Tony Hawk is the ambassador of skateboarding, the guy the mommies in the minivans recognize, but ask the kids at Owl’s Head skate park in Bay Ridge, the kids with dried blood on their bruised limbs, about him and you get an idea of how skateboarding is undergoing a revolutionary change.
Mike, a 12-year-old, admits that he used to like Tony Hawk—”when I was little.” Mike adds, “I used to look up to him, like, ‘Yeah, he’s the best.’ Now I don’t.”
Why would a kid trash his idol? Maybe because what used to be rad is now OK with Dad. Last year, according to at least one research firm, more kids skateboarded than played baseball. Thanks to television and the X Games, skateboarding has reached the point at which it is becoming a spectator sport. And this is where Hawk comes in. Because he recognizes all this, and because he is the only skater popular and wealthy enough to do so, he has created a nationwide action-sports arena tour called the Boom Boom HuckJam, which will arrive in the New York area for two shows, first at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on November 7, and then at Nassau Coliseum, in Uniondale, on November 9.
The Boom Boom HuckJam is a choreographed action-sports spectacle featuring the top athletes from vert skating, BMX stunt, and freestyle motocross. The BMX and skateboard athletes flow through rehearsed runs on a massive ramp set, while the motocross athletes launch through the air, pulling tricks. Meanwhile, one of several big-name punk bands, depending at which venue the 22-city coast-to-coast tour is stopping, thrashes out a live set to all the action. The sets are at least as complex as those for a Madonna show. What was once a rebel activity is now flush with corporate sponsors plying the crowd with such 21st-century snacks for the whole family as pudding in a tube.
The HuckJam is like the Ice Capades on amphetamines with a punk score.
“To me it’s like the Monterey Pop Festival, pre-Woodstock,” says Jim Guerinot, a HuckJam producer who’s spent more than two decades as a music promoter. “Like ‘Wow, there’s a lot of people here. This rock thing is not a fad, it’s here to stay.’ To me, the Monterey Pop Festival was the birth of the rock and roll era. It became clear that it was going to mature. The modern touring business sprung out of that era. That’s when you saw the whole circuit of touring start to take shape. You would find promoters in towns. That’s what this is like.”
On a Wednesday night in Portland, Oregon, more than 10,000 people turned out for the HuckJam.
“This is catching up with the culture. It’s blown way past this ‘fad,’ ” says Guerinot. “It has become a clearly defined athletic persuasion.”
Athletic persuasion. Pro street skaters, the heroes to most actual skateboarders, don’t even compete. They earn their money by capturing their tricks on video and selling them to skaters. It’s important to note that there are no street skaters in the HuckJam. All the skaters in the show ride vert, which means halfpipes. And because there is no market for vert-skating videos, these guys must compete for their cash.
The skating in the HuckJam also does not reflect the somewhat hardcore lifestyle portrayed in the skateboarding industry’s magazines and videos. But if the tour is successful, it may come to represent skating in the public consciousness. Still, that dissonance doesn’t mean the skaters at Owl’s Head won’t go see Hawk’s show when it arrives in the New York area. After all, those kids have been seduced by skateboarding through events such as the X Games. They have become religious about skating, and religion is full of contradictions, and well, Hawk still goes off on a halfpipe.
Remember when in 1991 Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell adopted the term Lollapalooza for his new idea of a touring alternative-music-and-lifestyle festival? Alt, or “college music,” had been underground up to that point, and then the whole genre burst into the American consciousness. In Seattle, Nirvana went from recording their first album for $600 to becoming chart-toppers with their second disc. The disillusionment of being a “grunge” rock icon contributed to Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, effectively ending an era of great original music. Meanwhile, Jane’s Addiction broke up and Farrell fell into a period of drug abuse. Now what we have in popular rock almost 10 years later are legions of addled screaming imitators who are being thrust on the public by unsympathetic record labels.
Likewise, Hawk has coined Boom Boom HuckJam for his unprecedented action-sports and music and lifestyle show. There are currently other tours with the same mix of sports and music, such as the Vans Warped Tour, but the HuckJam differs in one fundamental way: The action sports take center stage, and the live music is ancillary.
