Stecyk and Stacy Peralta would also pioneer the use of video to document not only the most progressive skating, but the irreverent, barely legal exploits of the Brigade -- a trend that would set the tone for Big Brother magazine and MTV's highest-rated show, Jackass. Wes Humpston and Jim Muir would formalize Stecyk's initial artistic impulse and make production-level graphics on skateboards the industry standard.
In effect, the Z-Boys remade skateboarding in their own image, an image that is still haunted by Pacific Ocean Park and the ghosts of Dogtown, and now skateboarding has remade youth culture in its image. It's the $3 billion cornerstone of an extreme-sports franchise that rises from ESPN to Capital Cities/ABC up to Disney. Skateparks are once again flourishing, this time in partnership with mega-mall developers. All of which helps explain why Stecyk and Peralta's documentary is so aptly subtitled A Film About the Birth of the Now. It also helps explain why New Line has a feature film in the works, once again hoping to capitalize on the Z-Boys effect out there in the prized demographic of the teenage wasteland. One wonders if all the renewed interest in the Zephyr Competition Skate Team, once the fiery soul of skateboarding, can save it from this corporate takeover. At least Peralta won't have to worry about how the story comes out, because he's been hired to write the script.
Lock up your sons and daughters, Ma, the Z-Boys ride again.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.