The Thin Chrome Line

 

Customization is central to biker culture. It’s like a moral mandate. Riding a completely stock bike is like walking around with the tags still on your clothes (or, wait, is that a cool thing? Was that in the 90s? Do kids still do that?). Customizing is a way of tithing to our primitive gods. Even if you just change the handlebars or exhaust, you have to do something. Despite all the professional engineering that went into your bike, you just can’t keep your hands off of it, even if, like me, you’re hardly a pro. It’s how you rub your scent on it. It’s like pissing on your fence to keep your neighbors away (I assume you do this, too).

And this has nothing to do with increasing the potential resale value of the bike. You’ll never get back out of it what you put into it, especially if you count your labor, so don’t try to fool yourself with that calculation. No, this is passion, not reason. Customizing provides the owner with a deeper, more involved interaction with the machine, beyond just riding and maintenance. That custom machine is partly your personal creation, a realization of what was in your mind, and everyone else’s opinion be damned. What could be more satisfying? It’s a way to “shout the great ‘I am.’”

So naturally I spend quite a bit of time talking with my students about custom bikes. This is always fun, talking about why people make certain choices versus others, understanding where different styles come from, what the styles say, and bikes that don’t seem to fit any style. I especially enjoy seeing their fresh perspectives on some unusual machinery. By talking with the students, I learned something I never realized before: I learned that for a lot of regular (non-moto-sapiens) people, “custom bikes” really means one thing: chrome.

I have to admit, I was a little hurt. It’s like if you told someone you were a professional chef, and their only association with that was Gordon Ramsay. (I have this problem sometimes when people learn I’m an architect, and they say, “Like Mike Brady?” I usually respond, “No. More like in the Matrix. Now run along.”) I said something to my students like, “No! There’s so much more to custom bikes! You have so much strange, undersea life yet to see!” and I think I immediately played a Blitz Motorcycle video.

But really, it makes sense from their perspective. Chrome is obvious. There are tons of Khustom Khrome catalogs; hell, for some bikes you can essentially buy every single part but the tires in chrome. Chrome really is a huge part of the custom market, of course. These students may not have had the whole picture, but they were not wrong. After I thought a bit, I was actually surprised by my initial reaction. Why be defensive? Do I have chrome issues?

If I do, I’m not the only one. There is a big chrome/anti-chrome split in biker culture. It is a very divisive material. Lots of bikers gleefully delete everything shiny from their bikes. I think I saw a guy who had spray painted his mirrors flat black. Not the backs or the stems, the mirrors. There is a growing sentiment, I think especially among younger riders, that chrome is gaudy, old-fashioned, heavy, and tacky. Chrome also, to some, is associate with bolt-on custom culture and “show” as opposed to “go.” This is a stereotype, and it’s unfair – all custom bikes are at least partly “show.”

On the other side, chrome is classic. I think it evokes rock-n-roll, real rock-n-roll: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley. It’s Modern, before the days when irony ruled. I think it’s a shame that most cars today have no chrome. My 1986 Chevy Impala had chrome bumpers that were each 12 feet long and weighed 487 pounds. They were magnificent. Everybody wants to be “old school,” and chrome is definitely a way of matriculating into the old school. Sure, chrome can be overdone, but so can “murdering out” your ride.

Personally, I clearly fall on the anti-chrome side. I didn’t realize I even had an opinion about it until this discussion, but I do get a little wave of nausea when I see a bike that could be a hood ornament for Dr. Teeth’s band tour bus. But I’m not orthodox. Yes, my gas tank is matte black, but I have chrome spoke wheels, even though alloy wheels are lighter and stronger. Maybe I just like having a little touch of strange. I certainly don’t want to become self-righteously anti-chrome. That way is a path to hipsterdom, friend, and is best avoided.

Of course, Harley is the brand most closely associated with King Chrome, but they made a clever move with the unchrome Dark Customs line. (Let’s set aside for a moment this paradoxical usage of the term “Custom.”) While this line did create the regrettable Cross Bones, it also includes the 883 Iron, the Forty-Eight, and the Street Bob – clean, cool, great-looking bikes. And if I think they look good, then this style has obviously had some success in reaching out to the antichromites. Notice how the Star Bolt is following suit. Of course, HD’s best bike (and one with very little chrome) was the XR1200, but, alas, that’s another story.

Biker culture is really very diverse, with many subcultures. How and how much you customize your bike makes a statement about your identity and those subcultures. If you’re using chrome on your bike, you’re working with a loaded material. It has to be done right. It’s like a tailor using silk: it can be exquisite and beautiful, but in the wrong hands it’s A Night at the Roxbury.

