resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog
 
 

return to index


Publication: British GQ, 2004
 

The Guggenheim Motorcycle Club

If you’re rich, starry and feel the need for speed, the Guggenheim Motorcycle Club is the fastest place to socialize on earth. It counts Dennis Hopper, Lawrence Fishburne, Keanu Reeves, Jeremy Irons, Lauren Hutton and the American IT mogul Peter Norton among its swelling membership, the famous and the fearless of a two-wheels-good, four-wheels-bad celebrity sect who every so often gather and thunder off down the world’s prettiest roads towards somewhere even more fabulous than the last place they torched.

Inaugurated in 1998 when New York’s Guggenheim Foundation launched its exhibition The Art Of The Motorcycle - one of the museum’s most successful shows ever – the GMC equates to a ton-up Gumball Rally by way of the Venice Biennale on the set of Rumblefish, only with a more famous and cultivated cast. Art fanatics, speed freaks, gourmands, reformed hellraisers and serious thesps to a man and woman, GMC members aren’t the fussy, velvet-roped Oscarcentric kind of star. Instead they’re a crew of kindred celluloid souls who understand that the thrills of torque, altitude, expanse and distance just can’t be experienced on Rodeo Drive or Sunset.

The mission of the GMC is to ride to exotic destinations as stylishly as possible and take in some art once they arrive, in the process experiencing the kind of ‘normal’ that superstars rarely get to feel. Their gran turismo has taken them to Lisbon, Bilbao, St Petersburg, Novograd and Las Vegas via a parched run through Death Valley, initiating new members as they go. In September 2003, GQ cruised with them from BMW’s Munich HQ to enjoy the Monza Grand Prix, passing en route through Salzburg, the Dolomites, St Moritz, Milan, the island of Lenno on Lake Como, several castles, numerous villas and art galleries, and an unquantifiable number of splendid views over the undulations of mediaeval Europe.

The GMC fraternity is anointed in a passion for culture, company and adventure, and their bond runs deep, since it was sealed in blood during 2001 when member Lauren Hutton veered off a highway and crashed into the Californian scrub on the club’s run to open The Art Of The Motorcycle at Rem Koolhaas’s The Venetian casino in Las Vegas. The 25-times Vogue cover star sustained concussion, a broken wrist, a fractured sternum and multiple cuts and bruises necessitating seven hours of surgery, none of which prevented her from later commenting, ‘I love the feeling of being a naked egg atop that throbbing steel. You feel vulnerable but so alive.’

Which describes exactly the frisson you experience when you climb onto the back of a gargantuan BMW iron horse, one autumnal Wednesday afternoon, as the GMC roll onto the autobahn to Salzburg in a fireball of paparazzi flash and megawatt Hollywood starriness astride quantum motorcycle engineering that makes anything the Wachowski Brothers dreamed up for The Matrix seem as advanced as Meccano. To the left, fridge-sized Lawrence ‘call me Fish’ Fishburne sits on the vast 98bhp K1200 LT tourer and fixes the distance in a thousand-yard stare; to the right flank Jeremy Irons manoeuvres a glinting R1150 RT whose CD player pipes Bruce Springsteen, while the GMC’s hulking president Tom Krens disappears on a R 1150 GS Adventure.

And it goes without saying that the prototype Easy Rider himself, Dennis Hooper, sapphire eyes ablaze under a helmet he’s stickered with a stars & stripes decal, rides the hottest machine: a R 1200 C Montauk. He winks conspiratorially, which he does a lot, dumps the clutch out and roars off into the vanishing point in a way guaranteeing you’ll never look at your commuter-model 50cc Piaggio Zip in quite the same way ever again.

*

For the typical cash-rich, time-poor and experience-hungry A-lister existing in the celebrity airlock, motorcycling represent the purest kind of abandon. It packages speed, solitude and an edge of outsider cool onto two wheels. A twist of the throttle instantly parachutes the rider in the mindzone mapped out in Easy Rider, The Wild One and Steve McQueen’s bunny-hopping Great Escape sequence, a cinematic legacy whose appeal transcending the perimeters of the screen. Motorcycling permits Hollywood heroes to ride together in the kind sociable anonymity that would be impossible otherwise. Doing so through Europe, meanwhile, promises  the kind of culture and cuisine that just can’t be found between Key West and Miami Beach.

