Bruce Brown, Lady Bird, the City of Trees, and the 96-MPH Caponord: An Appreciation ""

By | December 12, 2017

On Any Sunday

Over the weekend, I saw Greta Gerwig’s much praised Lady Bird. The release of that film was probably the biggest thing to hit my sleepy, sprawling burg of Sacramento since the Kings arrived from Kansas City in 1985. The movie was filmed here and set during the the protagonist’s final year of high school in 2002–2003, nine years after I was a starry-eyed senior set to head off to the Bay Area for college, and more than half a decade before everybody had a smartphone. Sacto native Gerwig touches on the importance of magazines at what was perhaps the last possible moment before the World Wide Web ruled everything. For those raised prior to an era of always-on digital access, the feeling of cultural isolation could be acute. Glossies like Spin and Details and newsprint zines in the vein of Maximumrocknroll were a window into another world. I’d read up, wander across the street to the original Tower Records, and try something out. But before I fell into the world of music and lifestyle books, BMX magazines were my first key to another, seemingly richer world. Go—a short-lived successor to BMX Action and Freestylin’ put together by a talented crew that included Spike Jonze and Jackass director Jeff Tremaine—turned me on to the music of D.C. hard-core stalwart Ian MacKaye. Without punk rock, my career path wouldn’t have led me to Car and Driver. But Go might not have existed at all were it not for Bruce Brown, who died Sunday at the age of 80. In essence, I owe Mr. Brown the last 30 years of my life.

Bruce Brown

Bruce Brown, camera in hand, during the filming of The Endless Summer.

He’s best remembered for his seminal surf documentary The Endless Summer, which I first saw in seventh-grade science class, around the same time I was devouring BMX rags and spending hours convincing my parents to let me go out and race. In one retrospective on the sport’s early days in the 1970s—which may have appeared in BMX Action—racers including Stu Thomsen discussed having their minds blown by the opening credits in Brown’s 1971 motorcycle doc, On Any Sunday. In it, a pack of kids tear around a kid’s-bike-sized motocross course on Schwinn Stingrays, crashing, pulling wheelies, jumping, and making motorcycle sounds. Shortly thereafter, organized bicycle motocross races sprung up, because what kid hasn’t pretended his bicycle is a motorcycle at some point? When I finally got around to seeing On Any Sunday, I was immediately smitten. Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith are inspired protagonists, the cinematography—rudimentary by today’s standards but advanced for its day—still enthralls, and Brown’s good-natured California-cornpone narration lays out the action in a way that even the layman can enjoy. It’s not just a great motorcycle movie; it’s a great movie, period.

Brown, fundamentally, was a harbinger of good, a DIY magician who brought his cinematic works to the masses and, in doing so, made the seemingly impenetrable accessible. In the early days of his surf films, he’d barnstorm up and down the West Coast, showing his movies in high-school gymnasiums, narrating them in real time. Sensing that he had something bigger with The Endless Summer, he tried to secure wider distribution. When the majors said no, that it wouldn’t play beyond the niche of edge-of-the-continent surf rats, he rented a theater in white-bread Wichita, Kansas, and sold it out. And sold it out again. And again. Finally, the distributors took notice. The success of the landmark surf film paved an easier path for On Any Sunday, allowing Brown to secure funding from Steve McQueen, who figures prominently in the Elsinore Grand Prix section as well as the famous final sequence, during which he, Smith, and Lawwill bomb through the countryside and roost around on a Southern California beach.

A few years back, I asked Mark Wahlberg whether he preferred Easy Rider or On Any Sunday. He chose Easy Rider, and that sort of tells you all you need to know about Mark Wahlberg.

On Any Sunday

In one form or another, on bikes or in cars, I’ve sampled many of the motorized pursuits Brown runs through during the course of On Any Sunday, and although my heart lies with flinging a bike sideways through a corner while my steel-shod left boot skips along the ground, a couple of gnarly wrecks at a recent trip to Rich Oliver’s Mystery School have me reconsidering flat-track shenanigans, given my suddenly brittle 42-year-old frame. Long-distance touring, a discipline not covered in Brown’s film, is ultimately where I’ve found my niche, but in motorcycling, if you’re not at least something of an omnivore, you’re invariably missing out on something great.

