Tuesday, December 24, 2013

These Are The Days, They Always Were: Why Now Is The Best Time To Be A Skateboarder.

When I was a kid my dad used to tell lots of stories about growing up as one of 13 children on an Indiana farm. He’d usually trot these stories out when my brothers and I were bitching about something...which was a lot. I think what really pissed me off was that I always thought there was a bit of smug superiority in those stories. I always automatically thought he was going on about enduring farm life as a way to belittle my own lack of grit and to extoll the superiority of his own hard scrabble childhood; a childhood of waking at the crack of dawn, only wearing hand me down clothes and, yes, walking 3 miles to school uphill both ways. What pissed me off most of all though, was that, despite all of this supposed nostalgia for a life of rural poverty, my dad spent his whole life working his ass off to make sure none of his kids would ever have to live that sort of life themselves. It seemed hypocritical to me. If growing up that way was so much better, why weren’t we doing it? It was an easy way to intellectually negate the lesson he was really trying to teach me. I didn’t see what was really going on when dad would trot out the stories of 5 AM milkings and once-a-year mass family shoe shopping trips. Sure, there was a bit of of superiority and scolding in those bits of nostalgic musing, but the real reason those stories got repeated over and over again was to show us that things could be worse, and even if they were worse, we could survive them. Most of all, they were meant to make us appreciate what we had. Of course I was a sly, spoiled, little shit, so all this was lost on me when I needed to learn it most.

So what the hell does this have to do with skateboarding?

I’ve spent a lot of time documenting what some might consider the good ol’ days in this blog, and an editorial I wrote on re-discovering the basics of street skating blossomed into a minor phenomenon, but lately, especially when interacting with readers on this blog’s Facebook page, I wonder if, just like dad and his farm stories, maybe the old school tales I’m telling are sending a message I had hoped to avoid.

When I started this project, I didn't want it to be a nostalgia trip. My intention has always been to document a very specific experience in skateboarding and use that experience to explore the nature of the culture and aesthetics of skateboarding. I was hoping it would have relevance beyond “remember when”, and resonate outside the “skating was so much better when I started...” demographic.

The autobiographical segments I have written so far have all shared a theme of isolation and adversity. Those were two vital elements of the skateboard journey taken by the non-coastal kids like me who discovered the shred sled in the 80’s.  My intention is to deconstruct how those elements have shaped skateboarding as a whole, and how they contrast with the realities of today, but the one thing I didn’t want to do was put forth the idea that the period of my youth was any sort of golden age.

I’m not shy about pointing out things I dislike today, trends that I find soulless or, merely silly, but the bottom line is this:  looking back at 30 years riding, I can honestly say now is the best time to be a skateboarder. All my crusty old school tales, all the pointed criticisms of what stinks about skating toady, and all the adolescent ribbing of the ridiculous, are  primarily intended to make people,both young and old, appreciate skateboarding today even more.

It occurs to me that I haven’t been doing a very good job of this. They say opinions are like assholes. I can live with that. What I don't like is when my opinions make people act like assholes. I like to re-visit skateboardings past, but there’s is no way I would want to live there, so everyone who plays the “remember when game”, should keep several things in mind.

First and foremost, if you are old enough to actually remember the skate scene in the 80’s, or even the 1990’s and you're still involved in skateboarding enough to opine about “how much better shit used to be back then”, then your mere existence proves my point. All things considered, if things today were like they were back in the “good ol’ days” then, chances are, you wouldn’t even exist. I can remember back in my early 20’s I knew I wanted to skateboard forever, but there was almost no firsthand evidence to show I could actually pull it off. I couldn’t imagine anything short of paralysis or incarceration that would ever make me quit, but, at the same time, there was not so much as a single 30 year old wobbling around on a longboard to prove it was feasible to keep rolling into middle age. As passionate as I was about skating, that fact was always lurking in the shadows, it was the subliminal “yeah but” that chipped away at edges of my conviction. There had to be a reason that no one over 30 skated right? What was it? maybe It was something I would have no control over. Was there some sort of endocrine secretion that made people just suddenly stop loving the board at some arbitrary age, was there some switch in the brain that shut off the stoke at the end of the twenties? Sure, I knew 4 hours of sessioning a day couldn’t survive the demands of adulthood: work, family life, whatever, would eventually intervene, drastically cutting into the couch tours and dusk til dawn super sessions, but if suburban norms in their declining years could carve out the time to obsess over football games or put in the logistical and physical legwork required for something like golf, then why not skateboarding?

