Hoping to bridge the gap between how sports illustrated might cover skating and how the specialist media covers skating comes Cole Louison. It is a perilous, cracked interchange to traverse but, armed with a deep appreciation of David Foster Wallace, Louison has articulately crossed that precarious structure. Those details he saw from up on that treacherous overpass have been carefully compiled in his book The Impossible (you can read the review from issue 9.4 of Color magazine by clicking here).
I listened to the NPR interview you did and I felt that although you’re talking to someone who seems to find skateboarding absurd you do a great job of both accepting that to be actually the case, skating is absurd, but simultaneously describing clearly why skateboarding also has great value. You’re sort of bringing it into focus for people. Who was the reader you thought of as you wrote?Well the typical reader I had in mind was not a skater. That’s how I approached the publisher with the idea too, if we can just break down and explain what really happens here; the multiple feats of balance mixed with this crazy strength, on top of speed, on top of the danger factor of doing it over pavement. Really like any sport when you break down what these top people are capable of doing and hopefully people will be like oh wow now I see it. One of the first really detailed things I ever read that did that as far as sports go was the essay about Michael Joyce, by David Foster Wallace. There’re so many elements and he breaks it down to this micro-level of not only time but also; what the ball is doing, what the different parts of their bodies are doing in the exchanges. I always really liked that.
Also one of the best things about that essay and so much of what DFW wrote was that as thorough and complicated, or I don’t want to say complicated because that sounds negative but just that the amount of information and the incredible perception he has and the huge amount of knowledge he passes onto you is just gigantic and you feel like you’ve seen so much more and you look at it [tennis, or anything DFW wrote about] with different eyes after reading it and you feel wiser but at the same time pretty much anyone could read that essay. It’s not full of really hard words and it’s not condescending, it’s not abstruse the way a lot of that ‘smart’ writing is and that’s the great talent, to bring people into that world and that’s why I love him as a writer.
I think you’ve done a great job in conveying that sense of the depth of hard earned skill involved in skating and I think if the writing of David Foster Wallace is the quality-target you’re trying to hit that’s certainly a worthwhile target to aim for.
I don’t feel I’ve achieved that but certainly his stuff has always meant a lot to me. One thing I think is relevant is that reading [the tennis essay] you can tell even without him stating it, and this is something I appreciate, that you can tell that this author also participates.
I do get that from The Impossible, you talk about skating with the compassionate tone of someone who’s emotionally involved in skateboarding, someone who cares about it and understands it. In the Color review I pointed out the errors that slipped in from skateboarding not being your day-to-day focus; obviously you have lots of other work obligations.
Sure, I would have liked to get more entrenched I even thought of relocating to California to try to do it but just time and money being what they are…
Of course, with Infinite Jest did David Foster Wallace not become a heroin addict in his research? Was that something that really happened or am I making that up?
No. I don’t think it happened. I think the story is he was very successful at a young age, his early 20s he got published and I think that’s when he was doing a lot of drugs and ended up where there was a suicide scare and he ended up in a mental ward and by the end of that he went into rehab and was in AA. There was actually a halfway house in Boston that was going to shut down and people were posting letters in its support and he posted one anonymously about his own drug and alcohol issues.
I remember you mentioned somewhere you’d been in California to do a piece on DFW’s office there and tied that into a meeting with Rodney Mullen as part of your research.
That’s right, and I had no idea if I was just going to meet Rodney for coffee and he was going to cut out on me or what but he was asking me about DFW and what his connection to California was and I told him “well he actually died” and told the story and Rodney was taken aback because suicide was a real struggle for him and, well he’ll talk about it in lesser terms but I get the impression it was a huge persistent issue in his [Rodney’s] life. The way he puts it he’ll say that he was a troubled kid but basically his uncle committed suicide and…
Yes that wasn’t explicitly stated in the book but that was certainly the impression I got.
