Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2009

Big Sid’s Vincati

Filed under: Jewish question,literature,motorcycles — louisproyect @ 8:24 pm

Not long after I blogged about poet Frederick Seidel’s motorcycle memoir from Harper’s Magazine, an even more interesting denizen of this subculture showed up as a commenter. Matthew Biberman, a U. of Louisville literature professor, informed unrepentant Marxist readers about a memoir titled “Vincati”  that describes the project he carried out with his ailing father Sid to create a hybrid motorcycle based on a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine.

Even if you have never owned or driven a motorcycle, I strongly recommend this memoir that I finished recently as a sensitive study of father-son relations. It is interesting that Biberman tells us early on in the memoir that he had hopes at one point of becoming a novelist. This beautiful memoir is additional confirmation, as if any was needed, that the most interesting literature today uses this medium, just as the best films are documentaries rather than fiction. It would seem that true life, as long as it is described mercilessly but with compassion, is far more compelling than the best novel.

I had a particular affinity for this memoir as a one-time motorcycle owner, even if it was an underpowered Jawa motorcycle—more of a scooter than a real bike. I was green with envy as Matthew described his father giving him the present of a Matchless Motorcycle when he was just a teenager. Of course, that might be expected given Sid Biberman’s long-time involvement with motorcycles, both as a rider and as a motorcycle shop owner and master mechanic. When I bought my Jawa in 1965, my father only worried whether I would get killed or maimed in a highway accident, thus sacrificing the small fortune he had invested in my education. This was despite the fact that he rode a motorcycle himself during his years in the army.

Jack Proyect

Sid Biberman can best be described as a “tough Jew“, a type of anomalous character described by Rich Cohen in “Tough Jews : Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams”. Despite having a father who was a butcher, closer in sociological terms to my fruit store owning dad, Sid Biberman became seduced by motorcycles at an early age and was drawn into a subculture we associate with tattooed “goyim”, or gentiles. Ironically, “Big Sid”, who could lift a motorcycle with his beefy arms when he was young, could pass for one of these characters but without the tattoos of course. As you probably know, a tattoo will keep you out of a Jewish cemetery.

One imagines that a very interesting panel discussion might be held with Rich Cohen and Matthew Biberman on Jewish identities, given Matthew’s other book titled Masculinity, Anti-semitism and Early Modern English Literature: From the Satanic to the Effeminate Jew, which one amazon.com review described as follows:

This is a remarkable book that tells a sad, tragic, and horrifying story. It tells that story powerfully, and deserves to be read, especially in the current post-9/11 cultural climate. Indeed, it is perhaps the most brilliant, original, challenging, and provocative book on the history of anti-Semitism to be published in many years. Biberman argues that a convergence of femininity and Judaism, anti-Semitism and anti-feminism emerged in the Renaissance and that the subsequent reification of this convergence in the nineteenth century developed into a kind of truth about Jewish Masculinity and the Jewish Male as effeminate.

Early on, Sid became an owner of a Vincent Rapide motorcycle. The Vincent motorcycles were made in Britain and at the top of the line were the Black Lightning and Black Shadow bikes. British folk-rocker Richard Thompson paid homage to the Vincents in a great song titled “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”;

Said Red Molly to James that’s a fine motorbike
A girl could feel special on any such like
Said James to Red Molly, well my hat’s off to you
It’s a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952
And I’ve seen you at the corners and cafes it seems
Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme
And he pulled her on behind
And down to Box Hill they did ride

Like just about every British motorcycle company, Vincent eventually went bankrupt. Today the few thousands of functioning Vincents are owned by passionate enthusiasts who rely on men like Sid Biberman, who know them from the inside out, to repair or improve them.

Vincent Black Lightning

Improvement hardly would describe a project to put a Vincent V-twin engine into a Ducati frame.  If you’ve read the Seidel memoir, you’ll know that the poet had the same kind of love for the sleek Italian machine that Sid Biberman had for the British bikes. As a still thriving manufacturer today, the Ducatis set the standard for beauty, handling and speed.  In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum in New York had a motorcycle show, with a Ducati 999 and other Ducatis drawing the most admiring gazes.

