Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 22, 2009

Frederick Seidel

Filed under: literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 6:38 pm

Frederick Seidel

In the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine (unfortunately behind a subscriber’s firewall), there’s a terrific memoir about motorcycles by somebody named Frederick Seidel. As someone who owned a bike back in 1965, the topic remains of great interest to me. Even after close to a half-century, I still have vivid memories of riding my underpowered Czech-made Jawa along country roads near Bard College. As I read through Seidel’s article, it struck me that nobody has come nearly as close to describing the potent experience of motorcycle riding:

By now I had moved on to other motorcycles, a very fast Honda 750 and then a Suzuki 250cc two-stroke, the latter a spry, light, dangerous thing that my friend Jeremy Chisholm had won in a poker game. Chisholm was terrified of it and begged me to take it off his hands. My first bikes were all of the sit-up kind, comfortable for riding around town or on the highway. You sit up as you do on a normal nonracing bicycle. The other kind of motorcycle is one with abbreviated handlebars—called clip-ons—high-set footrests, and a seat mounted rather far back, behind a longish gas tank, so that when you ride you assume the posture of a jockey on a racehorse when he leans down low and gets his face close to his horse’s neck. You ride this kind of motorcycle with your weight on your arms and wrists, your back a bit curved, not the most restful position. Serious sport bikes and all racebikes are set up this way, though in addition racebikes are monoposto, a single seat with room for only one person, the racer himself. I bought an English sport bike called a Rickman Metisse. The word métisse means mix or mixture or mongrel in French. This bike was a mix but not a mongrel, not if the word “mongrel” suggests ratty ugliness. It had a dazzling nickel-plated frame made of hollow Reynolds 531 tubing, which held the oil for the engine. The engine was a Triumph 650 Bonneville. When the engine was warm, the oil got hot and the oil-holding frame got very hot.

His prose style was so elegant that I decided to find out more about Seidel upon finishing the article (contact me if you want a copy.) It turns out that he is one of America’s most respected poets. Not only that, he is sympathetic to the left just as Robert Lowell—a major influence—was. Here’s an excerpt from a review of his recently published “Poems 1959-2009” by Dan Chiasson in the New York Review (once again, behind a firewall but I would be happy to send you a copy on request):

Seidel was born, in 1936, in St. Louis. The family business delivering coal and ice had prospered. The Seidels owned a coal mine in West Virginia. Whatever was happening in that mine was very far from what was happening in the Seidels’ parlor. Among the most memorable things in his first book, the blasphemously titled Final Solutions, is this passage, spoken by a mine boss, from “The Coalman”:

I see me and the miners, the drivers,
And some poor nigger customers
Who can’t buy the smokeless fuel
Eating our soft coal whole,
And vomiting and vomiting slick eels
Of blackness. I can see this.

Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain. In a recent poem about September 11, “The War of the Worlds,” scenes from the cosseted world of Seidel’s childhood are spliced into footage of the towers collapsing. The doe-eyed child and the postmillennial chill “war” each other, as do (in the paranoid terms of our paranoid time) the Western “world” and whatever “world” we designate as its antagonist. (Of course the title also refers to Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds, the farcical precursor of September 11, which aired in 1938, when Seidel was two):

The child stands at the window, after his birthday party,
Gray flannel little boy shorts, shirt with an Eton collar,
St. Louis, Missouri, sixty years ago,
And sees the World Trade Center Towers falling.

The shorts and the collar owe too much to Lowell. But Lowell, who wrote beautifully about both family life and historical calamity, mostly kept the two zones from overlapping. Seidel wants them to overlap, and he wants everything inside those zones to collide.

