The caveman-poet of skateboarding
Through all the wildness, the first thing you notice is his smile. Almost childishly joyful, but with an honesty; a knowing.
A smile with the ability to disarm the untamed shock of his appearance: that rough, scraggly ginger beard and slowly thinning locks; the skin turned to leather through decades of wear; those long, sinewy limbs; the torn shorts and vest; the monk-like eyes of a man who has seen a lot go down.
A smile punctuated by a rotting front tooth. One that can erupt into laughter without warning, filling any space it occupies.
Right now, it comes on like rolling thunder as he recalls how his old man used to roll around the floor of his childhood home, laughing at the sight of Sir Rob Muldoon on an old television advertisement.
"It must be Watties!" Lee Ralph cackles, mimicking Piggy's famous sneer.
The laughter fills the lounge of his flat in Swanson, Wild West Auckland. Smiles grow on the faces of his company, and how could they not? Ever heard a Yeti laugh? Ever seen a caveman giggle?
"Remember that ad with Piggy Muldoon? That's what he used to say on it. It must be Watties! Dad used to love it – he would crack up big time, eh. That was some funny shit. Muldoon, man."
Ralph extends one of his long muscular arms to the coffee table, picks up a sweating stubbie of Haagen and drains the last mouthful. Half a box of beer down and Ralph could be any ordinary Kiwi bloke right now, enjoying a cold one and talking with the boys.
But what if someone told you that this weathered 43-year-old with a beatific smile was a living legend – a man who changed a sport forever?
That's right. Lee Ralph: the caveman-poet of skateboarding, a guy who went to California in the mid-80s as a wide-eyed Auckland teenager and outshone the world's best during the sport's glory years.
THINK OF how the Sex Pistols, with all their shooting-star rawness and passion, changed modern music, and you get an idea about the impact Ralph has had on skateboarding, a 20 million-strong nation these days.
"He was aggressive, but had a really good style, just so flowing," says film-maker Andrew Moore, director of the documentary No More Heroes, which focuses on the rise of Kiwi skateboarding in the 70s and 80s.
"He did a lot of tricks that no-one had seen over there, and the Americans just loved it. To this day, any American skater you meet will always ask about Lee Ralph.
"Lee's more hardcore than any sort of hardcore rock'n'rollers I've met."
Former Kiwi pro boarder Chey Ataria agrees. "He's more myth than man. If he was still in the States, he could have been a rich man through skateboarding.
"He was just right into the actual skateboarding thing, that's all. He wasn't too concerned about image or anything like that – just doing it, nothing else."
Yet to hear Ralph's story, of his rise, fall and everything between, you've got to find him first. That's a big enough challenge. Prepare yourself for frustration, for months of dead-end questions, no-result telephone conversations and shaking, smirking heads.
"You'll never find him," those in the know will tell you. "He doesn't really live anywhere. He just pops up, and then you might not see him for months."
"Lee? I think he lives in Aussie. I'm not sure. I wish I could tell you."
"He's a ghost, mate. A bloody legend, but a ghost."
"Lee Ralph? Good luck, bro."
He'll know you're looking for him. He will have heard through the grapevine. Consider it a test. If you keep trying long enough, someone will ring you one day with a phone number, and some rough directions to where he lives in Swanson.
That's where Ralph lives with his partner, Tanya, in a faded red-and-white caravan without wheels in the front yard of the property.
Here he uses his daylight hours cutting firewood at the back of the property, or working on his latest Maori wood carving for an upcoming exhibition.
There's no hint of his past anywhere around the flat or caravan. His battle-worn body carries his life story, not magazine clippings or beaten old boards.
"I don't keep memorabilia."
AGED 8, while living in New Lynn, he saw a magazine cover with a young Tony Alva shredding it on a ramp in Los Angeles. Alva's sheer cool, the symmetry and perfection of the image blew Ralph's mind. That's what he wanted.
The wheels were set in motion for Ralph when, aged 11, he moved with his mother, Sylvia, to Wellington and met Gregor Rankin, the first Kiwi to crack it in the States. Under Rankin's influence, skateboarding became Ralph's life, an art practised and thought about every waking hour.
In life, passion always finds its reward. Ralph's came in 1986, when the 18-year-old, living back in Auckland, was introduced to Los Angeles pro Mark Gonzales by Rankin. "The Gonze" would later be celebrated as one of the sport's true pioneers but, to Ralph, he was simply another teen with a thirst for vert. The two had an instant rapport and, before long, Ralph was on the plane to California.
Ralph would hit the local half-pipes and bowls and, through Gonzales, was introduced to all the heavy-hitters around LA: Alva, his longtime hero Steve Caballero and Lance Mountain, who he stayed with for a while.