Putting a Vincent engine into a Ducati frame would prove daunting for any skilled mechanic, but when the Vincent engine was decades old, there would be additional complications. Once the two men went forward with their task, they had to contend with old engines that were in a state of disrepair.

In some ways, those engines were a metaphor for Sid Biberman himself who was stricken by a heart attack in the early pages of the memoir. In a state of depression in  a hospital bed, he wondered whether he would survive and—more ominously—whether life in such a weakened state would be worth living. He suffered from shoulder and knee ailments as well, making the mobility necessary to work on a motorcycle questionable. But when Matthew proposed doing a Vincati, Sid perked up and found a new lease on life.

In some ways, Sid’s courageous efforts to stay alive in order to bring this project to fruition will remind you of another inspiring tale of old age and motorcycles. I am referring to Bert Munro, an elderly man from New Zealand with heart and prostate troubles, among other ailments, who broke the land speed record with a highly modified Indian motorcycle, a classic V-twin like the Vincent. Munro’s feats are dramatized in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”, starring Anthony Hopkins as Munro, that I reviewed here.

The two eventually completed their project, which is described on http://www.bigsid.com/. I also recommend a video from Jay Leno’s website, where the talk show host, who owns a fleet of antique cars and motorcycles, discusses the Vincati with father and son.

In the conversation with Leno, the Biberman’s openly discuss the friction they experienced as father and son, which involves nearly universal issues (disapproval, remoteness, etc.). Unfortunately, my father died when he was in his fifties long before I had the opportunity to build emotional bridges with him of the kind that Matthew described in this touching memoir.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that the subtlety and insights found in “Vincati” are very likely attributable to a writer who has a background quite a bit different from the average motorcycle tuner and mechanic. Not only is Matthew Biberman a master of a legendary British motorcycle, he is also a master of British literature earning a PhD at Duke under the supervision of Frederick Jameson, a Marxist literary theorist of some renown. Indeed, Matthew Biberman’s bio at http://www.redroom.com/author/matthew-biberman/bio mentions that his favorite works of theory are: Jameson’s Political Unconscious, Lacan’s Ecrits, Stanley Fish’s essays, all Freud, Marx’s Grundrisse, Barthes, Foucault, Zizek, Zupancic.

That’s a hell of a reading list for a Vincent jockey!


  1. Another nice review Louis. Fathers and sons! Did you ever read the Danny O’Neil novels by James Farrell? Great stuff. The third book is called Father and Son. I can’t get past ten pages without tearing up. I hope Biberman’s dad was proud of his son. I’m sure the son was proud of his dad. In the Farrell novel, Danny doesn’t live with his parents, who are too poor to care for him. Instead he lives with his somewhat better off grandmother, aunt, and uncle. He is ashamed of his parents’ shabby home and dire straights. In the Father and Son novel, Danny gets to know his father. There is a scene where Jim, the dad, fights and beats up a younger man who has pushed him too far. The fight is a metaphor for how tough an ordinary and poor working guy had to be, something Danny sees for the first time.

    Motorcycles were big in my hometown in the 1960s. Before that hot rods were king. Guys could build cars and soup up bikes, yet their skills were scorned by teachers and “better” folks. These fellows were rough and tumble. I was shocked beyond words when my skinny dad threw one of them out of his brother’s coffee shop for abusing the pinball machine. Made me proud!

    Comment by michael yates — November 28, 2009 @ 10:44 pm

  2. The late motorcyclist, mechanic, & author Bob Jones claimed in his book “XS Eleven Heaven” that the Yamaha XS1100 motorcycle (produced in the late 70’s through early 80’s) was the greatest motorcycle ever made.

    Notice the similarity of the gas tank to the Vincati:


    Comment by iskraagent — November 29, 2009 @ 12:13 am

  3. Mike Yates said: “I hope Biberman’s dad was proud of his son. I’m sure the son was proud of his dad.”

    I’m pretty sure old Sid is still alive and thus I’m sure father & son are still both proud.

