Manic Mechanic

Jesse James: The Last Great American Outlaw

Michael Henningsen
12 min read
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Let's get the obvious out of the way right up front: Yeah, it's his real name. And yes, his lineage can be traced back to the legendary outlaw of that same name (his great-, great-grandfather was first cousin to the outlaw gunslinger). And oh, yeah … he can definitely kick your ass. Then there's what everyone with a television and half a brain already knows thanks to the Discovery Channel's smash hit, “Monster Garage.” Jesse James is his own extremely talented, unpredictable and self-governing animal. As Grand Pubah of the gearhead television sensation he co-created (he's also the creative force behind MTV's “Pimp My Ride”), James is the kind of guy you can literally love and hate all at once. He can be an asshole to a degree so extreme that it suddenly becomes cooler than cool to be a prick (although anyone who meets or talks one-on-one with the guy is compelled to believe that he's not). He can make you uncomfortable with barely a hint of facial expression. He's able to go from deadly serious to immensely intimidating to childishly mischievous and fun loving in the space of a couple of heartbeats. All of which makes it rather difficult—if not ridiculously impossible—to believe that the Jesse James really shops someplace as soulless as Auto Zone, as his recent spate of commercials for the corporate auto parts version of Wal-Mart would have us believe. But it's all just part of the enigma that is Jesse James.

Off the air, James remains largely the same slightly dangerous, magnificently charismatic presence he exudes on the small screen. But Jesse James is also an incredibly devoted father of two (he shares seven-year-old daughter Chandler and five-year-old son Jesse, Jr. with his first wife) and a businessman so confident and savvy that he's managed to turn his love for grease-monkeying into a one-man empire, netting him untold millions and bringing to his Long Beach doorstep an almost dizzying level of fame. And, as it turns out, he's a damn nice guy to talk to on the phone, even immediately after having a metal chip dug out of his eyeball with a needle in a California emergency room.

The Alibi caught up with James on the eve of a book tour that will bring him to Albuquerque this week in support of I am Jesse James, a 160-page coffee table effort designed to offer glossy, unapologetic glimpses of James' amazing bikes and cars, his shop and his rather unique lifestyle.

In the Beginning

Jesse James was born Jesse James in 1969 in Lynwood, Calif. His father's occupations were antiques dealing and furniture restoration. “My dad had custom cars in the '60s, but when I was a kid he wasn't too much into the scene,” says James of his childhood. “He had an interest [in cars], but never really had anything around by the time I was growing up, you know?”

But the elder James' expertise as a renovator of everything from barber chairs to antique furniture, did inspire a certain love for that art as well as a strong work ethic.

“I picked up some good knowledge about refinishing stuff [from my father],” he says. “I can refinish old furniture today and I think that that process, the taking of something really shitty and making it really beautiful or restored, that feeling was there with me from way back. Then I started doing bicycles and beach cruisers, and I was still really young. I'm addicted to the process where if you take something and you really don't know how it's gonna look, but when it's done and painted and chromed, and [with] every piece you put on it, it starts to look better and better, then wham! It's all done and looks right, and you're just so satisfied at how it came out.”

Raised on the Dead Kennedys, other classic West Coast punk rock bands, skateboarding and contact sports, James played football in high school and later in college at University of California Riverside until a knee injury sidelined his athletic aspirations for good. It was shortly thereafter that he trained to become a professional bodyguard, a relatively short-lived career that sent him globetrotting with the likes of Soundgarden, Danzig and Slayer. Ironically, it was another injury, this one in the line of rock duty, that resulted in James leaving his job as a personal bodyguard to focus on his love of fast-as-shit two-wheeled monsters.

While he learned to harness some of his innate skill apprenticing under master metal worker Fay Butler in Minnesota for a time, and says he continues to be inspired by the old-school, clock-punching metal workers of days gone by, James is largely self-taught when it comes to the mastery of the many disciplines his craft requires.

