Tuesday, February 5, 2008
1987, Skateboarding's 2nd Wave; Chuck Barfoot, Tom Sims, Jake Burton and Snowboarding's early rise.
At first glance this deck looks like just another example of 80's greed and poor design. It's more than that.
This is an obscure skateboard. Rincon Designs was not an important skateboard company or relevant in the 80’s when this deck was made. In fact even for the mid 1980’s it was a very poorly designed board. The wood is not a 7 ply, it’s a cheap 6 ply that feels like it will break if you put any real tension on it. It would never hold up for a day of pool skating. It has virtually no concave, the shape is half ass, even the holes for the front trucks are to close to the nose. It has no character of it's own, it’s kind of a pig shape and kind of a cross between a Mark Gonzales or Tommy Guerro deck circa 1986/1987. Even the name Rincon Designs was outdated back then, Rincon’s an old timers break, always has been, always will be. When you think of Rincon you think of hippies and long boards. The Beach Boys dated it instantly when they added it to the lyrics of their coke addled 60’s pop songs.
In fact this skateboard deck, with its dated shape and poor concave, looks like it would have been made in 1980-82 but instead it was designed, manufactured and released in 1987. 1987 for skateboarding was a big year, a huge year, the sport had taken off by then. Overnight million dollar clothing companies backed by Wall Street with names like Airwalk and Bad Boy Club sprang up. Mainstream companies like Ray-ban and Swatch started endorsing skaters. Quicksilver got Mel Gibson to wear their clothes in Lethal Weapon. Nike had secret endorsement deals with a few skateboarders. Tommy Guerro was photographed flying through the air in stylish blue and black Air Jordan’s more than Jordan was. Suddenly, our clothes and our style started showing up in malls in the Midwest. Names like Mark “Gator” Rogowski, Mark Gonzales and Tony Hawk were already household names by 1987, especially for any kid that was halfway cool. "Gator" skated for millions during halftime on Monday Night Football. Rolling Stone magazine was on top of it, and had a reporter tag along with Mark Gonzales for a few days. Punk rock and skateboarding were natural partners. Tony Alva led the way, by the mid 80’s he felt more like a rock star than a skateboarder. By 1987 both The Clash and The Ramones had toured large over 1,000 seat venues and sold out virtually every show. Smaller punk rock bands like Social Distortion, Bad Religion, NOFX, The Vandals and Pennywise found that they were selling out almost every venue they would be allowed to play in, but still most of the band members had other day jobs just in case. A new winter sport was getting popular and blowing up, snowboarding, skateboarding had 2 magazines dedicated to it and soon snowboarding did to. Snowboards were just starting to gain acceptance at a few resorts in the country. In Europe the resorts were much more liberal and snowboards and snowboarders. Skaters were moving to Lake Tahoe and Colorado because there were resorts there that would allow snowboarding.
I could go on and on, 1987 was an exciting year, things were happening innovation was everywhere for the skate culture. At the beach, in the mountains, on college campuses and in malls, the culture was gaining wide acceptance. People started to get paid. Skaters and snowboarders were getting contracts and endorsement deals. But many we’re getting ripped off, big time and they knew it. In one month alone Vision Skateboards sold 10,000 Mark Gonzales signature decks. Mark got virtually none of that money. It was his popularity, his artwork and his name that drove the sales of those boards, but the word Vision Skateboards was in bigger, bolder letters than Mark’s. By "skaters for skaters" wasn't just a phrase it became a relevant term. Skaters and snowboarders wanted their own companies. It would take a few more years before guys like Mark’s pal Steve Rocco would help to turn the tables on the greedy manufactures and distributors. Steve Rocco was almost 40 years old, the oldest professional skateboarder in the world with a signature model but still supplementing his income by selling used cars in Redondo Beach, when he came up with Plan B and the idea of “complete” sponsorship for the skater. By the early 90's it was almost silly how much he paid his skaters. They got paid more than rookies in the N.B.A. Suddenly 18 year old kids who couldn’t afford to buy a pair of shoes the week before, were buying houses in Marina Del Rey after signing with Steve and Plan B. At the same time he created new "skateboard" magazine. Big Brother Magazine wasn't about skateboarding, it had trading cards with Jesus and ads that made fun of other skateboard companies that were pompous and took themselves to seriously. Big Brother was about making fun of skateboarding. It also sold a lot of product. Steve hired people like Johnny Knoxville to write stories and Spike Jonze to take pictures and they sold even more skateboards and got millions of dollars of free publicity when an uptight radio host went into an Orange County mall to buy her son a skateboard and instead found an article on "how to kill yourself" in Big Brother. Big Brother in turn spawned “Jackass” and a whole other industry and phenomenon would be launched. Eventually Steve would cash out and sell a large portion of his empire to Larry Flynt and move into a house in Malibu that cost more to build per square foot than a year of rent at his former studio apartment.
So why with all this innovation and great things happening, why was this skateboard deck even released, let alone manufactured? Manufacturing this board in 1987 would have been like Ford re-releasing the Edsel during the height of the muscle car era.
