Hell is other people.
Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
Back when the world was young, I was one half of an acoustic guitar duo called the Missouri Breaks, named after the Brando-Nicholson film (which to this date neither of us has seen). Though we never made much of a splash—our most lucrative gig allowed us to pay the phone bill one month—we did have the wildly improbable distinction of being the house act at a biker bar called The Monkey Man’s Club Tattoo. The Monkey Man was a tattoo artist who bought a postage-stamp-sized lounge downstairs from his shop for the purpose of entertaining his biker buddies whenever they rolled through Atlanta, and the club regularly featured loud, leather-trousered, enormous-hair bands with names like Vagrant Justice and J. P. Nasty—and our folky strumming selves. But the Monkey Man liked us and paid us in beer, so every Wednesday we’d get up, do our little semi-Dylanesque set, then sit down to get shit-faced with the bikers and listen to their stories.
Ridin' High, Livin' Free
Ralph "Sonny" Barger, Keith and Kent Zimmerman
Hell-raising Motorcycle Stories
Most hardcore riders have a touch of the bard in them, and there is nothing quite like a good biker story, if you don’t mind frank and vivid descriptions of accidents, bloody bar fights, and the quest for the perfect blowjob. While the romance of the open road a la Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac may seem passe’ anymore, it is still very much alive in the hearts and minds of the road warriors. Listen to enough of their stories and you’ll find yourself believing in it too.
That’s why Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free, a collection of biker tales compiled and edited by Hell’s Angels frontman Sonny Barger, should be much, much better than it is. Barger and his collaborators Keith and Kent Zimmerman, who also co-authored Barger’s autobiography, put out a call for stories from the biker community and supposedly present the best of them here, but what should be a fascinating glimpse into a rarely seen American subculture (or counterculture, take your pick) emerges as little more than a bunch of campfire tales, highly expurgated and wholly unremarkable. For an anthology of motorcycle stories, Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free is, well, pedestrian.
In the book’s introduction Barger and the Zimmermans state, “All of the stories have been streamlined to meet one important qualification: We wanted stories presented like tales a stranger sitting on the next bar stool might tell you. Truth or fiction? Who cares?” Actually, we do, guys. A stranger at the next stool should have a good truth or a great fiction to tell, and if he does, we don’t want it “streamlined.” We want details, the more explicit, the better. Like the story about Irish and his four young friends who form an MC (Motorcycle Club—the word “gang” is not used here, and rightly so) in California, with the ultimate goal of being absorbed by the leading club in the state:
It took them a while, but with pride, honor, and perseverance, their goal was finally attained. They had been asked to join, en masse, with this leading 1%er club. Their dreams would soon be fulfilled.
There was just one problem. There had been a violent incident with another group, and even though they were working to resolve it,it had remained ultimately unsettled. The problem was that they did not want to take this bit of unfinished business with them to the 1%er club because it did not involve the club they were advancing into, and they damn sure were not going to let it pass . . . It was agreed that Cool Breeze would stay behind as the lone member of the old club, and that upon completion of their vendetta, he would completely disband the old club, burn the last patch, and join his four brothers, wherever they might be.
No way of knowing what the boys had to do to impress the big club, whether it was a trial by fire or a pie-eating contest, but apparently they did it like warriors. And whatever the “violent incident” was, it must have been heinous indeed for Cool Breeze to carry on their vendetta alone—at least that’s what seems to be implied here.
It was just about three years later and a bike was heard one night pulling up to the new clubhouse. There was a knock on the door. Somehow the members already knew who it was. A little older and stronger, and a lot wiser, Cool Breeze rejoined his brothers. He became a prospect and then a member. A debt of honor had been paid.
Heavy, mythic stuff, I guess, but I can’t help but think that the hypothetical stranger on the next stool would be telling me in no uncertain terms just what the hell Cool Breeze did to pay the “debt of honor” or even, for that matter, what the “debt of honor” was in the first place. The implication is that the man hunted down the bikers who’d wronged his buddies and messed them up good, but for all Barger and Company actually tell us, Cool Breeze may have spent three years in Civil Court suing for damages. We just don’t know, because time and again the authors eschew detail in favor of this kind of semi-mystical, sloganeering twaddle. It’s not that the book doesn’t contain a fair amount of violence, nor should one go into it specifically for blood and guts, but the authors seem overly concerned with couching any and all of the conflict in terms of “the code of the road,” which would appear to make the bushido of the samurai look like the Boy Scout’s Oath by comparison. It’s unclear whether Barger is feeling his age or atoning for his sins, but it appears he has become an apologist, which is the last thing any biker, especially a Hell’s Angel, should be.
For whatever reason, the pervasive lack of detail in this book undercuts even those chapters which deal with true phenomena (as opposed to the endless stories of roadrash and just how hard it is to fix a Harley Panhead) such as the East Bay Dragons of Oakland, California, the first all-black MC. Despite its rise in other countries, within a wide range of ethnicities, and among a growing number of women, biker culture was originally and remains primarily the pursuit of American white boys—and let’s be honest, a good number of those white boys continue to maintain a certain profound hostility toward people outside their own particular demographic. But where Barger could be shedding light on the unique problems the Dragons surely faced in integrating the biker community in the late Sixties, the chapter goes no further than to explore the deep angst of the Dragons’ decision to require that their members only ride Harleys.
Again and again, Ridin’ High serves up sizzle when it could be giving us raw, bloody steak. Three of the book’s chapters deal with celebrities, namely Steve McQueen, David Crosby, and Johnny Paycheck (he of “Take This Job and Shove It” fame), but given the wealth of controversial material that can and has been mined from the lives of these guys, one would think the authors could find better stories than the ones they give us. The fact that McQueen was a cycle enthusiast has been well-documented, and the fact that Paycheck is prone to excess should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his music. As for Crosby, even if his longtime friend Barger feels loath to utter a discouraging word, surely there’s at least one better story than the time Crosby agreed to play the piano for a biker party at a Benbow Inn. These chapters smack of rank name-dropping more than anything else, again some sort of wholly unnecessary petition for legitimacy, as if Barger is trying to show us what stand-up guys bikers are. This is especially evident in a chapter about a tank sergeant’s adventures in Vietnam, which Barger includes because of the sergeant’s assertion that it was the sight of American bikers on TV endorsing the war that kept him going through those dark days. Despite the road warriors’ outlaw rep, deep patriotism is fundamental to American biker culture, but this sort of flag-waving seems gratuitous and self-serving.
Which prompts the question: exactly who has this book been written for? It’s too tame to be interesting reading for hardcore riders, too vague to stand on its own as a collection of stories, and too apologetic to be a real glimpse into the biker subculture. At best, Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free will only serve the interests of weekend cycle dilettantes—exactly the sort of rider Barger claims to despise—and the Harley-Davidson Corporation. For those looking for the real deal, go find a copy of Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels or, if one has the opportunity, find a real biker at the next bar stool, buy him a beer, and get him talking. With luck, he won’t “streamline” a thing.
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