Twin Shadow Is a Motorcycle
A piece of prose written for us by George Lewis, JR
Written George Lewis Jr, a.k.a. Twin Shadow
Photography Milan Zrnic
Motorcycles, Ah, Yes…Motorcycles.
This story comes from back in the day, circa 1973.
“My lovely Dominican girlfriend, Ligia, and I were running around Gettysburg, VA, taking in the sights of some Civil War re-enactments. We were on my old BMW 500CC Black Beauty, coming down a mountain road on a fairly steep decline, the straightness of which ended in a sharp, highly banked curve. Just as we reached the middle of that curve, a big old Ford Fairlane, 25 feet long, zoomed up onto our road from a hidden single-lane road below us and to the right. Driven by a chubby middle-aged woman who had no respect for that invention called an accelerator, the Fairlane came upon us! There was no way to avoid her.
“The big chrome-monster front bumper hit the side of Ligia’s right boot and continued on, gashing the BMW’s protruding engine head and then blasting the right crash bar, driving us around the corner and down the next curve. In the heat of battle, thinking we were both going to die, I strained with all my force, and I was a pretty strong guy in those days. The tendons in my neck and arms grasped wildly to hold the bike up, and she was a heavy girl, 550 lbs dry, with an extra load of an over-sized six-gallon tank. I was fearful that we were going down on some nasty gravel, traveling at about 50 miles per hour, even without the lady’s Fairlane giving us a shot of extra horsepower.
“I did it! The bike didn’t go down. We stopped, dazed, straightening the bike to a standing position, waving the clucking lady’s apologies off. Then we headed back down the mountain. We reached the main highway and decided to stop at a 7-11 and get a beer to chill out and thank god for our good fortune.
“It was the end of May, Memorial Day weekend, hot and sunny. Sweating, still trembling, we dragged ourselves inside, parking the machine on its sturdy center-stand. We had the beer and came out to find – yup! – the hot macadam of the parking lot melted unevenly under the center-stand, and the bike fell over. On its right side, ironically.
“It seems as if the bike had had it in its mind that day to fall – but not with us on it. We got married the next month and moved to the Dominican Republic after selling that Black Beauty. Bye, motorcycles…”
These are my father’s words, and that’s my father’s story, not mine, but this story (repeated several times during my childhood at dinner around a large wooden table) became my subconscious lighthouse, guiding me toward the perfect and dangerous machine. The motorcycle.
At some point I began to wonder if the story was true. Could my father be this cool, cruising to Civil War re-enactments in the mountains with Mom on the back? Or was my father simply planting a cautious seed in my young mind, so that I would choose a safer hobby and steer clear of motorcycle culture altogether?
It wasn’t long before I discovered some photographs from a different life. There it was, the proof to back the story. A photograph of my father and his first son sitting on top of Black Beauty, my old man in a tank top and jean shorts, I think. He also sported the same thick mustache that I wear, and wouldn’t shave it off to save the world. The photo looked about as chill as anything I had ever seen. It could have been enough to hook me for life, and nothing anyone could say would sway me.
I had to have one. But being nine years old, at least six years before I could drive a motorcycle legally, I let life take me through its little distractions.
With the help of music, and by seeing how much attention I got singing Boyz II Men tunes in the hallways at school, I almost forgot about motorcycles altogether. Long gone were the days I would spend looking through the motorcycle encyclopedia at the library and drawing bikes all over my book covers. I had moved on to music, and much like the love of the unattainable motorcycle, I spent my time staring at guitar magazines drooling over any and every guitar that I could never afford.
But I believe the idea was always present, subliminally, and when I was around 10 years old or so, I had discovered one of the greatest programs in the world. Somehow I started to be able to sneak from my room, at about 11:30 p.m., into the living room. On Channel 19, waiting for me, was a blonde white lady with the biggest breasts I had ever seen and a black name, or sometimes this small man from god-knows-where with a grating voice and a strange name that fit him perfectly, and they would play films.
USA Up All Night showed movies I had never seen before, starring kids and grown-ups I thought might even live on my block. And if you know USA Up All Night, you know you couldn’t get through many of these movies without seeing some kind of motorcycle scene. A particular scene that rang out was a big black woman riding in Surf Nazis Must Die. That was cool.
Mickey Rourke made a movie that I think was also on this program. The movie was called Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and I am sure the world has forgotten it. I remember the opening scene so well: Fourth of July, my man Mickey staring out the window, lonesome looking, smoking in the doorway. He turns toward the bed, there’s a beautiful naked Italian woman with blue eyes, he says nothing, blows smoke in her direction and gets on his bike and your hear, “I’m a cowboy/On a steel horse I ride!” Bon Jovi and motorcycles, the steel horse! Damn.
