First, a bit of history and context: 1985 was the year skateboarding became something I wanted to try, and my guess is most kids in the ’80s felt the same way too. Seeing Michael J. Fox ride his Valterra deck in Back to the Future — at least to an 11-year-old — was amazingly cool. While that particular skateboard was mass-produced and sold complete at big department stores for cheap, it didn’t matter. Kids who had one were the targets of jealousy. Mine in particular.
Earlier that same year, my dad had tried to get me into surfing. It was his favorite pastime, and it was something he had done most of his life growing up on the Big Island of Hawaii. I had a few good rides, but I never did fall in love with it. Most of my resistance had to do with the fact that I didn’t like getting up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the best conditions. Still don’t. I’ve never been a morning person. Oh, and those best conditions tend to occur in the winter, which in Southern California means the Pacific is more or less freezing.
Additionally, surf shops didn’t interest me all that much outside of the stickers and t-shirts, but I was always drawn to the skateboard walls and counters, particularly the awesome and slightly scary Powell Peralta decals. The first ones my dad ever bought me were for Mike McGill, Tony Hawk, and Steve Caballero. The art was amazing, and even though I really had no idea who they were, I treated them like gold.
Around the same time, and likely due to me still talking about Back to the Future a lot, my dad thought it would be a good idea to buy me a skateboard to practice surfing moves like bottom turns and off-the-lips at home in our driveway:
I don’t remember who made that board, but I do distinctly remember the giant red, white, and blue “Kilroy Was Here” graphics on it, which didn’t mean anything to my pre-teen brain. After we got home, I gave it a try on our backyard patio. Almost instantly, it went flying out from under me, I fell on my ass, hurt my wrists, and it slammed right into the concrete wall. Needless to say, I didn’t ride it again for a while.
Over the next two years, my skateboard was little more than a mode of transportation to my friends’ houses, parks, and sneaking to the liquor store to play videogames. It wasn’t until junior high that my friends and I started hearing about things like some “Animal Chin” video and stylish skaters like Christian Hosoi and a name that came back from my then recent past: Steve Caballero.
Thrasher Magazine started circulating around classrooms instead of Mad Magazine, and almost overnight, everyone I knew had the latest skateboards, with the ones from Powell, Vision, and Santa Cruz really standing out, like the Mark Gonzales, Keith Meek “Slasher”, and Psycho Stick. I was obsessed with the art, and would do my best to copy them in pencil during class. Especially that Slasher. There are elements from that which still sneak their way into my art today.
When it came to actual skate equipment, though, I was still rockin’ my old Kilroy deck, which had a blue noseguard and speedbump-like skidplate on the back. By 1988, I had swap meet-sourced copers on the trucks — you know, for protection — and a lapper on the back to supposedly make climbing curbs easier. Plus, those socks and that haircut. Needless to say, the girls weren’t exactly knocking down our front door.
Even when I got my first real skateboard for 8th grade graduation (a Vision Psycho Stick, coincidentally), I protected that thing like it was a new Ferrari. Maybe no lapper this time, but my small circle of friends and I all had Tracker trucks with those massive wraparound copers and plastic baseplates. Skidplates, rails, and noseguards too. Funny looking back, but I think we were all of the same mindset that we had to make these things last.
Then one day, along came the Powell Peralta video that changed everything for me: 1988’s Public Domain. I’d never seen anything like it, with names I’d never heard of before, like Ray Barbee (misspelled as “Barbie” in the video), whose clean, technical style I immediately latched onto and of course was never quite able to replicate.
Also, unlike a lot of other skateboarding videos at the time, Public Domain had a very polished, professional feel to it, like you weren’t just spending money on a cheap home video, but something that folks had put a lot of time, money, and effort into. I credit this video for inspiring me to become a better skater.
For the next couple years, up until about mid-1990, skateboarding was my life. But as we all began to get our driver’s licenses, started dating, or became more involved in clubs and sports in preparation for college, it wasn’t long before the vast majority of us stopped skating altogether. Thinking back on this actually gets me a little choked up, since it was such a glorious time of freedom, individuality, creativity, and adventure.
And that right there is at the heart of what makes Bones Brigade: An Autobiography such a special documentary.
Everyone is here: Stacy Peralta, George Powell, Tony Hawk, Mike McGill, Tommy Guerrero, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain. Plus a lot of other big names like Christian Hosoi, Mike Vallely, and Tony Alva. Even Fred Durst and Spike Jonze make appearances.
The interviews throughout are thoughtful, funny, personal, and at times painful. From its very beginning, even though I was smiling throughout, there is an undercurrent of nostalgic sadness here that permeates all of the interviews.
