RIP Jake PhelpsMarch 16, 2019
There will never be anyone like Jake Phelps. He loved skateboarding more than anyone I've ever met. He dedicated his life to it. Though I would sometimes cross the street to avoid him, I can remember so much of what he said to me. A lot of calls I got from him, from a phone number that was 415-666-something, struck fear in me to answer. But I always walked away from the call telling people quotes from the conversation: “what are you doing still asleep? You better have been up late last night with Jason Dill and the generators.” (The name of my future band if I have one).
That I worked for him and Thrasher for a few years is probably the line in my resume I’m most proud of, the thing I never leave out when asked about my career. Thrasher, the logo, the name is known worldwide. It's authentic and trusted. It never sold out when it could have, and it changed my life. And a lot of that comes down to Jake. He started in the shipping room. According to lore Phelps went to founding editor Kevin Thatcher’s office after he had ripped out every page of the mag he didn’t like and said, "here’s the magazine." Kevin said, "if you think you can do better give it a try."
In some ways Jake wasn't really the editor when I worked there. He was more like the Glenn O’Brien-coined "editor at large." If I needed film I’d call Luke Ogden. If I spelled something wrong, Ryan Henry. Michael Burnett was filling most of the magazine with his photos and writing. Jake didn’t even have a computer on his desk. He didn’t have an email address. His voicemail wasn’t set up. He called you and you better not miss it. He held court in his office like some kind of skate Svengali or clairvoyant, telling you who he liked and who he didn’t. Often the statements seemed harsh or wrong and only with time would you look back and think, he was right about that. People always had conspiracies about Thrasher and Jake, and would trade stories and whispers. People would tell me that Jake took away their subscription, or dissed them in a caption. Who is banned? Does Jake pick Skater of the Year or is it voted on?
Skateboarding could have turned into anything. It was a fad for children. It could have been ballet, or a jock sport, or freestyle, slalom, it could have remained a surfing side hobby. We credit people like Tony Alva, Mark Gonzales, Eric Dressen, and Lance Mountain as the ones who influenced what riding a skateboard looks like. And it was people like Craig Stecyk, Glen Friedman, Spike Jonze, Stacey Peralta, and Grant Brittian who showed us what covering, photographing, and talking about skateboarding looks and sounds like. But out of all the writers, photographers, and editors, Jake Phelps had one of the most distinct voices—certainly the loudest.
When I worked on Epicly Later'd I would run through a mental checklist: Will Jake think this is rad?, What does Jake think about skateboarding in the Olympics?, Do I have to roll in? Agree with him or not, Jake is one of those voices that skateboarding is measured by. He’s the guy passing down the lore and the unwritten rules. Now that he’s gone do we all have license just to kook everything? Who’s gonna keep track?
I will admit that eulogizing Jake Phelps is tricky. He was a deeply difficult person. Someone you respect but avoid if you can. Someone who could do and say shitty things to people, an asshole. I’ve heard stories and he’s shocked me many times. But sometimes he would shock me by caring, not just about skateboarding but about me, and tons of other skaters like me.
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