Harleys, hot cars, and noise abatement

harley II.bmp

When I hear a really loud noise, I’m pretty sure the world is ending. My senses stop working, as if too much data in one circuit provokes an emergency shut down order for all the others. And I can’t think. My wits are scrambled.

Clearly, cats have the right idea. The sensible thing to do is to hide under a bed until someone spends 20 minutes persuading you it’s dinner time. But let me warn you that taking refuge under a parked car is a lot less comfortable, and no one ever comes to talk you out.

One thing I resent about motorcycles, especially Harleys, is that they make the heavens tremble as if before the approach of a God. But the “god” in question sometimes turns out to be a greasy, 50 year old, biker with a prison record, a meth problem and a history of wife abuse. Unless of course he is one of those boomer executives who have taken to riding Harleys, in which case you can scratch the meth problem.

If we were to do the ethnography (to discover what the Harley sound means to the biker), some bikers say a hog makes them formidable, tough, and dangerous. That big, rolling sound makes them look and feel like outlaws. But the sound breaks the soft law of social convention, not the hard law of the penal code. So these bikers can commit an act against the community without actually going to jail. (Babies.)

If we were to do the anthropology (to discover what the Harley sound means to the rest of us), we could say it’s a weapon of class revenge. For this thunder has the ability to cut through the boundaries designed to exclude and diminish an outlaw biker. It cuts through the great leafy hedges and gigantic masonry of the club and the suburb.

The Harley sound goes right through. For a second, it says: I am here, you are mine. In a 60 minutes ride through a city or a suburb a Harley owner can interrupt and antagonize thousands of people, a welcome break from beating your wife or a fellow club member. The Harley sonically amplifies the rider, and sonically disarms the rest of us.

Clearly we need a new noise abatement policy and I was heartened recently to hear that Mayor Bloomberg has passed new by-laws. This is good. But we must go further. The trick here is to reengineer the cultural meaning of Harley or hot-car sound. We need to make it mean something that diminishes the “speaker,” not the listener.

Here’s what I propose, that henceforth we recode the sound of a hot car to mean: “I have very real emotional problems” and the sound of the Harley to mean: “I am sexually inadequate.” Clearly, both things are true. Why else would they protest too much? With this act of cultural re-engineering, we are not so much recoding as decoding the Harley sound.

What you can do. The next time a hot car or Harley intrudes upon your sonic space, give the driver/rider one of those really sympathetic gazes, the ones that say, “I feel your pain. I really do. We know you have a problem. But what you must know is that we are here for you.” Practice with me. Try the international signal for sympathy. Arch your eye brows upward, and tuck your chin to one side. Smile ruefully. Nod sympathically. By golly, I think you’ve got it.

Naturally, what these bikers are hoping for is a look of awe or irritation. If we send another signal, we interfere with this “social construction” of the self. We hold up a new mirror. Naturally, these people are not the brightest creatures on the planet. If they were, they would have seen through their behavior a long time ago. So it will take lots of people engaging in lots of sympathetic nods to have the desired effect.

But one day, with the blessing of George Herbert Mead and the other gods of the social sciences, we may once more walk down the street without fear of sonic infringement or the temptation of taking refuge beneath a parked car.


Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The political economy of music. Brian Massumi, trans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

30 thoughts on “Harleys, hot cars, and noise abatement

  1. LK

    re: don’t bring on da noise / recoding the code of the road

    i think what we’re looking at with the 40 and 50 something harley riders with thick investment portfolios is not about sexual inadequacy at all but about a personal sense of loss or distance; a distance from that “easy rider” world they always held in such high regard but did not pursue. instead they became lawyers, realtors, doctors, dealmakers, marketing guys, etc….and now they want the best of both worlds. they want to be seen as the easy rider, but only have the courage to do it with the safety net of the fat bank account. it’s not unlike arena rock bands wanting “street cred”…by writing a song with a political theme, or donating money to guatemalan refugees. (who knew jon bon jovi really cared?)

    they have the cultural status and the capital and now they want to use it to be able to align themselves with the subcultural status. sort of defeats the purpose and seem extremely transparent.

    when my 79 renault le car had a blown muffler it sounded a lot like a harley but i received nothing but flip offs from passing motorists or mocking laughs from guys who could have remedied the problem in 1/2 hr for 100 bucks.

    interesting also that so many men in this demographic want to be seen as outlaws/bad boys as they get increasingly established and wealthy, whereas the women want to recapture their unmarked faces of 20 years previous, with botox, restylane, etc…to become more pristine and almost naive looking, while the men gravitate toward the rough and tumble (definitely not pristine or naive).

