JEFF “LOAD” STEPHENSON Interview by JIM MURPHY
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF LOAD AND AIMEE DAVIS
Jeff “Load” Stephenson was the Lynyrd Skynyrd of motivational skateboard heckling. Riding a backyard pool and you’re still not even hitting tiles? Call in Load! Trying to do layback roll outs on gnarly pool coping and you actually think putting on a coper is a legitimate answer to make it work? Don’t even think about it. “Muscle through that pool coping, weasel!” Of all of the Southern cast of characters in skateboarding, Load stood out because he reminded us of the inherent legacy of aggression and gnarlyness of skateboarding that keeps one’s heart and soul alive in the session. Having a great sense of humor is pretty much all you need to bring to the sesh with the Rancheros and, even with all the ball-busting heckling, Load put you through, he would be the loudest one cheering you on after you pulled that locked in Smith grind or wheeler into the channel! R.I.P. Load.
Load, what’s up?
I’m just hanging out with a couple of friends at Thomas Taylor’s house. Talk to me.
Okay. When were you born?
1961. I was born in Memphis, TN. When did you see your first skateboard? 1968. I remember when Martin Luther King got assassinated three blocks from the housing project that I lived in. I was a poor white boy living in the projects in downtown Memphis, and I used to ride this old steel wheel board that my older brother acquired somehow. It was funny because it was so loud riding it down the street that this old lady used to come out and chase us with her butcher knife. [Laughs] That was my first skateboarding experience.
How long did you live in Memphis?
I lived there until I moved to Atlanta on New Year’s Day 1975 with my mother, my dog and my brother, which was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
Well, I grew up in the hood and most of the people in that part of my life are either dead or in prison. It was turbulent where I lived in Memphis, but it’s a great town now and I love my heritage from there. My mother was a singer and she knew Elvis back in the day. She experienced Sun Records and Stax Records and all the rock n’ roll soul. It made it into my blood, but I was glad to get out of there. When we got to Atlanta, it was a good thing.
What was the scene when you hit Atlanta?
Well, I rode skateboards here and there, but I was a bicycle kid on an early Schwinn with motorcycle handlebars and I had the back tire on the front. Then I got into the Kmart skateboards and I was eating shit on those BBs going down hill. Then I was borrowing real boards and I got the bug. It was 1977 because I remember it was the year that Elvis died and Lynyrd Skynyrd. I started building ramps and riding ramps. I was always throwing wood together. I had no training, so I built some pretty crazy stuff that worked.
Did you have any concrete parks yet?
We had National, which was like a Kona replica. We had a snake run and a big bowl that was nuts. They built dirt mounds and a mountain and a real snake run down the hill into a big bowl. Everything flowed into this big freestyle area and the snake run dumped into a four-leaf clover. It was crazy. The first skatepark that they built here was called Skateboard Surf. It was in my area, but that thing wasn’t even half an acre of concrete and there would be 200 people there. I was like, “That doesn’t look like much fun.” There was another place called The Tube, which was a concrete lump of shit. They attempted to build a Lakewood-style half pipe into a bowl. It was ridiculous. I think Thomas Taylor and Don Hillsman were the only people that could skate that thing worth a shit. The year I quit school and had to go to work was the year the skateparks closed down and that’s when I really got hooked, wanting to ride all the time. When I wasn’t working, I’d go to closed down skateparks. You didn’t have to have a helmet or pads. A skateboard is all you needed and there were no rules. That’s when I started getting serious about skateboarding. It’s funny because I met T.K. at a skatepark, the very first one in Atlanta that was closed down. We started hanging out and traveling around the Southeast and going to all of these closed down skateparks.
Did you go to the Get-A-Way?
We went to Huntsville to the Get-A-Way a few times and it was epic. That place was amazing. We got busted skating there when it was closed down and the guy that owned it didn’t even care. He was like, “You guys have a good time. Give me a couple of bucks when you’re done.” It was really cool. Only two people in an epic skatepark like that, it was pretty insane.