    Comment by iskraagent — November 29, 2009 @ 2:59 am

  4. Mike: your mention of Farrell made me think of James Jones, especially the novel Some Came Running. It’s of the same era, about the same kind of people — looking for love and self-respect but too dumb, or limited by background, or personality (e.g. susceptibility to alcohol), to find it. All three of Jones’ war novels are about father-son relationships, if you scratch the surface.

    Comment by senecal — November 29, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  5. Thanks Louis, for the perceptive and generous review. I have mulled over the idea that — to use your words — “It would seem that true life, as long as it is described mercilessly but with compassion, is far more compelling than the best novel.” I don’t know if the question can be answered with finality but it would seem that we are in a phase where it makes a lot of sense. I would add that one of the things I am proud of about how I wrote BIG SID’S VINCATI is that my intention was to apply the devices used by novelists to the memoir. You would think this ambition is often done but, english professor that I am, I read a lot of memoirs in preparation for writing this book and I was really disappointed with the lack of craft put into the average one. Most often they are written in a “this happened, and then this and then that” mode without any attention to constructing a plot that induces suspense in the reader. I also employed a lot of tricks in this book that stem from my love of modernist books that read conventionally on the surface but have a lot of what are now called “postmodernist” tricks buried deep in the text. The two specifically that come to mind are the novels UNDER THE VOLCANO and THE SUN ALSO RISES. These books are as tricky as Joyce’s ULYSSES, but can be read conventionally as realistic fiction in the post Jane Austen mode. To take but one example, no one has yet remarked on the fact that I tell my father’s story in the first part of the story, and then shift to telling my story in the second part. This sort of floating anchor for the book’s central consciousness is the kind of thing that critics applaud when it is baldly done in touted fiction but I did it so seamlessly that people take it for granted when they read Big Sid’s Vincati, which is fine with me.

    Finally, I must say it was nice to see you noticing my acknowledgment of my teacher Fred Jameson, who is, indeed, America’s foremost Marxist critic. I will always prize the time I spent studying with Jameson (or “Red Fred” as the students playfully dubbed him). His recent book, Archeologies of the Future is a provocative exploration of utopia as that idea was been explored in sci-fi and fiction. I highly recommend it–in conjunction with the art he takes up in it (such as SOLARIS).

    As a teacher, I often assign Jameson’s essay “End of History, End of Art” from the collection The Postmodern Turn which includes the observation that a true communist epoch can only appear on the horizon when capitalism exhausts its “globalization phase,” a reckoning that will occur in tandem with an ecological crisis such that the two events will force the general recognition that any viable salvational response must come from a truly post national collective committed to saving life on earth. When I first taught this essay in the early 90’s, students laughed at it. The only thing they took seriously was discussions of sexual identity and personal politics. Now students agree with the claim and want to read the Marx Jameson cites. No kidding!

    Comment by Matthew Biberman — November 30, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  6. To be honest I thionk the book correctly identifies the problem, viz, that this is really the destruction of two genuine vintage motorcycles to make a bastard that ultimately has no value. Vintage “bitsas” can be justified on occasion by their history, but a modern one as this is just an excuse for blind egomania. If it came into my legal and moral posession I’d dismantle it and cut the frame and engine cases up with a plasma cutter.

    I’m heavily into stereo equipment and I recently came across a McIntosh amplifier some idiot converted into a Class A triode amplifier. It now sits gutted out on my bench for some eventual resurrection. I literally had to buy it and dike every part out of it before going to bed, it offended me that badly.

    Comment by roger russton — June 8, 2012 @ 12:10 am

  7. Roger, I beg to differ, not only about the book’s conclusions, but your analysis that it’s some sort of unworthy Frankenstein of a bike. On the contrary, it’s the ultimate synthesis, and I do the same thing for a living by stuffing modern Toyota engines into old Toyota 4×4 trucks, whereby you get the best of both worlds, that is, a straight live axle front end combined with a 4 valve engine that goes 600,000 trouble free miles without even needing a valve cover gasket replacement, making both gobs of power & tremendous gas mileage. Your stereo analogy just doesn’t hold water with bikes & trucks, nor cars. Ever seen a restomod ’69 Camaro go for over 100 grand at auction? I have, and so has everybody else who watches classic car auctions.

