It’s New Year’s Eve. How many of you wake up tomorrow wondering where your underwear is?
“Johnny…What are you rebelling against?”
The Wild Ones
There has never been a better recruiting tool for motorcycle clubs than this movie. It is based on The Boozefighters, one of the first-ever motorcycle clubs in Southern California. It’s actually based on the Hollister, California “riots” in 1947, a riot so laughably tame it actually amounted to little more than six or seven Boozefighters being arrested for drunk and disorderly for drinking and racing their big American bikes in the streets of the small town, and a remarkably-pussy police force (only seven cops, two of them near retirement–they almost wet themselves) over a summer weekend that scared the shit out of the locals, who’d evidently never seen anyone piss in the street before.
It was not more dangerous than any small town parade with a few rowdy drunks thrown in. Well, a reporter got a hold of it on a slow news day and decided to paint it as the end-all of civilization. The tale of a marauding gang of motorcycle hoodlums proved to be catnip for the Hollywood imagination as well. In one of the string of star-making roles Marlon Brando had in the mid-50s, none produced more juvenile delinquents than the The Wild Ones.
Along with Lee Marvin, who played “Chino”, (loosely based on Boozefighters founding member Wino Willie Forkner) Brando made it downright sexy to be a mouthy asshole on a motorcycle. Soon there were bike clubs all over California and the rest of the country, as well. But nowhere did they have the lifestyle currency that they had in California. Lots and lots of road, through mountains, next to the sea. . .from San Diego to Big Sur, there was lots of American landscape to get lost in and to marvel at from a huge, speeding American Motorcycle.
It’s important to remember that clubs like the Boozefighters, the Flying Tigers and the Hells Angels were formed in the crucible of the second World War. The effects of fighting the war cannot be underestimated in the nihilism that came to characterize some of the nastier outlaw clubs. A great many young men went overseas fully expecting not to return–my own father did.
Upon surviving; a new, more fatalistic view of the world took hold among many veterans and colored their view of the world and their place in it for the rest of their lives.
It is also important to take a longer view and realize this was always the case as it was with William Quantrill’s Raiders, after the Civil War. The immense push westward, by nomadic groups of farmers, cattlemen, prospectors and snake oil salesmen, men who needed to get lost in the bounty and promise of America, hoped to hell all of the hopeful hyperbole was true.
“Go West, young man,” seemed a mantra as well as an idyllic destination.
When “Wino Willie” Forkner returned from World War II, he knew he wasn’t ready to settle into a job settle into a middle-class life and become a regular taxpayer. It didn’t make sense to go from warfare one week to squaresville the next. Warfare had awakened the restless spirit in a great many of these returning vets, as well as the fact that the hearing damage a great many air men had incurred, had inadvertently disqualified them from potential jobs in the still nascent aerospace industry.
Some guys became astronauts and some guys became Boozefighters, Hells Angels, and Gypsy Jokers, and took the endless American road for their home. They went to the Redwing store and bought heavy-buckled engineers boots and strapped on steel.
Harleys, Nortons and Indians tore ass across the California landscape just because they could and nobody was going to tell them different.
This was the birth of the 1%ers; the one percent that didn’t fit in to polite society and didn’t fucking want to.
The Boozefighters never became an outlaw club. In fact, these days they spend a great deal of their time doing good deeds for kids and returning veterans.
They, like the Angels, are resolutely patriotic–a great many of them former soldiers, sailors, and air men. The clubs are very often structured like a military unit. There is also a great love for beer in this club. In fact, they describe themselves as, “a drinking club with a motorcycle problem.”
There are now Boozefighter chapters all over the U.S. and the U.K., as well as Japan. While they are not a criminal club , they are still not a bunch to fuck around with. They don’t back up from confrontation and there are always a lot of them.
There is an old saying among bike clubs that is observed when they are making a public appearance as a club, “Always bring a crowd.”
And they do.
“It’s like this; every baseball player wants to be a Yankee, and every biker wants to be a Hell’s Angel. . .” – Steve Earle
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
— Stephen Crane
From The Black Riders
There is a dense mythology that surrounds the Hells Angels. They are mythic–they are barbarians, pirates of the road, killers, bangers and bastards. They are are all of these things, and none of these things at once. The Hells Angels are a beast unto themselves.
