Mark Whiteley remembers Phil Shao
There’s a spot on Highway 101 way up in northern California, just south of Humboldt State, that might be my least favorite place on Earth, to the point that I try to forget it’s even there. Last week I was driving with my wife and kids down the coast from Portland to the Bay Area on a vacation roll and only a few minutes beforehand did I realize I was about to come upon it once again. It’s the spot where one of my best friends died in a car crash 16 years ago. His name was Phil Shao. Some of you might remember him.
Wait, wait, wait-- way too much of a bummer way to start this out! Phil would not approve. But it’s a heavy location for me and driving past it made me want to write this so I had to acknowledge it. Phil would also not approve that I started the last sentence with “But.” More on that later.
Let’s take it back a bit further. Sorry in advance, this is gonna be a long one.
In 1990, I started using my parents’ video camera to film the homies skating now and then. We were just like all the kids from that generation who were inspired by the H-Street videos, Rubbish Heap, etc. to pick up a camera and make our own video because it looked like we could. So I did. Dumb little edits from around our little town, but it was rad. In the early summer of ’92, I invested $99 into a screw-on fisheye lens that would fit the family video camera and it turned out to be the purchase that most changed the direction of my life. I put the lens on, called up my friend Nate and we filmed a whole new video part in a couple days (edited to Cypress Hill, a sure sign of the times). With that fisheye, I was suddenly an official filmer. I showed the edit of Nate to a few friends and people started to know I was into it.
Later that summer I was introduced to William Nguyen, who was a local am on Santa Cruz and trying to finish filming a part for their next video. This was the first time I was introduced as “a filmer” to anybody. He asked if I could help him finish his part and over the next few months he would come and pick me up to go filming around the Bay Area (I didn’t even have a license yet). In October of 1992, the video BPSW (aka Big Pants Small Wheels) came out, William had the last part and my footage of him was all over it, including first and last tricks. My name was in the credits. Having that under my belt gave me the confidence that I could really pursue being a filmer and so a couple weeks later, I was at my local shop with friends when I saw a guy I had seen around a couple times-- a guy who had been in the mags, a guy I knew was sponsored, “a guy named Phil” as Transworld had captioned him in a photo—and I introduced myself and said that if he ever needed to go film anything that I was around and would be happy to do it. He was stoked and wrote his name and number in the October ’92 issue of SLAP and gave it to me. A couple days later, we went out skating and filming for the first time. From that day on for the next almost six years, I don’t think more than a couple weeks ever went by without us doing that same thing. We became fast friends and a new chapter of my life was up and running.
Soon after, it was decided that Think was going to do a new video and so it worked out that we had a project to work on. We went after it. It was late ’92 into early ’93 and the prime time for flippity-floppity skating that we were all guilty of, but prior to my knowing him, Phil had been a tranny gnar dog, complete with long hair and tricks that were not in style in the early ‘90s (like laybacks; he had a mean one). Watching him meld those skills with more modern street skating was always a joy. He was so smooth on all-terrain and pretty untouchable at a mini ramp session. We went all over the Bay Area and skated with tons of new people, he got better and better, picked up a shoe sponsor, and come September ’93, Phil turned pro at the Back to the City contest (the one where Girl was unveiled). He killed it and took 3rd, right alongside Matt Beach who also turned pro at that contest and won it. Christian Hosoi congratulated Phil after the contest, telling him that he liked Phil’s style. I don't think I ever saw a bigger smile on anybody’s face then right there.
We filmed on through the fall and towards the end of ’93, Think released Just Another Day on the Range featuring parts that I had helped film for with Dan Drehobl, Matt Pailes, Paul Zuanich, and the debut part for Phil. I had also started contributing footage to Thrasher and been asked to join the fledgling 411 earlier that year, so we had other outlets to keep being productive with after the Think project was done. We started in on his “Rookies” 411 part that would come out in October of ’94. It was during this time that Phil really started to come into his own. The early ‘90s switch-double-late-varial stuff was gone and Phil started putting his power, grace and speed to proper use. Faster, further, cleaner. The coping dancing was done, replaced with chest-high f/s flips and nosegrind pop-ins up the extension. And Greer. Nobody even came close at Greer. He did transfers in the bowls that have never been repeated to this day. Not a lot of guys could do tailslide kickflip out on a ledge at one session and then go down the road and blast 10’ channel transfers at the next. Definitely not in the early ‘90s.
