Today motorcycles are common. It has become a common mode of transportation for young people, and middle class families. It is no longer the exclusive domain of biker gangs and misfits. Of course, this has always been the case outside of the United States. But this post isn’t about the business executive who takes rides on his motorcycle on the weekends. This post is about the motorcycle as a romantic icon. A symbol of American independence. A symbol of the American male mojo. The motorcycle of the Hell’s Angels and Marlon Brando. I mainly wanted to share some great photos with you, that give you a better idea of motorcycle lore than any words I can type. My brain hurts lately, and my well of inspiration has dried up a bit, so I am allowing other media to tell the story. My first photo is a wonderful moment in American cultural history. This is Hunter Thompson long before his gonzo days. He is gazing out at the unforgiving sea at Big Sur with his motorcycle. For me, this captures some of the mystery and romance of the motorcycle. Of course, it helps to know who the kid is.
The romance of the motorcycle began after WW II, when so many veterans came home and needed something exciting and somewhat dangerous to do. So they formed motorcycle clubs. It didn’t take long for these clubs to develop a seedy reputation. “The Wild Ones” established the idea of the motorcyclist as a rebel. Someone asked Marlon Brando’s character what he was rebelling against and he said “Whadda ya’ got?” The motorcycle reinforced the loner image. One man and his bike. This was the message of ‘The Wild Ones’. It was not a celebration of gangs, it was a celebration of individualism. The combination of the mysterious and virile Marlon Brando with the motorcycle was magical. I don’t think there has been a more perfect marriage. Although ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ focused more on daredevil car racing, the same spirit of individualism pervades that film. Of course, James Dean had his bike, and so did Elvis Presley after him. It is interesting how that image changed as Elvis’ image changed. In the beginning Elvis had a Harley, but when he needed to be more family friendly he rode a smaller, less controversial motorcycle. But check out the road hog he has in his final years! This is an icon of a different sort, and the subject of a different blog. I managed to find a photo of Natalie Wood on a motorcycle but it isn’t entirely clear to me what brand it is. Is it a Harley? And while I am on the subject of Natalie Wood, I found this adorable picture of her and Sal Mineo that I wanted to share even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with motorcycles. It just captures some of what made those two so special.
Steve McQueen redeemed the image of the motorcycle in The Great Escape. It became wholesome again, and associated with good old American virtues. Michael Parks revived the loner image for the motorcycle in the seventies. He was kind of a James Dean Light. Arlo Guthrie made the motorcycle seem harmless and fun with his ‘Motorcycle Song’. Thankfully, we had Steppenwolf to remind us of what motorcycles should be about. ‘Born to be Wild’ became
the motorcycle anthem, although I really liked their much more obscure motorcycle related song, ‘Screaming Night Hog’. You can see in the videos I posted, the transformation in just one year of Steppenwolf, from hippie band to a biker band. John Kay didn’t just wear those shades to be cool, he had severe vision problems. But he also looked totally cool!
I found three photos of famous icons with their bikes. Brando, Elvis, and Springsteen. Nuff said.
Hunter Thompson made motorcycles dangerous again, by writing about his misadventures with the Hell’s Angels. Here he is with his bike. And it comes full circle with James Hurley in Twin Peaks with his bike, echoing Marlon Brando. So today, although motorcycles are everywhere, there still remains a romance attached to the idea of the motorcycle. That spirit continues with Margaret Cho’s blog about her motorcycle adventures.