Jeff Pearlman

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Jesse Martinez

#271
The legendary skateboarder fought to bring a skate park to Venice Beach. So how is a 51-year old survivor rewarded for endless injuries, a horrific beating and a city's scorn? Why, by starring in the magnificent new documentary, "Made In Venice." POSTED August 30, 2016

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Every so often, a Quaz arrives back at jeffpearlman.com headquarters and is greeted with a yawn. You know how it goes: I’m super-psyched to read it, then I open the file and … pfft. Boring, uninspired, flat. Admittedly, this doesn’t happen all that often. But, truth be told, it does happen.

Well, not today.

Before this Quaz, I knew precious little about skateboarding, and even less about Jesse Martinez, a hard-nosed 51-year-old boarder and a man whose successful fight to bring a skate park to Venice Beach resulted in the riveting new documentary, “Made In Venice.” To be blunt, Jesse isn’t a guy to fuck with. He’s edgy, hard, determined, steely. He fears neither death nor violence and (as you’ll learn in this interview) he responded to a horrific beating with … well, trust me. His answer will blow you away. Jesse emerged in the 1980s as one of the best street skaters in Los Angeles, and was a founding member of Steve Rocco’s original SMA World Industries team. In other words, he’s legend.

One can learn about “Made In Venice” here, and pick up some more Jesse details here.

Jesse Martinez, you are Quaz No. 271 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Jesse, I’m gonna start with a weird one, just because you seem like you’d have a good answer: Back in the 1980s, when I was a kid, e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e who had a skateboard seemed to worship Gator. I mean, he was the man. Beyond the man. Then all sorts of shit happened, he wound up in jail, etc. And I wonder—does he have any legacy to speak of? Do kids know he existed? Should they?

JESSE MARTINEZ: That’s a touchy one with me because I was such good friends with the guy. Gator should not be forgotten. What he did for skateboarding was totally separate from the one big horrible mistake, but it’s hard for me to stand up for him. From knowing the guy personally and doing demos with him, he’s an extremely good guy with a great heart. What happened that night with him and that girl, I’ll never know.

Long story short, he should not be forgotten, and also what he did should not be forgotten. What he did is unforgivable. If that was my daughter, it would be a totally different scenario right now. I would be like, “The guy better be on death row.” There would be no ifs, ands or buts about that. I know the guy so well and I was actually with him, that girl and his girlfriend in Arizona a few weeks before that happened. It was weird when I found out what happened when I got back into town. I was shocked. Knowing Gator, I knew it had to be a horribly drunk, drug-related mistake. Deep down inside, Gator is not that guy, but we all make mistakes. You can ask other skateboarders who have made horrible mistakes and are still in the limelight. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, but it’s like in any sport, your heroes fall sometimes. That’s why I tell people. “If you’re going to idolize somebody for what they do in a sport, don’t be disappointed when you find out that, in real life, they are not who you thought they were.”

For good and bad, Gator should not be forgotten for what he did for skateboarding and for what he did that ruined his life and ruined a whole family’s life. That’s all I have to say about that one.

J.P.: What is the absolute worst injury you’ve ever suffered via skateboarding? What happened? How did it feel? What was the aftermath? And did it have any impact on you?

J.M.: Okay, we were shooting the Thrashin’ movie, in the mid 1980s and I was bombing the hill. There were a bunch of us. One of the guys, his name was K.O., he’s from the Jaks. He’s a really good friend of mine and he’s still skateboarding to this day. He came shooting by me and I knew things didn’t look good, and I caught up to him, and he got the wobbles really bad and flew off his board and we ended up colliding into each other. I ripped all the muscles in my thigh of my leg right below the hip and I was bleeding internally. I had to go to the hospital for a couple of weeks … blah, blah, blah … I wound up not skating for a good six months that I was injured, but there were really no repercussions from that injury.