Ralph, who was straight edge back then – no booze, no drugs – would skate hard, watch them do their thing and couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"I was getting better every day. It was ridiculous," he says.
"I was watching these pro guys skate and it dawned on me. I was like, no way, I'm going to get better than these guys, not just catch up with them.
"I actually knew then that I'd reach the goal and go beyond the goal. I got to a point where I was getting so good at skateboarding that it blew my mind to smithereens. I was going to bed at night laughing, thinking what I've done that day."
THROUGH WHISPERS and magazine spreads, news of Ralph's growing eminence spread quickly in the skate scene.
His name, and talk about his style, was everywhere: aggressive but smooth as hell; absolutely intoxicating; the raw islander, caveman-wild with the complete toolbox of tricks, and four big tiki slung around his neck whenever he competed. Ralph was the ultimate rough diamond, a man absolutely focused on skateboarding. Nothing else mattered.
Everything began coming fast to Ralph. Vision Skateboards, then the hottest brand in the world, signed him up, and began producing Lee Ralph-branded boards, featuring koru and Maori designs.
The Kiwi would receive $1 from every purchase of a board, netting up to US$12,000 (NZ$14,700) a month on a good month.
Then, with the world at his feet, his LA dream ended. Without a green card, Ralph was living and earning money in the States illegally, and he was given the boot. He headed back to Auckland and, with money from Vision starting to pour in, began to hit the booze. A bad knee injury threw his focus even more. No skating meant lots of drinking. Things got dark.
"I was killing it, man. Living the dream, but booted out of that," he says. "That was major depression time, for sure. Even though I hadn't actually made any money, I was just about to. I'd just turned pro."
As dark as it got, salvation beckoned. Ralph moved to Munster, Germany, for two years and became one of the shining lights of skateboarding in Europe.
The golden spell returned. Ralph competed in the Skateboarding World Cup in 1988 and 89, the X Games before there was the X Games. Wild tours of Europe with charismatic legend Christian Hosoi, the Ying to Tony Hawk's Yang, rolled on. Ralph was a hot item again, but the money from Vision began to dry up.
Barred from entering the States, he had no way of getting in front of the right company executives and, with the almost exponential rise of street skating, his days were numbered.
In 1990, Ralph left the scene a second time. Except for a brief return to LA in the mid-90s, that was that for him, now 22.
In Ralph's past two ghostly decades, he has split his time between Auckland and Melbourne, with his carving taking the place skateboarding once held in his soul.
He still attends the odd competition and still skates now and then, but his back gives him hell these days. Go down to the right bowl around Auckland on the right day, and you'll see Ralph there, maybe not with a deck in hand, but offering advice to the new generation. Skateboarding, after all, is a young man's game.
"I'm doing it vicariously now," he says. "That's what a lot of old pro skaters do – they try to attach to new pro skaters who are coming. Mentor them and help them that way. I get my thrills that way now.
"I used to be the best in the whole country, and now there are more than 200 or 300 houses we could go to tonight where kids could blow me off the planet.
"There isn't another sport where that happens. Skateboarding's for kids. I was kicking people's asses when I was a kid and I loved it. I was watching older guys and, being the cheeky guy I am, I was like, `I'm better than you and I'm a man'. Now, it's the other way around."
TO BE loose is to be free. It may be a sloppy freedom and one that leads to a hard life but it's better than no freedom at all.
Ralph lies back on that ragged couch in Swanson and ponders a question about where he sees himself now as a skateboarder.
From the New Lynn Bowl to Los Angeles, the days of his own custom-designed board, the appearances on magazine covers of the hottest skating rags.
The wild parties in LA and Europe. Dancing with Naomi Campbell in Paris. The decision to give the game up. Time wasted. Time spent carving. His brief comeback. The months and years past spent as a ghost, as the myth of his exploits grew.
Ralph scratches at his long beard and clears his throat.
"All the other old skaters in my bracket, or older, who have come back, have come back worse, like Muhammad Ali. They come back and lose," he says.
"They've still got the name, the fans, the look. They've still got the same style and tricks they had before, but everyone else has got so good that it makes all that look not as good as it used to look.
"They're really slow and look like they're scared, skateboarding with fear the whole time.
"When I get on the board, and this is in my own mind, of course, I'm the guy who used to be the Ali – float like a butterfly, all that, nice and fast. But now, if they look closely, they'll see I still look quite slick. Not doing much, but there's still something there."
Ralph pauses for a second or two in thought, then looks up.
"That's as much as you can hold on to. There's something there still. You're not looking at the whole picture and judging it. You're not able to, because there's still some mystery there."
Now he leans back into his couch, into his past and future at the same instant, grinning that soulful grin.
Sunday Star Times