Thursday, January 06, 2005
A Mouse In The Corner
In 1971 when I lived in California over in the Thousand Oaks area the offices of the late, great Cycle Magazine were located in Westlake Village just up the road a couple of miles from my home. I was connected with UniFilter then as a sales rep, their first one for the L.A. area, and part of my work during my stint with them was to call on Cycle Magazine and the other bike magazines based out in L.A.
As a bike nut and inveterate reader of motorcycle magazines, getting to work around the bike industry, getting to meet the "Big Kahunas" of the bike magazine world was the next best thing to riding. While others merely read Cycle or Dirt bike, and others, I actually got to walk their hallowed halls, listen to their harangues against each other, and learn that really, really talented people can be a little temperamental.
I quickly came to understand a little of the reality about the motorcycle magazine biz and the people who wrote for the magazines. It wasn't really about making tons of money as a writer and receiving the adulation of the motorcycle masses, it was about getting to ride cool bikes for free. The tons of money part wasn't and probably still isn't true.
Some of what I saw was good: Cycle Magazine was populated with people who were genuine bike nuts just like me but smarter and more talented. The not-so-good was discovering that some magazines would put as little as 75 miles on a test bike and then write a feature article about it. All in all though it was a grand opportunity to meet and get to know, just a little, some of the supreme motorcycle journalists of that time, maybe some of the best of all time.
The leading light of the motorcycle press back then was Cook Nielson at Cycle Magazine. I had the good fortune to wander in and out of the Cycle Magazine offices periodically until about 1975. The offices were unimpressive, business-bland just like any other business office but the people that worked in them were doing what is in my opinion and the opinion of others, the best motorcycle journalism ever. I believe that time period between the Floyd Clymer ownership of Cycle and the departure of Cook Nielsen as editor as the best years for Cycle and maybe ever for any motorcycle magazine.
At Cycle, Cook Nielson was funny, candid, sharp tongued, occasionally rude and funny, and set a tone for the magazine that provided fertile ground for Gordon Jennings, Phil Schilling, Dale Boller, Dave Holeman, Jess Thomas and others to express their knowledge and passion for riding in ways that stodgier times or editors would not have permitted.
Later on, after Nielson left Cycle the magazine became more socially aware or sensible. Someone even bragged about it in an editorial one month. I don't think any bike magazine should be proud of being too responsible. Riding bikes is inherently dangerous and deep within the dark little heart of most motorcycle riders is an irresponsible streak. We should all be responsible riders but speed limit signs for example, are merely "suggested speed" signs for most of us. Fiscal responsibility is a good thing unless there is a hot new bike out and you've got bike fever. At Cycle Magazine in those days they knew how to tap into their reader's technical awareness, bike fever, disdain for pretense, and inner urge to push the limits and they did it with lucid writing and a strong sense of what is at the heart of motorcycling.
I got to know the guys at Cycle a little better than the other magazines because they were conveniently close to home and were more willing to put up with a 22 year old bike nut trying to get them to use the new brand of foam air filters from UniFilter. Filtron filters were the name in foam/oil filters then and foam was foam, why change? I was persistent though and Cook Nielson would always accept whatever stuff I pushed at him although not much if any of it ever turned up in the magazine as UniFilter had hoped.
In time the Cycle staff accepted me as an inevitable nuisance and I could get past the receptionist without much hassle and then wander around to people's offices asking questions, trying not to be impressed, but still a little awestruck to be in the inner sanctum of such a very special motorcycle magazine. I was standing out back behind the Cycle workshop area one day and someone asked me to point to an airbox assembly or some such thing laying on the ground. I squatted down, pointed, a photo was snapped, and a few issues later a picture of the airbox with my finger pointing at it was in an article. Wow! Not as good as my crash picture in Cycle World but it was still me and when you're 20-something and bike mad getting any part of you or your name in a major bike magazine was very cool. At least I thought so.
One afternoon I stopped in and poked my head into Cycle technical Editor Gordon Jennings' office to say "Hi." Jennings was probably the prototypical "motorcycle curmudgeon." Nobody since even comes close. He could find fault, analyze, and scathingly or delightedly detail things mechanical and do it all with eloquent words written or spoken. I don't propose here to do any justice here to his exalted place in motorcycling journalism, just to reminisce a little.
