The Zephyr Chronicles: Revolutionaries on the Blacktop

Although skateboarding had been around since the 1960s, it has fluctuated in both popularity and marketability up until the mid-1990s when it finally became a seemingly stabilized industry. Even former Bones Brigade rider turned one-man commercial empire, Tony Hawk, admitted in his autobiography the fear of being able to survive on meager royalty checks in the early 90s, taking side jobs in video editing to make ends meet.

But, what began in the 1960s as a mini-surfboard shaped deck on wheels to be used by young, adept surfers in the afternoon when the waves were low quickly faded from view as a kiddie pastime. Manufactured boards started disappearing and by the primitive planks of carved plywood and clay wheels from disassembled roller skates became the substitute for the remaining loyalists who never gave up skating.  It was a combination of nature (surfing technique and the drought made pool surfing popular), responsive architecture (the embankments of California’s schoolyard playgrounds), engineering (development of Urethane wheels and kick tails), publicity (the Dogtown articles), and marketing that turned the primitive youth exploit into a million and billion dollar industry (eventually).

Former pro skater and skate company co-founder, Stacey Peralta’s fine documentary,  Dogtown and z-boys, followed by the narrow-minded Hollywood dramatization of the tale, Lords of Dogtown, the story of Dogtown’s Z-Boys is no longer a legend reserved to skateboarding’s inner circle. The story of the teenage tyrants out of 1970s Venice Beach whose low-to-the-ground style of skating inspired by pro surfer Larry Birdlman forced the sport from its 1960s paradigm of nosewheelies and headstands is a now highly publicized one that at least youngsters outside of skateboarding may be able to recite because they saw that documentary about it, or that movie with Heath Ledger.

Unfortunately, the Zephyr story tends to dominate the retrospectives on skateboarding’s history. About as close as it’s come are the several documentaries on the born again former glory boys Christian Hosoi, who served time on drug charges, and Vision skater, Mark “Gator” Ragowski, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder. Those offered some background on skateboarding’s’ evolution in the 1980s as vertical gave way to street skating. Any other really extensive history of skateboarding could be found through books, and particularly Michael Brooke’s The Concrete Wave and Jocko Weyland’s very excellent The Answer is Never.

Mass commercialism and mass media really homogenized skateboarding. The tricks all got names. They all became standards. The prominent players aren’t really distinguishable in technique, except the ones that can pull off something amazingly difficult like Tony Hawk’s 900. There is no small group that really influences skateboarding anymore the way that the Zephyr did. Even later notable skaters like Rodney Mullen who’s skating is grounded in years of now defunct-freestyle. That emphasis on “style” that’s so frequently repeated in Dogtown and Z-boys documentary might mean something to skaters from that era. But probably not to young skaters of today. The flowery documentary Freewheelin‘ made in the late 1970s follows Stacey Peralta and his friends (including Tom Logan, founder of Logan Earth & Ski) as they travel to various locations for afternoon skate sessions. The group hailed from very different athletic backgrounds. One was a professional skier, another, a longboard surfer. This had an impact on the way they maneuvered their boards. Even Peralta, who was a surfer first, had a self-tailored technique that was most evident in his slalom. Freewheelin’ really gave meaning to that loose abstract, “style.”But unfortunately, it is a uniqueness that likewise appears lost in the age of mass-everything and generic representation.

Where there lacks more extensive histories of a sport that began four decades back, a review of the Dogtown and Z-boys, which offers insight on both the pre-commercial and post-commercial developments (whereas Lords of Dogtown is saturated with focus on the latter) reveals that the core of the legend is that major shifts in the sport can be synthesized to a simple event: neighborhood surfers emulated their favorite pro surfers on a pavement playground. On a concrete wave. That is the beginning of the Dogtown story. The histories tennd to understate the fact that skateboarding became what it became because of the unadulterated spirit of its the people who did it for fun, and stuck with, making sure that skateboarding, even in it’s darkest days, never completely disappeared. They existed all along. Dana Brown, son of Endless Summer director Bruce Brown, may have been one of the few to really capture that perpetual essence, but in the surfing world, with his documentary, Step Into Liquid. It focused on various sects of die-hard surfers and their own definitions of the perfect wave. They may buy factory-produced surfboards and wetsuits, but when it comes to running out in the cold ripples of Wisconsin’s waters (yes… Wisconsin), the brand of board or the logo on the wetsuit doesn’t matter one damn because the enjoyment, that purest thrill, stems from the emotional, the mental, the physical, and the spiritual connection to the activity. Skaters are the same. It’s those moments when the fact that pro surfer Kelly Slater won a world championship title or that skateboarder Geoff Rowley has a signature shoe doesn’t mean jack shit.


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