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Being a meticulously slung–together selection of Mark Williams’ columns in various magazines that should’ve known better from 1971–2020… forty-nine inglorious years of controversial views, wild claims and mindless nonsense on matters motorcycling

Author image: Alex Ramsay       Illustration: Hunt Emerson

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Bike – January 1981

In late 1980 I returned to California where I ended up living for a year or so, working for a small, punky record label and writing for Motorcyclist magazine, the latter a real eye-opener about how a big bucks, ultra-professional bike magazine operated and one of the best times of my life. I also began stepping out with Carlo Olsen, a brilliant singer-songwriter who inadvertently was the agent of my near misfortune mentioned below. And after launching, editing then leaving but still scribbling for WhichBike?, I changed my allegiances back to Bike after a little unpleasantness in the legal department. All part of life’s rich tapestry…

Cartoon: Hunt Emerson

I DON’T KNOW WHERE IT CAME from, but sometime between July and November there must’ve been a moment of eloquent perception amid all the blurred, mordant bumbling . . . (you’ve heard of the Prisoner of Zenda, well I was the Prisoner of Smirnoff) . . . ’cause writ biggish 0n the backside of a Woolworth’s jotter was the following:

“When the reality of the limelight exposes itself for the harsh glare of egotism that it is, then we are all out of business. Until then, temper your svelte commercialism with some naked, no-nonsense WRITING.”

And I’d underlined the last word three times for good measure. Quite why this stirring homily should be sitting on the back of the pad in the first place defies any logical explanation. It’s the kind of smart-arse, cornflake-packet prose that a couple of friends of mine sometimes commit to a postcard study of the Statue of Liberty dressed up in suspenders and bra that they buy by the gross on 42nd Street and send out, apparently as an example of their great wit, to commemorate public holidays. I collect these cards just so’s I can humiliate them when next we collide over canapes, but a quick check of the back catalogue failed to unearth the culprit. So if I hadn’t copied it from a slightly greater intellect than mine, it must’ve been an original.

Immediately I took it as A Sign. And what do you do when fate throws a wobbler at you? You ring Mr Calderwood (David, then Bike’s editor – MW) and brown nose your way back onto the pay-roll, that’s what.

Bloody cosmic experience, pal.

(None of this cosy preamble explains how I plummeted from a glittering career with Another Motorcycle Magazine (WhichBike?, obviously – MW) which the more indiscriminate of you might occasionally be embarrassed into buying when the newsagent catches you spending quarter-of-an-hour leafing through Fiesta. If slavering at other’s misfortunes is your particular bent, I’ll reward further enquiries with no more detail than the fact that I foolishly and suddenly found myself in a dilemma from which any escape route was paved with shit.

Some time between then and now it seemed prudent to once again consider starting out afresh in the colonies, where a man with a shady past can hold his head up high and bullshit like crazy about his reasons for emigrating. Since this inevitably meant Los Angeles where, for a brief and glorious moment a small business interest of mine (Record production – MW) looked like accomplishing the impossible and making some money, it with equal inevitability meant I had to buy a motorcycle.

Now buying a motorcycle in California is not like going down to Alf’s Bike Shop in Hackney and having your ear bent by some smart-alec in a kipper tie who thinks he can strap you up with three years HP on a one owner XS750 just ’cause you’re impressed by the fact that it don’t leak oil. No, you go by Marina Del Rey Harley-Davidson where a midget could get lost in the shag-pile and these glistening pig-iron sculptures gracefully rotate on floodlit plinths in a calculated attempt to make you come in your pants if you haven’t already given the ‘enquiry agent’ who looks like a tall Robert Redford in $500-worth of Gucci leathers your credit card.

Except that I was in the market for a secondhand item, and respectable Yank motorcyclists treat used machinery with a disdain you and I normally reserve for the Nazi who presides in 10 Downing Street. It’s almost impossible to even find a dealer who sells secondhand bikes, especially when new ones are so ludicrously cheap, e.g. a CX500 for less than £850. So what you do if you’re the poorest kid on the block and can’t stick the sneers of your peers is run through the classifieds and hope for salvation.

