Sunday 10 November 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part IX - Bienville Studios

French Quarter New Orleans

Part IX of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII, and Part VIII.

I wake up Monday morning to the sound of a skittering creature in the shop. That would be JT's dog, Rivet, who was dropped off that morning. A tiny mongrel Chihuahua of some sort, Rivet is a hyperactive bug-eyed muppet who adds some life to Bienville Studios.

"What breed is he?" I ask JT while the snorting little gremlin is dancing around in front of me, scarcely able to contain his excitement at the prospect of a new human in the shop he can annoy.

"Namibian bat terrier."

"... Really?"

"No, I just made that up."  

Namibian Bat Terrier

I was thankfully free of hangover after our night of drinking in the French Quarter. On JT's recommendation I head over to Café Envie on Decatur to grab some black coffee and breakfast. Envie is a busy hangout spot, populated by locals and tourists alike. It's one of the myriad trendy espresso and pastry places you'll find in any city, located in early-20th century commercial buildings with lots of wood, brick, tall ceilings, and a collection of mid-century French advertisements hung on the walls. Exactly the same as everywhere else: they all try to be unique and homey but end up all looking the same, sharing the same aesthetics, the same décor, the same coffee, and the same bland food. It feels just like Montreal, minus the snobby service and propensity for the staff to use the deliberately ambiguous "Bonjour, hello" greeting that places specific emphasis on the French half to stay in the good graces of the Office québécois de la langue française. 30% more emphasis if the Office is to be appeased. Readers who speak French will note they call it the “Office” without one iota of irony.

I head back to the Studio and discover Rivet has nabbed the toothbrush from my luggage and appropriated it as his new chew toy. Little fucker.

Rivet the Little Toothbrush Stealing Bug Eyed Fucker

JT lends me a Suzuki Bandit 1200 to run downtown to pick up my temperature sensor, which is being held at the post office. He is clearly quite fond of the Bandit and sings praise for it before sending me off, hoping I’ll enjoy it as much as he does. I’m not so endeared by it. It’s comfy and the ergonomics are good for city riding, but it feels loose and lazy compared to the razor-sharp response of the 916. My short blast downtown is a lesson in contrasts. The Bandit suspension is soft, the brakes have a squishy feel despite stainless lines, and the throttle response is soft and slightly delayed. I forgot what a big four fed by CV carburettors felt like – snap the throttle and a short delay is followed by a slow swell of power. It lacks the right-the-fuck-now snap of a well-tuned fuel-injected twin, instead it feels like it needs to spool up slightly before it starts to stretch your arms. You need to relay your demands to the engine room before the old girl starts to hustle. But once it gets going it builds speed quickly, riding a nice fat torque curve from 3000 rpm up. It would be great as a comfy and stone-axe reliable all-rounder, but I will always prefer the brutality of my 916.

Suzuki Bandit 1200 New Orleans

There was a period of two years when I had put the 916 into storage, after moving from New Brunswick back to Quebec. Various reasons prompted this stupid decision, the main one being the prohibitively expensive Quebec registration rates (which was 1500$ per year at the time). One season I didn’t ride at all, the next I bought a beater 1984 Honda VF750F Interceptor to get around Montreal. The Interceptor felt somewhat like the Bandit – soft, comfy, a bit dull, sort of sporting but hardly a sport bike. I rode the VF to New Brunswick that year and pulled the 916 out of storage. I changed the timing belts and gave it a once over, then took it out to blast the cobwebs out. After riding the spongy Honda, a spin around town on the Ducati felt like a sledgehammer to the face. I was screaming inside my helmet, experiencing pure elation and a rush of pure, uncut adrenaline as I thundered up the street and slammed through the gears. I had forgotten how precise, how tight, how perfectly responsive it was. I had forgotten the explosive punch of the motor when it came on the cam. I had forgotten how fucking amazing it was to ride. It was the most intense experience I have had on a bike since I took those first tentative loops around a parking lot 10 years ago. I vowed on that day I would never neglect the 916 again. I sold the Honda at the end of that season and had the Ducati delivered to Montreal the following spring.

