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  • 15

    Evel Knievel's Final Ride
    History; Posted on: 2007-12-11 15:11:00 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    Stunt legend laid to rest

    Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel was buried in his Butte, Montana hometown on December 10, 2007, after losing a battle with lung disease, his body weakened by the hepatitis he contracted from one of the numerous blood transfusions he underwent in the aftermath of many of his death defying stunts. He was 69.

    Evel Knievel was (and remains) a cultural icon whose importance went far beyond the limits of his physical feats, which saw him leap difficult obstacles on various vehicles and pioneer the kind of extreme sports that are so popular today.

    Evel Knievel's popularity, which peaked in the middle of the 1970s, was founded on a deeply held need for America's great white "silent majority" to again find the sense of courage, independence and self respect that had been eroded by a decade of demoralization. The "Civil Rights" era, the Vietnam War, and the cultural dislocations of "The Sixties" left white America reeling with a sense of helplessness as all their old landmarks of patriotism, religion and family were exposed to mockery and devaluation. For his white, working class fans, Evel Knievel's "all American" image, complete with a star spangled corniness bordering on self parody, struck a chord that awakened a long repressed sense of pride.

    Many older members of Generation X, people born between 1964 and 1980, have childhood memories of Evel Knievel as a superhero larger than life, a key archetype of the 1970s. He was everywhere, marketed to the extreme with action figures, lunch pails, films and television shows, comic books, bubblegum cards, pinball machines and various other effluvia. Sadly, the marketing cost Evel Knievel a lot more than the broken bones.

    Impresario Shelly Saltman tape recorded Evel on the road and released a book using the material, Evel Knievel on Tour, in 1977. In it Saltman, who is Jewish, alleged that Knievel was an "anti-Semite," among other career destroying revelations. Knievel rashly attacked Saltman with a baseball bat in Hollywood, breaking Saltman's arm. As a result, Knievel went to prison and lost an astounding $12.75 million to Saltman in a civil suit. The case made international headlines, and left Evel bankrupt. His career never recovered, leaving him all but forgotten, while his reputation was tattered for all but a hard core of fans.

    Before the star was even buried, the media reported that Saltman, who had published a second Knievel related book, planned to pursue Evel's estate for the unpaid remainder, Saltman having refused Knievel's repeated apologies and attempts to settle when alive. Saltman claims that the figure, with interest, now stands at an incredible $100 million.

    Evel Knievel's later life closely charted the path of most American working class heroes, replete with the tackiness that is mocked by many who see themselves as sophisticated by comparison. Towards the end, Evel "found Jesus," declaring the kind of newfound faith in Christ that is a mainstay of America's folk religion. Knievel's funeral (which featured yet another apology) was officiated by another pioneer of blue collar, friendly cheesiness, Robert H. Schuller, the televangelist. Schuller is best known for his Crystal Cathedral, which boasted a swing-out section so that parishioners could hear his Dale Carnegie inspired sermons from the comfort of their own cars. Actor Matthew McConaughey eulogized the stuntman: "He's forever in flight now. He doesn't have to come back down; he doesn't have to land," McConaughey said, evoking images of Evel Knievel leaping the River Jordan aboard his rocket propelled X2 SuperCycle into the Promised Land. Mourners followed the hearse along the Evel Knievel Loop to the graveside, laying to rest a legend.

    Like the end stage Elvis Presley, Evel Knievel's image was so much larger than life that in look, spirit and tone it defines a large part of white, working class collective memory of the 1970s. Evel Knievel's importance for blue collar America was historical in significance, especially considering the enormous collective social power of this demographic group, then and now. The social force of white workers, those who Nixon called the "Hardhats" and counted on for their blind patriotism, was greatly feared by those elements of the Establishment who profited from the social changes of the 1960s. Any cultural cohesion from blue collar whites had to be very carefully stage managed and misdirected, but also exploited. As a result, the era saw the appearance of the highly popular Archie Bunker television programs and similar works, which were disgustingly well developed psychological attacks on the "reactionary" interests of working people. Along with these came the powerful chanelling of white self identification with "backward" archetypes of "trailer trash," "hicks" and "rednecks." Even today, the only "white" forms of popular entertainment permitted are those, like NASCAR, country and heavy metal music and "you know you're a redneck if" comedy that are easily twisted into self deprecation. And even these are under attack. As Roger D. McGrath pointed out on Caste Football, "NASCAR is funding programs to develop black drivers after fielding complaints that the sport is too white." Country music now boasts the likes of the "crossover" black Cowboy Troy, while the white Kid Rock has melded rap with country music. Heavy metal, once an outlet for white teen males that drew largely from the well of European legend for inspiration has long been subverted by hip hop. Of course, other popular entertainment with whites as the butt of nonwhite jokes continues unabated. The race that gave the world the Parthenon is only allowed to feel alive in a trailer park.

    Evel Knievel was at the epicenter of a social phenomenon he probably didn't fully understand. Yet he stood in the vanguard of a cultural backlash against the defeat and demoralization of the people who built America, fight its wars, and keep it going.

    Rest in Peace.
    News Source: Special to Western Voices


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