DYING DAYS in DOGTOWN
Photos by Thom Senzee
It was just a few days ago that I watched the acclaimed indie film "Lords of Dogtown" for the first time. It's a fairly heavy telling of the story of mid-to-late 1970s skateboarding and surf culture in Southern California as told through the eyes of a motley crew of Venice Beach and south Santa Monica-area youth, who turned an industry and a sport on its head.
But it was more than just skating low, fast, and "vert" that made these young lords legends in the long run. It was the fact that they had, as it's been called in other sports, "heart." They needed a certain kind of wherewithal to survive simply because of the circumstances of their time and place. For the most part, they had nothing besides one another, skateboarding and surfing--which the late Chris Cahill, an original member of the group portrayed in Lords of Dogtown (though his character was downplayed in significance) said was always more important to him than skateboarding. To paraphrase, he said: we skated because we surfed; not the other way around.
In any event, skateboarding, surfing and surviving were orders of the day.
As one Cahill's contemporary's put it: "We almost all came from broken homes." Dogtown itself (Venice Beach and south Santa Monica) was a place where you didn't want to take very many steps forward without looking backward over your shoulder. Venice of the 1970s was, in a word, dangerous. It was, in another word, dirty.
The Z Boys (a professional skateboarding team that included one girl skater) got their name from the Zephyr Surf Shop on Main Street in south Santa Monica. Chris Cahill is said to have "talked his way" onto the team. At the 1975 Del Mar National Skateboarding Finals, the Z-Boys won first place with their never-before-seen, aggressive skating style. It's largely agreed that event marked the primordial beginnings of extreme sports. After Del Mar came the magazine interviews, sponsorship offers and endorsement (not to mention money).
From that moment on, Cahill and his fellow Z-Boys set surf and skate fashion, whether they meant to or not. For instance, they helped make Vans tennis shoes famous throughout Southern California. Basic dark-blue Vans were the foundation of their competition uniform. We're talking at least five years before the film "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" made the sneakers famous nationally.
Chris Cahill was found dead at his L.A. home June 24. The cause of death has not been announced. Some who knew him say Cahill was battling cancer.
A personal memory about Chris Cahill:
My dad, little brother and I were homeless, living in a Ford Econoline Van in 1980. I was 12 and 13 during that period. It was the apex of surf-&-skate style in mainstream culture in the southwestern U.S., albeit a couple of years after it had been shaped and influenced by the Z Boys of Dogtown.
Although homeless, not really yet a teenager, and new to Southern California, I struggled to look the part by trying to get my dad to buy whatever O.P. or Qucksilver rags I could find at Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift stores that summer.
So much of our time living in the van was spent at the beach, where it was easier to stay clean (public showers, the ocean). Ironically, one of the dirtiest-looking neighborhoods in the city was where we often drove in order to remain hygenic.
I was familiar with the Z-Boys from skateboarding magazines. I knew what some of them looked like.
I like to believe a guy who stood up for my little brother and me while our drunken father roughly dumped a shampoo bottle and its contents onto our heads, lambasting us for being embarassed and ashamed about our obvious homelessness and use of the public showers as our family bathroom.
It was true; I was ashamed. And, I thought all of those "cool kids" laughing at us probably had really nice houses and moms and dads who doted on them. I only recently learned that guys like Chris Cahill were not the spoiled blond brats who had it made, as I had assumed.
I'll never forget the skinny, yellow-headed skater who kick-flipped his way through the little circle of youths gathered around our outdoor dysfunctional-family affair, during which Daddy downed a can of Bud, used his foot to kick Michael and me in the ass a couple of times each, and told us to soap up and be proud, because we had no right to be embarassed about him or about living in a van.
Then, there was this slight-looking young guy standing bravely between where I and my brother Michael stood and where my much larger and rather intimidating father stood, still ranting away.
The young man said something like this to my father:
"Lay off, man. Who do you think you are? Leave these guys alone, man. They're just kids."
Everyone watching us seemed to know him and acted deferential to the blond skater. They dispersed while muttering phrases toward my dad affirming the admonition of the guy I will always believe was Chris Cahill.
"Let the little dudes rinse off and kick it on the beach, man," were the last words he said before he slapped his board to the concrete and disappeared as quickly as he had arrived. I was sorry he was gone then; I'm sorry for he's gone now.
Postscript: My father got sober in a 12-step program and has remained so for more than 30 years.