Saturday, December 01, 2007

Au Revoir Evel, See Ya With a 28

Sad news came that Evel Knievel died yesterday. He was, in a era of increasing blandisms, a guy you could count on to do some kind of wild stunt, on short notice. My one intersection with Evel was in 1974, when the world seemed to be focused at watching his stunts in Idaho become one front page after another. It was a time, before cable television (ok, there was HBO in New York, that was it!) and all those other supposed advances which have made our society so forgiving, open, and free in the exchange of ideas.

Along with Allen Green, photo colleague and marketing whiz who would later become known as the genius behind the Flexfill and Steadybag, I trotted off to Twin Falls, Idaho, where we decamped to a small, ruralesque motel for three or four nights, as part of the amazing road show which accompanied the “Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon Sky Cycle Jump.” Tens of thousands of folks gathered for that several day party, and Evel played it like a perfect diva, limiting his time with the press, showing up just enough to cause mass hysteria among not only the 4th estate, but the bikers (Hell's Angels was doing security)and the folks from home who just came to watch. The rocket cycle itself, although designed by some NASA style engineers, didn't do a terrific job in the power/weight calculations. But no one knew that until Sunday afternoon. For the three days leading up to the 'launch' there were practice runs, engine blasts, and Evel spouting off about how fantabulous he was. Pure fun!

An AP shot ( I never got that close to the SkyCycle)

He was 36 years old, I was 28 (spent my 28th birthday in Twin Falls, actually) but he seemed like much more of a grown up in his understanding of how to treat a crowd and build an event. His promoters, Shelly Saltzman and Bob Arum, were well known for their prowess in promoting Boxing, and had taken Evel's project in hand and the turn out was quite impressive. In an area which saw mostly gophers and prairie dogs, thousands of people, each with at least two or three beers in hand, showed up for the big show.

What none of us had figured was that what could have been an enormous story - whether he made it or not - "Evel Knievel shoots across the canyon", would be eaten alive by the real news story of that day. Lacking cell fones (not for another 20+ years would they be everywhere) the news reached us by jungle telegraph. I assume someone having a Coors, listening to an AM station with an average of a few thousand listeners, heard the news that Sunday morning, President Gerald Ford had issued a Pardon for Richard Nixon. Talk about feeling 'out of position!' There we were, in the middle of a hay fever attack, trying not to get beat up by bikers, putting lens caps back on lenses when changing quickly (Dennis Brack gave me hell for that move!), and shooting with no remote cameras near the edge of the canyon. Well, in the end, the Skycycle fizzled, the steam rocket power didn't hit full pressure, and the parachute came out on the way UP. In short, the cycle slid up the platform and made it off the rails, hung there briefly, then headed down into the canyon, landing near the water, Knievel unhurt. It was, alas, a massive let down. No zooming contrails. No incredible neck-turning zooming motions. Nothing you might expect from a combination of Knievel and rocket in the same space.

Ford Pardons Nixon: Me? Out of Position, again!
Once it was clear he wasn't hurt, all of our talk all reverted what was happening in Washington. The Nixon Pardon, which I happen to believe was a brilliant stroke - it spared the country from years of further Watergate dread - ate up every story around. No one, frankly, cared about Evel anymore. And there is nothing like feeling you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The one good that which came out of the trip was this:
I had, since my early days of shooting in Vietnam (1970 onwards) normally been shooting with 24mm, 35mm, 105mm and 180mm lenses. My semi famous shot of the GI on Lang Vei was done with the 24mm. Well, my mentor Raymond Depardon had been bugging me for several years to give up the 24 (too wide!) and go with the 28. “Tout ce que tu peux faire au 24, tu peux faire au 28, et mieux,” he said. [“Anything you can do with a 24, you can do with a 28, and better!”] Well, as Allen and I packed the car in Twin Falls, to head back to Salt Lake City to spend the night, I left my 24 sitting on the roof of the car. Somehow in the discussions of Nixon, Evel, Jerry, and the bikers, I'd just forgotten to pack it. Somewhere in the boonies of Idaho is a 35 year old lens, dusty and busted no doubt, probably turned into a condo by a family of small scorpions.

A new generation Evel-type, Colorado Springs (during the Pikes Peak Race)

So if I became better in my use of wide angle lenses, and I think I did, I suppose I owe it to Evel Knievel, the man who knew how to leap over places like no one else. I'm kind of sorry I never saw him blow over twenty semi trucks, and actually land the jump. Nowdays, moto cross kids regularly fly several stories into the air, doing acrobatics as they soar. It all started with the man from Butte, Montana who realized that selling the sizzle was more important than the quality of the steak. We're just sayin… David


Anonymous said...

I had the wind-up Evel Knievel motorcycle and action figure when I was a kid.
Unfortunately, Evel was later eaten by Jaws...

Sean C said...

That's a great story. I enjoyed every wide angle minute.

m_harding said...

Hey Seth, was it one of those ones you put in a red stand and cranked a wheel untill it shot out? I had one of those too. It broke first due to dog interference, and then finally succumed to fire cracker testing. Evil rocked. For 30 years there was no other. Still really isnt...

