Thoughts on Easy Rider, biker cinema, and riding and working on a vintage chopper.
I was robbed. It was a gentle robbery. First they asked me to give them $5 to park my motorcycle. I whipped out the wallet and handed them a single bill. In return I received a little green ticket with instructions to place the piece of paper in my windshield. Uh, yeah. At the door they told me that if I wanted to go inside I had to give them $15. Since this is what I came to do, I again unleashed the leather and slipped the elderly gentleman a single bill. I was rewarded with another ticket which would permit me entrance and another single bill similar to the one I had to relinquish for parking. In total they took $20 from me. In return I got two thin pieces of paper and the privilege of entering the 2nd Annual Portland Bike Fest.
Upon arrival I should have realized that something was amiss. After all, this was supposed to be a show dedicated to bikers and their lifestyle. The bike parking area had a few motorcycles parked there. I slid my road worn 1973 Harley Sportster between a shiny Honda Shadow and a pimped out Goldwing. Was this the crowd that I would find waiting for me inside? No, it was a far worse thing than that. The parking lot was a sea of suburban monstrosities. Mini vans, SUVs, and family sedans were packed near capacity into the lot. A few old timers sat out front, road worn faces sucking back cigarettes and telling tales of their travels. I walked up to the turn style, handed another elderly gentleman my ticket, and entered purgatory.
This was the new American motorcycle scene. What greeted my senses shared more in common with the old starving artist fairs than what I had known to be a bike show. Technical proficiency of the craft of motorcycle building was apparent, but the soul had been stashed away in some forgotten shed along side the classics that used to dominate such events. The first bike I saw had a placard next to it, declaring that this was a custom chopper. To its credit, the bike was based on a rigid frame, open belt primary, and had radically long front forks. Did this make it a chopper? The inverted telescopic forks were massive. They were so large that I doubt most women could fit a single hand around one tube. The frame, while forgoing the added mass of a suspension system, seemed to be designed for use by a pair of over weight, middle aged polar bears. One look at the expanse of the seat confirmed this intended use. The mass of the plate covering the outer portion of the open belt primary drive showed that while polar bears me be an endangered species, they wanted something capable of withstanding a direct hit from a high powered rifle. I glanced around the auditorium, spotting several likely candidates of big, white furriness. Which ones had ridden this bike here? I looked again at the motorcycle. Apparently the bears opted for something with more protection, like a Hummer or maybe an armored personnel carrier. The bike had no stone bruises, heat marks, oil stains, or other signs of actual road use.
After passing by several examples of the expanding back sides of the American biker, I came upon something that seemed to tell a different tale. It too bore the description of chopper on its tag, but the builder had the common decency of tacking on the words 'pro-street' before hand. At last, a sign of someone not afraid of revealing that their design was actually a hybrid of styles. The message of the bike was powerful. It was done up with the long, low, pro-street style but opted for a long, thin springer up front like a chopper. They had painted it a dazzling burnt orange with a Confederate flag on the tank and the numbers '01' in dark blue on the sides. Having grown up watching a pair of hillbillies outrun dim witted law enforcement every weekend, the General Lee reference was stark. The devil is in the details, or so they say. Iron Cross valve stem caps and the lightning bolt 'SS' insignia on the points cover clearly eluded to Germany's World War 2 era. By comparing the ideals of the Confederate South and Hitler's Germany the common theme emerged. This was a bike for people who hated Jews and Coloreds. While I could not approve of the sentiment, I appreciated the honesty in this ocean of ambiguity.
While navigating the displays of thick, glossy paint jobs, wide rear ends, and obvious over use of chrome trinkets (Am I talking about the bikes or the people, here? The lines seem to blur.), I spotted a group of young gals. It was obvious that they belonged to some sort of bizarre gang or strange sex cult as they all looked and dressed alike. Each was a blonde anorexic in black vinyl hot pants. below the waist were fishnet stockings at black high heeled platforms. Up top were form fitting micro t-shirts declaring them as 'Bad Ass'. The situation became clearer when I spotted the heavy set, grey haired man with a much larger shirt featuring the same words. Apparently this was some sort of family business, a man pimping his wares. This is Portland, after all, home to what is the third largest legal American sex industry after Nevada and California. I only hoped, for the old man's sake, that this was the colloquial use of 'bad'. Honesty is never the best policy in advertising.
