Fully-absorbed oppositional culture of the day: bikers

Self-described "rich urban bikers" living the dream that is freedom. Photo cadged from the NY Post

Self-described "rich urban bikers" living the dream that is freedom. Photo cadged from the NY Post

If you’ve seen Easy Rider, you know that A) you shouldn’t just watch every movie your Intro to Film Analysis TA said was good and B) motorcycles are a symbol of rebel freedom. Harley-Davidson began building motorcycles shortly after the turn of the century, but it was their widespread use as messenger vehicles during World War II that imprinted on a generation of servicemen an indelible connection between riding, cigarettes, and trying to forget what you just did. After the Hollister Riots of 1947, when 4,000 bike enthusiasts turned a small California town into a slightly larger, much drunker California town, public hysteria over outlaw bikers ran high. Life magazine ran a scared/fascinated feature, Hollywood made a series of exploitation films culminating in The Wild One, and an icon of American counterculture was born.

The actual outlaw biker was certainly real at one time. If you haven’t read Hell’s Angels, the rad book-length study of nomadic biker gangs by Hunter S. Thompson, you should. Featuring guys with names like Cheerful Chester the Child Molester, it describes a subculture of gangs that subsisted on drug trafficking, prostitution and occasional attempts at opening legitimate repair shops, which usually end in structure fires. The Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers and other California groups were real biker gangs that really did live nowhere and beat people up for sport, and they sucked. They were also an object of fascination for rock and roll, which had recently discovered that the iconography of criminals was a great way to sell songs about having sex to college students. The Sixties’ love affair with bikers culminated in the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, on Decmber 6th, 1969. At the suggestion of the Grateful Dead,* the Stones hired the Hell’s Angels to work security, and the Angels kept the stage secure by stabbing a guy and then stomping him to death. The Hell’s Angels demonstrated that they were extremely cool even compared to the Rolling Stones, but it was the kind of cool that is maybe not the basis of a postindustrial society.

In spite of/because of the stigma attached to the Hell’s Angels, riding a motorcycle lives on in the popular imagination as proof that a person is Not Like Everybody Else. Like most contemporary rejections of mainstream culture, the outlaw biker is an icon of mainstream culture. If you’re wondering whether bikers are still pariahs, you obviously don’t read Meghan McCain. Me-Mac’s most recent column in The Daily Beast—which bears the middle-school-English-essay title, “Why I Love Bikers”—celebrates the role of bikers in her father’s 2008 Presidential campaign. A biker group called Rolling Thunder, which rides to raise public awareness of POW-MIA soldiers, joined her father’s “No Surrender” tour before the primaries. “There is something about bikers and biker rallies,” Meghan writes, “that makes me feel particularly patriotic and—dare I say it?—Republican.”

Republican, indeed. Megahn McCain would say the sun was Republican if it shone on her dad’s campaign bus,** but she may be on to something here. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, in 2007 the median income of a Harley-Davidson buyer was $84,700 a year, nearly 60% higher than the national median. The average rider was a sprightly 48 years old, which made him half the age of McCain but considerably older than the outlaw biker of popular imagination. It would appear that the Harley is not so much a visible rejection of society as it as a sign that you can afford a third motor vehicle. It seems like a blue-collar, mavericky thing to do, though. In that sense, I guess it is particularly Republican.

“Had Hollister not happened, had Life magazine not written their article, had Hollywood not glorified it, I don’t know if we would be here today,” says Tom Bolfert, head of archives for Harley-Davidson. Let us not forget that Harley-Davidson and other motorcycle manufactures are businesses. Like a lot of our treasured icons of American counterculture, the biker is primarily defined by a product he bought. He joins the rock ‘n roll connoisseur and the VW-dwelling hippie in the pantheon of rebel consumers. That biker cool can be grafted to the Republican nominee for President as easily as to the Rolling Stones suggests that it is—like the bike it requires—a commodity. Like any commodity, we can buy it, but only at the price of having it sold to us, too.

* Dude, do not do things at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead.

** It never, ever did.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. I love you man, but I wish you would have talked to me before you wrote this one. Harley is no longer counter culture, and to an extent are acknowledged as being fully acceptable as a part of mainstream. Its their own fault, too.

    As we have talked (texted?) the main high point for someone to be cool/counter culture is 20 – 25. I’m going to say the VAST majority of dudes (or super hot chicks) buying bikes at this age have no hope in hell of affording a Harley. Consider that the base 883 runs around $7000. That may not sound bad, but anyone who knows bikes and is likely to think you are a badass for owning one, is immediately going to recognize that you bought the smallest, cheapest Harley, which is one definition of trying to hard to be cool. By comparison My first motorcycle was an ’88 Honda POS that cost $900. It ran good for two years, then I traded it in on a ’02 Honda 919, for $6000 (w/trade). I did this not to be cool, but because the bike looked fucking awesome and how a European Shit Ton of Power while being insanely agile and easy to handle. The unexpected bonus was that even amongst bike people my bike was unknown yet I was only ever outrun by two friends, and their bikes were borderline Superbikes.

    This may be a very focused personal reflection, but it is endemic of what it is to currently be a biker. Bikes got cool because they were riding by hooligans and toughs who couldn’t hold jobs, but they had two dollars for gas. Choppers come from these same jackasses welding shit on to, or cutting things off their bikes to look more badass. Kids back then saw this, but were stuck in their homes with a teacher mom and a cop dad (my dad’s exact childhood) so they grew up respectable, got respectable jobs, and then one day when they were forty-five they had enough respectable credit to finanace a $18,500 Harley Fatboy.

    That Hell’s Angel Biker WAS a counterculture icon, but it literally got old. The counterculture biker now is a 22 yr old kid from a good home wondering if he should use his grad school loans on a Honda 954RR. They are the guys doing Stoppies and Endos on $8000 bikes that weight 300 pounds and have 135 horsepower. All these guys, if they voted, voted Obama. The only way that Me-Mac’s Bikers are republican is that they hate Jews and gays and didn’t want a black guy or a woman for President.

    I just reread this and I think I am agreeing with you. You tell me.

  2. This is another one of those Dan-essays that makes me feel like America has turned into Mars while I was away. I’m so completely out of it, all of it.

  3. The sun never shone on McCain’s tour bus, because he would have dissolved into fiery ash if it had. Because he is Nosferatu. I know you watched the original in Intro to Film Analysis. Nosferatu cannot raise his arms above his shoulders, and neither can McCain. Unearthly pallor? Check. Creepy smile? Check. Horrifying progeny? Check. McCain’s tour bus was filled with the earth of his homeland, Transexualvaina.

    Okay, I’m totally on a tangent. BTW, nyQuil makes you hallucinate if you try to stay awake after taking it.

  4. Admiring the hard work you put into your site and in depth
    information you provide. It’s great to come across a blog every once in a
    while that isn’t the same old rehashed information. Wonderful read!
    I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to
    my Google account.

  5. I have been exploring for a little for any high-quality articles or weblog posts
    in this kind of space . Exploring in Yahoo I eventually stumbled upon this
    web site. Studying this information So i am happy to express that I have
    an incredibly excellent uncanny feeling I discovered just what I needed.
    I so much without a doubt will make sure to do not forget this website and provides
    it a look regularly.

  6. Indeed, here are the steps you will take to have
    your replacement windows installed:. They also provide your home with cozy little reading
    nooks annd banquette style seating too make the most oof the extra
    space. Uncle Ben advised Peer Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and the would-be hero
    took those woeds to heart and used them tto start his acts of valor aand heroism.

Leave a Comment.