It’s the 20th anniversary of the Ducati Monster. While the Monster isn’t an adventure bike (it could be), or even a touring bike, I found an article on the original Monster from back in 1993 that is some of the best writing I have ever read. Imagine if you will one of those old timey private eye movies where the girl walks into a smokey office. and you will get the tone. Maybe I should start writing like that!
From CycleWorld magazine
I needed a drink. I needed more life insurance. I needed a long vacation in the country. What I had was a helmet, a black leather jacket and a new Ducati M900 Monster in need of a story to match its personality. Writer Raymond Chandler’s tough-guy L.A. detective Philip Marlowe came to mind. I was already in Southern California. I went for a ride.
It’s a red motorcycle. Bright red, redder than inside your eyelids when you fall asleep staring at the sun after you were up late the night before because some double-cross dame broke your heart. But dames are a dime a dozen in this town. The Monster’s nine grand. You have to clamp your teeth shut to keep from chewing on stray blondes in Southern California. The Ducati’s rare as a pink zebra and about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a banana split.
I headed up Pacific Coast Highway toward Santa Monica, squeezing through the boom-box boys in the pickup trucks with the chrome girlie silhouettes on the mudflaps, passing rich dames in expensive convertibles, all cigarettes, RayBans, fly-away hair and turned-up little noses. The Monster rides low, low enough to put both feet flat at a stop. Flat as a week-old beer in a dead man’s stomach at the bottom of the bay in concrete shoes and a soggy suit. I needed an angle.
I kept going to Santa Monica and hung a left onto the pier for a non-alcoholic beverage. I ducked into a bar where the tourists dawdle up and squint in from the sun just long enough to figure out that a better idea would be to keep moving. A man named George was behind the bar. He had a chin like the bow of a supertanker and said I should maybe head downtown if I knew what was good for me. He looked like a man it would pay to get along with.
A floozy two stools down with a full set of curves packed into a dress like lawyers at an accident scene downed another in a series of Scotches. It had about as much effect on her as an ant spitting upstream has on the Hoover Dam. She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.
“Say, sister,” I said, “maybe you know where a guy could come up with an idea for a story about an Italian motorcycle.”
Her deep-dilated eyes twitched nervously toward George for a second before she regained her composure. George poured her a slug that would’ve floated a horse over a wall. She threw it back like an aspirin tablet and held out her glass for the next installment.
“Depends on who’s in need of the information,” she murmured.
“Barlowe’s the name,” I lied. “Philip Barlowe. What’s this bike’s inspiration, doll, its social significance?”
Quicker than a bunny, she spun around and decked me with a wellplaced right uppercut to the jaw. I landed hard on a floor that may have been swept once. She stood over me with her hands on her hips. Hips no wider than a beer truck. Her eyes flashed like Tommyguns in the dark.
“My two-timing husband left me 10 years ago for a Ducati Darmah SD. She was a worthless tramp with long legs and generous with ’em. She’d fall over in any slow corner. Beat it, Barlowe. Scram. Take the air.”
I found my feet and snapped my mandible back into place.
“Sorry, miss,” I said. My voice sounded like somebody prying slats off a chicken coop. “I had no idea. No hard feelings?” I stuck out my hand for her to shake. She went for it and I doubled her over with a hard jab to the midsection. The stupid ones never learn.
I got on Santa Monica Boulevard toward L.A. The Darmah thing had got me thinking. The SD of ’78 was the same kind of deal as the Monster. Swoopy but not uncompromisingly so. Big 90-degree Twin. Easy on the eyes. Naked as a dead man’s uvula. Sure it was fast. In its day it could do the quarter in 12.98 seconds at 101.2 mph. But the Monster does 11.90 at 112. A second might be the difference between living to smell the eucalyptus or wearing a Chicago overcoat on the way over the side of some rusty tub.
Say you’re downtown. You pull up to a red light. You notice there’s a body in the crosswalk in front of you. A dead body. All you do is dump the clutch just a little and give it a big dose of throttle. The Monster’s front wheel will loft right over even a fat stiff, easy, and it’ll carry as far as you’ve got the guts. Not the stiff’s guts. Your own. The wheelbase is short. The bike’s got the same motor as a 900SS Ducati, see, lots of torque. There’s no tach. You shift when it feels right and sounds better. Sometimes instincts are all you get in this business.
I hung a left up Coldwater Canyon, crossed Sunset, and headed into the Hollywood Hills. It was hot but not hot enough to bother the inhabitants, if it could be proved that there were any behind the ivy walls and jaded lawns. Just the occasional immigrant with a leaf blower. Every now and then a car half-a-block long might whoosh by. Everything else was locked up like a Young Republican’s knees. It looked like a good neighborhood to have bad habits in. The Monster liked the tight little shady corners. The big rear Michelin left black stripes out of some of them like the ones in a scared man’s boxer shorts. Leaned over sideways. Controllable.
I rode back down Laurel Canyon, hooked another left onto Sunset and headed downtown as the sun skulked down toward the Pacific. The air in the steel and glass canyons was beginning to cool a little, but heat waves still rose from the baked asphalt and sidewalks. Well-fed financial types in shiny suits and well-tailored skirts scurried to their BMWs and sport-utility vehicles to beat it out of there before dark. A good idea, judging from the looks of some of the less solid citizens whose homes were a shorter drive away. The nearest sidewalk, for instance. Maybe catch the Night Train to the gutter. The Monster stuck out like spats at a nudist camp. I parked under the Bonaventure Hotel and went up to the lobby to check in.
The name on the desk clerk’s tag read like a urinary-tract infection. I told him I had a reservation. It was the truth. He said having a reservation didn’t necessarily mean a room had been reserved. Good system, I thought out loud.
“Are you trying to tell me my job?” he asked.
