This morning I was perusing the Herald Sun, that fine and reasonable journal, when a headline jumped out at me. “Bikies vow they are going to ‘wreck’ Mildura, police claim.” My, my, I thought, not that old chestnut again. Seems we have been reading that one since the 1950s. There has always been this sense that bikies (or indeed any alien force) are massing just over the horizon ready to overwhelm civil society. I have yet to see any club manage to succeed in setting up their own anarchic MC state, yet the fear seems to be as strong as ever. I had a crack at unravelling this phenomenon in my book Outlaws: The Truth About Australian Bikers. I reproduce the chapter, A Private Army, here with some updates and editing to make myself look smarter.
When 15-year old Ralph Hubert Barger Junior saw The Wild One at his local cinema in 1954, he decided a biker’s life was his destiny. He had flirted with becoming a beatnik, but he had loved the motorcycle from the moment he straddled a $20 motor scooter.
That movie, which inflamed America, helped Barger and many other juvenile delinquents understand the anarchic possibilities of life on two wheels. At 18 years old, fresh out of the army, he bought his first Harley, a 1936 Knucklehead. Yet unlike most of his generation, Barger did not idolise the hero Johnny Strabler played by Marlon Brando, but rather the anti-hero Chino, portrayed by Lee Marvin. Johnny and Chino had once been part of the same club which had split in two after a dispute which was never fully explained. Angry young men like Barger took Chino’s image and turned it into a 1960s counter-culture that roared across the concrete highways of California.
In his 1965 gonzo classic, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson introduced Ralph “Sonny” Barger to the world as the “Maximum Leader”: “There is a steely thoughtful quality about Barger, an instinctive restraint that leads outsiders to feel they can reason with him. But there is also a quiet menace, an egocentric fanaticism tempered by eight years at the helm of a legion of outcasts.”
In December 2005 it had been a long, tortuous process for me to get permission to interview Barger for the Bulletin magazine and Nine Network’s Sunday programme. Letters had originally been sent to the Australian presidents of various Hells Angels chapters and correspondence had gone back and forth as credentials and bona fides were checked. A San Francisco-based lawyer Fritz Clapp had contacted us when we arrived in Los Angeles and further discussions were held. Clapp acted as the attorney for the Angels and as a personal adviser to Barger. While not a patch member of the MC (that might have made legal practice difficult), he was the next best thing.
A lifetime biker, Clapp sported a bright red mohawk, like the fin of a tropical fish, and a patch on his vest that read “Lawyer from Hell”. He divided his time between Hawaii, San Francisco and numerous courtrooms around the nation. On behalf of the Angels, he had successfully sued numerous companies that had infringed the club’s copyright and intellectual property by daring to steal its insignia, including its trademark grinning death’s head logo. These intellectual property thieves had been trying to flog everything from haute couture in Saks 5th Avenue in New York to T-shirts and coffee mugs in Wal-Mart. The Hells Angels MC was now a corporation, something no other “crime gang” had ever achieved.
The Angels had created an impressive defensive infrastructure to ensure their survival. I visited the club’s number one lobbyist, Jeff Rabe, the president of the Sacramento Angels chapter in northern California. From a cluttered office in the state capitol, Rabe dealt with everything from managing the media and petitioning Congress on road safety and gang laws to arranging bail bonds and legal defence for accused bikers. Rabe, a burly gravel-voiced man, was also the lobbyist for the US Modified Motorcycle Association and the Collation of Clubs which spoke for many of America’s outlaw clubs.
Rabe dismissed the popular wisdom that the clubs existed to perpetuate crime. On his salary, he wasn’t about to work this hard to help criminals operate unfettered, he said, This was about preserving fundamental rights, such as freedom of association and the right to bear arms. “Freedoms we use each and every day,” he added. Some Angels still enforced extra-legal solutions to problems with baseball bats and motorcycle chains but life had become much more civilised, he said. He was wearing a tie and business suit these days almost as often as he did his patch. Bikers were no longer outlaws, but taxpayers and voters, who were entitled to a say in how they were governed.
But still the notion persisted that bikers wanted only to rip at the fabric of Western society, I said.
