Interview by Dan Skye
Who planted the seeds of the action sports industry, now estimated to be a $5 billion juggernaut? The skateboarders, pure and simple. They were the first to challenge the laws of physics.
But more specifically, it was a posse of skateboard freaks known as the Zephyr Team (a.k.a. Z-Boys) who haunted a Los Angeles beach ghetto between Santa Monica and Venice called Dogtown. They surfed in the morning and skated in the afternoon, and developed an edgy, dangerous style all their own. Desperate to ride, they used guerrilla tactics, invading backyards in upscale neighborhoods to skate empty swimming pools.
The Z-Boys revolutionized skateboarding with their low-slung, fluid surfing style, making them international teen superstars.
Twenty-five years later, two of the original crew, Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta, sat down with HIGH TIMES to talk about the phenomenon the Z-Boys spawned. Alva is an international skate celebrity, while Peralta has parlayed his skate fame into a successful career as a filmmaker. This year, Peralta released his documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, which reunites the original Dogtown crew to tell their story.
The movie splices interviews with a portfolio of old photos and articles, archival movie footage, and interviews with Henry Rollins and Pearl Jam's Jeff Ament. The soundtrack features the likes of Black Sabbath, The Stooges, Alice Cooper and Neil Young. Sean Penn narrates. Dogtown and Z-Boys unearths the roots of modern skateboarding, and conveys the brotherhood of the concrete that Alva and Peralta still revere.
Some people define you guys as the George Washington and Abe Lincoln of skateboarding—the Founding Fathers of its current popularity.
Stacy: Oh my God! Yeah, we’ve been relics since we were twenty.
Tony: It’s funny seeing some of the footage in Dogtown. I was interviewed as a Z-Boy when I was like twenty-one years old, and here I am twenty-three years later still skatin’. I guess you’re always in until you’re not considered one of the Boys.
Do you guys still skate regularly?
Tony: Yeah, quite a bit.
Stacy: I skate for fun, but Tony is a professional skateboarder. He doesn’t compete, but he still lives the life and does demonstrations all over the world. He’s the oldest living skateboarder who does it as his life.
How do you respond when someone says skateboarding isn’t a real sport?
Stacy: They’ve said it to us all our lives.
Tony: It’s an art form. It’s a lifestyle. It goes way beyond the idea of sport.
Stacy: Skateboarding is like a virus, because we co-opt things that don’t belong to us and use them as our art form. And people don’t like that about us. To skateboard is to be subversive, because you’re using terrain that belongs to someone else. That’s always been the problem, but that’s what keeps it honest.
The Z-Boys took skateboarding to its next level by practicing in swimming pools. What was that like?
Tony: We got started sidewalk-surfing in the streets of Santa Monica, which was like a playground for skateboarding. The schools in the more affluent neighborhoods like Brentwood and Bel Air all had these perfect concrete waves that went around the outer perimeter of the playgrounds that allowed kids to get their ball back if it bounced away. We looked at those like a glassy day at Sunset Beach in Malibu.
Stacy: We wanted to be professional surfers, and skateboarding was an augmentation to our surfing. We had all this crazy terrain in L.A. that no one else had anywhere in the world. So we surfed those concrete banks. We used skateboarding to become better surfers.
Tony: Eventually it went to backyard pools, because that was the next progression. There was a drought and there were hundreds of empty pools.
Were the houses empty?
Tony: Some had people living there. You got to remember, we weren’t doing a nine-to-five jobs and stuff. While other people were working, we were in their backyards in their pools.
Stacy: It was torn-down houses, remodeled homes, people who had weird schedules. Tony has probably ridden over a thousand pools and myself, I’ve probably ridden eight hundred fifty. That’s a lot of pools!
How did your parents respond to your skateboard fever?
Tony: My father wanted me to be like this jock, he wanted me to be a junior him. But then he made the mistake of buying me a surfboard, so he has nobody to blame but himself.
I got into surfing hardcore and quit all team sports. I wasn’t failing school, but I wasn’t kicking ass. He told me: “Dude, you’re just gonna be a surf bum. You’re gonna end up a ditchdigger. You’d better get your shit together, because that’s where surf bums and skaters end up. Get an education and a career. Look at me.”
And I looked at him, and I thought, do I want to be like my dad, working graveyard shift for thirty years at Hughes Aircraft? And I went, fuck no!
Stacy: My parents weren’t against my skateboarding, but they just didn’t understand it. They had no context to put it in because nobody skateboarded before us. They looked at skateboarding like a yo-yo. They thought: “OK, The guy’s not hurting himself. He’s not committing self-sabotage.”
Also, it was the ’70s, man. It was a tough time. Nixon resigned, the economy was in the toilet, we had the Iran hostage thing. It was a hellish decade, a really tough decade. My dad was laid off a number of times, and there was a lot of tension in the family. We took that angst and put it into skateboarding.
Tony: Surfers were hippies and stuff. They were outcasts.
Stacy: The counterculture.
Tony: It came out of the ’60s, and we took it and turned it into the Z-Boys. We said look, we are rebels. We are outcasts. We don’t give a fuck. This is what we’re gonna do. And we’re gonna do it a hundred percent. Yeah, we came out to raise a ruckus, but we were havin’ a good time, man.
