‘Art is eternal, for it reveals the inner landscape, which is the soul of man’ – – Martha Graham, Dancer and Choreographer – –
The very first article I ever published appeared in Easyriders, the groundbreaking magazine which was at once the LIFE, Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest of the outlaw biker set. I wrote about tattoo removal – a topic I thought some readers might find interesting – after an encounter with a dermatologist at a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Hastings, Nebraska, who told me about a then-new technique for obliterating unwanted tattoos via laser. I won’t bore you with the details – the information is all woefully outdated anyway – but I ended my piece with the words
‘These days, even art is not eternal.’
However, barring catastrophic circumstances like the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, where – in addition to thousands of lives, including my cousin Eddie – an estimated $110 million worth of art was destroyed, or the Taliban’s deliberate destruction of The Buddhas of Bamiyan, art really is eternal….
….and even those pieces lost or destroyed live on in memory.
….and all this to say ‘Hey! I got some cool stuff to show ya!’
IN THE BEGINNING….
I don’t know who first attempted to paint or draw images of the biker life, but Dave Mann was certainly a pioneer. After selling some early paintings of biker life to Choppers magazine founder Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth (creator of the iconic ‘Rat Fink’ and a number of radically customized cars and motorcycles), Mann join the El Forastero Motorcycle Club (forastero is ‘stranger’ or ‘foreigner’ in Spanish) as a charter member of the club’s Kansas City MO chapter.
In 1971 Mann answered an advert for a ‘motorcycle artist’, discovered in the back pages of a new biker magazine called Easyriders, and spent the remainder of his working life as in-house artist for the publication. His first centerfold painting for Easyriders appeared in October, 1971, and Mann reportedly produced artwork – centerfold paintings, story illustrations and adverts – for every issue from that first to his retirement in 2003, shortly before he passed away. His final piece, Sunset, appeared in the May 2004 issue.
His earliest works were primitive – a cross between illustration and caricature – but as he gained experience Mann’s work took on a style reminiscent of the American painter Edward Hopper, who is best known for his iconic Nighthawks(1942). Look at the figures in Hopper’s work, and compare them to Mann’s. I certainly see the influence.
More than technique or style, however, Hopper and Mann shared the desire to illustrate and elevate the prosaic, the quotidian, the mundane everyday doings of regular people historically overlooked by representational artists. For Hopper it might be patrons seated in a late-night diner – an apparent oasis of light and warmth in an otherwise dreary cityscape – sharing space and yet isolated from one another, silent, bored. For Mann it could be the streetwalker ignoring her john to watch the more attractive, more enticing biker cruise by on his radical panhead chopper. Hopper might present a sweet moment between a young couple on a dark summer evening – you can almost hear the crickets singing – while Mann’s swain straddles a raked and stretched shovelhead as he chats up the object of his affections on a crisp autumn afternoon….
You get the point.
And by ‘centerfold’ I merely refer to the fact that Mann’s work appeared in the center pages of each issue, where it could be removed (as so many of us did) and turned into a poster. Although many of his paintings included idealized images of women, his purpose was to document our lives as bikers, not provide masturbation motivation for horny teenagers!
STRAIGHT ON FOR YOU!
One perspective Mann relied on was full frontal….
Here is another of my favorites, a classic piece by Dave Mann:
Mann returned to that theme many times in his career.
….as did Mann’s ‘Pacific Coast Highway Run’.
Another favorite was the reverse: the motorcycle moving in a straight line away from the viewer. He used both angles to great effect.
Mann’s follow-up to Coming at You appeared in a Jammers Handbook. Mann’s attention to detail extended even to the smallest things, like the oil spatter up this passenger’s left shoulder, excess lubricant slung off the rear drive chain at speed. You could always spot a biker chick by those chain tracks, and you could tell if she was packin’ on a Big Twin or Sporty by which shoulder was marked. I pissed off more than one woman passenger when their nicest tops ended up ruined that way! 🤷♀️
THE DAYS OF OUR LIVES
Mann’s technical abilities as an artist are undeniable but, as clearly demonstrated here, for those of us who ride it was Mann’s ability to illustrate the everyday aspects of our lives as bikers which so endeared him to us. He captured the emotional element – the ‘inner landscape’ Ms. Graham referenced in her quote – in painting after painting.. It might be two bikers blasting down an L.A. freeway, beards and club colors flapping in the wind, as one passes a joint to the other.
It might be a biker on his low, lean, radically stretched chopper, glaring balefully at the cop writing out a traffic ticket.
It might be a woman frustrated and angry because her old man, the insensitive prick, just passed a beer joint when she desperately needed a potty break….
….or another one of my favorites. showing a woman curled up against her man’s back, safe and secure and sleepy after a weekend of riding and camping out under the stars, while he steers his radical chopper back to the brightly-lit city in the distance.
One of Dave Mann’s most iconic images has been stolen and reproduced on everything from t-shirts and coffee mugs to wall tapestries, area rugs and more. In ‘Ghost Rider’ Mann equates the hard-riding biker at the foreground to the hard-riding ghostly cowboy keeping pace with him. Some of the later reproductions went the politically correct route of erasing the SS lightning bolts Mann’s biker has on his fuel tank….
….and that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post! 😎
Mann covered breakdowns and break-ups, club life and solo riders, sleek choppers and road-warrior rat bikes, and brought to each painting the same skill and dedication to detail. He was our Frederic Remington, and we loved him for it.
Another favorite. Anyone who rides very long at all has been in a similar situation….
….but try to make the best of it! 😆
BREAKING DOWN AND CRACKING UP!
