Are You a “Biker”?

Well, are you? What do you call yourself? Do you call yourself a “biker,” or do you avoid that term? Do you call yourself a “motorcyclist”? Do you just say you “ride a motorcycle”? That’s a convenient way to distance yourself – to take the identity out of the activity. You just happen to ride a motorcycle, but it has nothing to do with who you are. Well, if it has nothing to do with who you are, why do you do it?

 

Most people who ride don’t call themselves “bikers,” but we should. We should use it, embrace it, own it, be it, and we should give exactly fuck-all what anybody else thinks. Take this epithet, this malediction, and make it our black honor banner, our sacred blasphemy.

 

There are two main reasons people avoid calling themselves “biker,” and they’re both wrong: because they think they’re too good for it, or because they think they’re not good enough.

 

Let me explain. The first group doesn’t want to be associated with the criminal dirtbag connotations they think “biker” carries with it. They ride a sophisticated piece of liquid-cooled metric engineering, not some loud, greasy, low-slung lead sled. Well, just how high is the saddle on that sport-tour-venturer that you can’t step off for a cold one? The moniker doesn’t come with a criminal record attached, and nobody is going to make you put fringe on your jacket. We might have our share of sketchy santas, but I don’t see investment bankers avoiding calling themselves “investment bankers” after 2008, and they have a lot more to answer for than the bikers of the world do. Likewise sales managers, priests, mayors of Detroit, PR flacks, doctors, news anchors, or any other damn group you care to mention. No small deviant minority defines you, unless you can’t define yourself.

 

The second group thinks they’re just not enough of a biker to call themselves that. Like you have to be fully dedicated to the biker “lifestyle,” whatever that is, in order to be worthy of the term. Like somebody is going to call you out for not being a “real” biker because you also own a car, or because you have a full-time job. This is understandable but wrong. All subculture groups are keenly aware of authenticity – who really belongs and who is a poseur. Bikers are probably more hung-up on authenticity and validating that you’re one of us than any group since Cold War spooks. But it’s not a club, and you can’t be kicked out if you don’t have a long beard or leather vest. Authenticity does not equal stereotype.

 

Let me say that again: Authenticity does not equal stereotype. Being a real biker has nothing to do with your patches, belly, or dental hygiene. It has everything to do with a love of riding. It has to do with motorcycles. It’s a thrill that you know and love – that you are bewitched by – if you are a biker, and you don’t if you’re not. If there is a litmus test for who is a “biker,” that’s it. And that’s all.

 

Whether you’re metric, standard, or Whitworth; whether your heart beats like a potato or fibrillates in four beats; whether you belong to a Laborer’s Local or a yacht club; whether you’re an iron-butt or a weekend-warrior; whether you carve canyons or drag downtown; whether you’re whiskey or cognac, we at least share that one thing. We don’t have to all be brothers, but we are all bikers.

 

We need to hang together and respect each other. I am seeing a general decline in biker courtesies – things like stopping when you see another bike stopped on the freeway to see if they need help, leaving space for another bike in parking spaces, falling into a stagger formation when you happen to be riding along the road together, even something as simple and silly as the “biker wave.” Bikers should at least show each other a little class, and it starts with embracing that identity.

 

It needs to be said here that some bicyclists have started calling themselves “bikers.” This must stop. As I have written elsewhere, there’s nothing wrong with riding bicycles, which is a fun, healthy activity for kids and adults, as long as you’re not an arrogant ponce about it. We should be cool with the cyclists, but we can’t let leave our name for them to pick up. We are the bikers.

 

We are the bikers. Do not be ashamed or shy. We are strong, not evil. We take risks others don’t and are rewarded with benefits they cannot imagine. Chasers after the ineffable, the inexpressible. Handlebar philosophers and bug-spitters. There is no one type. We may not have anything in common but this: we are the bikers.

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The Livewire: The Harley We Didn’t Realize We Were Waiting For

Innovation has not exactly been the core of H-D’s brand. Before the Street 750/500, their only really new bike in living memory was the V-Rod, which has always been a weird cousin in the brand family. For decades, while some marques traded on novelty and new models, Harley built their brand on nostalgia – er, I mean “heritage.”

 

Lately (belatedly?), though, they have realized that unless they want to start competing with Invacare, they need to broaden their brand. This is tough, because that heritage is a huge reason why a lot of people love Harley. Abandoning their past would be brand suicide. Even the XR1200, a timid departure and a fantastic bike, just didn’t work for them (we could argue about whether they gave it adequate marketing support).

