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  • The Search for Tony Alva

    ta3

    The freeway was a blur of chrome and metal. Rushing. Frenetic movement. Everyone hurtling to nowhere. Tony Alva and I nimbly moved through traffic. We were going to skate a pool. As reggae music washed over us,  I idly wondered just how many times in his life, TA has been in exactly the same situation. California, good music, sun-splashed days, a car loaded with skateboards... probably quite a few I surmised. TA has been a skateboarding icon for decades. For many people, TA and skateboarding are one in the same. It is just as true that when one thinks of pool skating and surf style, Tony Alva's name must be right there at the pinnacle of the list. It's a symbiotic relationship. We simply cannot have one without the other. They directly flow... TA started skating in Los Angeles when the surf was flat. It was a way for him and his friends to have fun. They emulated surfing. Berts, laybacks, surf style. TA admonished - "Style was everything. Tuck low, speed carve, cut back. If you didn't skate with style, why do it?!" With his long fingers resting on the steering wheel, a dreadlocked TA kept up a fascinating dialogue on his surfing roots, his early influences and where he comes from. "I was surfing as often as I could. When I wasn't in the water, I was skating. We were riding the banked school yards... Kenter, Revere and others. Around this time, we also started riding pools. There was a drought going on and this led to many pools being emptied. We would hop fences and walls. We were little urban guerrillas. We rode pools all over LA, Beverly Hills, the San Fernando Valley and even down into San Diego."  I briefly showed TA a Warren Bolster image from 1976 or so. I asked him if it was the Soul Bowl over by the college campus in San Diego. "Oh yeah... Look at that. I haven't seen photographs of that pool in a long time" TA quickly glanced away from the image and then banked the car onto an off ramp. Trash carpeted the filthy sidewalk. Bums cluttered the underpass begging for coins. Dirty. Disheveled. TA mumbled something about being grateful. I nodded in agreement as we moved through traffic to a better part of town. We pulled in at a Japanese restaurant and went inside. Taking a seat, we soon ordered and then started looking at the Soul Bowl images.

    ta11

    TA was chuckling under his breath. "Look at the gear! I'm wearing one Vans shoe and one Makaha shoe. This was when I was on Logan Earth Ski. Torger Johnson was a huge influence on my skating and through Torger, I met Bunker Spreckles. Bunker was the step son to Clark Gable. Bunker was wealthy, surfed, traveled the world and lived larger than life. He really knew how to roll! Anyway, our crew would ride pools all over. We would go down south from LA, we'd surf and then ride local spots." TA pointed at an image of himself balanced precariously on the tiles of the Soul Bowl. A huge green palm tree stands in the background. The blue sky is like a dream. He continued - "Look at the transitions. The Soul Bowl was really good. It had a big fence around it but we just snuck in there and skated. I don't recall ever being hassled there. It was pretty mellow. Back then, we were hitting the lip. Tiles, edgers and carving." I asked TA about Logan Earth Ski and his sponsorship and contests. The waitress brought us our food and left us alone again.

    Tony- Wallos
    Tony- Wallos

    TA spoke of his early days surfing in Venice. He talked about early skate sessions in the streets. TA moved his plate around and with a flourish of his chopsticks continued- "Well, like I told you, we would come down south. We rode La Costa, bombing hills, slaloming, riding banks and pools... anything. After the Z- boys split up, I started riding for Logan. I was heavily influenced by Torger and he rode for them so it was a natural progression that I went over to Logan Earth Ski. Besides that, Brad Logan - -the youngest of the brothers--was a friend so... I think I was 17 years old at the time. Being on Logan gave me direct exposure in the magazines as well. In 1976, the Hang Ten Championships were held at the Carlsbad Skate Park. The contest had downhill, slalom and other events. It was pretty crazy. I had been learning a great deal of freestyle moves, headstands, high jump and things. I think  that these skills really helped me get competitively to another level. I won the Overall World Champion title at the contest that year. I ended up beating the heavily influential Logan brothers and Torger Johnson. Skating was really tight back then. There were only something like one hundred pros. We knew who was who!" I listened attentively then motioned for the waitress and ordered more sashimi. I watched her saunter away. Tony smiled. I asked him who he thought was really good from back then. "Oh... that's pretty easy. Jay Adams, Torger Johnson, Henry Hester, Bob Skolberg, Bobby Piercy, Stacy Peralta, Ty Page, Bruce Logan, Brian Beardsley, Chris Chaput, Mike Weed, Dennis Martinez, Doug Pineapple Saladino... You have to understand something. There were good skaters from all over California. Just remember, whatever they could do, we did better. It was how it was." I looked up from my sushi. His voice was impassioned. TA had stated this in all seriousness. It seemed an egotistical statement but given the subsequent impact TA and his friends had on the skateboarding world, I didn't feel the comment went without merit. Factual. History. Believe it. TA took a sip of green tea as the pretty waitress stopped to check on us. I sat back and stretched. A flute echoed hauntingly from a recessed speaker system as I questioned him about Gonzales pool and the Dog Bowl.