Stacy: We were also committed to what we were doing. If you look at the face shots of us in the middle of maneuvers back then, that was all of our life. It was like the Super Bowl every day when we skateboarded.
Tony: We were like gunslingers. We’d go to other neighborhoods and it was like—whoa! We’d just walk into town with the vibe that were gonna fuck your shit up. Like straight out, we’re comin’ to skate your shit. We’re gonna get in. We’ll take your girls afterwards to party with them. We’re here to pillage your scene, ya know? And we might not even be back either. We’re here for just one hit and there were out. Then we’re back to our neighborhoods.
And then what, they’re gonna come to our neighborhood to mess in Dogtown? I don’t think so. They never came to our neighborhoods lookin’ for shit. No way. They never came into our neighborhoods to skate either—ever!
Did pot fit into your scene?
Tony: We had Thai sticks, but mostly smoked only the shittiest weed back then. But I felt I skated better on pot. I’d skate for an hour or so, get in the groove, then take a little break and smoke a little. I’d come back with my second wind. It changes your vision a bit. People wonder how I can skate stoned or baked or whatever, and I’m like, I’m not stoned. Pot enhances the vibe, the perception. For me, that is.
How about you, Stacy?
Stacy: It’s—whatever. It was never my drug of choice. It worked for Tony and it worked for a lot of guys on the team. You could see it. It connected them in some way. But it wasn’t the thing that got me even though growing up in the ’70s, we were steeped in it. It was everywhere.
Tony: You got a contact high!
Stacy: For Tony, it was a component. Paul Crowder, who cut Dogtown, smokes pot, and the esthetic that comes with it is part of Paul’s creativity. He’d go to his car while editing, take a couple puffs and come back in, and he’d get back into it and it’s like he’s conducting music. He’s not what I’d call stoned.
Tony: It’s like Snoop Dogg says: “We’re smokin’ weed, everything’s chill, like peaceful. It’s herb we’re smokin’. There’s no fussin’. There’s no negative vibe.”
Look at guys like Bob Marley. Bob was not a sweet, little angel like some people make him out to be. He was a roughneck. He was one of the original Kingston rude boys. So I’m just sayin’, yeah, weed chills us out a little bit and shit if you got a hard edge. It smoothes them.
Stacy: Tony had just gotten a really good sponsor after he left the Z-Boys. I got a really good sponsor. We started making money. One of the other guys on our team didn’t get a great sponsor, but his sponsor didn’t want to lose him. His company was really a front for selling pot. So what they did in order to make this skater more money was they’d give him a pound of pot every month to sell, and that’s where he made his money.
What makes a great skater?
Tony: Style, grace, power, confidence, attitude.
What skaters really impress you?
Tony: Chad Muska, Dave Palmer—also known as Shaggy—Matt Dyke.
Are they good or better?
Tony: They’re better. They’re younger and crazier and tougher.
But you guys did the moves first.
Tony: We still do all right.
Stacy: We’re every bit as good as them. But it was a different approach. We were more fluid, more artistic. Our idea was to take all the moves and combine them into one whole. A lot of the new guys seem like stuntmen. They do one big move, then they get off their board, walk back and do one big move again, but they don’t tie it together.
And our thing was being fluid. We want to be connected to what we’re doing, where there’s no difference between you and the board. You’re both the same. That was the sensation, and when you see Tony skate today, you still see that. It’s this carve into this carve and this carve into that carve. It’s all one move.
Do you think current boarders are encouraged to skate the big moves?
Tony: They’re goin’ big because of their own videos. They want to produce their own shit.
Stacy: When we were skating, the only way you could become a professional skateboarder was by going through the contest progression. Start out as an amateur and work your way up to being a pro. Kids now, they don’t do that anymore. All they have to do is appear in a video with a handful of tricks and that video gets sent out all over the world. They can get their own board model and start making money off of that alone. It’s a whole different evolution, a whole different story.
What do you think of the wave of extreme sports?
Stacy: We’re living in the age of extremism. Everything’s extreme. If you go to lunch, it’s not just lunch. It’s an extreme lunch. We’re gonna sit down and have a talk—a power talk. Power meetings. Everything’s just big and fast and it really just BS. It really is.
Do you think skateboarding will ever be an event in the Olympics?
Stacy: I don’t think so. I say this because I think skateboarding is just too dirty for the Olympics. It’s too subversive. I don’t think they can put their arms around it. It’s too urban, it’s too loud and just too dirty—which is really a compliment to it because it’s not sanitized enough for them to accept it.
What do you think of what the Z-Boys have created?
Stacy: It’s a virus. It is! We imported this virus to all these kid hosts all over the world. It’s an American homegrown phenomenon. I will say this one thing. Skateboarding is the home of the disenfranchised. If you look at most skateboarders, they didn’t fit in on teams, didn’t feel they fit in anywhere. And that’s just like us back then.
Where do you guys see yourself in ten years?
Tony: Kickin’ back in Costa Rica, smokin’ weed, livin’ with a good lady, surfin’ good waves.
Stacy: The question is what would have happened to us if it hadn’t been for skateboarding. It gave us all an identity early on when we needed one.