Duane Peters - The Master of Disaster
Skateboarding may be the fountain of eternal youth. But in a youth centric world, how easy is it to keep the dream alive?
by Andrea Kurland
Skateboard champion and punk-rock vocalist Duane Peters has been an idol of the underground skate-punk movement for three decades. Known among his fans as the Master of Disaster, Peters is largely credited with pioneering the counterculture that unites skateboarding and punk music. Skin-headed, missing his two front teeth, and festooned with tattoos and safety-pin earrings, he has been skateboarding since the late 1970s, and has led such punk bands as the U.S. Bombs and The Hunns. A heroin user in his earlier days, Peters renounced drugs in his mid-30s. Now 59 years young, remains a strong presence in extreme sports and alternative music.
“Skateboarders were really outspoken, fairly dirty, broken families, broken homes.” Duane Peters doesn’t talk in straight lines. His thoughts play hopscotch around his head, darting from one memory to the next. “First you’re rolling, then you’re sidewalk surfing, then breaking into a backyard pool. Helicopters, cops – the whole drill is a rush. And you want more and more and next thing you know you’ve got vertical, pipes, bowls, all this underground stuff, so you travel in packs. Then bands started migrating towards skateboarding, like Devo, Ramones, Eater, and you just discover more and more…”
This little slideshow, as frenetic as it may seem, would make for a pretty accurate biopic of skate punk. Push fast-forward and you’ll see two life stories playing out as one: littleDuane Peters, the spiky-haired kid from the wrong side of the OC, throwing a punk-shaped spanner into sidewalk surfing’s clean-cut works; and skateboarding itself, which by the mid-seventies was just two decades into its infancy. Together they’ve grown up side-by-side, each adding to the other’s story like an old married couple perched on a stoop.
But if this life-long habit – the perpetual need for “more and more” – sounds like an addiction, that’s because it probably is. Duane’s first hit started innocently enough: pissed-off kid gets kicked out of home and throws his energy into an old, wooden plank. Aged sixteen, he nails the first-ever loop – a gravity-defying, 360-degree run on a tunnel-like ramp. Soon he discovers punk, punk discovers him, and while the Dogtown boys carve a filmic narrative destined for the big screen, he takes inspiration from the Badlands crew and catapults skateboarding down a radical path, where hair is short, jeans are tight and punk rock is a religious faith.
That was then. This is now. But the story has stayed pretty much the same: ”I’ve just been living life like this for quite a while. I live in my own time zone – I see the world the way I want to see it because it is my right as an individual. And I learned that pretty much all from punk rock and skateboarding.”
It’s 9am, California time, and in a raspy voice that grazes your eardrum, Duane is belting down the phone from his home in Laguna Beach. Despite the odd slur and tangential thought, he insists he’s “wide awake, been up for hours.” You get the feeling that, for this fifty-year-old at least, sleeplessness is less a sign of age, more the fallout of an overactive mind. And body.
Between daily skate sessions, drop-ins with sponsors to discuss this or that punk-infused product (a Duane Peters Fender guitar, anyone?) and three bands to front, the ‘Master of Disaster’ has managed to tame chaos into his own erratic non-routine. Only, there’s nothing nine-to-five about DP. “I have a six-year-old kid who is out of his mind, interested in everything and can’t focus on one thing. I totally get it,” says Duane, talking out one corner of his mouth, no doubt because a cigarette is dangling out the other. While most guys his age are thinking about pensions, Duane’s about to head out on tour, playing teen haunts night after night, with U.S. Bombs. All just a couple months after placing sixth at the Pro-Tec Pool Party Masters comp, two spots behind Tony Hawk who, he laughs, “is like seven years younger.”
“Most guys my age are done,” adds Duane, “but I said when I was eighteen that I could mark my own time. It’s like a lot of shit that kid said was green, but a lot of shit that he said was right, ’cause the kid could think outside the box.”
“How much shit you need to swim through, who knows. But you know there’s ice cream down the road.”
