Powder, asphalt and big noise

The other day I was sitting in traffic court. You know, one of those comfy, air-conditioned small auditoriums inside the big Carol Miller Justice Center off Folsom Boulevard, where people take turns explaining to the judge that the dog surely must have eaten their car insurance.Interspersed among those shaggy-dog stories were three separate teenage boys. Each, accompanied by his mother, stood in the docket; each was charged with the heinous crime of skateboarding among the inflated stucco Thomas Kinkade palaces and froufrou strip malls of Folsom.

“How do you plead?” the judge asked.

“Guilty,” each one answered matter-of-factly.

When the judge dangled eight hours of community service in lieu of a fine, each one took the offer and left quietly.

What was interesting was their composure. While they didn’t grovel along the lines of “Your Honor, next time I’ll ride my bike or maybe walk,” no one swaggered like an outfit soldier with an “I can do that time standing on my head” attitude, either.

And while I didn’t talk to any of them, by their looks they probably wanted to get back to their familiar Folsom terrain and skate.

On page 176 of Declaration of Independents, a squarish, beautifully illustrated 224-page trade paperback from Chronicle Books that was put together by the editors of Heckler magazine, graphic designer and skater Ron Cameron tells writer John Reed, as they surreptitiously replace a concrete wheel-stop in a Hollywood parking lot with an innocuous ramp, how a skater perceives the landscape differently. “Skaters scan the environment of handrails, walls, platforms … everything,” Cameron explains, “looking at texture, scale, form and compositional relationship between parts.”

The book is subtitled Snowboarding, Skateboarding + Music: An Intersection of Cultures, which sounds pretty close to what gets called a “mission statement” in corporate circles.

It’s a late August afternoon and it’s hot (which is to say, “Well, duh”), and Sonny Mayugba—dressed casually in jeans and a Daycare T-shirt—is standing at a light table in a small room inside the air-conditioned cinderblock headquarters of the Electric Page on 21st Street. Heckler recently moved in after Sam Toll, who owns the Electric Page, a graphic-arts business owner and former creditor of Heckler, took on the role of the magazine’s publisher.Although Heckler’s job descriptions have been somewhat loosely defined in the past, Mayugba—who moonlights as Daycare’s bass player—is now Heckler’s executive editor. He’s an ebullient guy who exudes positive energy, which certainly came to good use the last few years.

After Mayugba and partner John Baccigaluppi—who soon arrives from the 15th Street recording studio he operates, wearing shorts and a Curious George T-shirt—took Heckler from a 24-page newsprint ’zine in 1992 to a much larger multi-color magazine, they sold it to Transworld Media in 1996, a specialty publisher of surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding magazines. The agreement was that the original crew would continue to produce the magazine, which would soon benefit from Transworld’s superior marketing muscle and its ability to piggyback Heckler’s advertising sales as part of an aggregate of its other titles. When media conglomerate Times Mirror (since acquired by Tribune, which then sold Transworld to AOL Time Warner) bought Transworld a year later, Transworld made what Baccigaluppi calls “an offer we couldn’t refuse.” Baccigaluppi and Mayugba bought their magazine back, then spent four years straining to meet deadlines while juggling printers, advertisers and other creditors; Baccigaluppi also launched a recording-studio magazine, Tape Op, which he still publishes. They were finally getting back on solid ground last fall.

“We were paying off our debt, and our revenues were going up, and everything was going great,” Baccigaluppi says. “Then, last November, our primary ad rep quit on a Friday, said, ‘I won’t be in on Monday.’ It was in the middle of an issue, and it just plunged us so far off budget, so quick—by the time we realized how much her quitting in the middle of that issue had cost us, we were done. We basically fired our entire staff 10 days before Christmas.”

By early spring, Toll stepped in.

Like many experiences of “hitting bottom,” Heckler’s travails prompted more than a bit of soul-searching on the part of Mayugba and Baccigaluppi. “We’re a middle-sized magazine,” Mayugba says, “coming off four years of inconsistency.”

It’s an easy mistake to make; when your advertising salespeople are telling you that there’s too much/not enough features on skateboarding and/or snowboarding, or hip-hop and/or punk rock, or you’re not featuring enough celebrity athletes with huge lists of endorsement contracts, it’s not hard to be led astray. Factor in a number of size and format changes, which confused the magazine’s newsstand distributor, and you have the makings of a problem.

“Heckler always had its own style,” Mayugba says. “It was always kind of a dark-horse type of magazine—the random ripper guy who’s 28 years old could get a phat story in Heckler. Y’know, some amateur guy might get six pages—which is outrageous.”

That dictum may run counter to the prevailing wisdom of corporate publishing, which states that big celebrities are the only thing people want to read about, but it’s what makes Heckler an interesting magazine.

Declaration of Independents makes that vision clear. Its chapters chart the aforementioned intersection of snowboarding, skateboarding and music, from the early cottage-industry origins to the rise of “X-treme” sports and subsequent incursion of deep-pockets sporting goods companies and multi-national record conglomerates. One of the chapters is even titled “The Suits Move In.”

As Baccigaluppi puts it: “It went from, like, every snowboard company was owned by a snowboarder to like two companies were owned by snowboarders, and everyone else was owned by a corporation or a ski company. So we went from dealing with cool snowboarders to ‘What’s your demographic?’ ”

As a documentation of turn-of-the-century living, Declaration captures a grainier, more under-the-radar look at this largely suburban phenomenon than you’ll find coming from the better established and funded arbiters of popular culture. It’s no mystery why Mayugba and Baccigaluppi deliberately pursued a deal with Chronicle Books, because of that company’s apparent intuitive grasp of the nuances of pop-culture publishing.“One of the reasons why I wanted to work with them,” Baccigaluppi explains, “is that a lot of other publishers would have tried to shape the book into, like, ‘Extreme Skateboarding!’—that whole kind of thing. And there were a lot of other books coming out at the time that were, well, not that good. Anyway, it’s not a book about sports; it’s a culture book.”

Even if you know nothing about skateboarding, or snowboarding, or independent rock, a cursory thumb through Declaration should give you a pretty good idea what their subcultures are about and how they fit together, and what kinds of people gravitate toward them. While skateboarding—that bastard child of surfing and roller-skating—has been around since the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it turned into an aesthetic, with its own mode of dress and A-list of independent punk bands. And the core fans of the 1980s wave of independent rock, especially the punk bands, were kids who knew how to handle a skateboard. While snowboarding may be a more recent phenomenon, it’s infused with a similar maverick spirit, not to mention that its enthusiasts form a motley crew that by its very existence pisses off that more elitist and frequently snobby group known as downhill skiers.

Declaration of Independents does what every good account of pop culture should do—it draws connecting lines between seemingly unrelated things, then forms those lines into a compelling picture. According to Baccigaluppi, when Ian MacKaye, former frontman of the District of Columbia hardcore band Minor Threat and current singer for Fugazi, called him to say thank you for the coverage, it was the context that got him excited.

“He was so stoked to be between Tony Alva and Terry Kidwell,” Baccigaluppi says, referring to legends of the skateboard and snowboard, respectively, sounding a bit surprised.

He shouldn’t be. MacKaye gets the picture. We do, too.