Tuesday, May 26, 2009

on old age and evel knievel

A couple of days ago, Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel screened on local TV. Like Hammond, I had played with the Evel Knievel fly-wheel driven motorcycle as a kid. Perhaps I still have some bits of it lying around. I knew little of the man himself, having invested most of my childhood days jumping pedal-powered bikes off dangerous concrete landings and dirt piles, rather than watching motorcycles hop cars and buses. Still, I switched on to have a look...

Evel was frail and very ill. He sucked on his oxygen mask unhealthily as he was driven around his small-town American home and asked to reminisce about footage of him crashing and injuring himself. Strangely enough, Evel reminded me of Frank Booth, the bizarre and frightening character from Blue Velvet. The hovering body guards, the unpredictable turns in Evel's demeanour, these radiated unease. It was as if the whole situation would turn violent at any moment. It didn't seem like Evel ever really got along with Hammond and the most pertinent questions often went unanswered. All the same, his character (well, at least two characters) came through. Perhaps Evel was too concerned with his own health at the time to take to the British interviewer. This is hardly surprising given that Evel had suffered a stroke just a couple of days before.

I found much else unusual about this documentary also. The way Evel hovered between being "the legend" and the reality of his current existence was unsettling. Certain triggers caused him to roll out the old bravado, whilst others seated him firmly in his past and present woes.

Why is it that former celebrities seem convinced that they mustn't "let their fans down"? This is a common remark made by today's elite cyclists as they are suspended for doping infringements and led tearfully to waiting cars. Hammond's wander around Evel's town during a festival of bike stunts revealed to me the extent to which some of the locals idolised their fallen and broken-boned angel. Or was this only the kids who never grew up? Did the true youngsters really care about this man? Could they reconcile his appearance with the daredevil their parents insisted he had been? Without him their town would be just one of thousands. Evel was the icon that put them on the international map... long, long ago, before many of these childrens' parents had themselves been born.

"Jump for Jesus"!? A modern Knight Templar and former bodyguard of Evel, dressed in white with giant red crosses emblazoned on his bike and leathers jumped through a flaming board. The announcer on the P.A. claimed it was something to do with Jesus and Satan. He was so earnest. The Knight's followers were so serious and were moved to tears by his words. For them, this was a religious experience. As a viewer from far away, this was a chance to see the U.S. of A. in all its technicolour glory.

"Live for your dreams", proclaimed Evel near the conclusion of the show. Quite likely his own poor health prevented him from dreaming too far in advance. Nevertheless, he had prepared his own tombstone. This of course is the limit point for the dreams of those who don't cherish anything that carries on without them. His last dream was to be buried in the middle of town, the centre of attention at least in this tiny location, so far from the centre of anywhere.

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