Musing on Jake Johnson in Mind Field

We hear a voice, piped through the speaker pictured on our screen. It asks:

“Do you want to sit quietly? Is that what you want?”

Next, scenes of nature, cities, and people quickly come and go. The scenes are unrelated, yet fit together seamlessly. The obscure, mundane, and random are made more intriguing as they, coupled with a new-at-the-time Animal Collective track, build toward revealing who will follow Omar Salazar’s J. Mascis and Dinosaur Jr.-powered opening part.

Leading up to the release of Mind Field by Alien Workshop in 2009, little had been seen by the global skateboard world of Jake Johnson. We’re talking about the waning years before social media engrossed us, when all we’d seen from this new kid on Alien was a photo in a magazine. I’d heard Jake had a part in the Chapman video, Short Ends, but I was never able to get my hands on a copy. I recall trying to download it on Limewire, but the status bar never budged. I’ve since seen the video now, and if you haven’t, check it out for some even younger Jake footage. The late Brandon Leddy also has an excellent part.

So this kid, Jake, moves from State College, Pennsylvania, to the city of New York. That’s not an unfamiliar trajectory for a skateboarder from the northeast, but noteworthy in the chain of events it would set off. Around this time, Jake catches the eye of Jason Dill and subsequently, Alien Workshop. As Bill Strobeck mentions in his 2019 interview with The Bunt, seeing Jake skate New York in those early days was the spark he needed to get excited about filming skateboarding again. Things have worked out quite well for William since he got back behind the lens, even as he’s traded the fisheye for the zoom.

Being the talent scout that he is—which will become even more evident in the decade that follows Mind Field—Bill calls Skateboarder Magazine photographer Jonathan Mehring to come shoot photos of this new kid he’s filming with. As Mehring told Farran Golding in a Slam City Skates feature last year:

“Bill says, ‘Meet us at the Brooklyn Banks, we’re going to try and shoot this trick,’ and that’s when he did the Wallie to Frontside Tailslide on that flatbar. I think I shot it twice so Bill could film it, once long lens and again fisheye, and he did it at least two or three times. No problem. That was mind-blowing for all of us – or for me and Bill anyway,” laughs Jon. “Like, ‘Holy shit, this kid is a fucking unicorn.’” 

I love that he keeps pushing after he lands that trick in the video, too. The burst of frames of that make up that sequence were in fact what I first remember seeing from Jake. I knew that this was a guy to watch, and one more reason to eagerly anticipate the upcoming video out of Ohio.

Back to Mind Field, and the opening of Jake’s part. When he appears, just in front of the Ahead sign, he’s wearing a t-shirt from Autumn, the former skateshop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, just up the block from the famed Tompkins Square Park. This will be one of the few logos visible on him in this part. He’s looking at his board, and a reverence can be seen in the way he holds and studies it. Jake Johnson has a connection with his skateboard.

There’s an undeniable finesse in Jake’s movements, evident from the first Nollie Backside Flip. He’s a teenager throughout the filming of this video. He’s tall and lean, but not gawky or lanky. Already he’s displaying a powerful deliberateness in his movements. His form at time calls to mind ballet: poised, sharp, and charged with energy like a spring ready to uncoil. He maintains a seemingly tenuous—but in fact always controlled—connection between him and his skateboard. It’s mystical at times. No doubt Jake was breaking boards and taking plenty of slams during this time, but in watching and rewatching this part, I’m in awe that the boards beneath his feet hold their integrity, given the emphatic and improbable landings its rider pulls off.

Jake Johnson moves with grace on a skateboard. Any student of Seinfeld knows that you can’t have a little grace, and you can’t acquire grace. You have it or you don’t. Jake has it. His movements echo those of his fellow Alien Workshop teammate, the unquestionably graceful Heath Kirchart, albeit from a regular-footed stance and pointed towards more street-level terrain.