Going wide? Personally im a 24 guy. 28 looks...well...too casual -too middle? I like a lens that makes it look like the photographer was thinking about something. Or at the least, like he had to get up and walk over to his subject...a little off centre, a little above, a little below, yeah, something like that. 35 1.4,just is the best, the "if I could only have one lens", lens.

Good read.

Farewell Evil, a lot of kids loved you.


Anonymous said...

Yup. That was the one...except I think my stand was blue.

Anonymous said...

Blue!!!? Cool.

Anonymous said...

I would certainly hope the AP shot was done w/ a remote cable. Rough shot otherwise! Hey, sometimes it doesn't matter if you're standing on your head;sometimes the pic doesn't happen..

Anonymous said...

The Book of Evel (Knievel)

An excerpt from Douglas Brinkley’s upcoming Vanity Fair feature about the legendary daredevil, who died... at age 69.

by Douglas Brinkley WEB EXCLUSIVE November 30, 2007

Daredevil Evel Knievel, considered by many to be the godfather of extreme sports, died today at age 69. In the months before his death, he granted his last major interview to Vanity Fair, allowing historian Douglas Brinkley to sit down with him at his home in Florida and then meet up during a “farewell visit” to his hometown of Butte, Montana.

Brinkley’s exclusive story, with photographs by Harry Benson, will appear in the February issue of Vanity Fair, on newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on January 8. The following is an excerpt.

Defying death is the craziest of all athletic ventures, and its undisputed master remains Evel Knievel, the godfather (or dotty uncle) of today’s extreme-sports movement. Millions of Americans used to watch him on television just to see if he would explode into flaming particles like an incoming meteorite. Knievel seemed braver, brazen­and more unhinged­than any other athlete-cum-thrill-seeker of his era. While NFL football players were tackled on cushy Astroturf and rodeo cowboys fell on soft dirt (snowboarding and bungee jumping didn’t hit the radar until later that decade), Knievel thudded on concrete slabs. You could actually hear his spine snap. And he had a body seamed with scars, and hospital debts to prove it.

“Those extreme-sports kids today are good but they have it easy,” Knievel tells me as I sit at his bedside in Clearwater, Florida. “Try falling off of a motorcycle going 70 or 80 miles per hour on asphalt. Believe me, nothing equals it. That damn asphalt bites back, just massacring your body. It just shreds your flesh and shatters your bones.”

Knievel knows what he’s talking about. He has bragged that he is the Guinness Book of World Records holder for broken bones, averaging about two breaks a stunt. Name a famous Knievel motorcycle spectacle from 1962 to 1980 and he will rattle off both the injury and circumstances. (December 31, 1967: crushed pelvis, coma for 29 days, after riding over the Caesar’s Palace fountains in Las Vegas, Nevada. May 10, 1980: both femurs shattered, after clearing 13 Pepsi trucks in Yakima, Washington.) Forget Olympic gold medals. In Knievel’s warped world, body-length stitches and organ damage are the true warrior’s marks.

It’s impossible for any challenger to one-up him in this macabre regard. Sadly, he has spent four years of his adult life in hospital beds recuperating from crashes. “I always wanted to live to about 70,” Knievel says. “I thought that’d be a good age…. I have my tombstone already. A tombstone company in the East gave it to me when I jumped Snake Canyon. My plot is in Montana. All my life people have been waitin’ around to watch me die. But I’m still here. I really think that there is a hereafter and this is just a testing ground. Years ago I was just helter-skelter. I defied death. And I’m still doing it­only from a bed instead of a bike. There’s just no quit in me. There’s just no stopping me. I went through life big-bang-bada-boom-bada-boom. Now it’s just bing, but I’m still Evel Knievel. I am. There’s just nothing you could do to stop me.”

… Knievel is propped up in bed, having taken his medicine and secured his oxygen. He asks me to pull up a chair. I feel like the protagonist in the opening pages of Winesburg, Ohio, who sits listening to the stories of a dying Civil War soldier. “You’ll be my last interview,” he says. “No more after these.” That, in fact, is what he said after his Wembley Stadium jump­before he went out and rode again and again. “I don’t want to die,” he admits, staring straight at me. Then, as if to provide a macho corrective, he changes course. “I don’t want to say this to insult my doctors, who I have great admiration for, but doctors are like assholes: everybody’s got one.”

What I quickly learn is that Knievel doesn’t just reminisce. He roars down memory lane full throttle, flushed with optimism. Any ambiguities elude him. All is black or white; gray, as far as he’s concerned, is for pussies. The same holds true when he’s mouthing off about politicians. A Barry Goldwater Republican, with a special admiration held for Harry Truman, Knievel steams at the mere mention of George W. Bush. “Believe me,” he says, “we need this Bush like we need a hole in the head. This guy made a terrible mistake going into Iraq. Why we left it up to him to make that decision is beyond me. What is the matter with the sheep in this goddamn country?!”….

Douglas Brinkley, the noted presidential historian, professor at Rice University, and Vanity Fair contributor, is the author of The Great Deluge and the editor of The Reagan Diaries, excerpted in the June 2007 issue of Vanity Fair.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Are you following all this Johann Santana stuff?

Anonymous said...

Not really. Im a one sport a season type of guy.Reserving my tears the Jets. Steinbrenner has already had enough of my valued body moisture.

But frankly, for $120 million over six years the deal had better include Carlos Santana too! Oye Como Va!!