As years have progressed since the inception of MTV’s Jackass (2000), the franchise has steadily become synonymous with the tragedy on which every featured stunt teetered. Bam got bombed. Novak hit the needle. Dunn’s dead. Vito’s vetoed. Steve-O was out of his mind for a time. But while each star is certainly a unique character in his own right, their life experiences hardly exist/existed (RIP) in a vacuum. With the help of Bam’s recent feature in Vice’s skateboarding series Epicly Later’d, I seek to understand his demons in terms of why they may exist in and of themselves, how the quick-winded thrust into the spotlight may have mitigated or exacerbated them, and their relationship with all of those who watched with bated breath. While conclusions are multilayered, the common thread is that of a cautionary tale woven with a thread of careful optimism.
For those of you who may believe that my position in that last category of I-peeked-in-’05 goth kid may not necessarily make me an authority on a man I have never had the pleasure of meeting; I agree with you. My aim is to offer my insights as a fan who grew up in a fairly congruent Northeastern town suffering from the same destructive behaviors that Bam has divulged for you to take or leave – not to assert any kind of universal truths, as my intention is never as such.
First things first, we must contextualize Jackass spinoff Viva La Bam (2005) within the royal shitbag that was 2000’s reality TV. Programs like The Simple Life, The Anna Nicole Show, Laguna Beach, and The Girls Next Door carved out a troubling brand defined by reinforcing standards of beauty, rubbing one out to LA Wealth under the failed guise of dark comedy, and, as I always say, observing the general self-awareness of a New Balance 608v4. Sick of my young self-esteem being steadily ground down by bronze statues of Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag, I turned to a refuge where I felt dazzled by a different kind of grandeur (or at least until Spencer Pratt started breaking out the crystals). This aforementioned wonderland was made of babe Bam turning any hole into a halfpipe, any home into a harbor for heartagrams, and any simple object into a suppository – all at a closely distant hour 30 from my own hometown. All anal bead kites aside, Margera’s talent sings strong in terms of his skillful skating ability, high aptitude for videography and production, quick-minded comedic comebacks, and the sheer creativity behind his hijinks.
Unfortunately, even the talented few who live in the margins of mainstream media aren’t excluded from becoming a fall risk. To a degree, the wonderland turned out to be a bill of goods sold by MTV, and the cast members themselves were not immune to its harmful side effects. It’s not to say that the actors and fans alike are passive drones. Jackass came out of Bam’s early DIY CKY videos, and one does not simply wake up one day and resonate with watching someone shit out an eyeball without a long and winding backstory. But, an almost inherent exploitative nature in Jackass/Viva became just as apparent as parading around a benzo-addicted Anna Nicole once the taping of near-death and narrow dignity spilled into a reality of decay.
Even MTV’s 2009 documentary Steve-O: Demise and Rise—one of the earliest mask-liftings on the sanctity of the Jackass brand—retains Jackass’s sense of “hey, look at this freak show,” as a large majority of the doc is devoted to the carnivalesque footage of the man adrift in a sea of whippet-induced mania. While the clips in and of themselves serve as a grave reminder that drugs are bad mkay, it fails to address the complexities of addiction. Thus, the whole venture runs the risk of being viewed with a similar intent to watching Jackass, particularly in that the premiere catered to the same demographic by the same TV channel in the same timeslot.
Later’d avoids a similar short-sightedness by keeping footage carefully-chosen but fast-paced to the tune of curated thoughts from a variety of narrators who leave few facets of Bam’s journey up until today unexplored. While Demise begins to explore the underlying issues of Steve-O’s substance abuse, such as the untimely death of his mother, analysis remains surface-level as the focus is shifted to the bizarre experiences and consequences of Steve-O’s drug binges (e.g. conversations with perceived demons and a misguided stint as a rapper).
But, while Later’d demonstrates the importance of integrity and thoroughness in reporting, it more than falls short to attribute blame to the media alone, or to even speak about addiction or other mental health struggles in a singular, blame-worthy matter.
My past musings on Bam’s legacy written prior to learning the full extent of his personal struggles took on a lighthearted tone coupling my lust for nostalgia with the simpler times of suburban boredom that could be shattered by a few well-accessorized stunt devils. But, there was something I previously failed to detect – a vulnerability in the kid from the shitty, sheltered suburb, which makes the whole game a lot less innocent. Give us a taste of the outside world, and we’ll run it into the ground. It feels unnatural to spend the rest of our days hustling deodorant. Unfortunately, we also don’t come with the cultural capital needed to wisely turn quick-coming income into long term wealth like, say, Paris Hilton did. Fading into obscurity also isn’t a matter of receding into a silk-lined cushion.
Speaking of cultural capital, this environment, in my experience, is notorious for sweeping mental health problems under the rug out of concerns for image, which is then worsened by limited understanding, insufficient insurance, or a literal lack of energy. And so, the friends who have too much light to offer alongside their darkness to just simply conform to the simple existence that came pre-mapped out for them come to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. New cliques are carved out and we search for acceptance and attention in fashions both positive and negative. Perhaps addiction would have taken Bam, Steve-O, and Novak swiftly if they had remained undiscovered without the hope and watchful eyes associated with big-name ventures. But, with big names comes big competition. There is much to be admired about Bam and friends’ ride-or-die brotherhood – so much so that I feel a bit uncomfortable as someone outside of that bond theorizing about the level of rivalry within it. But, I will still introduce the chance that such an environment can take on its own element of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses – something that sub-cultural cliques initially try to evade.