    Comment by iskraagent — June 8, 2012 @ 1:02 am

  8. Oh boy… here we go… the worship and mystification of something old, now called “vintage” (a completely incorrect use of the term), based solely on the value that some scumbag dealer sticks upon it so he can net a tidy profit. I have seen this done with musical instruments, firearms, cars, stereo gear, and houses. I’m waiting for this philosophy to be applied to 486-era computers next.

    The idea that some inanimate object, left untouched (if not unmaintained) is somehow superior and more desirable than an inanimate object that has been carefully and thoughtfully upgraded to take advantage (in hindsight) of superior technology is positively silly. In my experience with collectors, “vintage” and “original” are less about the quality/performance of the original object and more about who-has-the-bigger-d**k. In other words, “Mine is 100% original complete with original factory air from the factory, so I win. Nyeah, Neah, Nyeah!” They will promptly take said inanimate object, hang it on a wall, toss it in a storage unit or attic, park it in a garage, lock it in a vault, or leave it in a corner *totally unused*. Heaven forbid you get it dirty or put any honest wear on it!! OhMyGawd!! The value might go down!! Yes folks, grown men still do this.

    I applaud the Vincati project, and given the very well-known ability of the father/son Biberman team who did the work, would be willing to bet that it was well-worth the time and effort invested. The idea of combining the best of two motorcycles is an old one, and in fact is exactly how Kawasaki got their start: by taking a British bike and an American bike, picking the best parts of both disassembled machines, putting those parts together with custom parts made where something didn’t fit or work, and ending up with a machine superior in performance to both. Hmmm… with the thinking of some here, the Kawasaki facilities should be razed along with all the machines they produced since the 1950s.

    As far as McIntosh amplifiers, I have owned a set of them for 20-plus years and can tell you that while they are very easy on vacuum tubes, they measure far better than they sound. The idea of turning them into a set of class-A amps is a darned good idea and I would have loved to head the end-result. You want good sound from vacuum tube power amps? Find a set of Altec A255s (yes, I have a set of them too) with the Peerless output transformers. Leaves McIntosh’s class-B design in the weeds… unless you really *need* a good sonar amplifier, that is. Me? I don’t listen to test-tones… or “pings”.

    Comment by Casual Observer — August 14, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

  9. The Casual Observer makes a valid observation insofar as “nostalgia” has been used as an effective capitalist marketing tool which bolsters the spineless conservatism that besets many older people (boomers in particular) and has been overwrought to disgusting absurdities by multinational corporate marketing firms but since he concedes this particular Vincati is one badass bike project that not only incorporates a great story of socio-historical significance but also engineering genius (frame as stressed member, etc.) then the the question remains — what the fuck is your real point?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 15, 2012 @ 12:34 am

  10. Karl, my point was a reaction to entry #6, which poo-pooed the project as some kind of heretical desecration of 20th-century icons, when in reality those icons are all too often little better than hollow idols. Perhaps I should have been a bit more clear about that, but I figured that my reference to the McIntosh amplifiers made that obvious.

    My point is that the Bibermans took two components of old technology, a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine, and built a superior machine out of them. Rather than pack the original unmodified parts in cosmoline and worship them as some kind of a Mojo item or sacred cow, they used their intelligence and took a risk to improve on the originals. That takes both brains and balls, which many collectors (and followers in general) sorely lack. They made the end-result work exceptionally well, and ultimately superior to the original machines. No value to a collector or a scumbag dealer? Fine by me.

    Comment by Casual Observer — August 15, 2012 @ 2:47 pm

  11. I see. Well the Mac amps reference would have been more recognizablke had it not been a post from 20 months ago.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 15, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

  12. Nice review. Just wanted to leave you a note. Tattoos don’t keep you out of Jewish cemeteries. That a myth. I know that’s a myth because I am an orthodox Jew myself and I volunteer to prepare bodies for burial and we bury people with tattoos pretty frequently. You would be surprised what your grandpa though might be a good idea when he was young…

    Comment by David Green — March 27, 2014 @ 12:47 am

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