‘…Rod told me the moment he saw those photos/video (of Sheckler) was like hearing Mozart.’
You have been writing about skateboarding for reputable publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and GQ. How did you end up working for them?
Each story is a different story. For GQ, an editor named Dan Fierman set up an early vertical blog, and the first thing we did, about Richie Jackson, was picked up by the X-Games, which means it entered the ESPN Zone, which trendingwise means a lot. And I already worked there. New Yorker, same thing. For the Times, I’d been a reporter for Connie Rosenblum at the late great City Section, but that story, about Jay Adams, ran in Sports, which happened with a blind pitch to email@example.com, maybe? It was a while ago.
Have you done some work for skate magazines too? Despite all efforts, they won’t let me. But this said, to the best of my knowledge no other author has been praised by both Thrasher and the New Yorker.
As you seem to have done more work for general publications, does this impact your ‘street credibility’ within the skate community?
Oh Jeez. Get comfortable because there’s a lot to say here . . . Street cred can be as mysterious and problematic as skateboarding itself. And once inside the publishing world, it all gets even more mysterious and problematic. Coming from a bigger-name place, you sometimes just get the fire wall and it’s just not happening. But usually if I can talk to someone, they’ll see that I understand skating and get how sensitive a skate story can be when a big name place is doing it. Usually. But now what’s happening, as the bastions of Olde World Publishing are dying, is they all want a piece of anything that’s legit, anything with cred—especially skateboarding. And they want it because they don’t have it, and because skateboarding is both ‘cool’ and coverage is almost entirely online, so a sinking ship like Rolling Stone wants skating’s followers. Skaters rightfully don’t trust a lot of these places, and so these day bullshit editors try and get writers like me, with foot in that community, to get in there and do the job for them.
‘And this is another truism I’ve found in the skate culture: for all of its stark keep-it-realism, it only likes positive press.’
And this can be really dark. I know of one “reporter” who completely abused a pro skater’s trust at Rolling Stone, and I had a dark interaction with this evil editor there who turned out to be the fact-checker on that fake UVA rape story. Most of the big glossy places find my stuff too insider-y and long and annoying. But editors at the industry places won’t even write me back, since to them I’m just a big-money-scribbling A-hole who just wants to sell out their culture. And these days that’s totally understandable. Writingwise, my goal is to bridge this gap—to be inside and outside at once, and make readers feel this double-feeling, maybe at the same time. All my heroes’ work does this: Dave Eggers. Richard Avedon, Mikey Alfred, with his Illegal Civ movies (which is why Jonah Hill hired him to produce Mid 90s.) So my hope is that both skaters and non-skaters can read a piece and take something from it, tho honestly that usually doesn’t work and either no one reads it or both sides complain. All this said, Dick Reston, my old editor at the Vineyard Gazette, used to say that this is the proof of a well-reported story. That both sides give not praise but criticism.
What sort of reactions (good and bad) do you get from the SB community when your release an article?
All over the map. Good God, pick one . . . The Fix story about sobriety and Lizard King—who is still my favourite skater— got utterly savaged. People on Slap were posting my picture, and then doing things to it, and also saying how incorrect it all was, but not offering any alternate info or sources. It was so bad that I wanted to go back and site everything, but the editor said no. Basically no one read the Vogue story on Lacey Baker [now Leo Baker] which blows because dealing with Nike SB is like drinking other peoples’ vomit. They kept asking if they could see the story before it ran. And sorry to use this word but while were closing the story I left my phone in the car and this one bitch seriously called like 30 times in a row. (This is 2nd Degree Aggravated Harassment in New York, BTW, a Class A Misdemeanor.) For the [Times] Jay Adams obit, I told the editor that no one’s going to be really direct and say that Jay was a physical genius and a very troubled guy. They ran it next to the more official obit, and Vice said it was one of the only honest stories on him. Hopefully someone somewhere read New Yorker interview with Jonah Hill, since his PR team makes Nike’s PR team look like a cabin of Swiss Air stewardesses. It was actually easier to interview Bill Clinton.
‘The Fix story about sobriety and Lizard King—who is still my favourite skater—got utterly savaged.’
Is this enough? How about one more: The obit for [Almost and Nike team member] CJ Tambornino, which started for Rolling Stone but ran on Bleacher Report, also broke the news of his OD. And his friends came after me, publicly and privately. On the B/R feed, one guy called me ‘a cancer to journalism’. But the story mostly praised his meta-level of ultra tech-gnar (nollie 360 inward heel, one-footed bluntslide) that really no one has ever touched, except maybe [Chris] Haslam. Meanwhile his crew is threatening to beat me up if I ever skate in Minneapolis. And this is another truism I’ve found in the skate culture: for all of its stark keep-it-realism, it only likes positive press.
Let’s talk about your first book you published in 2011 ‘ The Impossible – Rodney Mullen, Ryan Sheckler, and the Fantastic History of Skateboarding’. What triggered the idea to cover the history of skateboarding in a book?
