In The Time Of The Hard Motorcycle Boys- With Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” In Mind
From The Pen Of Peter Paul Markin:
Okay here is the book of genesis, the motorcycle book of genesis, or at least my motorcycle book of genesis. Let’s connect the dots first though. A couple of years ago, and maybe more, as part of a trip down memory lane, old working- class town high school memory lane the details of which do not need detain us here, I did a series of articles on various world-shaking, earth-shattering subjects like high school romances (those that lasted five minutes, those that still last, and those that were wistful dreams never consummated I did not discriminate, except maybe put a little more emphasis on those virginal dream ones), high school odd- ball hi-jinx (all the way from down low spray painting or gluing something or someone this or that up to ritual Monday morning boys and girls “lav” talk about who did or did not do what to whom on that Friday or Saturday night date), high school dances (and endless twaddle about wall-flowers and desperate last dance chances), high school Saturday nights, and most importantly of all, high school how to impress the girls( or boys, for girls, or whatever sexual combinations fit these days, but you can speak for yourselves, I am standing on this ground). In short, high school sub-culture, American-style, early 1960s branch, although the emphasis there, as it will be here, was on that social phenomena as filtered through the lenses of a working- class town, a seen better days town at that, my growing up wild-like-the-weeds town.
One of the subjects worked over in that series was the search, the eternal search I might add, for the great working class love song. Not the Teen Angel, Earth Angel, Johnny Angel generic mush that could play in Levittown, Shaker Heights or La Jolla as well as North Adamsville, Youngstown or Moline. No, a song that, without blushing, one could call one’s own, our working- class own, one that the middle and upper classes might like but would not put on their dance cards. As my offering to this high-brow debate I offered a song written by Englishman Richard Thompson (who folkies, and folk rockers, might know from his Fairport Convention days, very good days, by the way), Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. Without belaboring the point the gist of this song was the biker romance, British version, between outlaw biker James and black-leathered, red-headed Molly looking for bike kicks, or just kicks, and rightly so out in the dark British hinterlands. That jail break-out we were all thirsting for then, and maybe still are. Needless to say such a tenuous lumpen existence as James led, with an off-hand robbery or two into keep himself in coffee and cakes, and the old beauty bike sharp, in order to keep himself “biked" cuts short any long term “little white house with picket fence” ending for the pair. And we do not need such a boring finish. For James, after losing the inevitable running battle with the police, on his death bed bequeathed his bike, his precious “Vincent Black Lightning”, to said Molly. His BIKE, man. His BIKE. Is there any greater love story, working class love story, around? No, this makes West Side Story lyrics and a whole bunch of other such songs seem like so much cornball nonsense. His BIKE, man. Wow! Kudos, Brother Thompson.
Needless to say that exploration was not the end, but rather the beginning of thinking through the great American night bike experience. And, of course, for this writer that means going to the books, the films and the memory bank to find every seemingly relevant “biker” experience. Thus, readers were treated to reviews of such classic motorcycle sagas as “gonzo” journalist, Doctor Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and his other, later Rolling Stone magazine printed “biker” stories and Tom Wolfe’ Hell Angel’s-sketched Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (and other articles about California subset youth culture that drove Wolfe’s work in the old days). And to the hellish Rolling Stones (band) Hell’s Angels “policed” Altamont concert in 1969. And, as fate would have it, with the passing of actor/director Dennis Hooper at that time, the 1960s classic biker/freedom/ seeking the great American night film, Easy Rider. And from Easy Rider to the “max daddy” of them all, tight-jeaned, thick leather-belted, tee-shirted, engineer-booted, leather-jacketed, taxi-driver-capped (hey, that’s what it reminds me of), side-burned, chain-link wielding, hard-living, alienated, but in the end really just merely misunderstood, Johnny, aka, Marlon Brando, in The Wild One.
Okay, we will cut to the chase on the plot here. Old Johnny and his fellow “outlaw” motorcycle club members were out for some weekend “kicks” after a hard week’s non-work (as far as we can figure out, work, nine to five work, was marginal for many reasons, as Hunter Thompson in Hell’s Angels noted, to biker existence, the pursue of jack-rolling, armed robbery or grand theft auto careers probably running a little ahead) out in the sunny California small town hinterlands.(The bikers are still heading out there today, the last time I noticed, at least in the Southern California high desert, places like Twenty-Nine Palms and Joshua Tree.)