“No. But I’m having fun trying to work out what your job is.”
The manager came, wearing a jacket that fit him like a stall fits a horse. He gave me a room on the 15th floor.
I sat down on the bed in a room in which a great deal of expense had been spared and poured myself a drink. I watched the sun sink behind a grimy window that maybe had been washed 20 years ago, except that the place hadn’t been built then. The sun was the color of an ’87 Ducati Paso that had sat outside for a while. That had been a good bike. The 907ie still is a good machine, with kind of the same sit-up riding position as the Monster. But the Paso line’s more for the polo-shirt sport-touring crowd. The mechanicals are all tucked away out of sight where they can’t offend polite society. The Monster likes grease under its fingernails. It lays its innards on the table like a dressed chicken.
A maid pounding on the door woke me into the middle of a thick coastal morning fog. My head hurt and felt large and hot. My tongue was dry and had gravel on it. My brain felt like a ball of yarn with the knitting needles stuck through it. I felt good, in other words, but I was scared, scared stiff. Of death and despair. Of dark water and drowned men’s faces with empty eye sockets. Of Editors who expected a story and got this. I saddled up and went for a ride.
I headed east on the Pasadena Freeway. The Monster wasn’t having any of it. Its stiffish suspension had it porpoising over the slab joints like an apple-bob at the Rotary Club. Okay for short hops, but you wouldn’t want to have to suddenly leave town on it. When I got to Pasadena nobody was home. I turned around and headed back to L.A.
I needed a drink. I ducked into a bar downtown on 6th Street. Now I really did need more life insurance. Furtive-eyed men hunched over a dark bar of petrified wood, sliding words delicately along their cigarettes without moving their lips. Giving me the beady eye. I ordered a low-fat milk from a bartender no bigger than a Packard, with a hooked nose that looked like it would be into things. I threw the milk down my neck. It may have been fresh once. Somebody said, “Phooey.” It sounded like my voice.
“Who runs this dive?” I asked hook-nose.
“Depends on who wants to know,” he growled like a pair of tigers after dinner. I flashed a junior deputy badge I’d gotten in the fourth grade. Hook-nose’s meaty face suddenly went from hard to soft, and worried. He pointed toward a door at the back. I felt for the .38 automatic inside my jacket and remembered I’d never had a .38 automatic. I knocked on the door and went inside.
There was a desk and two chairs. Behind the desk sat a luscious dish in a low-cut dress with cleavage like what’s squeezed between two very large, attractive breasts. Low-flying flesh zeppelins. In the cleavage, a gold locket was suspended by a gold chain. The face above the cleavage, surrounded by long dark hair that looked like a good place to camp, spoke.
“Mr. Barlowe. We’ve been expecting you.”
“Expecting me to what?” I cracked wise. “Expecting me to drink bad milk and like it?” Expecting me to give this joint a good write-up just because of that bosom of yours? Look, I like your breasts. They’re swell and I’m glad to make their acquaintance but I’ve got a job to do. I need information and I need it now.”
“And what makes you think I have the information you need, Mr. Barlowe.”
She was trying to be casual but having a hard time. Something was fishy about this dame. Her eyes cut sideways for a second towards a closed door that should’ve been a closet.
I moved closer to her desk and leaned over it. I put my left hand on top of the desk and grabbed her gold locket in my right. She gasped. From where I stood, it looked like flying inverted over the Himalayas during a tremor. I yanked off the locket, stood up straight and pried it open. Inside was a picture of Dr. Taglioni, the man who had made Ducati Ducati.
She turned white and went stiff as a frozen fish. I walked over and yanked open the closet door. Out spilled a jumble of bevel-drive shafts and gears, round engine cases, Conti exhaust pipes, big Dell’Orto carburetors, faded Veglia instruments and a pair of Kmart coils. On a shelf inside, surrounded by votive candles, was a gold-framed photograph of Ingegnere Bordi.
She sat frozen in her chair, a little bit of drool coming out of her mouth. I strode around behind her desk, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook hard. The Richter scale needle went off the dial. When I looked down I noticed a July issue of CW on the floor, open to a real road test of the Monster. Read it and save your nasty letters. Out of her throat came a noise like the fuel pump in an 851. I slapped her. Hard.
“Give,” I said. “Spill it.” I shook her again. I was beginning to like shaking her. I thought a good idea might be to stop by when I had more time and snap her garter. “Wilshire,” she gasped. “La Brea Tar Pits.”
I was out the back door and riding fast, west on Wilshire toward Hancock Park. The Monster was howling and honking like a wounded cape buffalo, squeezing through lines of backed-up cars at the lights and blasting out hard on the greens. I thought I’d never had a better partner for working the city. It’s small and light. Quick on its feet.
Then I saw it and everything snapped clear. I pulled over onto the sidewalk and looked over a chain-link fence, down into a stagnant, bubbling pool of brown sulphury water and oozing petroleum. I killed the motor and it was as quiet as L.A. gets. Sinking slowly into the La Brea Tar Pit was a monstrous woolly mammoth, made of plastic, bellowing, while mommy mammoth and baby mammoth stood by helplessly, as hokey as Hollywood gets.
So that was it. This bike was really not like any other Ducati. It was just like the loud stubby powerful thing on its way into the ooze. A prehistoric beast. A monster. The kind of animal you thought they didn’t build anymore.
Soon it wouldn’t matter to the mammoth whether it breathed air or dirty water, whether it ate or slept or didn’t. It would all be the same to it. It would be extinct. An ex-mammoth. Snoozing the big snooze. None of that mattered to the Ducati. It’s an inanimate object that likes to make you think it’s not just alive, but hairy-chested healthy—a Monster in no danger of extinction. I thumbed the starter, chunked it into gear, and beat it out of town.