One Hell of An Eye
The Official Blog of Mike Salisbury
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The Look

 

“He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be – any good

He’s a rebel ‘cos he never ever does – what he should

And just because he doesn’t do what – everybody else does

He’s a rebel…”

Johnny.

Wouwch! Shotgun exhausts crack my eardrums like 50mm cannons fired in a storm drain. Gears are found down low to slow a mysterious train. Motorcycles. Leather. 15 maybe 20.  Harleys mostly. Snaking north along the Pacific Ocean passing me on the Triumph by the lifeguard station where Pam Anderson jiggled her invented plastic dreams into the sharply focused eyeballs of families around the world.

The Material Girl in leather.

The pack snaps over hard starboard, ducking out of the sun into tunnels of oaks at the bottoms of narrow canyons. The road to the Rock Store. Like Alice after the White Rabbit, the Triumph easily falls in line, hanging back unseen in the shade of the ferns creeping cautiously over the edge of the corkscrewing blacktop. Under the tires, the ice of the last cold mornings is slowly melting.

 

Kathy: “I’ve never ridden on a motorcycle before.

It’s fast. It scared me, but I forgot everything, it felt good.

Is that what you do?’’


A long chrome Slinky with more than 6,000 cubic inches of two-piston power bends around 359 degree turns–barely the radius of a schoolyard merry-go-round. Not one darkened brake light turns red. Up into the cloudless blue of the sky sitting on the treetops. Up almost a mile, the road flattens to horizontal between twin rows of naked pink rock.  On top of this skinny mountain that cradles a wide valley big enough to hide Manhattan, in front of Ronald Reagan’s old ranch just outside of normal America, more motorcycles. Five-figure sport bikes, cruisers handmade of unpolished iron crosses, a stretched candy apple custom with a ‘57 Chevy rear end, purple painted faux leopard skin covered hooligan bikes, a jet powered cycle and a milk crate hard wired to the remains of a rotting chrome fender stuck to some kind of charred frame.  All rumble, roar, hiss, whine and puff two wheels at a time onto the parking strip below the store made out of rocks. A small city of metal and leather on a narrow splatter of asphalt that is melting in the heat of the dry sun. A lot of bikes. Mostly cruisers. The biggest part of the motorcycle market. All in black leather jackets like The Wild One. I recalled that in his autobiography, Charles Mingus tells a secret – that he invented himself in a dream. But who invented Johnny?

Johnny: “We jus’ go.”

Ramones. Rock n' Roll leather.

No one cares that they don’t sell rocks at the Rock Store. The Santana wind blowing hot from the east, whipping the trees beside the road, violently shoves the erratic painful noise of the eternal parade of motorcycles through the wall of heat rising from the barely two lanes of broken blacktop. Stopping the wind across the road on this ridge of mountains running above Pacific Coast Highway from the 24/7 of L.A. north to the strawberry fields of Ventura County, is the Rock Store. A café of the greasy spoon persuasion is on the south side, married to the store –a half empty gift shop– uphill on the north with a busy outdoor saloon and barbecue pit on the hill rising up from both. All made of big round rocks.

I don’t know which is Vern or which is Ed, but they own the place and open it only Saturday and Sunday. In front of the buildings stretching about a football field distance in both directions is a wall of motorcycles parked facing the road. Choppers and hogs are always on the right side in the shade under the only trees near the store. A pair of dead old gas pumps rusts in the heat of the naked sun on the narrow parking level below the café to the left of the cruisers.  The pumps are always buried in tricked out sport bikes and exotic European collectible hardware. Japanese with video cameras are usually in there somewhere and Jay Leno usually shows up to pose beside the pumps for them. Jay sometimes drives one of his weirder old cars or sometimes bikes here. He is fast enough on the corkscrew road to the store to have passed my jailable speed on his Buell.

