It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

Jesse James, before the split

Posted on | February 2, 2014 | No Comments

Not a day goes by that Jesse James doesn’t weld; if one does, he’s unhinged. He needs welding. He owes almost everything to welding. Without welding he would never have become the happiest, wealthiest, coolest, and most famous gearhead ever, tooling around Long Beach, California in a black ’54 Chevy with air suspension, sway bars, and a junkyard 307 V-8 in place of the original six. He’d never have been the chief mechanic and hard-nosed host of the Discovery Channel’s Monster Garage reality TV show from 2002 to 2007, one of the biggest hits in that network’s history, or have his new show on Spike TV, Jesse James Is a Dead Man, in which he takes a lot of hard knocks and keeps on ticking. He’d never have become the husband of hotsy-totsy Hollywood actress Sandra Bullock (or once been married to a porn star). He’s been welding since he was 13. It makes him feel good about himself. It reminds him of where he came from—a broken home, fistfights, hoodlum behavior, some juvenile detention time, Snickers bars for Christmas presents, loser stuff—and where he’s not going back.

“Welding validates me,” he likes to say. “If I don’t do it every day, I feel like I’m cheating myself.” 

In fact, he’s welding right now. This is at the world headquarters of West Coast Choppers, a former paint factory in a mongrel part of Long Beach, three large industrial buildings, customized cars and motorcycles everywhere, with lots of visitors milling around, maybe hoping for a Jesse James autograph. Today, though, he’s tucked away inside, welding steel parts for a bike frame. Helmet on, shade down, eyes protected, he feeds filler rods into the intersection of molten puddle and the bright white spark of a tungsten gas-fueled torch.

“I could make $10 million,” he says later on, seriously, “and it wouldn’t be as fulfilling to me as making a perfect weld. Nothing replaces that feeling. I mean, when the weld is perfect, it’s an awesome and beautiful thing. It’s soulful.”

James is a tall, muscular guy with heavily tattooed arms, a decisive forehead, and watered-back dirty-blond hair. His eyes are blue; you could probably call them beady. At his workplace, he surrounds himself with skulls, iron crosses, models of Nazi warplanes, various bits of reli gious iconography. A tool chest sticker reads, FRIENDS HELP FRIENDS MOVE, REAL FRIENDS HELP REAL FRIENDS MOVE BODIES. All of this signifies what the world already knows: that he’s a risk-taking bad-boy biker and a real tough, straight-talking dude, which is a large part of his appeal and why he works so well on TV. But it does little to explain how he got here, fab ri cating motorcycles that go for up to $150,000 a pop, when by all rights, at the age of 40 he should still be doing what he did as a kid, boosting cars and holding up pop stands and turning into what Sandra Bullock first thought he might be, “a bigot who killed people.” Instead, during his off hours he’s happily at the local pedicurist’s or mingling with other celebrities at Bungalow 8. Once a notorious boozer (“I drank like a mother fucker”), he no longer imbibes. That’s his life. That’s what he’s made of it. And he still welds every day, just like always.

Jesse james

In the afternoon he hangs up his helmet and heads outside and around the corner for lunch at Cisco Burger, the organic, green-friendlyfast food joint he recently opened and named after his dearly departed pit bull. Despite the outlaw reputation, James seems pretty approachable and easygoing, his voice a friendly, low-key drawl. He orders a chicken breast (plain, no bun) and a bowl of fruit and then reaches into his pocket. “If I don’t pay,” he says, smiling, “I’m just stealing from myself.” After that he signs a few autographs and shakes a few hands, then finds himself a table toward the back.

His new show, Jesse James Is a Dead Man, is all about our hero preparing for and taking on various kinds of death-defying challenges. Says Sharon Levy, senior VP of programming for Spike TV, “Jesse lives a life that a lot of our audience wishes they could, doing insane things on a daily basis, and that made him the perfect guy for us.” A couple of examples: He drives through a minefield. He sets himself on fire. He motorcycles across 125 miles of Arctic ice, risking hypothermia the entire way. “I’m the boss of the show and calling all the shots,” he says, “but I’ve been dealing with these reality TV show producers who think it’d be gnarly to drive a go-cart for eight hours straight. I hate to stomp on their dicks, but that’s shit I did when I was 10. I want stuff that’s superhard to do and that I couldn’t ask my wife for approval on any of it, because that’d be a sure way to get it nixed, like, ‘Hey, can I fly a World War II P51 Mustang at 450 miles per hour 40 feet off the ground?’ Yeah, right.”

