Monday, January 14, 2013

Deloreans, Driveway Destruction And Vicious Acts Of Valterrorism

1985 was the year Back To The Future came out, the year I got my first wide-bodied department store knock-off board. It was a big year for skateboarding in general. In the civilized world, the sport was beginning to rebound from its near-death at the end of the 1970‘s. Corporations were beginning to, once again, wave cash around to bankroll demos and contests. Skateboarding was popping up sporadically in TV commercials, and NSA contest attendance broke records. Robert Zemeckis’ classic film kicked that momentum into overdrive. A lot of kids got their first stick after seeing Back To The Future, and I’m not just referring to the farm belt yokels either. By December of 1985, a skateboard was the christmas gift of choice for a lot of kids everywhere. Marty Mcfly doesn’t deserve all the credit for making that happen, but he certainly played a part.

Of course, living in the midwest back then was a sort of time warp in and of itself. It wasn’t that things always came to us late (although they mostly did), if a fad reached critical mass fast enough to be co-opted by Hollywood, it could break the time barrier and reach into the suburban midwestern zeitgeist in an almost timely fashion. But even when that happened, what we got was the toned-down, tone-deaf commodified and co-opted version of whatever it was. This was the case with Punk Rock, It was the case with breakdancing and, it was the case with skateboarding.

Marty McFly and his bumper tows in Back To The Future were a classic example of Hollywood trying to get in on a youth movement that was already nearing a peak and getting it wrong. But for us, with our ass-backward time warp, Michael J. Fox and his transtemporal Valterra were state of the art. Our chronocultural displacement assured that it would be two years or so before a lot of us were even aware that pro-model skateboards and quality equipment existed. What Back To The Future did do was put Taiwanese crap boards on shelves everywhere, so for us skating’s next level came not via post-cinema trips to a real skate shop, but in the form of Valterras ogled in the Sears catalog, Nash boards, in all their glued-on, saw-blade grit glory, sitting on the shelves of K-Mart, or, in my case, a junk grade Variflex, purchased from a sporting goods store for my 11th birthday.

I can’t remember whether I got my first crap board before or after seeing Back To The Future, but I know I had been angling for a new department store skateboard for months by the time the movie came out. Seeing Michael J. Fox gadding about on a Valterra in a flipped-collar jean jacket, pegged acid washed jeans, and feathered hair wasn’t the watershed moment it was for many skaters of my generation, but it was another push, another peek beyond the driveway. For many kids lucky enough to live in places with a skateboard shop, Back To The Future triggered their first excursion to a skate shop and into a new world of laminated concaves, polyurethane wheels and pro-model graphics. For us, it inspired trips to K-mart or the local sporting good store for a $45.00 hunk of taiwanese crap.

Back To The Future is a pretty terrible intro to skateboarding. For one thing, it still depicted skating as something kids only did before they could drive or afford a car. Once McFly gets his meathead 4 wheel drive pickup at the films end, it's implied that that skateboard is destined for the next garage sale. Even I was skeptical that McFly’s hijinks were an depiction of “skateboarding” at the next level. Marty McFly mostly commutes and poses on his Valterra (although we were stoked on that tail-pop into the hand dismount he did) and his bumper tows were irrelevant on our nasty roads. The chances of any of us being chased by 1950’s bullies and soaring over a convertible via an invisible launch ramp were pretty slim. Still, the movie had an impact, it got me a little more excited about skating, and got crap boards into the hands of a lot of my friends. Its myopic corninness aside, Back To The Future gave me more people to skate with, and more driveways to session.

Back To The Future didn’t bring Thrasher magazine to my hometown though. The near total embargo on any sort of substantive information on skating persisted, but those boards, those crappy knock offs still got us a step closer to the subculture that changed our lives. Those boards, with their cheaply painted, hopelessly flat, unlaminated decks, plastic wheels and stiff, ludicrously heavy trucks were still so unlike our banana boards that they hinted at sidewalk surfin’ potentialities we would try to get our heads around  for the next few years.

For marginalized skaters in the 1980's, the crap board phase is crucial. I suspect this stumbling phase is either non-existent or much less important for skaters who grew up in skating’s epicenters. For anyone who lived in a city that had a skate shop in '85 or those who lived in a place with a microscopic but legitimate skate scene, that first Valterra begged off the dime store shelf is probably just a tiny footnote in their life as a skater, a quickly corrected wrong turn away from the fast lane of skating. It might have taken a couple of months before they got a real skateboard or met their first “real” skater with a pro set-up, but kids in better places got there quick, making the valterrorist days hardly noteworthy. Eventually skating’s growing prominence would mean that even in the midwest kids might skip this phase altogether. But for me and many others in places like my hometown, that rickety, paint-peeling, bearing-locking budget board phase lasted years.