Paul Simon once sang ‘Everything put together sooner or later falls apart,’ and that’s as true of motorcycles as anything else. In numerous paintings, Dave Mann captured the frustration and helplessness of that instant when your machine fails, and you realize there’s nothing you can do about it except sit and wait, or go for help.
In the early ’80s, on a ride through the Central Texas Hill Country southwest of Austin, I stripped the teeth off my primary drive belt while pulling up a steep hill. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. It grieved me to interrupt my friends’ ride that way, but I was stuck.
BTW, that was one of the very few times my shovelhead rode home in the back of a truck.
One of the reasons I have always been psychotic about building my bikes to be bulletproof, and making sure I can fix all but the worst breakdowns with tools and spare parts in my road kit is because I cannot stand to be that helpless, hapless rider stranded beside the road. I’d rather have people depend on me than have to impose on friends or, worse still, depend on the kindness of strangers.
In this instance, when I got the bike home and went to replace the wasted primary belt, I learned that I couldn’t have replaced the belt by the side of the road even if I’d had a spare belt with me; that the inner primary cover (which can’t be removed without an impact wrench and clutch-hub puller) wouldn’t let me take the belt off the engine pulley! Since I had the inner primary cover off anyway, I took the opportunity to grind down the bosses on the inner primary so that I couldtake the belt off without removing the inner primary. That’s just how I roll! 😁
As an aside: I will never understand why some riders get angrywhen I mention tool kits and roadside repairs in that context. Seems to me everyone is better off if I can fix the problem by the side of the road and get on with the ride, rather than be forced to wait for a wrecker or a buddy with a trailer to come fetch me. Still, I’ve had riders – every one of them the sort I call ‘Born Again Bikers’ – get absolutely incensed at the notion that I am capable in that regard, as if my competence was – dare I say it? – a challenge to their manhood…. 🙄
And that’s a whole ‘nother post, too! 😏
Of course, it could be worse. You could be well and truly fucked, like this poor couple….
However, if you’re lucky enough to break down while riding with others, the Biker’s Code says ‘No biker left behind.’ By hook or crook or boot or rope, you’re both getting home.
And if all else fails….
Another scene most riders will recognize (or cringe from): the bike that just…. Will. Not. Start! I’ve never owned a Sportster, but I started my share during my years of working at Bud’s. I’ve also been that pissed at my shovel, when it’s been particularly coldblooded and cantankerous. Fortunately for me, those instances have been few and far between….
….and the next sound you hear will be me knockin’ on wood! 😱
Sadly, our machines aren’t the only things that betray us.
Bikers are all too familiar with the cager who seems to have it in for us. Popular wisdom advises riders Don’t ride as if they can’t see you; ride as if they’re aiming for you! Unfortunately, I know from bitter experience that sometimes they actually are aiming for us!
But if one of the bastards gets you, what can you do but heal as best you can, and dream of getting back in the wind where you belong.
If you’ve ever built a motorcycle, you’ll recognize the anguished look on this fellow’s face, as he watches his freshly painted fuel tank head for a collision with the garage floor.
Mayhaps he needs a helper. Maybe a curvaceous blonde? Someone half-naked, perhaps? Yeah, that’ll do the trick! 😆
In Mann’s art, women are primarily placed in secondary roles as backrests, bike washers, beer fetchers and sexual conquests. In Mann’s world, women rarely ride their own. In fact, of the hundreds of paintings Mann produced, I’ve only found a baker’s dozen thus far depicting women riders. However, to his credit, man or woman, when he painted them he brought the same skills, artistic integrity and vision to bear.
Finally, what could be finer than doing something you love, like riding, and looking over to see the person you most love in this world enjoying the same thing?
I FOUGHT THE LAW AND THE LAW WON!
One of the downsides of biker life is the occasional brush with the law.
I’ve gotten a couple of these over the years. One was right after I’d installed brand new mufflers on my bike! Turns out I was riding my motorcycle in that trooper’s personal ‘No Biker Zone’. I’ve learned there are a lot of those in this state. 🙄 I’ve come to see ‘too loud’ tickets as a sort of ‘road-use tax’; nothing to do but pay the piper.
My best road dog learned that the hard way. We were jamming through West Texas enroute to the Four Corners region when we were tagged by a state trooper near Sweetwater, Texas. On a busy Interstate Highway packed full of noisy highballing tractor-trailers and speeding cagers, he spotted us coming the opposite direction, doubled back and pulled us over. He actually claimed he could hear our exhausts over the noise of the semis and pickup trucks, despite the fact that my exhaust system was in excellent condition, and my partner’s was almost new. The trooper ignored the modified pickup that blasted past us as we stood there (leaving us all with tinnitus) and wrote us both tickets for ‘exhaust too loud.’
The first time I received a ‘too loud’ ticket, over a decade earlier, I was incensed because, as it happened, my mufflers were brand-new at the time. How could this asshole write me a ticket? I went so far as to call the Attorney General’s office, to see if this was even legal, and was told the law leaves ‘too loud’ to the discretion of the officer making the traffic stop. How can you argue against that in a court of law? You can’t, so I paid up, and gained the ‘road-use tax’ perspective.
In the Sweetwater incident, I paid my fine before we left the jurisdiction. I am scrupulous about such things, because I never want to give a cop an excuse, like an unpaid traffic ticket, to pull me off my bike. If they want me they’re gonna have to make something up!
However, my partner, who had never been through this, was overcome with righteous indignation, and swore he’d fight this outrage. Sure enough, when we got back from our week on the road, he had his motorcycle inspected, gathered all pertinent documentation, closed his clinic for two days and hied himself out to Sweetwater to wage war against injustice.
