“…the motorcycle came to function both as an object of desire
and a symbol of unrestrained Eros.”
–Art Simon, The Art of The Motorcycle
–continued: The city of Los Angeles is a punchbowl rimmed by the San Gabriel Mountains. The home of the Lakers is at the virtual center in the bottom. From Hollywood at the upper left end of this basin, the Santa Monica Mountains take over and run about 30 miles north to the L.A. county line. Leaving the Rock Store, on top of the part of the Santa Monica range that didn’t slide into the ocean in the mud of winter storms or get burned down in the late summer fires, the road is rougher than Godzilla’s complexion, but for a little piece of plastic-covered foam no bigger than Arnold’s old Speedos, the Triumph’s seat is comfy and the cockpit fits like a perfectly broken in pair of 501s.
Why did the bad guys in The Wild One have Harleys? I asked myself.
Surfers, movie stars, hippies and cowboys; pot growers, monks and divorced moms with Meg Ryan haircuts driving monster SUVs carrying Save The Planet stickers on the bulldozer sized bumpers all live up here. I am on my way over the hill to meet someone with a real story.
With a smile on side of his face Whitey Hughes, 82 at the time, confirmed that he knew the story. “I know all about the motorcycles in The Wild One. I was the head stuntman. Columbia came to us for this motorcycle movie because we were cowboys. Not many guys in movies rode bikes. So the studio asked the cowboys if they could learn to ride a motorcycle. Me and my brother already did. We lived in Chatsworth when it was way out in the country. Nothing for miles. You could ride from L.A. to Tucson then El Paso. Off the road.”
“What kind of bikes?” I asked.
“Triumphs. They were light. They revved way up there. too. Foot shifters and hand clutches. Suspension. Riders bikes.”
“Could Brando ride a motorcycle?”
“Marlon could ride. One of the guys. Rode a bike in New York before he came to Hollywood. Funny thing though, his double couldn’t. So he taught him. Marlon would always eat lunch with the crew. Not the big guys, just us below the line people. So one day on the way to lunch with us he puts his double on his motorcycle there in front of us all. The guy has his hands on the bars but Marlon is sitting behind him and has the controls. Brando motors over to the top of this here hill there in Burbank. By the lot. Where we shot the picture. Marlon says to us that he will now teach his double how to ride. Brando twists the gas on and that bike flies into the air and Marlon just slides off the back of that Triumph!”
“Why did Lee Marvin, the bad guy in the movie, ride a Harley?” I asked.
“He didn’t ride anything because he couldn’t ride. But he learned, got hooked on it and went racing.” said Whitey.
“On a Triumph,” I stated. “I looked that up in the book Triumph in America.”
“But on the show we just rode what turned up. Nothing special about that Harley of Marvin’s.”
“We found where Chino’s outfit came from,” I said. “But who did the wardrobe for Brandon?” There is no costume designer or wardrobe listed in the credits for the movie.”
‘’Don’t know,” said Whitey. “Marlon always wore jeans. T-shirt and a leather jacket. People in Hollywood back then called him The Slob. He invented that look in Streetcar.”
I recalled that in his autobiography Charles Mingus tells a secret – that he invented himself in a dream. But who invented Johnny? I asked myself again.
“What about Hollister?” I continued with my questions. “Was that real? Where did the Wild One story come from?”
“Wasn’t there. Can’t really remember.” Whitey said. “We did the movie in 1954. Hollister was what…1947?”
“OK…but why did Brando ride the Triumph?” I asked.
“Well, like his clothes, everything he did was always different. He just might have used the T’Bird because it was different.”
“Or just because he got it free?” I offered. “Someone told me that.”
“I know that Jimmy Dean got one free, but he wanted one because Marlon had one first,” Whitey replied. “Robert Taylor had a Speed Twin before Brando came to town.”
“But why did Johnny Strabler ride a Triumph in The Wild One?” I asked insistently. “What is the story of that motorcycle?”
“Ever tell you how I was there when Steve McQueen started riding Triumphs?” asked Whitey.
“That,” I responded, “is another story.”
It is nearly nine by the clock on the bike’s dash and quite dark as I coast silently down towards the Pacific. I head south. Down near the edge of the city at Sunset Boulevard, the all night eruption of electric light the almost ten million people cause in L.A.county, explodes over the dark coastal mountains like hot whitewater rapids and cascades down into the foggy glow under the tall street lamps of the Coast Highway as it curves softly inward around Santa Monica Bay and escapes the collision on its way north out of town. All alone on the Coast Highway. Just me and the motorcycle.
I throttle down to think of what I found on this search for the secrets of dreams. My face shield fills with the honest reality of sage rising from the empty hot road. Perfumes created by the cool drifting veil of ocean breeze. I think about the road. Eternally tortured by fire, floods and betrayed by the convulsions of the moving, falling earth itself, PCH still feels loyally attached to the bike. This old friendly road carried me to other secrets before. The year before I got serious after full-time surfing. The year before college, before a real job…before kids and divorces, the road took me to the secrets of another invented dream.
I was in the T’bird daddy didn’t take away. She was drivin’. I can’t admit to what I was doing on The Coast Highway that spring break evening when the City of Newport Beach hired the Beach Boys to play free at Newport High to keep us away from surf music. I don’t think it was legal. Down the hill from the high school on the Balboa Peninsula, the rotting Rendezvous Ballroom was shaking like a trembler with too many blonde surfers who weren’t convinced the Beach Boys were the answer. The only dark-haired guy was on the stage, in a haze of eye-straining yellow light speed picking a Lebanese folk song upside down on a Stratocaster.
At my first real job later I would help invent the dream of that guitarist as a real surfer. I would help invent more dreams. These dreams wrapped in fashion, fashioning culture. Some fade, some define a generation, some define a subculture, some define you.
It was an adventure finding the secret of dreams. Like the trophy on the fender of his bike, the secret to Johnny is the real prize. The success of finding the origins of biker cool that came from the fashion of bad and power, its Prussian origins of aristocratic cool. The real story of The Wild One is the jacket. It’s enough for bikers that Brando rode a bike; the Triumph is for some significant by being there. Being under Brando, being in the Hollywood version of Hollister, which is the only one our culture knows or care of. Is it accidental cool? We won’t know. But for most what is significant is just that on it he’s a biker. And anyway, the jacket is the story. Biker is universal, but the concept of jacket isn’t. Black leather is, even more so by its Prussian lapels, officer epaulets, zippers, and a badass warrior fit.
The wet air thrown off the waves breaking in the moonlight at first point in Malibu pushes the smell of the sage in my helmet back to the hills. I pull the zipper up on my black leather jacket. Johnny Strabler lives.
“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.”
–Tom Bolfert of Harley-Davidson, Smithsonian Magazine
Thanks to Patrick Cook ; Mark Brady, Todd Andersen & Monika Boutwell ; Peter Jones, Whitey Hughes, Harvey Keith,Boyd Elder.