Cause the players gonna play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off
—Taylor Swift, “Shake it Off”

Those kids are a bunch of phonies. Walking around New York, L.A. and San Francisco with their long beards and clothing carefully selected to make them authentic and interesting despite their suburban, middle-class upbringing. They think they’re so special, which is ironic, as they all kind of look the same. And just like they ruined food, music and fashion by adopting and discarding trends like gum wrappers, they’ve done the same thing with motorcycles, hacking and destroying beautiful classic bikes to turn them into unrideable abominations. Yep, those hippies that plagued our streets in the late 1960s and early ’70s were pretty obnoxious.

What, did you think I was talking about modern-day hipsters? Nah, when you compare it with other cultural phenomena, the hipster thing has had minimal impact on our Zeitgeist. Hippies, on the other hand, touched almost every aspect of our culture, including motorcycling.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance taught an entire generation how to talk as if they actually knew something about philosophy.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance taught an entire generation how to talk as if they actually knew something about philosophy.

Sure, motorcycles were loud, polluting symbols of the patriarchal fascist-class structure, man, but they also offered a cheap ticket to adventure on the open road, a ticket to finding the Real America. Media reflected the counterculture’s obsession with motorcycles – movies like Hell’s Angels on Wheels and Easy Rider showed youths doin’ their thing without being hassled by The Man, while books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels got the more intellectual side of the brain dreaming of escaping conformity by becoming a rugged solo road warrior.

I’m not going to credit Hippies and other trend-following Baby Boomers for creating demand for motorcycles in the United States far in excess of anything we saw before (or will likely ever see again). Lots of factors did that, including the emergence of cheap and reliable Japanese brands, a huge youth market as well as modern advertising and communications. But the Hippies had a big impact as tastemakers, or at least tastelessmakers. To paraphrase Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction, they didn’t want motorcycles, they wanted choppers.

Choppers, of course, were the original bad-boy motorcycles. Ironically, customizers created choppers and their forerunners, bobbers, in order to extract maximum performance from heavy and underpowered World War II-era motorcycles. They would chop or “bob” fenders, frames and every other component that didn’t make them go, turn, or stop better. That functionality created a distinct and iconic look that was copied and recopied, first by professional customizers and builders like Arlen Ness and Denver Mullins, and then by the unwashed masses.

Those freewheelin’ ’70s dudes weren’t really slaves to fashion, photojournalist and author of Art of the Chopper Tom Zimberoff told me in a brief interview, but built their choppers out of economic necessity.

“Few people [in that era] could afford a new bike,” Zimberhoff told me, “so they’d buy them used or crashed,” fixing and customizing wrecks and clunkers with parts from wherever, including shopping-cart handles. (“They were already chromed and the right shape and size,” Zimberoff said). The counterculture did leave its mark. “They all wanted something unique or special for themselves,” said the author, so the chopper look was a popular route, since it can yield so many variations on the same theme, but café racers were popular as well – it kind of depended on where you lived and the kind of riding you did.

These new bikers didn’t value shiny, perfect paint and acres of chrome the way modern V-Twin enthusiasts do. Choppers from the ’70s can be spotted by their cheap accessories, bad paint jobs and rusty, clunky welds and modifications. “They weren’t pretty, they were rough,” Zimberoff added.

Kawasaki’s Ninja 900 was bought by people with good taste, people who before might’ve had very bad taste.

Kawasaki’s Ninja 900 was bought by people with good taste, people who before might’ve had very bad taste.

I’ve seen my share of bad choppers from that era, and I was quick to dismiss the owners and creators as cheesy guys with Jewfros, Ban-lon shirts and pointy side-zip boots or just smelly, freeloading hippies. But digging down, as I did with Zimberoff, I recognize that these guys just wanted to ride, and as their fortunes improved, so did their taste – by the mid ’80s they were buying motorcycles you’d be happy to ride today. Smooth, fast, good-handling and reliable bikes like the Kawasaki Ninja 900, Honda VFR, BMW K75 or Suzuki Katana. Not a raked-out front end made of rebar or beer-keg gas tank in sight.

So before you go a-hatin’ on your neighborhood hipster as he (yet again) bump-starts his straight-piped CB550 across the street at 11:00 pm, send a little benefit of the doubt his way. Sure, he looks silly with his sparkle-painted open-face helmet and giant beard, and sure, the craptastic ride he paid way too much money for is as well maintained as a Saudi Arabian snowblower. But if he lives long enough to ride it for more than a few thousand miles, he’ll learn.

Yet another hipster handing over a credit card to purchase 350 pounds of Japanese authenticity. Photo by Bob Stokstad.

