Saturday, March 6, 2021

Skateboard Legend Jeff Grosso (VIDEO)

I didn't know him well. 

He was sorta crass, actually. But he was a great skater, and extremely well-loved in the skate community.

The LA. Times has a big write up, "Jeff Grosso: The life and death of skateboarding’s soul":

Jeff Grosso’s first skateboard wasn’t much.

It was a hand-me-down miniature-sized banana board he got from his mom’s boss when he was 8 years old. Even for 1977, it was antiquated, with rickety old clay wheels and worn-out bearings. Grosso barely knew how to stand on the thing, struggling to keep his balance without toppling to the ground.

But for a curious boy whose childhood home was next to a steep hill, there was an instant connection. He would sit on his back or lie flat on his stomach and let gravity take over. Every time he bombed down the street, he fell more in love with the feeling.

“Initially, it was the rush of going down a hill, and the wind in your hair,” Grosso once said. “Poetic nonsense.”

The skateboarding world looks much different now than it did then. Its ever-increasing popularity is pulling the fundamentally subversive sport into the mainstream. Formerly relegated to back alleys and sparse concrete parks, it is now set to debut on the Olympic stage during this summer’s Tokyo Games.

But somewhere at its core, the lust for that poetic nonsense remains.

No one understood it quite like Grosso.

“He was the gatekeeper to why skateboarding was cool,” said skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.

Grosso looked an unlikely figure for such a role. He didn’t have a long pro career, flaming out at the end of the 1980s, hardly spanning the decade. He battled drug addiction and suicidal depression. By his late 20s, it seemed like his life had bottomed out.

But then he rebounded, embodying the resiliency that has defined the entire history of his sport.

Grosso became an ambassador, speaking for skateboarding’s soul through his beloved “Loveletters to Skateboarding” YouTube show. He was a guardian and a helping hand to skateboarding’s newest generation.

In many ways, he was like a north star, his effervescent personality and endearing pertinacity emitting a guiding light through the sport’s most transitional times.

And when he died unexpectedly last March of an accidental drug overdose, it left a void the skateboarding world is still trying to fill.

To best understand skateboarding — its counter-culture roots, its rise to the Olympics, its helter-skelter tale of competing styles, clashing customs and self-sabotaging plot twists — it’s best to understand someone like Jeff Grosso.

Complicated. Flawed. But an authentic source of joy to the end.  
“It’s a total rush. It’s the feeling that when you go out there with your board, it’s a no-hero type of thing. And you either accomplish something or you don’t.” — Jeff Grosso, to the St. Louis Dispatch in 1986.

The rarest sight in skateboarding might be a frown.

Even after a failed trick or nasty wipeout, most skaters are wired to smile, laugh, shake off the dust, and climb back on their boards.

That carefree disposition is what initially captured Grosso’s interest. A stubborn and expressive freckle-faced kid born in Glendale in 1968, he felt like an outcast from a young age. He liked to draw, read “Lord of the Rings” and listen to punk rock. He picked contrarian arguments during conversations simply to spark a debate. And he moved around a lot as a kid: from the hillside house in Eagle Rock, to Las Vegas for a year with his mom, and then to Arcadia for the start of fifth grade.

Though he was naturally athletic, he found the structured pressure of team sports arbitrary and suffocating.

Only when he was on a skateboard did Grosso truly feel free.

“You have this culture of kids that need that,” said his mother, Rae Williams. “They need to go and do this and be creative and come up with new tricks and try different things.”

The newly opened parks soon faltered under liability issues and financial distress, and the young demographic of riders once fueling the boom grew up and moved on. By the time Grosso discovered the sport at the end of the ‘70s, only a small community of self-willed skaters remained.

“Skateboarders were very rare at that time,” said Grosso’s childhood friend Eric Nash, the only other kid at their Camino Grove Elementary School who matched Grosso’s passion for the sport. “Jeff enjoyed that rebel spirit. I think that’s who he was.”

Grosso and Nash spent almost every weekend at one of the few Southland skate parks that were left. Grosso was a perfectionist — at home he was constantly rearranging the furniture in his bedroom — and practiced for hours to perfect a trick. Skate City in Whittier became their home base, though sometimes they snuck away to more secluded spots — a cement ditch behind a church in Glendale, an empty washway nicknamed the “V bowl” in Irwindale.

One of their friends, future pro skater Lance Mountain, had a ramp in the backyard of his Alhambra home where the group would spend hours together honing their technique and embracing a recalcitrant culture few others could comprehend. “We were a bunch of nerds, we were weirdos, we were social outcasts,” Grosso said in a 2015 episode of his “Loveletters” series. “We were the people that nobody wanted to be, doing things that nobody wanted to, and that nobody understood. … We were the freaks. That’s how you rolled. That’s how it was. That’s what drew us to skateboarding.”

“The little wooden toy is a kiss and a curse. It’s everything. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me and the worst thing that ever happened to me, all rolled up into one.” — Jeff Grosso, to Juice Magazine in 2006.

Like any good parent, Williams tried to get her son to think about his future as he went through grade school. Skateboarding, she told him, “is fun and can be a pastime, but you can’t make a career out of it.”

Reliving the memory during an interview, Williams stopped herself and laughed.

“Boy, were we wrong.”

Instead, as Grosso went through his teenage years in the mid-1980s, the sport became cool again...

There's still losts more at the link.

The thing about the "counterculture" aspects of the old skating scene is certainly the punk rock and drugs --- lots of drugs. 

Three of my best friends from back in the day are dead, one from a heroin O.D. years ago, and two of my other best buddies died of drug-related illnesses more recently, especially liver disease. 

That Grosso overdosed himself is extremely sad, but not surprising at all. His death is loss for the sport, but he leaves a great legacy of commitment to the genre.

I'll leave off here with a photo of myself (below), from around 1980, at the Upland Pipeline skatepark, back when the old "pay to play" parks were the big thing. But because I had won so many amateur contests (like the one at the photo, where that "layback" finale scored well with the judges), I had an "all parks" pass to skate for free, at any SoCal skatepark; and in 1984 I turned pro for just one contest, where I was killing it in the banked slalom, but on my first run I lost control going around the third cone, and tumbled badly, breaking my wrist. I didn't quit the contest, though. I got up and completed my second run, and you only get two runs through the course, so that salvaged my self-esteem, and a few folks came up after to praise me for my hard-charging style. 

Nowadays, I still skate once in a while, most recently at the Redlands skatepark a few weeks back, although I mostly putter around the "freestyle" area, like the old man I am.