Hello and welcome to the second installment of Vandals, Posers, Athletes—my new column about skateboarding.
Just when you thought that VPA was going to be dominated by inane attempts at humour, unfair stereotyping and wanky skateboarding analysis, things got a bit heavy.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, skateboarding’s most brazen and opinionated spokesperson, Jake Phelps, died on March 14. He was 56-years-old and had been editor-in-chief of Thrasher Magazine since ’93—a tenure of 26 years. As a lot of the skateboarders who were close to him have said over the past week or so, he had an affinity for skateboarding that was nothing short of obsessive. He was a lifer to the end.
The cause of Phelper’s death hasn’t been made public, but according to Phelps’ uncle, he died ‘suddenly and easy’ while playing guitar in an armchair at his SF apartment. Skaters all over the world have been offering sentiments of respect for Phelper via Insta, so in VPA this week, I’ve thrown together some memories and videos of the Phelper.
‘I just say what’s on my mind. I’m usually right.’ (2007)
One of the most interesting eulogies for Phelper came from Patrick O’Dell, the former Thrasher photographer who went on to make the show Epicly Later’d. O’Dell admits that he would sometimes cross the street to avoid seeing or talking to Phelps and was afraid to pick up his calls. O’Dell goes on to recount a story about how Phelps got the job of editor at Thrasher by ripping out all the pages of the magazine that he didn’t like, then throwing what was left onto founding-editor Kevin Thatcher’s desk. Thatcher said, ‘If you think you can do better give it a try.’ So, Phelps did. For the next 26 years.
The Phelps episode of Epicly Later’d is one of the early ones, back when O’Dell basically made the show by himself with a cheap video camera; but it provides some insight into Phelps’ mad rambling, his photographic memory and his fearless outspokenness. In Phelper’s own words: ‘I just say what’s on my mind. I’m usually right.’
When Ed Templeton Met Phelps (1990)
Ed Templeton also wrote a potent eulogy for Phelps, recounting the story about the first time they met in Germany in 1990. It was Ed’s first time travelling and as a wide-eyed, fairly sheltered kid, he arrived at the airport with no idea what to do. Then Phelper spotted him, called out his full name across the airport (even though they’d never met before) and took Ed to their hotel. Ed wrote, ‘It was as if he could sense I needed some help, and let me tag along with his crew on the way to the hotel where all the skaters were staying. I never forgot that moment, and neither did he.’
Jake helped a lot of young skateboarders out over the years, whether it was at the beginning of a career as illustrious as Ed’s, or just giving some kid their first board. But he wasn’t always nice.
Getting Socked by Billy Pepper (1996)
In ’95 Phelps gave an Element pro by the name of Billy Pepper an award called ‘Most Annoying Skater’. Then in ’96 Phelps ranked Pepper fourth in a list titled ‘15 Most Hated Skaters’. As the story goes, Pepper came to the Thrasher office and socked Phelper in the face. There’s even a Thrash song about it.
Jake’s Message to Celebrities Who Wear Thrasher Gear (2016)
‘We don’t send boxes to Justin Bieber or Rihanna or those fucking clowns. The pavement is where the real shit is. Blood and scabs, does it get realer than that?’
Built For Speed (2011)
Although Phelper was known as a walking encyclopedia for skate knowledge and a sometimes-obnoxious emcee at Thrasher contests, it’s semi-rare to see footage of him skateboarding. Back in 2011, the late P-Stone dug through the archives and put this video together with a whole bunch of Phelps’ skate footage from over the years and cut it all to Motorhead’s ‘Built For Speed’. As you can see, Phelps had a particular affinity for the frontside grind.
Phelps’ Hill-Bomb Slam in SF (2017)
Here’s Phelps in July 2017, bombing a hill alongside Dolores Park in SF. He ate shit and then got taken away in an ambulance, which was all part of the glory. Phelps had previously claimed that he had a 290-page medical record, which included seven knee surgeries and countless broken bones. ‘I’ve spent more time in hospital… than most people spend in jail,’ he once said.
As Thrasher owner Tony Vitello put it when Phelps’ passing was announced, ‘Jake never bailed. Jake fucking slammed. And there is a big difference. He only knew commitment. He was going to go for it without hesitation, and there were only two outcomes. Either you’d see his triumphant fist pumping in the air, or it’d be an earth-shaking collision with the concrete. I remember him telling me once that he never fell backwards, he always fell forward. Leaning back meant there was hesitation, and Jake was all the way IN.’