The upshot? He lost two days out of his practice, the cost of travel to Sweetwater and overnight accommodations, and had to pay a fine and ‘court costs’ amounting to more than three times what I’d paid the day I got the ticket. I refrained from saying ‘I told you so,‘ but I did tell him so! 😆 As I said: nothing to do but pay the piper and get on down the road.
A final note: I mentioned the Sweetwater stop to my attorney at the time, who specialized in motorcycle-related law, and he said ‘Oh, that was Trooper _______.’ Apparently, the fellow who stopped us was renowned statewide for his hatred of bikers. 🤷♀️ Whatcha gonna do?
We’ve all had close calls like this one, too.
But sometimes the heat is more than just an inconvenient traffic stop or speeding ticket. Too many bikers have wasted years inside prison walls, and Mann showed their lives, as well.
On a brighter note, here Mann captures the joy on a rider’s face as he clears those gates. The first things he sees are his girl, a bottle of Jack, and his prized shovelhead chop. As an added bonus: Dave Mann and Jacquie stand at far right, ready to welcome him back to the world.
Mann knew the history of our tribe, too, from the streets of Hollister, where it all began….
….through the early days of the custom bike scene.
A RABBIT HOLE:
If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go down a rabbit hole for just a moment, to show you another painstaking replica: the late tattoo artist Richiepan’s reproduction of Dave Mann’s own red rigid-framed shovelhead, as pictured below.
So many incredible paintings, but one of the images that most touches me is this, depicting a rider on his rigid shovelhead; the rider and bike from Ghost Rider, sans SS lightning bolts and cowboy. This time, the biker is alone in the desert hills, but the shadow behind him tells us he’s missing his woman, wishing she were still packing behind him for the long ride, tucked in behind him where she belongs. The tattoo on his arm and the title – In Memory Of… – suggest that she’s not just out of his life, but altogether gone from this world. So much emotion and history packed into one small frame!
Thankfully, I’ve never lost a lover to death, but I do know the ache of yearning for something you once possessed, and will never have again.
Finally, another appearance by the artist himself.
DAVID WILLIAM MANN, September 10th, 1940 to September 11th, 2004. R.I.P.
SCANDINAVIAN countries are known for their long dark winters. Causing those Viking knights to take refuge in their homes, only to come back out again in Spring. As a Head of Design at a Norwegian distillery, Swedish born (but 1/4th Norwegian..) David Höök is dealing with liquor all day long, so rather than drinking those dark freezing nights away, he was looking for another way to get through the winter period.
Only a couple of years ago he took up the art of customizing when he suddenly had space available after buying a new house.
Softie for Softails
David is a softie for Harley softails and he decided to use this frame for his winter project. The combination with a late generation Evo 1340cc engine felt like the right choice for him. Upon making his mind up he locked himself up in his shed only to reappear in Spring with this ‘Dull Boy’! (see video)
The nickname got us wondering where he got the inspiration from. Looking at the way the bike came out, we would have expected stuff like ‘mean machine’ or ‘nasty nailer’.
David explains: “At first I considered to make it look like a newer H-D Breakout, but then I saw a late night re-run of the 1980’s movie “The Shining” with Jack Nicholson and it has one of my favourite movie scenes of all time where the proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is central.”
“I decided there and then to build the bike based on that and it felt natural to make it look like it had been through a lot. I always plan my builds thoroughly in advance to the smallest of details so I had the everything pretty much worked out to before I started on the bike.”
Whilst on the subject of sources of inspiration, Bikebrewers team decide to pry a little bit deeper. On our query where his vision for this build originated the Viking builder retorted:
“Being the bike nerd I am, I spend a lot of time looking at bikes on Instagram, Pinterest, etc., picking up ideas here and there. Last year I came upon the work of Joe Morris (Jmoto Speedshop and Gallery) and something clicked.
His work really opened my eyes to drawing and painting on bikes, instead of just painting everything black as I had done on my previous builds. As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time drawing and worked as an illustrator for quite some time, but lost interest in this art along the way.
Thinking of bikes as a “canvas” provided me with at creative outlet that I didn’t know I had missed.”
“Gentlemen, roll up your sleeves and light those torches”
With the creative part in place, it was time to get dirty and dive into the technical stuff. According to David he did not meet too many serious challenges working this project. The only minor obstacle was fitting the Road King rear wheel into the frame. It took him a lot of lathing and grinding to get the job done, but other than that things went fairly easy.
Meeting hurdles during a build often requires outside insights before being able to take the next step. “So David, when was the moment you needed an extra hand? “ we asked him.
“My brother, who has a lathe, helped me turn down the rear pulley to fit the 20mm belt and I left the seat to an upholsterer to cover it in leather. I’ve started to learn to do this kind of work myself now though. I like to be able to do everything on my builds, and I really enjoy working with leather.”
