Friday, November 30, 2007

Robert Craig 'Evel' Knievel (October 17th, 1938 -- November 30th, 2007

"Women are like buses. Good to ride on for 15 minutes. But they forget that if you get off, there will be another one along in 15 minutes. And another one, and another one. ...You know, women are the root of all evil. And I know, I am Evel." --Evel Knievel, as told to journalist Kevin Smith, September 1998.

USSA--It's amazing that Evel Knievel lived to be 69, it really is. It's known from the journalistic work of Kevin Smith (no, not that one) on Knievel in 1998 that his long-term ailment was Hepatitis-C.

On September 9th, 1974, my fellow first grade classmates and I watched the stunt driver ready his 'Skycycle' for liftoff, ostensibly, to cross the Snake River Canyon in Ohio. This was just a little over a month after Republican President Richard Nixon (another crook from another time, proving nothing changes fundamentally) had resigned in disgrace.

Rumor had it that Evel had attempted to get permission to jump the Grand Canyon itself, but the Department of the Interior wouldn't let him, which was understandable: who would want to be responsible for a nut like Knievel if he crashed and died on live television? What waiver or insurance contract could cover that? None of us watching that day thought he would make it, and he didn't. That was the mood then.

Americans were in weird place at that time, being stunned into numbness by the violence of the 1960s--the urban uprisings, the generational strife, the burning cities, the violent reaction to a basically nonviolent civil rights movement, widespread government surveillance and repression, the war in Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia, the assassinations, the cultural clashes, and-on-and-on. Kinda sounds like now, doesn't it? Nothing much made sense in 1973-1974 either, and into that vacuum came Evel Knievel of Butte, Montana, and he was possibly the greatest embodiment of American wrongheadedness, depravity, and mindless insanity and recklessness that defines this peculiar nation.

While Philip K. Dick was reeling from his yearlong visions of a Roman America, the CIA was murdering people in other countries, and while Patty Hearst was running around with the SLA robbing banks, the rest of us were listening to Steely Dan, Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, Queen. We were watching endless jokes at Nixon's expense on television, and basically witnessing the world's largest tailgate party unfold in-the-wake of Watergate. It was time to party, Nixon was gone. At that time, nobody saw Reagan coming, Gerald Ford (still dead) and Jimmy Carter being incidental non-entities. There was a healthy anti-authority attitude in-the-air. Though he was really arch-conservative, Evel Knievel seemed to fit into this cultural environment. But he wasn't exactly a hero...

For Knievel, being the son of a car salesman couldn't have helped much, and it's likely that his father beat him regularly. A promotional-record that I own a copy of has him smacking a young boy's hands over-and-over, asking him: 'Does that hurt? Does that hurt?' It was part of a strange lesson in heroics and endurance, but it really just sounded like a sick and depraved bully. That was Evel. American culture is barbaric nowadays, but during the 1970s it was truly barbaric and violent.

His parents divorced when he was very young, and Knievel was raised by his grandparents. How did Robert become 'Evel', you might ask? Yes, it really did begin with other children calling him 'Evil,' it's true. He lived-down to this epitaph, working as a safecracker, bank robber, and more. Somehow, he was never busted. We Americans have a bad-habit of making badmen into heroes. Evel was no-exception.

Eventually Knievel quit his life of crime and sold shoddy-cars, just like his father. Arthur Miller couldn't have invented Evel Knievel, only America could. By the mid-1960s he was running with motorcycle stunt gangs, through which he built a name as a 'skilled' daredevil. This was something he really did excel at, and he made a number of world record jumps during his run as a stunt rider. But is Evel remembered for all of the record jumps, or the fact that he broke most of the major bones in his body (making the Guinness Book of World Records a few times)?
No, it was because of his exploits out of the arena of stunts, and into the world of his private life. He'll be remembered for his addictions to alcohol and painkillers and his violence. Another thing he should be remembered for is how unimaginably sexist he was (even for the 1970s), so it's likely that he didn't like his mother very much. Feminists at that time absolutely reviled the man, and his mouth did a great deal of harm to his image as a hero. I come not to praise Evel, but to bury him.

In 1977, Knievel was bigger news than ever: he'd attacked his former publicist Sheldon Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat for allegations in Saltman's book, 'Evel Knievel on Tour.' Knievel would be sentenced to a huge fine and six-months in prison. He was the talk of the town again. In 1979, he claimed he was going to be dropped from 40,000 feet from the bomb bay doors of a B-29 onto a haystack. For those who don't know what a B-29 was, it's the same model of aircraft that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It seemed appropriate that Knievel would represent America's impotence at the time: He chickened-out. By 1981, he'd done his last jump. At the end, his riches were spent, as was his body and mind. Fame isn't what you might think it is. Welcome to the American Dream. Sleep well, Evel, you earned it. You were a daredevil alright, you cheated death for a very long time, and that's your redemption. And that's the last thought for the now-deceased month of November, 2007.

UK journalist Kevin Smith's original 1998 article (published in 2000):