Killer. So you and T.K. were driving around hitting up abandoned skateparks?
Yeah. That was in ‘81 after the original Ramp Ranch. I failed to mention Lenny Byrd, Debbie McAdoo and Mike Lander and the guys that called themselves the Rancheros. T.K. and I met those guys and we put ramps together. Those guys ended up moving to Florida, so T.K. and I were just hanging out in limbo.
Let’s talk about the Ramp Ranch.
The first Ramp Ranch was really important to me. It was the first ramp with a channel. T.K. built a ramp and these guys built a ramp and we moved them out there and put them together. Mike Lander threw it all together. He was crazy. He used to do the hippie jump barefoot over MGs at the car shows in Atlanta. Mike Lander lives in Florida now and he’s a major chef. Lenny Byrd and the original Ranch, those are some of my fondest memories of being young and indestructible. There were three Ramp Ranches.
Where were they located?
The first Ramp Ranch was in Debbie McAdoo’s backyard. Debbie was Mike Lander’s girlfriend. She had a brother named Joker and he was a roller skater. This was during the Fred Blood and Duke Rennie days. That was the first Ramp Ranch. The second Ramp Ranch was at this guy Ken’s yard, at a rental house in a high profile area. That was the one that had a clubhouse on the deck where we had the big contest in 1984. We had the six-pack entry fee, classic Atlanta. ‘We don’t want your money. Just bring a six-pack!’ That was a really great time. That was Jimmy O’Brien, Dave O’Brien, John Hughes, Loin, West, Mike Chumley, Malachi… I could go on forever with the names. That’s where we started building up a huge crew.
“It was just a crazy heckle game. Some people were freaked out by it, but this is skateboarding. This isn’t cheerleading or volleyball! This is an aggressive situation, and we’re a bunch of misfits, so lighten up! We were just having fun.”
Was that the one in Thrasher?
Yeah. That was the one that Cab and all those guys said was one of the best ramps they’d ever skated. That ramp lasted a few months, but it was in a high profile part of town and the neighborhood association just wasn’t having it. We got shut down and that’s when we started TK’s Ramp Ranch 3 at TK’s mom’s house. That was the Ramp Ranch that everybody skated.
Describe the scene in Atlanta when you guys had Ramp Ranch 3. Skateboarding had died and you guys had this killer ramp going.
Well, we’d work all day and then meet at the ramp after work, and we were stoners, so we got stoned. [Laughs] We’d skate until dark and then we started putting up lights because in the winter, it gets dark at six o’clock. We’d skate until ten every night and we did that for years. If you want names, I can tell you names. Lenny Byrd, Tim Humphreys, T.K., Thomas Taylor, John Hughes, Don Hillsman… I could go on. During the Ramp Ranch 3, we had the infamous Thanksgiving Day contest and it was great. I would tell you that everybody on the East Coast was there, but there were also people like Mike Smith and Allen Losi and all of these great people from out West that came out for it. It was great. We pushed Paul Schmitt down the channel in a wheelchair. It was just crazy!
Sick! I was there for a lot of those jams. My first recollection was hearing you call people out for being weasels. That was the first time I heard a heckle. Tell people what it means for Load to call them a weasel.
[Laughs] I don’t even know where ‘weasel’ came from. It could be that Frank Zappa album. A weasel is someone trying to weasel out of something. A heckle is just the way we used to push each other. We inherited it from reading the magazines. It was like, “If you don’t grab it, we’re going to take your board away. Come on, grind it, you weasel!” We were relentless. It was nothing personal. We would heckle each other more than anybody else. It was just a crazy heckle game. Some people were freaked out by it, but this is skateboarding. This isn’t cheerleading or volleyball! This is an aggressive situation, and we’re a bunch of misfits, so lighten up! We were just having fun, but some people got bummed. Brian Brannon from JFA summed it up in an interview after he came through. He said, “The Rancheros are crazy. They’re laughing, but they’re not laughing at you. They’re laughing with you.” It was always in good fun. Skateboarding is an aggressive deal. We were tough and we still are. I get heckled by these guys every time I show up. They’re looking at me right now like I’m dead meat.