Sometimes lines of exotic cars on some kind of poser rally pass by the store. They gawk at the bikes. The bikers don’t really pay much attention to any cars. In a city built on cars like L.A., there aren’t really any as exclusively cool as a motorcycle anymore and the Rock Store is the Big Rock Candy Mountain of Cool. You can see fit-as-a-yoga-instructor baby boomer babes in conchoed vests and chaps with nothing under them but tan skin hanging with bearded outlaws in top hats and chains on the cruiser side. Segregating themselves on the sporting side, are the young and restless in skintight full racing suits. And it’s all wrapped in leather, including Jay.

The Wild One.

Boyd Elder is an artist. He lives somewhere in Texas just south of nowhere close to ZZ Top. “Where did Brando’s Wild One outfit come from? Harvey said to ask me, right?” Boyd launched.

Never-washed tailored black Levis are slit to fit Boyd’s Lucchese boots custom made from some kind of endangered small black animal. Over the temples of prescription lens Persols he slicks his hair back behind his ears and down to the top of his collar. He has on a short sleeve black shirt with orange and red little flames all over it that he designed. Under a black leather jacket.

“Thanks man, for coming.” I said.

A large black envelope shows under Boyd’s arm as he raises his hands to light up an American Spirit. The label on the envelope is printed with one of his pinstriped steer skulls from the cover of an Eagles album.  “I have customized cars, built hot rods, made a motorcycle from pistons and parts found buried under chickenshit, “ Boyd said. “And I wore that jacket and jeans with the big cuffs over those boots when I rode it.”

Boyd casually flips his unused cigarette into a long glide across the blacktop and drawls, “I collect old motorcycle jackets, you know,” he continues. “And I have pictures of every damn person with that look. The Beatles, The Ramones, Francesco Scavullo, Mel Gibson, Bruce Springsteen, Freddie Mercury, Jean Paul Gaultier, Madonna, Dolce Gabbana, Britney Spears and more queens of Halloween parties than you could find in the complete works of Tom of Finland.”

 

Schott Perfecto.

“And Brando first had the look back in 1954?”  I ask.

“Well, yes and no.” Boyd opened the black envelope. He puts one knee on the asphalt and lays out photos backside up and like a blackjack dealer, flips over one to show its face. “Hollister. 1947,” he says. “Before somebody named Perfecto designed the One Star for Schott.”

It is an old photo. A western town. A mess of gals and guys hanging out under the verandas of the shops on the high walk.

Lee Marvin as "Chino".

In the front of the photo is an Indian bob job. The front fender is gone with most of the rear one. Standing just behind the Springer front end holding a longneck bottle at the end of a striped sleeve is someone wearing the sweater Lee Marvin wore in the movie.

“The same bumble bee striped jersey Columbia Pictures sort of donated to Frisco Frank of the San Francisco Angels after Frank convinced the studio that was the charitable thing to do,” said Boyd. “He wore it every day until it turned to dust.”

“Then Chino was no Hollywood dream,” I said. “Was Brando?”

Boyd points to the rider on the Scout in the picture. He is turned to the crowd while reaching out to the ape hangers. His arms in sleeves of black.

“Johnny’s black leather jacket.” I said.

“In the late forties Buco had the design and so did Indian.”  Boyd said.

The guy in the old photo is wearing not just the jacket, he has the engineer boots too. A suicide shifter is sticking out from under the right leg of faded jeans rolled up to show about 8 inches of cuff. “Everything Johnny wore. Everything.” said Boyd.

 

1947 originals.

“Everything except that cap?”

Watching my eyes, Boyd sees that question. He flips over another glossy. In the center of the photo, cocked at the same angle as Johnny’s in that poster with the trophy and the Triumph. Right on top of Manfred von Richtofen’s Teutonic head, is that cap. “The Red Baron,” Boyd said. “His Luftwaffe cap. And look at the lapels on this coat of his.”

Red Baron and his hip length leather.

“The One Star? But it’s an overcoat.” I said.