“The idea,” says Hawk in his nasal California accent, “was to bring us as the focus of a show instead of us always having to be the sideshow to the music tours.”
The HuckJam represents a seismic shift in the pop-culture paradigm. For the first time, action sports are a big enough draw to launch an arena tour. And with not just any band, but big ones. Social Distortion are set for the HuckJam’s Jersey and Long Island stops, bands such as Devo and CKY at others. The Offspring, a four-time platinum neo-punk band, are also one of the HuckJam’s supporting acts. Who’s the bigger punk rock star, Offspring frontman Dexter Holland or skateboard savant Tony Hawk?
“[Action-sports] athletes have more in common with punk rock musicians than Kobe Bryant,” says Guerinot. “I think they would find the aesthetic and market closer to Mike Ness [of Social Distortion] than Shaquille O’Neal. It’s remarkably similar to dealing with a band.”
The punk rock aesthetic of skateboarding is what attracted another Owl’s Head skater, Marcus, age 33. “Most of the people I worshiped were skaters,” says Marcus. “They were mostly people that had a real punk personality. Christian Hosoi was one, and Tony Alva, of course.”
Tony Hawk’s another thing altogether to skaters like Marcus. “It’s interesting how he has built a business out of skateboarding,” Marcus says. “I was always gravitating toward people that kept their street cred. Not that they stayed poor or didn’t make money. It’s sort of an image thing. I don’t know anything about Tony Hawk other than what I said. I think he’s ESPN, not the kind of person that I would watch, even if I were into watching sports on ESPN.”
It’s early October, and 34-year-old Tony Hawk, all 6′ 2″, 170 pounds of him, is seated on a futon in a dressing room at the Compaq Center in downtown San Jose, California. The HuckJam is getting ready to perform the third show of its 22-stop tour that night. Clad in his uniform—a T-shirt and shorts—Hawk stretches out his long legs, revealing an occupational hazard—scabby, raw-pink shins. They look as if he had vigorously rubbed a cheese grater against his skin.
Scattered amid the skateboards, helmets, pads, and thick-soled skate shoes that litter the dressing-room floor are the other athletes on the Boom Boom HuckJam Tour. Pro skater Bucky Lasek eats grapes while watching college football on ESPN, bike-stunt legend Mat Hoffman dons a red T-shirt, and freestyle motocross madmen Mike Cinqmars and Carey Hart clomp around in their heavy boots and suits festooned with sponsors’ logos before settling down on futons to chill out before the show.
All that talent has assembled in one place because they believe in Hawk’s ability to pull off something totally new. When asked why he joined up, Lasek says sardonically of Hawk, “I do whatever he tells me. I’m his slave.”
Hawk has been skating professionally for 20 years, through the sport’s constant boom and bust cycles, and he’s been the top vert skater for about two-thirds of that time. Today, he is a multimillionaire with his own video-game franchise, plus skateboard and production companies. His annual income has been estimated at $10 million.
He is also the father of three boys, and he lives in a large house in a gated community in Carlsbad, California. And finally, he lacks a badass attitude and any visible tattoos. All of which contribute to make Hawk an icon to skateboard fans and, more importantly, to their wallet-wielding parents.
Most skaters grasp the vibe about Hawk. Says 15-year-old Luis Orozco, who attended the San Jose show, “Younger kids are coming to this event because Tony Hawk is a good father figure. He’s not a punky skater that parents hate.”
Skateboarding and action sports are riding a big wave that is about to crash and shift the sands of American sports culture. According to American Sports Data Inc., as reported in Sports Illustrated, more people under age 18 skateboarded (10.6 million) than played baseball (8.2 million) during 2001. Still, the seats on the HuckJam tour won’t be filled solely by skaters.
“It used to be that if you were a skateboard fan, you were a skateboarder,” says pro skater Andy MacDonald, a featured rider in the HuckJam. “That’s certainly not the case anymore. I talk to people all the time that have never stepped on a skateboard in their lives—be it parents or kids who are just into the lifestyle who don’t have any desire to skateboard, but love playing the video games, but love wearing the clothes, the shoes, that whole lifestyle and listening to the music.”
