Ask any biker and he or she will tell you sometimes it’s about the ride and sometimes it’s about the destination.
That maxim applies to the role music plays in what’s more a lifestyle than a passion for some Houstonians. We cruised out to meet a few bikers to discuss this very subject over the long Labor Day weekend. As often happens, we learned more about our neighbors than just the music they enjoy.
“I like rock and roll, I like country-western, I like folk music, I like a lot of old music — some of this headbanger stuff, I don’t go for too much,” says C.W., a regular at The Dam Ice House in far west Houston. “I guess my age has a lot to do with my music. I like to hear it but I don’t want it to be so overwhelming I can’t have a conversation.”
The Dam is a no-frills spot, converted from a Jiffy Lube more than 25 years ago; its utilitarian restrooms are marked “Bikers” and “Babes.” As C.W. suggested, its patrons are big on fraternizing. Many have known each other for decades. They don’t need planned activities to have a good time, just a cold drink and some company. There is music, of course, on the jukebox. If you want to hear the songs – Motley Crue’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” or Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” for instance – you sit inside the building. If you want to talk, you head out to the bar’s oversized patio. That’s where we met C.W., Bob, Dennis and Yvonne. Angie, the bartender on shift at the time of our visit, made us feel welcome and introduced us to the regulars.
It may come as a surprise to non-riders, but technology has made it possible for bikers to hear music right inside their “brain buckets.” Bluetooth connects the music from in-deck stereos or smartphones to headphone-bearing helmets.
“I don’t like to ride with music, we don’t have any radio," says Yvonne. "I like the radio in my head when we’re riding."
The rest of the group agreed. A good destination is one where live music awaits and they all seemed to have their favorites, many of which have played The Dam.
“I am the official Guppie groupie,” says Bob, telling us he’s a huge fan of longtime locals The Guppies From Outer Space and is a friend of its lead singer, Marina. “We’ve been friends for twenty-something years, I guess.
“Music is spiritual to me,” he continues. “There’s people that you’ve never heard of that are just outstanding.”
Then he, Yvonne and Dennis rattled off some preferred groups: Carolyn Wonderland, Spoonfed Tribe, Bob Livingston, Ken Gaines. The list went on and on, accompanied by stories of seeing the acts live. One band they all enjoy is Black Dog, a classic-rock cover group that was sort of a house band at The Dam for many years.
A couple of hours later, we traveled over to County Line Bar and Grill. The bars are miles apart, literally and figuratively. The first person we encountered was Trina, the general manager. In addition to being an icehouse, County Line recently opened a wine bar that’s spacious enough to serve as a meeting place for motorcycle clubs. They do Biker Church on Sunday mornings, have a spirited karaoke following and showcase live music regularly. The restrooms aren’t just for “bikers” and “babes,” they’re themed: John Wayne for the fellas and Betty Boop for the ladies.
The band we saw that night was the Texas Roadburners, but it was too early, so we hear Bruno Mars, Meghan Trainor and Kelly Clarkson over the juke ahead of them. We chat with Trina, who only books the bands here and does not manage them — though she could, considering how well she promotes area guitarist Ben Matthews. She said she’s known him for years and he’s a gunslinger who plays with the alt-rock outfit Infinity’s Twin. At home, we YouTube search to find him covering Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover,” a song you don’t attempt if you don’t have the chops.
Eventually Trina directed us to Mark, an avid Houston Press reader who offered kudos for a recent bit we did on music at Houston Texans tailgates. He’s a lifelong biker who bought his first motorcycle — a 1982 Kawasaki, for $500 — when he was just 15 years old, he told us.
“I sold my bicycle, my baseball cards, all kinds of shit so I could buy that bike," Mark says.
Mark says he enjoys listening to music while riding — and he has done some serious riding, including a single 2,500-mile trek that included the Tail of the Dragon, a Smoky Mountains run that’s only 11 miles long but features 318 curves.
“I love music. I listen to classic-rock mainly, or just rock and roll. My favorite is Bob Seger,” he says.
We also met Johnny, lead singer for the Roadburners, and were assured we wouldn't be hearing any Eric Johnson that night; the group's set runs heavily towards classic country and rock, he said.
“We play a lot of biker bars," Johnny says. "Out there at The Playground on Highway 3, we play there on Sundays sometimes, there’s a lot of bikers out there, and even Under the Bridge where I played last night, out on Demi John Island at Bastrop Bayou, you get a lot of bikers out there."
He said the band has played in four-member and two-member forms. When the venue is smaller, like on Saturday, the act is a duo, to maximize the band’s payout. He likes playing for bikers, he says, because they’re appreciative and giving.
“Whenever you have a fundraiser or a Toys for Tots or something for a really good cause, they’re the first ones there," Johnny explains. "Any kind of charity thing or benefit I’ve ever done, they were always right there to donate stuff.”
The Roadburners' opening set began with with “Amarillo by Morning,” then “Ring of Fire” and “Margaritaville.” Go figure, but the one we liked best was an original tune boasting some slide and fancy fingerwork from guitarist Joe, and some fine country wailing by Johnny.
Personally, I’ve never owned a motorcycle and have only been on the "p-pad" a couple of times. My takeaway is if riding was a song, it wouldn’t be “Born To Be Wild.” It would be “Float On” or “Aeroplane Over the Sea,” something that reminds you of the excitement of living and the ever-present nearness of its dark twin.
That was something we discussed with C.W. back at The Dam. He told us he's been riding since 1967, his first bike was a red Honda 90, and he’s been in several accidents, including one just last September. His bike was struck by a car, he suffered a knee injury and dislocated his shoulder. But, he climbed back on and drove 70 miles home.
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He doesn’t mind if folks want to listen to music in their helmets, but says it’s just not for him.
“When the helmet law first came out, back in the '70s, I couldn’t hear my motorcycle and I couldn’t hear a siren because of the helmet," he says. "So, it interfered with my safety, as I looked at it,” he told us. “I’ve got a pickup that’s got a radio in it. I probably don’t turn that thing on but once in a blue moon, because it’s distracting. You can get lost in the music. And I believe you can on a motorcycle, too. I know a lot of guys play music while they’re riding. I want my full attention out there while I’m out there riding, because I’ve lost a lot of friends. It’s not the biker — it’s everyone that thinks you can stop faster on two wheels than they can on four.”