Thrasher editor, skateboard icon Jake Phelps dies at 56 – San Francisco Chronicle

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Editor in chief of Thrasher magazine Jake Phelps talks at the Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 15, 2009 in New York City. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images, Getty Images

Jake Phelps, the irreverent, blunt-to-the-core skateboarding legend and longtime Thrasher editor has died at the age of 56.

His death was reported on social media on Thursday, March 14, both by Thrasher owner Tony Vitello, son of the late Thrasher founder Fausto Vitello, and by his uncle, Clark Phelps of Salt Lake City. The cause of death has not yet been announced, but Clark Phelps said he died “suddenly and easy” while sitting in his sofa chair and playing guitar at his San Francisco apartment.

“He’s been beat up all his life. … That skateboarding has not been easy on his knees, let’s put it that way,” Clark Phelps told The Chronicle over the phone Thursday night. “Sure love him. He sure was fun to be around.”

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Jake Phelps was 100% skateboarder, but that label sells him way too short, because beyond his enormous influence in our world, he was truly an individual beyond this world. When loved ones pass we sometimes mythologize about their full lives rich in friendships and experiences. Sometimes we need to talk ourselves into believing it all. It makes us feel better, and helps us cope with the loss. Well, in the case of Jake, the task becomes wrapping your head around just how many lives one person could possibly live. He really did see it all, do it all, and that incredible brain of his could relish every last detail. But most of you reading this now identified primarily with Jake Phelps the skateboarder, and editor of our magazine, so I will leave you with this truth – I never met anybody who loves anything more than Jake worshipped skateboarding. Just as we need food and water to survive, Jake needed skateboarding to keep his blood pumping. It was more than a hobby or form of transportation or way of life – it was his oxygen. Here’s another thing. Jake never bailed. Jake fucking slammed. And there is a big difference. He only knew commitment. He was going to go for it without hesitation, and there were only two outcomes. Either you’d see his triumphant fist pumping in the air or it’d be an earth-shaking collision with the concrete. I remember him telling me once that he never fell backwards, he always fell forward. Leaning back meant there was hesitation, and Jake was all the way IN. There was no myth. The man was the myth. We love you, Jake. -Tony Vitello

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His laser-focused devotion to skating soon transcended to the skateboarding community at large. Phelps took over editorship of Thrasher in 1993, and reigned over its exponential influence over two decades. The sacred quality of the San Francisco-based publication — named after punk rock slam-dancing and the magazine known as the “bible” to many skaters — never waned, even as the print industry became increasingly fraught.

“I never met anybody who loves anything more than Jake worshipped skateboarding,” Vitello wrote on Instagram. “Just as we need food and water to survive, Jake needed skateboarding to keep his blood pumping. It was more than a hobby or a form of transportation or way of life — it was his oxygen.”

Phelps said he first picked up a skateboard when he was 13 years old. He even remembered the time: 4 p.m., according to a 2016 interview with the California Sunday.

“Dogs, parents girls, everybody, they all say no,” he told writer Willy Staley. “But your skateboard doesn’t. Even in the rain, it’s like, ‘Let’s go skateboarding.’”

His piety for skateboarding brought him more than one brush with death. In 2017, he suffered a severe head injury after “bombing” a hill near Dolores Park. On another occasion, he hit his head on a skating ramp in Australia. He’d been hit by practically anything imaginable — a car, a bus, a van — and said he had been stabbed in the chest, and almost murdered in a drive-by shooting in Antioch, according to the California Sunday piece.

“I’ve spent more time in the hospital than most people spend in jail,” he told Staley about his countless surgeries and broken bones over his lifetime.

He didn’t just embody “skate or die,” which he printed it on his business cards, it was the way he lived. Phelps told The Chronicle in 1996 that a collision with a 7 Haight bus in 1986 almost cost him his left leg. The doctor told him never to skate again, but Phelps picked up his board three days after his cast came off. He was even skating at the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“… in the case of Jake, the task becomes wrapping your head around just how many lives one person could possibly live,” Vitello wrote. “He really did see it all, do it all, and that incredible brain of his could relish every last detail.”

Jake Phelps was born in San Francisco, and lived in California until he was 11 years old. After his parents divorced, he decided to live in Marblehead, Mass. with his mother, who was from San Francisco. He began working at a skatepark in Cambridge, Mass. when he was 14.

His skateboarding promise was clear at a young age, and soon he was sponsored by Pepsi and began traveling around to skate, demonstrating his skills at other schools. His success in the sport prompted him to dropout of high school by the end of the 1970s.

By the early ’80s, he moved back to San Francisco and started working at a skate shop in the Haight, where he met Kevin Thatcher, Thrasher’s first editor. After a brief time writing product reviews for the magazine, he was offered a job in the company’s shipping department, packaging merchandise.

Art director Kevin Convertito (left) makes notes on galley of Thrasher with editor in chief Jake Phelps. Photo: CHRIS HARDY, SFC

In August 2005, Phelps started the hardcore band Bad Sh—, with skater Tony Trujillo and his wife, Ashley “Trixie” Truijillo. The trio, with Phelps as lead guitarist, would go on to tour worldwide . He wrote about his life as a musician in a piece for Thrasher called “Party’s Over,” which also mediated on his thoughts about getting older, substance abuse and his inextricable tie to skateboarding.

I love the sounds of skateboarding: slams, collisions, grinds yelling, screams, snapped bones — it’s called bein’ alive. I never had kids but I love helpin’ people that skate see thing a new way,” Phelps wrote. “… I can honestly say nothing makes me happier than seeing the look on some kid’s face when they first scare themselves: their eyes.”

Phelps could be found zipping through traffic on the streets of San Francisco on his skateboard — as recently as the afternoon before his death —  often at Potrero del Sol skatepark, which he reportedly designed. His pair of signature Ray-Ban glasses are even embedded into the concrete.

By Thursday evening, famed pro-skaters from Torey Pudwill and Steve Caballero to Tony Hawk posted tributes to the man they called Phelper.

He was a true skateboarder to the end, a fan of diverse styles and a passion for the deep history of skate tricks,” Hawk said.

In December, Thrasher opened a space at 666 Sixth St. in the Tenderloin — part retail, part clubhouse — for the brand’s devotees. A manifesto by Phelps appears by the entrance of the building: “Skateboarding vs. San Francisco is war. It’s 49 miles chock full of cops, vagrants, speeding cars, gang bangers and, the most humbling of all, the hills.”

Phelps is survived by his divorced parents Kitty and Kendall Phelps, his sister Marie Phelps and two nieces, who all live in the Bay Area; two uncles, Fred Phelps of Manhattan and Clark Phelps; and aunt Bonnie Sucec of Salt Lake City. 

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