“I basically went from racing BMX to riding motocross, street bikes and all that stuff. I'm mostly self-taught, but I'm also a sponge for information. I'll read anything I can get my hands on, go out and meet people—I'm still trying to learn and get better and better,” he says.

Fame and Fortune

Interestingly, considering his lifelong fascination with motorcycles, it's been James' amazing transformations of the regular cars on “Monster Garage” into everything from 750-horsepower street sweepers built on Daytona racecar platforms and 60-mile-an-hour lawnmowers to floating party busses and SUV garbage trucks that's proved to be his ticket directly into American culture. But motorcycles, he says, will always be his first love. In fact, he founded his now world-famous West Coast Choppers a decade ago, a full seven years before he became one of cable television's most ubiquitous, unique and oddly charming personalities when “Monster Garage” first aired in 2001. (James says the show is currently on hiatus.)

His bikes are unlike anything else on the road or in the showroom. Instantly identifiable and impossible to duplicate, each of James' choppers is built entirely by hand from the ground up. James has pushed the design envelope so far that he's very nearly created an entirely new breed of motorized vehicle. A West Coast Chopper is a low-slung, muscular beast that oozes an almost understated yet entirely wicked brand of cool and is specifically designed to strike fear in the hearts of lesser men who insist on riding high-pitched crotch rockets, comfort-suspension touring bikes and those garish, exhibition cycles built on television in Orange County, N.Y., by the world's grumpiest dad and his argumentative (albeit similarly talented as James) son.

On the phone, James is emphatic that this “other” motorcycle program (“American Chopper”) is entirely scripted and fake. So I watch three episodes before beginning this story. Afterward, I can't argue with Jesse James on this point.

James' rides are undeniable works of art created by a master craftsman as gifted as Michelangelo, but versed in East Los Angeles lowrider culture and possessed of an overwhelming compulsion to put every ounce of his soul into each of his creations. And, he insists, they're built not as showpieces or marginally functional “concept” bikes intended to win blue ribbons. James builds tough-as-nails, no-frills choppers specifically suited to each customer (under James' careful tutelage, of course), and he expects each motorcycle to be fully thrashed by its owner.

“You know, aside from all the chrome, shiny paint and bullshit like that, I mean, if you can't just take [the bike] and beat the shit out of it and have fun, and when you get off the freeway your heart is beating fast and you're like, ’F___! That was bitchin'!' … That's 10 times better than looking at it.”

Speed, power, bold aesthetics and nut-shattering rumble are of the essence in James' bikes. Comfort, smooth ride and transportation practicality are mere afterthoughts—to ride a West Coast Chopper, you've gotta have a pair.

Among those with cajones (not to mention cash) enough to straddle a WCC are the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neill, the Matrix's Keanu Reeves, the Super Bowl's Kid Rock, the New England Patriots star Ty Law, “Oz” actor and Biohazard frontman Evan Seinfeld, the World Wrestling Federation's Goldberg, Metallica's perennial rehab resident James Hetfield and more than a few other Hollywood A-listers, rock stars and folks with enough annual income to qualify them for the lion's share of the sweeping Republican tax cuts that have destroyed the American economy.

“My favorite customers,” says James, “are the ones who give me the money, leave me alone and let me do my thing.” The priciest bike he's so far created, he says, went for a cool quarter-million dollars. And with the average price for a West Coast Chopper somewhere in the upper-five-figure vicinity (at times well into the six-figure area), and an average build time of five to eight weeks per bike … well, you do the math.

When asked how cheaply one could come by a West Coast Chopper, James, relying as usual on his signature deadpan, said: “I don't know. All my prices just kind of depend on my mood that day. I don't have like a price sheet or nothin' like that.”

The current waiting list for a WCC exceeds the two-year mark. So it follows that the price, whatever it is, must be right. Just look at the bikes. But his favorite chopper, he says, is “the one I just built and drove across Mexico—it ain't for sale.”

