Death. Destruction. Mayhem. Whether it’s the bedridden grandmother surrounded by her family, coughing tar black chunks into daintily embroidered handkerchiefs; the young graduate cut down in his prime by a drunk driver while braving the post-work commute; masked psychopaths massacring innocents in the names of equally false prophets; women and children blown to bloody fragments by the airborne firepower of the World's Police in revenge of crimes in which they played no part, the manifestation of these uncontrollable forces pervade every aspect of our modern lives.
So what drives a man to put himself in harm’s way by propelling himself around a vertical-walled drum at bonerattling speeds like a particularly narked wasp inside a washing machine, devoid of any discernible armour, all faith invested in the hope that the precarious equilibrium between the 1920s Indian motorcycle roaring beneath him and the laws of physics themselves will remain intact?
For Dave ‘Dynomyte Dave’ Seymour, seasoned Wall of Death rider, it’s the adrenaline that floods his veins, the roar of the crowd.
“It’s all about the buzz”, he says with a grin, “especially when you have an audience that’s going crazy!”
The Wall of Death has an unsurprisingly storied history. Billed “the Grandaddy of all extreme sports”, its roots lie Stateside in the fledgling ‘board track races’ of the 1900s, where the manic and the brave, hurtling through long straights and banked turns, risked life and limb, all for the supreme glory of the win.
While popular among misfits and thrill seekers, the races were eventually marred by a series of fatalities. As a result, in the heart of New York’s Coney Island, the modern Wall – within which riders do battle with centrifugal forces and a pull of up to 4G at a height of twenty feet, all the while performing tricks as elaborate as the side-saddle crucifix – was born.
The Wall subsequently became a mainstay of the various North American carnival circuits, its riders the subject of the adoration of baying crowds far and wide, and was eventually exported to territories as diverse as the UK and India.
While the number of touring Walls has diminished significantly, the reaction of audiences has not been dulled. Everyone loves a daredevil, and the sport continues to draw loyal crowds willing to part with their money and faculties in equal measure.
It’s not difficult to see why. There’s something raw, sexy even, about placing yourself in the presence of danger. The almost primal characteristics of hero worship and bloodlust will inevitably remain appealing, whatever year it may be.
There’s also something to be said for the grit of it all, the smell of the oil as the Indians barrel around, the B-Grade Americana, the distinct lack of polish. Indeed, it hasn’t been yet been co-opted, to the point of tedium, in the way that, say, surfing or snowboarding have, used as a device to advertise products as bland as cereal, soft drinks and mobile phone coverage while soundtracked by a heinous dilution of whatever used to pass for punk rock.
There’s also something so wonderfully fucking childish about it all. It’s to be stressed that there’s absolutely nothing pejorative meant in the use of those words. Rather, it harkens back to a time where concepts as mundane as bills, debt, a career you hate and the perversity of ambitions attendant to that career were wholly fucking alien to you. A time where all that mattered was what excited you, the character of the thrill itself and how undoubtedly cool you thought the outlaws that lived beyond the fringes were. In that respect, file alongside your Human Flys, swordswallowers, fire breathers and Evel Knievels of the world. Imagine an episode of the Simpsons in which Bart proposes to stake his future on becoming a Wall rider, much to the chagrin of Marge, and you’re somewhere within the ballpark of what I’m talking about.
For Dave, there was something altogether serendipitous about his introduction into this strange world. A Harley riding biker of many years, Dave was simply looking for a new bike.
“I fancied switching to an Indian Chief. By chance, my mate Dave saw a classified for two Indian motorcycles. However, they came with a Wall of Death!”
Dave acknowledges that this ‘added extra’ constituted more than most would have bargained for. But to fail to understand why anyone would take on such an additional burden, with no previous experience of riding one, is a failure to understand Dave.
“Many would have walked away, but I’m impulsive”, he says.
In a minor twist of fate, Dave had actually seen the Wall on a visit to London some twenty years earlier, and recalling the memory with glee (he even still has a worn photograph of his son and daughter sitting on one of the bikes used that day), he set about acquiring it (along with a partner no longer involved), subsequently christening it the ‘Demon Drome’.
The Demon Drome was originally built in the States in 1927 and then transported to England, before finding itself in Wales and Skegness in the sixties and eighties respectively. With an appreciation of this history of multiple ownership and continental transit, it soon becomes apparent that buying the Wall was the easy part.
In an article previously published in the Torygraph, Dave explained:
“Collection was another matter. Parts were scattered at storage yards around the country, at some of which rent was owing. So covert night-time raids took place in order to reunite all the elements. Once I had everything together, it was apparent the condition was bad but not incurable.”
If construction of an event-worthy Wall wasn’t enough of an issue, there also remained the minor outstanding issue of actually learning how to ride it. Simple as roadbike riding, ‘tis not. After all, when did you last see a roadbike riding at (almost) right angles to the ground below?
Yet after several months of perseverance, Dave’s confidence grew, and he was soon able to master a repertoire of basic tricks. Perhaps unfathomably to most, Dave had originally purchased the Wall for no purpose other than his own enjoyment in the seclusion of his own garden. However, he soon resolved that this was where his future lay, and an impromptu request from a friend to appear at an event saw him take the Demon Drome out on the road for the first time.
Now, over ten years later, Dave tours all over the UK and Europe, Demon Drome in tow. For Dave at least, the life of a Wall rider isn’t a solitary one. The 18 separate pieces which comprise the Demon Drome mean that a seven person team is required to facilitate its appearance at any given event, three of whom are his wife Julia and children Duke and Alabama. Duke also happens to be a rider, and is said to be one of the best in business, while Alabama takes part in stunts such handlebar riding, which she has been doing since the age of ten.
Amongst this description of convivial family life in the midst of exceptional circumstances, you could be forgiven for thinking that the danger associated with riding is remote, that the very label ‘Wall of Death’ is just that – a hokey name designed to conjure an image to draw gormless punters in. But make no mistake, the danger is real.
Each new year yields (thankfully) isolated instances of calamity and severe injury of those that have scaled those heady heights seeking the adulation of the fans. Dave himself is no stranger to this.
“I have broken various bones, collected scars and bumps and even developed arthritis, all from riding the Wall” he recounts, in a way that makes it almost sound normal – an inconvenient occupational hazard.
What does the future hold for the Demon Drome, Dave and Wall riding more generally? Dave is keen to emphasise that while Wall riding is unavoidably steeped in certain amount of nostalgia, he and his team never wish to remain stagnant.
“We want to keep the Demon Drome true to its roots but keep innovating and putting on the best shows we can. We are practicing some pretty mad tricks for next year’s shows.”
As I watch the bikes sputter and growl, their movements a strange contradiction of brutality and unbridled finesse; the clapping of hands; the wide eyed awe; the sense of an almost otherworldly experience shared between rider and audience, almost cult-like in its intensity, I’m prompted to return to my original question - what drives a man to put himself in harm’s way by propelling himself around a vertical-walled drum at bonerattling speeds like a particularly narked wasp inside a washing machine, devoid of any discernible armour, all faith invested in the hope that the precarious equilibrium between the 1920s Indian motorcycle roaring beneath him and the laws of physics themselves will remain intact?
In attempting at finding an answer, I’m reminded of the lyrics to Richard Thompson’s aptly named ‘Wall of Death”,
“Let me ride on the Wall of Death one more time
You can waste your time on the other rides
This is the nearest to being alive
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall of Death”.
Article by Lee Cooper
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