Post-Industrial Grease Monkey

Jesse James and the gradual degreasing of the West Coast Chopper

He may have been sweet, but at just over six feet tall and around 270 pounds, James was brawny enough to be the Doll Hut's bouncer when he wasn't tending bar . . . and getting by on his charm.

"One night at the club, I wasn't there, but Joyride was playing with Steve Soto," said Linda Jemison. "The fire department showed up and busted it, and I got my first and only overoccupancy ticket. And he got it, which was funny 'cause it was made out to Jesse James.

"We went to court, and the judge read out the case. He [the judge] just looked up and started laughing and said, 'You can't be serious.'"

Jesse James was serious, though, she says, probably the same kind of quiet, sincere, serious I saw when I talked to him last spring. He spent the whole conversation hunkered down on the rear bumper of the recently completed Mini-snowmobile, admiring the handsomely asphalted parking lot—making me feel like the bad guy for bothering him with questions he seemed almost too shy to answer.

"I don't know if he wore a suit or not," Jemison said of their court date a decade ago. But that didn't matter: "Because of Jesse's charm, I think we got out of it with an $80 ticket. And it was a pretty serious overoccupancy—100 or more people over."

My charm, on the other hand, is worth bupkis. OC Weekly did everything but give Jackie Crystal a contract stating Jesse would be on the cover; she, in turn, kept on insisting that we needed to tell her . . . pretty much what we were telling her.

"Hi, Rebecca," Jackie wrote back. "Believe me; I know you have the best intentions with this . . . [ellipses hers]. I actually wasn't asking for a contract, but a guarantee letter stating that it would be a cover. . . . It is something we do for all our clients, so I don't want you to think that this is out of the ordinary. As soon as you can get back to me, I can approach him with this."

I'm no Johnnie Cochran, but isn't a guarantee letter a form of contract? And what's the difference between us telling her it'll be a cover story—and her telling us the same thing? Isn't that the same thing? And since when do PR people representing bikers act like they have biker muscle?

Being nice wasn't getting us anywhere. Maybe it only works for Jesse James.

His employees, who have seen him get as tense as any boss, as moody as any design genius, describe him as someone who's less controlling than compelling. They say he doesn't have to demand results; he gets results.

"I was working eight to 10 hours [a day] at Mitsu and running home as fast as I could to work on all these other projects for Jesse," said West Coast Choppers employee Mike Desmond, a former car designer at Mitsubishi's Southern California design lab. He joined West Coast Choppers in January to do a little bit of everything.

"I've never had a boss motivate me like Jesse. There's a little intimidation there: he's an ass-kicker, but he's always been cool to me," Desmond said. "He's not running a popularity contest. You better step up and show good and improve yourself, or you're not going to be around. Once a car company hires you, you're pretty much in. You can't have a lazy week. Not at West Coast."

Nor at the Weekly, so Rebecca tried one last time to get us that interview.

"We simply cannot give you a letter promising anything," she wrote. "Why don't you just pass along the offer to Jesse and let him decide?"

"Sorry I didn't respond to this sooner," Jackie wrote back. "If Jesse isn't available for a cover story, would you still want to offer him a phoner [interview] with supplied art?"

It didn't take us long—10 seconds maybe—to decide we would now be doing an unauthorized biography.

Where was I? So, yeah, he comes off all tough like Johnny Tough, but when you meet him, he's such a sweetie. He's just super, thanks for asking.

"He definitely has a tough-guy edge if he needs it. And he's physically a very strong person," Jemison said.

All that mad, biker energy gets channeled into his work, whether it's a handbuilt motorcycle, a customized car, or one of his television shows. And any ass-kicking is done so far off camera that it's permanently out of focus. Which is part of the reason that's the Jesse James most people see, whether they're 13-year-old Monster Garage fanatics projecting the gangsta lifestyle he portrays back onto him or whether they remember his brief marriage to former porn star Janine Lindemulder or whether they know he's reportedly dating actress Sandra Bullock.

"If you knew him intimately as a very close friend," Jemison said, "you'd know he's just a big teddy bear."

At the West Coast Choppers book signing for I Am Jesse James, I sent down the only member of our photo staff who can gap a set of spark plugs, Jeanne Rice.

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