Harley’s Angels

There are some cool nuggets here, such as a three-page discussion about why Langlitz Leathers of Portland, Ore., makes the best motorcycle jackets. Langlitz has 15 workers, who custom-make six jackets a day; you have to be prepared to wait seven months for your order to be filled. “To make more,” says owner Dave Hansen, “I’d have to hire more people, because none of us likes to work late or on weekends. Then I’d have to find a bigger building. And I like this building.” But on the whole, the book is lacking.

Nevertheless, after reading this choppy, inelegant pastiche, you do come away with an insight into the nature of American rebelliousness. Born to be Wild spends some time, for instance, on the seminal event in Biker Culture, the moment when the image of the motorcyclist as an outlaw became permanently fixed in the public’s mind. In 1947, there was a kind of permanent floating bikers’ festival; enthusiasts looking for a reason to ride would all head for some little town–this one this week, another one next week–where they’d hang out and drink beer and have races and other contests. Over the July 4th weekend, the bikers descended on sleepy Hollister, Calif. There, the gentlemanly enthusiasts were joined by a more raffish element–the Booze Sinners, Satan’s Sinners, Satan’s Daughters, the Winoes. Apparently, they took over the town in such a loud and unruly way that Hollister’s authorities called in the state police, who sent 500 peace officers.

What perhaps felt like the sack of Troy in reality generated no more than 50 arrests for public drunkenness, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest. But when Life magazine ran a cover photo of a beer-blasted biker astride his Harley, the image was cemented–after the release of the Marlon Brando film The Wild Ones, loosely based on the Hollister events, it would never be challenged. A spokesman for the American Motorcycle Association, trying to calm the post-Hollister panic, said “only 1 percent” of motorcyclists “are hoodlums and troublemakers.” Somehow, that was the key. A number of motorcyclists, many of whom were neither hoodlums nor troublemakers, began sporting a “1%” patch on their jackets. Motorcycling as a symbol of rebellion was born, and its finest cultural moments since then have reaffirmed that pose. In Easy Rider, for example, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s anti-establishment attitudes were perfectly expressed by their motorcycles; it’s impossible to think that the film could have worked if they were driving a Beetle. And in The Great Escape, Steve McQueen’s motorcycle was the perfect vehicle for a character who simply refused to be confined in a prison camp.

But this is pretty much all motorcycling has come to mean. Think about this: There are all kinds of cars, enough so that far and wide, people are able to make statements about themselves with their vehicles. I’m a rugged Navigator man, I’m a family oriented minivan mom, I’m a sexy Camaro guy, I’m a brainy Volvo type. But even though people from all walks and stations of life like motorcycles–Malcolm Forbes, Jay Leno, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers–when they get on their bikes, they only make one statement: I’m a rebellious free spirit. (Okay, okay–when a police officer appears on his motorcycle, he’s not saying he’s a rebellious free spirit. Exception noted.) But apart from Ponch and John, nobody gets on a motorcycle and says, “I’m a member of the establishment.” Even when the rider is obviously a member of the establishment, the motorcycle drapes him in subtext. When Forbes got on a bike, he was not the billionaire expressing his billionaireness; he was a billionaire expressing his motorcyclingness.

Motorcycling has become a bourgeois way for middle-class people to exhibit rebelliousness as a leisure-time lifestyle. A person may feel rebellious, dissatisfied with the confines of job and family and responsibility, but he’s not going to be able to express that through gardening or golf or paragliding or stalking under-priced Hummel figurines at flea markets. But if he gets on a bike, he’ll find millions of others, many just like him, willing to flatter that image of himself. Somehow this hobby and the companies that promote it have managed to monetize restlessness and rebellion. Between 1986, the first year Harley-Davidson issued stock, and 2001, its shares rose in value 15,000 percent. Other products associated with rebellion–marijuana, for example–remain illegal.

The frontier has long since closed, and the great empty West is rapidly subdividing. Motorcycling lets people pretend to be cowboys for a while. It’s a harmless and maybe even a helpful hobby. But what does it mean that there are a few million people around who want to be rebellious and free and find this as the best outlet for those feelings? Maybe nothing. After reading Born To Be Wild, you have to believe that most of them are probably content to change their oil and go for a drive, imagining that under their safety helmets, their thinning, graying locks are blowing in the breeze.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.