[Laughs] When skateboarding took off in the late ‘80s, were you looking to get sponsored? I was sponsored by all my friends, so I didn’t care about being sponsored.
These guys used to hook me up with boards and wheels and anything I needed, so I was in a league of my own. I always did better after the contests when we started drinking beer and having fun. I was never good under pressure. I just wasn’t competitive like that. On Saturday morning, I’d be like, “Hell yeah! Bring it on!”
What about the road trips you used to take with the Rancheros?
Florida was always number one, going to Kona. There was Mrs. Ramos, bless her heart. We love her. We were getting busted and put in the box for not wearing wrist guards. She didn’t like that back in the day. North Carolina, the Farm Ramp, was great times. Cedar Crest was one of my favorite road trips of all time. Cedar Crest was crazy. Going anywhere was fun back in the day. We’d drive hours to go skate a pool.
What was it like to show up at Cedar Crest at a Country Club in Manassas, Virginia?
Scary. I remember my buddy, JB, was like, “Look, be careful, man. This thing is fast. It needs some elbow pads because it will fuck you up!” First thing I did, swellbow… I took a nice slam skating with Blaize, who was just unreal. I want to mention Blaize Blouin because he was one of my favorite skaters of all time. The dude was ‘no rules’. He would just fuck shit up. That was his whole outlook and he skated Cedar Crest like nobody else. I was stoked that I got to skate with him. We had some fun there. A little mayhem went down and some cops’ tires got slashed and there were helicopters and it was crazy. It was great hanging out with Blaize and Buck and Lenny and all the dudes from the Northeast, like Josh Marlowe and Pat Clark. They would come down for our shit, like Booger. I was there when Micro and Puker ran into each other. That was a bad collision. It’s times like that you never forget, no matter how many bell ringers you’ve experienced. Those were good times. There were definitely some cops and helicopters. That’s the way skateboarding was. There were no parks, no lights and no skate moms. It was just hellion rebellion! Then I built a few wooden parks and we started building roundwall.
What parks did you build?
I built a park in Newburgh, NY. This guy, Tom Noble, we kinda went partners and built that. After that, I built a park in Bricktown, NJ, for Matt Lewis. He was a super cool surfer dude. It was a cool park. Then it was warehouse stuff and vert ramps that were too tall for a warehouse, but we made it work. Then it petered out and I went back to remodeling and building backyard stuff and we went totally underground. You had no choice. All of this backyard stuff started popping up and I didn’t mind it because we’ve always been ‘No Rules’. We don’t want people telling us what to do or when to do it or how to be. That’s always been the Golden Rule. When the industry went away, it didn’t really matter. We just carried on like we had been and went underground, which is where you wanted it to be in the first place.
Were you still reading skate mags?
There were probably ten years where I didn’t see one magazine. I was skating, but there was really nothing that I was interested in. Then I remember the first Juice I got and I was like, “Whoa! Holy shit! This is killer!” It’s the biggest magazine in the world with the smallest print.
[Laughs] That’s right. We have to pack a lot of good shit in there.
Yes! That’s when I started reading magazines again.
“We’ve always been ‘No Rules’. We don’t want people telling us what to do or when to do it or how to be. That’s always been the Golden Rule. When the industry went away, it didn’t really matter. We just carried on like we had been and went underground, which is where you wanted it to be in the first place.”
Yes! When Burnside started building stuff and Vans started building parks indoors in the 2000s, were you aware of skateparks coming back?
