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Jamming with Jenna, Round #5: Viva La Bam, From Rock to Rock-Bottom

jamming with jenna

It’s hard to believe that swimming through raw sewage, throwing up a live goldfish, or sticking an anal-bead kite into the appropriate cavity were all once symbols of decadence, but when none other than MTV is signing checks for such stunts, the picture starts to come together. Having the laws of physics tugging at your butthole somehow translates into a castle bedecked in chrome heartagrams with towering skate ramps around back: for the folks of Jackass, it was all in a day’s work, as honest as gripping a plow, pole, or plunger. But for those of us voyeuring at home, this budding brand became an unprecedented instance of “shut up and take my money” — the power of celebrity that comes with the ability to give millions of American youth a chance to live vicariously through their cool older cousin with the fat DC shoes was nothing to mess around with.

As the franchise started playing itself out, its stars were left to cope with a bubble that had become bigger than itself. Inevitably, it ended with a burst: while some Jackass stars managed to make it out to the other side, others did not. Nevertheless, the key theme among many proved to be drug addiction. Cut to 2019, and arguably the most brandable bud, Bam Margera, seems to be faring the worst… I’ll leave Margera’s longtime friends to explain the specifics, but the more digestible version is this: the protagonist of Jackass spinoff Viva La Bam has become another icon muddied by a disease that drives him to commit abuse (against others, and himself). Alas, excess isn’t looking so innocent anymore.

When rock-bottom is hit, the question of “how did they get here?” is begged. It’s not appropriate to speculate under the guise of analysis, but in the case of a celebrity like Margera with whom many of us grew up, the best we can do is look back at the enjoyable highs and deplorable lows with the hopes of maybe finding some answers between the lines. No matter where life takes Margera, nothing will erase the fact that he defined the pre-Jersey Shore era of MTV. He not only sold his skills as a skateboarder or a stuntman, but he conveyed an entire culture that rocked the world of an entire generation.

And speaking of rock, before there was rock-bottom, there was just rock’-n’-roll.

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In the process of selling a lifestyle that many skate-obsessed youths could only dream about, Margera used his platform as public relations for bands near and far, earning him a spot as a surprisingly vital figure in heavy music in the 2000s. Music undoubtedly runs in his family tree: his brother Jess Margera is well-known as the drummer for hard-rock outfit CKY, and Margera himself has mentioned playing in bands with Jackass co-star Ryan Dunn since they were boys. Bam’s latest musical endeavor, Fuckface Unstoppable, became a family affair by welcoming contributions from Jess. Yet, even outside of his own work, Margera demonstrated an innovative mind for the business side of music by pioneering his own franchises or recruiting his favorite bands for living room shows while MTV was rolling.

The seeds for this loose promotional model were actually sown when MTV was still soaking in the success of its juggernaut series The Real World. While CKY (the band) came first in 1998, the video series of the same name soon followed in 1999. The visual aspect of things featured Margera and Brandon DiCamillo performing stunts, skating tricks, and pranks, and just generally taking several years off the lives of the local township police (little did they know, the chaos was only just beginning). Of course, through the power of rapidly-spreading Internet access, it was hard to search for one iteration of CKY without discovering the other, ultimately driving traffic to both ventures.

Naturally, Margera utilized his big brother’s music as the soundtrack to the shenanigans. The iconic riff in “96 Quite Bitter Beings” captured a carefree groove that packed a mean punch without packing too much. The collaboration between the two brothers marked a time of intense hustle, as well as an era in which Margera allegedly equated alcohol and drug-use to being a loser. With hard work at play, a full-on film was in store.

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Haggard is essentially The Big Lebowski for those who wear pajama pants to be arraigned for federal graffiti charges (I mean that in the most affectionate way possible). The 2003 cult comedy is Bam Margera’s early play at fictionalized feature-lengths. While the plot centers around Dunn getting dumped, gratuitous skate scenes and song selections make this movie another slice in Margera’s cultural pie. Profoundly lowbrow but also subtly quick and cunning, scenes of a Grecian-dressed Don Vito hoarding grapes is best enjoyed with parody ensemble GnarKill, another one of the Margeras’ musical endeavors.

