Divine acts of charity elicit sainthood in religion.
Breakthrough acts of intelligence warrant the Nobel Prize in science.
Then there are the outstanding acts of stupidity. These must be cherished and remembered, kept alive through stories told among friends on barstools and by campfires. They are the glue that bond buddies.
One time I was lucky enough to witness a colossal act of stupidity and it happened at Green Day’s music studio in Oakland, California.
My cell phone rang. It was David Perry, my intrepid British friend from Los Angeles. He was coming to the Bay Area the following day on business for Exile Cycles and planned on staying at my house. “Eh, mate. Billy Joe Armstrong just bought a motorcycle from us. You wanna go over to the studio while I’m in town?”
“Billy Joel bought an Exile motorcycle?” I asked perplexed.
“No! Billy Joe, you wanker. The lead singer for Green Day.”
“I can’t help it if I don’t understand your garbled British. And besides, I didn’t know that’s his name.”
He sighed. “You know, sometimes I’m ashamed to call you my friend. My 87 year-old grandmother has a better sense for pop culture than you.”
“That may be true, but can she ride 975 miles in one day?”
“How about 700 on a rigid?”
“What’s your point, mate?”
“That I’m a real man and your grannie is old.”
“A real man, eh,” he said laughing. “How about rain? How long can you ride in that, tough guy?”
Check and mate. I hate riding in rain and David knew it. Being wet and cold on a motorcycle is horrible enough, but rain takes it a step further, acting like scalding needles from hell on the face when barreling down the highway. So unless my journey is a slow one through Death Valley in August, the sight of a storm cloud means pulling over to a diner for coffee.
“OK. OK. Sounds good by me,” I said. “I’m sure Elizabeth will come too.”
“Great. See you tomorrow then, mate.”
The sun was setting as we arrived at Green Day’s studio in an industrial part of town. The expansive cinder-block building was enclosed by a chain-link fence, accessible from the street by a massive gate with interwoven rayon mesh for privacy. As we drove up to the entrance, David leaned out of the car window and started pushing buttons on the control pad until the behemoth gate slid open. After we pulled in, it slowly lurched back under its weight. At the time the gate was of little interest, but later that night it would become a central feature of the evening’s debacle.
The band manager came out to greet us and after obligatory hellos led us into the building through a steel door from the parking lot. It was a grand space composed of a large central room that functioned as the social area, adorned with carpet, plush chairs, and a large wooden picnic table in the center. In each direction were adjacent rooms that served various purposes: to the right was the recoding area, to the left a garage with a line of motorcycles, and straight ahead a kitchen with a loft above.
A group of guys sat at the picnic table playing cards and drinking beer. Everyone started talking in groups of two or three until someone appeared carrying a long device with holes that leaked wisps of funny-smelling smoke. I had never seen such a contraption, and my better sense told me to stay away. My wife, however, seemed to have intimate knowledge of the device and happily began working it with skill and confidence. This held my attention until word came of a refrigerator full of beer by the motorcycles. I prepared to go to this magical space, but paused to question the prudence of leaving my wife with rock musicians and their mysterious tool of malfeasance.
But alas, the allure of bikes and beer was too much and a few moments later I was leaning into the refrigerator. My attention was focused on picking a drink until David scampered past laughing maniacally with a half-empty bottle of tequila in hand. It was a bad omen: nothing good ever came from that liquor.
Motorcycles ranging from custom choppers to Harleys to British café racers filled the room. One bobber in particular stood out. It was tastefully done, residing between the pizzazz of metal flake and the toughness of purposefully dulled metal. As I drank my beer and examined the bike, a fellow walked over and told me that he had just finished building the motorcycle. He was clearly proud of it and crouched down to point out all the exciting bits and vittles. When he finished and stood up, I confirmed David’s assertion of my ignorance for all things pop culture by asking, “And what do you do here?”
“I play the bass,” Mike Dirnt replied mildly.
I tasted foot. It was a familiar flavor.
With age, a person typically acquires the ability to avoid making stupid comments. Wisdom teaches them to assess their surroundings for possible blunders before opening their mouth and releasing their thoughts. But some folks resist such cognitive advances. I happen to be one of these people, possessing a storied record of blunders, like the time I went to a Harley dealership to buy a used motorcycle from one of their mechanics. Finding the bike, I looked it over until my attention was diverted to a wild chopper painted neon orange and tan like some creamsicle nightmare. It was raked out to the next county, had enough chrome to blind a person on a sunny day, and was topped off by a jockey shift adorned with a coffin large enough to bury a midget. As I examined the monstrosity, another mechanic ambled over and started a very brief conversation that went:
Him: “Are you looking for a used bike?”
