INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
PHOTOS BY XENO
What is a vert soldier? A vert soldier is a skater who, once he’d started riding vert ramps and bowls, was addicted and sought them out for the rest of his life. Through the highs and lows of skating, whether vert was “in” or “out,” guys like Ken Fillion continued to ride on, even though sponsors and prospects of earning a living as a pro had dried up. Skating handrails wasn’t an option. Instead, you build your own vert ramps, your own bowls and forget about what the industry is doing! You’re a vert skater – the few and the proud. Ken Fillion goes as big as the state of Texas. With a big heart, a big smile and even bigger Japan airs, Fillion does the Texas vertdog legacy right by skating for fun with no bad attitude! Now with a new killer vert concrete park in Houston, Ken is blasting airs like he did back in the Kahuna days! Don’t mess with Texas! Ken Fillion is the reason!
“YOU GO SKATE, FIND A POOL, GET SOME BREWS, GO TO THE PUNK ROCK SHOW, SLAM OUT, CHASE THE HONEYS AROUND AND TRY TO GET LUCKY, AND THEN DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN.”
Let’s go. Name. Rank. Serial Number.
Ken Fillion. Team Captain. Embassy Skateboards. 1964.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Orlando, Florida. We moved to Texas when I was 10. I got here as quick as I could.
[Laughs] What was it like living in Orlando?
That’s where I first stepped on my board.
Did you guys have any parks there?
No. We were just bombing down hills.
What took you to Texas?
My old man was a construction worker, so he brought us to Pasadena. One day, I was messing around by the bayou and saw a skateboard stuck in the mud. It was a little Bonzai with Road Riders on it. Then my buddy told me there was a little ditch up the bayou, so the next day we walked there and saw John Gibson skating a Z-Flex and Toby Herara doing berts. There were cats like Dave Peltzman and Doug Sofar, turning it up. I was thinking, “Oh, man. I’ve got to get on this thing.” That was the first time I saw Gibson. I was so intimidated because those cats had all the good equipment. They had Alva boards and Kryptonic wheels and they were charging it. I didn’t skate until they left, and when I dropped in, I went straight to the bottom and ate shit.
Could you see the Gibson style?
He was so smooth. He was doing kickflips where you put your feet side by side. I said, “Who is that red-headed kid. He’s killer.” We took a trip to Florida and I bought a Skateboarder magazine. I studied that thing and that’s where I saw all the pros. I still have that magazine. It says July 1977. It’s the one with Gregg Ayres doing a frontside air out of a bowl. That’s where I learned that skateboarding was crazy cool. I saw Tony Alva and Peralta and all those cats in there.
You hadn’t been turned on to any skateparks yet?
Right. After a few months of hanging out at the ditch, we moved south of Houston and that’s where the first skatepark was. It was called the Gulf Coast Skatepark.
So you were a local at the new skatepark?
Yeah. That park was built on a huge mound, so the top was the peak. It had snake runs, little half-pipes, U-pipes and a big bowl. I remember driving by it and it was all lit up. I said to my parents, “Let me out right here.” My parents said, “Come look at the house first.” I was like, “No, just let me out.” They said, “No. You have to go to the house first.” So I went to the house and checked out my room and then ran back to the park. I was holding onto the chain-link fence looking in. The park had about 80 people in it. Sure enough, I see this redheaded cat rolling into the big 12-foot bowl and doing big grinds. I was like, “Damn. Johnny beat me to the park.” He already had all the lines down. He was rolling in frontside in full charge mode. I was like, “Man, I’m way behind.”
When you first saw a concrete park, what was going through your head?
I was holding on to that fence and chomping at the bit to get in there. I couldn’t wait to skate it. I went to the pro shop and hung out and then walked outside. I was in awe. I just sat there by myself taking it all in. I was checking the guys out and watching their lines. I was figuring out who were the hotshots. I talked to the owner and said, “I’m new to the neighborhood. Are you guys hiring?” He said, “We’re not hiring right now, but check back later.” The next day, I went there after school. I was like, “Hey, man. I don’t have any money to skate. I’m broke. Is there any trash that needs emptied or does the bowl need sweeping?” The owner said, “Here’s a broom. Go sweep the whole park.” I was like, “Are you serious?” That park was big. He said, “Yeah. Go sweep out all the bowls and then you can skate.” I was like, “Okay, cool.” From that moment on, that was my after school job.
So you were skating there every day?
Yeah. I remember the first day I was like, “I’m going to copy that Gibson guy’s line.” I rolled up like I was going to roll in and then I stopped. I looked down and it was pretty deep, so I just kind of crept in there and then I was hauling ass. Right when I got to the tranny, I just body checked the wall. Kaboom! I slid down all bloody. I was like, “Oh, God. Gibson makes it look so easy.”
What was your first good board?
I remember getting a Sims board for Christmas. Then I started getting good. I had those green Sims Snakes and little Norcon kneepads that strapped onto your knees. I was good to go. Right after that, Dave Peltzman was talking to me. He said, “You’re charging it really good, but you need to do this.” He told me what to work on, and it worked. Right after that, Bobby Valdez was doing inverts at the Gold Cup contest in ’78. I was like, “I’ve got to learn that trick.” I tried it in the big bowl over and over again and finally made it. That’s when people started taking notice. Even Gibson said, “That’s pretty good, man. You’re starting to figure it out.”
Was this a bowl with no coping and just a straight up rounded lip?