Lowell was Seidel’s early benefactor, choosing his first book for a prize. Seidel had met Pound at the age of seventeen; through Pound, he met, and charmed, T.S. Eliot in London. He was what someone said of Nixon: “an old man’s idea of a young man,” refined, erudite, ironic. Which is precisely why Lowell, who had only recently given up that very role, was such an attractive—and such a hazardous—early model for Seidel, as every critic has noted and as anyone who first bones up on Lowell’s Life Studies before trying Final Solutions will detect:

Pictures of violins in the Wurlitzer collection
Were my bedroom’s one decoration,
Besides a blue horse and childish tan maiden by Gauguin,
Backs, bellies and scrolls,
Stradivarius, Guarnerius, Amati,
Colored like a calabash-and-meerschaum pipe bowl’s
Warmed, matured body….

(“Wanting to Live in Harlem”)

Here’s some more insights into Seidel from the April 8, 2009 NY Times, which fortunately is not behind a firewall.

In the autumn before his Bar Mitzvah, the 12-year-old made a discovery. In the Oct. 25, 1948, issue of Time, Seidel saw a review of Ezra Pound’s long poem “The Cantos.” The unsigned article offers little enduring interest as journalism but provided Seidel with his first exposure to Pound’s verse, lines of which the review quoted, including some from “The Pisan Cantos,” written while Pound was detained in Italy by the U.S. Army during World War II:

What thou lovest well remains,

the rest is dross

What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage

“That did it,” Seidel told me. “I had a moment of — shall we call it revelation? — age 12 and understanding that this was what I was meant to do — and would do. Like that. So I set about doing it, in a very uncoordinated 13-, 14-, 15-year-old way.”

Seidel’s first private steps on the road to self-knowledge went through the poetry of others: T. S. Eliot, Dante and Pound above all. “I got a great deal from reading Pound,” Seidel told me. “That was a major education. He gave me some sense of the world of literature, some sense of the parity of work from different ages. You tried to understand what was the excellence that you could make use of.” Seidel’s public soul-seeking was quite different. By 13, he was stealing his father’s cars and sneaking off to black nightclubs to hear jazz; at 14, he was answering only the questions on exams that interested him in school; and by 16, he was deceiving his parents into letting him travel alone with a friend to Mexico during a summer vacation, searching for adventure and finding it, but also catching hepatitis along the way, landing him back in a St. Louis hospital for three adventureless months of recovery.

When Seidel arrived for his freshman year at Harvard in 1953, he should have been thrilled to put St. Louis behind him. And yet: “I got to Harvard and was ready to leave Harvard, right away. I got on The Advocate” — the college literary magazine — “and it seemed . . . childish. I thought I made a mistake not going to Cambridge or Oxford.” Uncertain how to proceed, Seidel sought out Ezra Pound. At the time, Pound was incarcerated in Washington at St. Elizabeth’s ward for the criminally insane. “I wrote him and sent him a poem and said, ‘If it’s worth your while it’s worth mine.’ ” Pound wrote back, and Seidel visited at Thanksgiving, thinking he’d go for a day or two. “I stayed a week at least, met Mrs. Pound, saw him every day. I got him to read. I’d never heard Provençal, I’d never heard Cavalcanti. It was lovely. He’d throw his head back and recite in his sonorous voice. It was very purging, very much giving me the feeling that something was being passed on. He gave me that. It was very nice. Very kind.”” Once Seidel returned to Harvard, however, Pound began sending him letters that were anything but kind. “He argued very strongly that I needed to stay at Harvard, that it was important for Harvard that I stay, and that led to the reason I stopped conversing with him.” Pound wrote Seidel a note saying that it was up to him to save Harvard from the university’s Presbyterian head, Nathan Pusey, whom he accused of liking Jews too much, using an anti-Semitic vulgarism. “I explained to Pound that this just wouldn’t do. So that was it with Pound.”

