Obituary: Jay Adams, skateboarding pioneer

Born: 3 February, 1961, in Los Angeles, California. Died: 14 August, 2014, in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, aged 53

Jay Adams: American pioneer who turned skateboarding into a worldwide sport. Picture: Getty

JAY Adams was a pioneer of skateboarding on the pavements, streets and (when the owners were away) the empty swimming pools of California. With his long, sun-bleached blond hair, the “sidewalk surfer” became the epitome of what would turn into a worldwide sport and passion. While the Beach Boys were attracting attention around the globe for songs about surfing the California waves, Adams and his mates got hold of wheeled boards, initially home-made, and terrorised, without really meaning to, the elderly ladies and pram-pushing wives of their local middle-class neighbourhoods.

When the pavements and even the ramps became too flat, they sought fresh pastures – usually concrete. Adams was one of the first kids to notice that when wealthy Californians went off on holiday they tended to drain their swimming pools. Swimming pool, vertical walls, perfect conditions. It may sound a bit passé now but it is where modern skateboarding came to fruition. Often, there was still a few inches of stagnant water in the pools. That gave Adams and his crew more focus and greater skills. Touching the water was taboo. You might get sick. “You just wanted to look good in the pool,” he once said.

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His story, from the late 1960s into the 1970s, was told in several documentaries, including Dogtown and Z-Boys, as well as in the movie Lords of Dogtown (2005), in which Emile Hirsch played Adams and the late Heath Ledger stole much of the limelight. Dogtown was a nickname for Santa Monica, California, where Adams was born and where he and his crew, who couldn’t afford surfboards, hit the sidewalks, big time. To them, a phone call saying “Surf’s up” meant “let’s hit the streets”.

The death of “Jay Boy” from a heart attack during a surfing holiday in Mexico, aged 53, sent the skateboarding, surfing and general extreme sports world into mourning and lit up social media. “The James Dean of skateboarding,” a friend and fellow sportsman wrote. “The original seed” or the “Chosen One” wrote others.

All agreed that he had turned down Hollywood for the riches he felt his board skills gave him – they could never take that away.

Since he had started riding the new-fangled boards in the 1960s, his friends and his peers considered him “one of the Invincibles”. In a sense, he had bought into that and, although he had survived booze, drugs and prison during his life, he was said to have been clean, sober and healthy when his heart stopped beating.

Adams was one of the original Z-Boys (“Zee” Boys), the Zephyr Team, pretty much just bored kids on the block who felt the need for speed – and to whom the danger of a split skull never occurred. They wouldn’t have known how to spell the word helmet. His peers say he was the first to “air” above the rim of an empty swimming pool, i.e. going above the rim and coming back to hit it, preferably not head-first, although that took some time to master. To modern skateboarding fans, that might sound easy, but in those helmetless, padding-less days, it was extreme, potentially brain-damaging.

Adams also became known for his “handplants”, his body so low that he dragged a hand on the ground, either for balance or effect. He was possibly the fastest skateboarder ever, because he liked a good hill, feared nothing and forced accompanying film crews in cars to accelerate to keep up with him. But skateboarding speed records did not exist in his day.

Jay Adams was basically a California kid. A generation or two later, he might have been a rock singer or founder of a breakthrough social media outlet. No, I take that back. He was a skateboarder, pure and simple – and with attitude. How else can you do it? Being of his time, Adams got into self-medication from an early age by way of dope and booze. He was said by friends to be clean and sober for the past few months and was enjoying a surfing holiday in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, when he died. Local Mexican surfers, some of the best in the world, said the gringo with the face and neck tattoos rode el Tubo (the Tube), one of the world’s greatest breaks, as though he had been born there.

Jay Adams was born in Los Angeles on 3 February, 1961. “I moved to Venice Beach when I was one year old. I was conceived in a house on the beach right at the end of Ocean Park Boulevard.” His father Robert was a heroin addict, in jail when Jay was still a baby. He was raised by his mother Philaine and her friend Kent Sherwood, who gave him a homemade surfboard, took him to the beach and marvelled at the natural balance that turned this “beach boy” into a skateboarding legend.

Jay spent much of his youth in Hawaii, to where his mother had moved. He would go on to dabble, to say the least, in drugs and spent several spells in prison for possession, dealing and being involved in a fist-fight in which a gay man died. For a time, he was labelled a “gay basher”. Because of his prison record, his recent trip to Mexico was the first time he had been allowed out of the US in 20 years.

The day he died, according to fellow surfer and friend Allen Sarlo, “I saw him catch this big wave and ride it all the way through. He told me this was the best surf trip of his life. He had gotten seriously into religion and read the Bible every day before surfing.”

Another friend, Danielle Bostick, said: “Jay was the real deal. He never caved in to corporate involvement.”

One of the other original Z-Boys, Tony Alva, said: “Some kids are raised on crackers and milk. Jay was raised on surfing and skateboarding.”

Stacy Peralta, another original member of the Z-Boys team and director of the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys said: “I’ve had the good fortune of spending decades in this sport, and he was the purest form of skateboarder that I’ve ever seen.

“He was literally skateboarding incarnate, and the genius of it was he wasn’t the best at anything, he just was it. Jay was the original virus that got so many people hooked on skateboarding. Now the original spore is gone, but that virus lives on in so many others. His passing reminds all of us and reaffirms that we’re connected. We’re all rolling down the sidewalk together.”

In the documentary, still handsome but with more tattoos, Adams said: “We were on summer vacation for 20 years.” More recently, he said: “When I started it was clay wheels and mostly home-made decks.

“We were just trying to copy surfing. Everything about skateboarding had to do with surfing. It was all about fun and a way to surf when the waves were shitty.”

Jay Adams is survived by his wife Tracy (née Adams, whom he married in 2006), and by a son, Seven, and daughter Venice, from two earlier relationships.