Why he wants to do this kind of stuff in the first place, he has a hard time explaining, but it probably has something to do with the situations he faced and survived while growing up. For the most part, James raised himself. His dad was a purveyor of used furniture, his mom a florist for funeral homes; they divorced when he was five. After that he lived a little bit here in Long Beach, some in Compton, Riverside, and Anaheim. He says no one ever made him do his homework, and he can’t remember ever eating dinner at home. His meals came at joints like Coco’s, Spires, and Sambo’s. One time his dad said to him, “You look like a faggot,” just because he was wearing a pair of Vans with no socks. His dad had no use for him except as forced labor. “He had me working like a dog,” James says. What James hated more than anything was when his dad picked him up at his high school in a truck loaded with old refrigerators. “The kids called us Sanford & Son. They wouldn’t say it where I could hear it, because I was big even then and I would fuck them up. But it was really embarrassing.” By that time he’d already found welding in shop class and was using his skills to customize bicycles in his father’s garage. He’d take a 1940s Schwinn straight-bar bike with big balloon tires, refinish it, add new chrome and pinstripping, then sell it at a local flea market for up to $850. At 15, though, he messed up big time.

“My dad was out of town, and I was down the street at a friend’s house drinking beer. All of a sudden, I was like, ‘Fuck, I smell something burning,’” James recalls. The source of the smell turned out to be James’ garage. “The place was torched. All my bikes and tools got fucked up.” When his dad came home, father and son went toe-to-toe, and James moved out, never to return. Soon enough, he had a new family: his football teammates and coaches (he dreamed of a professional career as a linebacker) and a trio of criminal-minded brothers, real bad boys, far badder than he could ever be.

“Those guys really didn’t have feelings or a conscience,” he says, looking back. “They’d punch an old man on the street with no problem. They were ruthless, more ruthless than I was. I always seemed to have a conscience. I robbed a hamburger stand with a friend and got like $1,200. I felt bad about it, though. I was totally like, ‘Fuck, why’d I do that?’ And the same with stealing cars. All the stuff I stole, I always felt bad.” He goes on, “But I’m not one of those people who whine about their childhood and their parents. My parents were dicks—I realized that when I was eight or nine years old—but I was also a fuckin’ total fucker kid. ‘Where’s Jesse?’ ‘Oh, he’s in jail.’ ‘Again?’” 

During his criminal years, the juvenile court judge he always stood before was a Judge Deisler. Judge Deisler never looked up at James. He’d just say something like, “Oh, Mr. James. I see we didn’t make it to our community service on time. Maybe 30 days would help you.” Two years ago, upon Judge Deisler’s passing, James sent his widow a note, telling her what a difference her husband had made in his life by ensuring that consequences followed his numerous acts of stupidity. “If that guy hadn’t been so tough on me,” he often wonders, “What would have happened? That I’m in the position I’m in now, and not some tweaked-out junkie, is just dumb luck.”

The chicken polished off, the fruit gone, he leans back in his seat, looking around. He seems kind of antsy, like maybe it’s time for him to get back to his welding. On the way out he says, “I can’t weld with dirty hands. I don’t know what that’s about. It’s like a phobia. Weird, huh?”

Actually, in terms of dumb luck, james has had a good bit of it. In 1999, during West Coast Choppers’ unknown years, he had to fire an office manager, and while sorting through her mess he came upon an old Post-it note on which she’d written a phone number, a name, and something about filming. It was news to him, but he dialed the number anyway, got Discovery producer Thom Beers on the horn, and soon enough was starring in the Discovery documentaries Motorcycle Mania and Motorcycle Mania 2, which aired in 2001 and led to the transformation of police cars into donut factories, school buses into pontoon boats, Porsches into golf ball retrievers, and all the rest of the regular Monster Garage antics. The show was an immediate hit. “Jesse is one of the brightest, most charismatic individuals I’ve ever met,” says Beers. “But the reason the audience connected with him is because he’s completely honest. He’s the kind of guy who will tell you exactly what he believes, and he’s willing to back it up, either with words or fists.”