One can watch Gimme Shelter and be rightly horrified by the actions of the California Angels, and then one can pull alongside the double-file, miles-long line of Harley Davidsons packed with toys for kids every year and, oddly, be touched by the actions of the Hells Angels. A woman I know in London recently wrote me and said that where she lived, the Angels were more likely involved in charity works than any real criminality. They are the most well-known of motorcycle clubs; the first to be designated as an”outlaw motorcycle gang” by the American Motorcycle Association.
Any reporting or historical information regarding the Angels is bound to be rife with errors and half-truths–even the stories they’ve written about themselves; in fact, especially the stories they’ve written about themselves. they’ve always known not to rat themselves out with inflated braggadocio and to protect themselves from the man.
When they thought Hunter S. Thompson resorted to a little too much embroidering in his fascinating, if flawed, Hells Angels, they warned him. When it persisted, they stomped the shit out of him. The Angels felt like Thompson fictionalized and revealed a bit too much.
Honor. Respect. Loyalty. These are the code words of the Angels, and to be deficient in any one of these traits disqualifies you from the possibility of membership among their number.
The Hells Angels are named for a Bomber squad in WWII some of the original members came from. A bunch of Air Force combat veterans returned from the war only to find themselves without jobs in the aviation field for which they’d been trained. It seems, in many cases, the returning vets’ hearing loss was a mitigating factor in their inability to any longer perform these jobs. Some, disillusioned by this, bought big American motorcycles and leather boots and made nomadic runs between San Bernadino and Oakland in search of day jobs and fun. The only motorcycle club that pre-dates the Angels is the Booze Fighters, another group of Air Force vets who wanted little to do with the Angels, whom they sensed were a different, more outlaw, breed.
The Booze Fighters are whom the gang in The Wild Ones are based upon, particularly Lee Marvin’s role, “Chino,” who is based on a real-life biker named Wino Willie. After The Wild Ones, both the Angels and the Boozefighters became legendary presences in Southern California, spawning a culture of non-conformity that inspired everyone from other bike clubs to the beatniks.
The leader of the Hells Angels, for as long as I’ve been alive and aware of them, has been Sonny Barger. Barger, a native of Modesto, California, with a long history of delinquency has been the leader of the Angels since 1957. He has remarkable charisma and is resolutely patriotic. Barger once wrote then-President Nixon a letter informing him of the Angels willingness to go and “finish” the Viet Nam war for America. He and fifty Hells Angels.
He also tangled with anti-war protesters, whom he despised for their lack of patriotism. There are some very telling Sonny Barger quotes. Here are a few of them:
“Treat me good, I’ll treat you better; treat me bad, I’ll treat you worse.”
“The greatest thing that I have learned is probably the simplest thing any of us can learn: I am who I am.”
“My most basic credo is: I never said freedom was cheap. And it ain’t. Never will be .It’s been the highest priced and most precious commodity in my life.”
(Referring to Keith Richards during the Altamont Concert in December 1969.) “I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead.”
“If I ever get too old to ride my motorcycle and have pretty girls, I’d rather just rob a bank and go back to prison.”
It is also a credit to Barger’s stewardship of the Angels that he has led them effectively through their decades-long blood feud with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang formed right here in Illinois in 1936. The Outlaws, for years, did all they could to keep the Angels from opening a Chicago chapter, which inevitably happened in 1994, despite the Outlaws’ president, at the time, blowing up their clubhouse on Grand Avenue. The Angels came here, patched-over the Hells Henchmen and there has been a Chicago chapter of the Angels ever since.
It is very hard to know what to believe of the Hells Angels. Those who hate them will tell you they are savages and animals. Those who revere them will tell you they are the last generation of American men who truly own themselves. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I do know the the Angels are the original “One-Percenters”–the one percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t care to and, in this cookie-cutter world of conformity, there is no small amount of grace in that.
