Can the Lizard King Come Back Clean?
Skateboarder Mike Plumb, better known as "Lizard King," faces the challenge of staying sober as he gets back on his legendary carve in a notoriously hard-partying scene.
Why do people hate skateboarding? They don't hate its cousins—surfing, snowboarding, roller-skating, roller-skiing, roller-blading, roller-hockey, paddle boarding, skim boarding, sand boarding, mono skiing, street luge and parkour all tend to get a pass. But people hate skateboarding, and they especially hate skaters.
So what's the problem? Here’s a theory: Skateboarders get attention and the ones who get the most attention are sometimes out-of-control drug addicts, Jesus freaks, or some unholy melding of the two. Skaters scare people.
He has bright blue eyes and light blond hair and rides a skateboard the way a condor rides a mountain's thermal.
At the top of this skating pantheon is Mike Plumb, known as "Lizard King." Lizard, who may be the sport's most talented competitor, distinguished himself in half-pipes and handrails and parking lots the world over. His private life has been less distinguished. Like many of his rivals, he disappeared into the depths of addiction. Now, two years later, he's facing perhaps his biggest challenge: sobriety. Lizard has struggled to recover before. So will he clean up and reenter the community with a talent inspired by a new spark for life? Or will this be a short detour off the dark road down which many skaters have preceded him?
A quick rundown: Squeaky-clean Tony Hawk never had trouble, but his friend and contemporary Rodney Mullen—the inventor of the flat-ground ollie—is a self-described Jesus Freak who was smoking pot at age 10. Hawk’s great rival, Christian (now Pastor) Hosoi, was the sport’s first playboy and lived in the W.C. Fields mansion in Echo Park before becoming a homeless crystal meth tweaker who went to jail for drug trafficking. Pool pioneer Duane Peters also ended up a homeless act who, when last seen, was still haunting New York City skate parks; Jay Adams’ battle with addiction was a centerpiece of the 2001 Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary. Now-sober tech pioneers Guy Mariano and Andrew Reynolds both lost everything to addiction, and excess killed the potential of promising newcomers Brandon Novak (heroin) and his famous friend Bam Margera (booze, cigarettes, and too many mini-mall appearances). P-Rod has Jesus on his forearm. Antwuan Dixon is a whole other story.
Lizard King grew up in Salt Lake City. He has bright blue eyes and light blond hair and rides a skateboard the way a condor rides a mountain's thermal. The way he and his board carve through the space in front of them is more reminiscent of snowboarding. He is thin, wiry and rolls with a lithely powerful serpentine carve reminiscent of his nickname. His skating is fine monsterism: tightly controlled but savagely strong.
Lizard was 19 when he moved to southern California in 2004. He surfed couches until he landed a wheel sponsorship, before joining Deathwish—a branch of a major company in the sport's $5 billion industry. He made a 90-second viral video that's been viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and brought a wave of sponsors, money and attention. Soon he was partying on a team famous for partying, and soon after that things got out of control. There were fights, arrests, incriminating photos and a short cell-phone video—in which Lizard, hoarse with pinpricked eyes, pranks room service and advocates skateboarding on acid.
Yet he was still showing up at contests to flip off the side of ramps or in New York City to clear one set of stairs but clip his back wheels on another. One morning, hung over from ecstasy, he turned up at hemp advocate Bob Burnquist's house, and after a cigarette and a fit of dry heaves, he jumped the MegaRamp without elbow pads. Drugs didn’t seem to be hindering his skating. They almost seemed to help it.
By 2010, Lizard was a fixture in the community. He was famous and getting rich, and had proved himself a real talent. He was mobbed at contests and afterward at the bar. He was also at the same halfway point in every Behind The Music and every big rock band’s biography: when progress and stardom are informed or even enhanced by all the fun and games; when the challenge and denial of the bestowed gifts somehow fuel bigger and better creative achievements; when it's still fun, because the addiction's still masked as an old friend.
And we love it. We love it because it is the best part of the story. It is David Foster Wallace writing high and Hemingway writing drunk and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas coming true. It is Justin Townes Earle on his daily eight-ball of coke and jug of vodka, with slicked hair and tinted lenses, going downstairs for the first time all day to absolutely kill a show at the 11th Street Bar. It is Lizard King jumping the length of a football field and landing on steep wooden hill at 55 mph on a little wooden board while he's still all fucked up.
Such is the case with Antwuan Dixon, Lizard’s former teammate and once the most talented and now the most troubled skater of his generation. The South Central kid could at 21 and still can flip off the nose of his board and fly down 12 steps, landing like a silken biplane in a baby’s dream. But he has FUCK COPS tatted on his hands and face, twice, and at the all-important Tampa contest in 2008 he went to jail for assaulting three policemen.
If Lizard succeeds in escaping these grim fates, he will have to overcome the challenge of his team, Deathwish, which, like the last decade’s Dirty Ghetto Kids, is famously branded for its hard-partying image. Another challenge is that every reporter (including me) wants to ask him about sobriety. But the biggest one is Lizard King himself. Both the guy holding on one day at a time and the outcast who made it, the tatted bible school refugee who left his mountain town and gave the finger to his talent and lives in the Hollywood Hills with Coupe DeVille and custom chopper. In short, a guy everyone wants to party with.
It will likely mean a face-off between the two, and the outcome is a toss-up, since Mike Plumb can control what he does and doesn't do each day—but not what everyone else does with Lizard King. Few will let go of the dynamically talented eloquent scumbag they know and love. The image is too searing, the stories too good. Far from not letting go, they very well may go to him. Fans found Jack Kerouac's cabin in Big Sur to drink with the almost-sober recluse. Hunter S. Thompson was by age 40 spending at least as much time playing a fleshy version of his Doonesbury character as he was trying to recreate the pages that made the author great. The aptly named Jane's Addiction, one of the most important rock bands of the '80s, today merely impersonate the art they once created.
Best and worst of all, Mike Plumb may find that he and his skating need both drugs and sobriety, need abstinence but not recovery, need, in the end, to be addicted. Like Antwuan Dixon, Townes Van Zandt or Justin Townes Earle, who entered treatment for the 13th time after his last arrest but says that he reserves the right to "my vacation in the gutter." To remain The Lizard King, Plumb may need the decontrolled depths of addiction, to reach a level of art so perfect that it feels not only natural but supernatural.
Lizard's recent decision for sobriety came at the end of a nearly-two-year bender. Injuries kept him sidelined during this time, and while he'd occasionally skate in a purple walking cast, he fell into heavy drug use and, in his words, "turned into a piece of shit." This effort feels a little more valiant. For one thing, he won't talk about it. He declined to be interviewed for this article. His sobriety was still delicate, his publicist relayed to me, but maybe we could talk in six months. "We'll see where we're at," she said.
That's not the choice of a cocky, stupid kid with newfound money and a smiling blindness to his gift. Lizard King is now a 28-year-old professional athlete who makes royalties by selling the boards and sneakers that bear his professional name. He knows the video he's filming is one of the most anticipated in the sport. And he knows what it feels like to have a level of control where he decides when and how to seize perfection from the void and bring it to life, while we mortals can only watch and wonder.
Cole Louison is the author of The Impossible.
Home page photo via.