The Real John Bean

| February 10, 2009

As for Steed, it turned out that, as he was making copies of the to-him-unknown caller’s tapes during his tenure at Raven Records, he could easily have cased the caller’s identity with just a few well-placed questions. He knew Betty, for instance, as well as “several other people that, had I known, I could have just asked.”

Paul Roper, Dualtone Records’ general manager, says that what’s happened since the explosion of the tapes’ popularity and their relative anonymity outside of Knoxville is that “people have taken advantage of the anonymity of the situation. There’s a lot of confusion that goes on right now” about who is actually whom among the various Bean imitators.

“One day there might be some legal action,” says Betty. “It’s almost like [the imitators are] trying to deny John’s existence. It would make an interesting copyright case.” But she too acknowledges the situation for what it is: the often contradictory myths that were perpetuated throughout the nation and the world about the early-1980s prankster’s true identity have enabled the imitators to flourish today. And while Betty doesn’t sound in any way regretful about her brother’s confused notoriety, she hopes along with Roper and the Dualtone crew that the new CD will finally put to rest any doubt among listeners about who he was.

The imitators, Betty suggests, are an unfortunate aberration of her brother’s gift for harmlessly manipulating human nature to comic effect. “John was certainly vulgar from time to time,” she says. “I suppose you could even say that sometimes he was mean. But he didn’t go after [his subjects'] families and try to hurt people in fundamental ways.”

The character that emerges from his calls is indeed as multidimensional as the many fictions told about him through the years — audacious, larger than life and ultimately hilarious. “He was just fun,” Betty says. “I really do believe that something big would have happened for John had he lived. He was a good-looking guy. He had a really positive attitude. He was real smart. If half the time he had you wanting to kill him, life’s just not quite as Technicolor as it was when he was here.”

Eddie’s Auto Parts
As John Bean’s sister Betty tells it, Bean had “a sly kind of humor that would sneak up on you.” When he was on one of his prank calls, he often had a stopwatch running just to see how long it’d take him to make whoever he was talking to cuss, without necessarily cussing much himself. Eddie Harvey, owner of Eddie’s Auto Parts, the receiver of the first call on The Real LeRoy Mercer, was a favorite subject, Betty says. “He’s sold a lot of T-shirts because of John’s tapes. John did way more things to him than just that one tape. Eddie was one of those people John just loved to make cuss.”

Harvey was the subject of a bit in episode seven of Johnny Knoxville’s Jackass series, too, after Knoxville (P.J. Clapp) had featured Harvey in another story about the Bean tapes in the 1990s, says Betty.

As for Eddie, he’s 88 years young still at his shop on Walker Road in Knoxville just off the I-640 loop north of town — don’t look for any diesel oil filters there, though. “Eddie’s Auto Parts,” Harvey says, means what it says.

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