Yeah. Paul Schmitt called Jimmy O’Brien and said, “They’re building this park out here. It’s got water in it right now and the plaster is curing, but it’s a replica of the combi pool.” We were like, “No way!” My son was living in Redondo Beach, so I got to hit that thing pretty early. I never got to skate the real Upland, the original combi pool. I hear it was a lot gnarlier, but I was like, “Damn, this thing is gnarly.” It was so fun. I was looking at this dude doing a lien air on the flat wall of the square pool and I was like, “That’s Salba!” I was skating with Salba and didn’t even realize it. That was pretty cool. That started the ball rolling again. I was freaking out on the combi pool. That was by far the best thing I’d ever ridden.
You went to the Get-A-Way when it was closed and here it is, all these years later, and you’re seeing concrete parks again. What were you thinking?
Now that it’s fully come back around, I wish Jeff could have kept his head on straight and I wish Rogowski could have kept his head on straight. I can’t imagine the hits that those guys took. I mean you’re living like Elvis one minute and the next minute it’s like, “What do you do?” It was weird. There are some people that I wish were still around. There are other people that hung on and made fantastic comebacks too. It’s just like history, it happens. I would say that only the strong survive, but that would be bullshit. I wouldn’t want to disrespect anybody like that, but there were a lot of heavy hitters that took some heavy hits. I mean, what do you do when the bottom falls out? Look at Lance Mountain. After all the controversy between me and Lance, back in the day, I respect that guy so much. He pulled it. I don’t know how he did it. He still rides and it’s amazing what he can still pull.
Describe what went down at the Arkansas Ramp Jam between you and Lance.
Well, everybody was killing it and Lance bailed a 540 and he got pissed. He threw his board into the crowd in a fit. My chick ducked and it hit me in the face. Luckily, it didn’t hit her or I would have killed him. I went and gave him a little tap on the head to even the score. No big deal. We’re buddies now and he cracks up when he sees me. He has photos of me on his wall with our arms around each other. We were both young and stupid, but it’s water under the bridge. It’s not my proudest moment, but it is what it is. People love talking about that shit, but he ain’t mad at me and I ain’t mad at him. I’ve got a scar on my face and he’s got one on his. It’s all good.
After that beef went down, what was it like the next time you guys saw each other? How did you bury the hatchet?
It was like 25 years later. He came here to Atlanta and skated some pool that we were riding and I missed it. I was like, “Damn it!” I was pissed. Then I got to emcee some big deal where we all skated down Peachtree Street, which is the main drag in downtown Atlanta. I didn’t realize that Lance was going to be there. It was an art show and, when I saw his little miniature coffee table pools, I was amazed. Actually, he came up to me like, “Hey, Load, what’s going on?” I was like, “Lance!” It was like nothing ever happened. We were arm in arm getting our pictures taken. I was like, “Hey, man, we were just two people, young and stupid.” It’s cool. We’re all good. I’m too old to be worrying about stupid shit like that. That was definitely not the first time I hurt somebody’s feelings back in the day. I’m totally humbled by skateboarding. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Just doing this interview is crazy.
Hell, yeah. I want to get your frame of mind when you saw the combi built and Vans opened all those skateparks. Having seen the parks in the ‘70s, did you have a feeling of whether it was going to work?
Well, I saw the concrete that was happening and, at the same, Burnside was going on and people were experimenting with concrete. Things were going backyard and Chicken and Bellmar had their pools built. I saw what was happening. I was hoping that one day they would look at bowls and ramps and ledges and make something for skating, just like swing sets and soccer fields. I saw it coming. I knew it was going to happen. There was no way it couldn’t happen, especially once things like Fuel TV came out, and the next thing you know every commercial on TV had a skateboard in it. We were finally being acknowledged. It took a long time, but whatever. Hell, I never made a dime off of it that I didn’t earn, but I’m just glad. I know groms who are probably going to be in the Olympics that I used to announce for and I think that is pretty frickin’ cool. You know what I mean?
Yes. As a master carpenter that has built skateparks, did you want to get into building with concrete?