Boyd turns over another shot of von Richtofen. “He cut his off. To be cooler than the others when they went partying after a hard day of dogfightin’. Like a Catholic schoolgirl does to her uniform skirt.  Shit, man,” he mutters out of the corner of his mouth as he fires up another smoke. “The Red Baron was the baddest. His look had to be cool.”

“It makes sense for motorcyclists,” I argued defensively, “because of the protection against the cold. It won’t tear like cloth and you slide in leather. You don’t get stuck on the asphalt waiting for an Acme semi to flatten you like The Roadrunner.”

“Nice try.” Boyd smirks. Opening a black hardcover book he says: “Mick Farren writes in his book The Black Leather Jacket that it is just better protection against knives, brass knuckles, chains and straight edge razors. Mick says that juvenile delinquents adopted the jacket as their own, as did the local police department, but first the Nazis firmly cemented the relationship between menace and black.

“You don’t make this shit up, dude,” said Boyd.

“Hollister happen?” I ask.

“Dunno,” he said.

“So who put it all together? “ I asked. “Who created Johnny’s look?

“Dunno,” said Boyd again. “But I’m getting the feeling of  impending entrapment by the morals police with all this salacious talk of men in leather,”  he laughed. “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.”

‘An old boy from Oklahoma, Whitey Hughes.” said Boyd. “You can find him in Chatsworth,” Boyd said as he tore off a part of the American Spirit pack and wrote Whitey’s phone number on it. “He knows.”

Thanks to Patrick Cook ; Mark Brady, Todd Andersen & Monika Boutwell ; Peter Jones, Harvey Keith, and Boyd Elder.

 

…to be continued…

 

 

 

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“There was a myth before the myth began,

Venerable and articulate and complete.”

–Wallace Stevens

 

The Happening

“This bike has a story,” said the kid in the jeans with a big cuff rolled up over his old school engineer boots as he pushed the

Iconic Brando

black motorcycle across the dock into the back of the pickup.

“What’s the story?” I asked.

“Dunno,” the kid said. “It’s the bike in that really cool poster back in the showroom. It’s famous.”

“The really cool poster of the guy in the leather jacket and the hat with the motorcycle?” I went into the showroom to take a look at the poster. I know it well. The black and white photograph of Marlon Brando leaning on the tank of a motorcycle with a trophy tied upright to the top of the headlight. A cap is cocked to one side of his head showing a black sideburn on the other side.  Johnny is lettered in script on his black jacket. The bike is a 1950 6T Triumph Thunderbird. Its name is in front of Johnny’s on the most indelible motorcycle image ever. The Wild One.

The first motorcycle cool. Even the kid on the dock wore the jeans rolled up like Johnny.

“Hollywood bullshit.” Turning around, I see a bandanna of a very different color covering most of the grey on long black hair. President is stitched in the same color on the sleeveless jean jacket. Under the jean jacket is black leather. “The movie is supposed to be a real story. But it ain’t,” the graying biker said. “Never happened.”

“What never happened?” I asked.

Hells Angels

“Hollister,” the biker answered. “There was no riot and no bad bikers in leather jackets with caps like that either. And that actor guy never rode a motorcycle.”

I stumbled on the words as the graying biker turned and walked away. On the back of the faded blue denim, a seriously bad biker gang’s ID is embroidered in gothic lettering on a patch of that color.

I shut up.

What is the story of this bike that had a trophy on the fender and its name in front of Johnny’s?  Was it just a Hollywood invention? Whose? Who dreamed Johnny Strabler, the motorcycle rebel in the cocked grey cap on that poster?  Johnny, with his name on the most notorious jacket in history? A jacket the cops of New York City would be banned from wearing.

And Hollister?  What was this Hollister all about?