As a skateboarder going on 44 years of skating, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I don’t know what it is, but I have taken some of the worst slams—like all big-time skaters. If you want to be one of the best, you have to throw caution into the wind. That’s just the way it’s been for most of my life. Maybe it was built in me to where I don’t know the words, “Take it easy.” I just do what I can do the best that I can do. That injury really didn’t affect me at all.

What has affected me now is time. Like Jay Adams said, “Skateboarding didn’t get old. I did.” As I’m inching toward 50 years of skating non-stop, which is my goal, all of the small injuries that I’ve had—knee injuries, ripped ligaments, and just being beaten, nothing ever broke—are now catching up to me. There isn’t a step that I take that doesn’t have pain. I’m literally crawling out of the car when I go to skate a hill. With all of the pain in my knees, ankles, elbows and my back, I’m amazed that I can skate like I do. It’s weird, though, because I’m in more pain when I’m not skating. When I’m skating, I feel nothing and I don’t recognize any of the injuries that I know I have. It’s like I’ve told people, “The less I skate, the quicker I die. The more I skate, the more I live.” It just seems like I gotta keep skating. That’s the bottom line.

Jesse with some of Venice's skate kids (photo by Dan Levy)

Jesse with some of Venice’s skate kids (photo by Dan Levy)

J.P.: You’re the focus of a new documentary, “Made in Venice” that details the decades-long fight to have a skate park built on your home turf. Looking back, how much of the struggle was based upon a certain perception of skateboarders as slackers, druggies, vagrants? In other words, do you think a good number of people accustomed to suits and ties just didn’t want you guys around?

J.M.: That sort of goes both ways. It was 50 percent the city’s fault that it took so long to get the park and it was 50 percent our fault. To get the park, you have to remember, this was Venice in the 1980s. It was coming off the era of the ’70s, which was just out of control. We were all influenced by what came before us. In the ‘80s, you had 30 of the top professional skaters in the world living in one of the roughest beach communities in the United States. I’m not exaggerating. In the ‘80s, Venice was no place to be acting like a fool. If you did, most likely you got your ass handed to you very swiftly, so the perception of the skaters from the city back then wasn’t the best. The Venice skateboarders were inter-tangled with the local gangs. They were our friends and family members or we went to school with them since birth. The city looked at us in the same way as any other group that they didn’t approve of in Venice, because it was a rough time. There were a lot of fights and a lot of shit went down, but a lot of skating went on.

Some of the best pros in the world came out of Venice in the ‘80s, but the city looked at us as kids who were out of control with no direction. Honestly, if I was a city guy, I might have thought the same thing because we were a little out of control. When we first started approaching the city for the skate park, I got that feeling that they looked down on us and I still get that feeling today. They look down on us and on me, especially. I know this for a fact. The City of Los Angeles is just wishing that I would disappear because I have been a thorn in their ass for over three decades now. I saw how they looked at us when it came down to getting the skate park. They thought, “Oh, okay, you guys are organized now.” One thing the city didn’t realize is that just because we’re skateboarders and we look a little bit edgy doesn’t mean we don’t have smart friends all over the world. In the ’70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, there were a lot of crazed skateboarders, and now those skateboarders aren’t kids anymore. Those kids are adults now and you’d be surprised to find out what a lot of those skateboarders have become. They have become police officers or city people, and some of the most respected people in society. The city found out real quick that we weren’t just the scraggly hoodlum skateboarders on the beach any longer. Like I said, skateboarders have a large network of friends and skateboarders have a special bond. No matter if decades have passed, skaters still look out for each other. That’s what happened with the Venice Skate park. Throughout time, people reached out to us and said, “Hey, I used to skate with you guys in the ‘80s and I want to help.” Through the network of skateboarders, we were able to get this skate park approved.