Yet another hipster handing over a credit card to purchase 350 pounds of Japanese authenticity. Photo by Bob Stokstad.

He’ll learn how to fix his bike by the side of the road. He’ll learn how to patch a tire, he’ll learn how to adjust his valves and carburetor, and he’ll know what kind of oil works best. He’ll know how to lube, adjust and replace a chain and he’ll understand gearing. He’ll learn to feel anxiety when his engine suddenly sounds different 100 miles from home.

He’ll have become a motorcyclist, and he’ll turn from being one of them into being one of us. And he’ll find that what he looks like on the bike isn’t as important as the experience of the ride itself. His old CB will go into the back of the garage, behind bicycles and maybe an old stroller, and though he’ll have good memories of riding it – the adventures he had, the friends he made – he’ll ride a modern, high-functioning bike much more.

Hate Hipsters all you want, but don’t worry about Hipsters ruining our sport, because Hipsters don’t ride. Once you buy a motorcycle and commit to riding it, you’re no longer a hipster – you’re a motorcyclist. And a motorcyclist can’t be a phony.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is the hairiest non-female child born to Haley Joel Osment and Mary Kate Olsen. His rough childhood led him into a wasted life of motorcycle worship and competitive Habitrail design competitions. He’s fairly adept with hamsters.

  • Gary J Boulanger

    Ah, hippies and hipsters. Without them our beloved Bay Area would be so boring. Nice post, Gabe.

  • azi

    Great story Gabe. We can also thank the cafe racer revival (“hipsters”) for keeping the motorcycle industry alive, post Global Financial Crisis – especially when the market stats during the early Noughties suggested all the buyers were the same old customers swapping out their existing bikes, rather than new faces entering the sport.

  • JMDonald

    I talked to a couple of hipsters in Newport once. They were riding beat up Hondas. Their bikes had new tires and what looked like new grips. They said the bought them as wrecks and tore off all the plastic bits. The bikes sounded great. One was a 600 and one was a 650. I don’t know what any of it means but that is what I remember about them.

  • Greybeard1

    We weren’t hippies, we were “freaks”.

    Hippies were too stoned and into flowers and non-violence and sitting around with bongo drums, diggin’ on this and that to even contemplate working on a motorcycle.

    We freaks on the other hand were long haired welders, mechanics, truck drivers, etc.
    (though not necessarily employed or even looking) with tattoos long before they became art du jour who wouldn’t mind living in a van and subsisting on 25 cent burgers, booze & herb and free love if it meant the bike got finished.

    Society and history may view the discrepancy as a minor slight but accuracy counts for points in the long run and you shouldn’t piss us off anyway. We enjoy senior benes now which include a cane to the crotch for your impertinence!

    Peace, man!

    • I dig it, man! I read “Steal this Book,” too. Eat the rich!

  • Zenmon

    If people would just stop being so busy labeling each other and just ride. “Keep calm & just ride & keep calm”

  • QuestionMark666

    Looking at the crop of new bikes [I ride a ’01 Kawasaki ZRX1200R with very few changes from stock], I have come to feel that all the technology has driven the prices of even what should be simple bikes like the Ducati Monster and Triumph Street Triple, or the BMW R nineT above $14,000. I think that’s keeping new riders on 20 & 30 year old obtainable machines and then the insurance costs. A 25 year old 750 is nothing to insure for a 20 something, a new bikes is thousands for full coverage [if financed],

  • Fez

    As much as I liked the article I think the author should have kept his opinion from spoiling his facts. Bad welds,bad paint and cheap accessories ? That sounds more like the stuff I see now. If you didn’t live it, and you didn’t, don’t downgrade what was done in very profession manner by guys who learned by doing like Arlen Ness who was just starting out back then and not the Icon he has become! Do you think the advances seen today all came from corporations. We average American’s are innovators and choppers were truly an American phenomenon !

  • Kirk Harrington

    Aren’t hipsters just nicely dressed beatniks of this century?

  • nobody24

    HUA (Head Up Ass). what a warped HUA USA perspective, how droll.

  • webheadwilks

    Like, how someone can be the biggest dipshit, but if they grow some kind of face hair and buy a harley, they’re cool. NOT

  • jon jon jon jon

    From my experience, 90% of the people I talk to with a cheap 80’s honda or kawa, usually have them because holy shit they are cheap… you can get a decent running fixable bare-bones bike for less than $1k anywhere, they were made well and will run forever.
    IMO Keep your plasticy future bike, it will break down because it got wet and you’ll just bring it to a dealer because you don’t know how to fix it yourself.