Skateboarding Legend Tony Alva: From Mad Dog to Man of Grace

By Kristen McGuiness 10/02/17

Our interview with Tony Alva on his bad boy image, fame at an early age, and the gifts of sobriety and self-realization.

Tony Alva skating a pool at age 60
Tony Alva reflects on growing up as "Mad Dog" of Dogtown and his current sober life of spirituality. image via Tony Alva

In the 1970s, a new presence emerged on the sports scene. At the time, skateboarding had been relegated to a hobby, far from the billion-dollar business it would later become, but within years, it would go from being a California trend to a worldwide phenomenon. And one name crested that wave: Tony Alva.

Decades later, both the famed documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys, and the Heath Ledger film that followed, Lords of Dogtown, would tell the story of how a group of rough and tumble boys from the west side of Los Angeles (back when the west side was still rough and tumble) birthed the modern skateboard movement. But Tony’s story of leading the Z-Boys to worldwide fame--and later crashing alongside many of the Lost Boys who joined him there--has been less known. Once heralded as the “Mad Dog” of Dogtown, Tony was known as much for his attitude as he was for performing the first recorded front side air off the bowl of a pool. But what happened to Alva after Mad Dog?

In 2006, Tony Alva got sober, finally putting down the booze and drugs that had marked and marred his career as one of the godfathers of skateboarding. Now, on the eve of turning 60, Tony reflects on what it means to have become a legend and still grow along a spiritual path.

The Fix: So, let’s talk a little bit about what is was like, growing up when you did. When did you first start drinking and using?

Tony Alva: Oh man, it all started in the late 60s. I grew up around a generation that was built on spiritual searching through drugs, or so we thought – smoking weed and doing hallucinogens. My dad was also an alcoholic, and I really looked up to him as what a man was supposed to be like – he was a Golden Glove boxer who could drink all night and still work the third shift at the plant. I was like 10 or 11 years old when I started drinking, and then started using drugs at like 12 or 13. I was born in 1957 so it was right in the middle of the hippie movement – people were experimenting with anything that would alter their minds and calling it spiritual. But it was like a roller coaster version of spirituality – the highs were super high and the lows were super low, and I found out: the older you got, the lower those lows became.

And then as you discovered this talent that you had for skating, as you began to build a career in this new sport, how was partying connected to that – and to skate culture in general?

Skateboarding was always a rough and tumble sport for us. There were a lot of surfers involved so it just started out with this culture of being partiers and pirates. And then as we went professional, that whole debauchery thing really played into our style as skaters. We would compete against these clean-cut Christian kids from San Diego and they would be intimidated by us. All these rough kids from the west side of Los Angeles. We acted like gangsters – drinking and smoking and fighting and womanizing. It set us apart from all the other skaters, and really made us unique. In a lot of ways, it gave us a competitive edge.

And for me, I was like the leader of that pack. Even when I was in the wrong, I had a group of guys who always had my back. Even if I wasn’t making the wisest decisions, I had people who agreed with me, and when you’re in addiction, you don’t even see how a lot of the relationships you’ve developed are parasitical. It’s crazy how much our perception shifts when we get sober. When we’re in [addiction], we’re living in this repetitive pattern of insanity, surrounded by other insane people – birds of a feather flocking together – and then when we get sober, we don’t have to live like that anymore. So much of life becomes special because each day is different.

You gained renown as a skater at such an early age [Alva won the World Invitational Skateboard Championship, helped to develop the modern Vans skate shoe, and launched the first major skateboarding company by a skater all by the age of 19]. How did becoming a celebrity as a teenager affect your career? How did it shape you and your addictions?

Well you get a lot of free drinks at the bars. But the celebrity thing can work both ways. Because a lot of people are looking to knock you off your barstool – you think you’re on a pedestal but as a drunk, you’re not quite up that high. I was always really caught up in, “Do you know who I am?” In reality, it’s not do you know I who I am, it’s more do you know who I think I am? And that’s really dangerous because when you put those justifications for alcoholism on top of a selfish, self-seeking ego like I had, and sometimes still have, man, you got a big fire. It goes from a matchstick to a nuclear explosion like that, and for years, it would get me into a lot of trouble. It would get me in fights, it would get me thrown in jail, some people actually wanted to kill me. My ego would tell me that because of my fame, I was entitled and that I could get away with anything. But I became miserable from my own doing. It’s amazing I survived.

So, at what point did you realize that your drinking was out of control?