We always reached out to people when things got tough. When I say tough, I mean when the city handed us paperwork that we didn’t understand. When they handed us paperwork, it was 100 pages thick with requirements that we had to fill out. That’s where Scott Brown, Stephanie, Melanie, Juice Magazine and all these people stepped up who are really knowledgeable about this and, if they didn’t know it, they could find it out. Between the skateboarders who grew up in Venice and all the people back in the ‘80s and ‘90s who came in, they really became our support system. What we didn’t know how to do, they did. Juice Magazine wrote all the paperwork for us. Scott Brown and his girl did so much legal stuff for us, too. I saw some of what Scott Brown’s girl had to do one time and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m glad I skate.” I couldn’t understand how that much paperwork had to be filled out just to propose a skate park. I think just the sheer amount of support, from everywhere, made the city go, “You know what? We have to approve this.” With support from the skate community and the people in Venice, it just became overwhelming for the city. It seems like they really never wanted a skate park there, so we had to tell the city guys, “None of you really live in Venice. None of you were born and raised in Venice, so how do you know what Venice needs and wants? You don’t live here. You come to the beach every six months to shoot a photo under a tree.”

That’s what I brought up to the city in a meeting a couple of weeks ago, when they asked me how can I keep going for seven years of cleaning the park every day for free. I said, “I was born and raised in Venice and I love where I live.” That’s one of the problems. You have a lot of the city employees that are not from Venice and they didn’t grow up in Venice and there’s no attachment to Venice. To clean the park so thoroughly and love it so much, it would be smart to hire people who live in Venice. There are a lot of local people who would love to have city jobs. I really do think the city truly underestimated the skaters of Venice and how we could actually get together and resource people who could do things we couldn’t do. It took almost three decades, but we got it. Now I look at that park and go, “Wow. We did it. Everybody pulled together and everybody who loves Venice got this skate park.” I think it’s pretty amazing what we did out there. The city just has to realize that they have to play ball with the skateboarders in Venice because we are not going anywhere.

Photo by Dan Levy.

Photo by Dan Levy.

J.P.: Weird question—but I’m 44, I’ve never boarded in my life and I’m increasingly aware of my own mortality, as well as my bones’ propensity to break. Would it be impossible for me to learn to skateboard? Like, is this something that must begin at youth?

J.M.: It’s advisable to start when you’re young. At 44-years old, I suggest you wear full pads and just enjoy skateboarding as much as you can without really injuring yourself. There’s one thing about skateboarders, 40 and up, who have been skating since 8- or 9-years old, their bodies have built up a tolerance for pain. You’ve gone through years of small fractures or decades of hitting the ground and it’s strengthened your body. I wouldn’t doubt that a lot of skateboarders out there have hairline fractures but don’t realize it. You just build your bones and strength. By the time you get to my age of 51, your bones are as hard as a rock and you can take a beating and, let me tell you, I take beatings almost monthly that would normally kill a 51-year-old man. That’s the thing. I see other guys my age who don’t skate who are 51 and they look 60. I think to myself, “Am I really 51? Why do I feel like I am 22?” That’s the other thing about skateboarding. It keeps you mentally young. To start at 44, with no background of skateboarding experience, my advice is to wear full gear and take it really slow and find a professional skateboarder like Eric Britton or Bennett Harada, to give you lessons. That’s the best advice I can say. Take it slow, wear full gear and wear a helmet, and good luck.

J.P.: How did this happen for you? You’re a kid in the world; Southern California. How did you find skateboarding? When did you first realize you were good at it? Great at it?

J.M.: Well, the first time I ever came in contact with a skateboard was in 1971. One of my cousins found a car and took it to my grandma’s house and, in the back seat, there was a skateboard and they gave it to me. That’s how it all started.

