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.

Maybe it's the estrogen in the water or the fact that we lost Vietnam to a bunch of guys wearing flip-flops. In today's world—where water's for drinking, oil's for fighting, and a bunch of croquet-playing mitt-munchers are torching Hummers—Jesse James is just what we—the women of today—need: an accessible throwback to our oily, gasoline-reeking past. More than anyone since legendary former Hells Angels head Ralph "Sonny" Barger—now semi-retired and writing his own books—Jesse James has morphed the motorcycle outlaw into a responsible teddy bear of a man who's admired by his employees, counted on to cheer up sick kids, all with a tattoo on his right palm that reads, "Pay Up Sucker" (an abbreviation of "Give it up, you've been had") and a Viper Death Squad public-relations team behind him.

"I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I have to make sure of a couple of things before I can give you an answer," Jackie Polaris writes back. "Can we get a letter from you stating that this is a guaranteed cover and if there is some breaking Orange County news, it will be the cover the following week?"

Wasn't that what I just said? I picked up the phone and actually called Jackie Crystal, but our conversation went about like our e-mails. Frustrated, I got my editor, Rebecca Schoenkopf, on her.

"Neither [Theo] nor I can promise cover placement," Rebecca wrote. "I can, however, say that it is almost certain that Jesse James would appear on the cover; there's just no reason he wouldn't. He's OC history . . ."

Polaris is tougher than anybody you'll meet at West Coast Choppers, the storied Long Beach shop where James custom-builds $100,000 choppers for LA Lakers, Hollywood stars and other celebs: motorcycles that are difficult to ride for people who may never ride them. They're the mechanical equivalent of a Frank Lloyd Wright house—resplendent in hand-rubbed lacquer, chrome and etching, but as tough to handle as Wright's Falling Water is to inhabit.

The toughest thing about West Coast Choppers is its annual open house, the No Love Party, and it's tough mainly because bikers roll from miles around to see and be seen being tough there. Last year, they held it the day before I got a cast taken off my arm, and I almost had it rebroken in the middle of a fracas between the Mongols and the Vagos.

Jesse James is tough to get on the telephone, but as the Long Beach mother of a seven-year-old with terminal leukemia found out last year, when you do reach him, he's all ears. Last November, James was juggling Monster Garagewhile producing the next installment in the Motorcycle Mania chopper-riding series he does with Garage producer Thom Beers when he got a call from the Rheault family of Long Beach. Their son Tyler had leukemia and wanted to meet Jesse.

Jesse James called Tyler Rheault for the last time on Thanksgiving Day 2003, as he and his daughter were getting on a plane for Japan. A few hours later, on his eighth birthday, Tyler Rheault died.

"My husband [Kevin], myself and Jesse James were the last people to talk to him before he passed, and that means a lot to me," Lynn Rheault says, trying not to cry.

They held Tyler's funeral a week later, and of course they invited Jesse James, the man whose great-great-grandfather's cousin was the outlaw Jesse James.

And, of course, Jesse James stopped what he was doing and came to the funeral. He dedicated an episode of his show to the boy, insisting a passenger seat be installed in the Monster creation in memory of Tyler.

"He called my son every single day for a week when he was in hospital," Lynn said. "Then when he visited, he spent two hours with him. He didn't have to do that. He's the most amazing man I've ever met in my whole life. You look at him, and you would never expect a sweet and gentle side."

Born in Lynwood, James lived in Long Beach, Compton and Cerritos—and was an all-star football player in high school. He moved out of the house at 15 and was sent to the California Youth Authority (CYA) three times, at ages 14, 15 and 17—stripping stolen IROC Camaros will do that to you—but three short jolts in CYA apparently straightened him out.

Having earned a bum knee playing football at UC Riverside, our hero became a bodyguard for the likes of Tiffany, Glenn Danzig and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He arrived at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim around 1989.

"He came into the bar, and, um, I think we just started talking. I believe he brought Glenn Danzig in; he was bodyguarding Glenn," said former Doll Hut owner Linda Jemison. "He had that same mentality that musicians have, that free spirit, fun-loving, kind of childlike but positive [quality]. Innocent but very devilish.

"He was quite the prankster. Practical jokes on people—he'd ride his motorcycle into the bar. He was the only one who ever did that," she said. "He genuinely, genuinely is a very sweet person. He and I never had cross words."

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.

We'd both called ahead—but she got majorly hassled by the pitbull PR machine, telling her she couldn't shoot pictures because the Weekly hadn't inked a cover-story contract.

It all ended well, though: we got some snaps anyway—and James got his face time later that week, all over Access Hollywood. The show's anchors gushed on James, his steely-eyed gaze but gentle nature, his rippled physique. Didn't actually talk to him. Sorta mentioned the new book.

But not a word about his metalworking, gas-tank-beating, hammer-welding, chopper-building hand skills.

They did say girls like him. You can see why girls would.

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