Harley-Live-Wire-001

So Harley’s decision to unveil the Livewire Project electric bike – leapfrogging Honda, BMW, and all the other majors you might expect – is laudable, bold, strong, and kickin’ awesome. This really changes what we can expect from The Motor Company. Suddenly they are in a position to push engineering advances on other brands. We’ve been waiting for the moment that would take full-size performance electric bikes from the fringe to the mainstream, and this might be it. Any remaining electric bike skeptics can shut their collective pie-holes – at least for the moment.

 

There are other electrics already on the market struggling to get a foothold: Brammo, Zero, and the mind-blowing Mission. Other than a bar-and-shield badge, what makes the Livewire different? The two most important differentiators for the Livewire that the other electric bikes lack actually have nothing to do with the bike itself: distribution and production capacity.

 

Harley has a massive international dealer network. They’re practically in the lobby of every Applebee’s. As soon as this bike is ready to hit the street, there will be one in a showroom close to you. It will be easy to test-ride, and that, pals, is the only way to sell a bike. Prediction: there WILL be a waiting list for this bike. Add to this their ability to throw serious production capacity at any new endeavor (albeit maybe in India), and they will be able to feed that need.

 

Of course, the ride itself is critical. Harley has always preached the gospel of torque, and the additional of a big electric shows they weren’t just TV evangelists but true believers. Riding an electric bike can turn any route into the Road to Damascus. Halleluiah.

 

The genius of the Livewire really is the styling, though. How do you balance Harley’s tough, old-school image with forward-looking tech and modernity? The V-Rod kind of failed to answer that demand, and I believe that is the main reason it hasn’t been more successful. The Livewire nails it. How do you build a design around an engine that, well, isn’t much to look at? The first correct decision they made was to not make this a cruiser. This is a – a what? a naked? sport? streetfighter? bobtail X-wing?

 

The trellis frame takes the place of the engine as the compositional anchor, tying the whole together and paring well with the swingarm. The bike is stout but small and agile-looking. It is built like a swimmer, with huge lats and its head way down. Practically the only nod to “heritage” is the chrome belly, which is more of a wink than a nod, giving the bike a – dare I say – touch of class and keeping it from being too emo.

 

Fact is, this isn’t only the baddest looking electric bike I’ve seen, but by far the baddest looking Harley in the line up. It just sneers at any Heritage Softail or Custom Fatglide. Yet still is is beautiful, probably because all these design moves are rather subdued. The branding identity is subtle but unmistakable (even if the grayed-out tilted logo idea seems to be stolen from the 2013 Star Bolt).

 

Harley also has the marketing horsepower to make this happen. Just as they placed the Street in the latest Captain America movie, the Livewire will be in the next Avengers movie: “Avengers Ad Nauseam.” It has already been featured on CBS, who spent an inordinate amount of time focused on the lack of potato-potato sound, which maybe says more about network news’ fixation on the obvious than anything else. They barely mentioned the 53-mile range which, if not fixed, could be the Livewire’s fatal flaw.

 

The Livewire should actually help those other electric bike brands. Any promotion for the Livewire will raise awareness of electric bikes in general, and not every potential buyer will want the Harley. I don’t think Harley is eating their lunch; they’re making the pie bigger. It changes electric bikes from being just the fringe choice for the super-eco-conscious: this makes it a serious competitive choice, as it should be. This is NOT a Prius. Does this say that Harley cares about the environment? No, it says something much more important: that Harley cares about young riders.

 

Just when Indian hit H-D in the solar plexis (i.e. Sturgis), Harley spins and uppercuts the industry. Who thought a fat guy had moves like that? It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Bakcroad REVival

They say strait is the gate

and narrow the way,

 

But I like a twisted black tarmac, kinky –

A road that’s old and tricky,

Angles & dangles & Argentine tangos.

I fandango like Django,

Bullfighter veronicas and

Delayed apex instant gratification.

Juvenile justification.

 

A one-man revival

on a Pennzylvania bakcroad

Tryin to keep ahead of the debbil.

 

Try to flow

and go slow

to go fast.

Third into second, a whine

On the decline

No sudden moves, Jake.

Engine brake, trail brake,

A sweeper turns to a hairpin,

Too hot coming in,

I’m over the yellow.

A blind truck, I’d be dead.

