Can you believe five years have passed since Harley's 100th anniversary bash invaded Milwaukee? The block parties, the lakefront exhibits, the copious displays of public nudity -- and of course, the highly controversial Elton John concert -- it all seems like yesterday.
Several writers in the editorial department of OnMilwaukee.com were covering the event back then. Here are our fond -- and not so fond -- recollections of the citywide party.
Molly Snyder Edler
I was nine months pregnant at the end of August 2003, so by the time the hogs rolled in, I was feeling like a fat pig. I spent most of the weekend on the couch, eating bowls of cereal and watching snippets of the Harley 100th on television. I remember the weather was blazing hot, but maybe my bodily discomfort was just the insane hormone surge and the extra 40 pounds. That weekend, my husband joked that we should name our kid "Harley," but at that point my sense of humor was about as lively as road kill, and I think I might have thrown a boot at him. Sorry, dear.
My memory of Harley's 100th anniversary is more or less a hodgepodge of other peoples' stories, since I was out of town during the duration of the celebration. But, I lived just off Brady Street at the time, so I caught the first wave of early riders arriving in our city, looking for a place to party, apparently, day and night. Brady seemed to fill the niche quite nicely, as the street seemed to roar with activity as the days got closer to kickoff. I remember wondering, as we all were, who the secret act would turn out to be, and when my mom called me from the Elton John show, I knew I was better off in Arizona.
My favorite part of Harley's 100th anniversary bash was the run-up to the Elton John fiasco. So many rumors were floating about the headliner that it was a delicious time for music fans to consider the possibilities. "I heard from my brother's neighbor's babysitter's cousin that Zeppelin is reuniting to play." I heard about Led Zeppelin, U2, Springsteen, The Eagles, Bon Jovi and just about every other major band except the Beatles coming to headline the stage.
When it turned out to be Elton John, it was so ridiculous; it was a perfect, ridiculous end to a ridiculous period.
Yeah, I know that Elton John's performance killed the climax of the 100th Harley Anniversary but before that, I loved the 100th. I'm not a Harley owner by any means, assuredly probably never will be, but I love the sound, the smell and the feel of vintage motorcycles. For the 100th, I took to the streets with friends on bikes (well, bicycles that is) and rode all over the city making stops at Brady Street, North Avenue and Water Street to witness whatever insanity there was to see. Each festival area screamed with riders doing burn outs, crowds gathering to checkout custom bikes and packs of riders touring the neighborhoods. Mainly, I remember an overwhelming feel of camaraderie and liveliness that I thoughtlessly accepted despite riding a Bianchi in place of a Harley. I love the influx of riders into the city and can't wait for it again this year.
Besides the beer, bikes and occasional boob on Brady Street, the one thing that still lingers from the 100th is how many people would say, "Oh, and they are so nice." Honestly, I heard it several times each day. It was like people thought that Harley riders were some foreign life forms or hell-raising fools. "And, seriously, they are just so nice." Yes, they are, but why were so so surprised? This time around, I expect an even older crowd since many will be here simply to see the new museum.
I have three memories of Harley's 100th anniversary bash. One is pleasant, the other two less so. Wanting to get a peek at the scene, I went down to the lakefront a few days in advance to watch some of the set-up for the big concert party. There I spied the elaborate lighting and saw that all of it came from Space Cannon, the same company that made the two shafts of light that formed the World Trade Center memorial in Manhattan at the time. Space Cannon is a company in Fubine, Italy, the small town where my great-grandmother was born and about which I wrote a book -- and where my biggest Harley-loving friend is from -- so that was a nice surprise.
Living in Bay View, however, I also remember the non-stop thunder created by the bikes in my neighborhood, disrupting -- even more than during a normal summer -- the peace and quiet of our area. I also remember predicting that Elton John could be the star of the big concert (I think my other guess was Billy Joel, which would have been equally unimpressive) and I was extremely disappointed to find out I was on target. Add Kid Rock, country music and The Doobies to the list and you've got one massive yawn-fest, if you ask me.
The Harley 100th was easily one of the most unusual weeks I ever experienced in Milwaukee. I rented my house out to some Boston bankers, so I spent the week at my then girlfriend's (now wife's) house. While these polite strangers occupied my house, I had Lasik surgery performed, and I experienced the anniversary with eagle-eye vision. Of course, I went to all the block parties, but by the end I felt pretty Harleyed-out. The roaring engines, snarled traffic, and the unexpected uneasiness of not being able to go home all gradually grated on me. But I was excited about the big concert and got to Veteran's Park hours early. As the debacle unfolded with Dan Aykroyd's drunken ramblings, I watched the crowd get testier. Finally, Elton John took the stage, and thousands of furious and stunned Harley riders flooded past me in a sea of discontent. Then, as the show wrapped, organizers set off a dramatic -- but unusually low -- fireworks display. I recall feeling ashes land on my face, and I feared some might fall into my newly Lasiked eyes. Still, I waited it out and walked back to my East Side office to post the most scathing -- and best read -- concert review in the history of OnMilwaukee.com.