Of note as the part progresses: Jake rarely bothers with flatground lines; he’s more often interacting with and adapting to his environment. It turns out this was as much situational as it was intentional. As he tells Quartersnacks in a 2011 interview:

“In my Mind Field part, I was focussed on filming all these single tricks, but a lot of them took me three or four times of going back. I couldn’t film lines because I’d always try lines that were too hard, so I kinda made a part that was a lot of single tricks, and that’s not exactly how I wanted it to be. The injury [knee] has helped me gain a lot of patience with filming, especially with lines.”

Circumstances led him to interpreting the angles, levels, and textures of cities. Rarely does he jump out, over, or down without a grind, slide, or ride. He’s riding his skateboard across, down, and over the terrain around him.

Before we go any further, these words from that same Quartersnacks interview are worth shoehorning in here:

“The bottom line in skateboarding is that there was a message, whether we admitted it in the first few generations of skaters or not, that came from a bunch of rebellious young kids being creative and ambitious, trying to show an unfiltered perspective on a trife society that was holding us back from being creative and ambitious. They were in garages, building boards themselves and skating anything in their path. That’s what brought so much attraction to skateboarding in the first place. The message had to do with breaking down societal standards, and destroying personal property. Now, it has almost turned against us, and that same message has been filtered out because so many people are attracted to it, and we’re marketing it all to them. It’s like 70% of the people you’re marketing skateboarding to aren’t actually skaters, so they don’t get the message at all, and a lot of the skaters now don’t understand either because they picked up skating with that filtered down message intact. I don’t think skateboarding is for everyone, I liked the era when you’d had slam sections to show people that. I think it’s for everyone to appreciate, but it shouldn’t be marketed to everybody as a sport that anybody could do.”

That’s a 23-year-old speaking.

Astute admirers of classical skateboarding will see familiar form in Jake Johnson and A Visual Sound-era Jason Lee. There’s a bow-legged balance point in Jake stance that’s more often found in goofy-footers. Beyond that, it’s basic and timeless skateboarding performed in basic clothing and footwear, almost always devoid of visible logos.

In a 2014 interview, Jake told Skateboard MSM: “Every brand I’ve been riding for has gone out of business and left me in the cold. So I’m afraid to work hard for a brand. It’s all about the relationship with your board.”

Seems even the younger Jake had an inkling of things to come. That explains the reluctance to wearing logos, as well as the reverence he clearly holds for his board. While throughout this part he sports a string of nicely hanging white t-shirts, they always feature hard-to-discern-graphics rather than the wearable billboards favoured by so many skaters making a career of it.

While we’re here dissecting the exploits of a young man trying to make a career of it his own way some 15 years ago, let’s remind ourselves that less is more, and our expectations of those we idolize should always be tempered.

I’m glad to have respect from people, but sometimes it’s dangerous to have too much attention,” Jake told Skateboard MSM. “Everybody is pulling your energy, but they need to have their own energy. You need to love yourself and find enthusiasm without idolizing people.

Let’s turn briefly to the music. Animal Collective connected with Alien Workshop in Mind Field in a similar way that Dinosaur Jr. did in past videos, as in addition to this current one. This song in Jake’s part, “My Girls,” is a prescient pick. The lyrics mention not caring about material things and social status, and show a clear disdain for fancy things. In recent years, we’ve seen Jake in multiple videos skating back home in State College. Jake, his house, and his local scene, have become a place worth visiting. He’s got a great looking miniramp in his yard, and one wouldn’t be surprised to find adobe slats scattered outside the four walls of his home. Recently, he and a partner even opened up a skateshop in State College.

Back to the skating, specifically the line at 9:22. I believe this is near enough to be considered part of the Brooklyn Banks. The nine-stair that he will Fakie Heelflip later in this part are directly behind us. A basic yet rarely-seen manual leads to him riding switch down an inclined brick path towards an imposing NYPD barrier. At this point, wallies hadn’t reached their zenith point, and yet here’s our subject piloting one switch over a full-sized barrier, with poise.