“I don’t know if rip is the correct term. I think maybe just brush against it, because it’s exciting and it breaks up the monotony of the day,” replied Rabe, with a huge grin.
The Lawyer from Hell had finally managed to fit us into Sonny’s schedule, which was hectic with book signings, personal appearances and media interviews across America. As I flew with a cameraman over the desert from Los Angeles to Barger’s home in Arizona, I couldn’t decide whether I was meeting a gang boss or an American icon of freedom.
Today, The Wild One seems embarrassingly dated with cringe-worthy lines that Brando must have struggled to deliver with a straight face.
Kathie Bleeker: Do you just ride around or do you go on some sort of a picnic or something?
Johnny: A picnic? Man, you are too square. I’m… I… I’ll have to straighten you out. Now, listen, you don’t go any one special place. That’s cornball style. You just go. [snaps fingers]
But the film and its source material, drawn from true life and fiction, are still valid today in understanding the biker menace and how bikers perceive themselves. Despite its appalling dialogue and costumes later parodied by the gay community, The Wild One set the opposing archetypes of the movement for decades to come, the fraternity of equals versus the criminal hierarchy, the brotherhood versus the gang.
In the film, Johnny’s Black Rebels all appear to be in uniform. Each has a leather jacket with BRMC over-crossed pistons stencilled on the back. Each member’s name is embroidered on the front as in a military unit. Their bikes are remarkably similar too – equal numbers of well-kept BSAs and Triumphs which they ride in a tight orderly formation. By contrast, Chino’s Beetles ride a ramshackle collection of beat-up Harleys and Indians. Beyond the grimy Levis, each Beetle sports his own look, from Chino’s striped sweatshirt to other members’ tasselled cowboy jackets, flight-deck hats, skunk-skin caps, engineers and logger’s boots. Chino’s gang embraces an almost organic diversity and individuality, while Johnny’s group seems to glory in uniformity and discipline.
This battle has continued in different ways inside clubs (and between clubs) ever since. It’s a struggle between those who join to enjoy a conditional freedom and those prepared to fall into line behind a charismatic leader.
Today the public image of bikies suggests that Johnny’s Black Rebels have won that argument, just as Brando had beaten Marvin in their punch-up in the film. To cinemagoers, the Black Rebels represented the frightening potential of a bunch of hoodlums welded into one disciplined, cohesive unit. Critics say the Hells Angels MC and its clones today are the bastard children of that fear – franchised criminal organisations which hold the values of mainstream society in sneering contempt.
In part, The Wild One was inspired by a legendary 1947 incident in Hollister California when several hundred bikers ran amok in the small town during an American Motorcyclists Association-sanctioned race meeting. On the 4th of July holiday weekend, four thousand motorcyclists had descended on Hollister for the popular Gypsy Tour, overwhelming the town of just 4500 citizens.
The San Francisco Chronicle described what followed as an “outburst of terrorism – wrecking of bars, bottle barrages into the streets from upper story windows and roofs and high speed racing of motorcycles though the streets”: “Riders, both men and women, steered their machines into bars, crashing fixtures and bottles and mirrors. They defied all traffic regulations racing full speed through the streets and intersections. Hundreds loosed bottle barrages,” the paper thundered.
Sixty people were injured, three seriously, including one rider who had his foot nearly severed. Bartenders in Hollister’s 21 saloons halted the sale of beer, mistakenly believing the group could not afford whisky. Riotous activities continued as the seven-man Hollister police contingent looked on helpless. The bars closed two hours early, but still pandemonium reigned.
At dusk on the second day of the outrage, 40 State highway patrol officers arrived with an ingenious plan. They “forced a lull in the terrorism” by putting on a concert. According to the Chronicle: “Armed with tear gas guns, the officers herded the cyclists into a block on San Benito street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, parked a dance band on a truck and ordered the musicians to play. Hundreds of individuals who invaded the town yesterday for the motorcycle show, about 10 percent of them women, halted their riotous ‘play’ to dance.” The formal ball at the American Legion Hall was cancelled, presumably because there was no band.