I arrive at the post office and discover they are closed. It’s Columbus Day. Shit. That means I will have to run to the office on Tuesday morning as soon as they open, grab the part, and then install it before I hit the road. This screws up my planning slightly, as I hoped to hit the road just after sunrise tomorrow so I could make a stop at Motus in Birmingham before their office closed. But I don’t have much choice at this point. I curse myself for having the sensor shipped here instead of Birmingham - I had forgotten about Saturday USPS service and could have gotten it installed before I left for New Orleans.

Bienville Studios New Orleans

I return to the Studio. I'm not really sure how to proceed at this point. I'm ostensibly here to interview JT, but I have no idea where to begin. I'm not a journalist as much as a guy who writes articles. My typical process is to research, write a draft, and then make note of areas where the piece seems weak or where details are ambiguous. It’s only after I've written the bulk of the article that I contact people and ask questions, because that is when I know what I'm missing. So my "interviews" are anything but, and often end up becoming friendly bike-related banter between two motorcycle enthusiasts more than a journalist sitting down with tape recorder and notepad asking hard-hitting questions. All of this to say: I'm not in my element when I sit down to interview JT Nesbitt with only a cursory overview of the Legacy to go on.

JT asks me what I want to do. I recall he mentioned that the Studio needed cleaning. So I offer to vacuum the shop. I'm a believer in earning my keep when someone is gracious enough to welcome me into his or her home. On Thursday I helped Winslow with his Triumph troubles. Today I'm cleaning JT Nesbitt's workshop.

"Now you have a good story to tell your grand kids."

I finish up and we finally sit down to have a proper conversation about JT's work. Last night was about philosophy - today is about design. We begin with the Wraith.

Confederate Wraith Sketch

While JT isn’t one to look backwards, you can’t speak about his work without referencing his time with Confederate and the Wraith. It is clearly a high point for him and he recalls the details with pride. He was a part of something special, and Matt Chambers was a man who understood Nesbitt’s ideals. Without Chambers, JT would never have had his big break in motorcycle design. Without the freedom that Confederate offered, he wouldn’t have been able to apply his uncompromising vision.

It begs the question: where would Nesbitt be without Confederate and Chambers, and where would Confederate and Chambers be without Nesbitt? Speaking to JT and hearing him share the stories and events of those days you can’t help but sense he cultivates an image of Chambers as a benevolent but misunderstood leader. He clearly has had a profound influence on JT.

The “Art of Rebellion” isn’t just a catchy motto, it’s Confederate’s modus operandi. And JT came away from his experience there with a set of uncompromising principles that are hard to fathom for those of us who weren’t there. His time with the company was a remarkable period that had a profound influence on his design philosophy and his personality. That’s why any discussion of JT’s work must include a reference to his time at Confederate and the designs he did there. You must not think of it as dwelling on the past or falling back onto past glories – it is the process of defining the context and the environment that allowed JT Nesbitt to become the designer he is today.

Bienville Legacy Sketch

We have hours of intense discussion about Confederate, the Wraith and the Legacy. It is a series of constant revelations, a stream of new details I had never heard before. This is the most interesting part about running OddBike – hearing the stories that no one has shared. You might think that various journalists have already published most of the interesting details over the years. You would be very, very wrong. I don’t know why this is. Are motorcycle journos simply missing the details that are set in front of them, putting aside key information in favour of useless press-release drivel? Are they consciously omitting elements to keep the higher-ups and advertisers happy? Maybe industry people are just not as forthcoming with “real” journalists as they are with freelance guys who don’t have an agenda to uphold. The answer is probably a combination of the three.

After several hours my head is spinning. I’m desperately scratching down notes throughout our conversation, trying to wrap my head around the design philosophies that JT is throwing at me. A few times I have to admit he lost me. It dawns on me that this is where I can do something better. I want to do something nobody has done before – profile JT and his work in a way that does justice to his ideas, without glossing over stuff because it is too esoteric or too difficult to understand. I make a point to never dumb down my writing, at least not anywhere below my own comprehension. That attempt will come in due time, once I have the opportunity to write the articles profiling the Legacy and the Wraith. I may not succeed, but I will try my damnedest to properly explain what JT has done and is doing here in New Orleans.