Despite my obvious identification with the beat generation, I had a great affinity with the more formal poetry of the earlier generation. I was a protégé of Robert Kelly, a prototypical new poet influenced by Robert Duncan at Bard College, but was just as close to Anthony Hecht who would eventually become Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. Born in 1923, Hecht was often grouped with poets like Robert Lowell, whose liberal politics he shared as well as his formal elegance. Here’s a Hecht poem titled “Prospects” that is as well-crafted as a Faberge egg:

We have set out from here for the sublime
Pastures of summer shade and mountain stream;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

Is all the green of that enameled prime
A snapshot recollection or a dream?
We have set out from here for the sublime

Without provisions, without one thin dime,
And yet, for all our clumsiness, I deem
It certain that we shall arrive on time.

No guidebook tells you if you’ll have to climb
Or swim. However foolish we may seem,
We have set out from here for the sublime

And must get past the scene of an old crime
Before we falter and run out of steam,
Riddled by doubt that we’ll arrive on time.

Yet even in winter a pale paradigm
Of birdsong utters its obsessive theme.
We have set out from here for the sublime;
I have no doubt we shall arrive on time.

It makes perfect sense for Seidel’s piece to have appeared in Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to for about three decades. It was edited for most of this time by Lewis Lapham, a patrician leftist like Seidel and also, for that matter, like Gore Vidal. Harper’s is sort of the FDR to the Nation Magazine’s Obama today. As has been noted, FDR felt no need to defer to his class when he was so sure of how to protect their long-term interests. Edited from the standpoint of the patrician left, Harper’s prefers scandalizing the rich to flattering them.

You can listen to Frederic Seidel reciting his poems here: http://www.nybooks.com/podcasts/

22 Comments »

  1. This is a charming and thoughtful piece.

    Why I come back.

    Comment by Grumpy Old Man — October 22, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

  2. The part of Seidel’s Harper’s piece about the enchantment of being caught in a headwind in a small plane standing still over the ocean had me seeing all of it as if I was there. The intensity of the experience, its beauty, and the adrenaline beneath the enchantment caught my eye when I browsed the new issue.

    Also, the making of a fetish, but not of the Piper, it not being an airplane whose autograph one would seek.

    Had to read those parts to my wife.

    Comment by Glenn — October 23, 2009 @ 3:16 am

  3. […] don't miss Proyect's mini-biography of Seidel; it's a lovely read, too. You can find it here. –Stefene […]

    Pingback by Frederick Seidel in Harper’s This Month | Saint Louis Mo. Entertainment and Attractions — October 24, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  4. This is a wonderful remark, Louis:

    “Seidel never got over the fact that remote misery could be laundered into money and converted into the pleasing objects of his prosperous childhood. It’s made him an expert on two things: luxury objects and human pain.”

    It points to a deep split in many peoples’ souls, who need beauty but can’t ignore ugliness. I just ordered Karl Bohm’s Beethoven symphonies from Amazon and I feel guilty on about four levels (Bohm was an ardent Nazi, and I’m screwing a local music store who could have ordered it at twice the price), yet I can’t wait for them to arrive.

    Comment by jean jacques — October 25, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

  5. Nice post and an interesting discussion. You may enjoy my memoir Big Sid’s Vincati. I give it a shot (more than one, actually!) at evoking the appeal of motorcycling in that book. Also has a anecdote of some length about my encounter with Thom Gunn and, a brief quip from Saul Bellow. If you check my book, let me know what you think.

    http://www.jaylenosgarage.com/video/clips/big-sids-vincati/1154346/

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/14/fathers-sons-and-motorcycles/?pagemode=print

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — October 28, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  6. Interesting that you mention Gunn. I told my old friend and chess partner from Bard College on Sunday that the only other motorcycle riding poet I knew of was Tom Gunn, who did a reading at Bard in 1961 in leather. Gunn, like Seidel and Hecht, was a formalist and a damned good one.

    Black Jackets
    by Tom Gunn

    In the silence that prolongs the span
    Rawly of music when the record ends,
    The red-haired boy who drove a van
    In weekday overalls but, like his friends,

    Wore cycle boots and jacket here
    To suit the Sunday hangout he was in,
    Heard, as he stretched back from his beer,
    Leather creak softly round his neck and chin.

