Uneasy Rider: Raw vs. Refined

Uneasy Rider: Raw vs. Refined

After almost eight months off the bike due to injuries and subsequent complications resulting from a battle with an anti-moto-personnel attack Civic, I bought a leftover 2018 R1200RT. The purchase was the culmination of a long, partly wheelchair-bound research process that started with two criteria—not another BMW, and not another adventure bike—that was intended to get me on a motorcycle that I could get on and just go and go and go. This meant decent wind protection, good luggage (or the ability to easily add good luggage), and neutral ergonomics with an emphasis on wide open knee angles, to accommodate my newly de-and-re-constructed right leg.

I didn’t give a shit about cool factor, soul, or the ability to (look like I’m gonna) head out on a dusty BDR odyssey.

Though my gaze lingered long on a Versys 1000 and my heart desperately desired a Z900RS, my single-mindedly sensible selection process ultimately yielded two candidates: the RT and an Africa Twin DCT.

Yep. A goddamn Beemer and an adventure bike. At least it’s a true adventure bike.

Very different machines, but I’d planned to put a 19″/17″ wheelset on the Africa Twin, making it into something akin to an uber-NC700X DCT, a bike I love dearly but couldn’t quite commit to as my main squeeze. However, my conversations with the folks at Rally Raid weren’t exactly confidence-inspiring: they’ve had issues with their 19″/17″ wheelset for the Africa Twin on DCT bikes and while they’re working on a solution, I wasn’t particularly reassured by their non-answers. It sounded like I might end up doing a lot of post-purchase R&D.

Right now, I don’t want to work on motorcycles, I want to ride motorcycles. So I went with the RT, even though it broke Fish’s heart—he loved the wheel-swapped AT concept.

It was the right choice. After sweeping for my broken ass on my first post-shattered-shitshow ride, Fish commented that he has only seen me ride maybe two other bikes like I rode the RT the first time out, like it really jived with me. The ride started with me saying “I’m gonna take it easy since I haven’t ridden since August and I’m not sure how this leg is gonna work,” and ended with him noticing I’d scrubbed the RT’s spankin’ new rubber to the edges.

What can I say? I like big bikes. I cannot lie.

The RT makes a pleasant noise when fired up and sounds subtly enraged when I put the throttle against the stop. No eagles scream, no onis termi-whatever, but it’s definitely the sound of being all out of bubblegum. I’ve always liked the sound of modern Boxer engines; I also figured it was one of those “probably just me” things.

On our last ride, as I fired up my white whale in a dirt parking lot alongside the Carquinez Strait, Fish nodded his head as if enjoying some Drive-by Truckers and said something to the effect of “That thing sounds good.”

CRF250L Yoshimura exhaust install
“That Yosh pipe was on there when I got the bike. I swear.”

Now, both Fish and I own bikes with arguably antisocial exhausts, but we’re both also reformed hooligans, wise to the stealthiness of stock pipes on our daily riders. His latest (my old) Ulysses has the stock pipe on it, and he actually switched his CRF250L Rally back to the stocker as well in a sort of audio offset program to mitigate the effects of his FXR. My CRF’s stocker sits in the basement, awaiting an eventual come-to-Jesus moment on my part, although the Magnis on my Guzzi will stay mounted till the day the coroner pries the throttle from my cold dead right hand. In my defense, it’s a “show bike” now. But my last several “main bikes” kept their stock pipes, even though the so-called community’s tribal knowledge demands the reduced weight and hypothetically enhanced performance of aftermarket pipes.

Anyway, the idea that my eminently capable but “boring” new RT would elicit any feedback beyond “looks like a cop bike” and the mightily creative “you’re old now, huh,” caught me off guard, and Fish admitting to liking the sound of the RT after I smashed his dreams by buying it instead of the starting point for the coolest Africa Twin ever was something else indeed.

As with many such critical topics, we talked this nearly to death. Neither of us has a particular fondness for the auditory character of earlier boxers, but both of us dig on the sonorous sound of the camhead and wethead 1200 motors—yes, even with stock pipes. Fish speculated that perhaps we both appreciate the sound of higher compression, the additional “crack” in the tone compared to the older engines. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but have a vaguely formed idea that it’s some combination of the “heritage” or “rootsiness” of the Twin combined with the sound of modern precision.