I was a binge drinker, and I would wake up after those binges just physically and spiritually and mentally destroyed. Some mornings I would wake up in jail cells, but no matter where I was, I was hitting the same bottom. Just that place of incomprehensible demoralization. And then I just hit this place, it was miraculous really – but I hit this place where I was able to look at myself honestly and at the same time, I had these people come into my life who I respected and could listen to. I met this therapist who I really looked up to, and when she said, “You’re not crazy, you just have issues with how you’re drinking, and how you behave around alcohol,” I listened. Had it been a judge or a cop, I would have said, “Fuck you.” Nobody cared that much or had the courage to tell me that to my face, and I was at the point in to my life when I was willing to hear it and do something about it. I was ready because I was doing the same things over and over again. I kept saying it was going to be different but there was nothing different about it. I had to let go of that terminal uniqueness, that somehow I was different, or I was special. Because if I didn’t, if I hadn’t been willing to reach out and ask for help, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be dead or in prison. And today, I am just immensely grateful for that gift, because I realize what an act of grace it was.

For decades, you had been known as “Mad Dog” – famous as much for your antics and attitude as your skating. How did you reconcile your recovery with your “Mad Dog” image?

First, I had to reconcile with the consequences of that image – and that went down to my relationships with my kids, my father, how I communicated with the people I loved. Before I got sober, it was really easy to justify that bad boy behavior and to blame it on drinking. But as I began to do the work, I learned that it’s not the drinking, it’s the thinking. Because we’ll drink no matter what. Whether my dog died or I won the lottery, I always felt justified in that first drink. Once I got sober, my behavior changed drastically. I learned that if I can alleviate the thinking before the drink, I will be able to abstain from that first drink. I learned about spiritual actions and tools I could use from guys who not only had abstinence but emotional sobriety. And now at almost 11 years sober, I try to share it with younger men. But the truth is they don’t always want it, because as long as they have the house and the nice car and the beautiful wife, they aren’t willing to get honest, even when alcoholism has them by the seat of their pants. But you can’t force anyone to change.

It was when I finally accepted that – when I finally accepted the spiritual nature of change that I entered into a whole new way of thinking. It’s led me to an intensive spirituality called self-realization. I am not really even of this body. I am a heart and a soul and that piece is eternal. It will live long after this body is gone. And that’s my faith – faith in something unseen but felt. I believe in a God that is unconditionally loving. And I’ve realized faith can from a lot of different paths – Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam – and yet we don’t have to call it religious. To me, religion is just something you do every day, which means my religion is surfing. It’s my salvation and baptism all in one. And it connects me to who I really am, not who I think I am or who I think you should I should be. I think that’s the whole point of spirituality - finding something that gives you the freedom to just be yourself. I find that same spirituality in skateboarding and music and in my quest to live clean and sober.

You’re preparing to turn 60, making you one of the oldest living professional skaters, correct? What does it mean to be hitting such a huge milestone?

I really don’t it even look at it as a number anymore [laughing]. I was born in 1957, and I remember when I turned 57, I told people I was just going to stop counting there. I would be 57 for the rest of my life, but the truth is I feel much younger than even that. Spiritually, I feel like a baby, because the last decade has been my best one because I’ve been sober, just like my first ten years of life, before I started using, so if you put those two decades together, I’m like a 20 year old kid. But I get that 60 is big. And it’s not even so much about the number as it is that I’m here, I’m still alive. As a surfer and a skater and musician, so much about my life is staying in that present moment.

image via Tony Alva

Today, I try to stay connected into that wisdom, to stay connected to the gift. I do a lot of meditation. I live like a 60-year man – I am happy and heathy and at peace. And that’s a miracle. I never realized what a gift life was until I became connected to what I call a high grade spiritual experience – not the roller coaster that sex and drugs and money and fame provided. That was all about a false sense of spirituality. And that gift is free if you’re open to the grace of God – and yet at the same time you have to work for it. I don’t carry any of that excess baggage anymore in my life. Once you get that terminal uniqueness out of your head, you stand a chance. You get the chance to really be alive. And it’s not always such a smooth and beautiful path. But when you admit that you’re powerless over something, when you’re ready to take that first step, you know it.

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Kristen McGuiness is the author of the bestselling memoir, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life. In addition, she has co-written numerous books in the genres of self-help, business, psychology, and dating, and has written for Marie ClaireAOLHuffington Post, and Salon. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, daughter, and dog Peter, and recently finished her second book, The Beautiful Lives of Sad Children. Kristen can be found on Linkedin. You can also follow her on Twitter.