That’s not to say that this film is a downer. It’s the furthest thing from it, and is as wonderful a history lesson in Powell Peralta the company and its riders as you’re likely to find. It’s not just a look back on the historic rise, fall, and rise again of skateboarding, but an intimate look at its principal players and how they each responded to their meteoric rise to worldwide stardom.
It’s absolutely mind-blowing to look back on the early days of the skateboarding industry, its advertising, and how things we take for granted like “street skating” weren’t even things yet until the likes of Tommy Guerrero made it so.
In many ways, it reflects that of the videogame industry, how it started small, but that even then there were innovators shooting for the stars (like Electronic Arts and Broderbund at the time) who set their own paths, gave their designers top billing, killed it in terms of presentation, and put out the very best games, giving everyone else something to aim for. I remember the Bones Brigade team doing exactly that, raising the bar for everyone else.
One thing that really stood out for me here was Lance Mountain. As a young teenager who was always looking up to the best of the best, Mountain seemed like an anomaly. I thought he was OK, but nowhere near the level of the Hawks, Caballeros, and Mullens of the world.
I remember the silly clip from Public Domain where an English Bulldog steals his skateboard, but I don’t remember any of his actual skating. Bones Brigade spends some time on this very topic, and I came out of it with a much deeper respect and understanding of why he was on the team, what effect he had on other skaters, and him as a human being. These sequences that focus on Mountain are wonderfully done and some of my favorites in the film.
I was very happy to see that equal time was spent on the other members of the original Brigade. I was half-expecting most of the coverage to be on Tony Hawk, just because he is the Mario and Mickey Mouse of skateboarding: everyone recognizes him, and deservedly so due to his skills, drive, and business acumen.
Watching the old clips of him brought back some of my fondest memories of the sport, and even though I was a street skater and never did skate halfpipes, when guys like Tony Hawk skated, I stopped and watched. I liked him because he was such a technical wizard. He rarely messed up, and his innovations in bringing so many street-based techniques to ramps was amazing to see.
One of the things in Bones Brigade that really got the nostalgia juices flowing was its focus on the stylistic dichotomy between Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi. I was always drawn to Hawk’s quieter, more technical approach to skating, while my best friend’s favorite was Hosoi.
Their real-life rivalry, as it was portrayed in magazines and contests at the time, perhaps seeped into our own approach to skating and friendship. These guys really were huge influences on us all, and many of us projected the pros’ personalities and styles on ourselves. I think there was also a quiet voice in the back of our minds that told us we would be doing this for many years to come, if not forever.
That sentiment is echoed throughout this documentary, bookended by fascinating bits of history, including the creation of two of skateboarding’s most iconic moves: the McTwist and ollie. I was engrossed hearing firsthand accounts about their development and how they — particularly the ollie — became the foundation for just about everything that has followed in the sport since.
It’s also during these looks back that we see who did well for themselves and who didn’t, whether it was due to bad choices, grudges, or other negative influences. These moments are sobering, and are a good reminder of how quickly things can change, for better or for worse.
Besides Lance Mountain, the most revealing and interesting person in this film is Rodney Mullen, who was one of those guys whose skating just blew me away. He was on a whole different level, captivating me with his flawless runs full of gravity-defying tricks. I also remember how I used to make fun of the way he talked, with his high-pitched voice and odd, stream-0f-consciousness way that he described things.
Here, we see someone who looks like he’s been through the wringer of life; someone looking back on his years in the Bones Brigade with razor-sharp clarity and wisdom. He provides some of the most insightful and crushing interview footage, with a candid and unfiltered look into his personal life and his struggles with success… and himself.
Steve Caballero, even with his thick, graying beard, still looks like the skater I and so many others emulated back in the day. The guy had this smooth but goofy-shy style, but he also exuded pure power when he skated. It was no surprise that he was a favorite of mine and so many of my friends, and everyone liked to do his little head-cocked-to-the-side thing.
The Half-cab, derived from his own Caballerial/Full-cab was always one of my favorite tricks, and I loved doing them up and down curbs, stairs, benches, and anything else in front of me. It’s interesting that when I look back, the original Bones Brigade skaters that influenced me the most — namely Tony Hawk and Steve Caballero — were vert skaters. It wasn’t what they were skating so much as it was how they were skating them.
Skateboarding was an important a part of my life from 1987-1990, just as videogames were. In retrospect, I would say perhaps even more so. While I was enjoying gaming at home on my Sega consoles and Apple II, it was skateboarding that provided not just a creatively challenging outlet, but a bonding, social, free-spirited activity that both spoke directly to me and reflected who I was and still am as a person today.
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is a fascinating watch for anyone into skateboarding, and particularly essential for anyone who was part of that culture throughout the ’80s.