His thoughts may jump around like fleas, but every word hits a nail on the head. This life of skate doesn’t just happen – you need to hustle your way to longevity. “You’ve got to have perseverance,” says Duane, who’s kept bread on the table by keeping it real – infusing the stench of authenticity into his namesake clothing line (DISASTR77) and punk label (Disaster Records) – even when the ad men were hovering around like flies. “These days you’ve got clothing companies, energy drinks… But when you take a job just because they offer you dough, it takes sometimes years of going, ‘Wow, how come I’m not happy?’ My rule recently has been: if it ain’t cool, I ain’t doing it. I have a manger now, and she knows the rules.”
Management, business, contracts, rules – sounds suspiciously like adult life. But for Duane, the end always justifies the means. And unlike droids with boxes to tick, that doesn’t mean trudging through shit towards dollar signs; it means simply surviving in order to skate. “If I wasn’t skating, I would hopefully be dead,” says Duane, who’s spoken openly about his troubles with heroin in the past. “I remember thinking, ‘I have to get off this shit – I gotta go skate.’ Football can’t save you like skateboarding can. Once those guys’ careers are over, there’s no reason to do it besides the money. If you’re really in love with something you do it whether they pay you or not.”
Skateboarder by day? Punk rocker by night? Could this noxious concoction hold the key to life? “Well, I’ll tell you what isn’t the fountain of youth: football,” spits Duane, returning to his analogy. “All these guys that play football, if they don’t turn into a coach, they end up at the bar rooting for some other team as if they were doing something. I grab my board and put it together: I jump in my car, I go to the pool and I skate. I’m not sitting there on the sideline watching. That’s the difference. This will never be a sport to me – it’s a lifestyle. It’s the same with punk rock. We’re all monkeys. I’ve been a monkey all my life. There is a sense of needing to be on stage that helps me validate myself, and realistically I get sick of it at times. But then I go, ‘Well, fuck man, what the fuck else would I be doing?’ And I get back in the car.”
Duane is committed to his love affair with skate, but he doesn’t begrudge those who’ve moved on: “When someone quits skating or quits punk, it’s their prerogative. For me to have some opinion of it would be a contradiction of my own beliefs about my own individuality. Why would I wish for individualism for me but not for another individual? That’s retarded.” And as much as he “wouldn’t change his lifestyle for the world,” he sees self-satisfaction as the end of the line (“If you’re content, you may as well take a bow”) and nostalgia as a game for fools. “Talk to someone that’s not skating that much and they’ll be like, ‘Back in ’76, skateboarding was at its best’,” says Duane, sounding old for the first time. “I’m not that guy – I’m digging where everything is at – and I hope I never turn into that guy.”
This ability to live in the here and now has no doubt been a saving grace in a life not unmarked by tragedy. In 2007, Duane’s eldest son, Chess, was killed in a car accident. He was just twenty years old. “You don’t get to feel the pain I feel if you don’t have kids, but you don’t get the benefits of having them and watching them grow,” says Duane, expounding the wisdom that only comes with time.
But often with wisdom comes regret, and like tattoos – or rings on a tree trunk – Duane gathers his as he grows. “I’ve got tons, millions in fact,” he says, “but I don’t live in them, I move on. Nothing happens by mistake. Everything is the way it is meant to be, and if you don’t understand it now, you will later. Life’s a movie, but you can’t just watch it go by. Live in it, roll with it. It can’t just be some boring movie, you got to get in there and mix it up. And wow, man, sometimes it’s a really bad movie, but like a gnarly rollercoaster ride you gotta pick the movie back up and get some good stuff going on. You gotta get that victim shit off.”
And if the Master of Disaster could press rewind in this funny old film called life, would he whisper any wisdom in his own teenaged ear? “There’s really no advice I could give myself, because I know I wouldn’t have listened,” says Duane, clearly at peace with who he was, who he is and the fact those people are one and the same. “All you can do is really roll on. There are certain things I believe helped me – the laws of the universe – and they get you there when they get you there. You just need to go through shit to get to the ice cream, you know. How much shit you need to swim through, who knows. But you know there’s ice cream down the road.”