In the early nineteen-fifties, Hollywood actors could only ride the Sportster predecessor, 750cc Harley K-models and still maintain insurance. The reason is that the 1952 to 1956 K-Flathead models were so slow!
In another brilliant marketing move, the Motor Company publishes a picture of Elvis Presley sitting astride a 1956 KH Harley-Davidson on the cover of the May 1956 Enthusiast. Elvis, an avid devotee owned and rode many Harley-Davidson’s over his career.
Elvis’s many motorcycles afforded him a choice of what to ride. One of his favorites was a Panhead dresser but he also had a Honda Dream and a Triumph. However, his favorite was called the “Harley Dessert”. Elvis was fascinated with law enforcement and thus gravitated towards the police-type Harley-Davidson’s.
The counterculture band, Steppenwolf was also responsible for the all time great biker hit Born to be Wild in 1968, (“looking for adventure and whatever comes my way”).
Donny’s Blasts from the Past
When I was around 15-years old, we went to dances in a local church basement in Toronto to hear many bands of the day including John Kay and The Sparrow. This band went on to play in the transitional Beatnik coffee houses to hippie hangouts, communes, and flophouses on a street called Yorkville in downtown Toronto. Think Haight-Ashbury and you have the picture.
Today, fifty years later, Yorkville is upscale and one of the wealthiest and commercially most expensive streets in the city. Sure, currently rich urban bikers, with their very safe walks on the wild side, ride their sanitary Harley’s along Yorkville amongst the Ferraris and Lamborghini’s. They replace the greasy longhaired motorcycle club members on their chopped Hawgs of the hippie era.
I gravitated from a street gang milieu into the hippie lifestyle and its peace, love and groovy philosophy. I took my motorcycle along for the ride. One day, a gang of greasers surrounded me to administer the brutal mandatory haircut of the day. I was able to fend them off for a short while as I made attempt after attempt to turn the other cheek. Peace and love were failing miserably at resolving my problem. That day I became a biker as I fought them off. I kept my hair with the realization that peace is only possible with a big fist.
We heard John Kay and The Sparrow split from Yorkville in a beat up old station wagon for California. No one thought the car would make it. The rest is history as The Sparrow emerged as Steppenwolf a short time later.
Then Came Bronson on a ’69 XLH
Then Came Bronson was a popular TV show in 1969 and 1970. Jim Bronson (Michael Parks) is disillusioned and becomes a wandering vagabond after the suicide of his best friend Nick (Martin Sheen) and with working for the man. After Nick’s death, Bronson buys his 1969 XLH Sportster from Nick’s widow.
Each show ends with the Long Lonesome Highway sung by Michael Parks. The song was a Billboard Magazine Hot 100 hit that reached #20 in 1970.
Some believe that Then Came Bronson was a knockoff the movie Easyrider. However, the TV show was released before the movie.
Bronson wearing his trademark black toque, black jeans and his dark sunglasses. He pulls up to a stoplight on his cool Sportster with a red peanut tank. His traveling bag is strapped over his headlight and his sleeping bag to the sissy bar.
Beside him is a big station wagon. The burdened family man inside wears a felt business fedora and overcoat.
Middle America looks over at Bronson and asks, “Taking a trip?”
“Oh, I dunno. Wherever I wind up, I guess.”
“Boy, I wish I was you.”
Bronson replies as he pulls away, “Well, hang in there.”
Then Came Bronson was a great TV show that splayed the biker lifestyle of freedom and individuality into every living room in America. Tell me that this iconic show didn’t feed the burgeoning biker lifestyle movement?
Bronson, the cool good guy contrasted greatly with the plethora of biker movies (Wild Angels, Born Losers, Hells Angels on Wheels etcetera) shown in movie theaters. The difference is the movies preached to the choir.
Bronson drew in the unconverted.
Donny’s Blasts from the Past
I was riding with Sonny through the Mojave Desert about 13 years ago. We stopped on the side of the highway. There was a sun bleached white wood, decrepit motel in the middle of nowhere across the highway.
Tumbleweed rolled by in a light desert breeze.