  2. Scotty B

    *My neighbor rides a Harley. He is 50 with greasy hair. He works two jobs so that his wife can stay home, even though they have no children. He does all the work around the house. His wife has emphasema.

    *MY father-in-law is 62. He rebuilt his first small engine when he 10. He’s been riding motorcycles all his life. He has a BS in Aviation Mechanics. He listens to NPR and classical music. He owns two Harley’s that he’s rebuilt.

    * My coworker is a 42 year old woman. She knows the ins and outs of BGP, IGRP, RIP, HSRP, ETC. She’s a very tough-talking person with marshmellow inside. She rides a Harley. Ditto another IT coworker of mine.

    Get the point? Cliche’s about bikers are going to lead to false conclusions. Most are not Hell’s Angels running security for the Rolling Stones. Being a biker implies a meth addiction like wearing earlobe expanders implies Swahili ethnicity. Besides, it’s hard to spend money on crank when your spending it on a $20,000 bike.

  3. Grant

    Leora, yours is a more nuanced account, and I am sure you are right, the executive biker is looking for dual membership, as Brooks’ Bobos do.

    But are these mutually exclusive categories? Is membership in both impossible, or as you say, self defeating? Maybe.

    But maybe its another enactment of that transformational strategy with which people seeks several definitions of the self even when these definitions appear to be contradictory. The post modern self has a “passport” that gives them passage to many worlds.

    And if you are accusing them of “poaching,” well, I think this evokes a modernist notion of ownership that not longer holds. In a post modernist culture, liguid with the movement of meaning, driven by semiotically voracious selves, no one gets to “own” anything any more.

    Thoughts only. Thanks! Grant

    Scotty B, you are exactly right, and pity the anthropologist who engages in stereotyping of this order.

    As you can see, I was trying to exact my revenge for all those times when Harley owners have invaded my sonic space, made my head spin, and interfered with, among other things, blog construction.

    But no excuses: I cast the net too wide. I have edited the piece so that it is now less inclusive, refers now to some bikers, not all of them. Thanks very much. Grant

  4. LK

    if modernism “owns” anything, does it not own the concept of the midlife crisis? at what point does invoking postmodernism as the final answer for porous boundaries, fluidity of selves, multiple identities, etc just fall short? (this is a real question, not a rhetorical one, making it less, um, postmodern)

  5. Grant

    Leora. Thanks. Fall short of what? I’m not saying that modernism owns anything. I’m saying the notion that someone or some group owns a certain culture territory is prepostmodernist thinking, if you see what I mean. Best, Grant

  6. LK

    fall short as an explanation or justification.

    my point is that sometimes things aren’t postmodern at all, they’re just lame.

    the multiplicity/fluidity/malleability argument serves us well for framing certain phenomena, but it seems too easy to invoke it as the swiss army knife of cultural coding.

  7. Grant

    But I am not using it for all purposes. I am using it to question whether executives should be disallowed motorcycles on the grounds that they “belong” to someone else. There are lots of problems here, but one of them is “which bikers own the lifestyle.” Just the ones that never shower? Just the ones who go to rallies? It’s a slippery continuum. Why draw the line at executives. I think there is a hidden prejudice here. Is it because they are middle class? How can we use this as grounds for exclusion. Thanks, Grant

  8. LK

    i don’t think it’s simply because they are middle or upper or whatever class that it seems lame as opposed to (in addition to?) postmodern. i think it’s that they want not just the surface of the style but the substance of the meaning. which is where it all falls apart for me. they may want the dual membership, but the only people who will not mock them are the other bobo dual members. perhaps this is membership enough, replete with privileges.

    also, point of clarification: i wasn’t suggesting that *you* were using postmodernism as a swiss army knife answer-all, i was suggesting that many cultural critics do. sometimes we have to migrate the lettermanian question (is it something or nothing) to the cultural realm (is it postmodern or just silly, poorly executed, self-defeating, etc).