Still, as laughable as it seems now, there was real progress in the little jump to the wide-bodied budget board. To us they really were nothing like the plastic dime-store bananas we had been thrashing. Most noticeably they had pictures on the bottom. Even at that naive age, I was pretty sure the pictures on the bottom of a skateboard were irrelevant, but the tossed off, poorly screen-printed multicolor kitsch on those sad decks were alluring nonetheless. Like those terrible OP t-shirts, a lot of these Variflex and Valterra Saturday-morning specials were emblazoned, almost dada-isticaly, with pseudo skate-dude non-sequitors like “Rail Flip” “Shreddin”,“Locals Only!” and, of course, the ever present “Catchin’ Air.” A lot of those boards had graphics that depicted anonymous skateboarders skating. I was a prepubescent yokel, but even I was pretty sure that real skaters, whoever and wherever they were, probably didn’t have the names of the tricks they were doing, or pictures of people doing them on the bottoms of their boards. This motif was so prominent on Nashes and Valterras that, to this day, any board featuring actual skateboarding on it sets off “crap board” alarms in my brain.

The crap board graphics were an encyclopedic depiction of what the average or slightly off-average ten year old thought was cool. There were boards with names like “The Skate Zombie” or “The Executioner”, and more heavy metal-style skulls, skeletons, sword wielder,s and monsters than could be cataloged in a dozen Dungeons And Dragons monster manuals. Sassy cartoon characters abounded, there was the “skate cat”, and the “Alf” Valterra board; numerous aliens, dinosaurs and robots. All the dangerous animals of the biosphere were amply represented: snakes, sharks, scorpions, anything in nature that could kill you horribly could be found prowling on the bottom of a Nash or Valterra. There was also no shortage of prime, Reagan-era themes: fighter jets, space shuttles, atomic bombs, tanks, guns, etc.. and of course, post May ’85, the Back To The Future decks, including the holy grail, the splatter-painted Valterra McFly shredded in the actual film, truly the Tony Hawk of department store shit boards.

Still, for many of us, these scrap-grade nightmares were our first ass-backwards peek at rudimentary elements of skate culture. A lot of those Valterra’s and Variflexes were shamelessly plagiarizing art from pro team decks, usually pretty badly. There was the Valterra “Dragon”: a swipe of the classic Powell Peralta Steve Caballero board. There was the “Illusion” with its psychedelic, hypno-swirl, a pretty good rip of the iconic Mark “Gator” Rogowski Vision deck. Skulls were so omnipresent that it’s a stretch to say all those cranial nightmares were rips of the Powell Mike McGill skull/snake or the Powell “skull and sword”, but I’m sure the design wizards at Valterra and Variflex had those classic decks in mind nonetheless.

Corny graphics weren’t all the $50 sticks had to offer though. It’s interesting how, even though we knew little about advanced skating, there was potentiality in those boards that was immediate and intuitive even to us. They were substantially wider than the flexi-boards most of us had. The benefits of that were obvious: more room to balance, more ability to shift your weight around the board and really push into a carve, and they had grip tape. What an innovation! Something that made your feet actually stick to the board. Incredible! The long, squared tails, with their infinitesimal upturn were both enigmatic and inviting. The first thought that popped into any kids head upon looking at a kick tail was wheelies, and, hey, that must be what that plastic tail protecctor was for! Poppin’ wheelies. rad!

Budget boards always came with the full array of plastic protections: nose guards, tail skids, rails, lappers, sometimes even copers. Yes, what could be better than a couple of pounds of plastic to add much needed excess weight to an already ludicrously heavy piece of bargain-basement crap. Protecting that $39.50 investment was of tantamount importance. Even worse, the plastic was always affixed to the deck with woodscrews instead of lock nuts, further undermining the integrity of the barely-varnished, low-quality materials of the deck.

Even those cheesy accessories gave us ideas. The boards had rails, what were those for? Protecting the graphics? Protecting them from what? We were one tiny, insurmountable step from discovering board slides. You could also lean down and grab those rails. Crouch, carve and grab rail: A legitimate driveway “trick” for us. So was leaning back and throwing that plastic tail bone into a wheelie skid. Lean down and grab the rail while you were scraping the tail at full speed and you were a bad ass.

The gravelly roads were still impassable, even on the slightly upgraded, flimsy, plastic, neon-colored wheels that came on the Valterra's and Nashes. Any excursion beyond the driveway was likely to lock up our open bearings, resulting in lengthy periods of fruitlessly pouring wd-40 onto ball bearings terminally gunked with sticks and stones and anything else coughed up by our dirty-ass midwestern suburban streets. If we happened to make it to a neighborhood with a decent sidewalk or a park with well-paved paths, it was on.

