Skate or Die

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

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-Boysinsists, 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, Spinpublished "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.

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
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.

"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 Highproducer Art Linson and Fight Clubdirector 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 3on 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."

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