That afternoon that I visited, Gordon and I started discussing bikes we'd like to own someday, and honestly, I don't remember a lot about the conversation. As always I was excited to be trading comments with a man so vastly more knowledgeable than I about bikes that I could remember little of what he said. I do recall with some exactness telling him that I'd always wanted a Velocette Thruxton, a silver one with the half fairing. He actually looked surprised, as if I'd just farted in his office. He had a serious voice, a little gravely, and looked at me and said "Young man, you would be a fool to own that motorcycle. It will take all your money and break your heart." He then launch into a minor diatribe about oil leaks, suspension and electrics.
In the early 1990s Gordon got mixed up in a pre-Internet on-line project called "Wheelbase" and we had occasion to speak on the phone for the first time. I recounted to him the story of our conversation in 1970-something and his comment about the Velocette and he responded chuckling "I was absolutely right, of course!"
After leaving UniFilter I did a very short and unhappy stint with Yoshimura Racing in their first attempt at outside sales to dealers. I was perhaps the worst ever at it but then Yoshimura wasn't quite the mega image it is today either. The Yoshimura name and the idea of stocking high priced, low mark up parts were of minimal interest to most motorcycle dealers then. I think I lasted a month, maybe three, before I was fired.
My only happy memories of Yoshimura were getting to meet Pops a couple of times and workshop lunches of Mama-san Yoshimura's curry chicken. Mama-san would bring in a big pot of her spicy chicken and the mechanics would push together some 55 gallon drums, a sheet of plywood was placed on top to serve as the table, and we'd all pig out. Good stuff.
Another Yoshimura memory, a different kind of happy, was riding one of the race prepped Kawasaki Z1's down the Simi Valley Freeway. Someone offered to let me take it for a little spin and foolishly thought I would stay in the industrial park where the shop was located. A Yoshimura race prepared Z1, open 4-into-1 pipe with no baffles, the bike didn't even have a sidestand. Yeah, I'll be careful. Heading straight for the freeway and getting on at the first entrance I simply pinned the throttle and held on until the next exit. I'm not sure how fast I was going since I had neither helmet or goggles on and the wind and general rush made the instruments a blur. Later that year the bike ran something 150 mph at Bonneville on pump gas. I guess I could be a little squidly back then.
One day at the urging of the guy running Yoshimura's US operation I took one of their 800cc kit big bore kits for the Honda 750/4 to the Cycle Magazine offices in hopes that the magazine might do a Honda hop-up article. I'm not sure what had transpired in the past between Cook Nielson and the folks who ran Yoshiumra in the US in those days, clearly some bad blood existed that I was unaware of, so when I handed the box to Cook he dropped the parts behind his desk, yelled at me for suggesting a stupid article that had been done "by every magazine in the world already" and then for good measure took a swipe at the reliability of Yoshimura's parts an issue or two later in Cycle. Cook Nielson was a really interesting man to know then, influential, talented, and extremely good rider, but I would surmise one not with whom a person could always deal easily.
When I bought my beloved 1974 BMW R90S back in late 1973 one of my first stops was the Cycle Magazine offices to show it off. They had been mightily impressed with the R90S when they reviewed it and Cook told me he considered it second in the motorcycle world only to the Ducati 750 Super Sport which he'd just purchased. Nielson walked out the Cycle offices to look at my bike. We talked a about BMW, the things that were unique, the things a little less than perfect, and finally I asked him "Would you like to take if for a ride?" Cook replied almost immediately, "No, because then I would have to let you ride my Ducati and I couldn't stand that." Honesty sans humor. Ouch.
I wish I could say that reading the magazines back then and getting to know some of the magazine people made me the great writer I am today but I'm not a great writer, just one guy rambling out some reminisces about minor events of a long time ago. I re-read a few articles by Cook and some others from those days and I wish I could find half the wordsmithing skills they showed. Those guys made a strong impression on me though and I feel privileged even at this late date to have been able to catch a glimpse of them at work and I still appreciate the time they gave to skinny bike nut bothering them while they were busy doing some of the best motorcycle writing ever.
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"When my mood gets too hot and I find myself wandering beyond control I pull out my motor-bike and hurl it top-speed through these unfit roads for hour after hour." - T.E. Lawrence
An Important reminder from the past:
"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." - James Madison