The Birth of Bikers, Part Three

December 07, 2022 7 min read

The Birth of Bikers, Part Three

"Three can keep a secret if two are dead"

—famous biker expression

The evolution of American bikers from tie-wearing Dapper Dans on stock dressers to WWII vets in bomber jackets and black jeans on chopped bobbers didn't happen over night. The same is true for the gradual change from Boozefighter to Hells Angel. The image of the outlaw biker continued to degrade in the 1960's for several reasons. One was that the media looked for any opportunity to exploit the outlaw image in order to sell newspapers, magazines and the nightly news.

However, another reason for the degradation of bikers came from within bikerdom itself. As we have been studying, outlaw bikers in the ’60's fit within the mold of the nonconformist; they were basically anti-establishment and against the squeaky clean image of wholesome Happy Days America. Being shunned by straight society made bikers rebel all the more. It was fun to blow the straight minds by dressing in grubby "originals" letting their hair and beards get long and greasy and roaring around on loud choppers, raising hell. Bikers wanted to distance themselves from the straight-laced citizenry and one way to do that was to become the antithesis of the image of the white shirted, church-going, good guy. Bikers wanted to be bad and became more filthy and outrageous in order to thumb their noses and give the straight world the finger. One percenters were basically Ozzy and Harriet turned on their heads. If the Young Christy Minstrels wanted to sing happy songs about better living through chemistry, bikers embraced Steppenwolf's rock anthem "Born to be Wild' as their anthem. The ’60's were a time of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and bikers wanted all of it.

This leads us to the accouterments of the one percenter. Every patch holder of an outlaw club wears "colors" the proud banner of their organization. It is the flag, church and brotherhood of the club incarnate. It is the visual statement of who and what they are. As such, a member's club colors are sacred and like the flag of their country, must never touch the floor, even in a fight. When a prospective member of an outlaw club, known as a prospect, is indoctrinated into the club as a fully-patched member, he goes through a simple ritual with his club brothers (which varies in intensity from club to club). This rite of passage brings him officially into the club and he is then given his club colors. They consist of a cut-off denim jacket with the club's patches sewn on the back. Along with this cut-off, black jeans (black hides motor oil better) become the member's "originals", his uniform and he will wear them proudly until they are reduced to rags before replacing them. A real biker's black jeans are so encrusted in motor oil, road grime and other crap that they will stand up on their own in the corner.

Club colors consist of a top rocker which announces the name of the club and a bottom rocker which tell you which chapter the member belongs to. In between the two rockers, in the middle of the back of the cut-off is the club's insignia, or "patch". The rockers and patch are all displayed in the two prominent colors of the club. For instance, the Hells Angels are red and white, the Bandidos are yellow and orange, the Outlaws are black and white, the Vagos are red and green, etc. There is a square patch which bears the legend "MC" for motorcycle club and on the front of the cut-off there is a diamond-shaped patch which has the famous "one percent" sign emblazoned on it. Other patches include a number 13 which stands for the thirteenth letter in the alphabet, which is the letter M. In time honored outlaw biker tradition, this means the member smokes pot. The M stands for marijuana.  There are also assorted motorcycle run pins which show off which runs the member has been on, rectangular patches along the bottom front of the cut-off which honor club member brothers who have died (In memory of Dangerous Dave), and there are also sometimes different colored Harley wing patches. Over the years the meaning of these colored wings have changed depending on the club you ride with and have been completely misunderstood by law enforcement and the media.

Just as completely incorrect have been the media's reports of initiation rites for outlaw clubs. As written about in many books and magazines, and satirized in many biker movies, the prospect, or prospects have one helluva tough time. An independent biker (someone who doesn't ride with any club) will start hanging around with club members and becomes known as a hang-around. All the members check him out, see what kind of guy he is, makes sure he can ride the snot out of his bike. They may offer him little challenges to see if he has the true grit to be a righteous biker. If he passes these tests, they may let him prospect for the club. The biker is then allowed to wear a prospect patch on his cut-off. Generally, a prospect is the bottom man on the bike club totem pole; whatever a patch holder tells the prospect to do, he had better do it… and fast. This may include standing outside in the freezing cold and watching all the club members' bikes while the rest of the club is inside a nice warm bar partying. It may include guarding the site of a party or run, it might mean that you haul your ass to the store a dozen times for beer and it sure as hell means that no club brother's beer is ever empty.

A prospect is allowed to attend church night (when the club meets once a week to take care of club business) but not allowed to vote on anything; he's too busy refreshing the patch holders' drinks. Many clubs will kick a prospect out of the club if his bike is down and not operating, or for any infraction, real or imagined.

Prospecting can take several years in some clubs before you earn your patch. When that happy day comes, a special ritual is held in your honor.  This is often a complete surprise to the prospect. Sometimes a club president will even make the prospect think that he is being pitched out before handing over his beloved patch. In most cases, getting your patch becomes one big party.

As outlaw motorcyclists became the long-haired, greasy brutes that the media wrote about in order to further screw with the straight world and flip convention the finger, the police began to target them more and more. At the same time, the straight world began to kick them out of more restaurants, hotels, parks, and even bike runs. While respectable moms and dads saw one percenters as the Devil incarnate, college-aged kids saw us as free spirits (a theme that would be exploited in the film Easy Rider). Hunter Thompson's book, Hell's Angels, did much to focus America's attention of our most notorious motorcycle club, but in the mid-’60's, there were dozens of one percenter clubs operating across the country. Many of those clubs were giving the media plenty of good reasons to write nasty stuff about them.

As with any organization, a club can not police all its members. If one of the members is stealing bikes or selling drugs, the whole club is blamed.  Newspaper articles that sited club members involved in criminal activity always got big press. Some of these stories acted as the fodder for cheap-o biker exploitation films.

After Roger Corman's Wild Angels made millions for A.I.P., a slew of down and dirty biker films were pumped out of Hollywood. As always, film makers were ready to kick a good horse to death in order to suck every penny out of a new movie genre and A.I.P. got to work on a dozen different cheesy iron horse operas. Of these films, The Devil's Angels (1967) stands out as a particularly revealing foray into the underbelly of bikerdom. In it, director Daniel Haller basically strings together every outlaw biker cliché then known into a mish-mash of brawls, booze and badass bikes, staring John Cassavetes. The fictitious MC club The Skulls, spend a lot of time swilling brew, riding their scoots, and apparently have a penchant for demolishing recreational vehicles.

Other biker movies followed the success of The Devil's Angels to drive-ins across the country. Films with names such as The Glory Stompers, Rebel Rousers, Born Losers and The Cycle Savages. Each added to the myth of the modern outlaw biker. In fact, these movies made their way to Europe where many young bikers used them as templates for one percenter life (more on that in a later chapter). The films also added plenty of misconceptions and outright falsehoods.

So, from good-natured drinking clubs with motorcycle problems, the image of the biker in America turned dark. Bikers began to turn up as the bad guys on television shows, taking the place of wild west outlaws. Being a biker was no longer a wholesome pursuit according to the mass media. We became the people that your mother warned you about. Just as the die was cast on badass bikers and the stereotype stuck fast, a film about the American dream and freedom became the anthem for the Woodstock generation. It was the first biker film to include rock music and give birth to the marriage of motorcycles and music.

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To be continued…

Dave Nichols