A couple of years later, in 2003, when Sandra Bullock called West Coast Choppers to ask if this Jesse James dude could give her Monster Garage–loving godson a tour of the facilities, James decided, yeah, sure, why not? After the tour he decided he and Bullock should go out on a date. He called her and e-mailed her and was rebuffed at every turn, until finally she gave in, with one condition: that a friend drop her off at the restaurant and pick her up at meal’s end. James’ response: “I’m going to pick you up like normal people do. And we’re going to go in the car.”

He’d been married twice before, had two children from his first wife and one from his second, former porn actress Janine Lindemulder. That marriage lasted just four volatile months, and along the way it destroyed whatever connection James had left to his parents. “Ever since the whole Janine thing, everything’s gotten kind of weird, family-wise,” he says. “It was fragile anyway—I’ve probably talked to my dad twice in the past 15 years—but that was like throwing a hand grenade in the middle of it. Everyone chose sides.” And then came the awkward moment, while going out with Bullock, that he had to explain his ex to her. “I was totally honest and told her everything, and every moment I expected her to get up and run,” he says. Her response: “You had your midlife crisis at 25. You got a Ferrari, married a porn star, and went on drinking binges. Then you hit 30 and decided you were over all that.”

“With Sandy it was a great old-fashioned courtship,” James says. “I used to be like, ‘That girl’s got the biggest tits, I like her,’ but that came back to haunt me. You should have someone who’s compatible with you on every level possible and not someone who, when you’re 70, all you can say to her is, ‘Your boob is untucked.’ Sandy and I started realizing how much we have in common. She’s an amazing woman and has forced me to change a lot. I’ve always been such a reactionary person, just going and knocking someone’s teeth out. But she’s like, ‘OK, you can’t do that anymore.’ I’m not the same person I used to be.” He pauses, thinks about it, opens his eyes wider, and says, “Hmm. I haven’t beat anybody up in a while,” like maybe that’s a surprise even to him. 

How he lives his life these days is a motor junkie’s fantasy come true. Mainly he’s in bending, welding, and shaping nirvana. In August he’ll probably hop on one of his enduro bikes and barrel off to Sturgis, South Dakota for the annual bike deal there, taking fire roads all the way instead of highways. At some point he plans on breaking the land speed record of 763 mph driving this giant-silver-bullet, Buck Rogers–looking, hydrogen-gas-powered car he’s building. Actually, the hydrogen gas is produced by tap water, so really it’s a water-powered car. Once the kinks are worked out, he’s going to release the technology to the public for free on TV—“It’s a billion-dollar technology, and I’m going to give it away for free!”—just because that’s the kind of guy he is.

The kind of guy he is, he can use words like rad (as in, “When I was nine or 10, the first bicycle I tweaked, I got $900—it was rad!”) and bitchin’ (as in, “I have some nice suits—they’re bitchin’!”), and awesome (as in, “My first car was a ’58 Rambler—and Ramblers are awesome!”) without seeming like a total douche. Hollywood wants to transform him into a movie star, but so far he’s turned down all offers for one big reason: “Unless the big superhero welder role comes along—‘Oh, my God, it’s Blowtorch!’—I just can’t fucking play pretend.” He can bench-press 350 pounds. He’s never done any kind of drug. He took his last drink—“It was probably a combination of Absolut cranberry, shots of Southern Comfort, mixed in with some Coors Light”—nine years ago, when he was 30. Some people think he’s an asshole: “Actually, lots of people think I’m an asshole, but I think it’s because I don’t talk a lot. I’m a shy person around people I don’t know, and I get really quiet. Because of that people think I’m a dick.”