In those days Steve Caballero was our beacon of hope. You would see him pop up in a 411 segment, or catch a sequence of him blasting 360s out of the waves at Santa Rosa skatepark, and, for a moment skating into the grave was more than a hypothetical possibility. After all, He was 32! and he could still land kickflip indies and take down an 11 stair handrail!  On the other hand, he was also Cab. Just because he could do it, it didn’t mean you could. I couldn’t do caballerials on vert. Maybe this was the same. maybe he could only keep it going because he was one of the greatest skaters of all time. There were other old guys out there, sure. You’d see occasional shots of Alva killing a pool somewhere, the other Bones Brigadiers were still getting it done, and 70‘s park guys like Dave Hackett, Duane Peters and Eddie Elguera were still rolling strong but, once again, these guys were world class skaters. The inspiration of their existence was overshadowed by the fact that there were no journeyman over-30 skaters out there in my scene, or most other skate communities. What I really needed to see was a normal dude, a guy who never had a sponsorship, still rolling strong at age 30 in order to make the idea of skating into old age a tangible reality rather than an abstract possibility.
The few old  guys we did see in Thrasher were always vert skaters or “pool” skaters, keep in mind, this was years before the public park explosion. At age 20, I was fairly sure there would never be a skateable concrete bowl or pool anywhere within 3 states of me, much less a pair of publicly funded, free-to-skate bowls within 50 miles of my house. Kids like me who came up in the street skating era of the early nineties could only draw so much practical inspiration from the tiny cadre of veterans getting exposure in the 80’s and 90‘s. There were virtually no 35 or over guys popping ollies over trashcans or laying aluminum on ledges to assure street rats that the kind of skating they practiced was a viable lifetime endeavor. 

Fast forward to the 2000’s. Now, when I hit the park, most of the time, at 39, i’m not even the oldest one there. If the place has a bowl, forget about it...the masters division will always show up to circle the drains. The older guys I skate with aren’t just bro cruisers one slam away from longboard life either. These are guys who aren’t just keeping up with their younger peers, they’re skaters setting the pace at the session, working the lines and getting worked as hard and as fast as anyone else, and not just in the bowls, but on the street and flow courses; mangling rails, blasting huge transfers, getting technical. Any kid who frequents a skatepark in 2013 knows in no uncertain terms, that the skate life can be just that...a life, an existence that can extend far beyond one’s physical prime, or even stretch that prime by a decade or longer. Couple this with the fact that the career lifespan of professional skaters can now extend far beyond the few years hotshots got in the 80s and 90s and aging skaters, as well as young riders looking to become lifers, can find inspiration in both the rank and file and the elite. There are veterans in all genres of skating now. The level of skill street skaters like Eric Koston, Jamie Thomas, Mike Vallely and a dozen others I’m not even thinking of have maintained into their 3rd or fourth decade is astounding and inspiring. There are more quadruple and quintuple decade vert guys raining edits all over the internet to even begin to itemize. This was simply not how it was in the 80’s and 90’s. The over-30 pro was a token curiosity, the over 30 local ripper, an elusive, endangered species. Deny these facts about “the good ‘ol days” and your either deluding yourself or succumbing to dementia.

The public park explosion is at the foundation of the rise of this veteran demographic. Free, easily accesible skateparks with diverse terrain aren’t just venues for skating, but community gathering places. They facilittate older skaters, who may have no other way of connecting with each other, meeting and inspiring each other. The subcultural forces that kept veterans underground in the past cant survive in the wake of public skatepark development, and cliqueish groups of old frirnds centered around secret or out-of-the-way ramps now find themselves connected to other scenes. Lone wolves who thought they were the only ones still rolling can easily find kindred spirits. Without a doubt, nothing can bring lapsed skaters out of the woodwork like a good, free park, and if a park brings just one old friend back into the fold, thats a net win worth a dozen newly minted park kooks.
Yes, If there was one word one could utter to counter the argument that skating was better back in the 80‘s that word would definitely be “skateparks”. Nevertheless old dudes still find plenty of reasons to bitch about them.

A lot of the crusty grumbling boils down to one thing: intimidation. The complaints are masked with various rationalizations and code words, but at the bottom of it all is intimidation and insecurity, the poisonous idea that you don’t belong in the skatepark if you cant land a tre flip, do a giant backside air, hit the coping...or whatever other  benchmark you might choose. This mindstate most often gets expressed in the form of tirades against the “attitudes” of the local park rats.