I just don’t have the patience to finish concrete. I can do all the form work, but when it comes to troweling and finishing, I hadn’t really sunk my teeth into it. We had the best DIY park ever and my skate young’uns had it under control. I’d kick down money, but they’re like, “No, Load, don’t even worry about it. We got it.” I’m just no good at that trowel. I’ll dig, but I’m a carpenter. I’ll do all the forms you want, but I’m a carpenter and I’d rather do what I do.
Okay, let’s go back to the next phase of concrete getting to Atlanta. When did you start getting concrete parks?
We got a spot in Mountain Park that started rolling. Athens happened before anything here in Atlanta. That was a Grindline park. We went out there and tried to help, but we were pretty much just getting in the way. Grindline is where a bunch of our boys got started, helping those guys. They built our Fourth Ward park and that’s where a bunch of these young guys around here got hooked up with doing concrete. Now it’s just going crazy. We have all these concrete artists that are really good with that, so I just leave it to them.
Are you blown away with how the kids are riding roundwall? They’re just charging it? Is that what’s going on in Atlanta?
Oh yeah. It’s crazy. We’re big. We’ve got a big street hub going on and always have because we’re a big metropolis, but it’s ATV all the way now. These kids are coming out of the woodwork and they skate everything. They hit stairs and handrails on the way to the skatepark. They’re just carve grinding the hell out of everything that gets in their way. It’s amazing.
Are they still riding vert ramps too?
Well, we’ve got one vert ramp at this park on the outskirts of Atlanta. It’s a smaller ramp. We have everyone trained to skate vert, so, if there is some vert, we’ll hurt that just like everything else. It’s all aspects. Our DIY/DUI spot has everything you can imagine. It’s amazing. These guys are into it. They build something and they skate it. If there is room to go big, they go big. If it’s something small, like a couple of kickers, they are really creative with it. That’s where it’s at now. Our fourth generation is just killing it.
Well, skateboarding is just getting bigger and bigger and now it’s in the Olympics. What do you think of that whole thing?
Well, I’m kind of stoked that I have the possibility of knowing kids that were groms back when I was announcing that could go to the Olympics. As far as my own perspective is concerned, I’m a soul surfer. I’ve never been on that competitive edge. I’ve always done it for the love of skateboarding. Regardless of what happens at the Olympics, skateboarding will never change. There will always be people that just skate for the love of skating. Then there will be people that will train and make money and dedicate their lives to it. That’s one of those ‘to each his own’ things. I’m sure there are people that play tennis for fun or go out and throw a football around or play softball on the weekends for fun. It doesn’t have to be in the Olympics, but I support it. I think it’s cool. Every time I see an insurance commercial, I see a kid on a skateboard. It’s all good.
Well, you’re a parent. When you’re around other parents in Atlanta, what is their perception of skateboarding?
Well, I’m seeing more parents pushing their kids towards the Olympics and whatnot. That’s my perspective when it comes to the average. The people that I know that have kids that skate could give a shit. The soccer mom thing is kind of weird.
How do you think it affects kids that are getting jocked out for skateboarding?
I think, if you’re a kid and you love skateboarding and you think you’ve got what it takes to be in the Olympics, go for it. Most kids that skateboard are outlaws or outcasts or misfits, most kids I know anyway. You get your golden boy every now and then, but let’s face it, I mean look at me. [Laughs] I think it’s great and I support it, if that’s where you want to be. My boy, Pat, is raising hell about it, saying, “Are you wanting skateboarding in the Olympics? What the fuck?” I support whatever. If you can ride that useless wooden toy, get the best out of it, you know? Do whatever fits you. We’re all individuals. That’s the thing about skateboarding. There is no organization. You don’t have to be a team player. You can be an individual and there is no criteria to meet. I think that’s why it’s at where it’s at. I think it’s great. If these kids want to be Olympians, more power to them.
What do you think about more big mega corporations getting into skateboarding?
Well, the way I see it, the more money, the better, but there you go with the separation. You’re going to have people in it for the money and you’re going to have people in it for the love of it. That may drive it further underground. It’s like everything else. Not everybody that plays baseball is looking to be pro. Some people just like playing baseball or soccer or riding a bicycle. It’s a recreational pastime.