When did I realize that I was good on a personal level? I’ve never considered myself top-notch. I’ve always considered myself an all-around great skateboarder. I can skate everything. I’ve never sat back and asked myself, “When did I become good?” There was really never a time. I knew one time I was on a run, whooping ass and winning amateur contests left and right, but there was never a moment when I was like, “Now I’m ripping and I’m the baddest guy in the land.” I was always too busy skating to ever really stop and think about it until just now when you asked me. There was never a day where I thought, “Now I’m really good.” I’m still learning. I took up downhill skateboarding a little over three years ago, at age 48, and I’m learning all over again. Even though I was a professional street skater and so-called master vert skater, I got into this new realm of skateboarding called downhilling and it’s almost like I’ve started over skating again. I admit that I have an advantage with decades of background in skating.

To answer your question, there was never a time when I looked back and thought, “Now I’m ripping.” I never really thought about that. I’m a humble dude and I know that some dudes are better than me. There’s no way around it. I’ve skated with the best, most gifted skateboarders that have walked the earth. I was standing next to Mark Gonzales at contests, or Christian Hosoi, and these other gigantic names like Eric Dressen. I know for a fact that these dudes, all around, are better than me, but if they’re going to beat me, they’re going to have to work to beat me and prove they are the best. There is no way I’m going to let them walk over me without making them work for it. That’s how I’ve always felt. I’ve always accepted that there are guys who are just naturally better than me. There’s always somebody better. You can accept it gracefully and be who you are and wait for your moment where four guys fall and suddenly you are first or second, which has happened, but I’ve never had this big head where I thought that I was the best in the world. I’ve always accepted my role in skateboarding. I knew that the odds were 99-percent sure I wouldn’t win an event, but I’ll be damned if I was going to make it easy for anyone else to win.

J.P.: Shortly before the first anniversary of the skate park’s opening, you were jumped and severely beaten while working at the park. You wound up with swelling of the brain. What do you remember from that night? And does it at all cause you to lose some faith in humanity?

J.M.: Well, no, it doesn’t make me lose faith in humanity at all. That happened about a year after the park opened. This is LA. It’s a rough town. If you’re going to walk up to 15 or 20 guys by yourself, you best know what you’re doing. I kind of overstepped my bounds that night. I should have used my years of experience to know that I might have been getting myself into some serious shit.

When everything went down in the park and I wound up getting jumped, and had to go to the hospital, I had no hard feelings. After a couple of days, I was fine. I was beat up, but I’m a skater. It takes more than that to put me down. I got up after a couple of days and I was a little beat up, but no big deal. I had no animosity toward the guys who jumped on me. I knew they were all young—18, 19, 20. I know how it is at that age. You’re not making the best decisions. They did arrest some of the guys that did that, but I told the judge and the prosecutors, “These are just kids who made one mistake. You’re telling me that your’e going to charge them with multiple felonies?” They shot me with tasers and sprayed me with Mace and jumped on me, but everybody gets one in their lifetime and that was my one and I accepted that. I told the prosecutors that I refused to press charges and I refused to identify any of them. They were shocked.

The family came up to me about a week later at the Venice Skate Park. One of the fathers walked up to me and wanted to thank me because they were offering his kid a five-year prison deal for that. I’ve seen what five years in prison can do to a person. Five years is enough time to change a man. At that point, that kid wasn’t a man, but he would come out of prison a man, and after five years inside, he would not be the man that society would help, unfortunately. I told the prosecutors that I was not going to cooperate. That’s when the father came up and thanked me. I said, “Hey, no problem, man. Your son made a mistake. Big deal. I’m alive. I can take an ass whooping. I ain’t no pussy.” I basically let them all off the hook. I saw one or two of them and shook their hands and they said sorry to me and I said it was no big deal. If everybody else would handle stuff like that, the world would be a better place. Just because you make a mistake, it doesn’t mean that I need to ruin your life.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

J.M.: The lowest moments were both my parents dying, and my brother. Those were some of the lowest moments in my life, like anybody. That’s standard issue. Everybody’s parents die and sometimes your brothers die before you. Those were the lowest points in my life.

