Streets On Fire
On some days I have a cognitive slip whereby I’m forced to confront the fact that I live in the city of Los Angeles; it’s the psychological equivalent of having to pinch myself. It feels surreal. If thirteen-year-old me had known that I would one day live in LA it would have blown my tiny mind. It would have been inconceivable.
As a thirteen-year-old growing up in Hammersmith, London, my horizons were fairly narrow, but LA had an outsized influence on my teenage imagination, because by the age of thirteen I had well and truly fallen in love with skateboarding, an affliction that never quite leaves you.
Around the corner from my house, in a basement underneath a Latymer Court storefront, was a skate shop called Subway. I would go in there on Saturdays and watch skate videos. One morning, in 1989, a VHS of the new Santa Cruz video ‘Streets On Fire’ had just arrived in the shop, and it was playing on the small wall-mounted TV when I walked in. Directed by Howard Dittrich, ‘Streets On Fire’ focuses on skateboarder Jason Jesse who has been thrown in jail for the crime of skateboarding; he whiles away the hours daydreaming about skating various spots, receiving visitors, and at one point he falls into a fitful sleep and has a strange hallucinatory claymation dream.
Subway Skateboards was cramped. It had dank carpet and drab lighting. It felt temporary, or at least provisional, like old bill could’ve pulled up at any moment and everyone would’ve had to pack up and duss. That morning, after descending the narrow stairs, I went straight to the counter and started looking at the stickers in true grommet fashion. I had half an eye on the TV as Jason Jesse was shredding Fallbrook ramp. And then the video cut to a skit. Professional skateboarder Natas Kaupas was escorted to Jason’s cell by a balding mullet-haired screw, a 50p Michael Bolton look-a-like if Michael were hitting the pipa, smoking the skante. Natas and Jesse started talking. “Do you want some cigarettes?” Laughing. Natas said the immortal line, “I’ve been skating, skating a lot.” Some more talking. Then I heard the first chords of ‘Brave Captain’ by fIREHOSE. Cut to. Natas did a frontside tail slide on a red curb. Natas ollied onto a yellow fire hydrant and spun around on it several times. Two tricks. One that seemed to change everything.
It is impossible to overstate the impact that these images had on my developing brain. Red curbs. Yellow hydrants. Seared into my subconscious. The sheer audacity of the fire hydrant spin, a trick so unexpected that it was dumbfounding, almost thrown away in a mid-wide shot of Pacific Avenue and 17th, a nondescript corner of Venice, of Los Angeles, of America. Red curbs. Yellow hydrants. To me they became icons of a belief system of possibility — of seeing the world in a different way. They were signifiers of a promised land.
To this day the sight of a yellow fire hydrant passes beyond my ordinary consciousness, into the twilight of fantasy, meaning that walking around LA often has the quality of a dream.
There were other unofficial premieres down in the Subway Skateboards basement that year of 1989. I remember watching the ‘LA Boys’ part of the Powell Peralta ‘Ban This’ video. It featured Gabriel Rodriguez, Paulo Diaz, Rudy Johnson, and Guy Mariano skating their local neighbourhood spots in East LA. The video codified the terrain into sections — Rail Slider, Planter, Hydrants, Bus Bench, Wall, Flat, Transition, Banks, Benches, Hand Rail, Stairs. This remains the blueprint for modern street skateboarding. These unnoticed, liminal spaces — the interstitial threads of civic life — were radically reinterpreted by kids riding around on America’s toy. Overnight skateboarding carried the weight of an insurgency as it moved away from vert ramps and began to challenge the spacial implications of urban architecture, upending metropolitan orthodoxy and reordering space and time.
We copied what we saw, cos-playing the lives of American teenagers. We looked longingly at those highly saturated, interlaced NTSC images of utilitarian bus benches rendered in concrete and green steel, but made do with tricks onto splintery, wooden park benches adorned with brass plaques commemorating nans called Blanche and Beryl, and tried to ignore the waft of Special Brew.
As artist Oliver Payne said in a recent interview:
“Skate videos were essentially home movies by Californian teenagers, at a point when the main representation of America, on TV, was a completely artificial construction. I can’t think of any other examples in which you’re seeing carparks, strip malls, schoolyards and the homes of everyday Americans in this way.”
So while I didn’t grow up in LA, I grew up with LA. It was ever present in my visual life in the most quotidian way. Now I live in the heart of it, right next to Koreatown. Some of the most famous spots in skateboarding history are within walking distance of my house. The banks at Los Angeles High School on Olympic. The plaza at J Kwon Orthodontics on Wilshire. The 10 and 15 stair rails at the Bank of Hope on Wilshire, the site of Jim Greco’s legendary series of hammers in the ‘Baker 2g’ video. I frequently pass Lockwood school on Virgil. Sometimes I stop and look through the chain link fence and hear Blue Raspberry’s first vocal trills on Method Man’s single ‘Release Yo’ Delf’, the song that accompanied the Menace team section in the ‘20 Shot Sequence’ video. In my mind’s eye I see Joey Suriel’s roll-away on that nollie frontside flip over a bench in the middle of La Mirada Gang territory.
It’s strange — unheimlich even — to live in a place that was always a fantasy, to experience the inherent shit-ness of these hallowed locations, the idea of which was so formative, to exist in a space that is at once completely alien, yet simultaneously familiar. But, and I say this with no irony, to me LA is more beautiful than Rome.
I have lived here for five years now. Recently I’ve noticed that a reversal has started to occur. Where I once fetishised the detritus of American urban landscapes and their manifold possibilities as seen through skate videos, a process that found its symbolic apotheosis in the form of the yellow fire hydrant, I now find myself thinking about skateboarding in the West London streets of my teenage years, the emblem of which was the yellow Metropolitan Police cone.
I think about the spots near Subway Skateboards. The little two step on the corner of Rowan Road. The Novotel banks. Bum boarding down the Novotel spiral. The Blythe Road bump near the Cadby Building. The Magnet bank by the Odeon cinema on Kensington High Street. The Boots blocks on Wrights Lane with the mad smooth run up. Bunking over the fence to do the Holland Park Hill bomb. The Albert Memorial — we called it the C3PO statue — ledge and stairs. The Imperial College double set and ledge. The Hyde Park Chapel block. And then later, South Bank.
I think about two litre bottles of Hubba Bubba fizzy pop and parchment thin, blue off-licence plastic bags. About Twixes and cans of Nourishment and drinking Nescafé Gold Blend. About broken laces on DuFFs and 40-inch-waist jeans from C&A. About grip tape thumb and the smell of sweat and scraped shins and aching limbs and feeling elated. About seeing a plastered Alex Higgins outside Olympia — “Come on boys, show The Hurricane a few tricks.” About skating with Terrence and Ralph, who gave no quarter and smacked the shit out of a lairy city-boy who tried to fuck with us. About how much everyone hated skateboarders.
I think about cold nights at South Bank and the melancholy, muddy waters of the Thames and mist and sepulchres and spectres and burials and Clive doing switch heels over a beer barrel and the crisp sound of pop like nowhere else. About Ben Jobe drifting down the seven on a strong spring-tide and Barrington saying, “That slides nice.” About Hungerford Bridge and its girded iron framing the grey sky like a gibbet station. About Tom Penny messing around doing frontside flips over a yellow Met cone while wearing those Columbia hiking boots.
Yellow Metropolitan Police cones. Yellow fire hydrants. Phallic twins.
But, like most middle-aged men, what I’m really thinking about is being young and the sense of loss that is bound into growing older, about how recent these memories still feel, and about how unbearably short life can seem.