The great Evel Kneivel would have turned 77 last weekend. One of America’s ultimate badasses, Knievel died in 2007 at the age of 69. The pioneering godfather of extreme sports like the X-games, Knievel was a wild man living on the constant edge of death, stapled and sewn and bolted together like Frankenstein flying through the air at seventy miles an hour. And there will probably never be another one like him.
During his fifteen years as professional daredevil, he kept America revited with death-defying feats of derring-do, jumping over cars and buses and shark tanks on his motorcycle (or Snake Canyon in his steam-powered rocket-cycle, or whatever the hell that thing was). He inspired a generation to go beyond the boundaries of what they thought possible. He was George Washington of the wipe-out. He was Picasso of the pile-up. He was the Caesar of the high-speed crash. And he was an asshole. A gloriously debauched, utterly selfish, alcoholic asshole.
Leigh Montville’s excellent 2011 biography, Evel, is absolutely hilarious because it destroys the myth of Knievel an American hero, while simultaneously elevating and further glorifying that very same myth.
He proceeded in everything he did without reservations without qualms or secondary thoughts. The mechanism for internal debate did not exist. He was a man without filters. The same permission, no, encouragement that allowed him to kick that fat bike into gear at the top of a ramp and shoot off into the unknown allowed him to have a daily breakfast of Wild Turkey Bourbon, make it a double, to lie, to cheat, to boast about his various sexual conquests after describing family life with his wife and kids, to gamble, to preen, to piss away ever last cent he ever earned on cars and boats and planes and sure, buy another round for the boys…and a little something for that woman at the end of the bar.
Perhaps you have to be an asshole is you’re going to change the game, because to change the game you’re going to have to play by your own rules. And you’re going to have to risk it all; and that is the one quality of Knievel’s that outweighs his numerous other flaws of character, the one quality that separates the greats ones from the rest of us just content to get by – he was all in, skin on the table, or more correctly, ripped across the black top. Every time was the last time, speeding towards death on a metal coffin with wheels.
Kneviel broke bones about as often as you might eat a bag of potato chips, spending months in hospitals as he was repaired. He was the bionic-man, before the bionics. He was P.T Barnum on speed. He was tough as they come, and though he was a liar, he was more honest than just about any of the new heroes on the current scene.
Think about Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods and their cringe-worthy, tear-filled tours of apology, as they struggled to maintain their corporate brands in the aftermath of scandal. And now think about Evel Knievel. If he had been Armstrong, he would have stood at the podium and said, “Goddamn right, I take performance enhancers, and get hot blood transfusions, and have a team of doctors working to get me at my chemically-jazzed best. I take everything I can get my hands on if I think it will get me up another one of those 80-mile climbs through the French Alps.” And if he was Tiger, he would have said, “Goddamn right I screwed all those waitresses from Bennigans, and TGI Fridays. What do you think I take a thousand practice swings a day for, if not for the girls? It’s golf for God’s sake. It’s the most boring game in the world, but I’m the best at it, and that’s all there is to it.”
Evel would have sold us on it. He would have owned it, because Evel didn’t apologize for what he was. He accepted himself in full, and if you had a problem with it, too bad. He was a character from another time, before hair dye, and avocado face peels, a kind of perpetual 50 year-old. When you look at a picture of him, you imagine that he smells like Old Spice and armpit sweat, cigar smoke and bourbon, leather and the musk of recent love-making. He was everything your mother ever warned you about, but he embodied everything you wanted to be (especially if you were a boy, and a child of the 70’s). He was strong, resilient, and unafraid. Knievel was the old Times Square. He was Captain America. He was Elvis on Wheels. His name was Gladiator.
Evel Knievel is dead.
Long live Evil Knievel.
Welmbly Stadium – 13 Buses
Snake River Canyon
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