I learned the other day that Brian Catterson is stepping down from the editorship of Motorcyclist and giving the big desk to Marc Cook. Cook and I worked together at Cycle Guide from July of 1985, when I started there, until the day in 1987 when the owner shut the place down and locked the doors.
He might not appreciate me revealing his nickname during those years––Elroy, after the youngest Jetson child––so I won't. On weekends he worked as a doorman at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach (“It was Hismosa before the divorce…”) where comics like Jay Leno were regulars. Every Monday morning after his doorman gig Cook was a walking highlight reel of all the best bits from the weekend shows.
Many of the moments at CG that I remember best co-starred Cook. For one story the magazine borrowed a Yoshimura Suzuki Superbike from Craig Vetter’s collection. It was a battle-scarred warhorse, ridden by Wes Cooley in AMA races. The evening before we were supposed to take it and an ex-Kenny Roberts TZ750 to Willow Springs for testing and photography, Cook and I rolled it out of the garage into the alley behind the offices to start it up and check for leaks or misfires.
It was strictly a bump-and-run bike, free of starters of either the electric or kick variety, so we flipped the handlebar-mounted toggle switch to “on” and started pushing. When we dropped the clutch the bike stopped as if it had hit a brick wall. We did this for about an hour, trading places every few attempts, and finally gave up. Only then, with the sun going down and the sweat pouring off of us, did it occur to one of us to check the kill switch. What we found was the switch had been wired backwards, with the little metal tab with “on” and “off” written on it reversed. We turned the switch off, gave it one last bump, and it lit up with an ear-busting roar, nearly dragging us halfway down the alley.
Writing a monthly magazine involves more than just big stories. Every word on every page has to come from somewhere. On the Cycle Guide table of contents page, under the title of each story, was a subhead (subtitle), which by tradition had to be different from the subhead that appeared under the title on the first page of the article itself. That always struck me as a lot of extra work for something I was convinced nobody but us would ever notice, and it was. The task of writing the subheads often fell to Cook and me, often late at night a few days before the magazine shipped, and we kept it interesting by wracking our caffeine-soaked brains for pun-based subheads so esoteric they should have come with footnotes. We played off each other’s ideas, riffing like jazz musicians except without music, just words. Today, whenever I try to explain to someone how exhilarating that was, all I get is blank stares.
Cook and I went road-testing together now and then in the canyons near Malibu. We were pretty evenly matched, with me usually outbraking him going into corners, and him showing me his taillight on the way out. On one such ride, with Cook on a Suzuki GSX-R750 and me on a Yamaha FZ700, we rode Sand Canyon Road for miles, ignoring the double-yellow and the blind corners, passing and re-passing, slamming the door and busting it wide open, with a sheer drop on one side of the canyon so deep that if we had gone over the guard rail we’d have starved to death before we hit the bottom.
We finally came to a wide spot in the road and pulled over. Cook took his helmet off, I took mine off, and before either of us said a word we started laughing at the lunacy of what we’d been doing, and our sheer dumb luck at not having been killed.
I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that Cycle Guide was where I learned my craft. Just as some hospitals are teaching hospitals, CG was a teaching magazine. In addition to getting the magazine out on time each month, the two editors I worked under there had another goal––to make sure everyone who worked there learned enough about good writing so they’d be able to make a living at it after they left. It worked in my case, and in Cook’s, too.
Prediction is never without risk, but I’ll go out on a limb and say Motorcyclist with Cook at the helm is going to be a very good read. In the CG days Cook had a subversive sense of humor, the kind that sneaks up on you and picks your pocket so deftly you don’t realize it until later when look for your wallet and can’t find it. I hope the corporate culture doesn’t beat that out of him. I haven’t spoken to him in many years, but I’ve read his work whenever I came across it, and he hasn’t lost the knack of clear, lucid writing that was drilled into him at CG.
One final thing. I’m not sure what pressures will be brought to bear on the new occupant of Motorcyclist’s wheelhouse. I’m more certain that everyone will want something from the new guy before he figures out who’s worth listening to and who’s blowing smoke. Before all the requests start, I’d like to ask one thing for me, just one small thing.
Stop using all those goddam exclamation points.