I’ve known a few Angels over the years, or I should say, I’ve met a few. Except to each other, maybe,they are unknowable. They remain our nomads. . .a culture of men who wish to belong to nothing except themselves and each other.
In Ireland, there is an all-women motorcycle gang called the Black Widows. Their website is a little cryptic about what exactly they do. Tthe only information they willingly give up is that they tour around Ireland going to “rallies” (I assume this means bike races, not unlike the Isle of Wight race).
There is one group shot of them from far off that looks like a group of amply proportioned gals of a certain age. They look somewhat road-tested and of ill-humor. Something tells me they could probably kick the holy dog-shit out of the male motorcycle gangs in Ireland.
They have a very no-bullshit countenance. Like, if you made them angry, they’d stomp a mudhole in your ass.
In New Orleans, there are some very boss-looking women’s motorcycle clubs–Caramel Curves, which is full of Pam Grier-type, curvy women and the Queenz, who come out every “Super Sunday” for the Mardi Gras Indians gatherings. Both clubs are for African American women and both clubs dress up for this–lots of tight spandex and leather.
Thank god I was wearing the baggy pants.
The Sisters of Scota are a club comprised,mainly, of gay women from the Bay area who rally at the pride parade and other events, as well as do a lot of charity work for breast cancer organizations and LGBT charities. The name “Scota” comes from an ancient woman warrior in mythology. The Road Angels is another motorcycle club who does a great deal of charity work, mostly with people in recovery and substance abuse issues.
Women’s Clubs, like women, are far more concerned with doing some good in the world than their male counterparts.
Where as men’s gangs are a lot about beer, pussy, dope, respect and guns, women’s groups tend to be altruistic in nature.
Here is to the Black Widows of Ireland. Mess with them, and you’ll wake up with the cats looking at you.
The Iron Horsemen are an outlaw motorcycle gang from Ohio and many other eastern states, all the way to Maine. They are known to tangle with the Angels and the Outlaws; again, a primarily white gang comprised of former military guys and tradesmen.
They have a long criminal pedigree– everything from murder to drug-dealing to doing enforcer work for the various mobs.
“When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life” — West Side Story
In “Sons of Anarchy,” the highly entertaining (if improbable) TV series on FX, the codes of biker gangs are examined as if watched through a prism of a sociology experiment. Some of it is very close to the truths of SOME bike gangs.
Often, if a member of an outlaw biker gang elects to leave the gang, his tattoo is removed; forcibly, if need be. the choices are not pleasant. The tat is cut or burned off. I used to think this was bullshit until a friend of mine from England showed me his scar from leaving the Road Rats. It was cut off of him.
Outlaw gangs usually stipulate that you’re in for life. The Hell’s Angels, The Outlaws, The Pagans, The Mongols. . .these are lifetime affiliations.
Outlaw Bikers consider themselves “One-Percenters,” the oen percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t want to.
The best known of these gangs, the Angels, started after World War II. Most of the guys were Air Force veterans that came back to San Bernadino after the war, only to find unemployment and a culture that had little to offer them. They drove big American motorcycles, wore boots and leather and started their own tribe. One cannot separate the crucible of warfare from the formation of this fraternity. This was years before post-traumatic stress syndrome even had a name.
The first generation of Hell’s Angels were young men who had no real way of explaining the effects of warfare on themselves. It’s not an accident that a great many bike gangs are full of military veterans. The outlaw biker structure is not unlike the military in that it is fraternal, tribal and run by order of rank. There is a Sargent at Arms, there is an established pecking order in which the prospects, (new members who’ve not earned their colors, or patch yet) and there is a deeply tribal caste system.
The white gangs are only white. Black bangs, the same way. Hispanics, as well. There are very few mixed-race outlaw biker gangs; in fact, almost none.
Outlaw gangs started for the same reasons every other outlaw organization has. Protection. Safety in numbers. There was no American mafia until newly-arrived Italian immigrants fell victim to the Irish gangs in New York in the 1850’s. Italians formed the mob here to protect themselves from Irish and Jewish gangs on the lower east side, as well as from the cops.