Lucky this time.

 

Look through the sun-glare

Into the shadow

And twist it on.

Knee down, like as if to pray,

“Sweet Jeezus, don’t let the gravel git me”

“Lead us hot into temptation,

And deliver us some evil.”

The Barn Find BSA

I’ll admit it: I was vulnerable. I was in a weakened condition. In a rare fit of fiscal responsibility, I had sold my ’71 Triumph Tiger the previous summer. It was the perennial project bike. It was beautiful and wild, old and naughty. Like Helen Mirren. It coughed and smoked, and had other vices. It had needed me, and I needed a bike that needed me.

I had the ’08 Bonneville, of course, but bikes are like horses: they don’t thrive when they’re kept alone. They need a companion. One bike in a garage is a lonely, lonely sight. Scott Colosimo, the Cleveland Cyclewerks guy, says you have to have at least three bikes: your daily rider, your special purpose bike (whatever your thing is: racing, off-road, touring, etc.), and a project. At that moment I was down to 1 for 3.

Jump back five years. A friend of mine, who rides an ’81 BMW, had told me about his friend who happened to be a prominent architect and had this old BSA in the back of his garage. The story was, the guy had bought it in England, rode it around Europe for a summer, brought it home, and parked it. When my eyebrow raised, my friend had said, “Forget it. He’ll never sell it. He’ll probably to give it to his son.”

I happened to meet the guy once, and I waited four seconds before bringing up the bike. It was clear my friend was right. I received a disdainful look when I hinted that if he ever wanted to sell… It was like I had asked if his wife would mind if I called her in the event of his demise. Clearly the bike was a talisman to him. I totally understand that. It’s part of him, part of his youth. He may not have ridden it since before I was born, but he definitely thinks about it.

These things aren’t transportation – they’re part of our identity. Who am I to offer him a fistful of dollars for his identity? So I dutifully forgot about it.

Then last year, the spring after I sold the Triumph, I got an e-mail out of the blue. His son wasn’t interested in the rusty old thing, and he wanted a good home for it. Attached were four photos. When I opened the attachments, I heard the Sarah McLaughlin music from the SPCA ads. It was a three-legged dog, waiting for that big-hearted person to adopt it. The bike was pleading with its big Lucas headlight, and I could almost hear it wimper. Oh, I am a softie.

“Of course we’re not going to buy this thing,” I told my wife, “But we have to go look.” God bless her, she acted like she believed me.

We went out to his house with a tool kit and a flashlight. We had to unbury the bike a bit to get at it. A 1970 650 Lightning. It wouldn’t roll, so I crawled over it in the little space in the back of his garage. I pushed the kickstart lever with my hand – it kicked over, and there was even some compression. I looked in the inspection ports – it looked brand new inside. 5,000 miles on the odo. The clutch worked, and it shifted cleanly through the gears. It had oil and half a tank of what used to be gas. It was like he had just parked it for the week, and a week became 40 years. It was a time capsule. It was the Well of Souls. A cobra hissed at me, and I waved my torch at it.

There were other things, too. He was an architect – I’m an architect. His son’s name (I’m not kidding) is Carter. His last name is my maternal great-grandmother’s maiden name (also not kidding). He parked it in the summer of 1972 – the summer I was born. Now, I don’t believe in fate or superstition, but I am not above using coincidences to justify what I already want.

After the inspection, we sat and had some iced tea. He had all the papers, including the original bill of sale from London. He had a price in mind that was just more than I could possibly do. I kind of knew I was kidding myself to come out there, but I said I’d think about it. That night I called him, and he could tell by the tone of my voice what my answer was. I wasn’t playing hardball or negotiating. I just couldn’t buy it. I told him I’d probably be able to help him find another buyer.

A few days later, he called me again. He wanted the bike to have a good home; he didn’t want it to go to someone who would just re-sell it right away. He offered me a price I could not refuse. I know he could’ve gotten more for it without too much effort, but he cared more about the bike than the money. It made me feel that accepting it was a solemn duty. I didn’t hesitate. I was being asked to volunteer for a special mission. “I’m your man, captain,” was the only appropriate response.

These things are not machines. They are crucibles, chalices for our effervescent intoxicating spirits. They respond to us and test us. They change us, and we want to pass it on. Some guys would have forgotten about the old thing in the garage, or would be glad to be rid of it. Not this guy. He cherished it, and even if he hadn’t turned that throttle in 40 years, he is still a real biker as far as I’m concerned.