Towards the end of summer ’94, I moved 45 minutes south to Santa Cruz to go to college but that just expanded our range. We started filming towards what would become his Damage part and that period is when he really hit his stride and started doing the things that he would become remembered for, trick-wise and also stylistically. Fast and loose ATV, pure style. The b/s 180 over the entire pyramid at Santa Rosa, stuff like that. I moved back home for the summer in ’95 and I remember those summer days that year so well. I was working part-time moving furniture, he was doing junior college summer school. We would all hang out at Paul and Phil’s place on sweltering days, hand-rolling cigarettes and blasting Stereolab until it cooled down so we could skate. He was just crushing it everywhere we went. We skated at night a lot that summer and it was so fun. The line that starts off his part in Damage was filmed at the San Jose Sharks stadium in the middle of the night. Those were the purest skate days, out in the streets doing it every day. One of my favorite days from that summer was the one where he slammed on a bump to bar, which ended up in the opening to Damage. The footage looks terrible, like he hit his face on the rail, but in reality he was laughing before he hit the ground and lay there chuckling about such a stupid slam for quite some time. That’s just exactly how he was.
The summer passed, I went back to Santa Cruz, and the year ended. 1995 had been great-- but 1996 was about to become probably my favorite skate year of all-time, and I gotta say that it was Phil’s best year. It was his peak. Damage came out and we went right into filming for Emerica’s Yellow video. Phil and Drehobl had been good friends for years but filming with both of them for that video at that time was unreal. They were so gnarly together, just the rawest twin destroyers crushing SF. McKenney, too. Murder at China Banks. Dan and Phil had back-to-back parts in that video, sharing a song (“Kids From the Black Hole” and I gotta say sorry AVE but they had you beat by a solid decade with that one). I think it was his best part while he was alive and we filmed it all in a pretty short period—just shows you where his skating was at during that time. Effortless and gnarly. So relaxed, so casual—you can see it in the arms, the hands, the knees, his swerve, his push. Nobody like him. I filmed my favorite line of him that summer—it’s in the Yellow part, as well as his Dedication part after he passed. Kickflip up the curb straight into a wall ride, ollie a little bump, feeble grind pop-out on a ledge with wall at the end of it, 360 flip while riding away down the hill. That was my number one. We watched the footage of it right after and I remember him saying all goofy to me, “You’re the best filmer in town!” I’m always stoked when I remember that day.
One quick note here: I wasn’t there when he grinded the top bar at Miley unfortunately, but here’s a good one. I’ve written about it before, but it’s worth mentioning again. A week or two after he grinded it, we were out filming for Yellow in SF and he said he wanted to go back. That day, he got into and slid several tailslides on the top bar, same place where he grinded it. We lost the daylight and the camera batteries were cooked after a long day but he was real close. I don't think anybody ever did that one. Somebody should step to it for him.