Final words • What do you like the most? o “The spare fuel bottle” • Anything particular we need to know about this project? o “It has “All work and no play makes make Jack a dull boy” written in places you would never think of…” • Last but not least, how does it ride? o “Like a dream”
Details of the build
• Estimated budget: € 13-14K • 1998 Harley Davidson FXSTC, nicknamed “Dull Boy” • Stock Evo 1340 with S&S Super E carb, Andrews EV-27 cam, adjustable pushrods and Crane Cams single fire ignition • Cycle Shack drag pipes • Lowered 1.5-2″ front and rear. Progressive shocks and springs • Wheels are from 2009+ Road King. 17×3 with 130×80 in the front and 16×5 with 200×60 in the rear. • Pulley is modified to fit a 20mm belt. • Lower fork legs and brake calipers are also from 2009+ Touring models • Handlebar is a 40″ Highway Hawk Fat Flyer bar. • Headlight a 6.5″ housing modified to house the stock H-D 5.75” headlight. • Mirrors are Arlen Ness mini ovals. • Extended forward controls • Braided brake lines from HEL Performance • Kellermann Atto DF tail/indicator lights • Front indicators are small LED’s from Dock66.de • Custom made seat • Custom made rear fender • Left swingarm bag is from bikebeauty (I’ve added the wear and the lettering). • The right one is from bikersgearaustralia
IMO, rat bikes are organic creatures that evolve over time. They slowly accumulate a patina of baked-on oil, mud and rust. They rack up dings and tweaks and cracks, and develop quirks that render the bike virtually unrideable to anyone but its owner. Maybe a part replaced on the fly doesn’t match the rest of the bike. Maybe something off a Honda or Hodaka was jiggered to fit your Harley, or vice-versa. Maybe it’s a Sportster tank on a Knucklehead, an Evo engine stuffed in a Panhead frame, or the forks off a ’66 cop bike bolted to an AMF-era Shovelhead. Maybe a good road dog gifts you a sticker, a bandana or some other memento, so you slap it on there, somewhere, and it gives you an excuse to tell everyone who asks about the great partner who gave it to you….
….and so it goes. The end product (if a rat bike can ever truly be an ‘end product’) is a machine of unquestionable authenticity and experience, skillfully crafted by mileage and time.
Buildinga ‘rat bike’ is, conversely, the ultimate in poseur pretense and inauthenticity: far worse than throwing mud on the bike you trailered to Sturgis to make it look like you rode the entire way, or taking sandpaper to a new pair of boots to make them look scuffed and well-worn. People who don’t know any better might think your fresh-from-the-workshop ‘rat bike’ is all kinds of nifty, but you will always know in your heart of hearts that it’s just a facsimile, a knockoff, a cheap shortcut to the real deal.
None of this is intended to take away from David Höök’s abilities as a builder of motorcycles. He can obviously be thorough, thoughtful and attentive to detail. Were he to turn his talents to building a proper chopper, or a new twist on the café or bobber or street pro, or even a straight-up custom Softail a la the Fat Boy, I feel certain Mr. Höök could create something more worthy of his talents. If this ‘Dull Boy’ is actually, honestly, the very best he can do, then I fear Mr. Höök truly is a dull boy, and no amount of beer will fix that.
I was eager to see if Mr. Betist might share my critique with his readers. 🤷♀️ Instead, he deleted the entire article! 🤣🤣🤣
Sonny Barger joined the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club the same year I was born, and was still a member in good standing when he passed away on June 29th, 2022. That’s one long career!
Myself, I never met the man – to the best of my knowledge I never met any member of his club – but Barger was still a big influence in my life. He features prominently in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (Random House, 1967) and parts of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1968), and my nascent view of what it meant to be a motorcyclist – the life path I’d already chosen for myself – was informed by Barger’s and his brothers’ exploits. Not for me the ‘nicest people on a Honda’ as the infamous mid-’60s advert suggested. I would be a biker….
….and that’s what I did.
Aside from Evel Knievel, who was much more masochist than motorcyclist, Sonny Barger is assuredly the most famous biker in the world, and was in the news numerous times throughout his tenure. For example, after members of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, which Sonny served as President, broke up an antiwar demonstration in October, 1965, Sonny held a press conference in which he foreswore violence against future protests because ‘Any physical encounter would only produce sympathy for this mob of traitors.’ He also read a telegram he’d sent then-President Lyndon Johnson, volunteering his club brothers for ‘behind the line duty in Vietnam’ as ‘a crack group of trained gorillas [sic]’ who would ‘demoralize the Vietcong and advance the cause of freedom.’
Sonny was also the voice of the Hells Angels after the disastrous Altamont Speedway concert in December, 1969, which resulted in the stabbing death of a eighteen-year-old African American named Meredith Hunter. Although accounts differ as to why they were present, the Angels had been sitting on the front edge of the low-slung stage, acting as a human barrier between the crowd and the performers. Hunter, who had been tossed off the stage by Hells Angels during a previous altercation, returned with a handgun and began waving it around, firing at least one shot into the crowd. Hells Angel member Alan Passaro stabbed and disarmed Hunter, who later died of his wounds.
The next morning, as the talking heads on local radio station KSAN attempted to unravel the chaotic stream of events, Sonny Barger called in and gave his club’s side of the story – the only official statement the club ever offered about the concert or the killing. Barger defended his patch holders, telling radio host Stefan Ponek ‘You can say anything you want and you can call them people flower children and this and that, and there was three hundred thousand people there approximately or whatever they say, and I guarantee you that the largest majority of them were there to have a good time, but there was a couple thousand of them that was there looking for trouble.’
Brushing aside the host’s attempt to cut in, Barger went on to say ‘Some of them people out there ain’t a bit better than what some of the people think of the worst of us, man, and it’s about time they realized it….’
The incident at Altamont and Barger’s telephone call to the radio station were captured on film by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, and the resulting movie, Gimme Shelter, was released in 1970. One week after its premiere Hells Angel Alan Passaro went on trial, charged with murdering Meredith Hunter. However, when the film was played in court, it clearly showed Passaro acting in defense of self and third parties, and he was acquitted of all charges.
Given the Hells Angels’ hard-won reputation as thuggish brutes prone to violence and lawlessness, Barger was preternaturally media savvy – an excellent spokesman for his club and a wily self-promoter. He finagled parts for himself and other Angels in a couple of biker films – Hells Angels on Wheels with Adam Roarke and future Easy Rider star Jack Nicholson, and Hells Angels ’69, starring ’60s heartthrob Jeremy Slate, who later played the biker gang leader in The Born Losers.