  9. Grant

    But do executives embrace just the surface of the style, you are back to insisting that there are defining characteristics that they can’t or mustn’t make their own. No?

  10. Ennis

    Umm … what both of you are missing is that having a Harley is not the same thing as making a racket.

    It’s the latter which is lame/insecure. Most of the guys who I’ve seen with the expensive bikes, especially those who built them themselves, don’t make the racket. The racket is a specific attention getting device local to a particular sub-culture of Harley writers who are trying to act … “bad”

  11. Liz

    for me, it’s not the Harleys, it’s the effing motorcycle idiots on Skyline & 84:
    Rider Skills

    Too often this year, things have gone wrong with at least 21 motorcycle accidents, four of them fatal, near La Honda. Motorcycle accidents accounted for more than 10 percent of the 300 emergency calls the La Honda Fire Brigade responded to last year. While auto and pedestrian deaths declined last year nationally, motorcycle deaths rose 12 percent and are up 73 percent since 1997.

    A motorcyclist was killed Sunday when he was traveling at an unsafe speed and lost control on Soquel-San Jose Road. A second motorcyclist was killed and another injured Sunday on Highway 84 near La Honda when they collided with a pickup truck making a U-turn. Earlier this month on one weekend there were three crashes in San Mateo County, leaving two dead and one critically injured.

    When I lived near Coal Mine Ridge the noise from 84 was sometimes so loud you couldn’t carry on a conversation outside. Even now, when I’m further away, the acoustics are such that I can hear the noise from 84.

    Grrr. So it’s not just one brand of motorcycle, it’s the motorcycle lovers who transfer some of the extraneous “costs”–noise, danger, emergency response–to those of us who would prefer not to bear/experience them.

  12. Scotty B


    I’m not normally one that is thin-skinned. Perhaps a decade or two ago the stereotype wasm more apt. I once had a belief in it when I was younger. To be sure, there are some bad seeds in the biker community, but there are also Christian clubs, recovering addict biker clubs, and some just plain old thrill seekers who like the degree of danger found in driving 80+ on two wheels while eating bugs.

    I too am sometimes annoyed by the racket they make. And while I’m sure some bikers enjoy the rebel veneer that loud pipes give them, one biker slogan is “Loud pipes save lives.” In ensuring that four-wheeled motorists hear them, it makes them less likely to get hit.

    But don’t get me wrong Grant, I love your blog. Keep up the good work!!!


  13. Grant

    Liz, thanks for the additional details. On the road recently from New York City into Connecticut, I saw motorcyclists racing up the highway on their back wheels only. 5 or 6 of them in a pack, evidently come to Connecticut to talk a little sense into the locals and to find a straight-away. I couldn’t decide whether I was thrilled or terrified, the usual choice when it comes to watching contemporary culture race out ahead of you on one wheel. Thanks, Grant

    Scotty, thanks for the note, and the ethnographic details. The more I think about it, the more I think my reaction was characteristically Canadian. I was in downtown Boston when a couple of really loud Harleys come roaring through. I turned to my American companions with the expectation that we would all shake our heads with disapproval at this affront to public order. But they just smiled as if to say, “ah, motorcycles, now that’s the freedom of the road.” (Liz, consider yourself a Canadian.) Thanks, Grant

  14. Jason Ligon

    I lived a while in Osaka, where I was introduced to the concept of ‘bosuzoku’. These are Japanese bike gangs, composed primarily of teens, that are ALL about the noise.

    The social rules are more binding in Japan, where they say “The standing nail gets beaten down,” as a warning against the violation of convention. It was very interesting to see what biker menace meant locally. There are rumors about all sorts of illicit activities, that bosozoku is entry level yakuza, but honestly all I saw was bikes and scooters (yes, scooters) rolling through the streets and revving at stoplights. It struck me as primarily a front in the intergenerational culture war in Japan. Maybe this guy knows something though:


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  16. Kari

    As someone posted earlier, Harleys are engineered to make something of a racket — and many riders will tell you that it’s a safety feature. I give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s at least partly true (one of them is my husband, after all, who is neither greasy-haired nor wealthy). That said, stock Harley mufflers are not as loud as the customized ones bikers often “upgrade” to. In that crowd, it seems like it’s more of a straightforward status issue.

