JUICE MAGAZINE 13 YEAR ANNIVERSARY
INTERVIEW BY DIBI FLETCHER
INTRODUCTION BY DIBI FLETCHER
PHOTOS BY SUSANNE MELANIE BERRY, DAN LEVY AND JAMES O’MAHONEY
James O’Mahoney is a fascinating person to talk with. Whether it’s about his vast range of endeavors or fearless pursuit of pleasure, you’re instantly caught up in his enthusiasm for life that’s extremely intoxicating. As a life long collector of anything that caught his imagination, you get the feeling when talking to him that he’s gathering information from you as he would on a scavenger hunt as you scramble through the memories of more than half a century. Every time we speak it’s like discovering all over again a unique unexpected pleasure in someone that’s managed through all the ups and downs to really stay stoked and maintains the free spirit that most of us lose along the way. His myriad of accomplishments and the images that he’s captured over the years are a stunning affirmation of living life on the edge, and that’s something to be admired.“I’VE BEEN AN ATHLETE MY WHOLE LIFE, BUT SCHOOL WASN’T MY THING. I WAS THE CLASSIC CLOCK-WATCHING GUMBALL THROWER.”
You know, one of the nicest things about working with “Juice” is that we’ve gotten reacquainted. It’s really terrific. I just wanted to say that.
I know. We’re family, right?
[Laughs.] Yeah, we’re demented enough to be family. I think demented families are great.
[Laughs.] That’s life. You just have to row your own boat.
It’s interesting because everyone is over the top. I really like that. I guess we’ll start with when and where were you born?
I was born in Long Beach, California, August 7th, 1945. It was the day after they dropped the atom bomb. I guess I’m a real baby boomer.
[Laughs.] I guess so. That’s really bizarre. That’s the first time they’d ever split the atom like that. It’s crazy.
Well, it worked.
Yeah. What did your parents do?
My dad was a pilot in the Marines. My mom was just taking care of my sister and me in Long Beach. She was a housewife.
That’s very predictable for that time. That’s what women were raised to be. You grew up and got married. And that was it. So your dad was a pilot? Did he pursue that in his later life?
No, he went on to be a stuntman and then an actor. He did all Errol Flynn’s stunts. Then he started getting small bit parts in movies. He did a lot of western stuff. Then he got a TV series. He was a B plus cowboy star.
So you became your own stunt double?
Yeah, my first business was called Cowboy Star, so I became one.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have one full sister, a half sister and a stepsister. My stepsister is Sally Fields.
That’s interesting. Is anyone else in your family into surfing and skating?
My half sister skated, but she went on to be a director. She’s doing great. They’re all too old to skate now, but not me.
[Laughs.] That doesn’t stop you. Herbie told me you went on safari when you were young.
My grandparents took me on two safaris in ’55 and ’57. I’m classically trained as a hunter.
Wow. What part of Africa did you go to?
Kenya. We went up to the northern frontier district there. We made it all the way to Tanganyika on the second safari.
You were young. That must have been cool.
It was the thing to do at that time. You had to shoot your breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was pretty cool.
You went with your grandfather?
Yes, my grandfather and grandmother.
Was your grandmother a hunter also?
She shot a couple of things, but she was mostly taking pictures. We also had a professional photographer with us. Her name was Morella Ricardi.
Was that when you first got into photography?
Yes. When we landed in Hawaii, I had a Brownie Hawkeye. That thing was sort of crappy, but I liked my grandfather’s camera, which was a Roloflex. That was a 2 1/4. You looked down the camera with a bigger format with crosshairs. It was like looking into a submarine periscope. I thought that was cool.
How old were you?
I was nine years old. We went around the world on that trip. We were in Hong Kong, Thailand, Egypt and all over the world. You could take pictures of all the things you’d seen in books. I was really fortunate.
That sounds like a great experience. When did you start to surf or skate?
Skating was first. In 1949, I had one of those skate cars. It was a box on top of a skateboard. It had wooden handlebars and you could push it like a scooter. It was cool, because if you were throwing rocks at cars, you could put all your ammo inside the box and peddle around like a little army.