He was also in the headlines for his numerous arrests, on charges ranging from drugs and weapons charges to conspiracy and murder and, while acquitted of the more serious charges, still spent several years in prison. During this time he gave several interviews to motorcycle magazines, including two for Supercycle, published in February and December, 1979.
During these years, and despite his numerous legal woes, Sonny discovered that he was a marketable commodity. The ‘Free Sonny’ t-shirts his wife sold during his incarceration were wildly popular, and other merchandise soon followed, but he really hit the jackpot when he teamed up with writers Keith and Kent Zimmerman and penned his memoir, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (William Morrow, 2000).
The book quickly became a best-seller, so he followed up with two biker-themed crime novels also co-authored by the Zimmerman Brothers – Dead in 5 Heartbeats and 6 Chambers, 1 Bullet (William Morrow, 2004 and 2006). He released a collection of road tales titled Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free: Hell-Raising Motorcycle Stories (William Morrow, 2003) and Freedom: Credos from the Road (William Morrow, 2005). Finally, with Darwin Holstrom, he co-authored Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling (William Morrow, 2010) in which he dissed American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, for decades the only motorcycle Hells Angels were permitted to ride. In what can only be seen as heresy by those loyal to the brand, Barger wrote:
Sonny’s final contribution to the literature of motorcycling seems to be his massive scrapbook-styled tome, Sonny: 60 Years Hells Angels, published by the French imprint Serious Publishing in 2017. Copies are currently listed on Amazon at $357 USD! 😳 I swear, I did not pay even a fifth of that for my copy! 😎
Anyway, here is the first of the two 1979 interviews:
If enough folks are interested, I’ll post the second interview soon, along with some other articles about this and other clubs.
Why I Ride a Slow, Uncomfortable, Unreliable, Noisy Motorcycle
Why I ride a Harley-Davidson with 17-inch ape hanger handlebars, a massive sissy bar that has the technical sophistication of a very large lawn mower?
May 28, 2013 at 1:29pm ET by: Tim Watson
If you ever saw my motorcycle you’d think I was a complete idiot. You would ask yourself why on earth would someone ride something with 17-inch ape hanger handlebars, a massive sissy bar that looks like a throwback from an early 1970s biker film bolted to a motorcycle that has the technical sophistication of a very large lawn mower?
It’s also noisy. Very noisy. Under hard acceleration it sounds like a moose bellowing as if someone had just slammed its testicles in a car door.
I honestly didn’t want it to be like that. But when my bike left the Harley-Davidson factory its stock engine set-up meant it ran so lean that the heat from the air-cooled motor made it almost impossible to ride here in California when temperatures climb into the 80s.
So I changed out the stock pipes. But then I was told I needed a new air filter and a re-map of the engine. All of that didn’t make my motorcycle much faster but it did suddenly come alive. And it sort of cooled down.
Its exhaust can be truly obnoxious which is why I ride with a light hand on the throttle in built-up areas. When there’s nobody about and just me and an open road I revert to the moose bellowing. But after a while it can make even my head hurt and then I wonder about my sanity and why I ride this damned bike.
I have read and re-read the countless things I could do to make its V-twin 96-ci engine faster and perform better. But I’m not convinced. I look at my bike and I am not sure that it is either.
At idle it shakes like a carnival ride and if I look down for too long the vibrations make my vision go blurry and then my hands go numb.
I hate the fact every single bolt and fastening has to be glued in place to stop them falling out. Before each ride I always have to check it over so it doesn’t leave me standing at an intersection with nothing more than the handlebars, a seat and a pile of parts.
The ape hanger bars were an after thought. I’d seen some of the Mexican low rider motorcycles in my neighborhood with mean looking dudes using them on their bikes.
I’ll admit they look preposterous (not the Mexican dudes) and I have lost count of the number of people who ask me precisely why I have them. I can’t give them a satisfactory answer. I just like ape hangers.
I did have an idea once of how I wanted my bike to look. I thought a sort of 1950s bobber style with some classic retro parts. But it’s become a bit of a mish-mash and not quite how I envisaged it would turn out.
I paid good money for a special order 32-inch sissy bar for the back of my bike. Some people have said looks like I am riding a remote control motorcycle or others have asked if I ever receive radio wave interference through it. It serves absolutely no purpose, rattles like hell all the time and makes getting on or off the bike a contortionist’s act. But I like the way it looks.
In a moment of madness I once took the front fender off. But this resulted in the bike and my face being sand blasted from road grit. Even an artfully tied bandana between the forks when it rained meant all that happened was a jet of water was thrown off the tire and straight up my nose. In a matter of hours the fender went back on.
I also kept the stock solo seat too. But if I were honest it would be more comfortable sitting on a piece of cardboard. There’s no back support and I feel I can ride over cigarette butts and tell you if they’re filtered or unfiltered. But I like the feedback from the road that it gives me even if on long rides it kills my back.
There’s an ugly gash on my bike’s left peg where I thought I could easily squeeze between a parked car and a wall to ride down a back alley. And there’s a dent the size of a dime on the front of the gas tank, caused by a rock flung out of a truck tire on the freeway. I’ve left it as a reminder of what that would have done to my face if the rock had hit me.
The factory fit rear brake light, which some say looks like a limp chrome dick, works intermittently. The rudimentary fuel gauge that may well have come off a 1960’s child’s pedal car some times pops out of the tank when I least expect it.
And I constantly have to check the primary plug for leaks as I over torqued it once during an oil change and stripped the thread. The chopper-style headlight I bought for it and which replaced the perfectly serviceable original light, is about as useful as a candle in the wind. But in daylight and probably only to my eyes it looks good.