The next Saturday, I got a few dudes to help me physically lift it onto my trailer. All went smoothly, and I was ready to leave the old guy’s driveway in a few minutes. His wife took a picture of him sitting on the bike. We shook hands, and the generational conferring was complete.

I brought it home and called my neighbor to help me unload it. He is a great guy, and, just as importantly for this, strong. He came right over. He took one look at the BSA and said, “Whatsa matter? The other bike didn’t have enough problems for you?”

Yep.

“A Sparrow and a Bare Branch”

Forget about the 60s and 70s. The golden age of the custom motorcycle is right now. There are more people pouring more time, talent, and treasure into phenomenal custom bikes today than ever before. There’s certainly enough to keep BikeEXIF and Pipeburn easily supplied with daily doses of hellyeah. New styles are being invented faster than we can name them, and classic styles are being kitbashed into what Chuck Darwin would call “endless forms most fucking awesome.”

There is the meticulous craftsmanship of Falcon, The GasBox, or Mule Motorcycles. The raw, rough, ready beauty of Blitz, Cafe Racer Dreams, or Hammarhead. The hip rolling swag of Deus or Wrenchmonkees. No-shit ass-kicking like Dime City Cycles and Choppahead. You know I could go on and on. And on. You surely have your own favorites. And on.

Shinya Kimura, however, is in a different category. I don’t just mean he’s totally the best, man. I mean this is the first person who takes the craft of custom bike building into the realm of serious fine art. The art world doesn’t know it yet, and Shinya might not put it that way himself, but I would make the case that his bikes are metaphysical statements about the relationship of man, nature, work, materials, and speed. I recently asked him several questions about his process, and I think his answers helped me understand his work a little better. I would like to share some of these insights and draw parallels to some other Japanese and Japanese-American artists who are considered the finest in their respective fields. I hope this will create a new perspective around his work.

“I swear I’ve never tried hard to make it look like art,” he says. The final product seems to be a natural, even inevitable, outgrowth of his process, rather than explicit attempts at art. He believes “every motorcycle has intrinsic artistic quality,” and his role is to find and extract that quality and redesign it with the particular rider in mind.

The words “flow” and “balance” came up a lot in his discussion, as in when he talks about trying to “digest and bring forth the new design from my brain and soul trying to make the absolute flow as a whole.” (Much of his writing seems very poetic (perhaps unintentionally) and bears re-reading or even reading aloud.) This makes me think of the mental state of flow, that perfect, focused, relaxed alertness of an intense experience. The bike, the composition as a whole, is a physical statement of that feeling. It is unity.

The “balance” is an overall composition, a relation between parts and the whole, and the intersection of the engineering and aesthetic sides of design. He mentions that he admires Hiroshige and Hokusai, the great 18th-19th century masters of Japanese printmaking, for their use of space and “ideal balances and flow in their work.” Both used asymmetrical positive and negative space to create harmony on the page. They used abstractions of natural scenes in ways that look quite modern and were revolutionary at the time. The balance of part to whole is equally important: “…I’m trying to make every single part in harmony as a whole, and not just one part jumps out at me when I step back and look at my motorcycle. To me, detail is for the whole and it should not be the eye-catcher.” He says, “There are no romantic delusions or maudlin sentiment in engineering work,” but this must balance the creative side, where he has “some big toy boxes in [his] head.”

I and others have observed that his work seems to have an aesthetic of “wabi-sabi,” the Japanese aesthetic tradition that embraces imperfection and transience. I asked him about this. He observes that a motorcycle is intrinsically imperfect – or at least incomplete – without a rider. “It is more like knives or fire, more primitive as a tool.” He speaks of a motorcycle’s “vulnerability,” and that this is “fundamental to the fascination of the motorcycle.” This is a sort of “imperfection;” another are the marks left by building. Here is how he describes the touch of the maker:

When making a tank by hammering out a sheet of aluminum, how evenly smooth you make the surface has a major effect on the impression of the completed work. Many people may get the impression of imperfection by seeing hammering marks or grinding marks among the motorcycles I make but it’s my touch, neither more nor less. However, that’s no excuse for deficiency of skills. “Touch” and “lacking skills” are totally different.