I sometimes see skaters at the park with nasty attitudes. I see a lot more who are well meaning but have an infuriating and sometimes dangerous ignorance of park etiquette. These are all valid criticisms one can level at the state of skating today. Old dudes cross the line into fallacy, however, when they assert that today’s breed of obnoxious skate twerp is of a lower pedigree than the curb squirrels that haunted skate spots in the days of yore. The way some people gripe you would think that back in the days of 9 inch decks and skate rags drawstring pants, the community skate spots were gentile places where everyone queued up politely for their run, saying  “Please” and “may I”, and golf clapping everytime someone made a trick, no matter how basic or outdated it was. No one ever threw their board back then. No one ever talked smack if you early-grabbed instead of ollied out of the launch ramp. Everybody had fun all the time, never worrying about sponsorships, no one ever got made fun of for having the wrong kind of board, or pants that fit “wrong”. No one bullied the beginners, and all the groms came to skateboarding with an innate grasp of the byzantine laws of the skatepark engraved in their DNA.

Ahh, yes, the good ‘ol days that exist only in the hazy recollections of guys who are not only approaching senillity, but have probably cracked their heads on a few frontsides on the way there.
The only difference I see between then and now is that now, the kid snaking you or weaving in front of you in the middle of your line is doing it in a spacious public park with multiple runs, obstacles, and a real nice bowl nobody rides instead of in a makeshift pole barn or converted roller rink with one pyramid and a couple of quarter pipes. The exponential growth of the average amount of skatepark square footage, public or private, means the potential for kook avoidance has mutiplied as well. Even on the most scootered-up, grom infested day at my loca lpark I’m getting more runs in than I ever got in three or four sessions in the dusty, cramped masonite obstacle courses of my formative years. And I’m not even considering the sort of non stop skating I can get in if I just throw it in on the street course and hit the bowl.  

You can’t avoid bumping into bad attitudes at skateparks, but the attitudes are the same as they ever were. The meathead, the skate jock, the shit talker, the braggart, the kook, the hothead... these are all archetypes that pre-date the skatepark era and have origins that stretch all the way back the pre-cambrian epochs of roller-skate wheels and surf life. It sucks to have some street league wannabe treat you like you don’t belong. On the other hand, have our memories gotten so short that we have forgotten the days when being a skater was synonymous with not belonging? It’s a major coup just to have a place that is enough or own that an unwelcoming atmosphere is actually something we notice rather than simply take as a given. It’s ironic that a lot of the oldsters who drop into a major funk when some rail-bailing pinhead vibes them at the park are often the same ones who moan about how skateboarding “used to be punk rock”. I never sported a mohawk back in the day, but I seem to remember punk rock having something to do with not giving a fuck. Parents, teachers, shopkeepers, metalheads, cops, jocks, clergymen, housepets, hillbillies, homeless people: skating in the 80’s meant enduring and ignoring the hostility and derision of all these types of people; It meant developing a thick skin was just as important as developing the proper tweak on your boneless. Dudes who were so hardcore back in ’88 that they would flip the bird to a priest who yelled at them for scuffing up the church steps are now crying on the internet because somebody half their age at the park told them their tricks weren’t legit.

It’s absurd.

In fact, if you put on your bifocals and really look, you’ll see that now is actually the most diverse and tolerant era skateboarding has ever seen. For every snot nosed twerp that heckles you for your bonelesses, there are two kids in the backgrund taking notes on your style. For the first time in many, many years, planting your foot on the street course is not an act of irony its the personification of personal style. The varied terrain in skateparks, combined with the presence of older skaters means “old school” tricks are no longer just for the old or irreverant. Ishod Wair’s “best of” street league reel for 2013 features 3 different no-comply variations in the edit. At the last contest I stumbled into in my home park, a back boneless one guy did on the 8 foot quarter pipe got just as many cheers as the big flip another landed over the pyramid. I had a kid at the park tell me no-complies weren’t allowed in games of SKATE among his friends anymore. I assumed it was because kids thought they were too lame, but when I questioned him his response was: “no, they’re too HARD.” My 40 year old bro introduced the local hooligans to the power slide one day, and the kids flipped. Now, on the street course, the sound of barking wheels is as ubiquitous as the clattering percussion of bailed flip tricks. Rip a slappy in front of a youngster who’s never known anything but ollieing into a grind, and he’ll pay attention, especially if it is a really nasty, loud one.

All of this disrespectful behavior thats does go down is inevitably attributed to the increasing corporatization of skateboarding. The energy drink conglomerates, shoe manufacturers and hard goods companies who are exploiting the culture aren’t “down for skateboarders” nowadays. If only things were like they used to be; when the skate industry was run by non-profit NGOs with names like “Vision”, “Powell Peralta”, and “World Industries”. Back then kids never fixated on getting sponsorships because skate companies gave people pro models for being attitude positive instead of for being great skaters. Video parts were like home video how-to lessons, filled with tricks anyone could pick up in few hours of skating. No one paid attention to contests and all pro skaters had health coverage, a retirement plan, and would never, ever be dropped cold by the sponsors they made millions for because of a blip in the popularity of the kind of skating they did. All of these individuals were impeccable role models who skated exclusively for fun, never threw their boards or talked smack about their fellow skaters and always signed autographs. Oh yeah, they all retired as millionaires too.