The regular skateboard was a few years later. It was a stock 2×4 with a roller skate with steel wheels. That was in the early ’50s.
You were living in Long Beach then?
Yeah, and with surfing, we’d go to Alamitas Bay and people would come up to the snack bar with their paddleboards. We got to know some people and they’d let us take their paddleboards out for an hour or so. So we’d paddle them down to the end of the bay and carry those clunkers across the street to 72nd Street and go ride waves. It was unreal. All you had to do was push into the wave and stand up and surf.
That’s when surfing was about trimming.
We’d seen it in a movie, so we did it first time. Those paddleboards were like boats. You could just stand there. We were catching waves and riding on top of the world. It was exciting.
Did any girls you know at that time surf or skate?
A few of the girls skated a little bit, like my sister. We’d jump from the skate car to the Schwinns to roller skates to skateboards.
It was fun. You could just be a kid.
It was a golden time. You could drink the water and just be a kid.
That’s back when skateboarding wasn’t against the law.
Yeah, it was a different deal.
Did you go to college?
I went back to school in 1970 and took a Photography 1 class and a Commercial Art class. I was also on the track team. I was a D student my whole life, but I wanted to go back to school. I got straight A’s in my film class, commercial arts and photography. I wanted to learn. I was 24 then.
You made the choice to learn. When you’re young it’s forced.
As a kid, I was kicked out of every school I ever went to. I was good at sports. I’ve been an athlete my whole life, but school wasn’t my thing. I was the classic clock-watching gumball thrower.
How old were you when you first got laid?
I think it was sort of a near lay.
My wife just said, “You know your kids and grandkids are going to read this.”
[Laughs.] It’s a trial and error thing. You have to keep trying until you get it right.
There you go.
How did you support yourself when you went back to college?
I started dealing in antiques, and I was a reservation Indian trader, so I would go to the reservations and trade with the Indians at the trading post. It was really fun. It was cool to be a treasure hunter and trader.
Did you get that idea from traveling the world, looking for treasure?
Well, I wasn’t looking for treasure on those trips. My grandparents were rich, so we stayed at the best hotels and had all this stuff. I just liked being with the Natives and down in the dirt, trading a toaster for a big turquoise bracelet. Being in Hong Kong, I’d leave the hotel and get a rickshaw and go to the dark places in the gnarly districts and watch them weigh out opium gold and peel snakes. It was cool. I felt like I was bulletproof.
When you’re young you feel that way.
Yeah, I wouldn’t want a 9-year-old kid going down there now. You’d never see them again. They’d make them into a wallet.
What year did you start the skateboard handbook?
In 1974, we published the “Handbook of Skateboard Tricks” with Russ Howell. It just showed all the tricks you could do. Then I did the The Skateboard Magazine. Then I did the big handbook that Herbie was in where he was doing his nose manual and riding Baldy.
Wasn’t it originally called “Skateboard” and you had a hassle with the name?
No. It was called the “The Skateboard Magazine”. Before that I had “Hang Glider Magazine”. Then I got tired of breaking my legs.
Tell me about your rescue after your hang gliding accident?
[Laughs.] The one where they dropped you.
Well, I was at Point Furman, which is probably the most notorious hang gliding spot on the planet because it killed like 13 people. I was going up into a 360 and got caught in a weird wind and got sideways with the cliff. I was trying to level it out and come down, but I hit the ground doing about 40mph. So I’m down there and my leg is going the wrong way so they called a helicopter. They finally got down there and put me on a gurney. They start to take me up and the guy dropped me on the beach. It really hurt. Then we got to the hospital and landed on the roof and the guy dropped me again. Then they get me into the hospital and tried to transfer me to another gurney and I got mulched by that thing, too. It was sort of funny, but it really hurt.
[Laughs.] It was a comedy of errors. Was that the worst injury that you had?
