Ridin’ with Big E for Dec. 13, 2012

Biker James’ memoir eventually reveals depth below the tattooed surface

For Weekly SurgeDecember 11, 2012 

“My life was falling apart, and there was nothing I could do but watch it happen. I got a text from Robert Downey, Jr., who I’d developed a friendship with. The text read, simply: ”What a glorious shitstorm.”

Have you ever wondered if you could handle dating a porn queen? Ever dream of being a football star? Maybe you wanted to build a successful, internationally recognized business? Or would you rather wake up next to a Hollywood movie starlet? How about being on the cover of a magazine; or better yet, having your own television show? What about going on tour with Danzig or Soundgarden in their heydays? How about riding motorcycles through old Mexico with Kid Rock? Maybe you’d rather get behind the wheel of a race car or jump a monster truck into a house? Most of us have never had the chance to do any of those things, but one man has done it all and more: Jesse James. Bikers know him first as the custom motorcycle builder and owner of the now-defunct West Coast Choppers. Middle America knows him as the rotten S.O.B. that broke the heart of America’s sweetheart Sandra Bullock. With all that he’s accomplished – good and bad - James refers to himself simply as “some welder dude”.

I just finished reading “ American Outlaw,” Jesse James’ memoir (written by James with Sam Benjamin, Gallery Books). I found the book on the bargain rack at a Fred’s store in Johnsonville so don’t look for it on the New York Times best-seller list or the main display at Barnes and Noble, but it is widely available on amazon.com.

The book tells James’ life story from the time he was a reckless teenager stealing cars to the day he walked out of rehab with his marriage to Bullock destroyed forever.

He grew up hard in blue collar Long Beach, Calif. with his abusive father and a series of wicked stepmothers. His birth mother left the family when he was 6-years-old. A celebrated high school athlete, football was supposed to be James’ ticket out. At one point he had a scholarship offer from the University of Southern California in-hand. Instead, he ended up serving time with the California Youth Authority.

I almost didn’t get past the first few chapters because James opens the book bragging about what a badass he was coming up, boasting about his escapades stealing and brutalizing on and off the football field. Jesse (Gregory) James did steal some stuff and punch some people, but he hardly compares to his namesake Jesse (Woodson) James, the notorious, murderous teen bank, stagecoach, and train robber; and, real American outlaw from the Old West. On the back cover of my hardback edition. James even poses a la “ Young Guns” in a bowler hat holding a big, shiny revolver. According to Wikipedia “James' Discovery Channel web site states that his great-great-grandfather was the notorious outlaw's cousin. However, Eric James, president of the James Preservation Trust, which tracks claims of being a relative of the outlaw, says it cannot find a record of him in the family tree.” I remembered thinking, as James giggled about farting on Donald Trump’s nationally-televised “ Celebrity Apprentice” show, that James really wasn’t much more than an adolescent gear-head. I suffered through the early pages of “American Outlaw” and eventually learned, while I wasn’t completely off target, there are definitely more layers beneath the grimy, tattoo-covered surface of Jesse James.

On the outside, James is a shallow, testosterone-laden teenaged boy trapped in a man’s body. In his own words from the book, “My idea of a good time was to shoot guns, watch NASCAR, and babble about custom bikes.” During his time with opposites-attract wife and Academy Award winner Bullock, the press reduced him to her “heavily-tattooed biker boy toy.” Throughout the book, James’ works a little too hard to convince us all of how cool he is. He writes about people telling him how buff he’d gotten; about driving 130 miles-per-hour; about smashing faces; and, he freely uses the F-word, bringing the intellectual level of his writing down to about the 9th grade. At the same time, though, James reveals there is an obviously wounded child inside of the loving father of three, wrestling constantly with his bad-boy image. He talks tough, but he also openly admits to times when he was afraid, times when he cried – sobbed even, and times when he admits he was in over his head. As James looks back on his life and opens up, especially during his stint in rehab, he takes the reader with him on his journey of self-discovery.

Along the way we get a taste of what it was like to live the life described in my opening paragraph. As glamorous as it all seems, none of it came without a price. The book also answers questions such as, “How did James and Bullock get together; and, how does one cheat on America’s sweetheart?”

The reader also gets a great look at how the West Coast Choppers empire was built and why it was unceremoniously shut down. It also offers some interesting insight, like the fact that it was James who was first approached (but declined) to star in the Discovery Channel’s “American Chopper: The Series” that brought fame, fortune and their own brand of misery to the bike-building Teutul family. If you’re looking for a holiday gift for the full-grown, adolescent gear-head in your life not hoping for classic literature, James’ “ American Outlaw” would make a great, bargain-priced stocking stuffer.

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