“What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“What’ve you got?”
Marlon Brando as Johnny in “The Wild One,” a hot 1953 flick if you rode a motorcycle.
Unfortunately, it was the first wave, and it set a line drawn in society’s mind between bikers and the rest of the general public. The black leather jacket, that iconic symbol of the lawless child of “The Biker Craze,” was really just the best way to stay cozy against fifty-five mph highway winds and biting cold.
A descendent of the bicycle, the first motorcycle was a steam-driven affair built in 1868, but “the bike” really took off about 1945. The black leather jacket was first worn by aviators and cycle messengers in World War I. The so-called lawlessness and rebellion against “Whatever you’ve got,” was codified in 1953 when Marlon Brando, in cahoots with director Stanley Kramer, conjured up “The Wild One.” After that, the police stopped bikers for no more reason than to check their licenses and registrations.
I started riding my own bike, a one-cylinder BMW, in 1956 and the police were the enemy. Not because I was an outlaw — I just loved to ride bikes — but because that was the image of the motorcycle rider.
I’d get dirty looks from people in cars. The police would stop me to check my license and registration. I didn’t enjoy feeling like an outlaw. I wasn’t rebelling against anything but the overbearing police. I just wanted to ride my bike, to feel the responsiveness and the power beneath me, to lean precariously into turns and hold the bike there, to feel the wind whistling past my ears and the ground flying by so close.
But that was then.
We seem to understand ourselves as a country by the films Hollywood devises. The next great wave in motorcycle attitudes came with Peter Fonda’s 1969 “Easy Rider.” Now the country was On The Road, in search of America, if you believed the songs of the times. I don’t remember if Peter and the boys ever found it. After all, America was there, all the time, just beneath their tires. “Easy Rider” was not a biker flick, it was a landmark road film. Critics described it as a film that expressed, among other beliefs of the times, a counter-culture fear of the establishment.
We bikers breathed a sigh of relief. Now I was among the in-group. I was cool. I was probably in search of America even though I was riding to the store for a loaf of bread. Now we carried the fantasy of a new American dream stuffed into our bedrolls.
Ironically, the major characters in “Easy Rider” were druggies and outlaws, and the title is slang for a pimp who makes his money off prostitutes.
But, what the hell. Now young people smiled knowingly at me. I smiled knowingly back. The outlaw image slid off like a snake shedding its skin.
Things got even better with the next wave, the advent of the Feminist Movement. I went from being cool to being a sister! Geez, I never had a sister. Now women, even women with babies, gave me approving smiles as I rode by on my way to motorcycle hangouts.
I remember one night in particular. I was taking a writing course at Stony Brook U on Long island’s north shore. It was raining and my car wouldn’t start. I rode my bike there, cursing all the while as I got drenched. The female guard at the college’s gate gave me an approving smile and a nod as I rode through. Another sister!
We bikers had drawn some lines between ourselves too. There were the BSA and Triumph riders, forerunners of the Japanese bikes, and good guys all, and there were the Harley boys, not always so good. If you wanted to find outlaws among bikers, you had only to look for The Hell’s Angels, and hope you didn’t find them.
I no longer ride, because of a bad accident years ago. In a car! But I see businessmen on bikes, their attache cases strapped on racks behind them, and I have to wonder: Are they outlaws? Are they in search of America? Do they support the Feminist Movement? Do they ride because they love to?
Or are they just trying to save money on gas?