Yeah, a lot of the people in his family are really high functioning and also very troubled. I feel alright talking about this because he [Rodney] actually brought that up when I mentioned Antuan [Dixon], because Antuan credits Rodney as inspiration and Rodney in turn cites that as something amazing because he’s always felt like an outsider. “Growing up,” he said “I had a lot of suicidal issues” and he said “it might be a gene in my family” and I said “like your uncle?” and he said “yeah”. He went on to say that he’d read that Durkheim book Suicide that describes the majority of people who’ve had those issues they say the same thing it’s that feeling that they don’t belong and Rodney said Antuan and him probably don’t have a lot in common…
I can’t imagine they would’ve sat next to each other in the classroom.
Well no because Rodney would’ve been up at the front and staying late for extra credit.
Whereas Antuan might have been setting fire to things at the back.
If he was even there. So Rodneys saying “for Antuan to say that to me makes me feel connected” and that’s the beauty of skateboarding, that it’s this collection of outsiders, a collection of people who don’t belong in collections.
It certainly seems like it’s harder for some of us to make those emotional connections and that’s something skateboarding often provides.
You also mention The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke was that something that Rodney found helpful? It goes into this feeling of disconnectedness doesn’t it?
Yeah. The person in the story comes to the realization that terrible things may well have happened but these issues don’t have to hurt me now, like “I’ve been through it and my life’s been colorful and it’s shaped who I am and I like who I am so I’ll just move forward.”
I think that corresponds to a time when Rodney was really struggling, he essentially had nothing in his life except skating. He’d left home and had gone overseas to this camp, just for a place to live, and he was becoming more entrenched in the competitive scene and he became further obsessed to practice in order to do runs in order to win contests.
And that type of focus might also stem from doing something that he finds in some way shuts out these other darker thoughts that may have been swirling around his head.
Yeah, and at that time because he’s still a kid, thinking skateboarding is making him unhappy rather than the whole competitive aspect with the rivalries and stuff, but he realized that he loved skating and it was all the external stuff of rank, and sponsorship, and that whole world, that was what was making him unhappy. So that’s why he stepped away from the contest limelight despite being number one in the world.
And he got involved in world industries as, perhaps, somewhat of an antidote to that.
Throughout the book Rodney is the more compelling character, well, is that fair?
Rodney is an extremely interesting guy because he’s a really atypical skateboarder. For example when you think of skateboarding you don’t generally think of engineering, or the bible, or books by Rilke. Also just his biography is really fascinating it’s pretty much against all odds that he became a skater.
This is where it seems to be the opposite of Sheckler who is by far not an against all odds story.
No the opposite, exactly. Yeah Sheckler’s parents are open about it. I think it’s a dual thing because Ryan has that wiring where he wants to compete and he wants to beat people and he wants to be number one and like Rodney had that wiring where all he wanted to do was skate but the difference was Ryan’s parents were supportive in a way that was…
Yeah absolutely and I think also they saw the potential that Ryan could very well be a star and they were very willing to work to that end. Rodney said when he first wanted to sponsor Ryan they were all amazing and they were totally all for just letting him make what he could out of skating. And you know they were flying around the world with him and driving around when Ryan was traveling 8 months a year it was his mom that was the one traveling with him and the Sheckler Inc. or whatever the name of the company is run by the dad who talks about how much extra work he had to do to support Ryan’s touring because no one was gonna pay for it at that point.
So they took a risk. They put their money into it and hoped that Ryan would become what he became and…
Yeah, I believe his mom is still his manager. I think he was on some TV show maybe 60 minutes when he was 10 years old or something, he had appeared in a movie maybe. So his parents were, like any good agents, okay with trying to get him out there.
[There is a price! Wait…is there a price?]
I feel there was the concern that it might all turn into some Michael Jackson style childhood star goes awry because of lack of appropriate adolescent social experience. But who’s to say what’s appropriate, if it works it works, right?
As strange as he is…well…I mean I don’t think he was in school very much. When you’re traveling 8 months out of the year there’s no way you can be in school. On an early TV piece, called 54321 I think, he says that which is crazy to imagine. 8 months of the year on planes and in hotels and I think the Michael Jackson thing is an interesting analogy because he’s obviously this showbiz kid but such a troubled person as a result of that upbringing…
Yeah. Just totally having no childhood but then talking to people that know Ryan and having met him he seems to be really level headed and Rodney said that was one of the first things he noticed about Ryan. Just how together he was for a kid, he was 12 or 13. Because touring and that whole life made Rodney crazier but what impressed him about Ryan was that in spite of those stresses Ryan has a good heart and mind. I think it says a lot about him.