Now, shame on me for loving this, but there is something these images do to me that I can’t explain. I somehow turn into a full-on believer when exposed to these films: the bad acting, the bad music, the uncomfortable beauty that comes while watching someone trying to be something so hard – so committed to doing so – and it’s failing and it’s working. It seemed like many of the USA Up All Night movies had the same backdrop. Normal people, mediocre actors, extraordinary situations, with fast cars and faster motorcycles.
Then you have the good biker movies. The Wild One, with Brando, for instance. My father made me watch that after I was talking about how much I loved the remake of The Island of Dr. Moreaux. “That’s not a Brando movie – this is a Brando movie!” I had never seen someone look so hard and soft at the same time. It reminded me of myself, always doing my best to prove something, while inside just wanting to lay down my guns. Always soft on some girl while my friends made trouble or had other things on their minds.
And now what I saw on the screen was an older, cleaner, simpler motorcycle. Somehow it translated as even more tough. It was more eye-catching than crotch rockets – fast, aerodynamic, usually Japanese bikes – or ridiculous macho Harleys and sports bikes I had seen in early ’90s B movies. What I was looking at was a TRIUMPH THUNDERBIRD, the perfect and dangerous machine.
Nothing I had seen after that had piqued my interest as much, but I still sought out biker flicks. My drummer when I was 19, Joe, pointed out that I would love Easy Rider and all the films that surround it, like The Wild Angels and Race with the Devil. Though none of them were nearly as good as The Wild One, I watched with the same excitement. I heard the term Motorpsycho and looked it up, and found a film by a guy named Russ Meyer. That movie really freaked me out, as did watching The Wild Angels. I was shocked to see the recklessness of a young life. I started to think about how my friends and I were similar, smashing things up with no regard for anyone else.
The more I got into biker films, the more I realized the themes of my own life. A group of young people who have no place, no culture, no nothing – except an overwhelming sense of boredom. The need to be called something, so you, they, we get together and call ourselves a gang, call ourselves a band, and do our best to have our own world that just bumper cars up against any other world in its path.
More than this, I saw the main theme. Somehow, the leader of the pack, the guy who fought the hardest, was the smartest, the fastest, the best looking one, the one closest to the rest of the world, the guy who could almost mix in with the other side with all his talents and old knowledge, was the most removed of them all. He still struggled to be something, even after shutting out his past and building his grim utopia up around him. And didn’t I feel exactly like that? Didn’t I, deep inside, feel bad for turning on old friends? Wasn’t I at one time the happy kid, the class clown, the one you could talk to? Then, at some point, without understanding or even seeing it, I found myself seething with restlessness that I couldn’t explain, or maybe didn’t notice, building my gang around me to convince myself that I was a part of something. I began to really identify with these characters, and I began to understand perhaps the true appeal behind motorcycling.
I made a strange friend my first year in Boston when I was 19. Let’s call him Doug. Doug was a weirdo who pretty much lived in the dark. I mean, he literally had no lights on in his house at all times, and lived in a basement apartment (as did I). He was in college, and at some point his girlfriend had left him (as had mine). Not knowing what to do with his spare time when he came home from school, he slipped into a bit of depression, which came with a pretty decent suicide attempt. I was the first call from the hospital. I rushed over to his house and he tossed the keys through the window in the back alley like he always did. I swung through the front door, and found him in bandages on the couch in the dark living room.
Doug wasn’t a person who would cry out. He was a true loner. He loved quiet and dark, but it seemed that without knowing, he had developed a chip on his shoulder, and after his girl left that chip became a huge crack in his heart. He looked around and thought, “I have nothing better to do than die.” I had to come up with something. How do you tell someone who doesn’t give a fuck to start giving a fuck? You convince them to do something stupid or crazy, and you pull the famous “You’ve got nothing to lose, it seems, so why not do this ridiculous thing?”
What I actually said was, “Doug, tomorrow I want you to do three things. You are gonna quit your job because now that the fire department had to break you out of your house to take you to the hospital because your boss heard your goodbye message to the world on your answering machine when you didn’t show up to work, they will treat you like a crazy person, and secretly hope you don’t bring a gun to work. You are going to go directly across the street and start bartending at the gay club because you are a cute skinny white boy with blue eyes, and you are gonna make so much bread. Third, and most important, with the money you get in your first week you are gonna buy a motorcycle!” He said yes to all three, and if I recall correctly, he got the motorcycle not six days later.