Greatest points in my life? That’s hard to say because every day is the greatest day. I always try to remind myself of how lucky I am. Even though I’m not rich and I don’t own a fancy car, I’m rich in friends. I came up from a rough upbringing, so maybe I look at life a little different than other people. A little for me, is good. I don’t need a whole lot to think that I’m rich. As long as I’m alive and I can skate, every day is a great day.

J.P.: You’ve listed “Bones Brigade ‘86” as the greatest road trip of your life. I love road trip stories. Why was this the greatest? What happened?

J.M.: Well, first of all, it was the Bones Brigade tour. Second of all, I’m with the most legendary skaters on the face of the earth. Suddenly, I’m in the tour van with them. My career went from driving in a pickup truck and barely having enough gas to make it to a contest to have a great time with Natas, to being in a tour van with the most legendary skateboarders in the world. That’s what made it so incredible. There were a lot of great moments, all the people we met and all the great demos and all the wild stories on the road. It was just the fact that I was riding for Powell and I was in a tour van on the Bones Brigade tour with every skateboarder who every skater in the world would kill just to sit and talk with. All of a sudden, I’m a teammate and I’m in the van with them.

When I get out of the van, they would always announce, “Here is the Powell team.” In the ‘80s, there was no other team. Powell Peralta was it. There was nothing better than Powell in the ‘80s. They had it all: freestyle, street skating, vert skating. Everybody was a winner on Powell. They were all champions; the world’s best. Suddenly, for me to be on that team, in that van, with those guys, that’s what made it the greatest tour ever.

J.P.: How has age impacted your skill-set? Are there things you could do at 25 that you can’t do at 50? Do you think you’ll still be skateboarding at 60? At 70? Is longevity a motivator? A source of pride?

J.M.: Okay, there’s a big difference between 25 and 50. A 25-year-old and a 50-year-old are not going to be doing a handrail session together. As you get older, your injuries catch up with you and that limits what you can do with skating, and that varies from skater to skater. There are skaters who have great insurance and financial backing and they can get the best operations possible. On the other hand, you have guys like me. I get hurt, I heal, and then I keep on skating. As you get older, it really depends on how your lifestyle was. Were you a big drug user or a big drinker or a healthy eater? I’m an exception to all that. I’m extremely lucky. I love Hostess cupcakes. I don’t like health food. I do nothing to advance my health, but somehow I keep going.

Then you have other guys that eat all the right foods and do all the right training and have great insurance and get all the best medical, but they’re just as jacked up as me. There are a lot of variables. On the other hand, I’m out here beating 20-year-old kids down legitimate mountain runs. It’s kind of hard to say if you’re better at age 25 or 50. It all depends on the skater, your physical health, your mental health and straight drive. Number one is your drive to keep skating, that fierce determination to continue on ripping. The guys who go on for decades and never quit are the ones who truly love it. They love skating day in and day out. They can’t live without it. I have such a drive for skateboarding. It’s all I know. It’s all I do. I know many guys just like me, like Steve Caballero, Steve Alba, Micke Alba, Ben Schroeder and Lance Mountain … I could go on and on. There are guys who are fighting their injuries and just keep skating. Ben Schroeder and Allen Losi and dudes like who have gone beyond suffering for skateboarding and they continue to skate.

I know Allen Losi can’t skate right now, but I know the moment he can, he’s going to jump on a skateboard. Those are the guys who continue to rip their whole life. It’s a tough question, but I would say that it depends on the person and the drive in you and how much you can throw fear into the wind. Fear is always a part of you with skateboarding. It will never leave you, no matter how big you get. The fear of slamming gnarly will always keep you on point. It all depends on the 25-year-old and the 50-year-old. It’s all about that person and what kind of person they are. That’s the difference. Are you a maniac with no caution or someone who just takes it easy? If you see a guy who just always wants to take it easy, that’s the guy who’s probably not going to last through four decades of skating. They won’t want to keep doing it. You have to have that drive to keep going no matter how old you are.