At the other end of the autobahn, 100 kilometres away in Salzburg, Jeremy Irons is describing the genesis of his affection for motorcycles in the bar of Schwartzstrasse’s Hotel Sacher. Louche and leathery in more than just his choice of outerwear, The Mission star loves to ride big bikes, and is apt to pronounce on his adventures in actorly couplets (‘I’ve walked the Alps, I’ve ridden the Alps…’ being just one.)

‘I bought my first motorbike when I was 28,’ he says he says between roll-ups. ‘It wasn’t until I saw how they used motorcycles in China there that I realised what they were for. I remember going to Harrod’s behind her was the dog, a small pointer. That taught me about the freedom. It changed my life completely.

‘On my fortieth birthday – the classic time – I bought a second-hand BMW RT100. I’d never ridden anything so fast in all my life. I was doing 90 and no idea how to stop this. One day I picked up a friend - she came out in long skirt with a split up the front, flung her leg over the machine, and I thought, ‘it’s worth the money already.’

No-one can seriously argue that serious motorcycling doesn’t make or keep you attractive to women, which is arguably the reason most of Equity got into the profession in the first place. That doubtless accounts for the sizeable brigade of ‘bitches’ - their term - on this five-day burn. Typically, no GMC rides goes without a fabulous dusting of international sirens. The American multimillionairess magazine publisher Louise McBain rides pillion with Jeremy Irons. Catherine Nouvel, the icy-on-the-eye and stridently Parisien wife of French architectural magus Jean Nouvel, keeps Tom Krens’ back end warm. Meanwhile Mrs Lawrence Fishburne, the actress Gina Torres, keeps her husband to a sensible speed as we wind through the cols of the Dolomites. More sensibly still, Dennis Hopper’s fifth wife Victoria and their newborn daughter Galen rides behind in a 5-Series BMW.

‘We get on very well,’ Irons adds. ‘We started with a few more – Bob Geldof rode with us to Bilbao, but he never really bit. We make each other laugh. Americans usually love to travel with large entourages, but we just enjoy slumming it, being normal, and travelling light with no fuss.’

At all times, nevertheless, the ‘Bitch/Bastard’ power dynamic is invoked through a relentless routine quips, barbs and innuendo that leads to Louise McBain declaring ultimately that she requires ‘her own bitch’. ‘If you want a bitch,’ Lawrence Fishburne wisely points out, ‘you need a long dick’ (presumably he’d know.)

This evening the stars take the airs through Salzburg without being mobbed, hassled for autographs or assaulted and head to the gallery of Thaddeus Ropac, a former Warhol associate and friend of Hopper’s, for a private view of German sculptor Anselm Kiefer’s new work.

‘Usually I’m surrounded by a whole bunch of security staff,’ says Lawrence Fishburne notes, casting around to note the uncommon absence of minders, agents, hangers-on. ‘We rode together to Bilbao to open the exhibition there, and Dennis, Lauren, Jeremy and I spend a couple of hours walking round at night. It was incredible. That kept me going for a couple of years.’

‘When we’re together, I don’t think of us as famous,’ Dennis Hopper concurs. ‘We live such privileged lives, but I know if we weren’t doing this we’d all be digging ditches.’

Ropac’s exhibition in his spacious townhouse conversion produces rapture in Hopper. Far too wise these day to speculate with narcotics, women or wheels, at 67 he pours his connoisseurial appetite for living into modern art. An impishly compact figure and warm conversationalist, he is full of questions about how his friend Damien Hirst is getting along in London, and about the YBA’s sculpture in Hoxton Square. He is avuncular, amusing and strikingly sane, even though the way his laser-beam gaze lingers a nanosecond or so too long hints that the lunatic within hasn’t been fully exorcised.

He promptly puts in a bid for a sizeable Kiefer sculpture. ‘I always wanted to be an artist,’ he muses, ‘but I ended up being an actor. Abstract expressionism was my thing. I was photographing Warhol, Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg back then, I bought the first Campbell’s Soup can for picture for $70 bucks. Do I have any regrets? Nah, but there’s a few years where I wish I’d been more creative.’

