What is “Neo-Retro”?

The first sentence of every description of the Yamaha XSR 900 must include the phrase “neo-retro,” and this one is no exception. It seems to be a somehow apt descriptor, but I don’t think any of us really know exactly what we mean when we say, write, or read it. Is it really a word? It is two prefixes (prefices?) linked together without a root. It is certainly an oxymoron, although “neo-paleo” would be a more perfect diametric pairing. Personally, I would be very excited to see a neo-paleo bike. Something made of meat.

 

I suppose we must conceded that “neo-retro” is a word, inasmuch as people are using it and somehow investing it with some meaning. Neologisms like this often take some time to find their proper semantic place, and this one seems to be at that crisis point where it either hones itself to something useful or just become another useless filler word. Time to drill into that word and extract the real meaning so that we all stop throwing it around so promiscuously.

 

First, let’s make some important exlusions to be clear what “neo-retro” is not. Some would say that “neo-retro” means a technically and mechanically modern machine that wears styling taken from the past, like the new Bonnevilles or Moto-Guzzis. But no, that is simply “retro.” “Neo-retro” must reinterpret. It is Post-Modernist, not Classicist.

 

It is also not the uninterrupted making of the same thing for decades. No-one refers to Harleys as “neo-retro” or even “retro.” They are simply Harleys. Indian Chiefs might be “retro,” because there is a discontinuity between the current machine and the precedent. You have to leave home in order to enjoy homesickness. You can’t be nostalgic for something that’s just always been there and never left. Oddly, people often refer to Royal Enfield as “retro,” which is wrong due to this Continuity Exemption. I think people call Royal Enfields “retro” because they themselves have re-discovered (or just discovered) them, and therefore what’s old is new to them, whereas in fact what’s old is simply old. (The Contintal GT would be an exception to the Exemption, and thus could rightly be called “retro.”)

 

Got it?

 

OK, let’s look at the latest exemplar of “neo-retro”: the Yamaha XSR 900:

2016-01-10 xsr900_1

 

What about this design is retro? What clues tie this bike to, say, the 1970s? Apart from the round headlamp and the optional bumblebee livery, not a damned thing. We could go through the bike piece by piece by piece and not find anything that ties this bike to the past. Look at it: the tank? The frame? The engine? Even the fenders? Anything? OK, maybe the tank badge. The name, certainly, is a reference to the venerated XS 650, a prince among UJMs, but that’s it.

2016-01-10 xsr900_2

 

Every single thing about this design is modern. It doesn’t even look like what someone in the 1970s would imagine a futuristic bike would look like – they would probably assume a bike of the future would be some kind of Craig Vetter Streamliner deal.

 

2016-01-10 xsr900_3

Perhaps the only truly retro thing about this image is the clothing of the rider.

 

Let’s take another example: the BMW R Nine T:

2016-01-10 R9T

 

Of course this bike has the “classic” BMW Boxer engine, but that is not retro – that’s merely a staple powerplant that is still in BMW’s regular lineup. (Would you call the R1200RT “retro”?) Again, there is a round headlamp, but surely that can’t be it? Everything on this bike is thoroughly up to date, both technically and aesthetically. The trellis frame, the brakes, wheels, seat, components, suspension, lines, curves, forms – it’s all neo, and where’s the retro?

 

Contrast this with the new new Bonnevilles, which carefully and knowingly extract details and proportions from old bikes to create their new composition. There are little Easter eggs for connoisseurs. They are modern, but they make aesthetic allusions with the precision of a McKim, Mead, and White, and no-one would question that the genre of these bikes is “retro.”

 

Yet we are compelled to describe the XSR 900 and the R nine T (and let’s throw in the Honda CB1100) as “neo-retro.” We almost can’t help ourselves. Why?

 

The truth is, when we look for historiated styling cues, we are looking at the wrong thing. What’s retro about these bikes is not the design details or specific allusions to past models. In fact, it’s not styling at all: it’s design at a deeper level.

 

The “retro” in these bikes is an attitude of simplicity. Unadorned, bullshit-free. Unassuming, but direct and tough. It’s a recognition that many of the products (not just bikes) that we use every day have become encrusted with features, complications, and upgrades that stand between us and the pure enjoyment of the object. It is the opposite of the plastic engine cover under the hood of your Audi. It’s the same ethos as the naked bikes taken in a slightly different direction.

 

Our nostalgia for older bikes is closely tied to how much fun we had on them. It seemed that the bikes had character. That character was rooted in the direct experience with the machine, unintermediated by other amenities. Now we are being offered bikes that present that kind of character without the flip side of those simpler bikes – unreliability. We are seeing technology in the service of a better experience, rather than tech for its own sake.

