BY Benjamin Weissman in Profiles | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Pipe Dreams

The Z-Boys

BY Benjamin Weissman in Profiles | 06 JUN 02

Without the genius of Tony Alva, Jay Adams and Stacy Peralta, skateboarding and the street style that surrounds it would not be what they are. Alva, Adams and Peralta were core members of the Zephyr Skateboard Team, a.k.a. the Z-Boys, a group formed in the Jeff Ho Surf Shop in Santa Monica in the early 1970s. They were the first radical skateboard riders in the world, and the culture they gave birth to became a global industry. Previously even the best skaters had been stiff and awkward, but the Z-Boys, all ocean-obsessed surf rats, brought big-wave riding style to the asphalt, cranking burly bottom turns and harsh cut-backs, laying out on the pavement, compressing the body into a tight, graceful unit. During the summer of 1976, one of the worst droughts in California's history, the Z-Boys searched Santa Monica for waterless swimming pools. If a pool was filled and the occupants were out, they would drain the pool with pumps and hoses and ride the steep white walls till the cops came.

More recently, Peralta directed and co-wrote Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001), winner of the Director's Award and the Audience Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. Claiming that he wanted to make the movie before Hollywood got it wrong, he reassembled the original skate crew, now in their mid-40s, and interviewed them about the old days. This is the big problem with the film - listening to oldsters bragging about the glory days for 90 minutes is unendurable - but the 25-year-old footage of kids ripping it up on their boards is beautiful and inspiring beyond belief. Even when the camera peruses old photos there is visual energy and depth, and an old-school Metal soundtrack, featuring Led Zeppelin, Robin Trower and Alice Cooper, lends huge inspirational support.

After a killer history lesson about the Venice canals, Santa Monica beach and P.O.P. Pier (Pacific Ocean Park), the film profiles the three key figures in the Z-Boys. Alva, a humourless, demi-Che Guevara in skate lore with his big hair and silky-aggro style, was the sexiest, most graceful pool skater of all time. To see him in his prime with Jimi Hendrix blasting away is a sweet audio-visual elixir. But things get tricky when Peralta interviews himself. He does his best not to spray like the others, but he does congratulate himself on his own subsequent success as an entrepreneur. (Peralta made a smooth transition to the other side of the business, manufacturing skate gear and videos, and assembling an even gnarlier skate team, the Bones Brigade, which included Tony Hawk, the only person in the world who has ever spun 900 degrees in a vert ramp.)

The real hero of Dogtown and Z-Boys is Jay Adams. Although he enjoyed the quick cash of young stardom, like many stellar under-age athletes before him he couldn't keep it together into adulthood. With the pathos of a crushed man Adams gives Dogtown a sudden jolt of humanity. After coming clean about the excessive drugs and partying of his youth, he is asked a second time to enumerate his regrets, as if Peralta hadn't been listening. The humbled, sweet-tempered Adams gently says, 'I just did.' Peralta quickly asks, 'But you were stoked, right?' Adams nods, 'Yeah, sure.' Adams' honesty pokes a big hole in the film and shows that Dogtown and Z-Boys is basically unexamined nostalgia. Peralta wants reassurance that Adams was happy during their shared past, like a weird, out-of-touch father who just needs to be placated.

Central to the film is the whole issue of style - not just clothing, but how the body deals with itself as a projectile, how it reacts when in furious motion. The Z-Boys studied Hawaiian surf footage in micro detail and copied exact turns and cut backs: they touched the pavement as if it were water, exactly the way Hawaiian surf god Larry Bertleman did on fat Sunset Beach waves in Oahu. One of the film's gems is a cross-fade from surfing to skating, between two identical gestures. But again the film labours the point by allowing the boys to drone on inarticulately while Peggy Oki, the only female rider in the dirty dozen, rarely speaks.

One thing Peralta got right, probably unintentionally, was to show how hostile boys in packs can be. The middle-aged Z-Boys talk about terrorizing old ladies on buses, vandalizing other surfers' cars, throwing bottles and bricks at kids who surfed at their favourite spot. But the greatness of Dogtown lies in its vintage footage. Via killer reels of Super-8 Peralta illuminates what was exhilarating and innovative about the Z-Boys' contribution to skateboarding and the film is a valuable 20th century document.