By Kyle Duvall
In our anarchic culture, it’s fitting that one of the most important figures in the evolution of skateboarding never set foot on a skateboard. Evel Knievel made a career flying through the air on motorcycles and, in one case, a rocket sled, but he became a legend by being larger than life. Mike Vallely has spent a lot of time fighting to keep Knievel’s legacy alive, and not just with the tricks he’s done on his skateboard, or even the Evel Knievel decks he’s released with his company, Elephant Brand Skateboards, but with the way he has lived his entire life.
“(Evel Knievel) didn’t just take on jumping motorcycles, he took on life. He was an outlaw, and when I say ‘outlaw‘ I mean he was a man who didn’t play by anybody’s rules… When he had it all he continued to be outlandish in his actions. His rise was just as great as his downfall, but even after things turned on him, he continued to live by his own rules,” explains Vallely. “A lot of why I skateboard, why I do what I do, it starts with Evel Knievel.”
Vallely traces it all the way back to his earliest days on a board. “In 1984, Edison, New Jersey might as well have been (Knievel’s hometown of) Butte Montana. I told my friend: ‘can you imagine jumping a skateboard off a ramp… I had no idea that that sort of stuff had already been happening… When I said it, what I was visualizing was Evel Knievel. I was telling my friend: ‘can you imagine taking the Evel Knievel approach to skateboarding?’”
As impressive as all of Knievel’s feats are; jumping 13 buses on a 500 pound Harley Davidson with a 5 inch suspension, attempting to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket car, the totality of his impact is greater than even the sum of those gnarly parts. Unlike the “extreme” heroes of today, who usually have a big impact on a small niche of society, with the occasional viral flare up into the mainstream, Evel Knievel’s stunts were a cross-cultural phenomenon. In the days before YouTube or even cable TV, the dent he put in the collective consciousness with just a motorcycle, guts and a few dozen televised performances, is astounding.
“The Jackass mentality — These people credit him as an influence, but none of the stuff he gave birth to resonates the way he does. People do double back flips on motorcycles now and I don’t give two shits about that,” says Vallely. “I care about Evel Knievel… He birthed the extreme generation, he’s a superhero. What he did was so out there, so aggressive. Sure, there were people before and after him that jumped motorcycles, but who cares? They’re not Evel Knievel.”
A lot of that iconic impact has to do with when Knievel emerged on the American scene. It was the late 1960’s, a time when the country was deeply divided over civil rights, the Vietnam War, and a general shift in the attitudes of a new generation. “People were polarized, society felt like it was crumbling and here comes some guy wearing red white and blue and taking on all challengers and jumping his motorcycle, and, for whatever reason, that just kind of captured the nation and made everyone feel good about themselves.”
Knievel made a lot of money off his stunts. He claimed that he made $20 million from his unsuccessful Snake River Canyon jump alone, but he was also constantly crafting a persona that that was equal parts old fashioned American determination, and rowdy, uncompromising individualism. Knievel was just as famous for his crashes as his successes. Talk show legend Johnny Carson once referred to him as “The only man in history to get wealthy by trying to kill himself,” but Knievel never seemed apologetic for not making a jump, and every time the world was sure he had “learned his lesson” and that he was done jumping for good (as in the aftermath of his devastating failed leap over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas) he would always come back and do something completely insane. Calling himself “The Last Gladiator” might have been grandiose, but he backed it up. If the fans were in the seats, he would take his jump, even when he knew the state of the ramp or his bike meant he probably wasn’t going to make it. He faced down death in tire-squealing pieces of performance art. In Knievel’s jumps, the idea of acting on your words was taken to theatrical extremes. Even in the malaise of the late 70’s and the self absorption of the early 1980’s, that persona captivated adults and kids, kids like the young Vallely.
“For me the daredevil aspect is not the thing I value most about skateboarding,” Explains Vallely, “In some ways, I don’t value it at all. I desired something deeper for myself and my skating, something more artistic, creative. So although, Evel Knievel did influence my skating in some ways, he more so influenced my character… It was his overall message of falling down and getting up. It was the ‘never give up’ attitude that really translated to skateboarding for me.”
Although his motivations have always been internal; the need for expression, the drive to creativity; without Knievel’s influence, Vallely might have never pushed his boundaries to a place where he could fully express himself. “The Daredevil aspect did help me conquer obstacles faster than my peers. That allowed me to get deeper into formulating my own ideas about skating. His influence has enabled me to accomplish the things I have accomplished.”
Every aspect of Vallely’s body of work, from his repertoire of tricks, to his interactions with the industry, have been characterized by his need for personal fulfillment. At the same time, anyone who’s seen Vallely at a demo can attest that there are few skaters in the history of the culture who work harder to put on a show for a crowd of fans. “I’ve skated with the best skaters in the world since 1986… When it comes to the demo environment, I’ve never met anyone who, like me, sees the demo as their element,” says Vallely. “It’s where I’ve made my career… Live, in person at the skatepark or the parking lot, that is how I’ve thrived and maintained a professional career. I don’t know that pro-skateboarding was ever built on the demo, the demo was always an extension of something else: contests, videos, the mags… My story is unique. I have used the demo to build my career, not to enhance the career. That is the environment where I’ve built my name, where my character has shown.”
So what reconciles that steadfast internal drive with the unwavering determination to put on a good show, whether its for a crowd of 5 or 5000? Vallely connects it to the Evel Knievel factor, and when he talks about it, he sounds a lot like Knievel himself.
“If you can’t actualize what you are about then who are you? When it comes to a demo or performance, you go as hard as possible and put it all on the line, at the end that makes the handshakes and the dialogue more meaningful. The audience sees someone who challenged everything in front of them and had the courage to take it on. You can talk, but unless you live it, it lacks depth.”
You don’t have to wear a red white and blue jump suit or ride a motorcycle to be inspired by the legacy of history’s greatest daredevil. Mike Vallely is living proof. Knievel’s entire life was an epic performance. There were the triumphs of fame and glory, and the tragedy of his later life, when settlements stemming from his assault on a biographer left him bankrupt and shunned, but a message of self determination and living a life un-compromised echo through the whole show. That’s what Mike Vallely has been given by the “Last Gladiator.” He’s seen his own fame rise and fall, seen business ventures live and die, and whether its switching skate companies, or making music, his personal choices have often been controversial. As Vallely continues to navigate his place in skate culture, the industry, and even film and music, Knievel’s lessons are always close by.
“What resonates the most about Evel Knievel is the message that you can fall many times in life but you’re never a failure if you keep trying to get up. That’s him in a nutshell.”
That’s not a legacy any skateboarder, or any human being for that matter, should ignore.
Kyle DuVall had been writing about skateboarding almost as long as he has been skateboarding. He blogs at Parkingblockdiaries.blogspot.com