Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Dogtown & Z-Boys

The familiar whack and clatter of kids on skateboards is a racket I make every effort to ignore. I figure he (not too many girls on boards) is out-of-doors, engaging in physical activity, possibly testing a few personal limits. If it's a choice between slouching in front of the family television immersed in the latest military industrial virtual reality or spending an hour skateboarding, well . . . let 'im skate.

My patience, however, is severely tested whenever I rouse myself to actually witness the proceedings. So much work, so much clattering failure (“WHACK!! Bah-TACK-a-tah!”), all in pursuit of such a paltry and banal skill-set. And when the hell did boards get so damn noisy?! When I was a kid skateboards were quiet. Everything was made of polyurethane. The wheels were fat — I'm talking three, four inches wide — and absorbed road hum into near silence. If you wiped out, the only sound you heard was the cracking of your clavicle, followed by snippets of your mother's tirade as she drove you to emergency.

Whatever happened to fat wheels and poly-boards? I remember them as being perilously fast. Is “fast” no longer a desirable quality in skateboards? Perhaps wooden boards with tiny wheels are faster, but I couldn't say. I've done a little internet searching and have yet to turn up a satisfactory answer to any of my questions.

I have, however, watched Dogtown & Z-Boys (A) the skateboarding documentary by Stacy Peralta. It's an engaging look backward at the scene that generated the current scene: a surprisingly decrepit portion of California coastline that stretched from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica Pier. As dangerous as the wreckage-strewn shoreline was, the punks who surfed there were still game to beat up any noob foolish enough to venture into the water. When the water calmed down for the afternoon, the punks moved inland and applied surfing skills to their skateboards.

The movie was a full-immersion flashback for me. The mid-70s water drought that emptied pools in California extended to Colorado as well. In '77 there was a small fountain gone dry behind the Iliff School of Theology. A group of skateboarders laid claim to it. These guys could spend the day rolling up and down its walls, adroitly flipping their boards at the rim. It never occurred to me, even after I'd witnessed surfing first-hand, that these moves were imported directly from a point break west of the Santa Monica Pier.

The Denver skaters were ten-cent imitators of the Z-Boys, whose style really is breathtaking to behold. Peralta charts the development of this style, the athleticism and the adolescent transgressive urge integral to its thrill. When the Z-Boys finally emerged from the ruined swimming pools of Del Mar to compete in public events, their √©lan (as photographed by Craig Stecyk) took hold of the public imagination. Suddenly the fringe skateboarding scene exploded, then morphed into the “sk8ter culture” which surrounds us today.

There was one aspect of the Z-Boys that the Denver skaters had down: they were narcissistic jerks. They craved an audience, if only to enlarge their enfilade of contempt. My purple dress socks and discount sneakers were ripe for their derision, but they saved their choicest torments for the Texan kid who lived down the hall from us. The poor guy was too young to shake the accent or control his temper; the bruises and bloody noses were inevitable. No doubt these middle-class pugilists, with their uniformly innocuous accent, pricey decks, Vans and knee-high tube socks, felt, as did the Z-Boys, like “outsiders” but there were beat-up kids on the periphery of their spectacular clique who would have begged to differ.

The footage of this 90-minute movie is worth about 60 minutes, but is sensational enough to entertain and provoke further thought. I was reminded of another California fringe that erupted into a near-global scene that finally bore only traces of its origins: the Beats. Then it occurred to me that this cycle of self-aware-poverty-turned-style-turned-global-commercial-product is a uniquely American trajectory. You can lament it, or you can celebrate it — anyone over 17 certainly ought to deconstruct it.

Or, if you're like me, you can also take a deep breath and simply make a mental note of it, while the kid beneath your office window dogs on with his artless racket.

Post-script: D&ZB has a terrific soundtrack. You won't find it for sale, but any white North American male in his mid-40s already has most of the music in his library. If you want a dandy two-hour playlist for your next trip into the city, go here. Hook up your portable player and arrange these songs in any order you choose, or just hit “random.” Then sit back, and enjoy the ride.

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