Dennis McGrath talks Heaven Dennis McGrath talks Heaven

A couple of months ago we were over in Berlin for the Bright Tradeshow and, between the German booze haunts and irresistible skate possibilities, I was offered the chance to speak to Dennis McGrath - author of the book 'Heaven' which chronicles in photographs and letters the decline of one time Alien Workshop pro Lennie Kirk.
We sat down to discuss Lennie, religion and photography in the less than ideal interview confines of an oversized hall full of industry types who were the most part still half cut from the night before. As such, chunks of this interview were so overrun with static and shouting that they were impossible to transcribe despite my repeatedly shouting obscenities at the dictaphone (usually a surefire winner when technology isn't doing what you want it to). What you see below is a pared down version of the discussion which took place, but hopefully one which still offers an insight into the book, Lennie Kirk, and Dennis McGrath himself.

Hi Dennis. So we’re sitting here with a copy of your new book Heaven in front of us, chronicling the life of Lennie Kirk. How did you originally meet Lennie?

Well I met Lennie through my brother John…I’m trying to think, it was a long time ago. He used to visit my brother, come skate, I think I was 14 or 15. I don’t really remember meeting him then, but I remember meeting him years later when I came to San Diego. I heard someone calling my name on the street, it was actually him and Scott Bourne – they’d both run away from home and come to California. That was the first time I met Scott, but I don’t really remember my first actual meeting with Lennie. Then a few years later I moved to San Francisco, he was there and by then he was sponsored by Alien Workshop. He moved there with my brother and that’s when we started hanging out, maybe around ’95…

And what was it about Lennie’s skating that made it stand out?

I think what made Lennie stand out was that he had a different approach to most people…his style was very willful. He’s not like Eric Koston where he could just do anything, he was pretty sketchy on a board. But he was doing stuff that people weren’t doing, like I think he was the first person I saw do a kickflip backside lipslide on a ledge. You know; pretty big, groundbreaking tricks. I feel like he was skating on a pro level right when he got sponsored, he was just so good. He just had that different approach, he’d see things that no-one else would…like there’s this bit in Timecode where he drops off a ledge to grind a rail, then pops onto another ledge and rides down, I feel like no other skater would even see that. He saw things that most people wouldn’t see, and skated obstacles most people wouldn’t skate. And just the way he did it too – you know he was really sketchy, you’d be going “wow, he just made that!” I mean people will remember that video part (Timecode) forever, right?

What was it that made you want to take photos of him outside of a skateboarding context?

Well I was at art school, and while I was there I got really interested in documentary photography. I met Larry Clark, who made the film Kids, and saw his photos – this black and white documentary style with kids doing drugs, skateboarding and having sex, and I was like “whoa”. I’d never seen something like that in photography. Obviously there was, like, normal photojournalism, but I’d never seen something that was like my life. He was just photographing his friends and people immediately around him and it really made me think – I have this group of friends, skateboarders, who I could do that with.

Tobin Yelland was doing that also…but why I started taking photos of Lennie outside of skateboarding? Everyone’s getting by, doing what they’re doing, I mean you’re a skateboarder but you’re also a fucking human being right? Lennie’s a very emotional person, and that comes out in photographs. If you look through the book you can really see that.

So the story of Lennie’s slam has obviously been fairly well covered, but for the sake of those who don’t know shall we touch on that?

You can see it near the beginning of his Timecode part. I got told afterwards that Lennie was in hospital, he’d hit his head slamming when he was skating this dumpster. It was scary – he woke up in hospital the next day, didn’t remember where he was, didn’t remember any of it. I mean he’s lucky he didn’t die, its lucky the dude came back.

Obviously Christianity is a heavy theme throughout the book, in the extreme form espoused by Lennie. I wanted to ask, what are your personal thoughts on organised religion?

Well I was raised Catholic, because my family was…but me? I’ve never really wanted it, I’ve never understood it. I never fell for it, I feel, in the way that some people do. I’d never even read the bible until I started doing this book. For me, I think its fine if people have faith if that helps them get through life and makes them happy…but I personally think organised religion is total fucking bullshit and I don’t believe in it. I mean the bible is an interesting book, I don’t want to knock people’s beliefs, but you talk to an otherwise sensible adult and you’re like “wow, you fucking believe in this? You don’t believe in Santa Claus anymore do you?” People may get offended by this…but you know, I guess it makes people happy. If it makes people happy, its all good right?

Were the photos in the book all yours, or were others involved?

Well the majority in the book were mine, but there are others and in the back I’ve got a list of photo credits. See here, [opening the book] even Huf’s got a couple in there. Me, my brother, Pat O’Dell. When I started I knew I didn’t want to just use my photos because it wouldn’t feel complete and it worked out because all the other guys are awesome photographers. I guess I feel like it adds another element, its way more interesting being not just my photos. But I put it all together in the order its in, creating a story, a narrative. Its something I’ve done before but never on this level, it was fucking hard to do. But I’m really hyped on it. I normally don’t like things I do to an extent, and this was hard – maybe a month straight just sorting out the order. But I’m really happy with it, and I don’t normally say that about things I do.

So Lennie’s in prison at the moment, is it looking like there’s any hope for him to get out?

Well Lennie’s been in and out of prison so much, he’s kind of institutionalised – unfortunately he has a hard time being normal, being a normal part of society. He’s also very paranoid. He told me that he has a hard time smiling, which is fucking sad. It was the one time something’s made me really sorry for him. I mean that’s horrible, he told me that its really hard to smile, because every time he does he feels like he’s faking it. But I think he’ll probably be out in six years roughly, then we’ll see. I don’t know, hopefully he’ll be able to pull it off, get a job or something, but we’ll see…

I don’t know, maybe he was saved by Jesus too. He got hit by a van, that was when it was like “maybe something is watching over you”. You know, he got hit by a van and nothing happened to him, you can’t get much luckier than that – its like being shot and surviving. If you believe in that crap…I guess I believe in what you can see. I believe in going on a hike, experiencing nature and shit.

The last words are garbled beyond salvage, but from what I recall they related to the spiritual being visible in the physical rather than in any ancient book. We decided that this was a good point to finish on, but never trust technology not to throw a spanner in the works…

The book can be bought from Dennis’ web store.

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