Distant Early Warning: Coupland on McLuhan

If I had to pick a patron saint, a hero, or a single intellectual influence for my adult self, it would undoubtedly be Marshall McLuhan. If you’ve spent any time at all reading my work, you’ve seen his name and his ideas. Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (Atlas & Co., 2010) is the latest biography of the man and differs from previous versions in many ways, not the least of which is the author. Having struggled through several of Douglas Coupland’s novels, I had my reservations about his writing this book. I am glad to say he eloquently quelled most of my concerns.

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?
You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

There are several things that people often overlook or misunderstand about McLuhan that Coupland nailed in this book. One was his devout Catholic faith, which rooted his thinking in many ways once he found it, and another was his deep disdain of the media and its attendant technology. In spite of his insight, foresight, and prescience, he hated this stuff. Coupland points out many times that McLuhan wouldn’t have liked our current reliance on technology and connectivity one bit, but he would’ve found it interesting. Another of Coupland’s key insights is that, above all else, McLuhan was an artist, “one who happened to use ideas and words as others might use paint” (p. 16). Seen in this way, a lot of his work might make a hell of a lot more sense to newbies, critics, and haters alike. Like the best artists, he was a pattern perceiver of the highest order.

There’s really no considering this book, its author, or its subject without considering Canada. Yes, Canada, The Great White Wasteland that brought us Rush, hockey, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Justin Bieber, Coupland and McLuhan, as well as the latter’s most obvious forebear, Harold Innis. It’s cold up there, folks — cold and spread out. It makes one appreciate the human element.

“Call it religion or call it optimism,” Coupland writes, “but hope, for Marshall, lay in the fact that humans are social creatures first, and that our ability to express intelligence and build civilizations stems from our inherent social needs as individuals” (p. 165). Or, as McLuhan himself put it, “The user is the content” (Take that, so-called “social media experts”). McLuhan’s consistent focus on the individual is what has kept his ideas fresh in the face of new contrivances.

I know it makes no difference
To what you’re going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you — Rush, “Distant Early Warning”

My problem with Coupland’s past work has had less to do with his writing ability (he’s an excellent writer) and more to do with his appropriation of Salingerisms, and not even a biography could escape. Coupland alludes to Catcher in the Rye by comparing McLuhan to Holden Caulfield on page 111. It’s an apt comparison, and it characterizes The Mechanical Bride-era McLuhan accurately, but I have to admit being irked at the reference.

With all of that said, You Know Nothing of My Work made me proud (I fancy myself something of a McLuhan scholar, so this is meant as a heartfelt compliment), and it made me cry (Though I already knew the story of McLuhan’s last days, a word-man unable to use words is still one of the saddest things I can imagine). I’d like to think Marshall McLuhan would’ve liked this book. It’s treats him with respect, humility, and humor, and I think it “gets” him. What else could he want from a biography?

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Here is a scene that illustrates the heights of McLuhan’s fame, what Coupland calls “every geek’s dream,” and this book’s namesake: Marshall Mcluhan in Woddy Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) [runtime: 2:43]:

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The BMX-Files: A Brief History in Two DVDs

In the June, 1987 issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, underground BMX rider and zine-maker Carl Marquardt described a ramp trick he called a “flakie”: a backflip fakie air. His friend and fellow rider Paul Mackles had offered him $100 if he pulled it. Three years later, Mat Hoffman did the damn thing at a contest in Paris. In his usual methodical style, Mat worked on it in secret in Oklahoma for months beforehand. As he puts it in The Ride of My Life (Harper-Entertainment, 2002), “To make it, I needed at least six feet of air so my head would clear the coping. It was the kind of stunt that required 100 percent conviction each time. I practiced them every day until I had the flip fakie pretty wired, landing high on the transition rather than jarring into the flat bottom Then, I got invited to France.” The photos of Mat’s first public flip-fakie landed on several magazine covers, including the July, 1990 issue of Go: The Rider’s Manual (the publication that combined FREESTYLIN’ with its forebear, BMX Action).