    Before him, on a coal-black sleeve
    Remote exertion had lined, scratched, and burned
    Insignia that could not revive
    The heroic fall or climb where they were earned.

    On the other drinkers bent together,
    Concocting selves for their impervious kit,
    He saw it as no more than leather
    Which, taught across the shoulders grown to it,

    Sent through the dimness of a bar
    As sudden and anonymous hints of light
    As those that shipping give, that are
    Now flickers in the Bay, now lost in sight.

    He stretched out like a cat, and rolled
    The bitterish taste of beer upon his tongue,
    And listened to a joke being told:
    The present was the things he stayed among.

    If it was only loss he wore,
    He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion,
    Complicity and nothing more.
    He recollected his initiation,

    And one especially of the rites.
    For on his shoulders they had put tattoos:
    The group’s name on the left, The Knights,
    And on the right the slogan Born to Lose.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 28, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  7. Interesting story about the Jawa, Lou.

    A decade later in 1976 as a 15 year old latch-key red diaper kid who liked to read books about bloody strikes at the IWW hall across from the Biograph theatre in Chicago, I managed quite stealthily to pilfer $800 from a drop pouch at the A&P where I worked as a unionized bagger. I immediately used my score to buy a 1974 Yamaha RD350 parallell twin two stroke, one of the fastest bikes ever made (and still raced all over the world to this day).

    Nevermind that I didn’t even have a driver permit or that in Illinois it was illegal for anyone under 18 to ride a motorcycle with a displacement larger than 175cc. I had exceptional hand to eye coordination and 10 years of bicycle riding experience so it was time to upgrade from that French made Urago 10 speed with sew up tires.

    Unfortunately Chicago doesn’t have any country roads until you get past Northwestern University. So riding an RD around the neighborhoods was akin to being a footsoldier in a tank assault. Nevertheless I could easily hit 90 mph in sixth gear on narrow side streets or in long alleyways, young fool that I was.

    The RD was the 1st bike to have a six speed tranny and probably the only bike with enough torque to weight ratio able wheelie in 6th gear with a flick of the throttle. It had the crazy kind of power that when you gassed it it would want to slide you backward off the seat meaning just to hang on you were forced to give it more gas! A very maturing experience indeed.

    It was these kinds of riding flashbacks that reminded me of another writer who captured modern motorcycling perhaps even better than Seidel:

    Song of the Sausage Creature
    by Hunter S. Thompson

    There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright-red, hunch-back, warp-speed 900cc cafe racer is one of them – but I want one anyway, and on some days I actually believe I need one. That is why they are dangerous.

    Everybody has fast motorcycles these days. Some people go 150 miles an hour on two-lane blacktop roads, but not often. There are too many oncoming trucks and too many radar cops and too many stupid animals in the way. You have to be a little crazy to ride these super-torque high-speed crotch rockets anywhere except a racetrack – and even there, they will scare the whimpering shit out of you… There is, after all, not a pig’s eye worth of difference between going head-on into a Peterbilt or sideways into the bleachers. On some days you get what you want, and on others, you get what you need.

    When Cycle World called me to ask if I would road-test the new Harley Road King, I got uppity and said I’d rather have a Ducati superbike. It seemed like a chic decision at the time, and my friends on the superbike circuit got very excited. “Hot damn,” they said. “We will take it to the track and blow the bastards away.”

    “Balls,” I said. “Never mind the track. The track is for punks. We are Road People. We are Cafe Racers.”

    The Cafe Racer is a different breed, and we have our own situations. Pure speed in sixth gear on a 5000-foot straightaway is one thing, but pure speed in third gear on a gravel-strewn downhill ess-turn is quite another.

    But we like it. A thoroughbred Cafe Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew.

    I still feel a shudder in my spine every time I see a picture of a Vincent Black Shadow, or when I walk into a public restroom and hear crippled men whispering about the terrifying Kawasaki Triple… I have visions of compound femur-fractures and large black men in white hospital suits holding me down on a gurney while a nurse called “Bess” sews the flaps of my scalp together with a stitching drill.

