Post-Industrial Grease Monkey

Jesse James and the gradual degreasing of the West Coast Chopper

Illustration by Bob AulIt's less than 24 hours before we go to press, and I have just gotten off the phone with yet another of Jesse James' "people." This one, his publicist, told me, as the others have, that she cannot allow us to take—nor even to use—any of their pictures of their client because we wouldn't sign an agreement guaranteeing that James—famous for fixing up motorcycles on TV—would be on our cover. We explained about a thousand times that we have never signed a cover guarantee with any of our subjects—not Gwen Stefani, not Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Bob Dornan, not William Hung. "We get cover guarantees from all the major magazines," said the publicist, leaving us surprised and disappointed by the folks at the

New Yorker,Atlantic Monthly,New York Review of Books andForeign Policy. We assumed, in her position as James' publicist, this woman's job was to ensure he got publicity—pictures, interviews, etc.—but apparently in the high-stakes world of televised vehicle reclamation, everything is turned on its head, like the firemen inFahrenheit 451 who burn things. The publicist was clearly burning us good and loving it, especially when I called her, again, to tell her we really needed an image of her client for our cover. She can't do it, she says, and we should understand because she's not going to ask for her client's valuable time for a photo shoot if it's not cover-guaranteed, especially if it isn't a "major magazine likeEntertainment Weekly," which she claims readily gives out such cover guarantees to Jesse James and the Olsen twins and that attractive young singer—we forget which one—destined for an emotional crack-up and an off-strip Vegas lounge. Anyway, we just wanted to let you know that it's this kind of attitude that leaves us without any great portraits of James and, in fact, without an interview with him, though, as you read the piece, you'll find that facet as illuminating as any other. I know the publicist did. "Wait. You're doing a story about Jesse? But you never interviewed him." Because you wouldn't let us. Well, we wrote a story anyway, full of Jesse James' people desperately seeking vindication for their existence and expense accounts. Here's hoping you enjoy it. Here's hoping they don't . . . oh, and they get scabies.

In the old days, interviewing a biker was like interviewing the head of the Rotary Club: you found the guy (always a guy) and started firing questions. And he'd answer you. Or not. Then, as Hunter S. Thompson found out, he might kick your ass—a bonus you didn't often get with Rotarians.

"On Labor Day, 1966, I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them. A minor disagreement suddenly became very serious," Thompson wrote in a postscript to his landmark biker study, Hells Angels. "The first blow was launched with no hint of warning, and I thought for a moment that it was just one of those drunken accidents that a man has to live with in this league."

At least he knew where he stood—even if where he stood was lying on the ground, steel-toed boots glancing off his skull and perforating his liver.

I tried recently to get an interview with biker du jour Jesse James. His TV show—Monster Garage, in which crews hurriedly transform BMW Minis into snowmobiles and hot dog carts into dragsters, all to a hard rock soundtrack—is on the Discovery Channel, but his motorcycle shop is still right there on Anaheim Street in Long Beach. When a copy of his new, slightly self-indulgent picture book, I Am Jesse James, arrived recently in the mail, I immediately called the book company's flack. Bikers have people now; of course, they always have, but they used to be called Snake, Tiny, Chocolate Charlie. Today they go by Jackie Crystal of Polaris PR, and they tell you that if you want to talk to their biker, his mug better end up on the cover.

I said, "This will be a cover story. I understand you folks need to hear that—that Jesse won't do the interview otherwise," adding the standard disclaimer that if Orange County fell off into the Pacific, we'd bump the story to the following week's cover. "We want to put him on the cover," I said.

Jesse James is cover-worthy for what he can do with his hands. Most famously, he can make a teardrop gas tank for a custom motorcycle from a flat sheet of steel. This has put him where he is today. Despite being ranked one of People magazine's sexiest, spotted recently at Long Beach's Wild Oats health foods with supposed girlfriend Sandra Bullock, manual dexterity is still at the heart of his success.

His fame is a measure of where we are culturally. Thirty or 40 years ago, the suburbs were chock full of men who worked all day and at night checked the oil and topped off the fluids in their mildly customized late-model cars. If push came to shove, they could take their cars apart and put them back together again. Back then, Jesse James would have been redundant, but that's the deal: we can't do that any more. If you know how to check your own oil today, you're in a dwindling minority. If you rotate your own tires, you're a genius.

Next Page »