Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Jay Leno can't stay retired

This past summer, I dropped by Jay Leno's garage, looking for material for my column in Classic Bike magazine. Leno dropped a little bombshell in the course of our chat. Here's the text I sent in for my September "Classic America" essay

“And of course there’s this: the most misunderstood bike of all time.”

Jay Leno and I had been meandering through his bike collection, and stopped by a Suzuki RE5. 

“At 70 miles an hour, this thing is so smooth; it’s like a turbine,” he said. Then, he reached down, turned a key, and punched the starter. It spun for a few seconds without catching. He punched it again; again with no joy. He shrugged.

“Is that a Water Buffalo?” 

That question came from Roland Sands, who walked up with another guy who was introduced to us only as Anthony. 

Sands—one of the most respected custom bike builders in the U.S.—had been over in an adjacent room, where he was installing one of his bikes near several tables laid for a formal lunch. As it happened, on the same day I came to interview Jay, a dozen motorcycle journalists had lunch in the garage, as part of a press junket organized by BMW. They were all riding the new R nine T. 

Sands was there because BMW hopes that the R nine T will become a favorite of the custom crowd. And, as I was told later, ‘Anthony’ was Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’m pretty sure that Leno thought he was Roland’s assistant, as I did.

I worked on a couple of events with Jay, back in the days when he was the star of the Tonight Show and a fixture on American TV five nights a week. Every time I visited the garage, I marveled at his 150 cars and 100 motorcycles; his facility and tools; and a staff devoted to nothing but maintaining and restoring his bikes and building almost anything that he could imagine. 

He’s got an Ariel Atom open-wheel car that came, stock, with a 300-horsepower GM Ecotec motor. His guys built a bespoke V-8 out of two Hyabusa top ends, that makes about 500. That’s the kind of shit they can do in-house. 

A lot of people would be jealous, I guess, but I’ve spent enough time behind the scenes with him to realize the price of fame at that level. People literally grabbing him to adjust microphones, or wardrobe, or makeup, or whatever, right up to the second the cameras started taping. And more grabbing any time he was out in public, shaking hands over and over again. They’d wrap a show in mid afternoon and Jay’d hide out in the garage for a few hours. Even then, there always seemed to be someone from the network lurking nearby; a signature needed here, someone who wanted to meet him; a script revision. Long after dark, he’d go home—not to sleep but to work on the next day’s monologue.

Those nights I left thinking, if the devil offered me all Jay’s bikes and tools, with the caveat that they had to come with his life, I’d turn it down.

Leno was thinking about restoring this Brough, which has an Isle of Man history. But when they looked inside the fuel tank, they saw that there was a message engraved inside, which read, "Whip it like a mule"(!?) That tiny detail made him reconsider changing the bike at all. That's the kind of minutiae—and story—that makes him treasure a bike.
This summer, I went back to see if his life is any different, now that he’s turned over The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon. I guess I hoped—for his sake—that he’d tell me that he’d finally learned MIG welding in his free time, or show me some project that he’d been saving for years so he could tackle it himself, rather than have his staff work on it. 

I suppose he does have more time, but not that much more. And more privacy, although while we talked, a golf cart rolled through slowly; some private tour for NBC advertisers, or contest winners, or whatever; and there were the 20 or so people associated with the BMW thing; and one more pesky journalist—me. The only real change I noticed was that he said ‘fuck’ a lot more in conversation. I guess when he was on TV five nights a week, he had to rein that in. 

The television network still operates the web site, which gets six million hits a month and is the home of a web-TV series, which just earned its sixth Emmy nomination (the equivalent of the BAFTA Awards for U.S. television.)

In passing, Jay mentioned that there were plans afoot to produce a broadcast TV version of the web series. He was evasive when I tried to pin him down on details, but said it would be on the air soon. 

Actually, he said “probably by the time this comes out,” but Classic Bike takes forever to show up on U.S. newstands, so Jay may have thought an interview done in July would appear around Christmas. There’s an excellent chance that you’re reading a bit of a scoop, since—at least as I write this—the fact there’ll soon be a broadcast version of Jay Leno’s Garage is not common knowledge.

On the way out I ran into John Pera, who told me, “There’s a lot of people fighting for [the show]. NBC wanted to do a five-day a week show, but they wanted to control the scripting. Jay said, ‘No, no, no, there’s not going to be any scripted, Orange County Choppers fake bullshit.’”

That’s as it should be. They can make a great show just by tapping Jay’s enthusiasm and love of detail. He showed me a Brough-Superior from the estate of Cecil Clutton. It had been raced on the Isle of Man in the ‘Twenties. 

“I was going to restore this,” he told me. “But then I looked inside this tank with a flashlight, and I saw something written in there. It turned out that someone had scratched ‘Whip it like a mule’ on one of the pieces of metal before it was soldered together. I thought, this is history; I’m not touching it.”

Obviously ‘retirement’ isn’t really changing Jay. At least, not too fucking much.

Well, just today the Hollywood Reporter claims an exclusive on the news that Leno will soon have a prime time show on CNBC. Was he really trying to give me a scoop? Maybe I should've done more with the story...

No comments:

Post a Comment