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GOING THE DISTANCE
by DAVID SNOW
25 years ago, on a rainy, late winter Friday night the phone rang in my dinky Brooklyn apartment. High-stepping Harley frames, engine cases and the general detritus of the Project Shovel, I leaned an ear to the answering machine to screen the call. The voice on the other end sounded strangely distant and wasted. I almost didn’t recognize it.
“Listen, man, I’ve been shot. This is for real. I’m shot in the leg, right above the knee. I need you to call 911. I already called ’em, but you’ve got to make sure they’re on their way. Then call me right back. I need you to stay on the phone with me til they get here. Don’t forget to call back.”
My bike was in pieces and Deborah had driven her Chevy C-10 to a gig in Manhattan, so running the five miles through Flatbush to Chris’ pad wasn’t an option. I dialed 911. NYPD and ambulances were enroute. I called Chris and stayed on the line with him for about 15 minutes until the cavalry arrived. He didn’t want to pass out from shock.
Chris had too much California in him. At that time, the year was 1988, NYC was in the full-throttle death-grip of the crack epidemic that had turned the city into a shrieking WFO urban nightmare of the Wild Wild West. It was New Jack City on every corner, and Chris was shot for the inexcusable offense of taking out the garbage after dark. He’d had words with a dealer in front of the Williamsburg apartment he shared with Indian Larry, and what would’ve merely been a spirited exchange of unpleasantries in a more civilized part of the country, like Cali, escalated in a New York Minute into a life-or-death proposition. Chris told me of being on his knees, pleading for his life, looking up the smoking barrel of the pistol that had just shot him, inches away from his face. Of the crack dealer hesitating, considering the coup de grace, and then packing his piece and strolling away. Chris humped the stairs back into his apartment, his boot filling with blood. He kept his life and his leg, but that night all the California had been shot right out of him and bled away onto the mean streets of Brooklyn.
Not too many people have such vivid recollections of Chris Pfouts. Most readers of the ‘90s-era Iron Horse know Chris only as the guy who stepped in to edit the magazine at the end of its run. It’d certainly be a disservice to Chris’ memory to selectively recall his somewhat cynical deconstruction of Iron Horse in ’97-’98 and be done with the matter. That ain’t even half the story and a great big tip of the hat to ol’ Top Hat is richly deserved here.
Chris was with Iron Horse for four years, from late ’86 to late ’90, issues #63 to #94, and was instrumental in the transformation of the mag from a slimy, thinly-disguised skin rag into the compelling document of East Coast biker muscle that earned the loyalty of a wildly diverse and wildly devoted audience. Before Chris arrived, I was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, the sole staffer with any kind of motorcycling experience among an unholy cabal of cheapass pornographers, industry burnouts, hustlers, scammers, and ripoff artists. Even though I’d been listed as the editor since since 1984, I held the position in name only. I had no pull or leverage, and had been told very plainly that if I didn’t like it I could leave. Thus, I quit once in frustration and went to work for Dian Hanson of Outlaw Biker, before we both got fired by her publisher Harvey Shapiro. (Harvey then usurped Dian’s pseudonym as well as the magazine she created and proceeded to attend biker events around the northeast as the nonexistent “Casey Exton.” But that’s another story.) I returned to IH, determined to hang in there, convinced that, this being New York City, anything could happen at any time. Sure enough, in the fall of 1986 everything changed. The immediate powers-that-be took themselves out of the picture. Editor Peter “Wolfman” Wolf got deathly ill and checked into the hospital for a lengthy stay, while his henchman, John “Littlejawn Littel, moved on to a gig in the straight publishing world. Vice President Tony DeStefano was left as the magazine’s sole overseer. None of these Three Stooges had known or cared anything about bikes or bikers, and with two stooges out of the way, the sleazy, ever-downward trajectory of Iron Horse was about to shift dramatically. Ad astra!
“So you’re the only one here who rides?”