The Haggard soundtrack also unsurprisingly welcomes hefty contributions from Finland’s HIM who helps covey Dunn’s longing in the absence of love. But perhaps more than anything, Haggard achieves a rock-‘n’-roll ethos which, despite the film’s sarcasm, seemed to be very much alive in earnest at the time. Nevertheless, rowdy concert scenes marking the climax of the film are also peppered with ominous foreshadowing: “I need two shots filled to the brim with pure alcohol,” Margera demands of the bartender.

After garnering attention for his memorable musical choices across his various visual platforms, Margera took things to the next level by issuing 2005’s compilation Viva La Bands. The album features tracks hand-picked by Margera himself with his likeness displayed on the cover. Standouts like The 69 Eyes’ “Lost Boys” (inspired by the movie of the same name) can be recognized from Viva La Bam airplay. The party vibe can be felt in “Lost Boys”’ visuals, which provide glimpses of the Los Angeles skyline, motorcycle rides, and, more generally, an era that has since been lost. However, there are softer selections, such as The Sounds’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Big Shot” by Kill Hannah. Eliciting a shimmering modern-glam take on a time-honored musical tradition, the troupe of young men tearing apart a tired suburb takes on a sensual and sensitive edge.

Ultimately, Viva La Bands proved successful enough to warrant a Part Two in 2007, which featured heavy hitters like GWAR, In Flames, and Dimmu Borgir, and even segwayed into a U.S. tour. The show was on the road, but increased influence was facilitating a path that was spiraling.

Considering the franchise status of Jackass, it was no surprise that Viva La Bam earned itself a full-length film. While 2008’s Bam Margera Presents: Where the Fuck is Santa? was limited to a small screen release, it proved to be the Christmas special that we didn’t know we needed. While the plot centers around, you guessed it, finding Santa, it also provides the fantasy of jetting off to your favorite band’s homeland to stop by for a casual studio visit. It goes without saying that for Margera, this band is no other than HIM. Of course, Margera manages to sprinkle in some other 2000s heavy-hitters, such as Kat Von Whooping Cough, but he doesn’t forget where he came from. Local West Chester rockers The Moxy throw down for the big holiday celebration with “Step Down” — Margera not only directed the visuals for this track, but his legal rights must have been enduring, as it was pervasively featured in Dreamseller which documents Brandon Novak’s addiction story. Nevertheless, HIM’s role in Where the Fuck is Santa and beyond should not be diminished.

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While many of us may honor our love for a band with a logo tattoo, an impressive merch collection, or ticket stubs in the double digits, the affinity Margera has demonstrated for HIM is on a plane all its own. While much of his access to HIM has to do with his influence, there has also appeared to be a genuine bond between frontman Ville Vallo and Margera. However, while Margera brought HIM into the forefront of Americans (the quartet was successful in its own right in Europe prior to any relationship with Margera), an association of “that Viva La Bam band” still lingers. In turn, HIM seems to have had a mixed influence on Margera’s life. In a 2017 Vice Program, his mother, April, has even stated that while Vallo is a well-mannered man, his lanky figure and day drinking habit facilitated (in part) Bam’s bulimia and alcoholism because hell, who doesn’t want to look and live like their idol? Looking a bit deeper, HIM, through its “love metal” tag, also implies that its consumers have a softer side – an appreciation for how both visual and musical aesthetics become symbols of lust and loss.

A raucous mix of heavy metal and elegant heartache, the music of Viva La Bam is a treasured time capsule that holds a challenging paradox. The classic MTV series challenged masculinity in the same breath that it hung it out to dry. With a scarf around their necks and beads up their anuses, the cast of characters couldn’t seem to help but throw fists through the Margera family’s drywall. For Margera, it appears that playing ringleader in the sideshow reflected a struggle with belonging described by those who know him best. Through his television platform, he provided young people with a taste of fitting in while rebelling, to be one of the “cool guys” while living in a lawless fantasy.

For Margera, it was a lifestyle spinning out of control marked by a toxic dichotomy of external chaos and internalized emotion.

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