 

It’s also a reminder that a motorcycle does not have to be either a sportbike or a cruiser. It can just be a bike. And you don’t have to choose between being a pirate or a squid. You can just be a biker.

 

There was no better time, when things were simpler, people were more honest, and beer was free. In that sense, nostalgia is naïve. But there were great ideas and moments of delight in our collective youth that are worth remembering. If “neo-retro” brings us fun, honest bikes that look good and ride great, we are all for it.

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Stop Imitating Outlaw Biker Gangs

Since last week’s shoot-out between the Bandidos and the Cossacks in Waco, Texas, many bikers – or perhaps they’d rather be called motorcyclists – have been making protestations that the actions of these outlaw biker gangs do not represent the attitudes, lifestyles, and actions of most people who ride motorcycles. True enough.

They say that this incident puts us bikers (I’m just going to say “bikers”) in a bad light. That it casts a shadow over the rest of us. Well, I don’t think most civilians have any confusion between the typical biker dudes they see every day and outlaw gangs, any more than you might confuse, say, your neighbor’s basement home-brew set-up with an underground meth superlab. But I guess I could see the point.

They say that they want to distance themselves from this harmful image of outlaw culture. This is where I have to throw a bullshit flag.

If we’re so all-fired keen to distance ourselves from the stigma of outlaw biker gangs, why do so many bikers go to such lengths to imitate them? The hair, the vests, the chaps, the boots. Not the mention the type and style of motorcycle. The entire persona of many ordinary bikers is, intentionally or not, overtly derivative of the outlaw biker archetype. Even the loud pipes: most bikers who have drag pipes have them because they convey that dangerous, outlaw image. It’s not a performance thing, and it’s honestly not a safety thing.

The most blatant homage to the outlaw biker gangs are the club vests and patches that explicitly imitate the style of the gang, complete with club logo and chapter rocker. The most obvious example is the Harley Owners Group (HOG – one of the least clever backronyms of all time). HOG is a corporate-sponsored community branding and marketing effort, which is the polar opposite of an outlaw biker gang. HOG is to a biker gang what the “by Mennen” jingle is to Jimi Hendrix. Yet they, quite brilliantly, co-opted the exact iconography of the gangs, triggering the same psychological mechanisms of tribal loyalty and converting them into brand loyalty. To the untrained eye, a HOG chapter pulling into a Denny’s looks an awful lot like some bad shit is about to go down. At the Denny’s.

Even more bizarre are the riders who sport “Sons of Anarchy” gear. It’s not just a fantasy, it’s a fantasy of a fantasy. These really belong more at ComiCon than at a bike rally.*

There is nothing wrong with regular motorcycle clubs, but so many of them use these vests and patches it reinforces the unstated assumption that the only “real” bikers – the most legitmate bikers – are the outlaws, and that all the rest of us are just varying degrees away from that pure core. That’s what’s really wrong with this.

The appeal of the outlaw is very real, powerful, and completely understandable. For most of us, that’s part of what got us into motorcycling in the first place. There is a genuine delight in terrifying soccer moms. It’s the cowboy, it’s Johnny Strabler, it’s Han Solo. Every romantic hero plays by his own rules, right?

Well, we are undercutting that independence instinct when we spend so much effort imitating members of some other group. We have to acknowledge that what biker gangs are doing and what the rest of us are doing are completely different things. We don’t have to emulate them because we really share nothing in common with them.

Many ordinary bikers already feel that in some ways they’re on the fringe. There’s something in us that is not like our peers. We are doing something not that many people do, something that our friends or family may not understand or approve of. We invest time and money in something that is dangerous and impractical. This, too, is part of the appeal. For much of life, we have to fit in, but as a biker we can be comfortable as an outsider. But again, being an outsider is a completely different thing from human trafficking and running guns and drugs.

If you truly want to be in an outlaw biker gang, then that’s what you should do, but recognize that it is not a life of freedom: it will take a tremendous commitment and sacrifice, including possibly losing the relationships of the people you care about most. I doubt most of us are willing to do that.

If you don’t want to be in an outlaw biker gang, then drop the affectations and stop whining about getting a bad rep from the outlaws.

You have to pick one or the other: you cannot both have and reject the outlaw biker fantasy. This is like someone who dresses as a knight at a Renaissance fair complaining that they don’t want to be associated with the negative stereotypes of European nobility.**

The world of bikers is one of amazing biodiversity. So many types of people and machines, different backgrounds and reasons. A lot of histories and stories. And for the most part, we’re all cool with each other. Even people from backgrounds who would otherwise not interact are generally decent and accepting in the context of bikes. There really are not a lot of rules to “how to be a biker,” and that’s part of what’s so great about it. Maybe the one universal tenet is that you need to be yourself. Be your damn self. You don’t need anybody else’s approval to be a biker, and you certainly don’t need to emulate a group you don’t actually want to join. It’s so much easier to just be yourself.

