~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Friday, August 08, 2008

What's In A Name?

My friend Jim visited a Harley shop recently and wrote me later in an e-mail "There were some rough looking bikers in there. Beer bellies, lots of black leather, tattoos, beards. And the men looked pretty tough too!"

My last post generated some kind comments and interesting ideas about what constitutes a "biker." Over at the Mr. Motorcycle blog there's some good thoughts on the subject and with which I am in general agreement.

I've never considered myself a real biker though, hence my unwillingness in the previous blog entry to post a picture of me standing next to a new Harley Crossbones. I am not much into playing pretend and I'd prefer to make fun of myself than be mistaken a poseur.

Rather than a biker I have always thought of myself as a through and through motorcycle enthusiast. I'm not an expert about anything in particular in the motorcycle world but I love almost all of it. I've spent most of my life around and riding motorcycles, made my living from them sometimes, and spent what some would say was foolish amounts of money on motorcycles. I have no regrets. As for the biker label, there is a reason why I never wanted to be a biker in the sense that I know the term and reason for that pre-dates the not only the riding experience of a lot of people but even pre-dates their existence and mine.

When I first became interested in motorcycles I was about 12 years old. As with anything that catches my interest I wanted to learn about motorcycles, poke at them, understand them, and ultimately own and ride one. They scared me a little but rather than scare me away the feeling pulled me closer for some reason. That period of time when I got hooked on bikes was the early 1960s so my ideas about what motorcycles and motorcycle riders are had their formation in a time when motorcycling was in many respects extremely different than it is now. Honda was just starting to run about telling everyone that you meet the nicest people on their bikes.

No one considered Hondas real motorcycles. Real motorcycles were ridden usually by ruffians -- bikers. The upright and virtuous American Motorcycle Association with their white pants wearing officials at races and sanctioned, uniform wearing road clubs or well organized racing clubs was quick to point out that their crowd were the good guys and only one percent of all riders were the bad guys. You see, those one percent folks were...bikers! Some bikers still wear a "1%" patch proudly. It has a much deeper meaning than just a jacket decoration.

Many years back my younger brother bought himself a Yamaha 400. Might have been his first bike, I'm not sure. He called me and told about his "bad" black bike and his "bad" black jacket and his "bad" boots, sunglasses, etc. etc. etc. I replied. "One day you're going to be sitting at a stop light on your bad black Yamaha, wearing your bad black jacket and your bad mirror sunglasses and some biker who really is a bad guy is going to ride up, hock a big one on your boot and then we'll see how bad you really are." Darrel grew up in time, went through a fair number of bikes himself, and currently rides a black Suzuki VStrom 1000. I don't know that he thinks the VStrom is "bad" but he seems to like it a lot. No, that's not my brother on the left, that's "Psycho" on his KLR650.

In 1963 or so to be a biker was not seen a positive thing in any way by anyone outside of those who made up that group. To be a biker was a genuine anti-social thing. Forty or fifty years ago a biker was a rough character, an untrustworthy person (except to other bikers). A biker was someone who smoked unfiltered cigarettes, had a tattoo, rode a loud motorsickle down your street late at night, shot pool in smoky bar rooms, consorted with women of easy virtue, and settled his arguments with his fists or a length of drive chain.

"Biker" and "hoodlum" were pretty much interchangeable words. Mr. 1960 Biker probably didn't have a job or if he did it was something no decent person would aspire to as a career. Nice girls did not hang around with bikers, decent people would not associate with bikers, and young men of promise were inculcated with the idea that "You are known by the company you keep." Wally and The Beaver would have understood it was certainly not good to be known as a biker. It all sounds like a silly stereotype now, doesn't it? But there was a time when it was reality. For a few, it still is.

To better understand this early image of the biker watch the old Marlon Brando movie "The Wild One." The movie looks corny now, seems trite, but it was very much a reflection of how people saw "bikers" way back when dinosaurs roamed the earth in 1950. You will even see some nice, proper motorcycle racing people chase off the bikers. Worse, "The Wild One" along with a few later movies, indelibly stamped the negative biker image on the wider American social consciousness and to some degree that negative image is still there.

Note also in "The Wild One" how many bikers rode something other than a Harley. In fact if you look through custom bike magazines from the late '60s or '70s you'll see that a fair number of customs were based on British bikes, not American bikes. Bikers rode anything and everything (except "ring ding Jap bikes").

The term "biker" has evolved quite a lot in the last 50 years and that is for the good. For many riders now, regardless of their positive demeanor, grooming habits, employment, or lack of a rap sheet, to be called a biker is a badge of honor. We take some of the patina of the original biker, the spirit of rebelliousness, and call it our own even while we know it's at best only partly true of a modern biker. Calling yourself a biker now is more a statement of the importance of motorcycles and motorcycle riding in your life.

Those that I, being an old fahrt, would refer to as "real bikers" still exist. If you've been around motorcycles very long you know who they are and they pretty much fit the old stereotype before it was a stereotype. It's their life though, it's who they are. They didn't borrow their lifestyle from anyone else. As one told me recently "I didn't choose this life it chose me. I tried to get away but I always came back." Being a real biker isn't necessarily and easy ride.

