The man who defined a generation and was the spiritual father of many bikers the world over has ridden on ahead. Peter Fonda died on Friday, August 16th at 11:45am of lung cancer. This year also marked the 50th Anniversary of his film, Easy Rider (it debuted in America on July 14th, 1969). Peter was a dear friend and he lived every day to the fullest. Being with Peter was like running off to join the circus. They say you can’t meet your heroes, but Peter never let his fans down. In fact, his fans would often stop Fonda wherever he went and confide that because of him, they learned to live and love the biker lifestyle. I was with him a few years ago when a grizzled biker walked up, shook his hand and said, “You changed my life, man. You are the reason I ride.”
Peter stood and talked to that biker for over half an hour. They talked about bikes they had owned, runs that they love to go on and their favorite places to ride. At the end of their time together they exchanged hugs like old friends, such is the power of the biker brotherhood. I told Peter that I thought he was extraordinarily kind to give the biker, a complete stranger, so much time. Peter smiled and said, “Dig man, he has been waiting for decades to tell me that. Riding is his life. Of course I gave him my time, that’s what it’s all about.” Peter was the real deal and his movie forever changed the idea of a biker film.
Fifty years ago, the 1960’s was drawing to a psychedelic close. It was a time of war and chaos mixed with free love and flower power. Those of us who remember the ’60’s lived through Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, hippies, yippies, and Woodstock.
Bad biker movies were a big hit at drive-in’s in those long-haired days of yore and certain notorious motorcycle clubs continued to show up in the press, and never for doing something nice. While there was a brief time when hippies and acid-heads invited Hells Angels to parties in Haight-Ashbury, this came to sudden end when a group of H.A.s disrupted a peace march in 1965. The Oakland chapter even offered President Lyndon Johnson that they would go to Vietnam and fight as a “crack group of fighting guerillas.” Johnson declined that invitation.
Into this time of chaos and confusion, two rebellious film makers offered up their take on the state of America, when convention was tossed out the window and the American Dream was losing its luster. Peter Fonda has said that the ’60’s generation had their own music and style but didn’t have a definitive movie that captured their vibe. That led him to make the film Easy Rider.
In 1969 America’s youth was a stick of dynamite and Peter Fonda lit the fuse. In the film, two drug-selling bikers become icons of the Woodstock generation. Captain America, as played by Peter Fonda, with his red, white, and blue stars and stripes panhead chopper is the quiet reminder of what this country stands for. He is liberty. Dennis Hopper’s character of Billy (as in Billy the Kid) on his flame-painted chopper, is the ugly American, the frontiersman with his pushy ways and rebellious spirit. They are America incarnate as they roll across this country looking for themselves and a bit of the long lost American Dream. As the advertising slogan for the film read, “A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.” And what he did find, freaked him the hell out.
However, the lesson in this film is that America had sold out and so did the Captain and Billy. Despite the deeper meaning Fonda meant to capture in his film, American youth saw something else, they saw two free-spirits on wild Harley choppers bein' gunned down by ignorant Southern rednecks. More than one teenager sewed an American flag onto his jacket and went out and bought a bike that summer in search of freedom.
Interestingly, Fonda came up with the ending of the film first and worked backwards from there to craft a screenplay with the help of writer Terry Southern. Fonda acted as the film's producer while Hopper directed. At the time Easy Rider debuted across the country, the hype about the movie centered around the fact that Fonda and Hopper, along with some of the other stars in the film, had actually smoked real pot in the scenes in which they’re seen toking up. In 1969, that was a big deal and people came out to see the movie just to see people get stoned (both on the screen and in the theaters).
Easy Rider was also the first film to really use popular rock music as music videos within the film. Who can forget the opening credits of the Captain and Billy riding their choppers over the blaring strains of “Born to be Wild?” There has never been a biker film before or after Easy Rider that captures the essence of what riding is all about as this film does. There is something about watching those choppers float down southwestern highways in the glory of golden hour that touches on the freedom you feel when piloting a big V-twin. Indeed, in the year following the release of the film, Americans bought motorcycles in record numbers.
Back in 1969, there were very few motorcycles with stereos onboard. My brother had an Electra Glide with a radio between the handlebars but it wasn’t great… at all. Thank the lords of horsepower, today you can choose one of three incredible motorcycle sound systems for your chopper thanks to Steel Horse Audio. If your bike didn’t come with a factory stereo, these days Steel Horse Audio offers a speaker system just for you, from mild, to born to be wild.
I can imagine Peter Fonda riding that gleaming stars and stripes panhead chopper on desert roads towards a sunset that never ends. Naturally, that chopper has a Steel Horse Audio ST600 Platinum speaker system and it is blasting all his favorite tunes.
Ride forever free, my friend. Captain America will live always in our hearts.
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