The one story, row structure leaned on an angle that was sure to collapse.
“Ever see that movie Hells Angels 69,” he asked rhetorically. “Good old guy owns that motel. If you didn’t want to sleep last night, I was planning on us staying here.”
What a fucking guy, Mr Energy! We rode from Oakland, leaving at 9am in the morning at a steady 80 mph to 3am the previous night.
His quiet, raspy voice continued, “We filmed the movie out here. We stayed at this place for about a month. They bought us as many kegs of beer as we wanted.”
Befitting the surrealistic, we rode off into a sand storm.
I was learning the hard way, another reason he uses a full face helmet.
Easyriders: The Magazine
Easyriders publishes its initial magazine for June, 1971. It is an instant success capitalizing on the first chopper craze. The Easyriders formula catapulted it to the status of the world’s largest motorcycle magazine by mixing cool choppers, fictional biker tales, cartoons, tech advice, and scantily clad hippie and biker chicks. It was a pinnacle of success for me to be featured numerous times in this iconic chronicler of the lifestyle.
The Mask: 1985
The Mask a film by Peter Bogdanovich starring Cher as Rusty becomes a hit. Her sick son Rocky dreams of riding across Europe on a Shovelhead with a suicide shift. Rusty hangs with the Turks MC. The motorcycle club (gang) members are real people who have compassion. This is the first realistic representation of a bike club.
Easyriders: The Movie
George Hansen (Jack Nicholson) wonders what has happened to America. “Billy, the locals are not afraid of you but are afraid of what you and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) represent.”
Billy (Dennis Hopper) responds through a haze of marijuana smoke, “ Hey man, all we represent to them is someone needing a haircut.”
“No Billy, what you represent to them is freedom.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, Billy; but talking about it and being it are two different things. Its real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Billy, don’t ever tell anybody they aren’t free because they are going to get real busy killing and maiming to prove to you that they are. If they see a free individual, its gonna scare them. It makes’em dangerous.”
Later that night a cowardly attack by the local red necks with axe handles beats the sleeping boys, killing their lifestyle traitor, George.
The 1969 Easyriders movie, a separate entity and not connected to the magazine. However, some believe the magazine title is taken from this iconic movie.
The opening scene shows Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda’s Captain America) doing a drug deal to finance their cross-country ride in search of America. Steppenwolf’s resounding God Damn the Pusher Man (“God damn, God damn The Pusher man. You know the dealer, the dealer is a man with the love grass in his hand. Oh, but the pusher is a monster. The pusher don’t care whether you live or die”) overwhelms the striking visuals of evil Capitalism. It is a wonderful movie that explores a time in America on so many levels. I am happy that I lived through this era riding my radical chopper.
Reportedly, two Panhead choppers were built from surplus police bikes for Peter Fonda’s character Wyatt, one for traveling and long shots and the other for close-ups (hero bike). The gas tank’s American flag theme epitomized the overriding and layered themes of this classic movie with 13-red and white stripes and twenty-five white stars on a blue background. After movie completion, the hero version was stolen from storage. Of course, the traveling version was destroyed in the movie’s final scenes. Captain America was killed for being free by a freedom loving redneck protecting the American way.
Wyatt was the sensitive, intellectual biker exploring Americana. Its a tough role. I’m not sure anyone could pull it off completely. Dennis Hopper as Billy was another story. Wyatt paled with the coolness of Billy. I don’t know if Dennis Hopper was a great actor or he was just playing himself. Jack Nicholson, also had one of his great roles as the perfect foil for Wyatt’s deep thoughts and Billy’s realistic, wackey dope conversations.
The movie created a whole new wave of motorcyclists particularly of the outlaw genre. Bikers loved Billy as they did Lee Marvin in the Wild One. I couldn’t identify much with the Wild One but I watched Easyriders with everyone doing LSWas (nickname for LSD) and psylocybin. I immediately knew what I was doing for the rest of my life. We were all rebellious but our counterculture seeds were well fertilized watching the final scene with mind enhancing brilliance. We were against all things establishment after walking out of the theatre.