    The motorcycle business was the last straw. It had to be the work of my enemies, or people who wanted to hurt me. It was the vilest kind of bait, and they knew I would go for it.

    Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph cafe-racer. And include some license plates, he’ll think it’s a streetbike. He’s queer for anything fast.

    Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as “the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine.” I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 Triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid… I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Cafe Racer.

    Some people will tell you that slow is good – and it may be, on some days – but I am here to tell you that fast is better. I’ve always believed this, in spite of the trouble it’s caused me. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba….

    Which we had – no doubt about that. The Ducati people in New Jersey had opted, for some reasons of their own, to send me the 900ss-sp for testing – rather than their 916 crazy-fast, state-of-the-art superbike track-racer. It was far too fast, they said – and prohibitively expensive – to farm out for testing to a gang of half-mad Colorado cowboys who think they’re world-class Cafe Racers.

    The Ducati 900 is a finely engineered machine. My neighbors called it beautiful and admired its racing lines. The nasty little bugger looked like it was going 90 miles an hour when it was standing still in my garage.

    I was hunched over the tank like a person diving into a pool that got emptied yesterday. Whacko! Bashed on the concrete bottom, flesh ripped off, a Sausage Creature with no teeth, fucked-up for the rest of its life.

    We all love Torque, and some of us have taken it straight over the high side from time to time – and there is always Pain in that… But there is also Fun, the deadly element, and Fun is what you get when you screw this monster on. BOOM! Instant take-off, no screeching or squawking around like a fool with your teeth clamping down on our tongue and your mind completely empty of everything but fear.

    No. This bugger digs right in and shoots you straight down the pipe, for good or ill.

    On my first take-off, I hit second gear and went through the speed limit on a two-lane blacktop highway full of ranch traffic. By the time I went up to third, I was going 75 and the tach was barely above 4000 rpm….

    And that’s when it got its second wind. From 4000 to 6000 in third will take you from 75 mph to 95 in two seconds – and after that, Bubba, you still have fourth, fifth, and sixth. Ho, ho.

    I never got to sixth gear, and I didn’t get deep into fifth. This is a shameful admission for a full-bore Cafe Racer, but let me tell you something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you’re ready to go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent scream in your throat.

    When aimed in the right direction at high speed, though, it has unnatural capabilities. This I unwittingly discovered as I made my approach to a sharp turn across some railroad tracks, saw that I was going way too fast and that my only chance was to veer right and screw it on totally, in a desperate attempt to leapfrog the curve by going airborne.

    It was a bold and reckless move, but it was necessary. And it worked: I felt like Evel Knievel as I soared across the tracks with the rain in my eyes and my jaws clamped together in fear. I tried to spit down on the tracks as I passed them, but my mouth was too dry… I landed hard on the edge of the road and lost my grip for a moment as the Ducati began fishtailing crazily into oncoming traffic. For two or three seconds I came face to face with the Sausage Creature….

    But somehow the brute straightened out. I passed a schoolbus on the right and got the bike under control long enough to gear down and pull off into an abandoned gravel driveway where I stopped and turned off the engine. My hands had seized up like claws and the rest of my body was numb. I felt nauseous and I cried for my mama, but nobody heard, then I went into a trance for 30 or 40 seconds until I was finally able to light a cigarette and calm down enough to ride home. I was too hysterical to shift gears, so I went the whole way in first at 40 miles an hour.

    Whoops! What am I saying? Tall stories, ho, ho… We are motorcycle people; we walk tall and we laugh at whatever’s funny. We shit on the chests of the Weird….

    But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when it’s right. The final measure of any rider’s skill is the inverse ratio of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad rider, you should not ride motorcycles.

