The vicious drought that struck California in the
mid-1970s killed lawns, turned golf courses to dust, and created the modern
skateboarder. A team of street riders from "Dogtown" -- south Santa Monica -- began
hitting Los Angeles's dried-out swimming pools in search of new curves and walls.
And these desecrated bowls, filled suddenly with the combustive roar of
urethane-coated wheels, became crucibles of transformation. Water gave way to
fire, to a new hardness and dryness, a scorching fluency. Limits were abolished
daily, unguessed-at achievements became routine. For skating -- and for America's
youth -- the future had arrived.
Dogtown and Z-Boys is a documentary by director and former
skateboarding champion Stacy Peralta. It is, not to put too fine a point on it,
superb. Half of it whips by in a near-ecstasy of classic rock and jaw-dropping
skate antics; the other half (narrated by Sean Penn) carefully researches the
birth of a phenomenon -- skateboarding's roots in outlaw surfing and a gang of beach
kids pulled together by a couple of surf Fagins (Jeff Ho and Skip Engblom) to
make the Zephyr team (the Z-Boys) and then the dominantly successful Dogtown one.
The movie lingers lovingly over footage of the 1975 Del Mar Nationals
Bahne-Cadillac Skateboard Championship, at which the Zephyr team made its debut.
It's one of those unrepeatable occasions, an evolutionary lightning strike, when
the doziness of the old order is ambushed by the ferocity and innocence of the
new. Before the Z-Boys came along, the reigning kings of skateboarding wore taut
singlets and brief shorts and hopped to their tricks like trained seals. The
standard repertoire -- nose wheelies, kick-flips, handstands, squeaking around in
fussy little circles -- expressed nothing more than the simple vanity of Homo
erectus, his pride at staying upright. The Z-Boys were anything but upright.
Long-haired urchins in T-shirts and torn jeans, they were the heralds of a new
style -- low riders, cement lovers, knock-kneed texture freaks, one hand stretched
out to touch the concrete as they pivoted like their surf idol Larry Bertleman.
For almost a minute we watch little Jay Adams on his board, 13 years old, a
blond moppet putting himself through a sort of controlled seizure six inches
above the ground. His bleached hair flies and his brown limbs flash, all grace and
spasticity, and the soundtrack salutes the glancing eroticism of the moment with
Jimi Hendrix's "Foxey Lady." The older skaters, the smug bipeds with their
stunts, shake their heads, outmoded at a stroke.
The Dogtown crew came complete with its own folklorists and carnival barkers,
men like photographer Glen E. Friedman and writer-cum-photographer Craig Stecyk
III who, under the nom de plume John Smythe, kept the readers of SkateBoarder
enthralled with his "Dogtown Chronicles," canny self-promotional blurbs
that fused straight reportage with bombast, street sloganeering and skate catalog
tech-talk: "While the cops and government are busy closing down spots, the street
skaters find new places to ride or new ways to ride the old places, working the
Amerikan concrete technology for all it's worth. ... It's going to go as far as
you are willing to take it and the only way to know how far you can push it is to
This was business -- big business: SkateBoarder in the mid-1970s had more
than a million readers -- but it was also the truth: All the evidence was in the
photographs, the iconic, agonistic images of skaterly excellence. The passage
into legend was slick and immediate; poolside guests for the skating sessions
sometimes included Marvel Comics artist Doug Moench, who was making action
drawings for a planned superhero called the Concrete Crusader. And the attitude
couldn't be faked: The fathers of "vert'"(vertical) skating were not nice young
men; it wasn't niceness at all that drove them against that ever-receding
frontier of possibility. Tony "Mad Dog" Alva in particular seems to have been
flung skyward on an arc of pure ego, a vast and militant snobbery that sponsored
feat after feat of self-projection until his board at last lifted inches clear of
the pool rim and presented its underside to space (the legendary "frontside
air"). He literally took off: The vertex was conquered, the shock of which
would rattle through one of America's subcultures for years.
Did skateboarding invent punk rock, the fuck you-ness and
physicality of it? Peralta's film -- probably wisely -- doesn't go there, contenting
itself with brief encomiums from two punk sages: Henry Rollins, ranting amiably
in broad daylight, and Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, whose monkish head bulbs solemnly
out of a reverently darkened background. The limping, surging gait of the modern
skater, rushing at obstacles with an appetite as comprehensive as gravity, is
just one of the legacies of Dogtown. In its wake, skaters and musicians alike
would try to get "in the pocket," to be effortlessly intense, fully present,
letting each moment exact its price.
And there was a price. For a while the Dogtowners, still in their
teens, were making rock-star money and -- more to the point -- leading rock-star
lives. Some of them barely survived. Chris Cahill is MIA, last seen in Mexico, no
current photograph. Of the available Z-Boys, Adams looks the most brutally
used, facing down Peralta's camera with sozzled defiance, answering warily, a long
scab or scar twisting around one eyebrow like a piece of bad wiring. You can hear
the low buzz of drug damage even before Neil Young starts up on the soundtrack:
"I've been first and last / Look at how the time goes past." "He was the best of
all of us," says Peralta of Adams, and hangs his head. The elegiac quality of
Dogtown is unforced and deep running: Super-8 footage always comes dosed with
nostalgia, the images smeared and glowing as if seen through remembering tears,
and the reels of these young gods at play in their parks and pools catch the
heart. Sunlight from 1970s California surrounds them, chiming like a psychedelic
hangover, and we sense strongly that nothing will be this good again. Beyond this
is a backward look at a time when words like "attitude" and "extreme" were still
fresh, when the idea of "pushing it" meant something more than a new pair of
sneakers. Watching the Dogtowners in their heyday, we feel that something awful
might have since occurred -- a steady debasement in the concept of individuality,
of growth, a commodification of our fiercest drives. At the same time we are
shivered in our boots by their vitality. Not just history, then: living myth.
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