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Birth of Bikers Part Four: How Easy Rider Changed the Biker World

“You know Billy, we blew it.” —Peter Fonda, Easy Rider

(If you’ve missed any of our Birth of Bikers series, click here to catch up.) 

The turbulent ’60s was a time of war and chaos. Timothy Leary was teaching us to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” We lived through Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, hippies, yippies, and Woodstock. What a long, strange trip it’s been. In fact, one of the legends regarding the “origin” of the one-percenter patch comes from the 1960s. It seems that the AMA had an advertising campaign in 1961 known as the “Put your best wheel forward” that encouraged riders to clean up their act and offer up a clean-cut public appearance. Well, you can imagine how this went over with outlaw bikers. One-percenters who scoffed at the AMA campaign began wearing American Outlaws Association (AOA) patches. These eventually became the infamous one-percenter diamond patches seen today.

Bad biker movies were a hit at drive-in’s in those flower-power days of yore and certain notorious motorcycle clubs continued to show up in the press, and never for doing something nice. While there was a brief time when hippies and acid-heads invited Hells Angels to parties in Haight-Ashbury, this came to a sudden end when a group of H.A.s disrupted a peace march in 1965. The Oakland chapter even offered themselves to President Lyndon Johnson. They were willing to go to Vietnam as a “crack group of fighting guerillas.” But all this was just a prelude to an incident that would make major headlines due to its mix of rock superstars and murder.

Into the bubbling cauldron that was America in the late 1960s, came two maverick film-makers with a vision. The timing was perfect for Easy Rider. In 1969 America was a ticking bomb and Peter Fonda lit the fuse. In the film, two tired carnys turn into drug-selling bikers and become icons of America along the way. Captain America, as played by Peter Fonda, with his red, white, and blue stars and stripes Panhead chopper is the quiet reminder of what this country stands for. He is liberty. Dennis Hopper’s character of Billy (as in Billy the Kid) on his flame-painted chopper, is the ugly American, the frontiersman with his pushy ways and rebellious spirit. They are America incarnate as they roll across this country looking for themselves and a bit of the American Dream. As the advertising slogan for the film read, “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” And what he did find, freaked him out.

However, the lesson in this film is that America had sold out and so did the Captain and Billy. Despite the deeper meaning Fonda meant to capture in his film, American youth saw something else, they saw two free-spirits on wild Harley choppers being gunned down by Southern rednecks. More than one teenager sewed an American flag onto his jacket and went out and bought a bike that summer in search of freedom.

Interestingly, Fonda came up with the ending of the film first and worked backward from there to craft a screenplay with the help of writer Terry Southern. Fonda acted as the film’s producer while Hopper directed. At the time Easy Rider debuted across the country, the hype about the movie centered around the fact that Fonda and Hopper, along with some of the other stars in the film, had supposedly actually smoked real pot in the scenes in which they’re seen toking up. In 1969, that was a big deal and people came out to see the movie just to see people get stoned (both on the screen and in the theaters).

Easy Rider was also the first film to really use popular rock music as music videos within the film. Who can forget the opening credits of the Captain and Billy riding their choppers over the blaring strains of “Born to be Wild?” Peter Fonda once told me that he felt that the Woodstock generation had plenty of passion and their art included notable poetry and music, but that they lacked a movie that stood as their anthem. Fonda gave them what they needed with Easy Rider.

There has never been a biker film before or after Easy Rider that captures the essence of what riding is all about as this film does. There is something about watching those choppers float down southwestern highways in the glory of golden hour that touches on the freedom you feel when piloting a big V-twin. Indeed, in the year following the release of the film, Americans bought motorcycles in record numbers. We all wanted a little bit of that freedom.

Easy Rider spawned a new slew of low-budget biker flicks trying to capture what they didn’t understand from the original in the first place. “We blew it!” But whether they understood the film’s allegory or not, movie producers saw dollar signs with the success of the Fonda/Hopper film and ran out to capture some of that movie magic with their own brand of cycle cinema.

On the small screen, Michael Parks took to the road as a laconic two-wheeled drifter named Jim Bronson on a bright red Sportster in Then Came Bronson. In every one of the 26 episodes of this TV series, Parks stops in a small berg in picturesque America to touch a few lives and make enough money for some gas and beef jerky before headin’ down that long, lonesome highway.

Besides timing, both Easy Rider and Then Came Bronson had in common a romantic view of riding motorcycles. Peter Fonda and Michael Parks are both seen spending a lot of film time pondering their places in the Universe and are trying to find themselves by taking a spiritual quest aboard a Harley-Davidson

The effects of Easy Rider and Then Came Bronson caused more than a few teenagers to turn to motorcycles as a way of working out some of their lonely, post-pubescent angst. The early ’70s have become known as the flower power years of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, custom choppers, hot rods, disillusioned youth, and rebellion.

Easy Rider made a bundle at the box office, bringing in over 19 million in its original domestic release, which was huge money for an independent picture at the time. Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper were old hands at being in biker movies, Fonda having starred in Wild Angels and Hopper having starred as the leader of the Black Souls MC in The Glory Stompers. But the post Easy Rider films that came out of American International Pictures and other low budget film factories focused more on the bad ass image of violent bike clubs than the idyllic motorcycle touring adventures of Fonda and Hopper.

To be continued…

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