The Knight Riders of Toledo are an African American gang. One can surmise from their very existence that they probably formed to protect themselves from white motorcycle gangs such as the Outlaws, who are all over the Midwest.
The Black gangs are a bit different in that they ride many different kinds of bikes, whereas the white gangs are almost exclusively Harley Davidson riders. Lots of Kawasakis and Suzukis (“rice burners,” in the parlance of white bikers). Like white bikers, African American bike gangs are largely comprised of working class guys, as well as veterans of the military. Some of the California black bike gangs also have former Black Panthers as members.
In Ohio, the Knight Riders are a chapter of the Slim Goody gangs which are also found in D.C. and the Carolinas. The gang “colors” have always fascinated me because they speak to a tradition that dates back to the oldest heraldic designs. Hell, the armies of the Crusades, the Romans and the Spartans wore colors and carried their “patch” on staffs into battle.
In other words, bands of warriors are nothing new. Today’s gang is tomorrow’s army.
She was born a Rothschild, an heiress of one of Europe’s great fortunes. The Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, or “Nica” to her friends in the world of jazz, was a darkly beautiful, worldly muse to some of bebop’s titans—Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, to name a few. Charlie Parker, in fact, died in her apartment in New York’s Stanhope Hotel in 1955. The scandalous and racist media of the day covered the jazz great’s passing with all the salacious glee that the forbidden taboo fantasy of a famous-black-man-and-infamous-white-woman narrative allowed. This story was catnip for the local media, underlining the repulsion/attraction dynamic between the races that was at the heart of the fear and hatred so rampant in our country in the fifties. It was this very narrative that got the young Emmett Till murdered in the South.
Nica was a fearless supporter of jazz, often driving Monk and Parker to their respective gigs. She did not give a fuck what anyone thought of her. Her support was total. Thelonious Monk, in the final years of his life, lived in her home, with her and something like 300 cats. She was a sucker for stray cats and a supporter of powerless musicians against a racist system that kept them poor and uncelebrated, in many cases until after their deaths. Monk, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, was not an easy man to care for and would wander off, not fully aware of where he lived or, sadly, at the end, who he was. Her kindness was almost saintly.
There is a lovely documentary about her, produced by HBO films, called “The Jazz Baroness,” that was made by her niece.
Her niece recalls meeting the Baroness at a club in New York and informing her aunt that, “There are tramps drinking in your Bentley.” Nica’s retort was, “Good, Darling. Hopefully, they will be too drunk to steal it.”
One must love a person like that.
My pal and partner in FireCat Projects, Stan Klein, is the guy who gave me the Baroness’ book, “Three Wishes,” a marvelous collection of little-seen photographs of some of jazz’s greatest that are sometimes startling in their intimacy. The theme of the book is Nica asking each jazz great what their three wishes would be. Some of the answers are predictable–more money, more pussy, more respect. Some are hysterically funny. Louis Armstrong wishing to avoid constipation (I know this was a big preoccupation with Satchmo from Gary Giddins’ splendid biography), Dick Katz wishing drummers should not be allowed to play as loud as horn players. Some responses are heartbreaking, like Art Farmer’s: “There is only one wish… to like myself.” Some are utopian. Stan Getz wishes: “Justice. Truth. Beauty.”
It is one of those books I’ll always treasure; an odd collection of misshapen pearls that somehow hang together and make something irreplacable and beautiful.
I’m grateful to Stan for reintroducing me to jazz. I don’t know enough about it, other than its genesis is one of those things we continue to owe to the great city of New Orleans; more specifically, to the forty square blocks of whorehouses known as Storyville. Stan is a patient guy. He endures the ear-splitting decibels of ZZ Top, Pixies, Hendrix and AC/DC that I sometimes need to get through the day. He smiles his former-schoolteacher’s smile and endures.
He is also a sneaky motherfucker, who brings the best R&B, soul and jazz in and gets me hooked on it. I can’t go a week without hearing Fontella Bass sing her “Rescue Me” or Billie Holiday and Lester Young’s love duet, “Lover Man.” For me, these songs are all part of a larger narrative of American music that makes kin of all of us.