Of course there are far better bikes out there I could have bought. There are many that are faster and nicer looking that probably have more engineering sophistication in their front brake lever than my entire motorcycle.
But herein lies the problem. For everything that irritates me about my bike it always without fail makes me smile every single time I get on it.
I have ridden it through empty deserts, up mountains and across, around and through nine states covering more than 8,000 miles in the process. I have nearly been taken out by an 18-wheeler on a downhill mountain pass and I once ran over a rattlesnake with it in the Mojave Desert.
My bike has taken me though some astonishing U.S. backwater towns in 100 plus degree heat and then a few hours later up into the mountains and over snow covered roads.
And, just like legendary Western lawman Wyatt Earp, I too once rode into Tombstone, Arizona, on it.
It’s my motorcycle. It drives me nuts at times but it’s been through a lot with me and has now become a part of my life. And for that reason alone I will never, ever sell it.
And my response? Well, it’s like this….
Why I Ride a Slow, Uncomfortable, Unreliable, Noisy Motorcycle
I too ride a motorcycle that is slower than the latest whiz-bang showroom models, but then, its powerplant is a forty-eight-year-old shovelhead which was tractor-engineered at birth and is still virtually box stock. It is smaller than the smallest late-model engine, still fitted with its factory carburetor and cam, rudimentary exhaust and (gasp!) a points-and condenser ignition system! That’s downright barbaric, isn’t it? and especially when you realize that my motorcycle has never had an electric starter. That’s right; kick-start only, kids, just the way Grandpa did!
My shovelhead does have solid lifters – more for reliability and convenience than performance – and a belt-drive primary. However, the belt is for convenience, as well, and whatever low-end performance boost it might have provided has been offset by the 25-tooth countershaft sprocket I installed to regain my highway top-end. My bike is built to go places, but I don’t have to break any land speed records making the trip.
And when I say ‘built to go places’ I mean that in every sense.
My motorcycle is not uncomfortable. It began its life as a 1974 FX 1200 Superglide, with the heavy OEM swingarm frame and lightweight narrow-glide forks. I played with different saddles and handlebars, added highway pegs and a set of wide-glide forks off a 1966 Police Special, but my motorcycle never became truly comfortable on long rides until I switched from the stock swingarm frame to an OEM 1954 rigid wishbone.
I can hear the Greek chorus now, shouting ‘Impossible! Absurd!’ but it’s true, nonetheless. With the rigid frame and a frame-mounted LaPera butt-bucket saddle, I have ridden all over the Central Plains and Rocky Mountain States, from Texas to South Dakota, from Louisiana to Arizona – numerous 500- and 600-mile days, at least one 1000-mile day, a lot of back roads and goat paths and well over a half-million miles all told – and never once regretted converting to a rigid frame.
And if you’re interested, my comfort depended on the way I set the bike up at the start, the way I pack for road trips and the way I learned to ride a rigid-framed motorcycle. It’s different than a swingarm
My motorcycle is not unreliable, either. Despite its origin as a ‘bowling ball bike’ manufactured during the worst of the AMF years at the Motor Company, when factory workers were allegedly sabotaging bikes in order to get back at miscreant management, my shovelhead was never an unreliable machine. In addition, I’ve had my fingers in every subassembly on my motorcycle, from handlebar wiring to wheel hubs, and did my damnedest to rebuild them right. That means plenty of Nylock, Loctite, lock-washers and safety wire, and the systematic removal of anything the bike does not need to function the way I need it to. No chrome covers or extra gewgaws; no colored lights or (shudder) a stereo; not even turn signals.
As a result of stripping my bike down and securing every part on it the best I possibly can, parts rarely vibrate loose. As a result of simplifying every system on the motorcycle the best I possibly can – seven wires for the entire wiring harness, for instance, rather than the seemingly endless coils of brightly-colored 16-gauge snaking hither and yon – I can usually troubleshoot problems with little fuss. As a result of knowing my motorcycle’s innermost workings, I am able to repair all but the most serious breakdowns parked under the nearest shade tree.
Finally, as a result of my efforts, I can count on one hand the number of times in the past 43 years my shovelhead has been forced to ride home in the back of a truck, with fingers left over.
And my motorcycle is not particularly loud, either. Louder than a Prius, yes, but so is a hummingbird fart, and my shovelhead is far quieter than a good many late-model Harleys. It is also a damned sight less irritating to adult ears than the wind-tunnel shriek of many metric sportbikes, whose riders are, ironically, so quick to whine about Harley riders giving them a bad name. Let’s not forget that’s a two-way street, kids.
And you will never find me parked outside some chic café with a lovely open-air patio, rapping on my open exhaust pipes as hapless diners cover their ears, or racing into my neighborhood in the wee hours, setting off car alarms and rattling window glass as I screech to a halt in my driveway. I have this funny thing about treating people as I’d want to be treated, see, and I wouldn’t want some overgrown man-child on his midlife-crisis-mobile destroying my peace and quiet.
See how easy that is?
But what is so compelling about a motorcycle with few creature comforts and only the bare minimum of safety equipment? Why would I choose it over a newer, faster, sleeker model with all the latest whistles and bells, and stick with it for almost four and a half decades?
Well, for me it’s like this:
Recent years have proven that anyone with a large enough credit limit can own a Harley-Davidson, a Victory or ersatz Indian, a Triumph, Moto Guzzi or Ducati, or any of the Pacific Rim brands. A swipe of the gold card, a push of a button, the snick of a gearshift and voila! Instant motorcyclist!
