Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder's History of the World, The: By Jocko Weyland By Todd Taylor

Jan 03, 2003

I definitely have mixed feelings about this book. It's told from the perspective of a self-admittedly good, but not great, skateboarder who started out isolated, in Colorado on a half pipe in a cultural void and real wilderness. As the narration evolves to more skate-friendly times and places, the author weaves his own personal tale of being involved with skating in Texas, Hawaii, California, and beyond, into the wider history of skateboarding. Impressively, Jocko saw with his own eyes some of the paradigm shifts that skating underwent - like seeing the McTwist (not named after McDonald's but by its inventor, Mike McGill). Jocko does a good job of stating that there is no one definitive history of skating, and that it's a collection of voices that can never quite be captured solely by him. His humility is definitely a bonus.

In the beginning of the book is Jocko's "why people skate" thesis, which starts all the way back to primordial goo, through chariots, and ancient modes of propulsion. It's weirdly academic and full of borderline-corny theory. It starts making sense when he comes through surfing's influence in the late '60s, picks up when he covers Dogtown in the '70s, and catches stride through the rest of the book, giving well-deserved deference to Thrasher for being the nucleus of skater communication beginning in the '80s, noticing the importance of grass roots skate places like Oregon's Burnside in the '90s, and tracing the boom and bust cycles that skateboarding as a whole has experienced.

For me, coming from the perspective of being a downright shitty, concussion-happy skater for the past fifteen years who's nominally interested if skating's big or small or who the movers and shakers are, I read about stuff that just went under my radar. Jocko piqued my interest, came up with some cool turns of phrase like "cement pornography," and filled in a lot of gaps and trivia in my skate memory. Highlights include skateploitation movies I'd never heard of and would love to see (Skateboard: The Movie {That Defies Gravity} - a movie starring both Leif Garrett and Tony Alva), the fact that Tony Hawk's dad, Frank, started the National Skateboard Association, that Transworld magazine was started by Tracker Trucks, that a skateboard with three trucks - called a "Wheeler Board" - had actually been made, and that the skate trick, the lien, was it's inventor's first name, Neil Blender, spelled backwards are just a sample of the time and dedication Jocko gave to giving skateboarding a definite lineage. He also does a good job stressing backyard, no-name riders killing pool sessions and grinding the hell out of a section of a curb as being essential to the soul of skating. I couldn't agree more.

That said, I still have big problems with the book that prevent me from recommending it wholeheartedly. First and foremost, I'm utterly confused by Jocko's tone. Now, I'm not saying that skaters are dumbasses and should be talked down to, but large chunks of this book seem to be written readers of The New Yorker (or more correctly, The Atlantic Monthly, half of the publishing muscle behind Grove Atlantic, which this is on). Fancy pants words like hegemony, ennui, dystopian, au courant, and déclassé abound and important-sounding sentences mug the reader. Take, for example: "Play is a manifestation of an atavistic legacy that can be traced to the propensity for the animals of all higher species to cavort and roughhouse." Waah? Monkeys like to throw shit, wrestle, and fuck. Humans do, too, but their brains have progressed, and have invented monster truck rallies, all-you-can-eat buffets, and the ollie. Just say it. Don't be so hoity toity.

Following this, too many parts are arty and highbrow. When Jay Adams, at the Del Mar Nationals in the summer of 1975, lead the charge of the Zephyr team from turning skating into a gymnastic routine on wheels - like headstands and held yoga poses - into an aggressive, screeching, down and dirty, exciting routine, Jocko explains it as: "It was as if a Willem de Kooning painting suddenly appeared in a nineteenth-century Paris salon." Dude, a more appropriate metaphor for what Jay did would be stumbling into a club and discovering the first stripper who could really work a pole. Instead, Jocko conjures up a bunch of frocked tightasses giggling into their fans. It continues when he talks about switch stance. He does a good job explaining it - "skating counter to a person's regular footing for ambidextrous riding," but he compares the difficulty to a tennis player serving with another hand. I don't have the figures in front of me, but I don't think a lot of skaters play tennis, yet I'd wage to say they all play with their genitals, so why not say, "It's like masturbating with your other hand, except you may break your wrist if you do it wrong?" These are merely suggestions.

Here's a nitpick. All the time and energy I didn't spend on following skating's history was spent on punk rock. Yeah, I'm anal and protective of it, but can you please spell the names of bands correctly? It's Descendents, not Descendants, Agression, not Aggression, Terveet Kadet, not Terveet Kapet, Selecter, not Selector. Such oversights make me think there's not one person in the editing process who owns a decent record collection, and that makes the whole enterprise of melding punk into skating seem a little disingenuous.

I would have let it slide, until, in a culmination of two things that'll make me not like you as an author, Jocko hitches his big word caboose to whining reminiscent to Exene Cervenka by stating that it's all been done, and better: "One leitmotif in the history of skating and the punk movement is the stark contrast between real counterculture of the past and the pseudoculture of the present." I posit these questions. Why the fuck did you send this book to a tiny punk rock mag that's run out of an apartment if you find the culture null and void? Why the fuck is your book on a national press and not an independent one? He also states, "Punk rock then (in 1981) was actually a movement of substance and importance, not the watered-down artistically bankrupt genre of today." Skate my dick. Hey genius, ever think that punk rock's thriving in the places you used to pay attention to? Small venues. Zines. Basements. Independent bookstores. Sure, there's a lot of swill out there, and if your reference point is TV and the computer, no fucking shit. You have to dig. Isn't that the point you were making about twenty years ago? Did all true rebellion evaporate and get co-opted? No, sir, true rebellion doesn't have a price tag sticking out of its shirt and hasn't given up so easily.

In the end, Jocko pines, "If there is one phenomenon that has emerged as a sign that the golden age really is over, it's that parents now actively encourage their children to skateboard." I think it's something else entirely, as I just got back skating a bowl in a graffitied public park, watching an 8-year-old girl drop in with a bruise on her face from a nasty fall. It's this: authors who write about skating and aim their treatise at folks who probably never will touch a skateboard in their lives. (Grove Press, 354 pgs.)

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