I pulled the phone out of my Levis and punched in a 323 area code and telephone number. “Harvey around?”  I ask. I pause. “Harv? Found you. The Wild One. If anybody knows about movies and icons and motorcycles it’s you. What is the story?” I paused. “Brando’s look. Where did it come from? The jacket. The hat and boots. The jeans.” I listen. “Why the Triumph?”  I go on. “What was Hollister really all about?” I pause again. “Was the movie that brought them together –that motorcycle, that jacket and Hollister —really just a Hollywood dream? All phony?” I pause, “Ok. Thanks. See you there.” I stick the phone back in my jeans, zip up the black jacket.

Johnny.

The front wheel of the Triumph lifts in spinning slow motion at the bottom of the Santa Monica Incline. Turning north, it drops at an angle onto Pacific Coast Highway in front of the black motorcycle. I am on the road back through time to the secrets. Secrets of invented dreams. On a black motorcycle, like Johnny. In black leather like him. To find Johnny, The Wild One.  To find secrets of black leather and chrome dreams.  Hollister and Hollywood .

Faded mansions of dead movie stars that hide the beach on the clutch lever side become a streaky Painted Desert wall of sand colored stripes. I am over the posted speed limit. What are you rebelling against, Johnny?

“Who created the famous line of Johnny’s?” I ask myself.

Blue sea glitters hot where the houses end at the Santa Monica city limit. Arid cliffs a quarter mile high on the right fall straight and fast to the highway. Halfway up the dirt walls, dry scabs of pastel plaster are crucified on the thorns of the cactus that will always survive.  Bits of a cardboard dream hanging in the air above the abrupt western dead end of L.A. Someone invented a place they called home on an overpriced unnatural lawn at the top of this naked dirt.  The unreal house that nobody ever wanted to believe would fall down the cliffs, fell. Down to the highway where the sun sets on the secrets of Hollywood dreams.

Johnny’s look –the black leather jacket, the cap — may be the most copied clothing in the history of world popular culture…where did Johnny come from?

Leaning my left knee into the tank, I push the bike to the right. The bike’s slow moving front end feeds back the news that that the ends of the turn have more ripples than a Sumo wrestler’s ass so I hammer it up Sunset Boulevard.

What really happened July 6, 1947– what the San Francisco Chronicle called the worst 40 hours in the history of a town?

I have a meeting in Hollywood to find out. First stop back to the future of motorcycle cool. The story of Hollister.

The leather jacket, Hollywood trend.

Harvey Keith, writer, director, actor, is standing over the bar guarding straight Chopin in a martini glass like a cat overseeing a goldfish bowl. “Of the 57 people listed as cast and crew of The Wild One, three are still alive and Brando apparently ain’t talking anymore,” Harvey said smiling. “I’m in the DGA and the Writers Guild and SAG…I called ‘em all for you. And I sat out the Vietnam War getting shot as a New York City cop, so I got that kinda records access too.”

His black leather sport coat is hanging on the back of the barstool behind him. Black muscle-tee, black slacks, the shoes are black and thick silver chains are stacked on his wrists. Tattoos have faded into hard biceps twisted with age like anchor rope for a tanker. “You know I was in a motorcycle gang too,” he says. “In Brooklyn.”

“That’s why I’m here,” I said.

“We took our whole thing from The Wild One. We looked bad. The movie was banned in England, that’s how bad we thought it was. We rode Harleys.”

“Why not a Triumph like Brando?” I asked.

“Sonny Barger [founding member of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels] said he liked The Wild One too. But he cheered for Chino–Lee Marvin–the bad guy.” Harvey answers. “Brando was the good bad guy, he had a Triumph. The bad guys had Harleys. We thought we were bad. We did wear black jackets like Brando. No way did we wear that Village People hat.”

“Was any of it for real?” I asked.  “The Wild One. The leather. The bikes. Bad bikers. What is the story?”

“In 1947, Fourth of July,” Harvey said, “the AMA held a motorcycle race in Hollister, California. Just a race. Sportsmen. But bikers came in from L.A., from San Francisco, all over, to party.”

“A riot?” I asked.