It started as a magazine pitch. Ryan had that MTV show, and he’d also turned pro and been mentored by Rodney. This is a while ago, but I emailed info@almost and Rodney responded. Right away he totally understood the story, really better than me. And it never ran because Jim Nelson didn’t like skateboarding, yet, but Rod and I stayed in touch, then met up like a year later, after David Wallace died. He was very interested in that …
What was the biggest challenge and putting the book together and how did it take you from the idea to when the first book was sold?
The biggest challenge was time and finding good sources. And with skateboarding history, even good sources conflict almost all of the time. The only other thing I can compare it to is rock-n-roll history (interesting that they’re about the same age) in that two people who were there, at a show or contest or scene, will say two different things.
I liked reading the book, but I would have loved to see skate and portrait shots in there. What made you decide not to put any pictures in it?
The sad reason is money. Publishers usually have to pay for pictures and prefer not to. This conveniently said, I think there’s enough skate books with pictures, and that was the original pitch, to do something different and look at skateboarding from a serious cultural, researched, reported angle.
‘But editors at the industry places won’t even write me back, since to them I’m just a big-money- scribbling A-hole who just wants to sell out their culture.’
You have chosen Mullen and Sheckler as the main features throughout the history of skateboarding. The contrast between the two cannot be bigger for many reasons. How come you ended up going with them anyway?
For that exact reason. Their vast, vast differences—yet they’re both brilliant skaters and connected in a way I don’t know of in any other mentor-type story, in or out of the skate world. Also remember that Ryan was like 10 when Chet Thomas showed Rod a sequence of him flipping a picnic table, and Rod told me the moment he saw those photos/video was like hearing Mozart. But in addition to the talent, Rod said Sheckler was both grounded and aware of his ability in a way almost no young talent ever is. So him and Ryan really connected. People on planes thought they were father and son. And before Rod turned him pro, he was over at the Shecklers, and this was cut from the book so maybe put it here, but here’s what Rod said:
Ryan, you will have opportunities that I never had, nor anyone of my generation. And there will be offers that I can’t match, but just know that wherever you go and whatever you do, I’m always there for you.
Imagine being a young skater and hearing this from Rodney Mullen.
If you would be writing the same book again but right until 2021, which skater would you pick to talk about the past 10 years?
Possibly Antwuan Dixon. He’s the most natural physical genius street skating has ever seen and maybe the most-troubled.
Let’s talk about Rodney. He keeps such a low profile, how were you able to get him over the line with this book? You even attended his infamous late night/early morning skate sessions, which is more difficult than winning the lottery.
It probably wouldn’t be possible now. Everyone’s after him and there’s so many dishonest people in publishing—one bullshit editor, for instance, who couldn’t get Rod and tried to trick me into interviewing him for this awful Bones Brigade story. So it took years to realize how lucky the whole book situation was. We’d been in touch a while when I mentioned the book project. As for watching him skate, probably he took pity on me because when I flew out there our deadline was approaching and I looked like the sister from That 70s Show. And because after seeing Rodney skate, there’s kind of nothing else to do. It remains the most intense experience of my life.
‘Possibly Antwuan Dixon. He’s the most natural physical genius street skating has ever seen and maybe the most-troubled.’
Rodney had this injury that put him out of skateboarding for a few years. Do you think this break has impacted negatively or even positively on his skateboarding?
Positive. Without the injury, there would be no switch nollie lazerflip, or so much of what’s in the Vogue video. Without the injury, he wouldn’t be the first stanceless skater.
Let’s talk about Sheckler. Do you think he has any regrets from some of the decisions he has taken throughout his career?
As long as Ryan keeps skateboarding, he can endorse chicken harnesses and those slippers where the slipper is an old man’s head and you stick your foot into the old man’s mouth–if this is what he really wants to do. After the book came out, one worry was that maybe my picture of Rodney, with his great ability and great intellect, might inadvertently make Ryan look punky or not as good.
Ryan is a genius. To see Ryan Sheckler skate is to be in the presence of a force. And that force is way bigger than us or anything we can build around it— at Dew Tour in Vegas, warming up, he would fly off the side of a 12-foot quarter pipe and roll along the raw wall of the venue, over the EXIT sign and whatnot. It’s almost eerie, in that David Lynch movie way. He’s only human, but he’s possessed by something that’s not. Lucky for us, that thing is skateboarding.
Last question. If you could interview one person, who would it be and why?
It’s a three-way tie: Andrew Corsello (pianist) Elizabeth Gerber-Paul (pool- player), and Phyllis Slesinger (lawyer) of the Mortgage Bankers Association. In 1993 she published a paper: Whole Loan Book Entry—A Blueprint for the Future: How Do you Eat an Elephant? One Byte at a Time. The idea was to make mortgages electronic, which caused the 2008 housing crisis, which Forbes says cost tax payers $16 trillion ($16,000,000,000,000.00), the ramifications of which I’m writing a book about.
‘But this said, to the best of my knowledge no other author has been praised by both Thrasher and the New Yorker.’