Legendary skateboarder Jay Adams, who helped reinvent skateboarding as we know it, died last week. According to a longtime friend, Allen Sarlo, Adams is believed to have died of a heart attack while on a surfing vacation in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.
What was a quiet pastime transformed into a counterculture, a lifestyle and a professional sport. Adams was at the center of this evolution.
Sarlo, who grew up with Adams and was on the surfing trip, told the Los Angeles Times: “He was the real deal … He was the James Dean of skateboarding.”
Adams was born Feb. 3, 1961. According to the Los Angeles Times, Adams father was a heroin addict and imprisoned while Adams was young. He was raised by his mother and longtime surfer Kent Sherwood, who taught him how to surf.
“I got him in the water when he was 4,” Sherwood told the New York Times.
Not long after taking to the water, Adams became well known to local surfers. Jeff Ho, surfboard builder and owner of the Zephyr surf shop, told the Los Angeles Times: “It was the late 1960s, and he was the youngest kid in the water … He paddled up to me and said, ‘You’re Jeff Ho, aren’t you? Your surfing is really good’ … Here he was, one of the young hotshots, and he was paying me a compliment and showing respect. I was impressed.”
Adams joined the surf team and later became a founding member of the Zephyr Skate Team, which became known as the “Z-Boys.” The Zephyr skate team formed in Dogtown, a dicey neighborhood in Santa Monica once called “the last great seaside slum.”
The Zephyr team did what no skateboarders had done before: take their surf-inspired moves to the street. They rode the concrete like waves, low and smooth with hard turns.
Keith Hamm, author of “Scarred for Life,” a cultural history of skateboarding, said in a 2011 Los Angeles time article, “The Zephyr team skated like they surfed…[the Z-Boys brought a] sharp-turning, faster, aggressive style.” Before Adams and the Zephyr team, skateboarding looked like it was inspired by gymnastics or ice-skating:
Here is the Zephyr team in a 1975 contest in Del Mar, Calif. The newer style is on display:
Skateboarding took another turn when California was hit by a drought in the late 70’s and many of Southern California’s swimming pools became empty:
“Two hundred years of American technology, has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11-year-olds that could see the potential.” wrote photojournalist C. R. Stecyk, III in a 1975 issue of “Skateboarder” magazine.
Adams and the Zephyr crew were immortalized in a 2001 documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” by fellow skateboarder and documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta. The filmmaker spoke to the Associated Press about Adams: “He was like the original viral spore that created skateboarding … He was it.”
Photographer Glen E. Friedman, a longtime friend of Adams, wrote on his blog: “When you look at Jay you have to think of the personification of all the DogTown stories that Craig Stecyk wrote and all the DogTown photos that I took: All we were trying to do was capture Jay Adams’ essence. He was really f***ed up crazy, and he was really incredibly great, all at the same time.”
But Adams’s creativity came with a dark side. According to the AP, in the early 80’s he was convinced of felony assault and served jail time off and on during the next 24 years, including convictions for drugs and assault.
David Colker and Elaine Woo of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Adams thrived on the camaraderie of the skateboarding subculture that included a lot of partying. … But while others built careers from the sport — Tony Alva became well known for designing skateboard decks, and Stacy Peralta directed the documentary and wrote the ‘Lords of Dogtown’ feature — Adams’ life went off track.”
His legacy, however, lives on.
“For so many, he was the inspiration, he was the seed,” Friedman wrote on his blog. “He was one of the originators,and he didn’t do any of it on purpose. He was as spontaneous as they come, and because of that he was one of the sport’s great revolutionaries.”
Here is a photo of Adams doing what he loved posted to Instagram after his death.
This article has been corrected. A quote by Skip Engblom was originally written by C. R. Stecyk III in 1975.