Historian Matt Warshaw on childhood pal and surf-skate icon Jay Adams, dead at 53…
The historian, magazine editor and former pro surfer Matt Warshaw grew up and learned to surf and skate alongside Jay Adams, the Z-Boy who died in Mexico today of a heart attack.
In those pivotal years between eight and 13, in the years 1968 until 1973, the pair were fast pals. Warshaw was the only kid who wanted to surf and skate as much as Jay. “Against all odds, me a timid bookworm and him doing all this crazy shit, we became tight,” says Warshaw. “We would surf for hours and we’d skate for hours. That first summer together in 1969 his mom (Philane Romero) took us to the beach every single day and we pushed our surfing and skating.”
And so, this morning, after hearing about Jay’s death, and over half-an-hour or so, Warshaw told me the stories that made Jay great (his impossibly large charisma blended with his preternatural skill on whatever board) as well as the beliefs that made him cruel and difficult to be around (a hatred of gays, including a gay bashing murder charge and his addictions).
On Jay’s rebellion: “The whole thing about Jay bothered me at times. He was such a legend for being really hardcore anti-authority and I always laugh at that because he had nothing to fight against, nothing to rebel against. He had the best childhood. He was poor but as he told me over lunch he was a happy kid growing up with two adults who loved him. His step-dad Kent Sherwood was making surfboards and skateboards for him and he lived in an environment that was encouraging of surfing and skateboard and being who he wanted to be. The whole notion of Jay as a rebel strikes me as ridiculous.”
On rebellious icons like Jay: “But that said, all the charisma that came off him, he became a symbol for people. They want to have this larger-than-life character that makes surfing or skating cool and charismatic. Miki Dora was the same. You can’t take your eyes off people like Jay or Miki. Why is that? Why are we attracted to people doing things that are so weird and so different. And I have to admit, I’m as susceptible to it as everyone else. I was looking at photos today of Jay and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He just… glows, even in 40-year-old video clips.”
He was such a legend for being really hardcore anti-authority and I always laugh at that because he had nothing to fight against, nothing to rebel against. He had the best childhood. He grew up with two adults who loved him. His step-dad Kent Sherwood was making surfboards and skateboards for him and he lived in an environment that was encouraging of surfing and skateboard and being who he wanted to be. The whole notion of Jay as a rebel strikes me as ridiculous.”
The great Band-Aid commercial: “One of our friend’s parents worked in casting and he had us all answer this casting call for a Bandaid commercial. And we had to all get up in front of the camera and sing: ‘I am stuck on Band-Aids ’cause Band-Aids stuck on me.’ All us Venice kids trying to be cool and we all just sucked. We froze. And Jay got up and… nailed it. Boom. He gets the job. And then the day of the commercial he just blew it off. My parents asked me why Jay didn’t do the commercial and I didn’t have a clue but I knew it was just… cool. He just fucked it off. He didn’t care. There’s a really fine line between being incredibly stupid and incredibly cool and he walked it like a champion.”
On ADD: “He was out of his head, even as a kid. I’m 98 per cent sure he was ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He was so charismatic at nine, 10, that you couldn’t believe it. We didn’t know what it meant, but we’d all gather around him like moths to a flame. We wanted to hang out with him but he was so…manic. You’d be waling along the sidewalk and, next thing, he’s picked up a rock and thrown it through a window for no reason.”
On Venice beach late sixties, early seventies: “We had total freedom. We were running our own show. From breakfast til dinner we were all on our own. It sounds great and I romanticise it but for a lot of kids it went really wrong. Some died, some didn’t get very far. It went bad for a lot of people and Jay’s one of ’em.”
When the friendship split: “He and I went separate ways when he hit it big as a skater. I was on the Zephyr surf team but not the skate team. He had this rocket ride to skate stardom. And that’s when the shit started to get weird. For years afterward, I’d get all this bad news… Jay’s doing drugs… Jay’s broke… it would all come to me from people who knew we’d been friends.”
Jay as a skinhead: “After the stardom went away he went really, really hardcore punk with shadings of white supremacy. Skinhead stuff. It was really, really ugly. There was a gay bashing, a gay murder charge, which was horrible. He did time for meth. I saw him on the North Shore in 1990, he was really wired, he came in, and then ran out of the side door. A couple of years later, I saw him at a trade show and he was so high he had no recognition of me.”
Jay reconnects of FB: “A could of years ago, he friended me on Facebook. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see him or talk to him again but I accepted his friend request and we started talking on Facebook. And then we had lunch together at Santa Monica. The weird part about that was he’d become a hard-core Born Again but he was on the rabid right side of Christianity and he was really, really bummed about all the gay rights stuff that was going through. That was really hard to hear. He’d go on all these rants about “gays killing America.” One of our best friends, Johanna Johnson, she was transgender and she actually had the operation (from she to he) and he’s one of the sweetest human beings – we all fought to get her time and attention. And Jay started ranting about Johanna going to hell. I didn’t want to hear about it or know about it. I unfriended him for a while after that. And then eight months ago we friended again on Facebook, for what that’s worth.”
But childhood memories last: “When we talked of our childhood, about what we had, that was nice and that’s forever. When someone’s with you when you’re doing something as profound as growing up and surfing, that gets you past all kinds of other shit. When I heard he’d died I was crushed. Part of my childhood dies off with that too…”