The inquiry from the tall, lanky dude with the mid-‘80s mullet and the perpetually quizzical expression required a response crafted with no small measure of delicacy and diplomacy, yet I knew I was gibbering answers with the manic intensity of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. The prospect of a potentially friendly face chancing upon the heart of darkness that was IH inspired simultaneous heights of hope and depths of dread. There was a responsibility to bring Chris up to speed ASAP regarding the bizarre situation he’d wandered into via Tony’s ad in the New York Times classifieds. At the same time, I desperately did not want to scare him off. “The heads. I know, the heads… he gets carried away…” Chris didn’t blink as I related the casual atrocities inflicted upon Iron Horse over the past two years--- how third-rate porn publisher Murray Traub had reduced the once-proud Paisano title to a product that was literally and figuratively slimy. The printing was so bad that ink would slick off onto the reader’s hands, and the editorial content was on par with what you’d scrape off your shoe at a 42nd St. whack-off theater. It seemed no coincidence that the Iron Horse offices were right next door to NYC’s most infamous porn palace, Show World. Genuine motorcycling articles and story ideas had been routinely stifled by Wolf, Littel, and DeStefano, fueled by an underlying disdain expressed for the mag’s audience. Every time I’d propose something like Biker Lit Crit, a road trip article, or a serious editorial or industry critique--- anything to give Iron Horse an identity beyond that of a sleazy party rag--- I was informed that such material wasn’t necessary because “bikers don’t read.” The arrogance and contempt that limited Iron Horse’s potential wasn’t just stupid and short-sighted, it was extremely dangerous. People could get hurt. For instance, photographer Bobby Hanson, Dian’s ex, was found flat on his back in a pool of blood while on assignment at the New York City Custom Motorcycle Show. For years, I’d had my suspicions about the incident, which were later confirmed when I interviewed Chuck Zito for IH #114. Bobby had mouthed off at the Hells Angels booth and Chuck had promptly knocked him out for his bad manners. Later on, Harvey Shapiro said something stupid as Casey Exton and got one of his editors put in a coma via some freelance batting practice by irate clubbers. Unlike Bobby or Harvey, Chris Pfouts was a stone biker who was of the culture and understood it, and as an added bonus, was smart, hip, ironic, and a great writer. Tony had interviewed several other applicants, mostly porno sleazeballs and a couple of cornball jap junkers, but I kept insisting on the biker dude. In the end, with his stooge partners no longer on the premises, Tony just didn’t want to be bothered.
The decision to hire Chris was an immediate force multiplier. Far beyond the simple arithmetic of names added to or subtracted from the masthead, editorial control shifted into the greasy hands of a couple of mangy bikers and the potential for Iron Horse as a real-life motorcycle mag expanded exponentially. No longer were stories and articles screened by porno degenerates--- degenerate bikers were now calling the shots. Chris and I had no idea of what we were doing, we just winged it everyday, writing what we wanted to read in a bike mag. Each issue pushed the envelope of what we could get away with. I remember Tony nervously inquiring about the iron cross imagery I’d been inserting into the mag--- ending each article with an iron cross dingbat. Seems that Murray was offended, but we refused to remove it--- it was A Biker Thing, man, you don’t have to understand. Biker Lit Crit became a regular feature and was excerpted by SPIN magazine. Iron Horse was cited in the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste and I was quoted by the New York Times fashion page. Regular features like Jap Junk, project bikes, our editorials and the often contentious give-and-take with the readers in the Back Talk section gave IH a confrontational, no-bullshit rep.
I always thought Chris was older than me, 10 or maybe 15 years older. It wasn’t until I read of his passing on the Greasy Kulture blog that I realized he was only six years my senior. He always seemed an old soul or at least someone with old wounds. He really didn’t speak much of his past, I considered him an “original”--- a California biker who rode during the ‘60s and helped define the subculture as it became codified in films, books and magazines and popular culture. I believed that the guys who had gravitated to the bike scene before it had been popularized by niche magazines and movies were special. I’m sure he would’ve been repulsed by the notion, but Chris seemed to me to inhabit the hippie end of the biker spectrum--- a shorthand reference to his essentially artistic nature. I used to be intrigued by evocative blasts of graffiti on the Lower East Side that read “war hippies,” and I used the term in a later Iron Horse cover line. It seemed a perfect descriptor for those sensitive souls who rode choppers but weren’t afraid to kick motherfuckers in the teeth--- the kind of people who appeared in and read and wrote Iron Horse. That was Chris.
I knew he rode an Indian back in the day, and his tales of SoCal biker life were always fascinating. A lot of his stories appeared in his Junkman column and I especially liked one about his XLCH riding buddy, Tommy, who crashed his Ironhead and terrorized children with his skull-stabilizing halo. Chris was also known as Top Hat, and it was under this pseudonym that he chronicled his excellent Project Indian series for the mag, #66 through #82--- one of the very best ongoing magazine projects ever published, shepherded as it was by guru Indian Larry. That bike was raw and brutal and would’ve been right at home in the pages of Greasy Kulture today. If I recall correctly, Chris was introduced to Larry by legendary upstate Indian freak Chuck Myles, whom we visited several times in Deb’s pickup, sourcing parts. I definitely remember being surprised that Chris was unaware of Indian Day. Within a couple of months of moving to NYC, I’d ridden my Super Glide in Sept. ‘84 to the annual Redskin rally on Hendee St. in Springfield, Mass., the site of the Indian Museum housed in one of the original factory buildings. Chris, Larry and I made the trek in 1987 in photog Rob Sager’s van and covered the rally for IH. In one of the pics, you can see an Indian frame, tanks & basket going for 1500 bucks!