Mat Hoffman burst into the BMX mass mind via the letters page of FREESTYLIN’. Masquerading as the then thirteen-year-old Mat, his mom sent in a picture of him blasting a nine-foot air on his driveway quarterpipe. In his response, editor Andy Jenkins’ described the air as “not normal,” and I think everyone — myself included — knew we were going to see a lot more of this high-flying kid in the coming years. Even so, little did we know…

More than once, Mat Hoffman has been called the “Michael Jordan of BMX.” As Tony Hawk — who could be considered Mat’s equivalent in skateboarding — puts it in The Birth of Big Air (Team Marketing, 2010), “If you know anything about BMX, you know who Mat Hoffman is. And maybe that’s all you know.” This movie illustrates why that’s the case. He’s paid the price for his place in BMX lore — with his body. “There’s not an extremity he hasn’t broken in a violent manner,” says Mat’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Carlan Yates. Mat’s basically dedicated his physical form to the advancement of BMX. There have been smoother riders, there have been people who’ve done it longer, there are people finishing things Mat only started, but no one — no one — has pushed the limits of vert riding on a BMX bike more than Mat Hoffman has. No one. Ever.

“Let’s just say it would’ve sucked to have been born a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now because I would’ve missed out on all of this.” — Dennis McCoy

If you have any doubts about the pedigree of BMX as a sport, Joe Kid on a Stingray (Bang Pictures, 2005) will put them to rest. Its twisted and dirty 1970s roots are exposed and explained. Watching grainy footage of Stu Thomson winning races on a Schwinn Stingray is as sketchy as it is sick. Any story of people sitting on the verge of something that has become as big as BMX has is inspiring, and Joe Kid… is no exception.

“Ask anyone, ‘who invented freestyle?’ Bob Haro!” — Ron Wilkerson

From imitating motocross riders to emulating skateboard tricks, BMX evolved from racing to freestyling (all of which is just called “BMX” these days). Bob Haro was bored with racing and started doing tricks between motos. Eventually, his wheelies, endos, and 180s lead to actual sanctioned freestyle shows at the races. Through touring and innovating, Haro, R.L. Osborn, Mike Buff, Pat Romano, and Ron Wilton made trick riding into something to be taken seriously.

“Maybe that’s our problem. Maybe we just never grew up.” — Bob Osborn

It would be remiss to document the history of BMX without mentioning Bob Osborn. Through BMX Action and FREESTYLIN’ (and their aforementioned combined form, Go), Osborn, his son R. L., and his daughter Windy created the look of BMX media and brought the sport to the world. They also acquainted the world with Andy Jenkins, Mark Lewman, and Spike Jones, who have all gone on to create other great things in art, movies, television, skateboarding, and advertising. Trusting the youth is often difficult for adults to do, but Bob did, and the world is much better for it.

In the late 1980s, I was street riding with some friends in Huntsville, Alabama. One of them, Dave Nash, was wearing these Airwalks held together with duct tape. Someone there asked him why he didn’t just get some new shoes, and he responded, “Because I don’t want to spend any more money on this sport.” It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever heard anyone say. The initial decline of BMX was a scary, strange thing to witness as a kid, but it was actually a positive move. Just as skateboarding had done before it, BMX changed hands from the companies to the riders.

Speaking of, anyone know where Chris Moeller was during the making of this movie? In many ways, S&M Bicycles, along with the efforts of Hoffman, Wilkerson, and the Plywood Hoods, represents the largely unsung part of the bridge from what BMX was in the 1980s to what it is now.

Anyway, big props to Jeff Tremaine, Mark Lewman, Johnny Knoxville, and Mark Eaton for documenting the history of our sport. If you’re a hardcore BMXer of any era, these two movies are your history. If you are bike-curious but know nothing about the sport, these two movies will give you a pretty in-depth crash course.

I don’t know if Mat Hoffman ever collected Paul Mackles’ money for doing Carl Marquardt’s “flakie,” but he was in the same issue of FREESTYLIN’ Magazine, along with another youngster Scotty Freeman, in a piece called “Little Giants.” He was fifteen years old.

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Here’s the official teaser for Joe Kid on a Stingray [runtime: 3:25]:

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Special thanks to Brian Tunney for additional reporting and fact-checking.