Skate or Die

In the 1970s, the Z-Boys were hell on wheels. Today, they're shredding the big screen.

Tony Alva emerges from Dogtown and Z-Boys the Chuck Berry of skateboarding--a pioneer, the first and maybe the best to ever ride the deck. - Kent  Sherwood
Kent Sherwood
Tony Alva emerges from Dogtown and Z-Boys the Chuck Berry of skateboarding--a pioneer, the first and maybe the best to ever ride the deck.
"This is contrary to how we grew up," Stacy Peralta is saying a few minutes after getting dropped off at a newspaper office by a limo driver. The 45-year-old Peralta, still SoCal handsome and boyish beneath a ball cap and behind a well-trimmed beard, grins long and hard--a real hell-yeah smile. Peralta's pal Tony Alva, with his head of dreads and a legendary rep as hell on wheels, sits beside him. He turns to look at Peralta, sitting to his right, and they nod in unison, like old pals sharing a kick-ass secret. "We have, like, Sony, you know, driving us around the world to do this," Alva's saying. He turns back to the tape recorder and says, "Whoa!" Peralta smiles. "Exactly."

If you don't know these names, then you do not own a skateboard--probably never have, never will. You do not subscribe to Thrasher or Skateboard or Slap or Juice. You do not have a poster of Tony Hawk tacked to your bedroom wall. You've never surreptitiously drained a swimming pool at midnight to skate it at sunrise. You've never rolled an ankle or ridden the rail or gone vert, and you sure as hell have no idea how to perform a Blunt Fakie or a Backside Shove-It Frontside Nosegrind, much less even know what they are. You aren't Generation X-Games.

So, take it on faith if you must: Stacy Peralta and Tony Alva are pioneers, legends, golden gods on wooden decks who rode their way into fame and, for a while, fortune via the skateboard mags in the 1970s. As Tony Hawk wrote in his 2000 autobiography Occupation: Skateboarder, Peralta is "the Arnold Palmer of skateboarding," which would have made Alva the sport's Nicklaus, Hogan and Crenshaw rolled into one. Don't believe me, just ask them. Or watch Peralta's Dogtown and Z-Boys, unspooling at a theater near you courtesy of Sony Classics, which has been schlepping the two boys cross-country to tout the film that took top-doc honors at the Sundance Film Fest last year and the Independent Spirit Awards a few weeks ago. It's a love letter masquerading as a backward-glancing tell-all, an infomercial (partially paid for by the Vans shoe company) offered as art--in other words, a film by Peralta about Peralta and how he and the so-called Z-Boys, surfers-turned-skaters from the wrong side of the Santa Monica pier, shredded their way into the history books, or at least its footnotes.

"When we grew up in California, we were constantly kind of shit on by the New York establishment, and the reason we were shit on was because it was like, 'Hey, there's no culture out here. This is a complete cultural wasteland,'" Peralta says. "In front of you is the ocean--there's nothing. And behind you is the desert--there's nothing. You have no historical architecture, you have no art out here, and we constantly get that beat into us. This gave us the chance to go, 'You know what, there is culture out here. And, in fact, not only is there a rich culture out here, but now, this day and age, it's shipped all over the world.' The Japanese kids want it, the European kids want it, so it is a chance for us to...a chance to..." He pauses. "It's that 'v' word."

"Validity?" Alva offers.

"Not validity, not vindictive," Peralta says. "It's when you get something back--vindication! It's like a vindication. And it's a terrific feeling...With Tony Alva and Tony Hawk, these guys [had] the same effect on the culture they affected that Joe DiMaggio had 60 years ago. People don't know this, and I think it's important for them to know this: Skateboarding is a serious activity to be taken seriously. It's not a yo-yo, like they thought when we were doing it."

In the 1970s, they were just nowhere kids killing time in the beachfront wastelands, surfing concrete waves when the ocean was playing dead. Peralta, Alva and guys with names like Jay Adams, Chris Cahill, Shogu Kubo, Wentzle Ruml and Bob Biniak staked out their territory: a stretch of beach that spread from Santa Monica south to Venice and just beyond--Dogtown, it would come to be known, a refuge for artists, junkies, dropout teens, suburban wanderers and other comers with boards and balls. They surfed deadly waves, dodging the remnants of amusement parks that once attracted tourists decades earlier; they zigged and zagged between jagged wooden stumps and shards of metal that once beckoned the day-trippers. And they marked their territory by dropping bricks and carburetors on trespassers from the piers.

It was in Dogtown that Skip Engblom and Jeff Ho, visionaries and dopers and baby sitters, went into business, starting the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Productions Surf Shop. Their partner was Craig Stecyk, who took the native markings--the graffiti that seemingly covered every surface of Dogtown--and transferred them to the boards Ho was designing. The trio gave surfing, and skating, its look, its aesthetic, its vibe. They made their young stable of skaters--the Zephyr Team, the Z-Boys--and photographer Glen E. Friedman made them famous, snapping still pics of kids moving at the speed of sound (hard rock, till it gave way to hardcore punk).