And it ain't a West Coast Chopper without the now-famous Maltese Cross WCC logo James applies with care to each masterwork that rolls out of his shop. It's a logo that has replaced the Oakland/Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders' skull-and-crossbones icon as the black badge of courage and lawlessness on the hoodies, caps and T-shirts of the anti-establishment and trend-jumpers alike.

The definition of success: There are people driving pickup trucks in Albuquerque at this very moment with West Coast Choppers stickers displayed on their rear windows who've never even heard of Jesse James.

You Wish, Punk

Chances are good that neither you nor I will ever own one of James' motorcycles. We're not likely to savor the feel of the wind rushing through our hair on a perfect, sunlit SoCal spring day riding a too-powerful-for-our-own-good massive hunk of chrome and steel that's as much a priceless work of art as it is a mode of transportation. Truth is, we'll probably never even get close enough to James' bikes to get a decent photograph. Still, we're fascinated by their imposing profiles, and the magnificent amount of artistic vision, creativity and technical prowess that goes into the building of each one. And the man behind them all even further fascinates us.

In a relatively short period of time Jesse James has gone from master mechanic and bike builder of the Long Beach underground to the most famous—and deservingly so—icon of America's modern motorcycle culture. He's The Man if there ever was one. And, believe it or not (more often than not), The Man wears a helmet.

“When I f___in' crash, man, I want the helmet to cover my whole body (laughs). I've crashed pretty f___in' hard, you know, and I'd be dead for sure if it weren't for helmets. There's no shame in them.”

There's absolutely no shame in being Jesse James, either. His self-proclaimed attitude—”f___ you if you don't like it. And if you do like it, f___ you, too”—is as uncompromising as his belief that every last nut, bolt, weld and spit-shine on every last one of his choppers has to be the absolute best. Anything less would be, well, just another motorcycle. And there's nothing Jesse James hates more than just another anything. And he doesn't care whether or not you like him. Actually, he sort of hopes you don't.

The Latest Chapter

Take James' first foray into the publishing world: Most of the 160 pages that compose I am Jesse James feature photographs—many of them never-before published or viewed—while scarcely 18 of them are endowed with any text whatsoever. Even so, it's not your average picture book, and the scarcity of text has nothing to do with any literary limitations on James' part. Jesse James says best what Jesse James wants to say with his bikes and in the way he lives his life. His book, naturally then, is just an honest reflection of his man-of-few-words, let-the-actions-do-the-talking persona.

It's a book, James says, that presents everything he's about in three distinct sections: The Bikes, The Shop and The Life. Photographer Eric Hameister spent a year tooling around West Coast Choppers, shooting countless rolls of film in an effort to capture the very essence of James' everyday life, or, as James himself describes it, “the crazy ass shit that happens every day at the shop.” As it reads, though, none of the book's three sections are really all that distinct. After all, there wouldn't be The Bikes if not for The Shop. And if it weren't for The Life, there'd be nothing at all—no motorcycles, no mystique, no mythology, no modern-day Wild West maverick for the collective American psyche to idolize.

James' book reads just as you might expect: plenty of colorful language, plenty of attitude and the scant bits of personal information he's decided to allow his readers to be privy to. But his bikes speak for themselves, each one a stripped-bare chromed-to-the-hilt masterpiece without the slightest hint of frivolity or excess. James' book, like his bikes, is an unadulterated reflection of the man who will perhaps go down in history as the last great American outlaw.

Jesse James will sign copies of his book, I am Jesse James (Viking Studio, Hardcover, $34.95) on Wednesday, May, 12 at Chick's Harley-Davidson (500 Alameda NE, 856-1600) at 1 p.m. Sponsored by Bookworks (4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139). Copies of the book are available now at Bookworks and on the day of the event at Chick's Harley-Davidson. And no, he probably won't sign your breast, forearm or any other body part, so buy the book. A possible appearance by Jesse James on Wednesday night at El Rey Theater could not be confirmed as of press time. Call Bookworks for more information.

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