Hawk felt the rising tide during skate-park tours in the past couple of years. “It has evolved from six guys in a van, traveling with portable ramp stuff, going to the existing skate parks,” he tells the Voice. “In the last few years we’ve seen the crowds start to outgrow the capacity of the skate parks. The next step was to travel with our own park and do it in an arena, and also to do it in a show format where we had some choreography.
“I want to do stuff like this, rather than doing all these random demos at a state fair or half-time show or whatever it is. We have a tour, we have a crew. This way we’re not compromising how we do it for the sake of other promoters’ ideas of what a skate or BMX show should be.”
Hawk’s idea of a skate and BMX stunt show took the form of the HuckJam. Still, he needed financial backing to take his show on the road, but potential sponsors balked because there had been no precedent for an action-sports arena tour. So Hawk put up his own cash to prove it could be done. He gambled that sponsors would see it his way, and last spring he took the show to the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas and spun the fucking wheel. Five corporate sponsors were awed enough to back the tour and reimburse Hawk for his investment.
But the HuckJam will be solvent only if people buy tickets to the shows. The prices vary depending upon the location, and Hawk, while being vague about the financial details, says he doesn’t expect to make money during the first year. The shows’ costs are high, but typical ticket prices range from $25 to $75, and there are T-shirts and $20 programs, of course, so plenty of money is being generated from crowds that have topped 10,000 at several stops.
“I thought we were going to lose money the first time out,” he says. “We didn’t get all the sponsors we had hoped for. I don’t think we’ll have that problem next year. We’ve already locked in some of the big-time sponsors for next year.”
Guerinot, the producer, insists that the show is supposed to be an art form first, though.
“You find these pure little voices of culture and they get fucked,” he says. “Someone sniffs out the money and ruins it. This is different because it’s a guy and he’s doing crazy shit. Any good art is done because it’s rad, and money becomes a by-product.”
So what does a Boom Boom HuckJam look like? The one in San Jose starts with 69 union employees assembling and calibrating center stage: a 13-and-a-half-foot-tall, 80-foot-wide halfpipe that cost $1.2 million to build. The rest of the sprawling set covers the whole arena floor. A 35-foot-tall roll-in ramp continues through the middle of the halfpipe like a Hot Wheels track, to a launch ramp, a landing, and eventually to a massive quarterpipe at the opposite end of the arena. At the set’s other end is a stage where the Offspring will play live. The arena floor is ringed by a motocross track with banked walls in the corners leading to ramps that allow the riders to launch 25 feet over the halfpipe. Plus, there are huge TV screens so that spectators can see the whole blaring spectacle.
When the crowd arrives later that evening, the arena lights have dimmed, and there is a curtain surrounding the ramp. Once the show starts, the curtain drops, and most of the 8600 in attendance (at least half are families) cheer politely but enthusiastically during the phantasmagoria of screaming motorcycles, and lights, and athletes spinning in the air and assaulting the ramp.
The Offspring take the stage later, and some of the kids grab HuckJam decks that they’ve bought from concessionaires and scramble to get the autographs of their favorite skaters, proving again that the athletes are the headliners.
“I liked the skateboarding,” says 25-year-old Jennifer Park of Livermore, California, who attended with her husband, Kyle. Neither of them skateboards. “The way they showed each other support. They seem like cool dudes.”
After the show, workers from the megacorp ConAgra Foods, one of the show’s sponsors, hand out samples of their product Squeeze ‘n Go, pudding in a tube. Once the kids are outside, they throw the tubes on the sidewalk and begin stomping on them, sending great gobs of pudding squirting out with fantastic farting sounds, which is a fucking funny thing to do if you’re a kid.
And it connects somehow with what Jim Guerinot says about the core demographic that attends the HuckJam.
“It’s the in-between boy,” he says. “He’s not into girls yet. And he’s not thrilled with cartoons. He’s gone from playing with G.I. Joe to lighting him on fire.”
Like a skater in a Brooklyn park trashing his former icon.