Well, I broke my ankle at Point Furman before that. It was a real bad break. They went in and had to take my foot off and put the bone and ball back together with five screws and put my foot back on with 200 stitches. It was a pretty bad break. The other injury was lamer because I was in a body cast for months. My hip was shattered. The x-ray showed the hip coming up and then this gray haze. The haze was the shattered bone. So I had to be in traction until all that bone coagulated again. It was nuts.
So it takes you a little while to get up in the morning?
Well, my hip doesn’t hurt. It’s my ankles. When I was a ski instructor I broke my other ankle. Then a few years ago I was riding my bike down a hill and a car pulled out and I did a flip over the car and broke both ankles again.
So you went from hang gliding to publishing the “Skateboard Magazine”, and then you moved to Mammoth?
We did “Hang Glider Magazine” and “The Skateboard Magazine”. Then we did the World Championships with skateboarding and started the U.S.S.A.[United States Skateboard Association] and W.S.A. [World Skateboard Association]. Then I bailed out of all of that in ’79 and went to Mammoth. Then there were a whole new bundle of toys with snowmobiles and snowboards and that kind of stuff.
How long did you stay in the snow? Herbie and I went to the mountains, too for a while, but we didn’t stay. The cold weather gets old.
You pick up a “Surfer Magazine” and end up back at the beach. It’s pretty in the mountains, but it’s a different deal. It’s okay for a while, but then you have to get back to the beach. We have saltwater in our blood.
When did you start the United States Skateboard Association?
And that’s still going?
Yeah, we just did the Guinness World Record Wall Ride with “Juice Magazine”. Back in the day, we established all the rules for the sport of skateboarding and set up all the first World contests. I did the United States Skateboard Association and the World Skateboard Association. We had all the banners of all the nations under our flag. It was a big deal, but it was too much work. I’m a good starter, but then I want everyone else to do it.
[Laughs.] It’s the new challenge that’s exciting.
Yeah, I’d just move on to something else.
What years did you have the World Record contests at Signal Hill?
The first one was in 1975. ABC came to me and said they wanted to do a World Record show for skateboarding with David Frost. I was like, “What do you want?” I said, “We can do speed and a few other events.” So I made up the barrel jump and the high jump and there we went.
How long did that last?
It was four years. The last one was when Tina hit the post and went to the hospital and was dead for a while. There were all these lawsuits. It got too heavy, so we had to quit. It really was a cool event.
Once, the lawyers get involved it’s over.
That’s what killed skateboarding in the ’70s. Everybody was on fire. All the equipment got better. You had the urethane wheels and then sealed bearings. It was huge Skateparks were going up everywhere. Everyone was stoked, but they didn’t have the insurance thing figured out. So when little Johnny broke his elbow, and couldn’t be a pitcher for the Dodgers, they started shutting the skateparks down.
Once they classified it as a dangerous sport, it changed the insurance needs again, so that’s why they’ve all popped up again.
I think they got around it. It’s all at your own risk, which is how it always was. It just took 30 years to legislate.
Do you still have that collection of photos from Baldy Pipeline?
Herbie said you had the best pictures. There was no graffiti when you guys were out there with Waldo.
Well, that picture of Waldo is the most published photo in the sport. It’s been in 47 different publications and it’s still being published. That was the first picture to show that you could get past vertical. Baldy was a really neat place. Herbie was there at the beginning. We all knew that’s where skateboarding should go.
Do you still use film?
I’m using digital now. That’s where it is. You can see the shots immediately. Film is just over, although I have over 200,000 photos on film. I was the photographer for the Long Beach Grand Prix for 32 years. I’ve got tons of slides.
I remember going there with you.
Yeah, it is. How long did your collaboration with LeRoy Grannis last?
Well, we started with “Hang Glider Magazine” and then we did “The Skateboard Magazine”. Then that folded and Granny went off and took surf photos. He’s killing it. We’re still really good friends.
He was really on the forefront.
He sure was.
What musical instruments do you play?
I play guitar, ukulele and a little bit of keyboard. It depends on how much I’m drinking.
