Monday, September 06, 2010

Rebels and Romantics

Winding my way across Bethel Mountain Road, I mulled over a conversation my friend and I had the night before regarding the phenomenon of the venerable V-twin motorcycle.

He recently had the opportunity to take a big twin out for a spin on the interstate, and while apparently enjoying the hell out of the noise and the ape-hangers and the visceral thrill of it, he did confirm that it—and here I quote verbatim: “…rode like a paint shaker.”

We pondered the popularity—nay the dominance—of such an inherently discomfort-inducing engine design (two large-bore cylinders, 45-degrees apart, sharing a single crankpin), in the end unable to come to any particular conclusion other than “there’s no accounting for taste.”

However, as I darted in and out of the cool shade on the serpentine road, I vaguely recalled something that shed light on the inexplicably ubiquitous V-twin, and helped me make sense of something that had baffled me for decades.

I recalled that in some indigenous cultures around the world, there is a custom I would describe as “conspicuous impracticality.” Owning something impractical as a status symbol. It indicates someone well-enough off to afford something not utilitarian, someone who is not devoted strictly to the business of surviving day-to-day, someone who has enough excess to afford something frivolous.

I have long made the argument  (disingenuously, no doubt) that the choice of motorcycle is practical, reasonable, rational and pragmatic in the extreme. Yet buried within that sober message is an unacknowledged betrayal, a bit of casual dissembling that denies the irrational passion at the heart of motorcycling. I can make a convincing case for the rationality of motorcycles and motorcycling—but cannot disguise that motorcycling is, in fact, an irrational undertaking of the highest order.

A corollary to my disingenuous argument is the passion with which V-twin partisans look askance at sleekly faired, vaguely insect-like sportbikes. They sneer at ‘rice burners’ and ‘crotch rockets’ as soulless, bland, antiseptic machines wholly without personalities or redeeming qualities, stamped out by robots for robots. Sentiments like “I’d rather push ‘X’ than ride ‘Y’”—that sort of thing.

 I must admit I agree with them to a certain extent.

There is an icy heartlessness in the Teutonic Bauhaus functionality of my third-generation boxer twin sportbike. It is a digital bike, far removed from its analog airhead ancestors, and it roars like an angry sewing machine when provoked. Those who design the public face of sportbikes must temper their aesthetic aspirations against the unrelenting logic of the wind tunnel and the dynamometer. Convergent evolution, forcing the same demands on all manufacturers, pushes all sportbikes into a narrower and narrower pathway, stripping away any real distinctiveness—they all appear somewhat related. I admit to generally having a difficult time distinguishing one marque from another at any distance.

Not so for the brash art deco exuberance of the endlessly customized V-twins, for which the sky is the limit—vis the extreme customization (unto utter unridability) of the “butt jewelry” cranked out by the fertile minds inhabiting the world of the chopper.

The stereotypical posture of “motorcyclists v. society” is one of rejecting staid societal mores, of adolescent rebellion writ large. First codified by  Marlon Brando’s “Johnny” and Lee Marvin’s “Chino” in “The Wild One,” (a fictional exploitation of a real, though wildly sensationalized, and insignificant incident in Hollister, California) this rebellious dynamic was updated for a new generation a decade-and-a-half later by  Peter Fonda’s “Captain America” and Dennis Hopper’s  “Billy.” Different era, different drugs—same rejection of society’s conventions.

Fast forward from the 1969 of “Easy Rider” to 2010: Harley-Davidson holds the largest portion of the domestic motorcycle market; cruisers (H-Ds, plus their endless clones and imitators) dominate the industry.
Having birthed and fledged the “Buell” thought experiment—supplying H-D engines for modern, high-tech, high-performance sport bikes designed and built by motorcycle visionary Eric Buell—H-D clawed Buell back into the nest—and smothered it.

In killing the Buell marque, H-D squashed any possibility of internecine market fragmentation and consolidated its grip on the centerpiece of its brand appeal—its iconic legacy engines, a technology largely unchanged since decades before “The Wild One.”

 But at the same time H-D has risen to the top of the motorcycle manufacturing world, the prices of its products have likewise risen, likely placing them firmly out of reach of any latter day ‘one-percenters.’ Today, the average H-D owner is a white man pushing fifty and pulling down around seventy-seven thousand dollars a year. Financing is the most popular option, and the most profitable part of H-D’s portfolio. If today’s new H-D buyers were asked, like Johnny in “The Wild One,” “What’re you rebelling against?” do you expect they would reply with “…Whaddya got?”

Sadly, I suspect there is not the least whiff of rebellion against the values of society about these latecomers to the game—“Rubbies,” as they are so dismissively known, for ‘Rich Urban Bikers.’ I suspect beneath the officially logoed leather vests and wallet chains and officially licensed do-rags, they are more likely to be the enforcers of a status quo than its upenders.

No, the statement they make is not one of rejection and rebellion against “…whaddaya got?” but instead one of status, of being well-established enough, ensconced in the management class to afford not rebellion but conspicuous impracticality.

Certainly, the rise of the Rubbie has coincided with the rise of corporatist cubicle culture, that fiercely reductionist engine grinding away all that is not practical, pragmatic, purposeful, leaving behind a skeletal right-sized world of beige boxes occupying modular grey spaces. We are all shaped—like those sportbikes in their windtunnels—by the unrelenting demands of a uncaring corporate machine seeking to maximize throughput and minimize overhead.

Meanwhile, the guise (dare I say costume?) of ‘biker’ has been drained of any menace by this dress-up Rubbie charade. Biker garb (like its sibling signifier, the tattoo) may garner a passing notice, but it has long since lost any frisson of danger—of denoting someone you’d best not cross.

While I would never go as far as to actually ride a H-D, (…pause to adjust monocle…) I can certainly appreciate the sentiment. It is the same sentiment that drove the Luddites, that drove the original Dutch saboteurs, that still drives the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites. It is the sense that new technology should not be embraced for its own sake, but that technologies should be critically evaluated and judged for the quality of life they yield.

Will the change make things better? Will we put the time saved to good use? Will we become enslaved by the technologies we embrace? What do we stand to lose? The burden should be squarely on any new technology to demonstrate its improving the quality of our lives—not on us conform and make ourselves fit a new technology.

It is not the black leather trappings of Brando’s “Johnny,” rejecting Eisenhower’s America. It is a more universal statement of rebellion: a rebellion against the juggernaut of mindless technological progress, a throwing down of a fingerless, studded black-leather gauntlet, saying in no uncertain terms “The tide of change stops here!

Well, damn straight, brothers. I’m with you. Let’s ride.

I realize that in the above, I've made a mush of two related ideas. For the sake of my own sanity, vanity and editorial pride, let me see if I can restate things so I might even understand what I'm trying to say: 

  1. The appeal of the V-Twin—which is lost on me—is that it represents resistance to change for the sake of change.
  2. Motorcycling per se is no longer rebellion against the status quo, but has become an  expression of status.
  3. This expression of status, while most frequently expressed via the V-Twin, is not directly related to the V-Twin in and of itself; therefore, I am dancing dangerously close to post hoc ergo propter hoc territory.
  4. Enough bullshit. Let's ride.

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