    ta2

    "The Dog Bowl was a pretty unique place. It didn't receive its name because of Dogtown but because the owners had all these dogs that would run around the lip of the pool while we skated." I laughed. I had heard the story before. It was ancient skateboarding lore. Myth. Legend. TA went on - "Basically the story goes like this. Paul Constantineau and a friend had heard about the pool. The house was on a huge estate in LA. The son --Dino-- was this really young guy who was dying of cancer. His parents were cool. They wanted him to have a good exit and all. They pretty much just let Dino do what he wanted. Well, Paul and his friend went over and checked out the pool. Dino was like - "Sure, go ahead and drain it." We did and that is how the Dog Bowl came about. It was the summer of 1977. The pool was huge! Dog Bowl was our sanctuary. We would bring our girl friends, smoke weed and skate. It was perfect. Dino would sit there in his wheelchair and smoke out with us all. He would watch and be happy."

    ta10

    "Dog Bowl was the very first pool where we learned lines and shallow end skating. It was the first place that I did airs. We were hitting the lip. I kept generating so much speed frontside that I was continually pitched out of the top and off of the coping. I thought that maybe I could make it. The next run, I tucked my knees up and floated. It happened. History. I didn't hang up and I rolled away." TA sat back and took a sip of water. He looked outside and repositioned himself in his seat. I digested what he had told me. It must have been an awesome experience to be a part of. Boundaries shattered. TA saw me in thought. He added - "Skating was basically in its infant stage. We were behind wrought iron gates riding. No one knew. Unless Craig Stecyk or Glen E. Friedman documented it, we just did what we did. We were kids. There was no sport really. There was no future... we didn't think that way. What we were doing really didn't exist until we did it. I recall the Gonzales pool in the same way. It was actually better for us. It was a real secret. Even more so than the Dog Bowl. It was very private and it was ours. We could ride there and take what we learned at the Dog Bowl and apply it. Progression."

    ta14

    I recalled the Glen E. Friedman images. Skateboarder and Skateboard World magazines. They were in my blood. A part of the collective psyche. Those photographs were burned into our brains. We saw and we wanted it all. TA and the others could not know that what they were doing in a random back yard, would send a signal throughout the world. It was a flag. Anarchy. We followed. Pretty soon the accolades poured in. Life became bigger. Money, fame and its ever-present shadow -- decadence-- insinuated themselves into their lives. They were young street kids thrown into a world of increasing attention, wealth and popularity. TA reveled in it. I asked him if he ever really believed in the hype surrounding himself. TA moved his hair away from his face with the back of his hand and sighed. Pensive. He didn't answer. Silence. I sat and said nothing. TA murmured thoughtfully - "People hated me. Once I was World Champion, it really started. It was like - "Put up or shut up!" I won it all. My ego grew. Wherever I went, I rode as hard as I could. I let my skating do the talking for me. Having an ego is one thing but I could back it up. Our crew was like that. We could back it up with our skating." As we left the restaurant and headed to the pool to skate, TA told me that those times were crazy. It would've been difficult for any young man under 20 years old to become a World Champion, have all the fame, money and women thrown at him and go through it all unscathed. Everywhere that TA went, he shined like the sun on the water. On a skateboard, he was better than everyone and the attention was incredible. Status. Fame. Ego. It was a virtual certainty.

    Marina
    Marina
    Image: Friedman

    When stars explode in the galaxy it is called a Supernova. A massive torrent of energy is released. Within the laws of physics, some stars grow old in predictable ways. They become dense balls of carbon and oxygen. They are hot... but not hot enough to fuse the carbon and oxygen. Hence - no Supernova. Tony Alva? He was a star that became a Supernova. He won contests, broke new ground and ruled everywhere he skated. He went from Z-Flex to Logan Earth Ski and then rode hand-drawn Wes Bulldog Humpston boards. TA was a white-hot commodity. Finally, with his star hanging high above the horizon, TA started his own board company: Alva Skates. It dominated. Board sales blew through the warehouse supplies and TA was on the road continuously supporting his company and skateboarding. TA unleashed a 'massive torrent of energy'. He had exploded onto the skateboarding scene. He was the original skateboarding - "Rock Star". He had learned well. The heir to the Spreckles Sugar Company fortune - Bunker Spreckles - had taught TA the art of rolling in the big leagues.