Near the bottom of the deck the name and logo Barfoot appears. There in lies the answer. Chuck Barfoot was cashing in. He was an innovator and ahead of his time in many ways. He designed many of the early skateboards of the 70’s, concave, kicktail, he had helped push those ideas. This board was beneath him, which is probably why the logo is so small and at the bottom. He was probably given a small fee for the use of his name. He probably didn’t even design this deck or if he did it was probably sketched on a napkin at a luncheon meeting. Chuck Barfoot was also a hell of a nice guy. Tom Sims took advantage of this. Sims really should have been called Barfoot-Sims. Tom wasn’t as nice a guy as his neighbor who was also making skateboards a few blocks away in East Santa Barbara. George Powell, happily added Stacey Peralta’s name to his company and made Stacey a partner. Eventually they would go their own separate way but not before the “Bones Brigade” which included Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain and Mike McGill and Mike’s 540 “Mctwist”, made them both household names and millionaires a couple times over.
Nobody every thought to patent the skateboard but somebody was trying to patent the snowboard. Jake Burton. The problem was Chuck Barfoot thought he came up with the snowboard first. He told his friend Tom Sims his idea. They experimented with design and epoxy and plywood together. Tom put his name on the board, just like he did on the skateboards. Chuck didn’t think anything of it. Tom and Jake started putting out snowboards about the same time. Sims put out the first signature model about 1985, the Terry Kidwell, affectionately called the Skidwell because the rails wouldn’t grip icy snow, he followed that up with another pro model, the Shaun Palmer Mini Shredder. The Palmer had better rails and better bindings, it was a skateboard on snow, it worked well on jumps and in halfpipes. It was the first snowboard that worked well and people wanted. Jake Burton had his Burton Backhill but the price was to high, the bindings were horrible and the rear tail was to small. The Palmer blew up. It was really the first functional well made mass produced snowboard. Shawn Palmer was also a great skateboarder with his own model and that pushed his snowboards. He was a crossover, x-game athlete before the term was coined. He was also a bit of a jerk a bit of a punk known for his antics at events, emulating his idol Sean Farmer. That just made Shawn that much popular with all the kids who we’re saving up every cent they had. Snowboards were expensive, $400 to $500 and if you were going to drop that kind of money on a deck it better be cool. Shawn Palmer was the youngest pro snowboarder and the first celebrity snowboarder outside of the inner circle of the sport. He became more infamous and popular than his snowboard. Dyed hair, crazy and erratic behavior, he showed up at contests driving a huge Cadillac before he was old enough to drive, sporting custom suits his mother made him out of American flags.
Chuck saw all of this, he had witnessed the skateboard explosion of the 70’s and 80’s, he knew snowboarding was going to take off and he wanted to make sure that this time he got something in return. That was his design on the board, not Shawn’s, not Tom’s, even though their names were on the board. Sure they helped drive sales, but the board was a good design, and good designs sold themselves. The Rincon Designs skatebord deck compared to his other designs was a huge step back, Chuck needed the money because he was an artist trying to protect what he viewed as one of his creations. Since most of you have never heard of Chuck Barfoot before reading this, you are probably right in assuming that he was futile in his attempts at securing a patent and his place in sports history. There are probably a couple of thirty something’s walking around with an extra arthritic limp because this deck broke on them when they tried to lay down a smith grind on the local backyard vert ramp.
Ultimately the courts never did figure out who invented the snowboard. Each side claimed victory. The only people who won were the lawyers. People came out of the wood work, a German engineer appeared with a patent he claimed he had filed in Germany before World War II. Lawyers took his claim seriously. Even the legendary Alpine film maker Warren Miller chimed in. At an important time in the devlopment of the sport when many people and resorts were anti-snowboard, Warren was a friend to the snowboarder. Warren thought snowboards were great, they felt more natural than ski's when you were on the snow and they were pumping money, a lot of money, back into the dated ski industry and besides if snowboards hadn't been hindered by the war everyone would be snowboarding by now anyway. Rumors abounded that Jake Burton had won some kind of legal settlement and Tom Sims and a couple other manufacturers had to pay Burton a large cash settlement. Tom claimed bankruptcy. He became another transplanted Californian. He moved his life long base from Santa Barbara were he had help to develop and revolutionize not one, but two sports and two multi-million dollar industries, to upstate Washington state. Now he was close to the Canadian border and their wood, to concentrate on building snowboards. Eventually Chuck got Barfoot Snowboards off the ground, he even got early pros like Rob Dafoe to ride them for a while but by the early 90's when companies like Morrow, Burton and K-2 started paying their riders base salaries of over a hundred grand a year to ride their boards, Chuck couldn't compete. Barfoot Snowboards is still around in one form or the other. The kids today regard it as a third tier company and don't give it much thought. Most don't know that Barfoot was once, for a short but very important time, on the cutting edge of snowboarding and instrumental in the sports evolution.