It’s basic three-chord blues stuff. I play guitar almost every day for 5-10 minutes. In my warehouse I can make noise at anytime. It’s cool to play some Hendrix or Zeppelin really loud. Then I turn it off and go back and do stuff. Music is cool.
You’ve had some involvement with Seymour Duncan?
Yeah, he’s a good friend and a fellow cowboy treasure hunter. We’ve been pretty good pals. Seymour is the king of guitar. He’s a really good player. He’s a real arrowhead and western memorabilia enthusiast, so we do a lot of gun-related stuff. He got me to play one time at the NAMM show; it’s like the ASR for music. We got to play with Van Halen on this big revolving stage. It was pretty cool. It’s hard for me to play in front of people.
So you’re not so much an entertainer?
Not really. I’ve been in a million surf contests. It’s a different deal with the athletic stuff. When I play music, I start sweating like those chickens at the market that they roast.
I understand that from my ballroom dancing competitions. It’s weird. It makes me feel nervous. I never liked contests.
No way. I want to see that video, because I just know you’re fly.
What bands have you photographed? I have photos you’ve taken of the Rolling Stones.
Yeah, I shot the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Boston and Eric Clapton. This was all before the Avalon days. My skateboard demos were right there on stage with everybody.
Do you have a favorite photo of all the ones you’ve taken?
The Waldo photo is really cool for what it is. I just did a show with Craig Stecyk in Santa Monica at the A and I Gallery. I took a photo of Ty Page at the Cal Jam and he’s at the top of this plexiglass ramp and there are 400,000 people in back of him. It looks really cool. You can see 400,000 people with a skateboard demo in the middle.
Then I look at some of my racecar stuff and that’s cool. That shot of Ty Page is cool though because I don’t think it will ever happen again.
What’s your favorite piece of surf memorabilia?
It’s probably the Pete Peterson board. I had that on display down at Laguna, when we did the “Surf Culture” show down there. That was a good one.
What about your “Apocalypse Now” board. Do you still have that?
But the Pete Peterson board is your favorite?
The “Apocalypse Now” board is a movie prop. Pete Peterson was the heaviest surfer, and his stuff just doesn’t exist.
What about your favorite piece of skateboard memorabilia?
I get weak looking at old Bennett trucks and pre-kicktaiL boards, but the surf stuff is more real to me.
There’s a romance to surfing. It’s almost like Gogan’s “Dreams”. I think there’s a romance that’s attached to surfing and there’s not that same kind of attachment to skateboarding.
It’s hard to find a romantic connection to skating.
It’s skating the street.
It’s a different deal.
How do you like working for “Juice”?
It’s great. My wife howls because I can’t spell and I’m a D student. I’ll hand her a page and she’ll look at it for me and do corrections. That helps. The magazine is great. What they’re doing is really good. Everybody is working together and contributing. It reminds me of when I was publishing and what an ass kicker it is. Terri and Dan deserve all the credit in the world. They do so much work for the cause. It’s a really good thing to be a part of.
You were the publisher, photographer and writer at “The Skateboard Magazine”?’
I’d put on the contest. I’d do the magazine. I’d skate in the contest. I’d take the photos. I’d write the stories. It was stupid. And I’m still doing it. I put on the Santa Barbara City Skate Championships and I photograph it and compete in it.
You’re still so busy.
I’m a real dinosaur, but I can still grind and roll around.
You’re the ultimate adrenalin junkie.
I submitted the word “skateboard” to the dictionary in 1974. It went into the dictionary in 1977. I’ve got to keep doing it, don’t I?
Now I put sandwiches in my pockets when I skate.
What’s a typical day now for you?
I try to surf. Then I’ll skate at the skatepark., I’m building a tea house. I’m fiddling with this digital camera that has too many new features for me.
You’re building a tea house? Will you have a ceremony?
Yeah, I probably will.
In other words, you’re building a place to be quiet.
Yeah, it’s a got a tiny view of the Canyon. It’ll be good.