For all of Sacramento’s foibles, it makes a case for itself as perhaps the best city in America to live in if you’re a motorcyclist. There’s year-round riding weather. It has less traffic than Los Angeles or San Francisco, but it’s clogged up enough to enjoy the feel-good benefits of lane splitting, which, of course, is legal only in California. What’s more, there are phenomenal, quiet roads within an hour’s ride in just about any direction. Sears Point and Thunderhill are 90 minutes away, there’s speedway racing up the hill in Auburn, Sacramento Raceway offers a drag strip, and it’s only three hours to Laguna Seca. The Hangtown Classic is a legendary motocross event (covered by Bruce’s son, Dana, in On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter), and, of course, there’s the storied Sacramento Mile, which serves as the coda to the flat-track portion of the original movie.

When I heard Brown had died, everything fell away. Lady crushes, clerical business, chores that desperately needed doing. All I wanted to do was get on my motorcycle, as going for a ride felt like the only fitting tribute and perhaps the only way to alleviate the empty thud in my chest. I only had a couple of hours, so I figured I’d run down into the California Delta. In Lady Bird, Gerwig’s camera lingers pretty hard on the rivers in Sacramento. The geographic picture she paints of the place roughly parallels the town’s footprint before the war. It has now been decades since this place wasn’t an agglomeration of cities and unincorporated areas stretching halfway across the Central Valley. Her decision makes a lot of sense, as much of the infill and expansion that led to our very own mini-megalopolis fundamentally paralleled the rise of the internet. I imagine one day, perhaps in my lifetime, you’ll be able to drive clear from Colfax in the Sierra Nevada to Gilroy, south of San Jose—a distance of nigh on 200 miles—without once truly leaving an urban area. Although the city has crept inexorably south, following the Sacramento River down toward its mouth at Suisun Bay is a quick way to escape the sprawl. Ironic, in that the river itself was the original transit corridor between San Francisco and Sac during the Gold Rush.

Aprilia Caponord Rally

The Capo at the edge of Panamint Valley. Note obscene selective-yellow lights.

Awash in thought, I got on the Aprilia Caponord Rally I bought back in October. I’d picked it up at Moto International in Seattle, on my way home from a Car and Driver office visit to Ann Arbor. Just before I rode away, Dave Richardson, the face of the shop for 25 years and a man deeply beloved and respected in the Moto Guzzi community, told me that it was the last motorcycle he’d ever sell. I knew he was retiring, but the idea that this was the final bike he’d usher out of that little dealership on North Aurora meant that I needed to put it to good use. So far, I’ve put nearly 6000 miles on the clock, riding it through seven states in two months. The motorcycle itself turned out to be a dead-end design for the Noale-based Piaggio division. The smooth, rowdy 90-degree 1200-cc twin wouldn’t pass Euro 4 emissions regulations, and Aprilia had built only about 5000 Caponords in total since the bike was introduced in 2013. My bike is a leftover 2016 model, hardly the only such motorcycle in Aprilia dealer inventory. Do the math. Making the bike pass Eurosmog wasn’t worth the effort.

Down on power compared to Ducati’s Multistrada or KTM’s big ADV machines and lacking the dealer network, aftermarket support, and reputation of BMW’s category-defining R1200GS, the Capo’s adventure-touring variant is nonetheless the best mile-eating motorcycle I’ve been on. For my build, anyway, it fits better than the outgoing Honda Gold Wing. It outplushes a Harley FL (buy my 2015 Ultra Limited, please) and will smoke it through a corner or in a straight line. The Capo offers the same sort of sporting comfort as a BMW RT but without the bland efficiency of the latest Bavarian boxer twin. Say what you will about Italian quality, the salami set seems almost incapable of building naturally aspirated engines that don’t delight. Its default velocity is 96 miles per hour. Start the bike, twist the throttle, let out the clutch, look down at the speedo, and it will invariably read 96. Why do I need more power? Who are these KTM-riding maniacs? To bring this back around, I hold Brown somewhat responsible for the fact that I currently own five motorcycles, one of which always goes 96 mph.