He is not trying to make wabi-sabi, saying essentially that if you’re trying to do that, it’s not that anymore, anyway. I guess it is like that which is true cannot be spoken, and that which can be spoken is not the truth. Maybe I’m stretching it there, but he concludes this section by stating, “I do have an intention to choose, let’s say, a picture of ‘a sparrow and a bare branch solitary painted in a corner of a big white canvas’ over a picture of ‘many dolphins filling up the canvas’. Oh, but this is nothing to do with wabi-sabi, though…” Doesn’t it? I honestly don’t know.

I do know that he works in a very direct, honest way, drawing the design from the nature of the materials, the rider/customer, the engine, and probably from his study of entomology in college. Though he may not be mimicking natural shapes specifically, it is the essential quality of Nature (which includes engineering) that lends the balance and flow. It is the unification of metal, man, and movement.

I’d like to consider a few artists who I feel have a similar ethos, and pin Kimura’s name on the wall with them.

Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) is justly regarded as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century. He worked in different materials and I guess what you’d call different styles, but he was a classical Modernist. Look at the “touch” of the artist in his work “Becoming.” You see the hammer marks, but also the polished, finished form starting to come through. You can feel the softness of the marble, and you sense that he would handle, say, granite or wood differently. Michelangelo talked of his sculptures “emerging” from the stone, and this sculpture is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s later work, which is rough, brutal, seemingly half-finished. The shape that is emerging in “Becoming” is not a Madonna, but a simple, Modern shape, but even the “unfinished” portion is beautifully and carefully formed. Nothing is random here. It seems it is what the marble inevitably had to be. There is a balance between the organic stone exterior and clean, straight lines embedded within.

Toshiko Takaezu (1922-2011) was a ceramicist known for expressive, abstract vessels, some small, some quite large, some function, some perplexingly not. Consider this vessel called “White Peach.” You can feel the viscosity of the clay and the fluidity of the glaze. Her pieces are contemplative, seemingly weightless. These, too, have been described as “wabi-sabi,” sometimes showing more of the character of a boulder than “fine ceramics.” This is a Modernism that knows ancient history and is disciplined and trained. Her work is intentionally Zen and emulating Nature. You see in the form the stroke of her hand, an instant’s movement informed by a lifetime of study. This, as much as any artwork, is a search for unspeakable honesty.

Last, I would like to mention Masahiko Kimura (born 1940). No relation to Shinya, Masahiko is a world-renowned bonsai master and is crediting with taking the craft of bonsai into a full sculptural art. He transformed what is conceivable in the world of bonsai. Look at the juniper trees in the linked article. These breathtakingly gnarly, twisted shapes were revolutionary. The wild, deeply carved deadwood creates intense three-dimensionality. For an ancient, classical art with highly established rules, this makes an entirely new aesthetic. These are meditations on both the beauty of transience and the tenacity of life – that living thread of green on the massive dead driftwood. They create incredible negative spaces, like a Hiroshige print in 3-D. They are executed with the minutest detail serving a completely wild, but totally unified compositional whole. I can think of no other artwork that so utterly embodies “balance” and “flow.”

I put these examples out there without trying to draw too many explicit parallels between these artists and the motorcycles of Shinya Kimura, but you will immediately see certain obvious connections. It’s not that Noguchi’s stone carving looks just like a Kimura gas tank, but that there is a conversation you can imagine between the two. They are talking about some of the same things. The more you look at the works of these four artists, the more you will see the affinities and differences. Art is a discussion that happens over centuries, and really great art still speaks generations later. As Toshiko Takaezu said, “An artist is a poet in his or her own medium. And when an artist produces a good piece, that work has mystery, and unsaid quality; it is alive.”

 

Should Shinya’s bikes be in a museum? I imagine he would resist that. The sound and the motion are equally important, as he noted when talking about his experience in the Motorcycle Cannonball, and you don’t get that in a museum. The bike would be incomplete without its rider. It would be half-alive. They must be ridden. Still, I say a few examples should be preserved in museums alongside the great artists of our era. This work is on a level of quality that is absolutely worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. Something real is being said in its unsaid way. It will be a worthy inspiration for the the next generation’s artists.

An Open Letter to Every Person I Meet Who Finds Out I Ride a Motorcycle

Let me stop you right there, nnnnn-kay? I can tell by that little intake of breath what’s coming next. Thank you in advance, but I already know that motorcycles are “dangerous.” After nearly twenty years of riding on the streets, I am aware; your telling me now will not be a revelation. It is not an insight into my lifestyle that has remained hidden from me until this, the moment of epiphany when you shine the light of outsider wisdom on my foolhardy choices.

