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Step Right Up spacer Issue 8
Step Right Up - Evel Kneival
by Paul Moore
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It is sad to watch a man who has been such a household name, who has given thousands of spectators so much pleasure and who was admired for his athleticism struggling so palpably with liver disease. We may try to empathise with George Best, but for Mr Kneivel, he of the white leather suits and the bus-hopping stunts, the disease is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense. Infected by hepatitis C from blood given after one of his many falls he has been handed a death sentence by the very sport that made him both wealthy and notorious.
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Kneivel was a product of his time, that moment at the turn of the sixties when Americans believed that if it was brash, vulgar and larger than life then it must be the next big thing. Elvis wore sparkle-strewn white leather costumes - so did Evel. Elvis was a working-class kid made good - so was Evel. Elvis having made good took his act to the most unreal part of America, to the land of fear and loathing, Las Vegas - so did Evel with a jump across the fountains in the front garden of Caesar's Palace. Elvis became a myth rather than a man - so did Evel.
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Except while the epithet Evel may seem more myth than man, there may actually be something in it. In his early days he had been a small time crook, then a safe-cracker and bank robber and had found his way into motorbikes from trying to find a convenient way to leave crime scenes quickly and effectively. But he was learning this when the paying public of America were looking fro a new hero. If he turned out to be an anti-hero then so much the better because there's nothing Americans like better than a rogue bucking the system, as long as they do it with style.
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And nobody knew more about style than Evel. He drank; Montana Marys to be exact, an apparently lethal cocktail of beer, tomato juice and Wild Turkey whiskey which has for obvious reasons come to be known as the 'Evel'. He entertained young women. His estimate is that he slept with at least two thousand women and no one is prepared to argue with the man who had to have security guards to protect him from females determined to take him on the jump he wouldn't recover from. And he spent money. At one point his empire (including Evel dolls and merchandise) was worth thirty million dollars although his accountant maintains that was the year he spent thirty-one million. The IRS for its part maintains that he owes them twenty-one million dollars, tax which Evel says they can go jump for.
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So with a body crippled by arthritis and broken bones and a public that has long since forgotten (or never heard of) the man who leapt canyons and shark-infested swimming pools, how does Evel get his kicks now? Gambling and golf. An unlikely combination I'll grant you but one that is cemented by the new love of his life since 1998, Krystal Kennedy, a golf instructor and obligatory blonde. And why should we care?
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Well, we shouldn't really, but in Northern Ireland I suspect we still have a sneaking admiration for the man who was recently back on the circuit promoting the Daredevil Café, another venture that is unlikely to fly. In Northern Ireland we love madmen on motorcycles, hence our love/hate relationship with road racing. In Ireland generally we have a sentimental attachment to the loveable rogue, the man (or woman) whose crimes appear to have no victim other than, in the long run, the perpetrator. And we seem to be unable to resist the myth-maker, the person whose real life never quite matches the one they make up and plaster across any public medium willing to listen.
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The saddest fact about Evel, however, is his admission that he has Alzheimer's. In order to get through the day he has to paste little yellow notes everywhere otherwise he forgets where he should be and what he should be doing. He walks with the aid of a black cane in which is embedded a gold medallion showing him on a motorcycle and stating simply 'The Last of the Gladiators'. Unfortunately, like himself, the Christians and the lions have also got cultural Alzheimer's and no one is listening anymore. But perhaps Evel doesn't care. As he says himself he has had an obituary few can even dream about - he had a pinball machine named after him!
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