Him: “I see you’re looking at this one.”
Him: “What do you think of it?”
Me: “That’s the ugliest damn bike I’ve ever seen.”
Him: “It’s mine.”
From somewhere within the studio a person bellowed, “Bring out the bikes!”
Half a dozen mini bikes appeared ranging from 80cc dirt bikes to hand-built models powered by lawnmower engines. Everyone piled into the parking lot and commenced riding the little bikes like idiots by the orange light of sodium-vapor street lamps. Folks barely missed the dumpster on one lap, then narrowly avoided another rider on the next. A lawnmower-engine driven mini bike was handed to me and I worked the engine to capacity as we zoomed around the parking lot. From a distance it must have been quite a sight, like some deranged circus where inebriated adults did barely-controlled laps on tiny motorcycles.
Everything was grand until David insisted we trade bikes. I handed over the lawnmower model and took his dirt bike. He quickly straddled the pint-sized bike and sped off with the throttle wide open. David whizzed across the parking lot with the lawnmower engine screaming as the bike reached 40mph. He was headed directly for the gate. He showed no sign of slowing or turning as he kept going with the throttle pinned. And just as he neared the gate and the inevitable seemed to be unfolding, my thoughts went to advice given to me as kid.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s television and radio played public service announcements. They were mostly blurbs to keep folks from doing stupid things like getting into conversion vans with strangers, or to inform us that “venereal disease is for everyone.” They still pop up from time to time, but their heyday of movie stars and airwave dominance has passed. One in particular was my favorite. It was an anti-drunk driving PSA where different glasses came together in slow motion and shattered upon impact. First came two wine goblets, then two beer steins with a college insignia. The glasses were held by people standing out of frame so only their hand could be seen, and as the glasses moved towards each other they were accompanied by the sound of squealing tires from locked-up brakes. In the last moments of the PSA as two tumblers of dark liquor moved towards each other, a third hand came into frame from the bottom and stopped their impact. An ominous voice ended the message with the stern command not to let friends drink and drive.
That night there was no third hand to stop David. He slammed full speed into Green Day’s gate, sending the wall of metal tubing and chain link swinging ten feet from the bottom hinges. The huge gate swung up like an oversized doggie door, paused for a moment, then began to swing back. It picked up David and the mini bike, tossing them to the parking lot in a crumpled mass.
I ran to him and as I neared the pile of body and mini bike, he lifted his head and looked at me cross-eyed. “The brake’s on the wrong side,” he mumbled weakly.
The dirt bike he rode first had been equipped with all the controls in the usual places, including the brakes. Riding it had taken no thought on David’s part. But the lawnmower bike was reverse. A foot pedal on the left side operated the rear – and only – brake, opposite of convention.
“That’s why you didn’t stop,” I said suppressing laughter. “I was wondering why your right foot was dancing around the foot peg before you hit the gate.”
“You shoulda told me before I got on, mate.”
“I assumed you would have checked before pinning the gas.”
“My face hurts,” he replied lazily.
I pulled him to his feet to discover his ear was bleeding badly. In the soft light of the parking lot it was impossible to discern whether it was simply a flesh wound or something worse like a ruptured eardrum. “Come on. Let’s go inside,” I said ushering him towards the building.
The kitchen light proved David’s wound were nothing more than a deep cut on the lobe, and after applying enough gauze and tape to the side of his head to make him look like Princess Leia, I knew he would live. Though two days later he would wake with horrible neck pain from a pinched nerve that would leave him with months of traction in a dark room. It was the perfect environment for David to reflect upon his actions.
“Hey, you need to come see this,” one of the crew said poking his head in the kitchen. By the door sat the sad remains of the lawnmower-engine mini bike. The forks were bent back in a broad arch so the front wheel was pinned against the chassis. Deformation of the metal left the paint cracked and flaking. The front tire was flat, dangling limply from the crushed wheel, and the handlebars were bent forward into a V shape from the brutal impact. “Man, you really hit that gate,” he said laughing.
David, still out of sorts, mumbled, “Yeah, mate. It hurt like hell.” Then, indignantly, he asked me again, “Why didn’t you tell me the brake was on the wrong side?”
I shook my head and smiled.
We had drank their beer, insulted them, and destroyed their mini bike. Elizabeth could hardly string together enough words for a sentence and David was barely coherent with his head covered in bandages. Our work there was done. It was time to go.
We gathered our things and said goodbye.
Now I am not sure what was said after we left, but can only guess it went something like this:
Band member 1: “Who the hell invited those animals?”
Guy 1: “Not me.”
Guy 2: “Me neither.”
Band member 2: “I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’.”
Band manager: “I think it’s time to change the gate code.”