There are ways I can minimize the risk – by riding defensively, riding sober, knowing my and my machine’s capabilities, etc. – but I also know there are some risks that are simply beyond my control. But you know what? There a lots of risks in life that are beyond my control. We’ve become so pathologically risk-averse that for most people it is inconceivable to assume any additional risk no matter how much joy you might get back in return.

You want to know what’s truly dangerous? Not taking any risks. Hanging out with like-minded middle-of-the-roaders. Absorbing the same brain-ossifying shit from media factories every day. Jogging. Putting helmets, flotation devices, and auto-deploy epi-pens on your kids every time they leave the house. Passivity. Not paying attention to where your car, or your life, or you country is going.

If you don’t get that, that’s OK. I’m not trying to convert anybody, but here are a few tips to save us both a little aggravation:

You don’t need to tell me the horror story about your uncle’s buddy who wiped out his chopper while drag racing at some hooligan rally. That just makes me wish I were talking to your uncle’s buddy instead of you. He sounds pretty cool.

Do not – do NOT – tell me about the time you almost Sausage Creatured a biker because you “couldn’t see him” or he “came out of nowhere.” I have never known a bike to come out of nowhere, but I have seen plenty of cars pull a Crazy Ivan and pull into a lane occupied by a biker or make an impromptu unsignalled left turn in front of an oncoming me. If you’re expecting me to share your outrage at the temerity of bikers to be in the lane you want, you’re more deluded than a goldfish with a passport. I can’t make you see bikes. I can’t make you hang up your phone. They won’t let me mount a .50-caliber machine gun to my bike. So really, there’s not much I can do to change the outcome of your anecdote, so save it for your coreligionists who also have stick-figure families and giant softball stickers with the name “Tailyr” or “Flynn” or “Shyly” on their rear windows.

I do wear a helmet, as a matter of fact (along with other protective gear), but the fact that you “certainly hope” I wear a helmet is so condescending it makes me want to ride a tricycle completely naked doing doughnuts in your front yard screaming Beastie Boys lyrics at midnight. Trust me, you do not want that. My buttocks are extremely pale and unsightly, especially in moonlight.

Please, do not complain about bikes parking in car parking spaces. Where are we supposed to park? If they let us park up on the curb like in Europe, we would totally do that, and precious few parking lots have motorcycle parking areas. Most cops already have a hard-on for bikes, so parking anywhere but in a designated spot is asking to be impounded.

 

Yes, I know, some bikes have very loud exhaust. Maybe it’s obnoxious, but at least you knew they were there, didn’t you? They say loud pipes save lives. I don’t know if that’s true, because there hasn’t been a serious comprehensive study of motorcycle safety since 1981, the poetically named Hurt Report. And yes, I know, at one point you probably saw some kid riding his 600cc sport bike at 100mph doing a wheelie down the freeway. He’s a squid, and he’ll either grow up or just take care of himself. Some bikers do crazy things. Anti-social things. Unsanctioned things. I don’t represent him, and he doesn’t represent me – that’s the great part of being a biker. I could be a Lowbrow Weirdo or Antoine Predock or Lyle Lovett or it just whatever.

If you’re really so all-fired concerned about my safety, don’t preach at me. Just do me this one favor: pay attention when you’re driving. Keep your greasy fingers off your touch-screen dashboard, put down your phone, use your turn signals, and lay off the booze before you get on the road with me. You take care of your part, and I’ll take care of mine.

But hang-gliding, man, that shit is crazy.

Of Righteous Dissent

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It was maybe 1981. There was this guy who worked at my father’s nursery – a lanky guy with a stringy George Thorogood haircut and an Ironhead Sportster. That bike was probably the most valuable thing he owned. He worked outside in the fields or in the smothering heat of the quonset huts all day and wasn’t that interested in talking to a little kid. I seem to recall he had once worked as a deck hand on a Great Lakes freighter, so let’s call him Freighter Dave. The only protective gear Freighter Dave wore on his bike was aviator sunglasses and engineer’s boots. His Sportster had a sissy bar and straight pipes – absolutely no baffles.

At that point in my life, the loudest thing I had ever heard were the jet funny-cars at Thompson Drag Raceway, but this bike came a close second. It was shockingly, frighteningly, wonderfully loud. Freighter Dave said it was “the sound of freedom.” I thought he meant because it was made in America. I knew we didn’t like “Jap” bikes, so I took this as a simple, straightforward statement of patriotic loyalty. It didn’t occur to my eight-year-old brain that Freighter Dave was not exactly the rah-rah America type.

