As a kid growing up in Central New York State in the mid 1970’s you either played ball sports or you watched TV. So many of the sports we take for granted now didn’t even exist at that point and I just never strong enough, quick enough, or aggressive enough to play any ball sports well – and I just never was a ‘join a team’ kind of kid. At some point I ended up with my first skateboard. It was a roller skate cut in half nailed to a 2×4 as I recall…….it had steel wheels.
I rode that metal-wheeled board around the driveway most of one summer before I stumbled on some used clay wheeled roller skates at a second hand store. I ‘barrowed’ money from my Pops to buy them and they were so much better than the metal wheels. A few of the kids in the neighborhood skated in my driveway with me a bit here and there but for the most part I skated alone. At some point a kid I knew was headed to Florida where he said you could buy plastic (urethane) skateboard wheels and I gave him $12 and waited all summer for him to come back to New York.
He brought me back a set of clear amber Cadillac wheels with cone and cup bearings and they were unbelievable. I skated in the morning before school and came home and told my mom I didn’t have any homework and skated until dinner and then after dinner until it was time for bed. I was obsessed with skateboarding but for the most part I was alone. I don’t think I minded skating alone – that’s just how it was.
Skating for me at the time was going back and forth in the driveway making turns around chalk marks I put on the driveway – just turning and carving and feeling the G loads build and release. I didn’t do any tricks to speak of and I didn’t even know one could do more than I was doing. I was the best skater in the neighborhood and proud of that.
One year for my birthday my Aunt Nancy came over and gave me a copy of ‘Skateboarder’ magazine and my world was changed forever. On the cover of that issue of December 1976 issue of Skateboarder was Jay Adams. He was flying through the air, set low on the board with his two hands hold the deck to his feet. I couldn’t believe it – he was off the fucking ground while skating. All of a sudden my driveway and my hometown of Rome, NY seemed incredibly small.
The magazine was full of photos of skaters in far away places in skateparks (I didn’t know there was such a thing) and riding on vertical swimming pool walls like they were surfing…….but it was even better than surfing to me. I went to Carl’s drug store everyday for the next month or more with money in hand to buy the next issue. I was 14 years old.
Of all the skaters shown in Skateboarder none resonated with me more than Jay Adams. One could see even in still photos that he skated with aggression, maybe even anger, and it was a free form, never do the same thing twice kind of self expression. He expressed his feelings through skating with slashing frontside grinds, hand plant Berts on vertical pool walls and by looking straight into the camera and flipping it off – all while right on the coping of the pool 10’ off the hard concrete bottom of the pool.
My skating instantly changed from being something akin to figure skating to being a means of expressing myself and my anger, frustration, aggression, joy, beauty….etc. Skating suddenly gave me a voice and that was a very powerful thing for this boy in his mid-teens.
I subscribed to Skateboarder and read each copy cover to cover countless times. I studied the photos with an intensity I’ve never before applied to anything and while the beauty of Stacy Peralta’s skating floored me, and Tony Alva’s cool aggression always got my attention it was Jay Adams’ skating that made the biggest impression on me. During the long NY winters I skated in the basement in a narrow hallway that was concrete and I stared at Skateboarder magazine and waited for spring.
It was Jay’s skating that brought me out of my shell and gave me an identity and Skateboarder Magazine let me know that while I was physically alone in my driveway, on the small wooden ramp I built with scrap plywood and lumber, I was part of something bigger. I had a tribe and the leader of my tribe was Jay Adams.
As time went on I skated more (if that was possible) and traveled a good bit to skate at parks all around the east coast. The desire to skate got this sheltered kid to get in his truck with a paper map in the seat and drive to strange places and skate until I was so tired I could hardly stand, sleep in the truck and then to do it again the next day.
At some point cycling crept into my life and I raced BMX, and did freestyle BMX and always in the back of my mind was that one could express themselves with movement……every movement. In time I got older and more focused on cycling and skating took a back seat and then finally the board sat unused for a year, and then two while I immersed myself in cycling.
Every once in a while I’d see a skate rag and leaf through it and the tricks had gotten so hard, so complex, that I couldn’t relate to them. They were incredible for sure but the focus was on the trick and the number of spins and not really the simple invisible line drawn by the skater as he arced up the wall. I read somewhere that Jay had gotten in trouble and was in jail in Hawaii. I guess it didn’t come as a surprise really as I didn’t get the impression that he was able to live a life inside the lines.
Years later I’m back skating some at the local park in Bozeman where I now live and I hook up with some old skater friends on FaceBook and through that I see that Jay is out of jail, covered with tattoos, a few pounds heavier but back skating. He didn’t do McTwists or 540’s…………….he did slashbacks and Berts and he painted the walls with his lines fast and hard. He was Jay Adams again, still, and he ripped. I smiled every time I saw his photo with kids 1/3 his age smacking their trucks on the coping as he ripped by on the vertical. It was beautiful.
Jay Adams died this past week at the age of 53. I read it was a heart attack – not that it matters much I guess. But Jay, his skating, and his wide influence has been in most of my waking thoughts over the past few days. I never met Jay, I never saw him skate in person, I didn’t know him……….but loved what he and his skating did for me and no doubt countless others stuck in their little hometowns skating the plywood ramps in their driveways. Jay Adams was, and will always be, in my mind skateboarding in its purest and most beautiful form. Jay gave us all a voice and the courage to use it.
Thank you Jay Adams – rest in peace.