While still searching, hoping to find a Picaso amongst the velvet Elvises, the first act of the day's musical entertainment took to the stage. Tribute bands, by nature, are a curse of the blind masses on those with the sensibilities of a mouse. Once, during a financially difficult time, I purchased a case of ramen noodles. The mice found them, recognized that they were not food, and started to build a nest in the box. I took a cue from the mice and tossed the entire case, vowing to never again indulge in such cheap mockeries. So when a band announced as a tribute to Guns and Roses were brought on stage, my stomach was already turning. To my surprise, they went above and beyond what any normal cover band does when pissing all over songs that some people may have actually enjoyed at one time. They did an acoustic set. No, don't run. Whatever does not kill you surely makes you stronger. Breath in. Breath out. Turn off the sound inputs and focus on the visual. Something here has to be worth the admission price.
There, a few feet from the forty-something tattoo artist with pink dreads and years of living the lifestyle engraved in the folds around her eyes, there was that one thing I had come for. It was a beautiful garbage heap. Low slung rigid early 60's Sportster, magneto ignition, steel plate seat, single rear disc brake, and not a speck of paint anywhere. It was a masterpiece of function and art. In defiance of convention, black exhaust taped pipes were routed to the left side of the bike. A pair of velocity stacked carbs jutted out to the right, feeding into a single pipe before splitting into the heads. The oil drip off of the generator was cleverly disguised as a garden hose faucet. An extremely utilitarian oil cooler was hidden in the shape of a hip flask. Strangely twisting copper tubes fed fluids from their various storage containers to where they would be used. In order to ride this bike someone would have to remove their lower legs and reattach their feet at the knees. It was street performance art for the brave. Polar bears need not apply.
Before total nausea set in I managed to find a couple of other rough gems. One came in the form of a simple bar hopper that borrowed heavily from the stylings of the late, great East Coast outlaw Indian Larry. While a bit over done, one could appreciate that the old school influence had not completely died off. Another was a memorial to the fallen brothers of Oregon's motorcycle clubs. It was assembled using parts from the motorcycles of dead patch holders. The result was a clean suicide clutched rigid framed pan/shovel. It was obvious that this was something greater than the sum of its parts.
When I could no longer handle being crowded by polar bears and families who tuned in to watch Jesse James or Orange County Choppers every week, I stepped back outside to the clouds of cigarette smoke hovering around the door. Only a few years ago when I went to such events, the bikers would light up inside with blatant disregard for posted signs prohibiting such behavior. I couldn't help but think, 'No! Not yet. I am far too young to be talking about the good old days.' Striding through the parking lot, I passed a D.A.R.E. search and rescue vehicle. A woman who had been passed out in the front seat wearing her fishnet stockings and black leather bikini top quickly opened the door. Her head barely cleared the vehicle before she vomited up a chunk mixture of what was mostly beer and some remnants of a meal that never should have happened. She glanced in my direction, mascara smeared around her eyes, and quickly retreated back into the refuge of her vehicular fortress of solitude.
Back in the motorcycle parking area my bike still stood out as a blight in the sea of bolt on customization. The Shadow was now gone. In its place was a simple, low slung Ironhead Sportster. Somewhere in that accumulation of bastardized bike styles and commercialized creations was a kindred spirit. We were a pair of suckers, willingly handing over $20 for the privilege of partaking in the dance of the dead. While one polar bear made grunts and groans at another, attempting to show off the various gadgets and googaws on his giant Japanese sled, a lone wolf howled. All attempts at any other communication were futile. The wolf howled and leapt, running off into the distance. Somewhere back there was another lone wolf. Rather than tracking him down, it was best to leave him as a mystery, more perfect than what I would probably encounter. That way this lone wolf can continue to think that while the pack is busy in-breeding and feeding off of dead carcasses, there are a few out there that still dare to howl at the moon. And maybe that thought is worth $20.You can contact the author of this article at http://votejake.blogspot.com.