Members of early outlaw clubs, the Boozefighters and the Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington, were among fifty of the riotous “gypsycycles” to be arrested and fined a total of $2000 over the incident. Days later, when all had dispersed, Time magazine staged a famous photograph of a drunk sprawled over a motorcycle in a Hollister street surrounded by broken bottles. The story caused a nationwide sensation, America’s first motorcycle-inspired moral panic.
The following year on the Fourth of July weekend, the bikers descended on Riverside, California and a tradition of motorcycle gangs taking over terrified communities was well-established. The undersheriff of Riverside County captured the hysteria in an open letter to news media: “Just what is the extent of damage caused by these hoodlums and tramps, these uncivilised demons, who ride exploding and fire-belching machines of destruction, hell-bent on destroying the property and persons of Riverside citizens…” Just as Americans were getting used to peace, here was another threat to the social fabric. But in the Hollister and Riverside “riots” there was no evidence of leadership or organisation; this was a spontaneous reaction from too much beer and high spirits.
But when Hollywood got hold of the story the drunken rabble was transformed into a dark, paramilitary-style force – Johnny’s Black Rebels MC, moving from town to town on the whim of its resentful, sociopathic leader. America had seen outlaws like Chino riding the roads ever since motorcycles had come on the scene, but the brooding Johnny Strabler was something new and darker.
The model for the regimented Black Rebels had been sketched by Frank Rooney in an article called Cyclists’Raid, published in Harper’s Magazine in 1951. “Troop B of the Angelenos Motorcycle Club” roars into the small town of Pendleton. All the riders are on red bikes, except for the leader, Simpson, whose cycle is white. They intend to “bivouack” outside of town, but plan to spend the evening at a hotel run by former army veteran, Joel Bleeker, for whom distasteful memories of war service are still fresh. He takes an instant dislike to what he calls Simpson’s “private army”.
The Angelenos, in Rooney’s story, look more like Adolf Hitler’s Storm Troopers, the brownshirts, rather than outlaw bikers: “Like all the others, [Simpson] was dressed in a brown windbreaker, khaki shirt, khaki pants, and as Bleeker had already observed, wore dark calf length boots. A cloth and leather helmet lay on the table beside Simpson’s drink, but he hadn’t removed his flat green goggles, an accouterment [sic] giving him and the men in his troop the appearance of some tropical tribe with enormous semi-precious eyes, lidless and immovable.”
From the rollicking, pleasure-seeking chaos of Hollister, Rooney had created a sinister alien force. Simpson’s twenty men were really only “variations of the one, the variations with few exceptions being too subtle for him to recognise”; his troop of clones was just one unit of a growing army fanning out across the nation.
“You say you’re from Troop B? Is that right?”
“Correct. We’re forming Troop G now. Someday…”
“You’ll be up to Z,” Bleeker said.
“And not only in Calfornia.”
To his horror Bleeker discovers that, in return for their loyalty, the leaders of the wealthy Angelenos MC give members a carte blanche for destruction and mayhem. “In an organisation as large and selective as ours it’s absolutely necessary to insist on a measure of discipline. And it’s equally necessary to allow a certain amount of relaxation,” Simpson says.
When the drunken mob begins ripping up Bleeker’s hotel, Simpson merely hands over a wad of bills to cover the damage. When, in the climax of the story, Bleeker’s daughter is killed in the hotel lobby by one of the cyclists, the leader is a mere spectator. “He saw Simpson – or rather a figure on the white motorcycle, helmeted and goggled – stationed calmly in the middle of the street under a hanging lamp….Simpson was making no effort to control his men but waiting rather for that moment when their minds, subdued but never actually helpless, would again take possession of their bodies.”
It’s this image that has permeated America’s understanding of outlaw motorcycle clubs – the fear of vigilantism, that a well-organised paramilitary force could overwhelm civil society. By force of its numbers and wealth, this gang would be almost impossible to stop, even by its leaders. From the 1950s, America began to perceive a threat to its way of life from organised groups, both social and political. The Communist Party of America had stolen the blueprints for the atomic bomb and sold them to the Soviet Union. A network of communist agents was involved in crime to gather resources for the overthrow of democracy, which led US President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the mid-1960s to suggest that “organised crime constitutes nothing less than a guerrilla attack on society”.
LBJ’s USA of the 1960s could easily be the Queensland of today. It’s the same fear story again and again.