Remembering Sonny DePalma


Artist Sonny DePalma died last week.  You may not recognize the name, but you definitely know his work.  DePalma developed a unique style of painting and a cast of characters that have become a central part of custom culture, both for bikes and cars.  There is a certain visual style and attitude that we simply take for granted as part of garage culture, which we’ve seen in magazines, tattoos, custom paint jobs, and scribbles on the back of notebooks.  DePalma was one of the brilliant weirdos who created this visual langauge.

DePalma’s illustrations are ugly, complex, exuberant, wild, funny, and endlessly engaging.  They are distinctive and quirky.  They subvert everything they encounter, whether it’s turning a pin-up girl into a Bride of Frankenstein, airbrushed space aliens, or the ultimate subversionist character, Rat Fink.

What is so great about Rat Fink is how it starts with square culture’s stereotypes about hot-rodders and stomps on the accelerator.  It embraces and exaggerates what people think of as unsavory.  It delights in distortion.  Rather than try to rehabilitate the image, he takes it farther off the edge.

There is something about DePalma’s leering, drooling, bloodshot creatures.  They’re somehow loveable, even as they are repulsive.

This is not high art; he was not the greatest artistic genius of our age.  He was a talented, self-taught guy who created his own unique visual world, and it resonated with a lot of us.  Part Mad Magazine, part R. Crumb, part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s a strange cocktail.  Our culture is richer for it.  We need more cats like Sonny DePalma.

What Does “Orange County Choppers” Say About Us?

CMT is a sluice that accepts the offal and refuse from other networks and safely conducts it away to a network where no-one might accidentally watch it.  They receive a special grant from the EPA for this service.  It is our cultural Yucca Mountain.


Last weekend, they premiered Orange County Choppers, the oops-baby of the contentless American Chopper.  The premise is the same: an hour-long commercial for a corporate sponsor, interlaced with random yelling while some metal fab happens in the background.  For the premier, that sponsor was Slappy’s Nasty Popcorn, or something like that.  This makes sense to me, because I associate pre-packaged popcorn with unrideable stretch choppers.  Since there was a popcorn theme, naturally the show included lots of throwing cherry bombs in toilets and whatnot.


Remember the first time you saw American Chopper ten years ago?  It was exciting to think there might be a real show about choppers and garage culture.  Remember, this was back when the Discovery Channel had content.  You imagined all the fascinating machines and interesting characters they could explore.  No matter what we ride, we’re all fascinated by cool customs and chopped bikes.  There is so much talent, attitude, and individuality expressed in the work of little garages and home builders around the country.


There is something really quintessentially American about the chopper as a material expression, a defiant, “This is who I am,” with an implied, “motherfucker.”  Some are really beautiful, some ugly, some both.  They may be elegant or grungy, neo or retro, fat or narrow, raked or… super-raked, but they are profoundly individual.


Were we wrong to hope to see some of that in a new show called American Chopper?  Yes.  Wrong and naïve.  Our failure of imagination was to assume that this show would have anything to do with motorcycles, riding, biker culture, or, well, choppers.  We didn’t see yet that of course the show had nothing to do with us and our rides.  It had more to do with I Love Lucy.


Over the course of that decade, many people who have no connection with motorcycle culture watched the show and innocently thought they were getting some insight.  They thought those bikes must be the ultimate bike that all us bikers would kill to have, if only we could.  How many times were you asked about American Chopper by well-meaning friends and family who thought they finally had some connection, some means to have a conversation with you about bikes?  I always just said I never heard of it, and then I would complain about the latest episode.  We just loved to hate it.


So here’s what AC said about us as bikers: nothing.  It’s like asking what Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, said about psychoanalysis.  What’s more chilling is what is said about us as an audience: in order for us to accept even a mildly deviant subculture, it has to be a clownish caricature and a transparent branding opportunity.  Of course, our media have a pretty nasty history dealing with subcultures, and we consumers have an equally ugly history of lapping it up, so this should be no surprise.


Also, the show tells us that the content doesn’t matter.  The motorcycle build process in this show was basically just the three-sided living room of any sit-com.  It’s just where the antics happen, and it is the same antics every week.  Apparently, we love that.  We also love our characters completely predictable and monodimensional.  Senior’s sole character trait is that he blows up a lot.  That’s it, and that’s all we need.