Bienville Legacy Motorcycle

By now it is getting late and it is time to go drinking again. We head back to Molly’s to continue our motorcycle-enthusiast banter. Now that the serious business is out of the way we can relax and share stories and opinions. It is a strange thing. We have been talking bikes continuously since I arrived, but never the same topics. You could compartmentalize the discussions into different subjects, and then split them between “personal” and “professional”. It isn’t just “talking about motorcycles”, as a singular topic, it is much more than that. Before I came down JT had mentioned that he was looking forward to having someone to talk shop with, because there wasn’t much of a motorcycle community in New Orleans. I thought this was funny because I am in the same situation in Montreal, where I know a few motorcycle riders but few who have the same level of interest that I do. So when we came together it became a huge release of pent-up stories and ideas on both sides. Many things were discussed, but the broad theme of this evening’s bar session is to remain open and within one’s realm of experience when expressing opinion - JT is continuing to prod my dislike of British machines. That, and the Suzuki RE-5 might be one of the most overrated motorcycles of all time.

Jackson Square New Orleans

Around 8pm, once we are both good and primed with beer and liquor, JT announces that he is going home and expects me to explore the Quarter on my own. I’ve been in New Orleans for two days and still haven’t done the touristy stuff, so it’s time to get that over with before I head home tomorrow. He sees me off and I venture out, beer in hand, wandering through the area with no particular destination in mind.

Mississippi River New Orleans

I pay a visit to Jackson Square and stop to take notes on the shores of the Mississippi, watching the out-of-towners pose for photos and stumble around the landmarks. Want to look like a local? Just stay sober. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place that is so blatantly and unashamedly aimed at hustling tourists out of their sobriety. Then again I’ve never been to Las Vegas.

Mississippi River New Orleans

I had this thought before I arrived at Bourbon Street, which turned out to be a zone of such utterly comical decadence that I couldn’t get away from it fast enough. Even in my tipsy state I simply couldn’t stand being surrounded by a bunch of drunken, ugly, middle-aged revellers. I recalled some half-remembered scene from a Hunter S. Thompson tale, probably from “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” or some such social commentary masquerading as a piece of journalism. I’m surrounded by greasy, distorted faces twisted into unsettling grins, glazed expressions of merriment brought on by copious amounts of booze and jazz. There are only two types of people here: stumbling, sloppy drunks and the people taking advantage of them. I quickly cut through the crowd and pass the worst of it, the crowds gradually dispersing and the venues becoming less and less contrived.

French Quarter New Orleans

I end up in some of the residential areas of the Quarter. The streets are quiet and empty, the buildings framed by the dim light of gas lanterns. It’s eerie and beautiful. The architecture is stunning and punctuated by flourishes of lush vegetation here and there. It seems so incongruous that there would be stunning houses and apartments here, most likely million-dollar properties, so close to the epicentre of depravity of the Southeast. Softly lit alleyways leading to colonial courtyards are simultaneously inviting and slightly menacing. “You’ll feel like a vampire is gonna jump out and get you” as JT had put it earlier, a grin on his face as he sent me on my way.

French Quarter New Orleans

I’m beginning to feel pensive as I begin sobering up. After tonight I begin the long journey home. I will be returning to my mundane life. It is a thought that bothers me intensely. Earlier in the evening I had mentioned this to JT. His response was simple: why don’t I move? Why don’t I do something about it? It’s a good point. I am the agent of my own destiny. Sitting idle and whining about how much I hate my life isn’t going to get fuck all done about the situation. I have always had a certain fear of instability, of taking a great leap into the unknown. But this trip and my discussions with JT are beginning to shift my mindset. I am realizing that I need to take a risk to move forward, and this trip was the first step towards breaking my fear of the unknown. I hopped on a legendarily unreliable and uncomfortable sport bike and rode across the United States with barely enough money to complete the journey. It has been the most amazing experience of my short life. The gears are now turning in my head as I contemplate how I can escape my monotonous existence and move forward with my life.

French Quarter New Orleans

I complete my tour of the Quarter and return to Café Envie to grab a coffee and a sandwich. I take my notes for the day. Eccentric and eclectic people are coming and going, grabbing their late night snacks and sustaining their nighthawk habits with free-trade caffeine infusions. New Orleans has had the most interesting mixture of people of all the places I’ve been to so far, certainly an appealing mix if you are tired of the dull keeping-up-with-the-Jones homogeneity of most cities.

My notes completed and my cup empty, it’s time to go to bed. I want to be well rested for my voyage tomorrow, as it will be the first leg of the long ride back home.      

   French Quarter New Orleans

1 comment:

  1. Like the insight into local feel