J.P.: You received a letter from Jay Adams when he was in jail—and you never opened it. Why?

J.M.: You know what? It’s because I’ve never opened a letter from jail. I’ve always had this rule of, “I’ll see you when you get out.” That’s sort of the way I was with Jay. I never opened his letter. I just thought, “When you get out, I’ll see you and we’ll carry on our adventure here.” I know it’s kind of weird and maybe even a little rude not to open that letter, but I don’t know. I really can’t give you an honest answer why I never opened it. I have opened some of them, but I opened them after he got out of jail, and then I read them. Maybe it’s because I know what can happen in prison, that I’ve always had this fear of opening any letter from prison. Maybe that’s it.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JESSE MARTINEZ:

• Five greatest skateboarders of your lifetime?: Jay Adams, Tony Alva, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, Shogo Kubo.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Neil Blender, London, “Silence of the Lambs,” The Osmonds, My Uncle Marty, Lance Armstrong, Brett Favre, Belinda Carlisle, Tampa, Oreo cookies: Neil Blender, Lance Armstrong, Oreo cookies, London, Uncle Marty, Tampa, The Osmonds, Belinda Carlisle, “Silence of the Lambs,” Brett Favre.

• Three memories from first-ever date: 1. Her brother said, “Who the f— is that?”; 2. Her dad came out and said, “Who the f— is that?”; 3. They both tried to jump on me and I beat them both up.

• Why did your parents name you Jesse?: I have no idea. None.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Flying into San Francisco with Tommy Guerrero, we got hit by a gust of wind. I was sitting in the window seat and the wing literally missed the ground by just a couple of feet. That was close. Guerrero didn’t see it, just me.

• What do your shoes smell like?: My shoes smell great because I only wear my socks for a week or two and then I throw them away and buy new ones.

• The next president will be …: You want to know who the next president will be? It’s not going to be because of a vote. It’s going to be because this is the way it’s just going to be. It’s going to be Hillary Clinton. I don’t trust her for nothing, and I believe that Trump would do more than any other president in the last 40 years because he does not care, but it’s like rolling the dice with Trump. It would either be incredibly good or it would be shit. He’s either a go-getter or he’s going to totally fuck everything up. With political power or who knows who, Hillary is going to win because of that. She is in the game and she knows everybody and she’s got the backing. I don’t care how much money Trump has or how many votes he gets, he is not going to win. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s just the way it is.

• I have a wrist wart that refuses to go away. Any advice?: Go to the doctor and get it frozen off.

• Best advice you’ve ever received?: It was from my father. “It’s better to have more friends than enemies.” He was right because I’m rich in friends, which is better than having enemies.

• Who’s the world’s greatest insanely tall skateboarder?: Everybody knows that. It’s Ben Schroeder. There’s no one bigger. He’s taller than Neil Blender. If you want to talk about the gnarliest big guy, it would be Neil Blender. Neil Blender could kick some ass if he ever wanted to. Neil Blender is one of the greatest forgotten skaters in the history of skateboarding. If you ask the younger generation of skaters about Neil Blender, they will say, “Who?” Neil Blender is one of the most unique professional skateboarders ever to be born. That guy is a cut above the rest, even more unique than Hosoi or Gonzales. I’ve seen that dude skate. Even with a hand plant, to this day, I’ve never seen another human being attempt it the way he does. He’s doing one foot inverts, noseblunt in, and he would stop it on the coping and rip it like a soldier. I would just sit there amazed at how such a big man could be so graceful. That’s how it was.

  • Gluten Dude

    Was looking forward to reading the Quaz, as I always do. Then I clicked on the link about Gator. And this guy calls it what Gator did a “mistake”….three separate times. Said the guy had a huge heart and must have been drunk. And all I could think was “what a f***ing tool.” And the rest of the Quaz proved my point. He does not deserve to be heard here.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life