And naturally, when the boys (and they were all boys here, except for couple of “mamas”, one spurned by Johnny, in a break-away club led by jack-in-the-box jokester, Lee Marvin as Chino) hit one small town they, after sizing up the local law, headed for the local café (and bar). And once one mentions cafes in small towns in California (or Larry McMurtry’s West Texas, for that matter), then hard-working (yes, and hard-working, it’s tough dealing them off the arm in these kind of joints, or elsewhere), trying to make it through the shift, got to get out of this small town and see the world, dreamy-eyed, naïve (yes, naive) sheriff-daughtered young waitress, Kathy, nothing but a Johnny trap though when the deal when down came into play. Okay, now you know, even alienated, misunderstood, misanthropic, cop-hating (an additional obstacle given said waitress’s kinships) boy Johnny needs, needs cinematically at least, to meet a girl who understands him.
The development of that young hope, although hopeless, boy meets girl romance relationship, hither and yon, drives the plot. Oh, and along the way the boys, after a few thousand beers, as boys, especially girl-starved biker boys, will, at the drop of a hat start to systematically tear down the town, for fun. Needless to say, staid local burghers (aka “squares”) seeing what amounts to them is their worst 1950s “communist” invasion nightmare, complete with murder, mayhem and rapine, (although that “C” word was not used in the film, nor should it have been) are determined to “take back” their little town. A few fights, forages, casualties, fatalities, and forgivenesses later though, still smitten but unquenched and chaste Johnny (and his rowdy crowd) and said waitress part, wistfully. The lesson here, for the kids in the theater audience, is that biker love outside biker-dom is doomed. For the adults, the real audience, the lesson: nip the “terrorists” in the bud (call in the state cops, the national guard, the militia, the 82nd Airborne, The Strategic Air Command, NATO, hell, even the hey, weren't we buddies in the war Red Army) , but nip it, fast when they come roaming through Amityville, Archer City, or your small town).
After that summary you can see what we are up against. This is pure fantasy Hollywood cautionary tale on a very real 1950s phenomena, “outlaw” biker clubs, mainly in California, but elsewhere as well. Hunter Thompson did yeoman’s work in his Hell’s Angels to “discover” who these guys were and what drove them, beyond drugs, sex, rock and roll (and, yah, murder and mayhem, the California prison system was a “home away from home”). In a sense the “bikers” were the obverse of the boys (again, mainly) whom Tom Wolfe, in many of his 1960s essays, was writing about and who were (a) forming the core of the surfers on the beaches from Malibu to La Jolla and, (b) driving the custom car/hot rod/drive-in centered (later mall-centered) cool, teenage girl–impressing, car craze night in the immediate post-World War II great American Western sunny skies and pleasant dream drift (physically and culturally). Except those Wolfe guys were the “winners”. The “bikers” were Nelson Algren’s “losers,” the dead-enders who didn’t hit the gold rush, the Dove Linkhorns (aka the Arkies and Okies who in the 1930s populated John Steinbeck’s Joad saga, The Grapes Of Wrath). Not cool, iconic Marlin-Johnny but hell-bend then-Hell Angels leader, Sonny Barger.
And that is why in the end, as beautifully sullen and misunderstood the alienated Johnny was, and as wholesomely rowdy as his gang was before demon rum took over, this was not the real “biker: scene, West or East. Now I lived, as a teenager in a working class, really marginally working poor, neighborhood in North Adamsville that I have previously mentioned was the leavings of those who were moving up in post-war society. That neighborhood was no more than a mile from the central headquarters of Boston's local Hell’s Angels (although they were not called that, I think it was Death-heads, or something like that). I got to see these guys up close as they rallied at various spots on our local beach or “ran” in tandem through our neighborhood on their way to some crazed action. The leader of the pack had all of the charisma of Marlon Brando’s thick leather belt. His face, as did most of the faces, spoke of small-minded cruelties (and old prison pallors) not of misunderstood youth. And their collective prison records (as Hunter Thompson also noted about the Angels) spoke of “high” lumpenism. And that takes us back to the beginning about who, and what, forms one of the core cohorts for a fascist movement in this country, the sons of Sonny Barger. Then we will need to rely on our instinct for survival against the raging hordes, and other such weapons.