Right after we wrapped filming for Yellow, as I had hoped and dreamed for years, I was invited on a summer tour. Phil told me it was happening and I quit my summer job at Whole Foods on the spot so I could get ready to go. To this day, of all the many trips around the world I have been on for skateboarding, that tour was the craziest of all. No team manager, 15 dudes in their own cars, a weird mash-up of companies involved, no photographer and just me filming, driving cross-country for weeks on end. We had some demo dates lined up but that was it. Each guy got $20 a day to live on. Hotels or people’s houses were whatever we found when we got there. It ruled. Phil, Paul, Drehobl, Pailes, Jesse Paez, Joe Sierro, Don Carey, Chad Fernandez and Joel Price from Think; Justin Strubing and Hanzy Driscoll from Adrenaline; Brian Childers from Santa Cruz; and Chet Childress and Bob Reynolds from Creature. It came together like that because Bob Reynolds worked in the shipping warehouse of Think and Adrenaline while also riding for Creature out of NHS, which was in Santa Cruz where I knew all the SC guys, too. The kind of thing that would probably never happen today. Within minutes of leaving SF, it went off. A side window in Bob’s van shattered on the freeway and for the rest of the trip, it was covered with various pages out of porn mags taped together. We would skate the demo in Reno or wherever until late and then drive all night blasting Black Sabbath, trying to stay awake until we couldn’t anymore. We'd crash wherever we could find a place then get up and drive the rest of the way to Salt Lake, or Ft Collins, or Lincoln, or Cleveland, or upstate New York or New Hampshire or Boston or whatever was next on the list. So many crazy stories. Having to leave town fast because of somebody and an underage girl. The family of the kid who invited the whole lot of us to stay at their house, feed us and do our laundry... we promptly shaved their son’s head in a double Mohawk and several of the guys ran through the older sister. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere and relying on Paul to fix the engine. Watching insane sunrises after all-nighters in Phil’s car, blasting “Hole In The Sky” or the Morrissey tape that Gonz had made him. Impromptu gas station sessions. Endless hours, endless miles. And just incredible skating. Everybody skated and killed it at every stop. Fun, fun, fun. I turned 20 during the trip, somewhere in Massachusetts, and the journey became a 411 article in issue 20.
The trip ended, summer ended, we both went back to our respective colleges and just went about our business for awhile, skating together one place or another every couple weeks. I started working on a Skateworks shop video for the Strubing family that would bridge the gap between Santa Cruz and Bay Area and Phil had a part in that. I gave some rad SF stuff to Thrasher for another video (when it came time to get paid for it, I went in to Thrasher to collect a check. Jake said, “Who are you and why should we pay you anything? What did you film?” I told him it was footage of Phil, and he said immediately, “Alright, pay the kid”) but that summer of ’96 ended up being the last time we were really filming regularly for a project or two. But darn, it was a good one.
Phil continued to kill it into ’97 but wasn’t working towards anything part-wise so there isn’t a lot of my footage from around then—but there are a few good ones, like him crushing the bank to barrier down on the Embarcadero in SF and his f/s pivot on the tight tranny wall we called "Trash Banks" in Palo Alto (18” of tranny, three feet of vert, just impossible). Then, at some point in ’97, he was down in So Cal and shooting photos when he really messed up his knee. He did his ACL and maybe his MCL, too... I’m not positive. But it really set him back. He had to get surgery and was on crutches for a long time. It was during this down time that he started spending more time at High Speed—home of Thrasher and SLAP. He’d obviously always been tight with the crew via friendships and sponsorships but it was mutually agreed upon that while he was hurt, he should be around Thrasher and help with writing and editing, given his education and knowledge in general. So Phil would go in most days, ride the exercise bike in Jake’s office to rehab his knee and work at the mag. I remember how stoked he was when he went to pick up Daewon at the airport to bring him to the photo shoot that would become the “Hesh vs Fresh” cover with Wade. After a while of this, it was decided that after he recovered, he would do another strong video part or two and then transition into being the new editor at Thrasher. Jake had been wanting to pass the torch at the time and there was nobody better than Phil to take it. So, in some alternate future that never happened, Phil would have been the editor at Thrasher at the same time I would become the editor at SLAP.
Another thing that came up around then and never got to happen was that Phil was going to have a company of his own through Think. It got pretty far along, narrowed down to a couple potential names and a list of guys who were either going to ride for it or Phil talked to about riding for it. The name was either going to be Dump Truck or TNT. There were even some graphic ideas getting put down on paper. The names I remember being involved were Phil, Paul Zuanich, Tim Upson, Tim McKenney and Mike Matilainen. Some other folks that were interested or talked to about it were Karma Tsocheff, Jerry Hsu and Colt Cannon. Anyhow, it’s too bad that never came to life, it could have been a good one with Phil at the helm.