    England
    England
    "Bunker was almost like my Sensei."

    ta9While living in Hawaii on the North Shore for a time, TA had traveled and partied with Bunker. They lived the high life. Tony spoke to me of that time. His voice was tinged with regret and sadness. - "Bunker became my mentor. He was almost like my Sensei. But, he had too much money and with that comes all sorts of problems. Too many good drugs. Sniffing, smoking then... It was the times. The beginning of the end. When you have fifty million in the bank and are 27 years old and in the grave... what good is your money!?" TA looked out at the traffic as he drove and his sunglasses couldn't hide his disappointment. We've all witnessed people go down those tracks. Seeing friends die is difficult. Watching the train derail is a whole other mess in itself... Could we have done something? What if...? Questions. Remorse. Guilt. TA- "You know something? I'd rather hold onto what is dear in life. So many people burn bright and then they are gone. I've seen a few go that route. I miss people to this day. Bunker was a great guy and he taught me things that I can still apply to my life today."

    Bronson Canyon - Los Angeles
    Bronson Canyon - Los Angeles

    We drove through Los Angeles. Chrome and glass buildings rose like monoliths against the dirty sunlight. Neon signs and billboards continuously tried to sell the same tired things. People jostled for position on the tangled overpasses. I looked out over a run down neighborhood and watched for pools. I saw drug dealers and the face of fear. Gang signs. Division. Violence percolated just beneath the surface. TA drove and we remained thoughtful. For what seemed like the millionth time, we pondered how a city could chew up so many lives. Coming up into Malibu, I asked him about the 1980's after skateboarding effectively died as an industry. What happened with Alva Skates? Did he regroup, invest his money, and move on? I knew some of the answers but I was looking for the story behind the story. TA gave me that look. It said- "Come on bro... you know what happened." TA changed lanes and smirked at me. "Well, I started up the Alva Posse and we had a good run in the mid to late 1980's. The team was strong and we really had some gnarly skaters. The industry changed drastically in the early 1990's. Street became king and pool skating died. Only the most hardcore guys really kept at it. Many of the vert and pool guys couldn't handle the change. Others quit. Others went down that dark set of train tracks and... you know? They fought their demons. Sometimes the demons won."  TA named names. He spoke of furtive gatherings and drug-fueled excess. Rivers of booze. Demoralization. TA looked over at me. I nodded. I understood. TA has dealt with his own demons as have I. We understand each other. "These days I need to stay out of the pollution and in the solution."- he added with a smile.

    scaryslashsmellydudeschrome

    In the 1990's, TA watched skateboarding change, The world he knew previously was gone. The attention, autograph-seekers, photographers, sponsors and media exposure dwindled quickly. He found himself surfing, skating and selling skateboards out of a small shop in Oceanside. Storm clouds gathered. It became a gritty existence. Hangers-on, leeches and parasitical people made themselves his closest companions. They were attracted to his name and legacy. They facilitated and enabled his debauchery. TA lost sight of what was real. TA lost sight of TA. He couldn't escape the very thing that held him down: himself. In 2000, Stacy Peralta started a new project, The Z-Boys Documentary. TA cleaned up a bit and helped make the project the success it was. He fought regularly with himself. He realized that he suffered from a spiritual malady. Eventually, TA asked for help and received it. He became sober and spiritual. Things had been dark for far too long.

    ta7

    North Malibu. We climbed up a winding lane with the sun at our backs. Red and purple Bougainvillea grew in massive mounds of flowers and spiny vines. Huge houses were scattered sparsely over the hillside. In this place, land runs at a premium. People pay for their privacy. One won't be living on top of others in north Malibu. We pulled up at the location. The stone house perched on a bluff. Heavy trees screened the home from the tiny lane. Black wrought iron fences quietly said - "Invitation Only". Lance Mountain met us there. We went poolside and stretched out. We skated. The owner --Angelo --was home and he rode with us. His pool is a clover bowl. It is nestled in the backyard overlooking the deep green sea. When I saw the pool and the view for the first time, my blood thrummed in my veins. The perfect transitions of the clover, make it feel as if we are floating. It was idyllic. I watched TA, Lance and Angelo cruise and grind through the pool. I heard their laughter. I smelled orange trees and squinted into the sun. A day of days.

    Malibu
    Malibu

    A sea-gull floated on the wind and hung there... like a perfect moment. The wind brought its cry as it dipped and was lost again among the wet rocks. TA watched the surf as the waves rolled in and licked the sands. He has come full circle. His silhouette was dark, his dreadlocks hung shaggy in the breeze. He looked like a statue ; frozen in an unknown thought. Momentarily I thought of the Tony Alva that I once knew. I remembered his ego, partying, his raw edge and anger. I was happy that he had found the real Tony Alva. Gone was the contentious 'rock star'. Turning, he came towards the pools edge and stretched. Glancing left, then right, he rolled in with surf style and sober grace. Timeless lines. Masterful and fluid. Our cultural icon. Thank you to MRZ, Glen E. Friedman, Warren Bolster R.I.P. and Wynn Miller for the images. This originally was written for the Skateboarder's Journal and I thought it needed to be reprinted and read. Skate- Ozzie