    I’d still rather deal with the roar of a Harley than the idiot highjinks of crotch-rocket jockeys like this guy.

  17. Rick

    Only two comments. One: Loud pipes allow us to be heard by the youngsters laying back in their Hondas with their stereos on “stun” and the seniors who can’t turn their heads to see us. Two: I am sure that the vast majority of motorcycle accidents involving high speed are NOT Harleys. OK three comments. Three: If I have to explain the experience of riding a Harley, you wouldn’t understand.

    Thanks for the opportunity to post

  18. Vince

    Loud pipes are generally installed for performance gains. Think of an engine as an air pump. The more air that moves thru the pump, the greater the amount of power that is generated. (increased horsepower, increase acceleration and increased top end speed). Factory pipes contain baffles that impede air flow, thus making the bike quieter. Removing these baffles allows the air to flow faster (and louder) and gives the engine significant performance gains.
    For a few hundred bucks you can buy new pipes and install them yourself by removing a few bolts. Its the fastest and cheapest way to improve the engine’s performance, hence the popularity.
    The “safety” of being heard before the kid in the Honda hits you is just a bonus.
    Personally, I couldn’t take the noise and I put the factory pipes back on mine.

    I also thought that I should mention that I too don’t fit into any of the sterotypes posted above.

  19. RD

    Hmmm… loud pipes are antisocial, indeed. So are screaming children, Sunday morning lawnmowers, Friday-night-to-Saturday-morning parties, excessive stereo amplification, and so on… but it’s not occurred to me to generalise so amazingly about the relevant offenders’ inadequacies as this piece has.

  20. Eddie

    My ride is a rather loud salute in empathy for war veterans, law enforcement & firefighters who are often the disfranchised in society but the first to put their lives on the line. They have their own MC clubs, where Harleys are the bike of choice. We didn’t mind the noise they made in the battlefields or from the sirens on the streets to save our collective butts. While I wouldn’t want to drown in it, transient
    loudness is just fine with me.

  21. Loren

    Have you seen the latest HD commercial on TV? Pretty funny. It’s the one where all the guys are getting rejected and dissed by their dates at the end of the evening, can’t even get a good night kiss. Except the final scene, where some gal is getting banged (you can hear her moan) while the Hog is parked out front. Hehehe. So true.

    Anyways, it’s a man thing. If you have to be told you wouldn’t understand anyway. I can’t wait for the draft to kick in, then noise abatement topics would seem less important.

  22. Steve-o

    Judging by the thoughful comments posted as follow-ups to your article, I think it’s safe to say that the cretins you describe probably aren’t heavy Internet users. QED.

    I came across this article while doing research into my state’s laws on motor vehicles with altered emissions hardware (straight pipes). Seems there are laws on the books which simply aren’t enforced.

    I wonder how many police officers own “altered” motorcycles…hmmm…

    I’m striking back, though. I’ve purchased a hand-held air horn, the type used by recreational boaters to signal for help. It’s quite loud. You should see the looks I get when I fire the thing off in the direction of the wannabe Hell’s Angels thrumbling by my home!


  23. john

    Every harley tested failed the decimal tes last week at NH HD Seacoast HD Dealership. 106 is allowable in MA. it is 99. It is a moving violation and goes on your auto insurance and costs big bucks. Don’t pay it and your plates are gone still don’t and your license is next. This wise guy Harley attitude stops as soon as the cops put you under arrest believe me. Loud pipes are for look at me show only crap. Bikers need to grow up and put there little noise makers away. BO HO HO There like wining little babies with there rattle taken away

  24. jenene

    yOOOOOOOO…mi homeeeezzz..i dun tink da dis shyt is tru,,,,to mi shizzle…das y imma say leess noize is da best…tothe shizzle

