Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This just in: Motorcycles aren't that hip!

Dear hipsters: Having been inspired by the crass commercialism of the holiday season, I’ve decided to chronicle a few high-priced entry points our peers use to prove their hip credentials, starting today with motorcycles. Here’s a brief history of the biker culture, and even a little advice for those seeking a quick route to hipness on a hog.
Any suggestions for future hip topics? Leave a comment or email me at And enjoy…

Subculture: BIKERS
Notable Quote: “Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba.” - Hunter S. Thompson
Date of Birth: Road warriors aren’t born. They’re built out of busted spare parts.
Icon(s): Anything you can slap the words “Harley” or “chopper” on.
Stuff You Have To Own: A fully-stocked Snap-On tool truck to follow you around.
People/Things You Have to Know: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Thompson; Easy Rider; American Chopper, on the Discovery Channel.
The Beginning of the End: When your bald uncle Earl quit his job at the brokerage, divorced Aunt Mae, and bought a Fat Boy.
Worst Gross Corporate Spin-off: The limited edition “Orange County Chopper” trim package on a Dodge Ram. Fifty grand for a pickup truck? A male-enhancement drug prescription would have been cheaper.


Dude, don’t even bother. Seriously, bro.

You ain’t the first guy or gal to think that owning a crotch rocket is the fast track to hipness. Shoot, you’re not even the ten millionth. You might have had an outside shot, all the way up into the early 90s, when there was still a gritty grain of truth to the classic biker archetypes: unwashed, leather-bound mercenaries; shaggy, dope-lovin’ hippies; freedom-loving vets and wild children, all rolling down the sun-burned asphalt on their American-crafted hogs, POW banners and freak flags rippling in their wakes. But that’s all dead now.

Blame Mrs. Bamman. I sure do.

But first, a little history.

Rebel Without a Helmet: The Alpha and Omega of Hip Biking

It all began, lo those many decades ago, after the war. The big war, that is - the one they call Double-you Double-you Eye Eye. A generation of young toughs went off to biddy battle and returned hardened, horny, and hungry for wide open spaces and loud noise. This isn’t true of all those granddaddy bikers, of course: a lot of them were simple no-goodniks raised without respect for any laws that weren’t physical. Real men, who understood the operation of a shovelhead Big Twin engine better than they could fathom the mechanics of a white-bread society that watched The Donna Reed Show and read Good Housekeeping. Inevitably, they banded together in gangs. Some did it to look out for their brother man and share in the hip magic of wanderlust. Some did it just to have backup while enjoying a good bender or a beat-down at the road stops.

Now, it’s true that the American motorbike renaissance was underway long before America liked Ike. But between 1947 and 1969, several key events cemented motorcycling’s reputation as the hip activity of the late 20th century. These include:

1) The Hollister Invasion. It was just two years after the Big One ended that the inhabitants of this sleepy little California town met the Great American Biker Gang – and pooped their collective pantaloons. A handful of rowdy boys on hogs rode in, drank a few saloons dry, and popped a few wheelies. Life magazine did a photo montage on the Hollister ruckus, portraying the biker gang as a greater danger to young America’s virtues than your typical nude communist horde. (Incidentally, this West Coast burg’s hand-wringing orgy is probably the big reason there’s now an Abercrombie-owned retail clothing franchise for teenybops named, oh so originally, Hollister. Remember! Hollister Invasion? Hip. Hollister Clothing Company? Burn that mother down.) On the plus side, biking culture exploded after Hollister, and even gave us one of history’s hippest films:

2) The Wild Bunch. This was Hollywood’s over-the-top interpretation of the Hollister incident, complete with a sneering (and amazingly skinny) Marlon Brando. The key here is to remember that everything and everyone Brando ever did was hip, at least up until around 1975, when he apparently decided to swallow Dom DeLuise and Zero Mostel whole. The Wild Bunch, though, was a hip revolution in its own right: it created the myth of the mysterious renegade rider who, when asked what he was rebelling against, simply replied, “Whuddya got?” It also gave birth to an entire genre of gloriously bad biker movies, the sort of campy pulp fiction that made Reefer Madness look like public broadcasting.

3) Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was just another gentle freak with a steno pad and no permanent address until he penned this exposè article and a book of the same name – a project for which he endured several life-threatening pummelings at the meaty hands of the biker gangs he was investigating. Now, for reasons that will be made clear a later blog on Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson was the hippest mother ever to walk erect under that star we call a sun. Therefore, anybody who kicks the living crud out of Hunter is, ipso facto, hipper than hell.

4) Easy Rider. This movie, released at the drug counterculture’s shining apex, not only gave biker culture its widest audience of all time; it convinced America that the laid-back, pot-crazed hippie could ride, too. It also drew national attention to the gathering “chopper” craze, whereby perfectly adequate Harley-Davidsons were chopped down, rearranged, and prettified to enhance the rider’s sense of individual style. We should also give it credit for popularizing the “sissy” bar, a clever device to help hold more cargo and keep your riding partner from falling off.