My first department store abomination was a Variflex with a neon green swirling paint graphic. At that point, Variflex was, unknown to me, still sponsoring skaters and producing a few legitimate boards. Mine was definitely not one of those. I did always cling to the idea that my Variflex was a cut above my friends' Valterras. It wasn’t.

I got my board for my eleventh birthday while my family was on vacation in Milwaukee Wisconsin. We were staying with friends who lived in a nice middle-class neighborhood within the city. It was a neighborhood with short, steep hills, smooth concrete roads and sidewalks broken by curb cuts. It was a week of paradise for me; shooting those hills and carving the sidewalks, every tail-skid tinged by the bittersweet knowledge that, in a few days, I would have to return to my neighborhood in Terre Haute, where I was forever confined to the elliptical boundaries of the local driveways.

The feeling that there was something more out there, something I could attain by riding that board, was growing inside of me. The idea that the skateboard was going to be something more significant in my life than the transformers I had discarded the year before or the Dungeons and Dragons books I was losing interest in was coalescing somewhere in my sixth grade psyche. Unfortunately, there was nothing to put this in context, no magazines, nothing like a community of serious skaters to guide me at that point. No contests on TV. No internet. Nothing.

Then again, I’m not sure whether dropping an issue of Thrasher into my skinned-up 11-year-old palms would have inspired or discouraged me. There was surprisingly jock-ish bent to a lot of the advertising and articles in those old issues. There’s lots of talk about “performance” in the ads, and an alarming amount of posing. There’s a lot of smirking and grimacing in the ads, lots of attitude shots of guys against brick walls with a photo of a gnarly air inset in the corner. Christian Hosoi would later become one of my favorite skaters, but in 1985 I can’t imagine I would have been anything but discouraged at the sight of Christ showing off his pecs on a beach or throwing his flowing locks around in a Jimmy'Z ad. In that context I might have seen my future heroes as just another breed of Jock; i.e. Slightly more flamboyant, beachified versions of the guys who beat me up at school for reading sci-fi books and not wearing the right kind of jeans.

Thrasher Magazine, December 1985. Photo via
Then again, I might have found something in the margins of those mags.  The skateboard community was still struggling to figure out street skating in 1985, but it was there nonetheless. Full on launch ramp fever had not incubated yet. A January 1985 article explaining street boards still casts the upstart skate genre in terms of vert tricks on street transitions. Still, mixed in with all the shots of streetplants and bank ripping, there’s the occasional bold ollie, with people like Billy Ruff, Eddie Reategui and Mark Gonzales getting a lot of coverage.  Where you can really see the street underground assembling is in the cheap quarter and half page ads in the issues. With the benefit of hindsight, those b and c level solicitations are like little low-budget windows into the future of skateboarding.

Street skating articles had a very different tone in the Thrasher of 1985. A big feature on street skating in New York in the December '85 issue features as much fooling around as rolling around, and if the vert kings would have struck me as punk rock jocks, the street skaters seemed to be a collection of irreverent dorks. Maybe it’s no coincidence that early street royalty was composed mostly of skatings perennial court jesters: Lance Mountain,Tommy Guerrero, Mark Gonzalez, Neil Blender; If vert skating was about aggression and performance, then the early street scene seemed less about going higher, faster and with more style than about innovation and exploration. It was something practiced by the oddballs among the outcasts. That might have spoken to me. As it was, I wouldn’t get that message for another three years or so.

No doubt, not knowing what skateboarding was was a great disadvantage, but not knowing what a skateboarder was was probably a good thing. In 1985, At age 11, riding a skateboard didn’t make you a skater. It was not codified enough to aggregate into a clique or an element of social division. There was no competitive structure, so there was no thought to who was better or worse. There was no aesthetic or social rulebook for skateboarding. Like the days spent on the banana boards, the years spent riding our Valterras and Variflexes down to the splinters kept midwestern skaters like me centered through entire lifetimes of skating. They were also the beginning of a sort of lost innocence; the shredding of a blissful ignorance about skateboarding. In their off-brand, overly-heavy, clumsy way, those second rate sticks shouted that there was something more to skateboarding than what we knew, and that there was a barrier we were hidden behind keeping us from it. We were powerless to bust through that barrier without some sort of outside help. We would eventually get through it, but we would do it gradually, wobbling through on the blown out bushings in our cheap trucks, and grinding the gravel in our open ball bearings.

1 comment:

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