With as many events as I attend over the course of a season, I’m fortunate to meet a lot of good dudes with some killer bikes. That’s certainly the case with my bud Jesse Johnston from south Philly, PA. Not only is he one of the kindest and friendliest guys I’ve met along the way, but he has, well had, one of the sickest bikes in the area.
I had the chance to sit down with him at the Strange Days event in July and hear more about him and this build. Jesse was also kind enough to pull the bike away from everyone checking it out so I could shoot the bike for this feature. Here is what he had to say.
What type of work do you do for a living? I'm a certified welder turned tin knocker. Union proud!
What’s your background in bikes or how did you get into the chop scene? There is a photograph of me at 5 years old sitting on the tailgate of a Chevy C-10 helping my dad rebuild the six over tubes on his chopper. That bike was the coolest thing I ever saw and I spent countless years just staring at it in all of its glory. I quickly became obsessed with motorcycles. Later, when I was 13 years old, I was in a life threatening dirt bike accident and it’s a miracle I survived. I was racing through a pitch black rail road tunnel and hit a tree on the way out. When my friends caught up to me, they found me in severe shock, suffered a massive concussion, and had a large laceration to my head that was causing me to literally bleed out. This was a time before cell phones, so my friends split up and looked for help. One friend found a highway and somehow flagged down a car that was equipped with a center console phone, and they called 911. A helicopter came and brought me to the hospital where I was treated as critical and, amongst other things, received 32 staples in my head. When I got out of the hospital I immediately rebuilt the bike, sold it, and bought a faster one. I've repeated this same process of building, selling, and buying in my adult life with Harleys and, despite still having some physiological issues from crashing dirt bikes, I don't think I'm slowing down anytime soon.
What inspired the name? I named the bike “the sorcerers juicebox” because the red color of the bike reminded me of the color of people's lips when they drink wine. When I was 18, I discovered you could buy a gallon of Carlo Rossi red wine for $6. It tasted terrible but was really fun. The tell-tale sign of us partying quickly became my entire mouth and lips turning bright red. I think some of my friends got sick of the antics and one day this Cuban girl in my neighborhood walked over to the yard and saw my red lips and proclaimed, "Damn juicebox, you're drunk again!"Ha, ha, ha, that was a long time ago.
How long have you owned it? I've had the motor, frame and trans since 2013.
Where did you come across the bike? In 2012, I picked up a 1988 sportster that was in a bunch of pieces. With some help from my dad, I built it into a really fun hardtail chopper. Never being satisfied, I listed it for sale on Chop Cult and a member offered to trade me his basket case shovel for my sporty chop. A week later, my buddy and I drove to Ohio to make the trade in a dark parking lot off the highway somewhere. There were parts everywhere and I was hoping that between my buddy and me we could get eyes on everything. Well, he ended up seeing an old friend of his in the parking lot and they started trading .45 ammunition between themselves instead of helping me look over the parts. It was dark and I was anxious to get back on the road, so we ended up just checking out the inside of the cylinders with a scope, made the trade, and headed back to Philly.
Why a shovelhead? Did you consider other motors or were you set on a shovelhead? I love shovels and I was really lucky someone wanted to trade me one.
How long did it take you to build it? It probably took about 6 months doing just nights and weekends.
What percentage of the work from the time you bought it until the finished state did you personally do to the bike? I’ve had friends help me with wiring and motor work in other versions of this bike but the current build I did all myself. All of the welding and metal work I did in my garage along with all assembly and tuning. The only thing I outsourced was getting the bike painted.
What was the biggest change you made to the bike since you bought it? The bike is completely changed since I got it. I've rebuilt it a few times and everything has been replaced and restyled. I've had the bike in 3 frames and 6 different front ends before I was happy. It's come a long way from the neon green tribal split tanks that were on it.
What was the smallest change that has made the biggest impact on the bike? Probably the smallest change that made the biggest impact was putting a huge front sprocket on it. 4 speeds feel like they are shaking apart on the highway. After I changed the sprockets, the highways became fun again and I could cruise at 80 comfortably.
How many bikes have you built? I've built 5 Harleys and never kept one together or unchanged for more than a season.
Who helped you the most with the build? Everyone knows Nick in south Jersey is an actual chopper wizard. Any time I need something or have a specific question about an obscure part, he is always there to help. He's got a story for every part he sells and always offers wisdom in the right way to install it or modify it. Also the whole scumerset crew for hanging and drinking beers.
Any inspirations for the build? The bike was inspired by bikes from the 1960s or what's now considered "60s style". There are so many people building killer bikes, but I really dig the current bikes coming out of Texas and Australia.
Any particular vendors that were a huge help in getting it built? I'd like to thank Hamm’s Beer, cold pizza and Cedar the cat.
Is the end product what you had in mind when you started the project or did it go in a different direction than planned? I had every detail of this bike perfectly planned out in my head before I started and I painstakingly made sure I didn't stray from the plan. Seeing something go from imagination to finished product is a great feeling.
What was your favorite part about building the bike? My favorite part of the entire build was rebuilding the OEM star hubs for the front and rear wheels. Nothing in the world rides smoother than repacked roller bearings.
What was the most challenging part of building the bike? The most challenging part was finding the time to do it. I was working 2 jobs and splitting up limited garage time building two bikes at once.
How often do you ride it? For a long time I didn't have a car and this bike was my daily driver even in rain/sleet/hail/snow. I'm a bit more civilized now and probably ride it a few times a week.
Any good stories to share? My favorite ride was probably at my buddy's going away party. A whole group of us filled the garage to eat burgers, drink beers, and say good bye. After a few hours of fun there, we all decided to group ride to the titty bar. I was up front blasting down the highway and some friends were behind me on road kings, dynas, and an fxr. At one point I turned around and saw everyone swerving back and forth and swinging their arms around as if they were swimming. When we got to the bar everyone was freaking out and told me my tool bag was open and they have been dodging spark plugs and wrenches at 84mph for the past few miles. Ha,ha!...we hung out at the titty bar for a while then bar hopped around. The rest of the night was filled with puking, burn outs, wheelies, splitting lanes, and skitching on taxis down S. Broad Street. Everyone was way too tuned up and was out for way too long, but boy did we make memories.
Has it ever won any prizes or trophies? The bike just won “Best Chopper” at Strange Days 6 and I couldn’t be happier! So many of my friends from all over go to this event and it’s the most fun ever.
What’s the question you most often get asked about the bike? People ask what year it is all the time. I think it looks older than it actually is.
What do you have planned for it now? Bike just sold! I was made an offer I couldn't refuse. But that's why I do this, to keep trading up and starting new projects. Working in the shop is just as important as riding for me. One is for winter, the other is for summer and they both keep me sane.
What are you working on now or upcoming projects? I want to build a traditional pan chopper. I have my eyes on a ‘52 basket case right now.
Any one person or group of people you’d like to thank? I’d like to thank ZZ Top! I'm sure it drove my friends crazy, but I literally listened to the same ZZ Top album on repeat over and over again every single time I worked on the bike. At first it was just rad to listen to that record, but it quickly became a superstitious tradition. Jesus Just Left Chicago.
Big thanks to my bud Jesse for his time at Strange Days. Although it sucks the bike isn’t his anymore, I couldn’t be more anxious to see what he does next! -Dan
Article and photographs by Daniel Venditto / @dv8sport