In spite these watershed moments, however, motorcycle hipstasy suffered a series of terrible shocks in the late 1970s. First, the hardcore gang bikers were getting either too geriatric to balance their Roadsters or too rusty serving prison time for their special crimes. Second, thanks to those industrious Japanese, the faster, stylish sportbike – forever after known as the rice burner or the ninja cycle – began to supplant the traditional dirt bag’s heavy cruising chopper.(Note: If you want to be hip, avoid sportbikes at all costs. If, however, you aspire to be Asian, Eurotrash, or a fire academy washout who has not yet come out to his techno girlfriend, then by all means, do it up.) Third, even as the entire motorcycle industry suffered a steep decline in sales, motor enthusiasts of all ages and means arrived at a stunning conclusion: the Harley had become an unreliable piece of crap. Those few chopper-crazy gearheads left standing in this era were in serious danger of failing the hiptitude test.

Harley-Davidson and the Marketing Man

But then, as we all know, something happened to the hog on its way to the trash heap. What was this juggernaut, this major miracle of motor sports?
In a word:


That’s right. When the soon-to-be Guv’nur reprised his role as a gun-toting, lazy-tongued automaton in Terminator 2 (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like being a Republican), his Best Actor in a Supporting Badass Role was his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Over the next few years, Harleys and choppers experienced a popularity explosion.

Sure, it’s a little ironic – all that fuss over a machine… brought on by a movie in which machines are man’s mortal enemies.

But no matter. Harley-Davidson and the chopper culture soon became undisputable icons of Americanismo. If you wanted a piece of the US of A to call your own, all you needed was a Harley-built bike.
Or a Harley keychain.

Or a Harley t-shirt.

Or Harley floor mats for your Toyota Prius.

Which is great, because flea market schlock with the Harley logo is about all most Americans can afford. You can still conceivably grab an old 883 on e-Bay without putting up your youngest offspring for collateral, but that’s about all that’s within reach of us lowly mortals. Which brings us to the biggest reason why Harleys are no longer hip, the reason I mentioned Mrs. Bamman, my high school AP Calculus teacher:

Yuppies love Harleys. Darned dirty yuppies.

You know the sort of person I mean. The one whose experience with a tuning fork doesn’t extend past middle school band practice; the guy who, if he ever uses the term softtail in conversation, is referring to his wife’s rump before he broke down and wrote a check to the Pilates studio. Stockbrokers, publishers, lawyers. And, yes, schoolmarms like Bamman, a disciplinarian who used to wear her Harley boots and Harley jacket to school before cruelly drilling us on derivatives and integrals and areas of conic sections. Which is great for her, really. I mean, she used to go to Daytona and Sturgis with her husband, and the whole, expensive hobby was obviously within her family’s means. But I never made that much money as a high school teacher, and I don’t entertain the illusion that I’d have been hip if I did and I blew it on a V-Rod.

Is this a little unfair to the few endangered, garden-variety, mouth-breathing highwaymen that remain riding after all these years? A little, perhaps. But they know better than most that the industry doesn’t need them as much as it used to.

Likewise with the chopper-customizing phenomenon, which was spurred on by the reality-TV phenomenon, which was spurred on by the blithering-idiots-with-televisions phenomenon.

Thanks to that shameful spiral, you can now spend your hard-earned leisure time watching true maestros compose bikes worth as much as houses, then run out to buy junk with the maestros’ logos on it as a pathetic substitute for buying the bike itself.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesse James, Indian Larry, the Teutul boys, and whoever’s monopolizing the Discovery Channel now, they’re all master craftsmen. And they’re hip as hell.

But you? You’re so not.

Okay, okay. if you’re still keen on achieving hip-ocracy with a bike, bear in mind the following rules of thumb:

1) If you build or repair bikes, then bully for you. You just might be hip.

2) If you build custom choppers, then you can be mondo hip. But only if you adopt a campy moniker, like Jesse or Indian Larry.

3) If you buy a chopper, then you are too frigging rich to be hip under most circumstances. Exceptions only for those who made their fortunes as tattooists, certain hip musicians, mechanics, or side-show participants.

4) If you own one of the following bikes and it was made before 1990, then you are hip: BSA, Indian, Norton, Triumph, Vincent, Harley, or Honda. If you own all of the above, then you are Jay Leno or Keanu Reeves, and you are indeed hip as heck.

5) If you own a Honda Gold Wing, you can still be hip, but only if you:

a. are over 55;

b. intend to never drive over 30 mph; and

c. are excited by the idea of blocking all the poor shlubs behind you for the entire length of the no-passing zones on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

6) If none of the above rules apply to you, then you are virtually hopeless. My advice to you?
Visit your Harley dealer. Buy the shirt. Then burn it.

That’s a little hip.


Mary Leslie said...

One of my favorites...

Anonymous said...

wicked awesome although I only skimmed through it. I still have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance waiting for me in Serbia (or Montenegro). I tried reading it at the beach but the sea kept calling me. Plus sunscreen kinda got in the way.


Anonymous said...

Wild Bunch??

Its The Wild One and Brando rode a Triumph

Anonymous said...

Cafe racers dude... Cafe racers...

Anonymous said...

i just sold my '76 yamaha for an '82 honda..

i'm officialy hip .. go me