I first met Jay Adams at Swami’s in the early 1980s. He was young, stoked and surprisingly friendly, considering his notoriety. As I recall there wasn’t much swell that day, but Adams, nonetheless, stood out against that talented crowd.
While mostly known for his skateboarding, especially in pools, which he helped pioneer, Jay was an exceptional surfer, especially in hard grinding 6- to 8-foot barrels. That’s when he came alive. His surfing was basic, and far less complicated than his life could be out of the water.
On the right wave, he would lay down a hard and stylish bottom turn, pull in, get barreled, drive to the shoulder, and lean his nuggety little body into a deep cutback.
Although he was 53 years old and considered past his prime, reports are that he was surfing with his fifth-gear, pedal-to-the-metal style the day before he died in August 2014 while on an extended surf trip with his wife, Tracy, to Puerto Escondido, aka the Mexican Pipeline.
Having seen still photos of Jay tube traveling, a day or so before he passed, I am hard pressed to find another shot of a surfer, any surfer, in their mid-50s riding so hard, or so well.
While Jay accomplished a lot in his life, especially in the surf and skateboarding world, he also had some critical failures. He was deeply sorry for them and realized they all had their roots in drugs and alcohol.
By age 21, Jay had spent six months in prison after he started a fight with a man who was eventually beaten to death by another assailant. After that, there was a charge of terroristic threatening when Jay beat a man after forcing his way into the man’s house.
Jay’s drug choice moved from beer and weed to heroin, a substance he became so addicted to that, according to him, “I used toilet water, gutter water to shoot up. I shared needles with a couple that were HIV positive, and I didn’t care. I honestly didn’t care if I lived or died.”
By the early 2000s, Jay was living a clean and sober life, surfing and skating whenever possible. We had connected again and soon became close friends.
While never an egomaniac, one thing he loved doing was driving with me down the streets of Cardiff until we saw some kids skateboarding. Every skate rat had seen the documentary “Dogtown & Z-Boys” and the subsequent feature film, both based in part on Jay’s life, “Lords of Dogtown.”
After I pulled over, Jay would ask a kid if he could use his skateboard. Inevitably, the young skaters would whisper among themselves, before loaning Jay a board, their mouths agape as their hero rolled out some perfectly executed old-school tricks.
Sober or not, the past still catches up with us, and Jay was arrested for a drug deal, years after the whole thing went south. Although he played a small part in the deal, he was sentenced to two years in prison.
Among my saddest memories are visiting Jay in the Santa Ana Jail before he was transferred to a state prison. Upon his release, he began surfing and skating again. What the years held against him, his clean and sober spirt more than made up for.
Hear Jay’s warning to a world that adored him here.
Check out Chris Ahrens’ latest passion project: youtube.com/c/GodNGangsters.