So anyhow, Phil continued going to school, working at the mag and rehabbing for awhile. In early ’98, he started skating again, getting back into the groove. He was skating pools and ledges and building his strength back up, but I seem to recall he got slightly hurt again somewhere in there and it was slow going for a while. But it was coming. I was just about to graduate from college and Phil told me that there had been some talks about bringing in an assistant editor at SLAP to help Dawes run it and that he and Paul, who was also working at High Speed, had brought my name up. With all the friends and connections I had made in the NorCal industry over the years, it sounded like a lot of people were backing it. Paul and Phil started pushing hard for it but it was slow getting anything going until one day, Phil and I were out skating at a local park when a very young Tony Vitello needed a ride home. Phil and I dropped him off and went around the back to say hello to Fausto, who was sitting poolside. Phil introduced me, saying “This is the guy I’ve been telling you about for SLAP.” Fausto told me I should come by the office the next day to talk, so I did. My “interview” was about three minutes long (including Fausto asking me if I was a hippie) and then I was offered the job as Managing Editor at SLAP, which had long been my favorite magazine and even played a part in Phil and I becoming friends with him passing his number to me in the back of an issue. I kinda couldn’t believe it. We decided I would start in a couple weeks as I was just about to go on a road trip with friends, so I did that and then started working at High Speed on Monday, August 10th, 1998. I was 21 and just six weeks out of college. Phil pretty much got me the job.
11 days later, on a Friday evening after work, Phil and Diego Bucchieri (who had been staying with Paul and Phil, skating and learning to speak English at their house) met up with me on a hill bomb session for a couple of hours. Those two were just about to leave on a road trip up to Oregon with some of the Thrasher guys, so we decided to have a session before they hit the road. We mashed all over Potrero Hill, flying around and stopping for a beer. I was riding a big cruiser board and going faster than them half the time... I remember really distinctly coming down the east side of 18th near De Haro and passing Phil mid-block, looking back and him having this huge smile on his face, stoked that I was going faster than him. Makes me smile every time I think of it.
Our session ended and I went to drop them off at Greg Carroll’s place to get ready to leave. We said our goodbyes, see you in a couple days, and parted ways. For some unknown reason, I stopped and watched Phil and Diego walk down the block away from me, west on 23rd towards the Mission. The sun was setting behind them and it was a pretty summer evening in SF. It was the last time I ever saw Phil.
They headed out on the road and the next day made it as far north as Arcata, CA. There’s some footage of him skating that night, on a little mini ramp in barn of some sort. He was still on the mend but skating well. Arcata is home to Humboldt State University, and there was some local party they were invited to. As I understand it, they stayed at the party pretty late, past midnight, and Phil decided to catch a ride back to where they were staying with a girl at the party, a student who was moving back to the dorms. She had been drinking. On the freeway just south of the exit for Humboldt State, she either fell asleep or passed out and went off the road into the ditch that ran alongside the freeway. The crash was pretty bad. The report that I saw after the fact said that when the police got to the scene, the girl was not badly injured but was out of it and said that nobody else was with her in the vehicle. Because of that statement and because she was in the process of moving and her clothing and things were strewn all over the inside of the car, nobody knew that Phil was also in the vehicle at first. When the police did find him, he was gone. There’s no way to know whether or not he died instantly or if there might have been time to do something. I like to think it was instant, and I know he would have preferred it that way.
The girl who’d been driving did a little time in jail but Phil’s family did not press hard charges. I believe she spent a lot more time speaking to people about drunk driving. And I’m sure she lives with it every day. I never learned her name or anything about her. I never wanted to.