  25. kiranveer singh>k_candy1@hotmail.com

    hay…..whats up my homiezzzz…i don’t think dere4 shud be n e noise. It is a moving violation and goes on your auto insurance and costs big bucks. Don’t pay it and your plates are gone still don’t and your license is next. As well…i don’t take a bath so basicallyyy…IM MA SEND OUT SHOUTOUTZ TO MA HOME GURL KIM…O YA…..WE’RE GUNA WIN THE CAR CONTEST!!!1

  26. Rattletrap

    Keep in mind that not all Harley riders are “Greasy, 50 year old, biker with a prison record, a meth problem and a history of wife abuse.” I myself am a college graduate with 2 degrees in engineering, no record at all, and no history of abuse of any kind. I am a taxpaying homeowner with a good job an even better girlfriend. I have a deep respect and appreciation for peoples rights. True enough, there are indeed folks whose bikes are a bit loud, however if you have ever ridden a motorcycle (which I doubt) you would know that a motorcycle DOES have to be a bit louder than other vehicles if for no other reason than visibility. This visibility would not be needed as much if it were not for your typical self-important yuppie scum discussing their pitiful self indulgent lives on their cell phones inside their S.U.V’s while listening to their favorite corporate sell-out radio station. There are a LOT of rich boy wannabees riding around who want to flaunt their stuff on an over priced sellout bike. I myself ride a 1978 Harley Low Rider that I purchsed as a basket case. I restored the bike by myself in one summer and it sports a set of muffler pipes that clock in at 82 db (which I measured with a decibel meter borrowed from work). I and two friends have to go to court on August 10th to dispute three $225.00 tickets. My ticket for “Improper Mufflers” and my two friends for “excessive noise.” The police didn’t have any noise measurement equipment with them. They were simply pulling over bikes that, in their opinion, were too loud. We didn’t get these tickets because of noise, far from it. We were ticketed because we are in a motorcycle club. I tested each of our bikes, they came in under the limits of noise allowed. In fact each of us use “Stock” pipes. Some people can’t drop the stigma of motorcycle clubs that was generated in the days of Altamont. People still look down upon bikers. Keep in mind that many bike clubs, such as ours does a great deal of charity work and fights for civil rights. If you removed every biker from the face of the earth so the police didn’t have them to harass, the police would then harass you. If a cop can pull me over with no measurement equipment of any kind, delay me, harass me, speak to me in a rude and condescending manner (and if you doubt this I can send you an MP3 of the conversation) and issue me a $225.00 ticket for an infraction I did not commit based on a law that dosen’t even apply to my bike because of its age then what stops them from doing this to you? Also, don’t compare a Harley rider to the idiot riding wheelies through traffic or racing his crotch rocket on the highway up to speeds of 160 MPH. These morons just make the police look at us with more contempt and make the insurance companies raise our rates. Grant McCracken, I won’t tell you to shut your pie hole because you have the right to your opinion, however sterotyping all individuals that simply ride a Harley is pure ignorance. You let your anger, bitterness, and arrogance speak for you and it sums you up well.


  27. BobF

    Okay, I’ve had about enough with this motorcycle muffler issue – I say that these whiney morotcycle riders are just pussies. Here’s why:

    The argument commonly given is “it’s for safety, man!” – to which I respond “fine, but since I ride a Vespa scooter I should have an even louder noisemaker. And when I ride my recumbent bicycle, which is completely silent and low-slung to boot, I ought to have a freakin’ air-raid siren becuase I’m all scared-like that some yutz in a car will not “hear” me and thus hit me. So, either I’m a really brave death-defying type of guy, or these motorbikers who insist it’s a safety issue are wimps who are scared of what every cyclist and scooter rider deals with daily.

    The alternate concept is that these demanders of loud pipes have a different agenda – they want to be noticed (kind of goes along with the tats and the Kaiser helmets etc.) and a loud bike just causes more people to turn their heads. I tend to believe this is the real reason behind all the BS about safety – but if these tough guys are afraid of telling that truth then they are still, nevertheless, pussies.

    So to all you rationalizing riders who think you’re making sense with the “but more noise is necessary” arguments, I say get a backbone. Either grow the courage of your bicycling brethren, or tell us you real reason and don’t hide behind the skirts of professed safety.

    And if you decide to cool off by riding around without a helmet, feel free to do so – just don’t expct my tax dollars to cover your medical expenses if you have an accident and end up a vegetable.


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