There was a part of the book where you talk about the house Ryan buys when he was 21 and certainly the way I read it there was something perhaps slightly hollow about it in your description. Was that intentional?
I think that stems from, for example if you or I were multi-millionaires with a 6th grade education.
What would we buy?
Yes and of course you would buy cool cars and have your name on the pool balls I mean perhaps it’s not complementary but that’s what the house looks like. It’s just if you were still an adolescent and had a load of money, I mean did you see Boogie Nights? When he’s showing off the house and the curtains have his initials on them? I remember one time I met him and he was all cut up from skating but he had this watch, like a Liberace type of watch covered with diamonds on the band and the face and in his ears. I know he likes rap music…
All the kids do.
A lot of them do. It’s like the way you look up to mobsters. One other thing I remember noting about the house was that as the camera follows him you just keep seeing TVs, there’re so many, I think he says that on Jimmy Kimmel, there’s a TV in every room. But it’s his house he can do what he wants with it.
One note I made was “Glaring rocks in his ears and a gout of foam swinging from his chin”. What does “a gout of foam” refer to?
It’s from a photograph of Ryan. He’s in the beach break…
I know the photo he looks like Ken from Ken and Barbie?
He totally does! It’s a really beautiful photo and he really does look like that in person when he’s not drenched in sweat and bleeding. The thing about that photo is, well one of the reasons GQ’s been financially successful since Jim Nelson took over is that he oriented the magazine content more towards gay men. It’s actually part of any business model where you’re trying to sell stuff because as consumers gay men tend to be both more affluent and more educated and they spend more. That photo for example was very, well he’s a beautiful human all oiled up and that photo sits in with the got milk commercial, he has this substance [surf foam] dripping off his chin and…
Ooooohhhhhhh, I see. So in those homo-erotic descriptions of Ryan and Shawn White in the book you did that intentionally to garner more sales?
Noooo! No. I didn’t really do that I think it was oriented towards men and women. He has sex appeal you know he’s a pro athlete and he’s chiseled and beautiful. I don’t know if it was homoerotic or not.
I suppose it depends how you read it.
I think I tried to make it clear that they’re selling the sexuality of it rather than I’m trying to work it in there because another thing about Ryan is when he turned pro he was this really cute kid annihilating everyone but as he grew up he didn’t look like a lot of skaters who’re skinny and have that adolescent physique and are not really the type of person you’d put on the cover of a magazine. Even Tony [Hawk] as much an amazing spokesperson and figurehead as he was he’s got that storky body whereas Ryan looks like he could be a pro lacrosse player almost, he’s just so built and his thighs are so big and bright and he has this golden hair you know, he’s kind of a golden child.
Yeah when you put it like that it makes me realize your descriptions are not exaggerations you’re just being accurate and the fact is sexuality exists and if you’re a clever marketer you take advantage of that to sell things.
Right. That leads to another thing about Ryan and about his success, which is one of the reasons he got such backlash. No one would care if a skater had a show and it failed miserably but he had a show that did really well and he embraced that. He wasn’t apologetic about it, he became a producer, and he wanted to do it more and have more success at it just like everything he does. And he was smart enough to know his audience and know what at least some people want being aware that he has a lot of young female fans. He was not afraid. Like at a contest he’ll skate with no shirt on and you can hear the girls screaming and if I was built like that I’d probably not wear a shirt very much either. So basically he’s aware of his appeal and he’s not afraid to use it.
[this is prime Predatory Bird material]
Cole Louison has written about skateboarding for such notable publications as GQ (where he currently works) as well as The New Yorker and Outside. His book The Impossible is a great depiction of skateboarding as seen by a genuine and conscientious observer.
Interview conducted Sept 28th 2011.