If you believe all of that I have a map revealing the current location of Animal Chin that I’d like to sell you.

Is there something perverse about the fact that the highest paid pros in skateboarding today make most of their gold chain money from conglomerates that have nothing to do with the creation of skateboards? Of course. Is it baffling that the feet of most of today’s young skaters are shod in the same footwear that protected the toes of the jocks and preps that used to try to kick our asses back in high school? Sure. Then again, I’m glad that there are at least a handful of pros who make rock star salaries thanks to Red Bull and Nike. Too many of my own heroes busted their bodies and gave and gave to skateboarding and, at best, only got a couple years of a middle-class level salary and a lot of respect for their toils. Most didn’t even make out that good. If the lion’s share of the money todays top earners are making come form non-skate endorsements, all the better. Sure, these corporations are in it for the money, but no one ever heard of mountain dew cutting a rider because their brother jumped sponsors and started drinking coke, or Monster having a thuggish team manger who roughs up any riders who raise questions about their royalties.

The continued mainstreaming of the subculture might have watered the skate image down a tad, but so what? At least the entities trying to polish up and legitimize skateboarding today are actually fairly good at it. Remember how Vision always seemed to be bending over backwards to inculcate skate culture into the day-glo, new-wave pop culture of the 80‘s?  I’ll take the beautifully shot, immaculately edited promo clips of companies like Element or DC over the cringe-inducing-even-in-’87 kookiness of something like Vision Psycho Skate: a cable-access video incompetently masquerading as a slick fashion ad, that, incidentally, you could order via ads that ran on MTV back in the day. What presents a better picture of skating, I ask you, the various skate clips on The Ride channel circa now, or something like the early 1990s powell-scrubbed earnestness of Nickelodeon’s skate TV?

Perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh in this rant. I’m not out to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I am trying to answer tone with tone. Those of us who have seen it all have lots to contribute, and even an obligation to be voices of sanity in the volatile culture of skateboarding, unfortunately, when it comes to getting our message out, we tend to be strident to the point of self negation. Perspective is the best antidote to this poisonous nostalgia. Make your gripes, but always temper them with the assertion that skaters today are basically the same as they ever were, they just tend to wear their hats in odd configurations and listen to different soundtracks than we did (usually through earbuds, while snaking you). When you feel like getting up in arms about fake skate shops opening in the local mall just remember the days when snapping a deck or even busting too many bolts would ankle your skating until your mail order package got delivered or you could get someone to drive you two or three hours away to the nearest skateshop. When the Street League hoopla makes you grind your teeth in frustration, cast your mind back to the days when contests were configured so guys like Tony Hawk and Mike McGill could place higher Eric Dressen or natas in a “street” competition.

The mainstreaming of skateboarding means that not everyone you meet at the skatepark will instantly be your brother in arms anymore. Viewed on a macro level, skating is no longer a cult complete with all the instantaneous solidarity that term implies, but so what? I see skateboarding moving in the same direction as motorcycle culture. Lots of folks have motorcycles today, and enjoy them on various levels, but not everyone with a cycle is a “biker”. In times when wall street golf cart jockeys buy Harleys at the first hint of a mid-life crisis, the Hell’s Angels are still out there and they are just as hardcore as they were in the days when anyone on a motorcycle was considered a threat to the public welfare. Skateboarding may become as commonplace as basketball, and just being a skateboarder in and of itself may not be something special anymore, but riding the board will always change some people, or maybe just make them more themselves, that core will never go away. As for the others, the good, the tolerable and the rotten, well, they serve to subsidize the hardcore shops that equip us and the public parks we’ll be rolling in long after others have had their fires extinguished.

There is no better time to be a skateboarder. We have so much now that we only dreamed about back when decks were wide and girls were repulsed.  Parks are everywhere. People are riding into their 50’s. You can see kids skating with their dads now. Think about that: Skating with your dad instead of begging him to give you your board back after you flunked algebra. If that doesn’t get you stoked on the present, well, there’s always that punk rock attitude. Why should you give a crap about what me or anyone else thinks anyway? Grumble all you want, we know you’ll keep rolling anyway.


  1. One of your best, keep it up old dude!

  2. I'm not old. what are you talking about?

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