Jay Adams, the coolest of the Z-Boys cool, 1961 – 2014
By Joe Donnelly
Maneuvering softly through last week’s screaming headlines about the passings of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall came the news that another icon, Jay Adams, died on Friday, Aug. 15, in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He was there on a surf trip with his family. Reports say he went to bed complaining of chest pains on Thursday evening after a day of surfing with longtime friend and fellow Z-Boy Allen Sarlo. Apparently he had a heart attack during the night and died Friday morning at 53.
Adams could do that — maneuver softly, that is. One of the things that gets lost in all the hype about how Adams’ and the legendary Z-Boys’ mid-‘70s exploits turned skateboarding from something slightly less embarrassing than roller-skating into one of the more enduring and defiant cultural touchstones of our times is that they had as much style and grace as they did fury and flash. Adams, many will argue, was the one with the most style and grace.
He would never collect the world championships, top rankings and fat paychecks that fellow Zephyr Competition Skate Team teammates Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta would see come fast and go just as quickly. Adams, though, would be widely regarded as “the spark that ignited the flame,” to appropriate one of the cornier promotional lines that came in the wake of Peralta’s 2001 “Dogtown and Z-Boys” documentary and the 2005 feature “Lords of Dogtown.”
Back in 2001, when I was assigned a cover story for the LA Weekly in anticipation of Peralta’s well-regarded documentary, that flame had become a wildfire.
Skateboarding, long a fringe pastime, was climbing to the top of the pop-culture charts. It wasn’t just a $3 billion industry by then, it was also an aesthetic and attitude that had reached deeply into art (see: Beautiful Losers) and film (Larry Clark, Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine, et al.) and music (Warped Tour) and marketing (see: almost everything “youth-oriented” but especially anything X-Games or RedBull-centric) and style (Vans, Volcom, D.C., Supreme … and on and on.)
Much of the credit for how deeply skateboarding shaped the vernacular of pop culture can be traced to the Z-Boys. Yes, they were innovative kids who were at the forefront of the polyurethane-fueled progression that swept skateboarding in the mid-‘70s. But that would have happened with or without them. What made the Z-Boys special was the made-to-order mythos that accompanied their rise.
Much of that came courtesy of artist, photographer and cultural historian C.R. Stecyk III. Stecyk was friends with Skip Engbloom and Jeff Ho, partners in Ho’s Surfboards and Zephyr Production’s surf and skate shop on the corner of Main and Bay streets in Santa Monica (now home to Dogtown Coffee Shop). Engbloom, who would be played pitch-perfectly by Heath Ledger in the feature film, put the Z-Boys skate team together. In this ragtag group of street urchins hanging around Ho’s shop, Stecyk saw worthy art-project muses that would make perfect fodder for the 1975 re-launch of Skateboarder magazine.
Using tongue-in-cheek pseudonyms such as John Smythe and Carlos Izan, Stecyk wrote gonzo-inflected, dizzyingly divergent articles about the Z-Boys’ exploits with inscrutable headlines such as “Aspects of a Downhill Slide” and “Fish-eyed Freaks and Long Dogs with Short Tails.” He accompanied the stories with his and protégé Glen E. Friedman’s beautiful, iconic black-and-white photographs. The pieces looked like artifacts and read like anthropological studies of an exotic tribe. They had the effect of creating a cultural history of cool for skateboarding where one hadn’t previously existed.
They also had a feeling, like the dime novels that mythologized Wild Bill Hickok, of documenting the final days of some sort of frontier life and of the nullifying effects of polite society’s encroachment.
For Adams and his cohorts, that frontier was the last seaside ghetto in Southern California, the stretch of northern Venice and south Santa Monica known as Dogtown. Dogtown was the Z-Boys’ latchkey-kid paradise, where products of broken homes and economic stress could surf among the ruins of Pacific Ocean Park pier and skate through the detritus of urban blight and renewal that comprised their neighborhood.
In the Z-Boys, Stecyk had perfect foils to document the utopian-dystopian dichotomy that Southern California embodied circa 1975. This study of feral youth turning its bombed-out urban environment into a cement playground was as apt a metaphor for the nation’s hippie hangover as anything.
To kids as far away and landlocked as Pittsburgh, Pa., who were also trying to navigate their parents’ hippie hangovers, the Z-Boys’ pyschography rang familiar and looked like heaven. On the pages of Skateboarder, Adams and Alva and company were beach-buzzed Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns embodying a sort of sun-soaked juvenile delinquency we wanted badly but weren’t quite sure how to get out there in the boonies. We were jealous of their style, their surf, their sand, their cement and, of course, their apparent lack of parental guidance.
The Z-Boys were the coolest, and Adams was the coolest of the cool. The way he rode. The way he dressed. His style, his attitude. He was punk rock before there was punk rock and seemed to have the keys to Xanadu.
There’s often a tough road to negotiate between the man and the myth, and the man usually walks it alone. As their legend grew, Adams grew more disillusioned with the cultural appropriation of skateboarding in general and of his Z-Boy peers in particular. He seemed to harden as his childhood started to expire. He embraced the violent side of punk rock, and in 1982 he was charged with murder and convicted of assault in a violent incident that left a young, gay man dead after a Hollywood punk rock show.
Adams started doing serious time on drug charges and parole violations in the ‘90s, spurred, he has said, by a heroin addiction that he picked up following the deaths of his half brother, his grandmother, the suicide of his biological father and death of his mother after a prolonged bout with cancer — all in the span of about a year and half.
More recently, he seemed to be free of both his addictions and his debts to society. He was by all accounts sober, spending a lot of time with family and surfing in the months before he died.
In peace, one hopes.
Joe Donnelly worked as editor of Bikini magazine, arts editor for New Times Los Angeles and deputy editor of the LA Weekly. He was founding editor of the snowboarding magazine Stick, co-founded the L.A. literary journal Slake and was most recently executive editor of Mission and State. Find him at joedonnellywrites.com.