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6th annual David Mann Chopper Fest

By Felicia Morgan

Mann and machine

A lifestyle icon’s legacy lives on

Ventura, Calif., Dec. 13—As I walked onto the Ventura County Fairgrounds and past the ticket takers for the sixth annual version of the David Mann Chopper Fest, the tall and graceful palm trees that dot the venue swayed slightly against a blue sky. Ahead, the grassy areas were choked with motorcycles of every make and model, many sporting tiny gas tanks, high handlebars and upswept exhaust pipes. Folks strolled down paved paths edged with the white tent tops of vendors that stretched out of sight. A band played. The whole scene might have been from a Dave Mann painting depicting a sunny Southern California Sunday morning where the two-wheel lifestyle takes center stage.

What made it all the more remarkable was the fact that, until a few hours before, the whole region had been drenched in a downpour of what seemed like biblical proportion. But those who fretted over the fate of this show and who may have been looking over their shoulder for a passing ark need not have worried. It was clear now that—in the words of Slim, one of the young Mohawked bike fans on hand for this year’s Mannfest—everyone here had “lived to chop another day.”

And, it can be argued, that’s just the way it should be. After all, David Mann was an amazing artist who left an indelible mark on our society, particularly that portion that worships at the two-wheel, motor-driven shrine of the gearhead. Anybody who can kick-start an entire culture dedicated to his art, as Dave did with the chopper revolution he ignited through his paintings (many of which appeared in Easyriders magazine), is quite a guy.

In a working lifetime that spanned parts of five decades, Mann’s mustachioed, longhaired dudes and shapely chicks astride bare-boned bikes became synonymous with the biker lifestyle (long before that term came into use) he depicted. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Mann’s work continued to grace the pages of Easyriders until 2003, when illness forced him to quit. In 2004, Billy Lane inducted Mann into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, and he passed away in September of that same year.

From tattoos, motorcycle styling and centerfold art tacked to clubhouse walls, Mann’s artful imaginings, and his influence on an art form now dubbed “Low Brow,” made their way across the globe during his lifetime. The way he lived his life, and his work, continues to inspire and awe the biker culture, so it’s only fitting that an event in his memory is planned every year. Held here along the shores of the laid-back SoCal city of Ventura, it’s just the way it should be.

Each December for the last six years, Seaside Park at the County Fairgrounds has swung open its gates to welcome the hordes of folks who arrive to soak up the surf, sand, and spirit of the David Mann Chopper Fest. There’s live music, a swap meet and one of the baddest bike shows you’ve ever seen, all sprinkled with SoCal cool vibes and warm rays. Words like “happening” and “aura” are bandied about, and the laid-back attitude of the local surfers oozes across the sandy sod. But first and foremost, there is Mann’s art.

Kool Mann kool
Examples of Dave Mann’s art are displayed everywhere. From T-shirts and the original works that hang in the main building, to the interpretations of the choppers he popularized that are entered in the bike show and the framed print copies sold outdoors, Mann is represented across the sprawling venue in all forms imaginable. There’s even an award, the David Mann Memorial award, that’s presented to the motorcycle that best reflects what David Mann’s vision of a chopper was.

Even the awards themselves are art. Designed by artist Doug Dorr, the bike show awards are funky, eye-catching collectibles done in the Kalifornia Kustom Kulture style. The “Kool Tools” awards are DoRr originals and presented to top winners of the show. For the 2009 iteration, there were 150 bikes entered in 14 classes, which represented the biggest bike show this event has ever put together. Considering the weatherman’s dour prediction for the weekend, and the absolute pelting the entire coast of California was taking the night before the event, it was nothing short of miraculous that it all came together beautifully for the one-day event

Or was it? According to “Clean” Dean Shawler, Biker magazine’s editor-in-chief and a judge for the bike show, definitely not. “Dave came through for us again this year,” Dean casually commented as he chewed on his cigar, all the while jotting notes on his judge’s sheets. It’s a widely held belief among those who knew him that the spirit of Mann roams the grounds and spreads the love, and mild weather, from the great beyond.

Mann memories
Some 16 years ago, it was on this very site that Mann and his beloved wife Jacquie were married. Their ceremony was shared with a few friends as well as the attendees who cruised the swap meet that was regularly scheduled at the Fairgrounds. This venue is also where his memorial was held, on December 12, 2004, so it stands to reason that this could well be a comfortable place for the iconic artist’s spirit to drift among his fans and friends.

At this year’s Chopper Fest, Kim Peterson, editor of In the Wind magazine and one of the judges for the day, shared memories from the times before Mann made the move west from Kansas City. Peterson laughingly recalls, “It used to be a nightmare, hovering around the mailbox in Malibu, waiting for Dave’s art to arrive from Kansas City, then rushing back to the office to get it done in time for deadline.”

But Mann’s work became famous from those submissions and his memory lives on in the Chopper Fest. Riders cruise from far and near (bikes with New Mexico and Arizona plates were spotted out in the parking lot) to attend this little soiree, and the entertainment provided by the vast array of customized steel was worth the 10 bucks it took to get in. But that wasn’t all you got for your greenbacks.

In addition to the old-fashioned and wildly popular swap meet, music drifts through the venue as shoppers check out the vendor’s booths and tantalizing tidbits in the artifacts section. The Starfuckers, a powerful trio comprised of talented gents who changed their name for the day to “Star Truckers” out of respect for the families in the crowd, rocked the stage all afternoon. Guitarist Gilby Clarke (formerly of Guns ’n’ Roses), bass player Stephen Adika (Glamnation) and drummer Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats) banged out some great tunes and shared the stage with master of ceremonies, Jennifer Scott Santolucito. Jennifer, charming and chatty, kept things moving smoothly throughout the afternoon, tossing swag to the crowd on occasion and announcing the various schedules.

Tory DuVarney, promoter of the Chopper Fest, told Thunder Press that the 2009 party was considered a success “despite the weather and rain forecast, this was our biggest show to date. We presented 38 awards and drew over 3,500 attendees.” They even sold out of event T-shirts. As always, the desire is to draw more artists into future events, since that was David’s passion.

Jacquie Mann, David’s widow, maintains a David Mann Memorial Fund to help aspiring artists in their endeavors, and a portion of the proceeds from this event go to that fund.

“Dave had the passion, the love, for what gave him a living,” she explains. “His gift and talent afforded him the opportunity to experience the lifestyle he enjoyed to paint, with every expression, personally. He was fortunate enough to share with those who love the lifestyle of a biker. He touched and changed lives everywhere.”

Continuing with that same passion, Jacquie has joined with musician and entrepreneur Charlie Brechtel to make a documentary of Mann’s life. She’s committed to making a film honoring her very talented late husband and the lifestyle he so vividly portrayed in his art. “Working with Charlie has been great,” she shared. “He’s all about the history, and honoring David, and I just love that.” For 2010, the duo is seeking financial backing for the project. To get involved, contact Charlie Brechtel at ironvudu@caltel.com.

At the end of the day, it’s all about respect. Respect for David Mann’s vision, his art, his life and his lifestyle. As evidenced by the quantity, and quality, of bikes that participated in the Chopper Fest, it appears that David Mann lives on in the hearts and minds of many a biker.

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