Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wise guy: The knuckleheaded memoir of a kid growing up in the '50s

The first Friday of every month is a big deal in the Crossroads district of Kansas City, which is home to dozens of art galleries and artists' studios. I don't know how many people come down for it, but on a nice spring evening, it can seem as if they've emptied the suburbs.

Last Friday, I dropped in at the Hilliard Gallery, drawn in by a collection of witty sculptures, made out of repurposed tools and scrap metal.
I was drawn into the Hilliard Gallery by gearhead art -- and I don't just mean art for gearheads, it was literally gearheaded; anthropomorphized robots actually had gears in their heads.
When a mutual friend (architect and motorcyclist Jim van Eman) introduced me to the artist, Guinotte Wise, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that he, too, was a motorcyclist.

Guinotte reminisced about his first motorcycle, a Harley Knucklehead. He kept it at a neighbor's house so his parents wouldn't see it, and rode it to school despite being too young for a driver's license. He actually got a cardboard 'souvenir' license plate from a box of Wheaties, and dangled that off the saddle of the bike. Either it was realistic enough to fool the Kansas City cops, or he was lucky enough that they never noticed it, or maybe they just cut the kid some slack; it was, after all, a different time.

When he told me, "I sat in school all day just waiting to be reunited with it. I used to start that bike, and I became a different person," I said, Wait a minute, and pulled out a voice recorder thinking, If he was going to say stuff like that, I want to capture it for a future Backmarker.
Guns are another recurring theme in artist Guinotte Wise' work. I guess that's not surprising in a town that mythologizes the shooting of 'Pretty Boy' Floyd at Union Station, and where neighboring Clay County MO has a festival celebrating Jesse James (the real outlaw, not the outlaw biker.)
As it turned out, we had even more in common. Guinotte had also spent a career in the ad business. In fact, he'd moved from Kansas City to Milwaukee specifically to work for Hoffman York, the ad agency that handled the Harley-Davidson account at the time. He started out as the art director assigned to fleet advertising, and ended up running all the creative for The Motor Company. "I don't even know if Hoffman York is still in business," Guinotte said. (They are, though they're now known as HY Connect. They don't do any motorcycle business, but they do handle the Yamaha outboard motor account.)

Guinotte, by then on another Harley, had seen Easy Rider and ordered a pair of 8"-over fork legs to get that cool chopper look. After the supplier misinterpreted his letter and sent 18"-over tubes, he figured that he'd use them at that length rather than cut 'em. He and his buddies raked out his frame by heating the frame tubes and bending 'em that much. At the time, Harley-Davidson was careful to distance itself from the outlaw biker image, and Harley employees who rode choppers weren't allowed into the parking lots; they had to park them off the factory property. Needless to say, H-D management was aghast at the bike that guy from the ad agency rode, with those ridiculous forks.
Guinotte described this as a kid's version of a Gatling gun. Really, what kid shouldn't have a Gatling gun? I bet it handles better than his chopper with five-foot long forks did.
Then, Harley-Davidson was acquired by AMF, and Hoffman York lost the ad account. That was just as well, because while the first year or so of the AMF period was rosy, dark days were to follow. After the famous Vaughn Beals-led management buyout of Harley-Davidson from AMF, the ad account moved again, to Carmichael-Lynch Advertising, also based in Milwaukee.

Guinotte ended up returning to Kansas City. (He still stays in touch with Willie G. Davidson, and still works in the ad business, at VML, which is the agency that created the stunning motorcycle 'face' graphic for the 2011 HoAME Vintage Motorcycle Rally.)

As an ad pro, he doesn't begrudge Carmichael-Lynch -- far from it. We agreed that Carmichael's work on the Harley brand has, overall, been brilliant. Their genius was in realizing that rather than being in denial about biker culture, H-D should embrace it. Guinotte told me that, back then, only Willie G. really 'got' the importance of the custom/outlaw scene, and understood that H-D could co-opt that imagery and create a vehicle that suburbanites could use to channel their inner badass. However you feel about posers on ear-splitting Harleys and the way that imagery was subsequently co-opted by Tea Party morons, Carmichael-Lynch's insight was a stroke of advertising genius. Guinotte was shocked when I told him that Harley-Davidson recently fired Carmichael-Lynch.

Anyway, all of that's a long preamble, leading up to this: I was going to write up Guinotte's funny motorcycle life story, which in a way would have allowed me to take credit for it. But I went to his web site, and realized that he'd written it up himself and -- this is not something you'll hear from me very often -- he'd done as good a job on the essay as I could ever do. If you have 15 minutes to kill today, read it here. I'd be willing to bet that even if you're not a Harley guy (and let's face it, most Backmarker readers are not Harley guys) you'll see a little of yourself in this kid...

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mark, you sure do find some interesting stories! Guinotte's essay is a great read -- but he does help perpetrate a myth. Velocette is not a French motorcycle. British as they come.
    However, the Solex, or better known as a Velo Solex, IS a French machine. Have one in the shop if you'd like to take one for a test ride the next time you're up here.
    Greg Williams