Is the Ranchero philosophy and lifestyle still going in Atlanta? Do you have any younger kids that you would call Rancheros now, or is it just the older crew that are Rancheros?
We have the most amazing crew of young skaters. There are kids that have never even seen me that know who I am, just because our scene is so tight. We’ve always kept it going. One generation meets the next and there are no gaps. Everybody is connected. The ATL is a great place and I’m definitely very proud to be a part of it. Our young guys, a lot of them are turning pro and they’re killing it. It’s really cool. Some of these guys are putting Atlanta on the map. You ain’t got to live in California to be a pro skater anymore. That’s just the way it is. Wherever you live, all you got to do is promote and represent. If you’re a badass, it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It’s where you’re coming from!
That’s right! Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
I have to mention my lovely wife, Jenna. She keeps me in line and she’s like, “Go skateboarding. Please go skateboarding.” She totally supports me. She’s great and I’ve got a son out in Cali. I’d like to thank Tim Payne. Tim sent me to Europe back in the day and let me build a couple of parks for him and that was really cool. He has done a lot and I respect Tim. I want to thank anybody who skateboards and I’d love to thank all the young kids. Jason Jessee introduced himself to me one time. I’d love to thank him for that. I was like, “What?” Sick! Hackett. Thanks Dave! Thanks to all the dudes that came out of the woodwork after Dogtown and Z-Boys, and thanks to all the guys that were there before that. Thanks to all the old dogs that love what they do. I could sit here forever thanking people. I have to give props to my young crew that supports me. Everyone from the old crew, they know who they are. We have a young crew, like Grant’s crew. He’s an amazing skater, and there are a bunch of other skaters in his crew that kill it, and I just love them kids. They’re good to me. Wait. I’ve got a list: Mark Shuggs, John Moore, Tim Nun, Chris Buely, Fred Franklin, Brian Lyljie, Punky, Mark Noland, Rodger Hackett, Thomas Taylor, Lepracon, Don Hillsman, T.K., Lenny Byrd, Mike Lander, Steve, Jay, Debbie McAdoo, Joker, Ivan, Chuck Hults, Tim Humphreys, Russ Mullis, Jimmy O’Brien, Dave O’Brien, JB, Loin, West, Mike Chumly, Maliky, Kevin Slam Brand, Derek Rosenroq, Rob Miller, Down Home, Henry Parilla, Roacher, Chris Alfelder, Sushi, Bill Hubbard, Bave Holbrock, Geordie, Tatoo Joel, Jodi, Laura, Pam, Luxford, Shannon Smith, Roobsie, Ricky Mattern, Martin, Eric Beck, Raymando, Big Al, Rob Tidwell, Fred Reeves, Stormy Pruit, Bobby Boyd, Jay Bud, Kamah, Pat McClain, Zeke, Grant Taylor, Sethafari, Jason Fowler, Peyton, Stinky David, Graham Bickerstaff, Lil G, Ryan, Flyn, K Rad, Santee Slack, Cole, Toad Boy, Matt Rat, Shawn Coffey, Chris Coffmen, Troy Cabucci, Justin Brock, Dan Plunket, Jeremiah, Jonah, Luke, Zion, Leete, Jason, Ray Fennessey, Dave Allen, Will Boatrite, Dale Struble, Big Mark, Chris Solemon, Ian, Kaden, Cam, Austin Gordan, Spath Bros, Braman Brothers, David Houser, J.T. McCracken, Steve Gaffney, Hannah Chumley, Mark Tucker, Joey Fry, Steve Shugs, Bill and Dean Sammons, Gary Thompson, Tim Cheek, Gar Poe, Pat Kelly, Rodger Hackett, Mike Hunt, Scott Gibson, Silas Fiction and Jay Cabler. Patlanta is one of my foster sons. There are all kinds of good people around. I just love skateboarding and I never quit.
Thank you, Load!
I appreciate the interview. Thanks a lot.