Three things to love about Harley-Davidson—while you still can
Recent threats from Harley-Davidson to move its manufacturing plants to Kansas City have left Milwaukee in a precarious position. Leaving aside the age-old “union vs. owners” debate—seriously, we’re not opening that can of worms—the loss of the company would be devastating to our economy and image. Haters may bitch and moan about the noise and the mass-marketed badass image, but there’s no denying that Harley-Davidson is an integral part of Milwaukee’s character.
With the 10th annual Harley-Davidson Milwaukee Rally, which opened Thursday and continues through Sept. 5, upon us, The A.V. Club offers up a handful of reasons to celebrate the iconic motorcycle manufacturer, before it’s too late.
Babes and burnouts
Harley may never win any awards for its sensitive, progressive image, but that’s just another reason to secretly love it. Eschewing poetry readings and informal David Sedaris Q&As, this week’s Milwaukee Rally will instead feature mud wrestling, a bikini bike wash, and free admission to Silk. This display should rival even 2008’s watershed film, Girls Gone Wild: Hottest Dormroom Confessions for its sheer amount of bare, desperate flesh.
Those who prefer their motorcycle-themed entertainment a bit more wholesome, however, are also in luck. The World Burnout Tour will give spectators the chance to revel in the joy that is really fucking loud motorcycles laying down some serious rubber. Let’s face it, even if you’re no longer in junior high, there’s nothing not to love about that.
Wonderfully wrongheaded entertainment
Milwaukee’s image suffered some hard knocks in the early ’00s. The Miller Park-hosted 2002 MLB All-Star Game infamously ended in a tie, leading to some less-than-glowing press. (A Sports Illustrated writer suggested the only events we were equipped to handle were “porcelain bathroom fixture conventions.”) In 2003, Harley-Davidson threw itself a massive, seemingly endless, citywide 100th birthday party. Speculation over the headlining act grew to a fever pitch as the days wore on (Springsteen? The Stones?), but no one except the most hardened masochist could have guessed the mystery performer’s true identity: Mr. Lion King himself, Elton John. Sure, Sir Elton’s core demographic wasn’t that far removed from the Harley birthday crowd (milquetoast “weekend warriors” surely outnumbered the heavily tattooed bad-asses), but leather-chapped fans cried foul, and mass walkouts ensued.
This year, Harley continues to muck things up with the inclusion of nobody’s favorite funnyman, Gallagher. Originally a poor, toothless man’s George Carlin with a penchant for beating the shit out of food with a sledgehammer, the much-maligned comedian could have easily rode his harmless ’80s shtick into the welcoming, county fair sunset. Instead, the 21st-century Gallagher has devolved into a mean-spirited, racist, and painfully unfunny asshole. His presence at Saturday’s Water Street Block Party is just another adorable example of Harley-Davidson aiming for its audience, and missing completely. It’s so wrong it’s pretty lovable.
Whether you view Harley-Davidson as a through line leading back to our city’s blue-collar roots, or as an embarrassingly neutered marketing ploy best left in the dust, it’s impossible to argue that it isn’t a uniquely Milwaukee institution. Perhaps the most important event this weekend will simply be showing up, and showing our pride (while we still can). Tattoo artists will be on hand most every day to help with any HD ink you may need (or full-back Darth Maul or Tasmanian Devil pieces, if that’s your bag), and there will be plenty of cheap beer and live music to help the possibility of losing the company to Kansas City go down a little easier.
Love it or hate it, Harley-Davidson remains a bold, ridiculous, flawed symbol of Milwaukee, and this week’s Rally is the perfect embodiment of that imperfect image. In a city with precious few legitimate icons left (we’re looking at you, PBR), that’s something worth celebrating.