    The emergence of the superbike has heightened this equation drastically. Motorcycle technology has made such a great leap forward. Take the Ducati. You want optimum cruising speed on this bugger? Try 90mph in fifth at 5500 rpm – and just then, you see a bull moose in the middle of the road. WHACKO. Meet the Sausage Creature.

    Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and balanced and torqued that you *can* do 90 mph in fifth through a 35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast – it is *extremely* quick and responsive, and it *will* do amazing things… It is like riding a Vincent Black Shadow, which would outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the take-off runway, but at the end, the F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.

    There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old Vincents and the new breed of superbikes. If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet in Dallas that went sideways and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time.

    It was impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across the railroad tracks on the 900sp. The bike did it easily with the grace of a fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking, goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone a lot farther.

    Maybe this is the new Cafe Racer macho. My bike is so much faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?

    That is the attitude of the new-age superbike freak, and I am one of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than a superbike will. A fool couldn’t ride the Vincent Black Shadow more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be a bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, “IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 29, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  8. Hi Louis,

    I emailed you back but I think your spam program got it. Anyway, interesting discussion. I saw Gunn read at Dartmouth and write about it in Big Sid’s Vincati, around page 80-83, which is available for free thanks to Google books.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=_BcOELdsObEC&pg=PP1&dq=big+sid%27s+vincati&client=firefox-a#v=onepage&q=&f=false

    I remember reading that Huner Thompson piece when it came out. It probably worked on my mind to lay the ground work for building a Vincati: He links the two in that piece, in a way that makes perfect sense.

    I always thought Peter Egan tried to better Gunn when he did his feature on riding Big Sid’s Vincati and wrote that it “hurled him down the road like the hand of God”–I mean that it is better than faster than an F-111 until take off (from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Somehow it is appropriate that the Vincati got built in Hunter’s home town of Louisville, too.

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — October 29, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

  9. Matthew, I wrote you yesterday from my computer at work and have a feeling that it didn’t reach you. I will resend it tomorrow and cc you at your university address just to make sure. Anyhow, I ordered your book from amazon.com and am really eager to read it. I told some friends that the Internet is the most amazing thing. In a million years I can’t imagine having had contact with someone whose story had so much appeal for me as yours. I really want to find out about your dad who was a bit younger than my own. I have a feeling that we had many of the same generational issues that you had with your own. Unfortunately for me, my dad died when he was in his fifties. I would have loved to have been able to become reconciled with him as he got older and frailer.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 30, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  10. Wow Matthew. What a great book you’ve written! Just completed the 1st 21 pages from the link and cannot stop. Now I’m feeling guilty since it clearly deserves royalties so I’m ordering it from Amazon too. I mean all those old bikes you mention, I read about them as a kid. There was nothing in the world more important than motorcycling to me back then. I devoured the literature and went to sleep dreaming of riding.

    At 14 I got a job wrenching at the only moped dealer in Chicago. I was impressed that all the mopeds were European made, and that Kreidler, the top brand we sold, set the 50cc land speed record at over 125mph with some 16 speed contraption. Unfortunately all the US imports had 35 mph governors but I quickly learned how to by pass them and could get a 50 cc Puegeot to 65 mph through the bike paths in Lincoln Park, launching them over grassy knolls sometimes 40 feet. If I saw a cop I’d quickly convert to pedal mode.

    We rented mopeds there too and I’d prep them. Belushi and Akroyd were frequent customers as the shop was in Piper’s Alley in Old Town, right next door to Second City. This was when they were preparing to shoot the Blues Brothers. The owner, an eccentric, closeted gay older Jewish guy with an alcohol problem so bad his skin was yellow, introduced me to a guy named Tom, a 40 something mechanic who reminds me much of Sid. He taught me a lot about carb tuning, rebuilding, etc.

    Old Tom was a world class genius tuner from the West Coast but like Sid at the end — broke as a hobo. He lost his driver’s license, probably due to liquor, and was amazed at how well I drove not only 2 wheelers but also his old sedan, clipping through traffic like an old pro in a raggedy Delmont 88, dogging the right lane to make every light, but with throttle control that made the rotten exhaust sound smooth, throaty.

