“There was a myth before the myth began,
Venerable and articulate and complete.”
“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
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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….
Thanks to Patrick Cook; Mark Brady, Todd Andersen & Monika Boutwell; Peter Jones and Harvey Keith.