In a way, this was my first motorcycle. Doug was daring enough to just jump on Craigslist, find a cheap bike, and ride it home, never having ridden in his life. I can’t say I would have been that brave, but I was brave enough to ask Doug if we could take the bike to a pond where he would let me get on and practice. Finally, I was borrowing the bike while he was away for the summer. I think I had it for a fantastic three months. I promised never to ride with someone on the back, which I did a few times anyways, but mostly it was just me. I took the bike all over Boston and out of town, riding late at night, taking time to be alone.
When Doug returned, the weather started to change and the bike’s cover was stolen. I joined a new band and practice was eating my time. Living in the Northeast and having a bike and no money to store it seemed like a bad situation. I moved to NYC and was coming back to Boston for shows. Doug’s bike started to sit around and gather problems, and Doug wasn’t as generous with it. I needed my own, but I had no job, and I was stuck on a girl, so I had no life. An opportunity came in, a chance to make music for a theater company in Europe with the noise band of some friends. The money for the job was $10,000. All I could think about was that TRIUMPH THUNDERBIRD. For $8,000 I could get a half-decent Bonneville, a less expensive model, and work on it myself.
I signed on with pretty much only that in mind, and for some unprofessional and stupid reason I wasn’t shy about telling my employers. I’m pretty sure my bio in the program for the show read only “George Lewis Jr.: I would rather be riding a motorcycle through the States.” But love and a good time finds its way through your pockets like a gerbil finds its way into every mention of Richard Gere. I met a girl and suddenly wanted to buy expensive clothing and to go out to eat nice dinners. I somehow squandered $8,000 in 12 weeks. The dream was crushed a bit, but I was in love and any motorcycle would do.
The day after I got home, I found a 1978 Yamaha Special 750, black, on Craigslist, for $1,000. It was in Boston. Doug had sold his bike to prepare for a move to New York where he and I would get a place of our own together. I decided I would haggle the price of the bike down from the owner to 800 bucks and spend the rest of my money on a security deposit and first month’s rent for the new place. I was so excited, and I still feel it, even now. I can’t even remember how I got out to this guy’s house in the ’burbs. I just remember the moment he opened the garage door and my very own Black Beauty stood, strikingly, with dark black leather saddle bags on the sides and back. “Can I take it for a spin?” “Sure, just don’t go to far. Yer not gonna run away with my bike, are you?”
I took the bike down the street and I got so lost in it, I really did almost forget to come back. I must have been gone for 45 minutes or so, seeing how fast I could get it to go on a long straight street, zipping around corners, and honking the large horns that ran parallel to the front forks. I brought it back and talked the guy down to $750 somehow. I think his wife really wanted that thing gone. I noticed some new babies in the house and that’s usually a sign of someone being forced to give it up.
I rode it home in the freezing cold – I am resisting the urge to say “I rode her home” – since it must have been the middle of November. The leaves of fall had changed and they all seemed to fall at once. I stared directly at the sky instead of the road, wincing, the cold breeze cutting into my face, the leaves forming a cloud of flapping orange above me, my gloveless hands gripping hard on the handlebars. My right hand was gripping so tightly that I was pulling back the throttle as far as it could go without noticing. I pushed towards Boston at a speed no unlicensed biker should go on an old machine that you hardly know. I remember thinking that the sky had never been this pale, and noticed that it still carried a rich blue. I remember looking into car windows and watching people stare as I overtook them. I remember feeling so perfectly alone.
I took a moment to study the ground directly under me, the white lines blurring as two guiding strips pointed me toward the city, where I was sure that things had changed. I pulled into Boston and saw the same scenes. I rode to meet an old friend who sat around bored, rode to a show and found that my favorite band had no new songs and realized that I had no new music to give the world. But the important thing was that I had found the way out.
I had a week before moving Doug’s entire life to NYC in one trip, the both of us on the motorcycle – a story for another time. I spent the time getting lost on my bike, filling the tank, driving, tapping to see when I was close to empty, and then heading home. Doug and I once rode to a poetry reading where we got drunk and took a pretty girl for a ride – all three of us on the bike. Young, reckless souls in the snow, under the shadow of Boston’s plainness, trying desperately to excite someone or something.
Once I was in New York, I felt the real freedoms of the bike – not needing the subways, parking almost anywhere. My love from Copenhagen visited and we took the bike to Coney Island, her helmet silver, mine black. I did wreck once, and got lucky like my father, but I never took the girl to Virginia to see a Civil War re-enactment. I bet she’d like that.
HAIR BY ROZ AT BUMBLE & BUMBLE
GROOMING BY JESSI BUTTERFIELD
GEORGE WEARS SHOES BY RACHEL COMEY
THANKS TO ALOHA RAG, ASSEMBLY NEW YORK, AND MARLON GOBEL
PRODUCTION ASSISTANCE BY KOREY VINCENT