I’ve often thought that the reason it’s so difficult to capture the essence of motorcycling on film is because the absolute freedom of the riding experience prevents it from being contained in any medium. It must be experienced in its totality. Whatever aspects of the experience you are able to address on film are just a fraction and without all of it, it’s impossible to adequately express the complete experience. It seems like there have been so many feeble commercial attempts made at portraying motorcycling, that our history has become an endless B movie loop, expressing cliché after cliché without hitting the real bullseye. I think it’s safe to say there are more bad motorcycle movies and commercials than there are good ones.
It’s not surprising, then, that the commercial that makes my soul stir for a good motorcycle road trip more than any other motorcycle commercial is not a motorcycle commercial at all. It is a commercial for the Volvo S90. You know the one: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,” declares the voice of Josh Brolin quoting piecemeal and out of context from the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” a work known for evoking a sense of freedom. The only reference to this work, save the hashtag at the end of the commercial, is a brief, upside-down, partial glimpse of a Walt Whitman book cover on the car’s console.
So, what, besides a few wonderful lines from an American poet, make this car ad feel like a motorcycle ad? Some great scenery, for one thing. The great American west, the desert, the mountains and the coast. These places are real. “My own feet have tried it well,” as Mr. Whitman once wrote, and I’m hungry for more. Places like the ones in this commercial are the places epic road trips are made of. This ad also feels warm to me and my most pleasant motorcycling memories include lots of warm weather. It’s liberally seasoned with independence, an essential of proper motorcycling. Hell, the east and the west are his as are the north and the south. He pretty much can go wherever he wants to. Our Volvo-wheeling protagonist appears to live in some pretty cool digs, which we can assume come with some degree of responsibility and or success, yet he seems to have the ability to drop everything to answer the “Song of the Open Road” in what looks like a fair sense of urgency. That appeals to me, though I’m not willing to make the sacrifices needed to truly achieve that on a daily basis. So, while the ad may not be realistic it feels right and it makes me hungry for the open road. That fox does kind of bother me, though.
Let’s contrast this with the Wild Hogs type of ads that are used to sell everything from insurance to the Mercedes-AMG ad featured on the recent Super Bowl. Aside from the fact that I’m not, nor ever will likely be in the market for a sweet car like the AMG Benz, I guess the message of this ad called “Easy Driver” is that owning one of these cars makes you even more badass than bikers are. There’s all the stereotypical grittiness associated with a biker bar, roadhouse or clubhouse, save for Peter Fonda’s new leather which look as though they just came off the rack. And was I the only one left wondering why you need a full set of leathers to drive a performance version of a Mercedes roadster? I also wondered why the bikers represented in this ad were all portrayed as inept, aging and hapless. While that may be an accurate portrayal of all of us from time to time, it’s not who we are exclusively. The mostly-aging bikers in this ad still worship at the altar of Easy Rider, featuring a movie-poster Captain America look-alike tank and helmet, accented with a few personal photos and vigil candles that will burn until Fonda, the motorcycling messiah of a generation, returns. Which he apparently decided to do on this day in his hotted-up Mercedes. Bad enough he isn’t riding; he actually blocked in the bikers at Tiny’s and wouldn’t have even stopped in to say hello if the crew hadn’t run outside to deal with the parking issue. Lest you think I’ve lost my sense of humor, it’s not lost on me that every song on the juke box is “Born to Be Wild” or that the road dawg playing it had to adjust his bifocals before making his selection, or that there is still at least one patron so moved by the tune that he raises his lighter in support. Funny stuff.
Yep, I’m ready for winter to be over and I’m hearing the song of the open road. As it turns out, my open road is more Whitman than it is Steppenwolf. Be not detain’d.