“According to the papers from back then,” Harvey replied. “4,000 people got a little more than out of hand. Life magazine took a shot for the cover of a guy lying on a bike with a beer bottle in his hand. The street around the motorcycle was covered with beer bottles. The main street of Hollister. The AMA freaked out. That is where the one percenter came from. The AMA said that was not a true picture. The percentage of bad bikers was only “one percent” of all the motorcyclists. Then Frank Rooney wrote a piece in Harpers called “Cyclists’ Raid” that he said was based on Hollister. That became the screenplay for The Wild One.”

“With biker gangs tearing up the town.” I said.  “But, Harvey, everyone now says the thing was blown way out of proportion. Even people who lived there said in interviews that these were all good boys back from the war just having a little fun spending some money in the community.”

Even the youth market; for Mattel by M.S.

“Bullshit,” Harvey comes back. “How can you make that shit up? Jerks who never rode a bike and presume to be intellectuals also say that motorcycles were just cheap transportation after the war, nothing more. An alternative to the overpriced used cars that were hawked on TV by Mad Man Muntz. That the guys who rode were displaced youth–alienated after the war, innocents confused, choosing a free life on the road instead of settling down to a slow middle class death in a grey flannel suit. The police reports from Hollister say different.” Harvey went on.  “There was a lot of shit that happened in Hollister that had nothing to do with being confused about whether or not  the bikers should live in Levittown. ‘Let’s just fuck over Hicktown!'”

“And motorcycles were the best horses for that Apocalypse. ” continued Harvey. “Wino Willie Folkner [Founder of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club and rumored to be the model for Brando in The Wild One] was interviewed in the L.A. Times just before he died. He said different. He should know. He was there. One of the last L.A. Boozefighters.”

“Boozefighters?” I asked.

“Sound like the name of a good little boys club?’ Harvey laughed.  “Having hung around bad guys on bikes, I can tell you that some guys were bad before Hollywood ever dreamed of ‘em. I don’t think the Hell’s Angels are a halfway house for case studies of misguided youth rebelling against the constraints of a square society. The Boozefighters became the Hell’s Angels. Willie said they went to Hollister to drink. A lot. To fight. He said they got drunk and drug a guy behind a car. Tipped over a police car. Rode bikes into bars. Tried busting other bikers out of jail. Basically all the stuff that the ‘Cyclists’ Raid’ is about and a lot of the stuff that is in The Wild One.”

 

Hollister '47--actual still used as the model for the look and characters of The Wild One

“As an ex-cop, that shit seems kinda felonious to me,” Harvey said. “At the least, by today’s standards I see a few D.U.I s there. In his biography, Stanley Kramer – the producer of the movie – says that real bikers gave them the lines ‘…whatta ya got…’ and ‘…we just go…’ Confused, my ass…like I said, you don’t make this stuff up. Cheap transportation..right! Dude, everyone at Hollister was riding choppers and bob jobs, that ain’t cheap wheels. That’s a statement. And if they were all really so fucking naïve and sweet, how come you had to buy a Honda to meet the nicest people?”

“Even some tough old biker guy in gang colors told me it was all crap this riot stuff, the bad motorcyclist at Hollister,” I said.

“Weird.” Harvey said.

“Why?” I asked.”

“Because why would a one percenter, a guy whose reputation depends on creating bad news about motorcycles, why would he not want to be a part of the first bad news about bikers–Hollister?” said Harvey.

“But that still doesn’t answer the question about why there’s so much divided opinion about what really happened there,” I persisted.

“Who conceived the jacket and the hat and the boots for The Wild One?”

“There is no costume designer or wardrobe listed in the credits for the movie,” I answered.

“I know a guy who collects motorcycle jackets; you can find him Sunday morning at the Rock Store,” Harvey said. “I told him you would be there. He has the answer.”

To be continued….

 

M.S. in Hollister.

Thanks to Patrick Cook; Mark Brady, Todd Andersen & Monika Boutwell; Peter Jones and Harvey Keith.