That comment about “freedom” stuck with me, maybe because it was one of the few things Freighter Dave actually said directly to me. Later, I thought it meant that he felt free and in control while he was riding, when the rest of his life certainly had few luxuries and few choices. It wasn’t until decades later, in a moment, that I realized what it was about.

He was talking about righteous dissent.

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Bikers have always had a strange relationship with patriotism. Some of the most anti-establishment biker characters are sometimes the most patriotic. It’s like when you see a Maltese cross and American flag on the same bike. It’s a patriotism that isn’t blind allegiance. It’s a patriotism that revels in the fact that we are a nation of firebrands, misanthropes, and weirdos. This is a patriotism that can sometimes make people very uneasy, like when the Hells Angels volunteered to go to Vietnam. It’s “freedom” with a hard “F.”

This is summed up perfectly in the image of Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” bike from Easy Rider. Here is this character, this anti-super-hero, striking away from society’s expectations, a new pioneer, with the flag on his tank. Of course, he runs up against “real” American society, with terrible results. A sociologist might say he “appropriated” the flag “iconography” in order to “re-invent” or “re-interpret” it, but I say that’s where it was meant to be all along. The spirit of righteous dissent is essential to the American spirit. Without it, there is no Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, or Woody Guthrie. It’s something you don’t hear in Lee Greenwood, but you do hear something like it in Elmore James. It is what makes America unique… or at least what makes America interesting.

We are the nation of the Whiskey Rebellion. Right after we had a revolution and formed a shiny new country, a bunch of farmers and distillers took up arms against our very first administration over whiskey taxes. Many of them were even veterans of the Revolutionary War. You have to love a bunch of nuts like that.

Our culture is bursting with great examples of dissent. Every “great American novel” is a book that is critical of our society, and we celebrate them for that very quality. From The Last of the Mohicans to The Scarlet Letter to Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Jungle, The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Naked and the Dead. It is a canon of malcontents!

This is why I believe Rocky I is a more genuinely patriotic movie than Rocky IV. It’s why the most credible rendition of The Star Spangled Banner is by Jimi Hendrix. Once you hear his “rockets red glare,” when you can’t tell if you’re hearing celebratory fireworks or a shitstorm of missiles raining helldeath out of the sky, every other version of the national anthem will just seem boring. This is why Abbie Hoffman wore that American flag shirt. This is why we love the First Amendment so much. Think about it: you don’t need an amendment to protect inoffensive speech. You don’t need it if everybody agrees. The only reason to have it is to protect offensive, unpopular, outsider speech. It is our license to dissent. Our license to be a crackpot.

I think we are in danger of losing this spirit of righteous dissent and becoming boring. Patriotism is becoming too narrowly defined. At the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson talks about reaching a high water mark in the 60s, and seeing the tide recede, sliding into apathy and complaisance. I don’t think we’re apathetic, but bumper-sticker love of country is too easy and lazy. Patriotism now seems to mean supporting a particular agenda. We have plenty of partisan bickering, but no real dissent. It’s morbid compliance. Biker-style patriotism is anti-agenda, and we need to spread more biker-style patriotism.

Most people who ride are good, normal citizens – squares. That’s fine; we love bikers from all walks of life – I don’t hold to that “real biker”/”not real biker” thing. But whether you’re a nursery worker, a high school teacher, a dentist, or even (ugh!) an architect, when you get on your bike, you know deep down that you’re tapping into something dangerous. I don’t mean physically dangerous, I mean a dangerous idea. You are hearing Thomas Jefferson tell you, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” This is something that emanates from core biker culture, and it’s good. It feels good. We need it.

I don’t know what happened to Freighter Dave. He would only be about 55 or so now, so I hope he’s still riding. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I spent so much time thinking about his comment. I know he wasn’t thinking about the Whiskey Rebellion or Upton Sinclair when he said it. All these connections are just my own ramblings, but as I try to look past all the sameness around us, the chain restaurants, reruns, pop anthems, cars that all look the same, the neighbor’s leaf blower, and all the fucking parking lots, when I look for what is awesome, inspiring, and uniquely American, I always come back to this common theme of restlessness, rebellion, and dissent. I’m always listening for the sound of freedom.