    I made it all the way from old town to uptown in 10 minutes ballin’ the jack up Sedgwick avenue and still remember how sad I felt when he had me drop him off in the middle of skid row at a $7 per night flophouse called the Uptown Hotel, insisting I take the car home and meet him at the shop with it in the morning. “You’re one helluve driver” he said lifting on the hinges a little to close the door. “I’ll take the bus in the morning.”

    Tom didn’t know that at 12 when my poor Mom got home from the midnight shift at the Electromotive GM plant she’d pass out from exhaustion and I’d take her 1970 GTO with a 455 and drive it to Lincoln Elementary school, laying smokey patches in front of the pricipal’s office, mashing the gas while sliding the Hurst shifter through 1, 2 and into drive with a squeal of the tires.

    On that drive I’ll never forget the story Tom told how when he was commuting near San Francisco on some big thumper he actually fell asleep, TWICE, on the same stretch of hiway. “All I remember is waking up when hitting the ground” he said. Both times he managed to limp back onto the bike and then limped the bike home. At the time I couldn’t even imagine it.

    I’ve got enough of these strange sagas to write my own book but meanwhile I’m thoroughly enjoying yours. Thanks for writing it.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 30, 2009 @ 2:28 am

  11. Yeah, I love the bikes of my youth which had a lot more individuality than the current crop of Japanese bikes. The summer I got my Jawa I used to ride around the country roads in the town of Fallsburg upstate with someone who rode a 175cc Aeromacchi, a sleek looking Italian bike that was made by a subsidiary of Harley-Davidson. At Bard in my senior year, British bikes were still the norm. One guy had a Matchless with a 500cc single cylinder. Others drove a Triumph Bonneville and a BSA Lightning Rocket scrambler. My best friend owned a Ducati Diana. The first Japanese bike on campus was bought by another friend, a Yamaha YDS3, a 250cc two-stroke bike that had a distinct howling sound when it was being accelerated. After his father died and left him some money, another friend bought a Norton 750. Me and my friends used to love to go to competitions on the weekend. There were these things called “hill climbs” that probably don’t exist anymore. Modified Harleys with studded tires were raced up steep inclines. We also used to go to scrambles. The bikes tended to be Spanish, like Montesas or Bultacos. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a Bultaco instead of a Jawa. My funds were limited, alas.

    Comment by louisproyect — October 30, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

  12. Yes, Lou, there are still plenty of hillclimb events all over the US and even Europe. Google it sometime and you’ll see planty of recent YouTube vids. What rules today are usually big dirt bikes modified with like 12 foot swingarms with big giant long chains driving the rear wheel. It’s a pretty hairy sport with lots of gnarly tumbles and general mayhem as these big long bikes often coming come careening end over end riderless back down the hill after failed attempts.

    Back in the day a Bultaco would have been slightly more reliable than the Jawa and definitely more powerful but alas considerably more expensive.

    Never was much of a Harley fan as I saw them as incredibly overpriced, underpowered and unreliable paint-shakers on 2 wheels. Plus they had a terrible air cooled twin design flaw carried over from the 30’s. The front wheel blocks air to the front cylinder and the front cylinder blocks air to the rear cylinder. Notice all the other air-cooled twins overcame this fatal flaw (ironically except Vincent). The Ducati has the L-shaped twin. The Moto-Guzzi a horizontal V and the BMW an opposed twin. The British twins were parallell as were the 2 stroke Yamaha’s. Not quite sure how the Vincent overcame since the motor sits in the frame similar to a Harley but it must have had gotten lots of oil sprayed internally onto the heads?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 3, 2009 @ 3:46 am

  13. Thanks for ordering the book and your nice comments. Let me know what you think when you finish reading it!

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — November 5, 2009 @ 12:56 am

  14. Just finished your book Matt. What a great read. What a cool old dad you have. Glad he’s still around. What a bike you two built! It’s utter genius!