If Dennis Hopper has been canonised as Hollywood’s singular motorbike outlaw, he never particularly meant it that way. He created rules by breaking others, beginning with the US Federal highway code. He made a career on top of a motorbike, but in 67 years characterised by towering successes and ignominious plummets, he’s also fallen off plenty of them. As a young actor he crashed Vespa scooter on which he and Steve McQueen were tearing around New York City. Some fool opened a car door, and the young actors found themselves in the road with a mouthful of tarmac. McQueen split, being late for a rehearsal, leaving Hopper to clean up the mess. Naturally, neither had licences.

Hopper still didn’t have a licence by the time he directed his motorbike romp The Glory Stompers in 1968, and then Easy Rider a year later. ‘Before Easy Rider I had a really bad accident going 30 miles an hour down Sunset Boulevard. I had a younger woman on the back. There was oil on the road and the bike turned over. It was such a stupid thing and nothing do with going fast or anything crazy, so I needed to stay in the hospital during ten days with a broken ankle.’

‘For me motorbikes were always work,’ he says. ‘The only time I ever rode a motorcycle was in a movie. I directed Easy Rider from the back of a motorcycle, before that I made the Glory Stompers. The best ride I did was riding down a valley I was directing Easy Rider going to Valley trying to get a last shot before the sun came down for Easy Rider. It was an incredible ride this, personally, because I was alone on the trying to get there and the camera crew and everybody were following me.’ When the California Highway Patrol eventually arrived to disentangle Lauren Hutton after she crashed in 2001, it turned out Hopper still didn’t have the correct documentation, and he spent the next three days wrangling with the CHiPs.

*

A more measured through no less thrilling affair, the next two days of riding through the mountains at an average of 1600m above sea level provide oohs and aahs of a different kind.

‘We have one bone of contention in the club,’ Jeremy Irons tells me at a pitstop near the Swiss-Italian border, ‘Dennis and Fish are very slow. They’re American riders. They sit on big fat hogs and go along the highway at 50 mph. I can’t concentrate driving slowly. I just get cold and fed up. Speed is what it’s all about: it’s like motor racing. Something happens, I get the bit between my teeth and change mode.’

Breathtaking panoramas of the Austrian Tyrol give way to breathtaking panoramas of the Italian Dolomites as the motorcade snake professionally up mountainsides, along ridges, down valleys and around desperate S-bends at terrifying speeds with regular contests for the lead that doubtless leave their pillions damp at the gusset. The stars rhapsodise fulsomely every vista and view as we stop for coffee, cigarettes or adjustments. ‘It don’t get no better than this,’ Fishburne notes at one particularly Zen-like instance of motorcycle maintenance, looking over the Dolomiti d’Ampezzo to Monte Civetta in blazing sunshine.

At the exclusive Majun Residence later in Badia Alta, Irons arrives late for dinner dressed in full-length smock, leather sandals and a rough leather belt, and messianically serves red wine to everyone. At a service station near Trentino Lawrence Fishburne in Morpheus-style shades shakes out his limbs with some kung-fu moves and does the splits, before speeding off towards St Moritz at 160kmh, which is as fast as it is chilly. The lavish seven-course lunch at Il Castello Bruno near Cison di Valmarino, a magnificently restored fortress dating to the Roman era, is representative of the hospitality Italian gentry display towards roaming celebrities who show up on motorbikes. And following an arduous nighttime dash through mountains and rain to St Moritz, Louise McBain throws a midnight dinner party at her chalet where Lawrence Fishburne, amid a fog of Cohiba smoke, politely refuses GQ’s request for a performance of his seminal dance to ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ from Apocalypse Now.

Because celebrities on holiday are like anyone else on holiday: wealthier, starrier and, on machines like these, considerably faster than your average tourist of course, but focused on feeling among the elements and the ground beneath the feet again. It takes 500-miles a blast along the autostrada at breakneck speed to feel like you’re walking at a normal pace again.

To Milan tomorrow and Monza to watch Montoya finish second to Schumacher the day after. Dennis, Lawrence and Jeremy are already plotting the next adventure, which could be Mexico, though everyone wants to make for China and ride from Beijing to Moscow. The only problem being that there aren’t any roads connecting the two cities.

‘No roads,’ Jeremy Irons nods. ‘You’ll love that Dennis.’

‘Oh Brother…,’ Hopper grins. ‘I’m off the road already.’

© Kevin Braddock 2004

 
   

Dennis Hopper and I, Salzburg, Austria. 
 
 
 
All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.