This is ironic, because although riding is usually a solitary experience -- even when you have a passenger you are mostly alone with your thoughts -- the social aspect of motorcycling is what for many of us transforms it into a lifestyle. We have all separated our social lives into two camps: those who understand motorcycles and share our passion, and those who don't. If you're like me, you have more fun and feel more comfortable with the first group. You don't have to explain why $14,000 for a new MV Agusta is cheap, or why it makes perfect sense to bring your oil-dripping racebike into the living room.
However, some of us take this partitioning of our lives to a whole other level. Hunter S. Thompson wrote a magnificent book about this phenomenon. It's called Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and it details the history, problems, triumphs and day-to-day lives of the Angels in the Northern California of the mid-Sixties. It's not a great motorcycling book because of the descriptions of murder, drugs, rape and other mayhem -- although it has plenty of that, oh yes indeed -- but because it casts a sympathetic eye on a bunch of guys who (to quote the 1966 film The Wild Angels) just want to "be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man." If the Angels sell drugs, steal motorcycles and do other bad things (always constrained by the Angel's own loose code of ethics), it's not because they're bad people, it's because they want to ride their motorcycles without being judged, arrested or otherwise limited. And while we, as "good" people understand that we have to moderate our behavior and fit in to some extent with the rest of society, sometimes we don't really want to, do we?
Choppertown: The Sinners examines the lives of a Southern California motorcycle club called the Sinners. Like the Angels, they organize their lives around building, maintaining and riding their motorcycles, using them as both a nexus of their social lives as well as transportation. Shot in high-quality video, the 93-minute documentary has no narrative, instead using interviews with the featured characters to tell the story of how the whole club pulled together to build fellow Sinner Kutty Noteboom a new chopper from inexpensive, cast-off components, and by doing so paints a picture of the bond a group of like-minded men can develop.
It's fun to watch the bike take shape in Sinner Rico Fodrey's shop somewhere in the industrial wastelands of Orange County, CA. They start with a $100 Paughco frame they found somewhere and go about rounding up the rest of the stuff they need. It's collected bit by bit; an unusual swap-meet oil tank had for $5, some auto-parts store exhaust tubing, and a motor that was once on display in a Harley-Davidson shop. What makes a custom motorcycle special for these guys isn't the purchasing of expensive aftermarket parts or the hiring of some big-name custom builder. It's the time and energy of people they personally know doing a favor for a friend. One guy does painstaking custom metalwork, another sources a gas tank. Everything is paid for with beer and manly displays of affection. The bike, once complete, looks a lot like the other club member's bikes: skinny-tired hardtail customs with drag bars, peanut tanks and sprung saddles. They sport the barest minimum that a motorcycle should have, with tiny lights, kickstarters, and no front brakes or much in the way of electrical systems. These guys aren't exactly innovative, as everything they do could have been done by their grandfathers in their machine shops and garages 50 years ago.
"But that orthodoxy is exactly how these guys express themselves; eschewing the cosmetic and performance improvements others enjoy because those improvements offer nothing to improve their lives."
What they like to do is build "old-school"-style choppers and ride them around at freeway speeds. What does the latest engine, chassis and braking technology offer them to improve that experience? Nothing. Many of them don't even have motorcycle licenses and none of them wear much in the way of protective gear aside from jeans, boots and t-shirts with obscene slogans on them. For the Sinners, riding isn't about cornering or improving riding skills; it's about enjoying the unique mobility and freedom a motorcycle provides.
Choppertown isn't the most riveting or exciting film about motorcycling I've seen. That honor would probably go to On Any Sunday or Faster. It drags a bit in the middle with pointless footage of Sinner Jason Jessee's bizarre antics at his Auto Modown shop/museum, and a lot of it seems to focus more on how cool these guys are with all their tattoos and slicked-back hair and prison-gangster fashion.
But these are just distractions from the point of the film; men need that close bond that develops when they have a common goal and focus, a relationship past just making money or rooting for the same sports team.For the Sinners -- and you and me -- motorcycles provide that glue for social relationships, and I like to think it's as tough an adhesive as that which forms between combat veterans or even lovers (Sean, don't get any ideas!).
Choppertown: the Sinners illustrates this bond with originality and style, and spending 93 minutes watching it is as good a thing to do as any.
Except wrenching on your ride with your buddies.
Choppertown: the Sinners (2005) is a documentary film by Scott Di Lalla and Zack Coffman. 92 minutes, color. Also available is Choppertown: From the Vault, with two hours of extra footage from the documentary project. You can order online or by calling (866) 362-4499.