Till the Z-Boys rolled along, skateboarding belonged to the squares--kids who stood tall, rode flat and thought the trickiest shit possible was popping wheelies or standing on their soft little hands. That all changed at the Bahne-Cadillac Skateboard Championship (the Del-Mar Nationals, for short) in 1975, when the Z-Boys crouched low to the ground, grabbing concrete and a little piece of history. A few years after that, they'd cruise ritzy L.A. 'hoods, find empty pools and skate till they bled; eventually they found their own Dogbowl, a pool belonging to a kid with cancer who convinced his old man to let his new pals skate day and night. Just as jazzer John Coltrane had his bridge where he found his voice, the Z-Boys had their bowl, and it was Alva who was the first to skate high enough to leap out of the pool and into lucrative endorsement deals. He was, as Dogtown and Z-Boys insists, the Chuck Berry of the deck--the first, maybe the best. And at 45, he still skates: Before this interview he was at a Dallas skatepark, showing off for TV cameras and kids who probably have no idea he's their forgotten master.

Which is why Peralta, who began shooting low-budget skating docs in the mid-'80s, made Dogtown. Actually, his reasons were twofold: In March 1999, Spin published "The Lords of Dogtown," the first of what would become dozens of stories celebrating "the volatile, obnoxious, hard-riding, hard-living Dogtown boys." Hollywood producers came sniffing around, and some of the Z-Boys, Alva among them, started selling off the rights to their life stories. Peralta had always thought about making a fictional version of the Z-Boys' story, but afraid a studio would corrupt their Eden, he decided to make the documentary first--to serve as a template, and maybe to create an interest in the fictional film to follow.

"The documentary had to be done before a feature, because, basically, it's just the guideline, you know," Alva says.

"We were fearful that they'd make stick figures out of us, that they'd take this wonderful moment and corrupt it, and I wanted to protect this experience," Peralta adds. "And this is the best moment we've ever had in our lives. We were just getting out of being teen-agers, we weren't quite men yet, and we were really doing something that has changed our lives, that has given us an identity for life. I just didn't want to see that be abused and exploited. So, like Tony's saying, doing the documentary gave us the chance to say, 'OK, this is our story, now do what you want.'"

But Peralta isn't necessarily so generous: Rather than leave it to someone else to muck up, in October 2001 he handed over to Fast Times at Ridgemont High producer Art Linson and Fight Club director David Fincher a script that fictionalizes and compresses the tale told in Dogtown. (It would be set in the mid-'70s, around the time most of the Z-Boys were--or should have been--graduating high school.) Ideally, Peralta says, Sean Penn will direct, which isn't such a long shot: The actor-director narrates Dogtown and Z-Boys, with all the awe and reverence Jeff Spicoli would have given his champions 20 years ago.

"In the back of my head, I'd always wanted to do a fictional tale on this," Peralta says. "I thought it was a great story, you know? You've got the shop and this run-down beach community, you've got these waylaid kids that have found identity in this place, and they become a rags-to-riches story. I also, at the same time, had in the back of my head that I wanted to do some historical documentary on skateboarding. It just so happened that timing collided with some other things, and it was appropriate to do this at this time."

Just as a generation of kids has grown up thinking rock and roll began with Nirvana (or, God forbid, Creed), most who flock to the skateparks on their brand-new Birdhouse decks probably have no clue there were kids in L.A. decades ago whose lives were literally saved by skateboarding. To them, skating's something to do between the hours spent playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 on PlayStation 2 or watching X-Games on ESPN. To most of them, it's a diversion, not a way of life.

"People have asked us along the road, 'What did you think you were going to do with your life?'" Peralta says. "I figured I was going to be a plumber, Tony's dad..."

"My dad told me I was going to be a ditch-digger," Alva says, putting his hand on his old friend's arm. "He was like, 'If you don't get your education, get off that surfboard and skateboard trip, you're gonna be a ditch-digger, man.' I mean, that was a typical thing to say to you back in the '60s, but by the time I was 19 years old, I was a two-time world champion, I was in the Guinness Book of World Records, I had the Men's Overall World Professional Skateboarding title. Stacy and I started our own companies, we were traveling around the world and designing stuff, I had an avant-garde advertising campaign and was working with some of the best photographers and art directors on the planet. I mean, it's a really cool thing to look back and see how blessed our lives have been."

Alva and Peralta look at each other and, again, share the smile of men who've seen more than they will ever share. "Yeah, we've had a good ride," Peralta says. "We've had a great ride. But also it gave us an identity and something to put meaning in our life."

"Something to be proud of, too," Alva says.

"Without a doubt."

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