But how many of those men and women can climb aboard a motorcycle with a forty-eight-year-old engine cradled in a sixty-eight-year-old frame and pushing fifty-six-year-old front forks, and do the things I’ve done with it? How many can ride that motorcycle from Denver to Austin in a day after a week of 500-mile days, kickstart that engine on an icy-cold morning in the South Dakota Badlands or a hurricane-drenched night in Houston, or navigate the Black Canyon of the Gunnison with nothing but mechanical brakes and a four-speed transmission between them and the canyon rim? How many can tear down the better part of their bike at the roadside and put it back together again, and actually make it run? How many would even be willing to try?
I know I’m not the only greybeard out here on a rigid-framed dinosaur of a motorcycle. There are plenty of panheads and knuckleheads in daily use here and around the world, ridden by bikers who do every one of the things I’ve mentioned here. However, a lot more peoplecan’t do those things than can, and I really enjoy being part of that smaller circle.
On a Q&A forum I found the following question: What is the point of riding on a motorcycle other than looking “cool.” Are there any physical advantages as compared to a car? I know the old adage says ‘the only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask,’ but the question that poster posed is dangerously close to a stupid question. I borrowed one reader’s answer as a starting point for my own rant.
The ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality. The reality is so, so much more.
Again: the ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle.
It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality. The reality is so, so much more.
Seriously, how do you describe the challenge of leaning into a hard curve on a twisty mountain road in the Colorado Rockies, just a hair’s breadth from the high side that’s gonna hurt like hell if you don’t maintain your line? What words can match balling through the New Mexican desert alone on a star-studded night, with ghost shadows marching across the sands as the chill night air seeps through the seams in your leather jacket? Can language even begin to capture the feeling of blasting through the heart of Dallas on a Saturday evening, twenty or thirty of you in a pack, so there in that moment – so large and loud and alive – that the straights in their cars instinctively move aside to let you pass? How do you tell someone who’s never been there about rocking through a mountain pass on a chilly autumn morning, sun at your back and your best road dog at your side as you crest the Continental Divide and rumble down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Can you make any sense at all of the delight you feel waking up in a rain-soaked tent in Rapid City, South Dakota, on your way to the annual rally at Sturgis, and laughing about it because Who fuckin’ cares? We’re at Sturgis, baby!
And if that’s hard, try explaining how even the ‘bad stuff’ gets good, later. Things like riding through the wake of a hurricane in downtown Houston, water so high on the road that it’s burbling and bubbling at the ends of your exhaust pipes and dousing your ignition system. Things like spending a sleepless night camped on the banks of the Rio Grande, kept awake by the bitter cold and the new traveling companion who neglected to mention that he snores like a fuckin’ buzzsaw.
Things like kneeling in the mud in a pouring rainstorm to help a stranger get his motorcycle started, because the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like facing off with a shotgun-wielding deputy sheriff who is screaming at you and your buddies to get those goddam bikes out of there before he arrests the lot of you, because one of your buddies can’t get his bike started and the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like your buddy suddenly remembering, after twenty minutes of trying to kickstart his shovelhead, that he installed a hidden kill switch as a security device just last week, and Oh, yeah! That’s why my bike won’t start….
….because every biker knows the best stories are the ones that really sucked in the moment.
Are there physical advantages? Well, let’s see…
There’s the fact that you’re out in nature, breathing fresh air, instead of being cooped up in a cage with the air conditioner on, guzzling fossil fuel and contributing to global warming. And let’s remember that motorcycling is not a sedentary activity the way driving a car is, either. The constant shifting of weight and the tensing and relaxing of different muscle groups actually burn calories, really, and help you maintain a healthier body. Add a kick-starter to your machine and you can just about sell your Nautilus!
And for most riders there is also an emotional benefit to being in the wind. You see it in the slogans on biker t-shirts: Four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul; Sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas before I can think straight; and You never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychiatrist’s office. I know that, for myself, nothing can clear the cobwebs and help me forget about a crappy day like some time in the saddle. It’s two-cylinder meditation. My mind is focused on the ride – the shifting of gears, the changes in pavement texture and potential hazards, traffic patterns, the weather, et cetera – and tending to all that frees your mind from the weight you carry.
There are also the benefits of being a smaller vehicle in traffic, in those enlightened states that permit motorcycle ‘filtering’. This is the low-speed lane splitting which allows motorcyclists to work their way through stopped traffic. It gets them where they’re going faster and reduces carbon emissions. It also eases overall traffic congestion, which helps get everyone moving faster, further reducing emissions, et cetera. A real win-win. I just wish the Texas legislature would get on that bandwagon, rather than all the horrid, hateful ones they have seen fit to climb on lately.
Finally, in cities where land is at a premium, and motorists are desperate for parking spaces, motorcyclists require much less space than cars and trucks. If office buildings, colleges and malls would provide secure parking for motorcyclists, they could reduce the demand for parking by the drivers of full-sized vehicles, and again, contribute to lessening carbon emissions, fuel consumption, global warming, and so on.
So, it’s all that and more, and you notice that none of that has sweet fuck-all to do with being ‘cool.’ We ride because we’re riders. We don’t know any other way to be.
As a longtime biker, any mention of motorcycles, riders, clubs, etcetera, intrigues me, so when Bob Dylan mentioned late Hells Angel Berdoo President Bobby Zimmerman (Chronicle: Volume One, 2004, pg. 79), while explaining his own renaming, I went looking for more info. First, I located a photo of the deceased, posted on the Berdoo chapter’s Memorial page:
Dylan apparently had the date of death wrong: He said Zimmerman died in 1964, but Zimmerman’s *Angel brothers have him dying three years earlier.