What I actually had 1n mind was a well preserved Triumph, one of those rebuilt every year jobs ridden only on alternate Sundays by an ageing meat-packing executive from Laurel Canyon: $800 and an excrutiating half hour of moisty-eyed reminiscences with the reluctant donor. No way was I going to get that lucky, but then a funny thing happened to me on the way back from Santa Barbara one night.

Muggins here offers to drive the girlfriend’s motor back from Santa B, 150 miles up the coast, after her band (the Textones, a precursor of the Go-Go’s – MW) finished a gig there. Like it’ s 3a.m. and her Mustang is weaving all over the freeway thanks to an excess of sleeping passengers, a total lack of shock absorbers and the dozy condition of yours truly. So I pull into some isolated truck stop and it’s full of all the nastiest caricatures of fat, double-knit clad middle America that you could imagine. These people are gross, very drunk and so right wing that they make Ronald Reagan seem like a flower child.

Anyway, I decide that a glimpse of the bleary-eyed lady guitarist who is still in her rather risque stage clothes is all they’ re going to get, especially after hearing beery mutterings about faggots and weirdos as I leave the men’s room. So we take our coffee and blueberry pie outside to eat, and I start nosing around the gas station in an effort to stir the brain cells. Which is where I see this . . . thing.

Now only in America would you find a CBX with street plates and a damn great Goodyear slick on the back. Only in America would some pump jockey put himself in hock for a supercharger, a racing tank, seat and S&W suspension kit for a bike that’s potentially lethal even in bog-stock form. But here it was, garish in red and oil-smudged yellow with a Krober tacho, 5-inch headlamp and enough metal scraped off the footrests and crash-bar (no sense in tempting providence) to convince even the most casual observer that this machine was for Serious Behaviour only.

Cartoon: Hunt Emerson

The old man in the kiosk eyed me with a caution born of years of serving gas to acid crazed hot-rodders and potential child molesters – you see that look a lot in all-night America – but he eventually revealed that the day mechanic was selling it and for a figure I couldn’t believe: $2,000. I didn’t have $2,000 to friitter away on a certain death-trap but I absolutely had to have that bike. I said I’d be back in the morning to do business, and my girl said she now realised that my craziness was no longer a rumour tactlessly leaked by mutual friends.

After a few hours of sleepless argument, I truculently returned With a few hundred dollar’s by way of a deposit and a shameful promlse of my (ex-?) ladyfriend’s mint Rlckenbecker 12-string (just like the one Lennon used on ‘Ticket To Ride’, a preposterous rarity) as surety until I got the rest of the loot.

“The boy’s out on a breakdown,” said the matron who’d replaced the old chap at the till. “He said you could start it up while he was away. That’s if you have a mind to. ”

Do bears shit in the wood?

After much connecting of wires and heaving and cursing with the thing, a pall of viscous black smoke accompanied by the loudest, most unhealthy noise you’ve ever heard coming from any engine, rent the parking lot. I was visibly shaking. With fear. Fortunately the engine’s state of tune was so evil that it almost immediately cut out and I saw my friend mouthing the word ‘NO’ and locking her guitar in the trunk. This seemed a sad and demoralising gesture. Didn’t she appreciate that I was an experienced and highly qualified pilot of mega performance. I was about to use the back of my hand to reason with her when a breakdown truck tooled into the station.

“Here’s your boy,” muttered the old lady, who had the slight smirk of a know-all on her face. Well what a surprise when the old boy from the previous night got out from behind the Wheel: a closet boy-racer, eh?

And then from the other door another figure appeared, a figure with a plaster cast on his left arm, stitches all over his bruised face and some nasty plastic device encasing the lower half of his right leg . . .

Which has a lot to do with the reason I didn’t buy a bike in America and am stuck here behind a typewriter hoping I can earn enough money to buy a new set of chrome for the Jota before next spring. (There wasn’t much chrome on a Jota, but what there was soon turned to rust – MW)

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