Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 25, 2011

Museum of a Thousand Words

I will show you three pictures of what I saw last weekend. What I saw proved, once again, that it takes a lot of words to record what even an ordinary image can evoke in memory. I will, in keeping with the practice of Under Western Skies, attempt to address three pictures within merely a thousand words.

In San Diego this week, I visited the San Diego Automotive Museum. The small museum has, among other things, an impressive collection of motorcycles, from early 20th-Century models, up through increasingly more powerful and sophisticated machines, the legendary Indians,  and some outlandish racing machines. There was even an identical version of the Norton 850 Commando that my long-ago band mate, Steve, rode in those forgotten days of yore… but that’s another story.

One item in the motorcycle display is a bit of a puzzlement, if you don’t know its frame of reference. It’s just THERE, with, unlike any other vehicle in the place, no identifying information. Apparently, one is just supposed to KNOW. In one sense, this is a failure on the museum’s part. The point of museums is that curators should supply context, background and explication for what makes any particular item significant. Whether museums contain mummies or dinosaur skeletons or works of art, we rely on them to fill in the blanks in our knowledge. Sometimes we see things in a museum that are familiar to us, and we delight in just seeing them, but, even if we know that THIS is a painting by Monet, we may not know why this particular Monet matters.

Here’s the item in question (click on image to enlarge).

It’s a Vespa GS, a scooter. The photo is a bit hard to make out because of all the other displays nearby, but you see the seat in the lower left and you’re looking out at the front of the vehicle with the handlebars canted to the right. What’s notable is all those mirrors. To a museum visitor without a specific cultural frame of reference — my dad, for example — it’s just a little scooter with an amazing (and silly) number of mirrors on it. This is, though, a recreation of an iconic image from 1970s England, the period of the Mods and Rockers. Rockers identified with motorcycles. Mods favored customized Italian scooters, often tricked out with an array of headlamps, mirrors and other chrome.

This Vespa carries branding for the television network, MTV (and there has to be a story there), with no other identifying information. But those MIRRORS. If, as I am, you were a fan, this scooter can evoke only one thing: the GS ridden by “Jimmy,” the protagonist of The Who’s 1974 “rock opera,” Quadrophenia. As a museum display, it speaks to people of exactly my age, but for everyone else who sees it, without that cultural frame of reference it’s merely an oddity. Here’s the original point of reference (click on image to enlarge):

For the aspiring Mod of mid-sixties England, there were many ways to dress up one’s GS (“GS” for “Grand Sport”), including lots of spiffy lights or, especially cool, mirrors. In the iconic album image, the four-personality theme of the rock opera is personified in the four faces of the band members of The Who reflected in the mirrors.

“Only connect,” E.M. Forster advised us. The task of being schooled in any discipline is to be able to make connections. It’s why history teachers implore us to study our history, because only by understanding what has gone before can we understand the myriad themes and conflicts and connections at play in politics and world events. It’s why geometry teachers urge us to refine our skill at proofs, so that we can proceed to the sine qua non, calculus. It’s why our language teachers drill us in grammar, advising us that we’ll fail as adults to get that job writing speeches for the President if we can’t make subjects and pronouns agree with its verb.

No one can train, though, to follow popular culture. Or, rather, we are studying it every day, when we watch television or look at billboards or click through 500 or so Web sites. Our impressive human brains are absorbing thousands upon thousands of words and images and smells and sounds and ordering them into our own individual view of the world. My little consciousness happens to include an association of that GS scooter with over an hours’ worth of some of the most memorable music of the 70s. For any American inhabitant of the 20th Century, a walk around that little car museum had uncounted such associations of cars that played “roles” in movies or television shows or the parking lot outside the high school. Just one example will serve: a Pontiac GTO. If you don’t hear a sound track by the Beach Boys, you weren’t there when the GTO was huge.

There was one other example of the power of association and memory. It sat less than ten feet away from the MTV Vespa. A 1951 Vincent Black Shadow.

Vincent Black Shadow Brad Nixon 7111 (640x417)

It’s a great-looking bike. Muscular. Classic. It did have an explanatory placard, which conveyed the almost impossible to believe fact that one of these machines reached 185 miles per hour. Not mentioned there is that the Black Shadow also possesses a notable association in popular culture, almost exactly contemporary with “Quadrophenia:” Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson, in his typical gonzo style, refers to the Black Shadow as an almost legendary, not-quite-real machine of mythic proportions. If one has only Thompson to rely upon, the motorcycle looms as something between Moby Dick and Bigfoot: immense and chthonic, certainly not of this world, but something we wish we could encounter in waking life. And there it was. I knew that, in fact, there had been a real machine called the Black Shadow, but I’d never seen one.

I think I’ll go read Fear and Loathing and listen to The Who.

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017


  1. Dang, I’d guessed it was the actual Quadrophenia scooter, and was already giving MTV grief for slapping their sticker on it. And sorry, no Beach Boys make it onto my inner soundtrack.


  2. You are exactly correct, Brad, on the scooter with all the mirrors. I just supposed the owner happened to fall into the clutches of a super small mirror salesman. Thanks for the connection.

    Perhaps the people at the museum aren’t aware of the significance of all those mirrors , hence no info.


  3. As I recall my Norton Atlas 750 rocked and my Suzuki X6 Hustler rolled and my Triumph Trident almost crippled me. I grew up, put away my childish things, made it to 21 and my XKE Coupe has never gone out of style, just like the Vincent Black Shadow… which surely would have killed me.


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