Finally, the show tells us that sponsored content, while nothing new, is now the sole reason for being for much entertainment.  Let’s call this the Apprentice model.  The schlock tide is rising; don’t trying standing on the shore like Canute.


Ultimately, though, even this crass programming model could only last so long.  It played itself out.  Whew.  No need to put another bullet into that psycho-killer – just turn around and walk away.


The new show demonstrates perfectly that there is always another drop of blood to be squeezed out of that ridiculous, aging, mustachioed turnip.  Thanks to the sponsored content model, bald tires like this show can still roll.  Someone will pick it up.  There is no lowest mountain, so to speak.  When it somes to the lowest common denominator, you can divide by zero.  After all, there are people who eat at Pizza Hut.


As we see this unfortunate coda to the decade-long stunt, we might ask how long Orange County Choppers can last.  Does it matter?  There is really only one thing I am genuinely curious about regarding these shows:


What happens to these corporate choppers after the show is over?  There must be hundreds of them out there by now.  They’re certainly not on the roads – that would make no sense at all.  How about a show where guys from different garages around the country take these discarded corporate choppers, strip them down, and make choppers out of them?  Why not?  There’s a perfectly good engine and tranny in there – let’s do something with it!  I would watch that show.

The Street 500 & 750: One Line Changes Everything

Harley-Davidson’s new Street 500 & 750 are a departure for The Motor Company in more ways than one.  They are an attempt to capture a new market that is younger, less wealthy, and more diverse, and a recognition that the largesse of Boomer fantasy-life is not an inexhaustible trough.

The Street is the most visible and most important part of HD’s “Project Rushmore,” which is not, despite the name, a staging of the play “Heaven and Hell” by Max Fischer with motorcycles, which would be awesome.  Project Rushmore is a tricky maneuver, because it is an attempt to redefine the brand without undefining it.  By far the most important feature of the Street is its price, which is wonderfully competitive for an American bike.  If this machine is fun to ride, this may be what makes their elusive Rushmore goal attainable.

Everyone is talking about the marketing, specs, and strategy of this bike, but right now I want to focus on design and how the Street departs from the expected Harley aesthetics.  Three things in particular:

1: The 60-degree, water-cooled engine.  The V-Rod has a 60-degree, water-cooled engine, but we all know that’s not really a Harley, right?  We all knew water-cooled engines were coming, but we were still in a little denial.  Well, here it is, and it kind of looks like all the other non-HD cruiser engines.  The 60-degree angle allows the machine to be a little lower, but it dilutes the distinct heartbeat rhythm.

2: The subdued styling.  Most recent Harley styling adventures have been more extreme, hypertrophied versions of normal HDs.  Consider the 72, the 48, V-Rod Muscle, or the ill-fated caricature Cross Bones.  These go way out on the limb, but the Street stays closer to the trunk.  The Street’s styling doesn’t scream and is very lightly branded, presumably an intentional move to make the bike more appealing to a broader market, who don’t necessarily equate riding with the spreads from 70s issues of EasyRider.

3: The Line.  This is the most significant move.  The typical Harley design has a compositional axis that is low in the back, high in the front.  This is exemplified most clearly in the Softail, as shown in Fig. 1.


Fig. 1

This gives the bike its relaxed stance.  It is an angle of repose.  From the rear axle, through the upper part of the swing arm, under the seat, and up over the dashboard, this ties the elements of the bike together.  It’s something the imitator cruisers lack, and it is distinctively Harley.

Now consider the Street.

 Street 750

Fig. 2

The primary line of composition here runs from high in the back to low in the front.  The line runs from the rear seat framing, across the top of the side panel, through the exhaust header, and points to the front axle.  This is a line that impels forward motion.  It is not relaxed.  This is the line of a sport bike, and it makes it visually more active, light, and nimble.

Of course, this is no sport bike, but this compositional shift changes the whole attitude and balances the more cruiserly elements for a well-rounded whole, something that could be called a “standard.”  This will go up against the Bonneville, the Honda 500s, and others to help fill out a real new standard class, and that’s a good thing for riders.