Such a bind shows itself in the ways in which the franchise curiously challenges and reinforces hegemonically masculine expectations. While reinforcers can be highly destructive physically and emotionally (i.e. having to prove oneself by completing a dangerous stunt), challenges can also present, well, challenges. Take, for instance, young Bam’s extremely thin figure and the subsequent “Bam got fat!!!!” keyboard hysteria. Well, no, he just looks like a grown man now as opposed to the lad he was on Viva. In addition to growing older, Bam’s new physique can be attributed to his addressing of the illness that had maintained his old – bulimia. Bam’s mother, April, theorizes that Bam’s emulation of androgynous, heroin chic-looking HIM frontman of Ville Valo’s was a trigger of bulimic urges. That, and not wanting to look like his dad or departed Uncle, Don Vito, casts a dark shadow of early, now iconic Viva episode “Don’t Feed Phil” in which it becomes a town mission to starve the dude as a jab at his weight.
Fucking bulimia. I was floored when this component of Bam’s reality came to light – not because he is a man, but because I can’t imagine what it would be like to be contractually obligated to go full-throttle on TV while feeling the pressures to look the part for a character you work so hard to cultivate. It sounds like nothing short of a fucking hellish, fleetingly accomplishable paradox that was bound to end in a crash. During my most severe bouts with the illness, I have been incapable of going few places besides an office job, a bathroom, and bed. The thought of gallivanting all over West Chester, Las Vegas, or Helsinki would have been completely unfathomable, and ultimately leaves me in awe that heart failure didn’t take Bam from us too soon.
Even more disturbing is the reality that bulimia, which damages the esophagus and disrupts the flow of stomach acid, was being accompanied by binge drinking – an activity revealed to have been introduced to Bam in earnest by Valo. That’s not to say that neither Valo nor HIM have been nothing short of meaningful and transformative influences in Bam’s life in many great regards. A little good music and good friendship can go a long way. It’s also fucking lame to point fingers at idols or fandoms instead of asking why their followers were drawn to them in the first place.
That being said, more or less unlimited access to your idols (which, in Bam’s case was facilitated by money and fame) may not be inherently good or bad, but rather, just plain messy. It’s easy to become enamored with the ethereal magic of a band like HIM (yeah, yeah; revoke my clout goggles – IDGAF) and the sparkling stars over an icy Lapland, particularly when you come from a place where culture consists of antique shops and strip mall bars. But, an innocent love doesn’t eliminate the risk of discovering an underbelly if this love is indulged to its fullest extent.
Even within the perceived safe space of alternative culture, there is still room for the same risks that come with the mainstream, as it’s hard to keep the former completely sterile from the latter. One trigger of my eating disorder, for instance, is the fetishization of tattooed women like myself. The process of cultivating the ideas behind, sitting for, and wearing my tattoos make me feel a deep personal autonomy over my body, yet it is violated through the point in the sexualization process that has surpassed well-intended celebration of diverse depictions of beauty. Thus, I feel like I must undergo punishments to live up to the pressure of the physical demands that conflict with my natural genetic makeup (much like Bam, I also take after a devoted, husky father), all so that I fit within the algorithm of 1) what it means to be desirable as a tattooed woman and 2) preserving the aesthetic integrity of the art. Ultimately, these conflicts leave us having to have uncomfortable confrontations with the things that mean the most to us. It doesn’t mean we must stop loving them, but a certain mindfulness must remain as they run the risk of becoming corrupt—either by the context of our surroundings or our own underlying issues—and in turn, lead us into corrupting ourselves.
Then we have the home that housed it all; the now neglected heartagram castle, which is noted in Later’d as being a place that held “a lot of pain” while clips depict the side of partying that teeters on the verge of growing ugly. It’s that waking up in a strange spot day after day with nothing but the clothes you have on from the night before and the vague recollection of a fight that ensued. It’s that running in place, and drinking can sure be a great sprint until you come to and realize that you’re in the same spot in which you began – just buried underneath an avalanche. And so, we’ve come to the commonality that links a condition inflicted upon people of all walks of life. Strategically or otherwise, MTV turned off the cameras as the castle began to crumble, leaving faithful viewers with a story whose second half is completely torn out, and thus, a narrow understanding of the real-world issues that affect ourselves and our beloved icons alike, making journalistic feats like Later’d so fucking important.
But even though MTV seemingly washed its hands of the mess made from what it happily conveyed, that does not mean Bam’s fame has been a hindrance to his recovery. He has hella people rooting for him, and a bit more innocuous camera crew to document it all, which can be used as a source of pride in that he can regain the videography he knew back in the OG days of CKY – a medium that shares rather than takes. With that potential in mind, it is interesting to consider if Bam’s story is one that will be perpetuated by others young stars. Or, have we adopted a bit more self-awareness and a-conformist tendencies that will prevent future prime breeding grounds for his cocktail of demons? It’s hard to say. But, in the meantime, I’m content that Bam can teach us other lessons besides the techniques of butt-branding. We’ve grown up together and struggled to keep ourselves as such, but redemption often sails—albeit unsteadily—on the horizon.
Hey, it’s better to be later’d than never.