Saturday, June 21, 2008

Running Out Of Gas

Years ago, a fledgling cable network, The Discovery Channel, was desperate to draw viewers. Their traditional focus of science-based programming was only getting the PBS-crowd, and not even as many, so they expanded their breadth by moving into the occasional documentary. In one, they followed a father and son in upstate New York who were making a family go of building custom motorcycles. The documentary focused on the mix of combustible personalities, how hard it was for family to work together, but how they overcame differences and leveraged their individual strengths to produce a uniquely American piece of craftsmanship. It was a hit, and the network jumped on it, turning the profile into a full series, American Chopper.

What made the series work in the early years were the absolutely climactic battles between Paul Jr., who's innovative designs and creative focus were breathtaking, and Paul Sr., who overcame personal demons to forge a business, but longed to marry his metalworking talent with his joy of motorcycles. The results were amazing bikes: pieces of art, in a forged iron power. The bikes continued to be amazing, and quickly overtook the show as the prime focus. We followed the family as they moved from the basement of their house to a workshop, then a larger one, and larger, and larger, and their talents became even more in demand. The staff grew and grew, and the characters became even more refined. The show was easily the most popular on basic cable, so much so that Discovery recently moved it to their sister network, TLC, to help draw viewers there, as Discovery has now grown to be a staple of cable entertainment.

Take a look at some of the early bikes:
Arguably Orange County Chopper's signature bike, this Firebike was built as a tribute to the firemen in 9/11. The details were stunning: specially machined parts to resemble a fireman's air tank and a hydrant; actual rivets from the World Trade Center; a fuel tank that evokes the classic fire engine. It was a celebration of creativity, tribute, and memorial, all in one.
The Comanche bike, designed to evoke a motorcycle version of the military's Comanche attack helicopter. Note the specially machined wheels as helicopter blade, the unique shape of the tank to match the canopy, and the all-business design that screams military.
Built for the Caterpillar corporation, this bike expresses the very best Paul Jr. can design for a corporate client. It uses all of the signature Cat lines, adds a powerful touch, and accents it with little elements, like the special exhaust with the flapper on top.

In short, these bikes were, and remain, massively talented expressions of creativity. You can see all of the ones in the show's history at their site, and many are brought on tour or on display in their gift shop. Yes, they have now grown so popular and so large, that they not only operate their own production line of bikes, but a massive retail emporium to celebrate their now-familiar iconic logo. They have worked so hard, and have been rewarded by a growing fan base and extraordinary popularity.

It is, therefore, so sad to see this talent start to run out. As the money and fame has crept in, it's been clear that the company's signature custom bikes have been...well, uninspired. I know, it's easy to criticize, and I could hardly do any of the work they routinely undertake, but the general malaise in the designs over the last year has been disheartening. It came to a head for me tonight, with the viewing of the show on the New York Giants tribute bike.

You see, Paul Jr. has felt frustrated in his creative process by the review cycles of corporate clients. As they open up their new world HQ, Paul Sr. gets the OK by the NFL's New York Giants to create a tribute bike. Unlike the recent corporate bikes, Paul Jr. has total creative control here, and the bike will not need to be road-legal. Instead, he gets to fire up those creative juices to design a kick-ass bike for his favorite team, and celebrate their recent championship.

This was the result, unveiled to great fanfare with a panoply of fans and Giants, at their new OCC megaplex. And I was never so sad for them. This bike represents how far from creative grace they have fallen. Remember, there were no rules, no restrictions imposed, and this was intentionally built as a showpiece bike. You're probably shaking your head, wondering what my problem is: after all, it's a cool Giants bike, right? I mean, look at the cool goalposts on the back; the football headlight. And you can't even see the gas tank that becomes a football helmet. It screams Giants, no?

No.

Want proof? Ok, take a good look at that bike. Got it?

Now picture it in the silver and blue of my own Dallas Cowboys. Or the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers. Or, horror of horrors, picture even the same colors you see, but it branded as the upstart Houston Texans. See what I mean? There is absolutely nothing in the design of this bike that makes it a New York Giants bike. Nothing.

We're talking about a team that has three Superbowl trophies; a team with 20 Hall of Fame players like Lawrence Taylor, Y.A. Tittle, and Frank Gifford. This is, in short, a team that does not lack for uniquely iconic pieces of history. And absolutely none of it is in this bike. In the show, we learned Paul Jr. wanted to manufacture some risers for the handlebars; why not make them resemble the three Vince Lombardi trophies of their Superbowls? The goalposts are a nice touch; you couldn't get the Giants to perhaps help you locate some of the actual metal from previous goalposts from the stadium? Even a simple act of carving into the rear fender some of the key inspirational expressions the team rallied around in this year's improbable championship run would lend a sense of permanence and personality to this bike.

It's sad to see a great musician try to recapture the hits of youth on stage. It's depressing to see a great filmmaker try to make a sequel to an earlier blockbuster (ahem...Indiana Jones?). It is clearly as sad for me to see such an incredible talent, so vividly demonstrated for a national audience, being either squandered or lost. But what made it worse to me was when I started this blog post. I had been thinking that this chopper could be easily repainted for any team you want. In fact, I argue that, had the episode that introduced this chopper been presented as a new limited-production model for their new production line of bikes, I would have been very impressed. But both Teutels (Paul Jr. and Paul Sr.) made a point of saying this was allowing them to take the gloves off, to get fired up, and to deliver a project they had the passion for. So I headed over to their site to get some graphics for this post. And I found this:

Yep, OCC does precisely this for both the NBA and the NHL. Want your favorite team? No problem; they can make it in a jiffy.

Please, don't get me wrong: I do not begrudge these men the rewards they justly deserve for their hard work. But not only to be so disappointed with the efforts for a "custom" chopper for a team they supposedly have an emotional bond with, but to find out that the whole bike may well have been a proof of concept for a sales pitch to the NFL to let OCC expand to their roster of teams, as well...that's just plain exploitative. So, my choices are to judge their motives pure and their creative skills vastly waning, or their motives more commercial and their treatment of the viewer/fan as callous. The lesser of two pains, indeed.



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