I pointed the Ape west, then south, chasing a Duc and a Hog down I-5, and popped off at Twin Cities Road. The “twin cities” in question are the humble hamlets of Walnut Grove and Locke, not much more than growths on the eastern levee of the Sacramento River. To be fair, Walnut Grove does feature a drawbridge and an auto-repair shop that often has interesting classic Mercedes-Benzes and Lamborghinis in the window. And Locke was the subject of the first novel by my perennial homecoming date, the American Book Award–winning Shawna Yang Ryan. The haze drifting up from the devastating Thomas fire—a whopping 300 miles to the southeast—hung brown as the sun dipped toward the Coast Range, but the valley air was still clear enough to make out the shape of Mount Diablo in the distance, off across the farms and marshland that separate the river from Fairfield.

Mert Lawwill, Malcolm Smith, Steve McQueen

Mert Lawwill, Malcolm Smith, and Steve McQueen during the filming of On Any Sunday.

Eighty-odd years ago, when Locke was still a town built and run by Chinese immigrants rather than standing as a monument to the Chinese immigrants who built it, my grandfather and his work buddies would drive down the levee to gamble here. One night, the infamous tule fog rolled in. It’s one of California’s meteorological curios, one perhaps even more deadly than the fire-pushing Santa Ana and Diablo winds, given the severity of the automobile accidents that its zero-visibility soup causes. Sometimes, it will inundate the valley from Redding in the north, all the way down past Pumpkin Center, 450 miles south. Anyway, the young AT&T engineers got stuck in the stuff after a night at the tables. One unlucky sod, presumably with a few drinks in him for fortitude, was tasked with standing on the car’s running board, making sure the driver didn’t dump them into the river on the 25-mile drive back up to Sacramento. Riding back from Las Vegas a month ago, I found myself caught in the stuff. Upping the power on the 13,000 lumens worth of selective-yellow lamps I’d installed on the Aprilia did nothing to improve the situation. I didn’t expect it to, but when things are uncertain and you’ve got a rheostat, you invariably wanna twiddle with it. With twiddling having proven itself fruitless, I fell back on my dad’s advice: Keep a truck’s taillights just barely in view.

It’s a primitive mode of travel at that point; no motorcycle technology developed in the past 46 years was going to help much, save perhaps ABS if things suddenly went pear-shaped. Fumbling forward in the fog, chasing a dim light. That was life in a pre-internet Sacramento. And, I suspect, plenty of other towns in America. There was no one grand font, no place you could go for the inside scoop. You had to piece it together out of rumor, innuendo, going out and seeing shows, meeting people, catching movies, and perhaps by getting lucky at Tower. Life was a series of hyperlinks that loaded at what, in retrospect, seems like an absolutely glacial pace. Now and then, however, there’d be a supernova moment that would allow so much else to fall into place. Nirvana on the radio. Bruce Brown bringing the possibility of a different sort of life to kids in landlocked towns.

I rode home up the river as the sun set, toward the great silver water tower that used to read “City of Trees.” Gerwig’s languorous shots of the river flitted through my mind as the river itself turned gold, then faded to purple in the waning light. The visions of riparian quiet fought for mental space with Brown’s footage of Malcolm Smith ripping across a dry lake down in Baja, Cal Rayborn putting a streamliner on its side at Bonneville, and Mert Lawwill leaving home in that rad old Ford Econoline on Torq-Thrusts, XR750 in the back, off on a futile quest to defend his AMA Grand National title. Then it all jelled into one great historic, present mass. What was once disparate was suddenly all of a piece. Time slips forward and fragments reassemble themselves in your mind as needed. A nice drive in a good car helps the pieces mesh more harmoniously, but taking that same trip on a bike somehow amplifies the experience exponentially.

At the end of The Endless Summer, Brown, in voice-over, says simply, “This is Bruce Brown. Thank you for watching. I hope you enjoyed my film.”

No, Bruce. Thank you.

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