“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…”
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 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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
“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…