MYS­TERY MAN

A 45-year story from both sides of the cam­era lens

Street Chopper - - Contents - WORDS: MARK MASKER PHO­TOS: SANDY ROCA

There’s an old say­ing that it takes two peo­ple to cre­ate his­tory: one to make it and one to record it. This is the story of some­one who spent most of his time be­hind the cam­era lens but ev­ery so of­ten built some his­tory of his own. Run­ning the time ma­chine back­ward, we ar­rive around 1970. The first big wave in the chop­per mo­tor­cy­cle craze is gain­ing mo­men­tum. The in­ter­net is al­most a quar­ter cen­tury off, so spe­cialty mag­a­zines are the killer app of that day to find out the who, the what, and the how of al­most any sub­ject you could choose.

And it’s not long be­fore pi­o­neer­ing South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pub­lish­ers and a cadre of pho­tog­ra­phers, writ­ers, and ed­i­tors make pos­si­ble and ex­e­cute the in­evitable: chop­per mag­a­zines. Blaz­ing the trail was Tom Mc­mullen and his mag­a­zine Street Chop­per. Not far be­hind was Easyrid­ers, the com­bined ef­fort of de­sign ge­nius Lou Kimzey, Joe Teresi, and Mil Blair. These pub­li­ca­tions came at the sub­ject from to­tally dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions. But to a great ex­tent, they both made the chop­per and cus­tom mo­tor­cy­cle world what it is to­day.

Mean­while, on the other side of the coun­try, a fu­ture bike pho­tog and writer had just got­ten his un­der­grad de­gree in English and writ­ing. Even in those days that was pretty much a guar­an­tee of un­em­ploy­ment. It took about a year for that to sink in. So what to do?

What this young man had kind of mi­nored in, how­ever, was…mo­tor­cy­cles. At 18, he cut his teeth on a rare Zun­dapp and then in col­lege came across a Vincent that struck his fancy. Nei­ther brand was ex­actly the thing you could tool on down to your lo­cal Harley shop for parts or ser­vice. So the bikes’ me­chan­ics be­came a self-taught skill for him.

About the same time his un­cle was clean­ing out the at­tic. Did nephew want a sur­plus press cam­era? And some big-for­mat, freezer- kept color film! Ya think?!

It didn’t hap­pen overnight, but steadily this lowly lens­man of the fu­ture learned the craft of cus­tom mo­tor­cy­cle pho­tog­ra­phy. Credit goes to Jim Clark, ed­i­tor of Street Chop­per, and the late Lou Kimzey, ed­i­to­rial hon­cho at Easyrid­ers, for some kind and pa­tient con­struc­tive crit­i­cism ex­actly when it was needed. From Lou it was ad­vice like, “Fea­ture the bike, not some crap in the back­ground.” And Jim pulled the ki­mono back on the art of us­ing flash to fill in black shad­ows on a sunny day. Iron­i­cally, a com­pet­ing pho­tog­ra­pher, the late and great Carl Ca­iati, lent much sage ad­vice and en­cour­age­ment to this still- green young­ster.

Of course there was and still is one fur­ther and cru­cial in­gre­di­ent: the builders whose tal­ent made the bike ar­ti­cles, the how-to sto­ries, the eye-pop­ping paint-job pho­tos pos­si­ble. With­out the magic of East and Mid­west cus­tom crafters of that day— like Kelsey Martin, Steve Stone, Dave Pere­witz, Yosemite Sam Radoff, Gary De­san­tis, Woody, among many oth­ers— there wouldn’t have been any­thing for this bud­ding pho­tog to shoot.

It all came to­gether in the spring of 1971. It seems like it took months to get a good sunny Sun­day. But there it was: Kelsey’s fab­u­lous early Tri­umph chop­per, the Ghost, parked in the mid­dle of a green Bev­erly, Mas­sachusetts, grave­yard, per­fectly pic­ture ready. It was a big chance to take. The cam­era­man was wet be­hind the ears and un­tried. But credit goes to Kelsey for giv­ing the green­horn a chance.

“Fea­ture the bike, not some crap in the back­ground.” And Jim pulled the ki­mono back on the art of us­ing flash to fill in black shad­ows on a sunny day.

The shut­ter on that big press cam­era clicked, the color film got pro­cessed, and the re­sults looked pretty good. But now what? The an­swer to that was La­co­nia.

Kelsey took the fully chromed and spec­tac­u­larly painted Ghost to the big La­co­nia, New Hamp­shire, run. The bike cut a wide swath and at­tracted the at­ten­tion of one Tom Mc­mullen. Re­mem­ber him, the found­ing fa­ther of Street Chop­per? Could we run it in the mag­a­zine, Tom asked Kelsey. Yes, came the an­swer, but only if you use this new­bie pho­tog’s work. One can only imag­ine the heart­burn at Street Chop­per, won­der­ing what kind of pho­tos those would be. Could they maybe bury them postage-stamp small on some back page?