While the Indian was being built, Chris rode a ratted out SOHC Honda 750. I was with him when he bought it from a New Jersey buddy of his named Joe, a hoarder of old Hondas. In that simpler, grittier era, Chris and I would chain our bikes together, his 750 and my shitty Super Glide, to an iron pedestrian railing that lined a Times Square traffic island, and walk the avenue block past the New York Times building to the IH offices on West 43rd St and 8th Ave. Try that nowadays and the bikes would probably be detonated by the NYPD bomb squad. After Indian Larry’s chopper, I’d always considered Chris’ Chief to be one of the best custom Indians to appear in any magazine. A machine far greater than the sum of its rusted, gas stained, primered parts. A real soul machine. I don’t know what happened to the Chief, if Chris hung onto it or not, but I hope that it was buried with him Viking-style.
Chris and I were on the masthead as editors--- none of that co-editor crap. I’d always been listed as editor--- a sitting duck for potential reprisal--- but now with genuine editorial control I could relax and take real pride in the position. Unlike the Wolf-era Iron Horse, we were proud of each new issue and always tried to top the last one. The working environment was nutty, like something out of a 1940s newspaper-bullpen flick--- clattering typewriters, clouds of cigarette smoke, stale beers and coffee, and a daily parade of wacky industry characters affiliated with Murray’s diverse cheapass publishing empire of exploitation mags--- gay and straight porno, bodybuilding, martial arts, rock’n’roll. Chris and I edited and re-wrote each other’s stuff, habitually pushing deadlines to the brink, trying to cram as much into each issue as we could. In that bygone time of mechanical paste-up, we had a typesetter in Jersey and often one of us had to make a motorcycle sprint across the Hudson to pick up a late delivery of type. Unlike standard operating procedure for biker magazines of the time we didn’t hide behind pseudonyms, our real names were posted on the editorial masthead, but we did have fun concocting aliases to give the illusion that the magazine actually had a staff. Thus, Chris penned articles as Jumpy, White Lightning or Red, while I was sometimes the Rev. Oral Hedd or Phlegm Jim or Grubman. My favorite was Reginald Q. Bathysphere, an homage to the great Groucho monickers in the Marx Bros. movies. One byline that definitely was not fictitious was that of the aforementioned Rob Sager. A photographer acquaintance of Jersey Joe, Rob was recovering from the cancer that would eventually take his life 15 years later. His first and last assignments for Iron Horse were Indian Larry shoots, issues #70 and #146, fitting bookends to one of the greatest careers in motorcycle photography. More than any other single factor, it was Rob Sager’s photography that defined Iron Horse and established its singular visual identity. At that time, the custom motorcycle magazine industry was trending toward an increasingly expensive, elaborate style of bike that culminated in the ‘90s in the billet barge phenomenon. Through chance and necessity--- the fact that we had the world’s greatest backdrop, New York City, and couldn’t afford expensive studio shoots on seamless anyway--- Rob Sager’s NYC street shoots gave Iron Horse its ballsy image as the toughest bike mag on the stands.
Chris and I parted on less than cordial terms. He headed downtown to work on Mavety’s tattoo mag, and I continued with Iron Horse. Though Chris was a biker, I don’t believe he ever considered Iron Horse as anything more significant than an exercise in exploitation. Not to get too psychoanalytical with Chris no longer around to debate the point, but it seemed to me that the shooting understandably changed him. There was maybe too much New York cynicism now in place of the mellow California vibe.
When I read of Chris’ passing on the Greasy Kulture blog, I didn’t want to accept it. I always thought that one day we’d meet again and share a Guinness or three and maybe I’d give him a tat. Over the years, I enjoyed seeing his profile shots in each issue of International Tattoo Art that accompanied his editorials--- he’d grown into the curmudgeon he’d been all along. I hoped he’d get around to chronicling his biker experiences, especially those on the NYC biker scene, but there is never enough time. As it was, I could only slump back from the computer screen with the finality of Chris’s death. I cracked a cold Miller, poured a libation, took a ride on Animal Mother, and contemplated the miles and memories that lay between that simpler, more dangerous slice of New York life 25 years ago. I was thankful for each mile of the ride and all the miles that hopefully still lay ahead.
A last memory now seems a glimpse of a dream or fable. It’s a brilliant spring day in New York City, the trees luminous green with sunlight. We’re in Sager’s van. Rob’s driving, his blue-eyed hound dog, George, is in the very back, while Chris, Larry, and I are balanced on milk crates or ragged seats. We’re coming back from covering an event for the magazine, or maybe we were helping somebody move, or perhaps transporting bike parts around the city. Rob pulls the van over in front of my Brooklyn apartment to drop me off just as Deborah is walking up the sidewalk with her guitar and mic stand, her blonde hair flashing like a siren, her sundress radiant as the day. Chris leans out the window and asks, “Hey sweetie, wanna go for a ride with a van full of bikers?” Deb’s been performing Memphis Minnie songs on 7th Ave. and doesn’t miss beat. “No thanks, mister, I already got me a chauffer.” A fortunate convergence of souls. All gone so young, all deserving of so much more. All made Iron Horse a continual, ongoing journey to a limitless, unbounded horizon.