    Unless I missed it I didn’t read where you got the Vincati decal or the Vincati badge on the case?

    What’s amazing is how Yamaha stole that exact Ducati gas tank shape and used it on my 1981 XS1100. I’m kinda surprised how capitalist’s haven’t figured out a way to patent a shape? They even used those same pin stripes to accentuate the lines of the tank, especially the indent where the insides of your knees would touch the tank if you had long legs like me.

    I’ll never forget one my riding partner back then, Mark Mate` (pronounced muh-tay), owner of Cycle Smithy’s bicycle shop in Chicago, had the 1st Ducati I ever knew — a mid 70’s 900SS that had a paint color similar to your Vincati’s.

    My stock 1100 with 4 into 1 header was so fast, even with a fairing that housed a cassette/stereo with heavy 3 way speakers, that I just couldn’t get over how fast his Duke was. I’d beat him on 60mph roll ons but just barely. I’ve been fascinated by Ducs & their Desmodromic valve actuation ever since.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 11, 2009 @ 1:42 am

  15. Thanks for your note. Glad you liked the book. The decals were done by the Aussies. Neil Videan and Phil Pilgrim did it and had some extras and sent them to Sid.

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — November 11, 2009 @ 1:50 am

  16. Btw, Matthew, I am up to chapter 3 of Vincati and am really enjoying it. Wish I could put all my other reading aside to finish it since it is a lot more fun than plowing through Levi-Strauss and when you get down to it more important.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 11, 2009 @ 2:03 am

  17. “it is a lot more fun than plowing through Levi-Strauss and when you get down to it more important.”

    You’re right, Lou, it IS more important. What made Huckelberry Finn so great was the fact that Twain, as an older man, was describing America as it existed in his youth — a time in America that was gone forever. An American Literature professor once gave me that insight in a lecture, and it’s no accident that a literature professor has written a book that excellently captures yet another bygone era. Kind of makes you feel sad, old, melancholy, but on the other hand happy that things worked out so well, despite all the trials and tribulations, with Matt’s family in the end.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 11, 2009 @ 2:33 am

  18. Thanks for picking it up Louis! And thanks Karl, for the comments–you got the vibe of my book exactly right. One of things that I always found odd when talking to my editors was how strange they found that I would insist that riding brings out the full spectrum of emotions in a seasoned rider. You don’t always sing out in joy. Often you feel sadness. It is all part of the ride, to put it as the boys often do in a parking lot.

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — November 12, 2009 @ 1:54 am

  19. […] Filed under: Jewish question, literature — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm Not long after I blogged about poet Frederick Seidel’s motorcycle memoir in Harper’s Magazine, an even more interesting denizen of this subculture showed up as a […]

    Pingback by Big Sid’s Vincati « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 28, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

  20. […] article now online Filed under: motorcycles — louisproyect @ 2:46 pm On October 22nd, I wrote about Frederick Seidel’s memoir on motorcycles that had appeared in Harper’s magazine which was behind a firewall at that […]

    Pingback by Frederick Seidel article now online « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 16, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  21. I bought Matthew Biberman’s Vincati book this summer for my youngest son’s birthday. He rides an SV650 that I sold him cheap a few years ago when I got my KTM Superduke 990. I live on the east coast and he’s on the west coast. I’m an artist and a university professor (possibly temporarily) and he’s a computer tech steel industry guy. I told him he should read a book and he told me that he had read one. Funny guy.

    He seemed real happy with the Vincati book.

    Comment by Robin Peck — January 7, 2010 @ 5:40 pm

  22. […] am a big fan of Seidel (https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/10/22/frederick-seidel/), who wrote a terrific article about his life-long addiction to fast motorcycles, but am not sure […]

    Pingback by Frederick Seidel poem on Egypt « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 1, 2011 @ 6:32 pm


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