Oh and wait-- did I mention that he passed on my birthday? Yup. So I have that one with me forever. Tony Vitello’s, too. I believe that word got round about what had happened that evening but nobody wanted to call and tell me since it was my birthday. I found out the next morning at work when all the guys who should have been on the trip with him were in the office not looking too well. Jake told me the news. I was in a daze. I remember walking down to leave the office when in walked Diego. He still barely spoke any English. We just looked at each other and gave each other a big hug. (In recent years I have had the pleasure of being employed by the same company as Diego and we still always sign off our emails with “Un abrazo.”) Later I thought about how insane it must have been for him: in a foreign country he barely knew, hardly any English, staying with somebody who died. His whole world must have seemed gone. Anyhow, I started driving home. The Beatles song “Two Of Us” came on and I cried the entire way home. I went straight to Mike Matilainen's house. He was barely moving. He’d been through a lot the last couple years. He was the one who told me nobody had wanted to call me about it on my birthday, and that he was sorry I found out like I did. I don’t remember anything else from that day. The next day I went back to work and it was deadline. I had to write his obituary that day to get it done in time for the issue. Hadn’t I just been skating with him a couple days before? It didn’t seem real.
Phil had been doing a lot of story writing for Thrasher around that time and he was working on one about skating pools right before he passed. I don’t have a lot of regrets in my life but I have one from the first week I was working at SLAP, just before he passed. I was pretty tired from the mental stress of figuring out a new job and working full time in an office for the first time, when Phil told me he had a nearby pool lined up for an evening session... just me and him, I didn’t go because I was tired. It’s the only time I ever said no to going skating with him. The article had gone to press before he passed and right after he passed, it came out. In it he wrote about the fact that I didn’t go with him and he skated the pool alone. He referred to the character of Little Fidel in the story, but it was me (I was into wearing this little black beanie and I had a crappy beard going). In the light of him being gone and there being nothing I could do to change missing that session with him, I was devastated reading that. That feeling, and having to write the obituary for him in my first issue, knowing that he had lined the job up for me—it was almost too much and I thought about not going back to the mag. I quickly came to the realization that there was probably nothing that would disappoint him more than me walking away from what we had set up, walking away from the opportunity to do something great. So I went back and put my heart and soul into SLAP for almost 13 years after that. I put his initials (PAS) first in the staff “thanks” section every single month. I owed him a lot. I loved him a lot. I missed him a lot. Still do. Thinking back on it, he was the older guy in our crew and he seemed so grown up—but he was only 24 when he died. 24. He was still a kid. He packed tons into those years, living more fully than many who live much longer, but there was a lot he never had the chance to experience. I get bummed when I think about all the great things that have happened in my life since then that he didn’t get to be part of and that’s when I miss him the most. But that’s rare. Mostly I just think of the best times together.
What I remember most fondly about Phil wasn’t the skating, it was his personality. He was so funny, and nice, and a dick, and sarcastic, and smart, and an idiot and the raddest to hang out with. He was brutally honest. No ego, ever. But mainly, he was so fun. Looking at his footage for the subtleties of him as a person, you can see it come through. Big goofy smiles in the middle of lines or after slams, weird little comments you can barely hear under the music (“Hey, I made it!,” “Whoa, around the world!,” “I’m, like, the gnarler!”, etc.). He loved Mozart as much as he loved ACDC. He skated to Weird Al in a contest and laughed so hard at the lyrics that he couldn’t land anything. He graduated from UC Berkeley (English Lit major; you don’t start a sentence with “But” from above) at the peak of his skating career and hardly anybody knew he was even going to college at the same time because he was crushing it so hard. He was the total package that a skater could ever dream to be, and he was as great a person as I have ever known. I think he sent me a postcard from just about every trip he ever went on. That kind of guy.
But the skating… well, that speaks for itself. Like Gonz before him, like Cardiel with him, like Grant after him, he slayed everything with power, creativity and unique style. It says a lot when Julien Stranger puts you in an ad for a company you didn’t even ride for and says “The straight up best skater I knew” out of respect. But he deserved it, for damn sure.
All hail Phil Shao! One of the best to ever do it. More importantly, my friend.