Did you ever think you’d be building a quiet place 30 years ago? Everything you do is so aggressive and external, and now you’re building a place to be quiet.
Well, I might take my little Marshall amp out there and blast it into the canyon and see how it works for acoustics, with a glass of tea.
[Laughs.] What’s the difference in your typical day 25 years ago and now?
I was just more bulletproof. I was riding Jet Skis and surf boats. It’s been a world of toys and doing rad stuff and having fun. I always seemed to make just enough money to keep having fun. When you’re old, you can’t. I’m still having fun.
You’re still having fun, but a lot of it becomes more cerebral because you can’t push the envelope physically like before?
Yeah. I couldn’t walk for a little while. If you can’t walk, you’re screwed. The biggest defect in my character is my lack of caution. I never fell skating when I was younger. In the last five years since they built the skatepark here, I’ve had a few broken ribs and a few times if I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I know I’d be dead. I hit really hard.
Do you wear pads?
The main thing is my wrists. I also wear a metal thing on my left index finger because that’s my guitar finger and I’ve landed on that thing a million times. I go down about once every two months. It’s scary.
I went over my handlebars a few weeks ago on my bike. I really ate shit. I got up and nothing was broken. I was so stoked. I went and bought a helmet the next day.
When you fall out of a 9-foot cement bowl, it’s an ass kicker. Some 12-year-old will skate up and say, “Dude, you just have to get used to it.” I’m like, “Come here and let me kill you.”
[Laughs.] How long have you been married?
We got married in ’69. We’ve been married 38 years. How long have you and Herbie been married?
It’ll be 38 years in December.
[Laughs.] I vaguely remember your wedding.
We got married on Herbie’s birthday. We had Greg Chapman be the best man because he was the only guy we knew that didn’t have long hair.
We took Gary Chapman skiing and he broke his leg on the first run. Rick and I wanted to keep skiing, so we put him in the back of the station wagon almost all day. What a howler.
Do you have any tips for someone that wants to live this life?
Well, no one can live the life that we did because times have changed. The innocence is gone. Nowadays everyone is walking around with cell phones, video games and iPods. There are no tips. Just charge it. Do what you want to do.
Did you get hung up in drugs and alcohol?
Medium. I still have a glass of wine and when I need a pain pill I take a pain pill. It’ s all under control. When you’re young, you’re just on fire. We were all there.
Yeah, I thought it was fun, until I looked around and I was caught.
Well, it’s just a game. You have to face it, and now you’re perfect, right?
[Laughs.] No, but I feel good. I try to do my best and have a good time.
You’ve always charged it. There’s no one like you.
I try to be perfect and stuff, but you know that’s never going to happen, so you just keep trying. You want to go faster, go bigger, and ride harder. We have the same compulsive A type personality.
You can’t give anyone tips. There is no chick that could do the stuff that you’ve done or do the stuff that you do now. I’d put you against any girl on the planet.
[Laughs.] You’ve been able to do a lot of things that most people would love to do and you’ve done them all.
We had the toys. We got to invent a lot of sports. We had a lot of fun. I’ve been really fortunate.
Is there anything else you want to do?
I want to ride one of those wave machines like the one that Christian rode in Sweden.
Oh, that’s the one that travels. He went to Dubai. He went all sorts of places.
It looks really cool. When they get the hovering skateboards like they had in “Back to the Future”, then I’ll do that.
[Laughs.] Jimmy, you’re still the same kid you always were. That’s really great.
Are you happy?
Yeah, I’m happy. I have a really great family with a lot of love. I have five grandchildren and they can come over and I can love them and then they can go home. It’s great.
Life is good. Thanks, Jimmy. I really appreciate it.
Thank you, Dib. I’ll talk to you soon.
INTERVIEWS BY JAMES O’MAHONEY
LEROY GRANNIS interview by James O’Mahoney – Juice Magazine 58
RENNY YATER interview by James O’Mahoney – Juice Magazine 62
HERBIE FLETCHER interview by James O’Mahoney – Juice Magazine 62