If you think of yourself as a biker in the modern sense of the term then more power to you as long as you're serious about bikes and riding. If you're just playing the biker game though, remember that someday you're liable to run into a real, old style biker who just might call your bluff and hock a big one on your boot. Then we'll see if you settle the argument with your fists, a length of drive chain, or a weak smile.

As for me, I'm just an motorcycle guy, a guy who got bit by the motorcycle bug a long time ago and never found or even wanted a cure. If that makes me a biker by the modern definition then that's OK.

Besides the photos of yours truly, all of the people in the photos in this entry are people I know, have ridden with, or have met at bike events. I do not know if any of them consider themselves to be bikers but I'm certain they are all serious motorcycle riders. My kind of people.


"Joker" said...

Well said, as always Doug.

No matter what you're involved in, there'll never be an absolute for labeling people. People and things change like the weather, and the labels and stereotypes change with them.

For example, I always thought a cop was a guy with a badge and a gun who could arrest you if you broke the law. Talk to most City cops, and they'll poke fun at University Campus Police as not being "real cops," even though they have badges, guns, and can arrest you if you break the law on campus. City cops also tend to look down on Town cops, because "nothing ever happens" in small towns.

I have a friend who is a State Trooper. He of course thinks the Staties are the only "real" cops because they do the most dangerous aspects of law enforcement, namely having the balls to stop a car out in the middle of a lonely highway at 3am when you are alone, except for a radio and a Sig pistol.

In MA, Sherriff's Deputies are regarded as the cop's version of posers. They are relegated to the correctional system, and though they do have limited powers of arrest, they cannot stop cars for moving violations or issue tickets. You wouldn't know that to look at their cruisers though, most of them are decked out with more bullshit than a State Trooper's car. However, in other parts of the US, especially the South, the Sherriffs are feared more than the State Patrol. Go figure.

My point is that it's all bullshit. I know that some of the 1% guys don't consider me a "real biker" because I haven't done time. I also know that almost none of those guys would randomly hock a lunger at your boot without being provoked. At my age, I'm done beating my chest to demonstrate how tough I am. I won't go to jail over spit, but I will defend myself if I have to.

The reason I could never be a 1%er isn't because I can't kill another man. The goverment taught me to do that pretty well. If I had to, say in response to molesting one of my kids for instance, I could kill a man and go home and sleep good that night. Would I want to? No. Would I want to hurt a man who'd never done anything to me or my family because I was "ordered" to while "Prospecting" for a M/C? No.

No Doug, you and Shakespeare had it right. By the way, the rest of the line goes: "That which we call a Rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet."

Anonymous said...

Awesome post Doug! A true motorcycle enthusiast (young or old) respects and understands the history and legend behind the terminology. Blindly calling oneself a biker like a badge of honor and not understanding how the term originated is literally ignorant. Calling oneself a biker and wearing the bad ass biker clothes only on weekends from doo rag to engineer boots is as comical as the movie Wild Hogs! If it isn't what you normally wear, then why are you wearing it? Perhaps it's a form of escape for some people. Like dress up fantasy weekend! Steve Johnson pointed out to me that if I wanted to emulate the biker image and gain fear and respect from the image, then I owe homage to the M/C's who drew blood in order to define that image. Since then I have been less concerned with image. I believe my biker brothers and sisters respect me more for being true to myself and not trying to be a clone of them.

triumph110 said...

Hi Doug, Great post. I enjoyed it very much and linked the article to my site www.oldbikenews.com I just got back from a great show today, Rockerbox in Milwaukee. That show had everything from Jap rats, Jap choppers, dirt bikes, race bikes, Antique and vintage bikes and of course Harleys. Saw a beautiful 1949 Vincent Black Shadow and a 1947 Indian Chief. Long hairs, punks, greasers, hardcore bikers and ordinary looking fellow riders. We all got along.

Mr. Motorcycle said...

Thanks for the nod.

As for the modern day biker, I believe this is more what I am referring to as the term biker is used. Just like motorcycles, society, and everything else evolves, so do ideas about what people think of as bikers. I guess to me, as far as the term biker from the 60's is concerned, that is only one kind of biker, not the only kind of biker. I don't think in today's terms that it has to be that way, or viewed that way either.

FLHX_Dave said...

I have met all kinds of people out on the road. Some I didn't like and some I did. Some clean cut and some bushed out and dirty. I have sat with saint and sinner. Interestingly enough, you can't tell who is who by just looking at them. Some of the most honest and genuine have been those that most folks would steer away from.

"Perception is not always the reality" and I have found this to be more true in regards to the "biker" image you speak of.

I have my own look and my own way. If someone mistakes that as a good or a bad biker then so be it. Not my problem.

Great post Doug. You are just who you are, aren't you. Awesome pictures of the characters you have bumped into. Wanna hear something funny? I have never seen the "Wild Ones", I just know of it. (Guess I'm kicked out of the biker club now huh) The only "classic" biker movie I have seen is "Easy Rider". The only one I have related to was "The Worlds Fastest Indian" which should be a classic.

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