Another Skate of Mind


Downtown Houston's Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, like a plethora of other such sites across the globe, is a gripping locale that merges edge-culture sports and underground music. It reflects an earlier era of Thrasher videos from the 1980s, when skateparks brimmed with punk rock and early hip-hop.

Endlessly promoted by the garrulous Barry Blumenthal — "who has the energy of a hungry lion," according to one Houston punk veteran — the park has also offered a steady diet of free concerts on the city's curvy downtown bayou for years.

Hordes of bands have also descended on the concrete slopes, nestled next to condos and park foliage, unleashing their fiery brands of rock and roll. The sweat-slicked, dizzyingly acrobatic and anarchically agile skaters of all ages pound the pavement for hours, supported by eager crowds wielding cameras and water bottles, smiles and smart-ass smirks.

Blumenthal, himself a shredder for four decades, is the spokesperson/chief fundraiser for PUSH, a grass-roots gathering of skateboarders, friends, families and supporters who came together to raise money and design the park, which debuted in fall 2004 under the auspices of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.

"The park is Houston's first poured-in-place free public skatepark," says Blumenthal, who adds that it represents the largest private-donation-funded park in the United States, to the tune of $2.7 million.

For half a decade, the park has been transformed into a bona fide site of "fun fun fun" (to quote Texas skate-punk legends Big Boys), where frenetic fitness melds with curvilinear architecture, forming art in motion. As Blumenthal notes, it empowers any Houstonian dropping in by transcending traditional barriers such as economic class, ethnicity and age group.

Additionally, its focus on music — the park hosts a handful of concerts each year, including Saturday's finale of the Fourth Annual sk8Rock Concert Series — makes it a hotbed for bands bored of dank bars and late-night creeps. Some musicians, like Anarchitex drummer Bob Weber, feel the location is simultaneously slightly odd and always alluring:

"Not only was it outdoors and still daylight — a crazy place for a punk rock party," he stresses — "but it's located high on the bank of the deepest part of the bayou, staring at the wide-open, two-dimensional downtown facade with the burning sun crashing down into Memorial Park.

"Very strange."

Beside the evocative locale, synergy seems to take place under the glare of setting suns or sizzling lights at the dimming of the day.

"The band would get into a hard, rhythmic churn," details Weber, "and we were a hundred people on skateboards swirling around on all sides. It made perfect sense when the sounds collapsed into a chaotic mess because the motion of the skaters was totally random."

For the art-punk fury of Anarchitex, the flux and frenzy of the skaters paralleled their own sonic worlds.

Houston underground music and skate culture have been joined at the hip for decades, epitomized by bands like Contortion Sessions, Direct Tension and the legendary Bark Hard (founded in part by John Gibson, Texas's first pro skater). The scene has also been kept aloft by local businesses like Surf House, operating on Ella since the late 1960s, and myriad other ma-and-pa skater storefronts over the years dedicated to keeping skate culture sustainable and accessible.

The current crop of musicians who exude a joint love of music and skating are plentiful, too, including Bryan A. of Talk Sick Brats; Kevin Bernier of Los Skarnales and The Suffers; Adam Burchfield of The Octanes; and Buddy of the Luxurious Panthers. Meanwhile, the stage has hosted dozens of acts, from new-school rockers like Art Institute and Omotai to vintage acts like The Hates and Herschel Berry.

The Jamail Skatepark is not some routine recreational facility meant to keep kids from surfing the bent, broken streets or using downtown businesses for freestyle frenzy. It's a 21st-century cultural mashup, an amalgam of art, music, sport and community commitment. It's a free space free of hate, a transgenerational launch pad, and an elegant slice of modern ­urban art next to a sluggish bayou where pioneers hauled goods and kids swam in mosquito swirls.

Even the deep end of Lee's Bowl at the park is an homage to the past, referencing the metal ramps from the old privately owned Skatepark of Houston.

"The park reinvented vertical pipe-ramp skateboarding," Blumenthal says.

Today it has attracted skaters from around the U.S. to relocate to Houston and has become the template for current X-Games ramps — now a global phenomenon. No wonder Pearl Jam bassist and avid skater Jeff Ament flew to Houston a few weeks ago to hit the slopes.

After taking a place for granted, sometimes people need to be nudged with reminders. But as Anarchitex's Weber testifies, "You guys don't realize how lucky you are to have the Jamail Skatepark."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Ensminger