Let’s give it up for the beautiful simplicity of this bench line under the bridge, alongside the river. The opening Frontside Boardslide to fakie acts as a sort of boosted and extended Backside 180, a stylish stance change in preparation for what’s to come. Note the casualness with which Jake lands, easily turning himself enough for two switch pushes, lining up for a near-waist high Switch Backside 50-50 on a subsequent bench. After that, he keeps going. To where? We don’t find out. As is often the case with lines, he probably tried for a flatground trick at the end. In some cases, cutting the clip while the skater is still pushing can feel like a misprinted book where a sentence doesn’t continue on the next page. In this particular case though, Jake’s push is an ellipsis (…), letting us imagine what might have come next. As a sidebar to that point on punctuation, PJ Ladd’s famous part-ending push is an absolute exclamation point.

While my awareness of what to expect in skate videos wasn’t all that sharp in 2003, back when Habitat’s Mosaic came out, I can now pick up on a similar feeling of being floored by this part, just like I was with Danny Renaud’s opening part in that video. Jake’s Switch Backside Tailslide at 10:53 echoes Danny’s at 3:01, despite the difference in obstacles and the direction of landings. Danny of course ended his part on the mirrored version of that hubba Jake is skating, with a Backside Noseblunt Slide and one of the all-time greatest ride-aways.

Nearing the end, I again pick up on echoes of Heath Kirchart in Jake’s skating, most notably in the manual, pivot, fakie manual, fakie flip combo. There’s something in his stature, coupled with that quick flick. You have an inkling that the flip is coming the first time, but it happens fast enough to surprise you even upon multiple viewings.

While flip tricks can be impressive— and Jake pulls off some great ones in this part—there’s something even more remarkable about the connection between him and his board in the instances where he intends for it to never leave his feet. Let’s dig into that shocking Wallride down the brick double set. What made him think he could do that? Why that wall? Everytime I see this clip, I let out some sort of amazed laugh. As Strobeck relates in his interview with The Bunt, they were just there, and Jake was looking at the wall for awhile and said, “Maybe I could wallride this.” From there, he proceeded to take one down to the bottom stairs. “Five tries later, he was rolling away,” says Strobeck. The subsequent photo, taken by Jonathan Mehring, stands as one of the greatest skateboard photos of all time.

Skateboarding is for kids, to give them a cool idea and not to sell them products,” says Jake in his 2014 interview with Skateboard MSM. Wallrides were not something I’d seen much of in my decade as a skateboarder to this point. Obviously I knew they could be done, and had done my best to try, but they were rarely seen in videos, and certainly never in such an impactful way. Suffice to say, Jake gave the kids a cool idea that would have a weighty impact on skateboarding in the years to come.

Moving forward in this final swell, Jake sets himself on a yet another switch-stance trajectory, this time towards a next-level maneuver that will drop jaws. First though, a bird must fly out of the way while he rolls up and prepares to Switch Ollie over the top of a handrail and grind down it. And there’s that mystical connection to his skateboard. There are moments in this up and over where his board is completely detached from his feet. Regardless, he’s trusting that he’s heels are going to level the board out before he sets it down—again, backwards—on the rail.

Regarding the final trick, it’s one of the heaviest wallrides—done switch at that!—of all time. It’s heavy enough that it was hard for guys that have seen their share of heavy moves to comprehend. As Mehring recounted in his Slam City Skates feature: “He said, ‘I’m going to do this Switch Wallride.’ I don’t think I understood exactly what he was talking about–because I always looked at that spot as the hubba. I don’t think I’d really looked at the wallride.” The way he sets it down, with again, just that most subtle shift of his feet to level the board out, sums up the delicate balance on display throughout this part.

In closing, the main component of future Jake Johnson skateboarding that isn’t telegraphed in this part is his penchant for taking no-complies to the next level. If you really want to fit it in there though, maybe his penultimate trick, the Nosegrind on the tall out ledge, offers just a whisper of what’s to come, when his front perilously floats freely board the board while he descends the six foot drop.

Let’s end this on another quote from the young prophet, as told to Quartersnacks in 2011:

“Now that skateboarding is popular, we have people and companies who are willing to filter money through skateboarders, but it’s up to us, as individuals and as a community to take control of that opportunity. We need to support skateboarding at its core, so that kids and newcomers understand the meaning behind skateboarding. Otherwise they will not make healthy decisions for the community and we will eventually collapse under the mounting pressure from outside sources who are only looking for a return on their investment.”