Remember what I said earlier about “everyone else’s opinion be damned”? I’ve seen a lot of custom bikes and thought, “Man, is that ugly. Good for him!” Who am I to say what your barabric Yawp should sound like? Maybe you like a bike that looks like the Terminator T-1000 in mid-morph. We’re all biker brethren and sistren, right? Yeah, sure. Well, brethren or not, pro or anti, what I always say I like about motorcycle culture is its capacity for nonconformity. You can be tacky, classic, neo, retro, speedy, or pokey. We are already different because we ride, some differenter than others. I know which side of the chrome divide I’m on, but like the B-52s said, “Chrome if you want to.”

Of Dogs and Ponies

This week was the 2014 Westminster Kennel Club dog show.  The Best-in-Show winner was “Sky,” a wire fox terrier, which apparently is a kind of dog.

 

I realize this is not exactly the kind of thing most bikers are interested in, and it makes easy fodder for satirists.  It is easy to laugh at people fawning and and investing massive amounts of time and money into these animals, which are bred out onto the thinnest branches of the evolutionary tree and would be perfectly incapable of surviving in the wild.  Seen from the outside, it’s ridiculous.  It’s like a modern version of Dutch tulipmania.

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Here’s the thing: how different is this, really, from some of the “Biker Build-Off” competitions?  You have masses of connoisseurs poring over the fine points of rare, exotic breeds that bear little resemblance to their useful ancestors.  At the dog show, they’re in tuxes; at the build-off, it’s leather, but either way it is a socially enforced dress code.  Yes, it may seem ridiculous from the outside, but from the inside it is serious.  If you know what you’re looking at, you see these things differently.  You can easily become a snob, whether it’s about dogs, custom bikes, wine, classic rock & roll, or calligraphy.

 

When something spirals off in its own direction, it can start to take on these strange forms.  It’s like the evolutionary isolation of Australia and the resulting array of deranged fauna, or a language group that gets isolated from its mother tongue until the two are no longer mutually intelligible.  Things get over-the-top fast.  We end up with weird plumage, duck-billed dinosaurs, and slithering lichens.

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The genes that are being selected and passed on in these show bikes are not related to riding and function, but the genes for showmanship, which then get inbred and multiplied.  That’s why we have bikes that are “just rolling sculpture” or “unrideable” that so many people complain about.  These are show chickens, not fryers.

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Certainly, there are show bikes that buck this trend, but even those we tend to judge as artwork.  Few things are as beautiful as a purebred Alaskan Malamute or a fine custom bike like the Little Blue BMW, but these are the examples that still show the earnest bones of their hardworking ancestors.  It’s the Lancashire Six-Legged Glass Dog or the Exxxtreme Dragon-Chopper that are the hothouse flowers that die in the sun.

 

Connoisseurship itself breeds these outliers.  Contemporary philosopher Randall Munroe described this phenomenon elegantly in XKCD #915.

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Of course we want to become connoisseurs of the thing we love, but sometimes I just want to drink my damn wine in peace.

The Little Blue BMW

The Progressive International Motorcycle Show is making its way across the country. While most of the show is predicable and repetitive from year to year, many of us enjoy perusing the J&P Cycles Ultimate Builder Competition. We should always be skeptical of anything that call itself “Ultimate,” but it is gratifying to see the results of various builders’ dedication of time, talent, and materials to their machines.

This year, the bike to see is the little blue BMW by Jesse Bassett of the Gas Box. This perfect sapphire is radically different from anything else in the competition: radical in its elegance, proportion, and simplicity.

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Simplicity is not simple. In a minimalist design, everything must be correct. The design intent must be expressed with only a few notes, as the designer does not have ornament to rely on. While most build-off bikes tend toward over-the-top baroque ornamentation, it is a daring move to pare a bike down almost to the Platonic essence of bike-ness.

Every joint is exposed; every weld, seam, or bend is out there and must be labored over to become pure geometry. This is putting it all on the line – fabricating without a net.

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Not only the workmanship, but the design fundamentals are also ruthlessly laid bare. The overall proportions, shape, and lines of the composition absolutely must be right, and they are. The bike is compact but open, like a talented bantam-weight boxer, tough and low. Sinewy. None of the pimpish trappings of a professional wrestler. This has to be planned from the beginning – there is no going back and covering up the fundamental form of the bike. That means the builder needs both the ability to envision the unbuilt and the talent to turn vision into steel.

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Although it is a minimalist design, for the careful observer this bike is full of little delights. For example, the little clamps for the spark plug wires running along the intake pipes, which help to visually keep the engine clean. Also, the neat attachment of the driveshaft cover to the rear fender, which only works because this is a hardtail, is a tidy move. The footpegs that are identical to the handgrips create a nice symmetry.

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The bike is also a feast of finishes. Various platings and polishings provide subtle variations in sheen, warmth, and brightness of different bare metal components. No exposed material is overlooked. The blue paint – devoid of any pinstriping or embellishment of any kind – is both the perfect color selection and flawlessly applied.

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It is always a treat to see all the custom builds, which are such personal statements and represents large investments in time and treasure. It is a special moment to see those bikes that really raise the level of artistry in the builder’s craft. This bike is one of those.

Remembering Sonny DePalma

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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.