*I don’t mean to dis on the ComiCon folks. They at least are generally aware of what is and is not a fantasy, and they’re usually pretty cool.

**Again, nothing against the Ren Fair guys. Joust on!

On the Ford GT

The mid-1960s were a high-water-mark in performance automotive design and styling. Many of the design icons of that era are still breathlessly coveted by gearheads and connoisseurs. It was a time of high art in machinery. Consider this brief honor roll:

 

1961: The Jaguar XKE. Long, low, and very modern. Sort of the beginning of the look of a modern sports-car, at a time when many contemporaries still had flaring fenders right out of the 1930s.

1962: The AC Cobra. A bulging little monster. Tough and sleek.

1962-1964: The Ferrari 250 GTO. The car that marked the maturation of Ferrari as a world sport leader at the height of its power.

1964: The Corvette Stingray. Just super cool. A design that still turns boys’ heads fifty years later.

1964-1968: The Ferrari 275 in all its variants. Perhaps the most gracefully shaped pieces of metal of all time. They are “Italian” in the sense that an Amati violin or Ferragamo loafer is Italian.

1965: The Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO. The beginning of the American Muscle Car. Cold War hubris in steel.

1965: The Aston-Martin DB6. British grit and elegance that just gets classier year by year.

 

In this Valhalla of velocity, the Ford GT40 beat them all. Literally. In 1966, GT40s beat Ferrari to take first, second, and third place at LeMans. A GT40 won again in 1967. And again in ’68. And ’69. It was the first and perhaps the only true American supercar.

frdconcepts 02detroit1, 2, 3…

 

The GT40 wasn’t just a race winner. It was beautiful and unique. It just didn’t look like anything else. The design had this broad, distinct American accent. It wasn’t lithe like a Ferrari; it was more of a bruiser. It had a brutal elegance, like a Chicago pugilist. It had a manner that would make the Lords drop the monocles out of their regal eyes. It was more Humphrey Bogart than Charles Boyer. It had the tough, confident, no-bullshit brush-strokes of an Ashcan School painter.

 

Bottom line: if there’s one American car to get romantic about, it’s probably the GT40.

 

In the past two decades, we’ve seen design revivals of pretty much every American (and some European) car model that’s come and gone. It’s some combination of nostalgia, Post-Modernism, and a lack of a new design language. Some of these have been great (Dodge Challenger), some not so much (Ford Thunderbird). The GT40 didn’t seem like a prime candidate for revival, since it wasn’t a mass production car, and it’s not as widely known outside of motor enthusiasts. It’s not the thing you see on posters in diners. It’s also not something you’re going to see an original at a Saturday cruise-in.

 

fordgt northamericaBut they did it: in 2005 – perhaps at the height of the retro wave – Ford released the GT, a very literal design revival of the venerated GT40. Some argued this design was too literal, hewing too closely to the 1966 car, but the 2005 GT was inarguably still beautiful and tough.

fordgt northamerica frdasia tokyo03 03tokyoIt was just a more refined, slightly more modern version. Unlike some of the other reanimated models, the GT kept all the essential sex appeal of the original. It was above all covetable.

 

At the North American International Automobile Show this week, Ford debuted the next generation: the 2016 GT. It was unquestionably the star of the show, and for good reason: it is spectacular.

2016 gt2017_Ford_GT_front by Latvian98

It is more of a design departure than the previous iteration. The most distinctive GT40ism is the broad, low front end and identifiable headlight and windshield shape. The rest of the machine, though, goes in more of a superhero direction. It feels more adolescent, like perhaps it should fold into a fighting robot. This makes that classic front end look out of place, like grafting a great Roman aquiline nose onto a dysmorphic runway model. This car will be amazing, but the styling has gone a little too much tequila and not enough fine whisky.

2017_Ford_GT_rear2017_Ford_GT_Rear by Latvian98

The original GT40 and the 2005 GT were brawny, but they didn’t rip their shirts off. They had a very grown-up virility. Fine things take time to learn to appreciate, but they are worth it. That is why we should be careful about letting teen aesthetics be the arbiter of taste. The best designs provide deep, lasting pleasure, not just eye-pop.

 

I don’t mean to pick nits off of what is definitely an amazing American automobile. It is lovely to see a car with a blue oval on it that will go toe-to-toe with any machine in the world. I am afraid, though, that all our attention will be on the funky, flashy bits, rather than its enduring dynastic elegance.

 

 

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.

“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.