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How the Skate Punks Conquered Europe

They Were Anti-Conformists Whose Music Didn't Fit Into Corporate America. So They Took Their Act on the Road and Across the Atlantic. Who Knew They'd Follow in the Footsteps of Jerry Lewis?

August 11, 2002|HOWARD LIBES | Howard Libes is a freelance writer living in Malibu.

Pamplona, Spain. September 20, 1998. The Paseo Ernest Hemingway runs past the towering Plaza de Toros, the bullring that stands at the end of the town walls, close to the Arga River. The festival of San Fermin, the ''Running of the Bulls,'' that Ernest Hemingway popularized in ''The Sun Also Rises,'' concluded two months ago, and the festival's revelers are long gone. Now a new cultural event, a uniquely American phenomenon, is once again drawing young people into the stadium.

On the outer walls of the Plaza de Toros, posters for upcoming bullfights are flanked by posters for the ''Vans Warped Tour.'' Inside the walls, the show has already begun. Kevin Lyman peers into the bullring from behind the stadium's upper tier of seats. The stage straddles the bullring and the tour's banner hangs behind it. Onstage, Bad Religion churns out its own brand of melodic hard-core music as Basque teens, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the names of their favorite American punk bands (Lagwagon, NOFX, No Use For A Name), thrash and mosh in the dirt of the arena.

At the half-pipe nearby, teens gaze up at the skateboarder performing a ''backside air,'' gaining enough speed rolling down one vertical side to climb the other, launching body and board straight up above the ramp, and seamlessly turning around in flight to head back down the ramp. A roadie walks up to Lyman, taps him on the shoulder, and says into his ear so he can hear above the music, ''We're a long way from the Marina Skatepark.''

Lyman laughs. They are many miles and years away from the South Bay and Orange County, a region that is derided for its suburban strip-mall sterility but is, at the same time, the place where this cultural movement was born.

In the 1980s, a group of discontented teenagers and twentysomethings from Southern California hatched their own anti-conformist punk-rock lifestyle and ferried it across the country in a fleet of beat-up vans. They played in living rooms, in VFW Halls and in abandoned warehouses with makeshift skate ramps, delivering their original in-your-face music. The corporate record labels turned a deaf ear. There was no place for punks in the soft-soap world of co-dependent pop love songs.

Spurned by the mainstream, the punkers defined themselves in opposition. A Do-It-Yourself attitude took hold as a point of pride and the term DIY became synonymous with the lifestyle. They formed their own record labels to release their own music. The records were distributed to mom-and-pop record stores and low-wattage college-radio stations. They were taken on the road and sold for gas money at shows, along with their band's T-shirts, which were drawn or silk-screened in the back of their vans between gigs.

The bands became entrenched in America's underground music scene and seemed destined to stay there.

Then they ventured to Europe, discovering a new landscape and a formative group of compatriots who welcomed them. At first glance, this may seem surprising--for years the defenders of European culture have been concerned about America's cultural wares polluting their indigenous art forms. But Europeans also have a long-standing tradition of embracing artists who create works that are representative of American freedom, of the individual shaking off society's rules: a lone figure in a pork-pie hat running down a street chased by hundreds of cops in a Buster Keaton film; the idiot spastically disrupting the System in Jerry Lewis films; the social misfits stalking the edge of society in the writings of Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski; the self-expression of jazz played at speeds and harmonies that blur conventional musical boundaries; the suppressed heartfelt emotion of blues music.

The DIY skate-punk movement fits perfectly into this framework of acceptance, and it continues to thrive in Europe, drawing tens of thousands to festivals featuring extreme sports and their brand of music and selling millions of albums. This is the story of how a group of scrawny skateboarding punkers climbed to the top of the culture heap on a continent steeped in centuries-old traditions.

On a Tuesday night in 1980, 15-year-old Greg Graffin peered out over the audience as he sang. His band, Bad Religion, created a roaring wall of rhythm and melody with its electric guitars and the drummer frenetically hammering away. The band was on a multiple-band bill that night at the Marina Skatepark in Marina del Rey and was set up near one of the bowls, out in the open, while the skateboarders worked tricks on the inclines. The crowd thrashed to the music. ''The scene was very bizarre at the time,'' says Graffin. ''In fact, it got a lot of punkers into skating and a lot of skaters into punk.''

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