Summertime in Chicago means food, festivals, baseball, tank tops and flip-flops. All the sunshine and snow cones can't hide the city's grunge, however. No, not the petri dish type of grunge under the bus seat, or the mysterious, brown tar grunge that falls from the elevated train. I'm talking the studded, black leathered, greasy haired, more ink than the Bible type of grunge that graces the annual street gathering known as Mods vs. Rockers Chicago. If you think this is just another ratty biker meet up, you're overlooking the scooter culture that shows up in force. They sport rides with as much history, custom design and how-does-that-work modification as any well-rounded motorcycle rally.
The British subcultures, Mods and Rockers, spawned across the pond in the 1960's. They represented two distinctly separate outlooks on life. Rockers, well..... "rocked out" to Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. They lived the "tough guy" image, oozing bravado and jumping at any chance to prove it. More importantly, Rockers rode bikes, motorcycles, screamin' demons, chopped and cafed to do "the ton." Doing 100 mph-plus was a right of passage, a symbol of pride. If you have ever ridden a motorcycle with 1960's tech, you can appreciate the feat. Air-cooled engines, drum brakes, narrow English streets and bad weather defined challenging, not to mention, deadly.
Rolled cuffs and scuffed leathers are only
part of the equation. Rockers also
make use of vintage bikes and fully alter
them to fit their taste.
Mods or modernists, by contrast, were clean-cut and smartly dressed. They loathed the brutish, dense, low-class Rockers and saw themselves as the cutting edge of fashion, music and culture. Mods favored jazz, soul, R&B and British pop bands like The Who. A scooter was the form of transport as a Mod, clean, practical, classy.
The youth movements clashed, often in displays of physical violence and public brawls. Thanks to media fanning the flames of hysteria, British society reacted, calling the generation "morally irresponsible" and blaming drug use, teen pregnancy and anything else convenient on them. Mods and Rockers died out in the '70s, but have since been reborn in America over the last decade, coinciding with the popularity of all things vintage. Most major cities, at least, have an underground representation, with Chicago catering to an established community.
Larry "Fletch" Fletcher, of Ton Up Club Chicago, started Mods vs. Rockers Chicago in 2005, and it has since grown into an event with hundreds of two-wheel mobiles and hundreds more people. He claims it's the largest MvR event in the States.
"Chicago is a city of nine million, in the heart of America's manufacturing and industry. We have the right ingredients for this type of motorcycle culture. I have been to the other Mods vs. Rockers events around the country and we definitely have the strongest showing. I started hosting vintage bike and scooter shows at ACE Cafe Chicago in '97. Vintage bikes have always been popular to us, but we have seen them become more and more fashionable, like choppers 10 years ago. What is really interesting, is to see what is coming out of clubs like Moped Army. Guys are doing pretty amazing things with 50cc."
When we asked Larry how he, and his fellow Ton Up Club members proved their machines had the beans to do 100 mph, he replied with a grin, "There are a few places around the city, but a certain stretch of asphalt separating the Downtown skyscrapers and Lake Michigan that is perfect in the very, very early morning hours.
The 2011 event unfolds on a sunny Saturday afternoon on N. Lincoln Ave. Fittingly, the bikes line the western side of the street, as the scooters hold down the east, but the violence and division that marked the original Mods vs. Rockers has faded into mutual respect and celebration of two wheeled culture. Slick pompadours, fat-framed shades, rolled jean cuffs and button-up vests mingle with a few passerbys on the sidewalk in front of Delilah's
, a nationally acclaimed whiskey bar, swapping looks and checking rides. An impromptu rendition of Grease threatens to break out at any moment. Enthusiasts hail from as far away as Milwaulkee, Indianapolis and Detroit. A few hours pass without an outburst of spontaneous street musical, and the crowd gears up for one of the event highlights, a cross-city TT race/rumble to the Bottom Lounge under the train tracks.
We rode along with a particularly diverse gang of Mods. They represented all the classic moto genres, from a heavenly, cream and chrome vintage Honda C50 Cub, to a ratty Vespa whose tatters and corrosion kept you guessing whether it was intentional or pulled out of the junk yard only on special occasions, to the slammed, stretched, more-LEDs-than-a-ferris-wheel custom Ruckuses. We asked Mike, why he chose to take his '08 Honda Ruckus to the extreme.
"If you want to stand out, you have to make it look a little different than the next guy. In a city like Chicago, you keep getting pushed further and further, so you end up with some pretty wicked machines. Plus, I think it is more challenging to customize a scooter! The scooter aftermarket is not as big as the motorcycle aftermarket, you have to get really creative and make a lot of your own parts."
His words were backed up by the fact, that several of the custom scooters wore bars, grips, levers and gauges straight out of motorcycle catalogs.
As the stragglers from the TT rolled up to the Bottom Lounge for fish 'n chips, we sat down for a pint of our favorite suds 'n water (relax....its main ingredient is water). We were entertained by live music, mostly punk with a twinge of rock, and treated to a burlesque "fashion tease" fitting to the establishment and its patrons. A roaring burnout against the bar's wall drew simultaneous looks of affirmation and disapproval from the Mods. The lingering rubber haze signaled the end of fine day of moto culture, but you can ride and rock through the entire summer all over Chicago thanks to a few bike-friendly establishments. Five Star Bar
, at 1424 W. Chicago Ave., hosts "Motorcycle Mondays" bike show on the first Monday of every month through November. They feature a different country of origin each month, and if you ride in on a moto from the featured country you earn a Five Star Bar patch for your leathers. "Pints 'n Pistons" at the Holiday Club
, 4000 N. Sheridan Rd, screens bikes, BBQ and B-movies every Wednesday night, while the burlesque girls of Vaudezilla swing by one Wednesday a month to throw a little fuel on your fire. If Chicago can't give you your fill of black leather, bravado and Rockabilly, Milwaulkee hosts its own version of Mods vs Rockers, called RockerBox
, August 6th. A street party and bike show that promises to be equal parts metal, beer and cheese.
Mods vs. Rockers Chicago has wrapped for 2011, but if you find yourself on the windy side of Lake Michigan this summer check out some of the places mentioned above and the people that make it possible:
If you plan on figuring out whether you're a Mod or a Rocker in 2012 go to www.TonUpClubChicago.com
for more info.