Beyond Board

Tommy Guerrero's budding music career makes us wonder: Can you teach an old skateboarder new tricks?

It's a hot Saturday in a ramshackle neighborhood in West Oakland, the kind of afternoon when you want to walk around barefoot, but you can't because the asphalt's melting into molten black goo. It's a summer day -- the longest day of the year, in fact -- and the neighborhood is celebrating: Kids hunt for fun in packs like hyenas, old men sit on sidewalks playing cards on milk crates, and a world-famous ex-professional skateboarder by the name of Tommy Guerrero lounges in a chair on his front lawn. He is taking in the sun and drinking Mexican beer.

At first glance, Guerrero seems utterly relaxed, as if sunbathing were his primary occupation. It is not. That would be running his own skateboard company, followed closely by playing music, and when the conversation meanders its way to the latter topic -- specifically, an upcoming gig that essentially amounts to his solo debut -- Guerrero gets a little less chill. "I can't stand the idea of being one of those bands that goes on tour and plays, like, 300 gigs a year and plays the same set every night," he says.

A skinny guy, Guerrero is shirtless and generously tattooed, sporting a straw hat, black horn-rimmed glasses, and a tidy goatee. While not the visage of rebellion he once was, Guerrero at 36 is still a kid in many ways, even if these days he reads design catalogs instead of Thrasher.

Signed to the most prestigious skateboarding team of the mid-'80s when he was 18, Guerrero spent the better part of a decade touring the world. When the cumulative deleterious effects of skateboarding caught up with him, he began devoting his creative energies to his second love, music. Not surprisingly, the jazzy instrumental hip hop songs he writes -- especially those presented on his latest solo LP for Mowax records, Soul Food Taqueria, released in May -- are the perfect soundtrack to the loungin' stage of a life formerly spent globe-trotting and life-risking.

From the dirty drum fill that opens the slow-rolling "Abierto" through to the album's closing song, the lethargic "Falling Awake," Soul Food Taqueria is a Fourth of July barbecue on Quaaludes. Whiny wah-wah guitars toss funky chords to and fro like Frisbees, as drunken bass lines wobble through each mix. Soulful vocals show up to spike the punch from time to time, and everything is locked into place by some junk-kit drumming. It's no wonder that both Guerrero's label and his fans have been urging him to play these tunes live, with a full band -- something he's always tried to avoid doing.

Guerrero has an aversion to the notion of playing his original compositions live, let alone on tour. When pressed, he lists a number of reasons. There's the work involved in touring, the awkwardness of leading a band of trained musicians when Guerrero himself is self-taught, and, perhaps most important, the prospect of becoming bored with the material.

As he shares his thoughts on his upcoming gig, it's hard to tell if logistics, integrity, or simple fear is what's been holding him back. The one thing that seems clear is that he is second-guessing his next move. In the world of skateboarding, a moment's hesitation can mean bruises, breaks, or worse. What it means in the world of music is something Tommy Guerrero is about to find out.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Guerrero picked up skating from his older brother, Tony (also a musician), and began trying out for skate teams when he was just 9. With his father out of the picture and his mom working full time, Guerrero was blessed (or cursed) with the freedom afforded a latchkey kid. When he wasn't skating the city streets, he was playing punk music with his brother at local clubs.

"It's interesting when I do interviews [for articles], because I read them, and it's always, "Skateboarder turned musician,'" explains Guerrero, "and it's like, Huh? I mean, I've been in bands since I was 12."

Like it or not, it's for skating that Guerrero is best remembered. When he was offered a deal by the Powell-Peralta team in 1984, he was the first street-style skateboarder (the pros of the day mainly skated ramps) ever to sign to a major company, let alone thatcompany. The next decade found Guerrero and his teammates -- collectively referred to as "The Bones Brigade" -- traveling the world and earning bundles of cash. They also appeared in countless films and videos, including the Debbie Does Dallas of skate flicks, The Search for Animal Chin.

When Powell-Peralta's momentum waned, Guerrero left the team and founded his own company, Real Skateboards, in 1990 with partner Jim Theibaud. Earning a decent living and not in the market for any more asphalt beatings, Guerrero gracefully retired from professional skateboarding in 1995. Three years later, the skater-turned-entrepreneur-turned-multi-instrumentalist/producer released his debut album, Loose Grooves and Bastard Blues, on a small independent label called Galaxia. The record introduced the world to Guerrero's evolved style, which is influenced by artists such as John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, and Chicago post-rock pioneers Tortoise. While many of his early recordings are on tape, Guerrero has since developed a studio strategy that's an analogue to skateboarding.

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