Quite the op­po­site. Be­cause, lo and be­hold, on the cover and cen­ter­spread of Street Chop­per, Oc­to­ber 1971 there ap­pears the Ghost at grave­side, and the crys­tal- clear photo work that was this new­comer’s ex­per­i­ment but would soon be­come his high stan­dard.

From there it was pretty much off to the races. Our pho­tog­ra­pher quickly learned that ed­i­tors loved his big press- cam­era pho­tos. But even more they liked that he could pen a half­way de­cent story to go along with them. Re­mem­ber that early bike me­chanic ex­pe­ri­ence and writ­ing sheep­skin? Seemed use­less then but not at all now.

Also, those Cal­i­for­nia mag­a­zines wanted to ap­peal to a na­tion­wide au­di­ence, so this Easterner found his Right Coast ma­te­rial helped to­ward that goal. They loved lo­cal

bikes from Bay State-based Kelsey’s Kus­toms and Pere­witz. And he be­gan to stray from just Mas­sachusetts, trav­el­ing as far as Wis­con­sin and Mary­land. He spent time in cen­tral Con­necti­cut tak­ing pic­tures of Woody-painted bikes and at Radoff’s Detroit shop.

From those be­gin­nings, the now pro pho­tog worked both in free­lance and staff po­si­tions. He cruised to Cal­i­for­nia and back a few times. The ros­ter in­cluded still- ex­ist­ing and long- gone pub­li­ca­tions alike: Street Chop­per, Hot Bike, Cy­cle Guide, Cus­tom Chop­per, Easyrid­ers, Big Bike, Spe­cial Chop­pers, Su­per­cy­cle, The Horse, Vin­tage Bike, and even the es­tab­lish­ment, Cy­cle.

In the mid-1970s, he fi­nally de­signed, built, and pho­tographed a chop­per of his own. The re­sult was the Mys­tery Sled, ap­pear­ing in Easyrid­ers. Later, he fo­cused on me­chan­ics and cre­ated many Tech Tips in that mag­a­zine. The ed­i­tors were adamant but ap­pre­cia­tive. Say it in 700 word or less, they told him. He did.

As the decades passed, he free­lanced off and on. More bikes were com­mis­sioned and built. His health be­gan to go south, so tal­ented friends and builders helped out. It was an eclec­tic col­lec­tion: an 1,120cc Mus­ket V-twin by Aniket Vard­han, a Feul­ing W3 bobber by Stone’s Mo­tor­cy­cle Co., a restora­tion of an­other screwy Zun­dapp by Ken Owen, and even a Vincent chop­per. He wan­dered into the world of web de­sign and built Kelseyskus­toms.com and a trib­ute to his late bike pho­tog buddy: Carl- Ca­iati.com.

So now we come to the fi­nal and touchy chap­ter of this novella. Ex­actly who is this man? He is re­luc­tant about that. He has al­ways felt that fo­cus should be on the builder, the painter, the sub­ject— but not him. How­ever, four-plus decades of shoot­ing, writ­ing, and some­times build­ing cer­tainly mer­its some ac­knowl­edg­ment, we got him to ad­mit grudg­ingly.

If you cruise through the now-yel­lowed pages of vin­tage chop­per and cus­tom bike mag­a­zines, you have prob­a­bly seen the credit lines for the likes of Sandy Roca, Sid Roundtree, Marv Hew­son, Ted Conejo, and oth­ers. In dusty old Easyrid­ers you can find pho­tos and sto­ries shot and writ­ten by Jake, Mathew Brady, Ol’ Coot, Fear­less Fo­tog, and Sniveler. And in the 21st cen­tury, there is an In­sta­gram feed by Sandy, a.k.a. Jake. All these mot­ley crew are pen names of one man. Let’s leave it at that! Or not. Sandy Roca, a.k.a. Jake, a.k.a. a mil­lion other aliases, is also a vin­tage air­craft buff. You can read his work on the sub­ject at rareplanes.com. SC

He has al­ways felt that fo­cus should be on the builder, the painter, the sub­ject—but not him.

And then there’s Sandy the builder. His two fa­vorites that he’s made: this sil­ver Shov­el­head he did in ’ 78 ( right) and the Vincent chop­per he just fin­ished with Steve Stone’s help. “The Vincent is prob­a­bly go­ing to of­fend many,” Roca says. “I mean, how can you chop a sa­cred Vin­nie?”

Two masters, one bike: Sandy Roca’s ex­cel­lent pho­tog­ra­phy does jus­tice to Sam Radoff’s paint in all of these chop­pers he shot in the early 1970s.

Novem­ber 1978 cover of Street Chop­per mag­a­zine

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