Someday James wants to try his hand at a Sunday morning how-to show along the lines of New Yankee Workshop, only for metalwork. “It won’t be smoke and fire and the wrestling voice and all that shit,” he says, “but it’ll still be funny and dumb.” Meanwhile, he’s reading inspirational business books such as Good to Great and Small Giants and wondering if he should bid on this Cold War civil defense truck he found on eBay. He doesn’t need it. He doesn’t know what he’d do with it. But as he likes to say, “I’m a geek on that shit, so fuck, I’m going to get it.”

Jesse James

At the end of his working day, James picks up his kids at soccer practice, drops them off at his beachfront home, then ambles over to Captain Jack’s to grab some chow. On the way he talks about what he did in the years following the knee injury that killed his football dreams. First he went to bodyguard school, then he went on the road as security for bands like Soundgarden, Danzig, White Zombie, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Flea and Anthony were cool, but Chad, he’s kind of a dumb-ass”). At one point he was posted to the security force that protects Madonna. “Although I didn’t have much contact with her, I lived at her house,” he recalls. “This was when she was going through her divorce with Sean Penn, and he was threatening her and stuff.” 

This line of work lasted until 1991, when he dislocated an elbow after falling from the stage during a Danzig–White Zombie show in Detroit. All press reports since then suggest he was injured in the line of duty, another example of James’ heroic nature. White Zombie’s Rob Zombie, however, remembers the incident a little differently.

“Jesse comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, man, this is the last night of the tour. I want to stage-dive,’” recalls Zombie. “I was like, ‘OK, that’d be cool.’ But I don’t think he’d ever done it before. So he runs out, launches himself off the monitors, like so high up in the air it looked like 20 feet, and the whole crowd parted like the Red Sea. Man, he hit that fucking floor like a rock. I could hear it over the music. It wasn’t funny at all. I still feel bad about it. It shattered the bones in his arm. I mean, he really fucked himself up.”

In the aftermath, James decided maybe he ought to go full-time into what he’d been doing all along on the side, fabricating sculptural exhaust pipes and vanishing-point long front forks. That was in 1993. For the next seven years, he built a reputation for making bikes that The New York Times once called “jaunty and elegant without being gaudy.” Says James, “I like a bike that doesn’t look like there’s enough parts there to make it run, but it looks kind of scary and like it’ll go really fast. I like bikes that people are afraid of.” He got his first celebrity client, Shaquille O’Neal, in 2001. Next thing you know he’s got a line of clothes in Walmart, publishes his own hot rod magazine, Garage, and has been named one of People’s sexiest men alive.

Inside the restaurant, he orders a quesadilla and after the waitress leaves says, “Seven years ago I got kicked out of this place. It’s the last place I ever drank, too.” Silent for a moment, the most famous gearhead of all time soon returns to pondering his West Coast Choppers empire. He’s got some questions about it as regards the fate of the Earth. “Is my way of life about to become extinct soon?” he asks out loud. “Am I doing a disservice to society by burning tons of fossil fuel for no fucking reason at all? It’s so self-indulgent. It’s why other countries hate us. We take our vehicles and waste gas. I mean, I’ve based my business on my outlaw image and all that bullshit, but mainly it’s based on something that’s a non-necessity. It’s got me thinking. It’s the first time in my life I’m not saying, ‘Fuck the world.’ I mean, these people driving Priuses, how about they simply don’t drive? Sandy sold her Porsche, and she goes, ‘I need to get a Prius or something like that,’ and I’m like, ‘How about you don’t get another car? I have plenty of cars you can drive. How would that be for a statement?’ So now she drives a cool ’79 Toyota FJ55 Land Cruiser I did for her.” Now he’s thinking about his wife. 

“She can heliarc-weld aluminum already. I taught her to machine, too. She machined my wedding ring for me out of a piece of barstock. It was cool.” Now he’s thinking about what it’s like going to Hollywood parties with his wife. “I like being with her, but that stuff is just really bizarre and weird. It’s kind of bullshit. A tiny little bit of it goes a long way. A lot of actors spend their whole lives trying to be someone else, trying to fit in and be a person everybody likes.” Now he’s thinking about himself. “Me, I’m just a welder,” he says. “I just try to be like me.”


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