Exactly. In Johnny’s interview in Juice, it’s that Dogtown bowl. When I was a kid, it looked like it was 20-feet deep, but it was 12-feet deep with two or three feet of vert.
That thing was gnarly.
[Laughs] Yeah. I guess I didn’t have a fear of big transition and big walls. We skated the Kahuna and that Dogtown bowl that was 12-feet deep. I like big walls. I’ve always been used to the big stuff.
So you just started clicking inverts and doing airs frontside and backside.
They set up this picnic table on top of that bowl and I’d do edgers and knock off the cones and fly off the edge of it and do airs back into the bowl.
Who were you riding with?
There was this guy named Sam Taylor. He was like 27, when I was about 11. They had all the Powell Peralta gear. He had the Beamer with Powell wheels. Sam loved Stacy Peralta. That was his hero. I learned berts, 540 slides, lip slides and all kinds of revert slides from him. He always called me “pro” because I picked it up pretty quick. There was a cat named Doug Sofar, one of Johnny’s buddies, that I met at the ditch. He was always riding. He was real smooth. He was a cool cat. Johnny was already a big deal. When he skated, everyone would stop and we’d have a session. When he was 15, he was already sponsored by Strople and was going to the Gold Cup.
Gibson is rad.
He’s the whole reason I still skated. He would give me all of his hand-me-downs. When I was 16, I had a girlfriend and when we broke up I was really down in the dumps. I didn’t skate for six months. One day, out of the blue, he came to my house in his brother’s Corvette and said, “Hey, let’s take a ride.” He was only 15 at the time, so he didn’t even have his driver’s license yet. I got in the car and he said, “Hey, man. What’s been going on with you?” I said, “I’ve just been hanging out and burning out.” He said, “Hey, you’ve got to get back on that board. We’ve been missing you.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” He said, “Oh, yeah. The park is closed, but we’re getting the ramp out of there. We’ll have a ramp.”
The skatepark had shut down?
It shut down in 1980. Gibson was recruiting me to help him steal the ramp from the skatepark. That would become the P Ramp that we skated at Todd’s house for years. It was the Blues ramp. They had eight pieces of transitions. Those things weigh about 500 pounds each.
So you’re in the Corvette and Gibson is saying, “We need to go get these ramps.” Did you snap out of it and want to skate?
Yeah. He said, “We’ve got this plan. We’re going to do this.” The whole thing went down late on a Saturday night. It was Joe Nichols, Toby, Andy, Humphrey, and his brother Teddy, and a bunch of kids in the neighborhood. We rented a bright yellow Ryder truck, pulled up to the gate, cut the fence and went in. We were all dressed in black, but it didn’t matter since we had a big yellow truck.
[Laughs] You guys are smart.
[Laughs] I was like, “We’re pulling this off. No problem.” Sure, enough, we had to take the ramp apart, so we had all our tools, and we were making all kinds of noise. It was pure pandemonium. Then this biker comes up and says, “What are ya’ll doing?” We didn’t say anything until Joe Nichols yells, “Get the hell out of here you biker kook!” That kid said, “I’m calling the cops.” Sure enough, the cops pull up and we just scattered. People were in the park. People were in the weeds. It was chaos. They got Johnny and Joe and held them at the truck. They said, “Whose truck is this?” Joe said, “It’s my truck.” So the cops called the owners and the owner asked, “Who do you have there? John Gibson and Joe Nichols? Well, that park is closed. Just let them have that ramp.” If we had made a phone call, the guy would’ve said, “Just go get it.” One of the guys helping us steal it was a track star and he took off running when he saw the cops. We caught up to him about 30 minutes later and seven miles down the road. He was still jogging.
[Laughs] So you got the ramp in the truck and you were good to go?
Yeah. We parked it at Toby’s house, and then we had to pilfer wood for the flat bottom and decks. We were determined to keep our skateboarding habits alive. Toby’s house was down the street from Johnny’s, and Andy lived around the corner. That’s when we met Todd Prince and Troy Chason, and they started skating with us. I think we put a foot of vert on there, too. We were like, “Let’s make it big!” Toby’s house was right next to a game room where we’d all hang out. Johnny’s brother’s band would play there. Then they got Johnny to play bass. We had this little clique right in the same neighborhood.
Were you caring about getting sponsored or not?
Johnny was the only one that was sponsored out of all of us, so we’d just get his hand-me-downs. We were like, “Cool. This will work.” We’d get boards for Christmas and birthdays. We weren’t worried about being sponsored. We were just having a good time and shredding with our boys.
When did you guys start hearing about Zorlac and Craig and the guys in Dallas?
The first time I remember meeting those guys was when we had to move the ramp from Toby’s. We put the ramp in this corner lot next to Fred McMillan’s house. Johnny said, “We’re having a big session at the ramp. The guys from Dallas coming in.” I was like, “Really? Okay.” I went there and saw Dan Wilkes, Jeff Phillips and Craig Johnson. I was 5’2” at the time, and those dudes were huge and burly. Craig had his sleeves cut off and he was wearing these big Rectors with the double cap kneepads. They had their shoes gooed. Those guys were serious. We had Gibson as our heavy hitter and they had Phillips, so when that session went down, the two camps were cheering their leaders. We were like, “Yeah, Tex!” Then Jeff would drop in and they’d be like, “Yeah, Jeff!” Then we looked at each other like, “What are we doing? Let’s yell for everybody.” We took them to the Parker Pool after that session. That’s where everybody bonded. Houston. Dallas. We’re it. We are the scene in Texas.