Many riders seem to be enamored with exhaust noises that hint at rebellion they’ll never commit to, and for some, it’s nostalgia for the good old days of no rules and not givin’ a fuck—whether they actually experienced or simply imagined this supposed golden age of internally combusting freedom.

I’ve generally not shied away from doin’ my own thing my own way, but I appreciate fond reminiscence of simpler times, real or imagined. Though I’m pretty firmly in the camp of modern precision and reliability in my general purpose motorcycles, I clearly have a bit of thing for “soul” or “authenticity” or whatever nonsense words we’re using for shitty old motorcycles now. Otherwise, why would I inflict upon myself the ongoing struggle of owning an older Guzzi?

The same goes for guitars, another topic of ongoing, lengthy and occasionally intense discussion between me and Fish. Like the Guzzi, I’ve owned an assortment of what would be called “shitty old amps” if guitar players weren’t cursed with the same affliction as motorcyclists, which can be summed up as slapping the word “vintage” on damn near every just old thing, driving up prices of stuff that would otherwise be widely available on Craigslist for 10% of new, maybe less.

Ridiculous “values” aside, like old bikes, there’s a certain magic to some of these old amps. I sold a mid-Nineties Mesa/Boogie Tremoverb 2×12″ combo yesterday, and the dude that stood around my house for two fucking hours fondling my Gold Top while hemmin’ and hawin’ about whether he could give me a fair price for a seriously kickass and rather rare amp, told me he mostly wanted it because it had a good built-in tremolo circuit.

Triggered, I began spouting about the mint mid-Sixties Fender Bandmaster head and cabinet rig I gave away for something like $150 back in the early Nineties because it needed tubes and my broke young ass didn’t have the $200 to get it singing again. I reminisced about the amp’s graceful, pulsing vibrato and gorgeous clean tone until the dude realized he could get me to shut up by giving me some money for my Mesa.

I’d strum a ’59 Gretsch 6120 all day long, in my office chair on in a studio, but I’d think twice, maybe even thrice before sweating into its F-holes at a gig. Similarly, I’d sacrifice so-called the ultimate tone of a blackface Fender that’s been thrown in and out of different vans for half a century for the reliability and sterile sound of a modern tube amp.

Perhaps strangely, while I’m also firmly in the camp of modern utility in motorcycles for actual riding, contemporary production and state of the art sound in recorded music leaves me cold.

Now, one could argue—as I probably would—that it’s not present-day production that sucks, but modern music. Leaving that 100% accurate point aside for a moment so I can not go off about the shit-ass appropriation of rock and roll swagger and punk attitude in hopes of commercial success via affected authenticity (sound familiar?), I generally find that there are very few new recordings that move me.

By “new,” I mean after something like 1985.

Check out the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, for example. By modern standards, it sounds like shit. The same goes for Jimi Hendrix’s recordings, gold standard stuff for many guitar players. Either are examples of moving, vital rock and roll—Jimi’s lead playing at the end of “Hey Joe” is untouchable, singular, superlative stuff.

For contrast, Body Count’s version is groovy, but Ernie C. ain’t no Jimi (never mind Ice-T). The tune is technically competent, but lacks the soul of Jimi’s jam.

Soul? What is this? Bike night at Hot Italian?

It’s not just classic rock. One of my favorite records of all time is the Circle Jerks’ Golden Shower of Hits, and lemme tell you, son, compared to the relatively high-quality Sixties and Seventies recordings mentioned above, this album sounds like dog shit, technically speaking.

Maybe it’s because this music is tied to a particular time in my life—there’s that nostalgia again—but I love it.

Since I mentioned records, I should point out that I’m not one of those pretentious, pseudo-intellectual “the scratches make it a purer experience” jerkoffs. At my desk, I listen to music through a set of studio reference monitors—I like accurate sound. I also like real, raw sound—not processed, over-produced junk.

There’s some dissonance here for me: one could argue that auto-tune, compression, and other modern-day production tools aren’t so different from traction control and other electronic aids: these things smooth out the lack of talent.

According to that logic, based on my musical tastes, I ought to be riding a well-maintained SOHC CB750 in engineer boots and old 501s. Or, going by my motorcycling preferences, I should be listening to… Rush? Vernon Reed? Modern jazz?

Been there, on all counts.