Then I dug a little further, and found this article, a human-interest item by John Weeks of the San Bernardino Sun, published last fall, in which Dylan claims a spiritual bond with the soul of the dead Angel:
A surprise addition to the local family
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s put our hands together and give a warm hometown welcome to a local boy who has made good, who has distinguished himself as one of the most influential singers and songwriters of all time, a living legend, a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, a recipient of multiple Grammy, Oscar and People’s Choice awards, the one and only, the Inland Empire’s own … Bob Dylan!
Whoa, hold on here. Let’s check our notes.
Says here that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., that he grew up in Hibbing, Minn., that he went to college in Minneapolis, that he moved to New York and became famous, that he later lived in both New York and Minnesota, and that for the last couple of decades he has made his home in Malibu. There’s no mention here at all of the Inland Empire.
Oh, wait, there’s more. Wow, this is new. Says here that Bob Dylan had a bonding experience with the soul of a dead San Bernardino biker, also named Robert Zimmerman, in the 1960s, and that he was transformed into a different person at that time.
An Inland Empire person, evidently.
Is this a joke?
If it is, it’s Bob Dylan himself who is telling it. In public.
Here are his own words, in an interview with Mikal Gilmore that appears in a recent cover story in Rolling Stone magazine:
“When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. … Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.”
That Bob Dylan! What a card! What a kidder!
No, wait. Later in the interview, he starts talking about transfiguration again, and he presses the point. He brandishes a dog-eared copy of the book Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. He cites a chapter in the book that recounts how Robert Zimmerman, the 21-year-old president of the San Bernardino chapter of the Hells Angels, who lived on Walnut Street in San Bernardino, was killed in a 1961 motorcycle accident in Madera County. That accident was a precursor, Dylan believes, to his own motorcycle accident in 1966 near Woodstock, N.Y. The two events were directly related and they completed Dylan’s transformation into a new person, he says.
He can’t be serious about this, right?
Wait, he really is. He goes off on it for a third time during the course of the interview. “I’m showing you a book that’s been written and published. I mean, look at all the connecting things: motorcycles, Bobby Zimmerman. … And there’s more to it than even that. … I’d always been different than other people, but this book told me why. … I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book.”
Well, if he really means it, we should start now to prepare for that hometown concert in the Inland Empire that now seems inevitable. We’ll put up banners. “Welcome home, Bob!”
He can perform in the giant San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, or perhaps he would prefer a smaller arena show, at the Epicenter, say, in Rancho Cucamonga, or the San Manuel Stadium in downtown San Bernardino, or Coussoulis Arena at Cal State San Bernardino. Or, he could do a series of small, intimate shows in theater settings, such as the Glass House in Pomona, or the Fox Riverside, or the historic California Theatre in San Bernardino.
Many towering figures in the music industry do have strong roots in the Inland Empire. The list includes Tennessee Ernie Ford of San Bernardino, Kris Kristofferson of Claremont, Frank Zappa of Rancho Cucamonga, Jimmy Webb and Jim Messina of Colton, Sammy Hagar and Travis Barker of Fontana, and Liberace, Dick Clark and Herb Alpert, all of whom had homes in Lake Arrowhead.
Jazz legend Pearl Bailey, in her retirement, ran a popular guest ranch in Apple Valley.
Singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez both have University of Redlands connections, thanks to their fathers. Raitt’s father, the Broadway star John Raitt, was a University of Redlands graduate. Baez, whose father taught there, writes about living in Redlands in her autobiography, “Daybreak.”
Now, it appears, we must add a new name to the list of musical hometown heroes.
Of course, unlike the others, Dylan neither was born nor raised here, nor did he ever work or go to school here. No, he’s here only in spirit, as the result of transfiguration.
The story is addressed in greater detail by author Grant Maxwell, in a post he describes as “a (slightly modified) excerpt from my forthcoming book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Meaning of Rock and Roll,” which may be seen here:
In that post Maxwell delves deep into the chronology of events, and how Zimmerman’s death ties in not only with Dylan’s own motorcycle crash, but with the entirety of Dylan’s professional career! So, I guess that would make Zimmerman Dylan’s “guardian angel,” right?
Food for thought, if you’re inclined to think along those lines.
* NOTE: In the book Dylan mentions in his interview – Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club – Hells Angel Sonny Barger relates the story of Zimmerman’s death on the ride home from the Bass Lake Run, an annual Angel event immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Angels. However, while on page 70 he gives the same 1964 date that Dylan used, on page 130, again recounting Zimmerman’s death, he writes that Zimmerman died in1962. I can’t explain the discrepancies between Barger’s recollections and the chapter’s official website.
I’ve been doing a little research on songwriter Bob Dylan. Like most riders, I already knew about his mysterious wreck near Woodstock, New York, in 1966, where he dumped his Triumph, injured himself to an unknown degree, and went into seclusion for a while.
However, in reading through books about Dylan, interviews with people who knew him prior to his arrival in Greenwich Village, and his own Chronicles: Volume One (2004) I turned up a few references to Harleys, time spent running with the biker boys in his hometown, even being a bit of a “rough, tough” character. I don’t know how true any of that is, but he apparently did spend some time around riders, as seen in the photos below.
1966, on the Triumph he later wrecked:
I always cringe at this one, because for some reason he’s dangling his feet – not a smart thing to do and goofy-lookin’ to boot!
The passenger below is identified as “Sebastian,” but I don’t who Sebastian is:
I’m not sure of the year – probably mid-’60s – but he appears to be riding a Japanese bike; maybe a Honda:
and in 2004, back on a Harley-Davidson!
One more, of the man on an entirely different kind of bike…
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