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GOING THE DISTANCE
"LIFE IMITATES ART"
Photo by Genghis
BIG SCREEN & LITTLE SCREEN INFLUENCE: Affects motoring culture?
"PLASTIC FANTASTIC LOVER"
Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She's part of a colorful time
Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You're my plastic fantastic lover
In case you never realized it, what the Jefferson Airplane were singing about in "Plastic Fantastic Lover," was television. By the late 1960s when the Airplane were hitting their stride with this song, TV had become well-established as an overwhelming media force along with feature films in movie theaters. In fact, it was at this burgeoning time of the ubiquitous television in practically every home in America, that the small screen was beginning to erode movie theaters' business. After all, why would a family of four spend what amounted to a small fortune in a movie house for entertainment, that could be found for free at home? The song title of "Plastic Fantastic Lover" empitomizes the intense love affair the viewing public had (and has) with this appliance, and it has changed our lives and has become initmately woven into our daily existences. The influence that TV and movies has on our culture, is immeasurable. Nowhere is this more true than in biker culture and automotive culture.
I can tell you from personal experience, that if it weren't for the TV show "Route 66" that ruled the airwaves in the early 1960s, that I wouldn't have developed an abiding and longstanding love affair with the Chevrolet Corvette.This show, which was broadcast between October 7, 1960 and March 20, 1964, debuted at a critical time in my life at the impressionable age of 13, when my deepest lifelong passsions were bring formulated. Included in these interests were cars, and photography. It wouldn't be too long after that when an interest in motorcycles would take root. It was at the age of thirteen, when I began saving money for my first car, and that car would be a used Corvette. My interest in Vettes would be so all-pervasive in my life, that the only two cars I owned were Chevy Corvettes, that first 1964 Sting Ray I bought in the late '60s, and my current (and last) '72 Stingray. This was indeed, life imitating art.
"Route 66" was about two young friends who wandered the roads of America in their magical Vette, seemingly able to effortlessly find work, sustenance and adventure wherever they drove their Vette. Implicit was the notion that it was the Corvette that enabled them to fulfill their traveling dreams. The wanderlust combined with the motorlust that the show represented, turned many kids like me on to Vettes, and car culture in general. Similar to "Route 66" with the theme of traveling vagabonds on wheels, was "Then Came Bronson" which ran on television from 1969 to 1970. This was the tale of a newspaper journalist named Jim Bronson, who became disillusioned with his work, and subsequently took off on a Sportster XLH to explore America. The wandering cowboy analogy on "Then Came Bronson" (as well as "Route 66") is inescapable. Also implied by the storylines, was that it was the Harley motorcycle which served as the admission ticket to Bronson's adventures. We all know that he would never have had such fun and success if he was riding a Honda, even if he would've met the Nicest People on the Japanese Junque. Happy to say, the real stars of "Route 66" and "Then Came Bronson" had V-8 and V-Twin motors (as it should've been).
Every episode of either show showcased the motoring adventures of our human heroes, highlighted by their interactions with locals wherever they temporarily settled with their motorvatin' machines. Love, sex, fistfights, personal conflict and harmony, these elements were all woven together like a fascinating tapestry that resembled a soap opera on BF Goodrich and Avon tires.
However, the effect these shows had on us as a motoring culture, is undeniable. How many Sportsters were bought by young bikers after watching Jim Bronson valiantly kickstarting (even though is XLH had electric start) his Harley?
Typical is this story of a teen who was inspired enough by the TV show, to eventually acquire a Sportster when he came of age, and became a lifelong Sportster enthusiast. His name is (get ready for this) Bill Bronson. Here is Bill's account, which is instructive with respect to how influential our Plastic Fantastic Lovers are, and how life on the street imitates TV art:
"Jim Bronson may have been a fictional character in the TV episodes, but the bike was real....that motorcycle became the 'standard' by which all other bikes were measured. I was 14 when the program aired on TV. I vowed to one day own a Sportster when I was 'big' enough and could afford one. I saved $3,000 for a new motorcycle in 1976....I went to the...motorcycle guy in Highland, Illinois...who had three new 1975 Sportsters....I picked out an electric start Burgundy color model....."
An off-topic example of life imitating art, is when James Caan who played the Sonny Corleone character in "The Godfather," ad libbed many of his lines in the flick. One of Caan's ad libs was meant to be merely a flashy, nonsensical exclamation. In one scene, the inventive actor exclaimed, "Bada bing!" This catchy exclamation was soon picked up by real-life Mafiosi, and "bada bing" became part of the Mafia lexicon through common and frequent usage. In "The Sopranos" many years after "The Godfather" hit the big screen, Tony Soprano's strip club was named the Bada Bing club, so pervasively was this phrase originated by James Caan so accepted in the Mafia world. Perversely, this is an example of life (the Mafia) imitating art (Caan's ad lib), and then art (The Sopranos) in turn, imitating life (The Mafia). Life is like a big circle, ain't it?
The adoption of "bada bing" in the crime underworld, and the acceptance of this phrase in the public consciousness, demonstrate the power of the big screen image. In the biker subculture, one of most influential movies was 1953's
"The Wild One." This flick was based on a short story titled "The Cyclists' Raid" written by Frank Rooney. This was published in the January 1951 issue of Harper's Magazine. "The Cyclists' Raid" was loosely inspired by a real-life event in Hollister, California in 1947, where bikers posed for staged pictures of biker debauchery and wildness. These photos then appeared in Life Magazine and became known as the Hollister Riot, which was an extreme exaggeration, that was far different than the more tame real-life version of what transpired. Starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, there is no doubt that "The Wild One" set many style and behavior standards for outlaw motorcyclists. It has been said that a member of the Hell's Angels acquired and proudly wore the striped t-shirt worn by Lee Marvin in the movie. Further evidence of how movies influenced real life, and how life imitates art, is this quote from Sonny Barger in his autobiography, "Hell's Angel--The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club:"
"The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, hit the screen in '54, while I was still in high school. The movie was a big hit....The impact the movie made was apparently so strong, the BoozeFighters disbanded after it became a hit, claiming that, thanks to the movie, bike riders now had irreparably bad reputations....When I saw The Wild One, Lee Marvin instantly became my hero. Lee's character, Chino, was my man. Marlon as Johnny was the bully. His boys rode Triumphs and BSAs and wore uniforms. Lee's attitude was 'If you fuck with me, I'll hit back.' Lee and his boys were riding....Harleys. I certainly saw more of Chino in me than Johnny."
No article about biker life imitating biker art on TV and movie screens, would be complete without mentioning the 1969 movie, "Easy Rider." Easily, it can be remarked that it was sufficiently influential to inspire one of the great biker subculture periodicals, Easyrider magazine. In its heyday, "EZ" was the SnowHorse (David Snow's iconic Iron Horse magazine). Irreverent and iconoclastic, it represented the principles of the culture well. I have a some personal observations about the Easy Rider flick, colored by my own reactions to the movie. In my case, Easy Rider did not wring any inspiration in me, nor did it ring any biker bells in my mind. To me, The Wild One is more of a purist biker's movie. The Wild One screamed "Bikers!" Easy Rider on the other hand, dealt more with the counterculture phenomenon of drugs, hippie love and pacifism. The Wild One hit you in the throat with stripped-down Harleys like Lee Marvin's, while Easy Rider unfolded like some hippie peacenik's travelogue, replete with "what I did on my vacation" types of revelations. One movie was like a documentry about the biker subculture, while the other gazed at its own navel, while chanting "Ommmm...." Okay, it was fun seeing the two bikes, but that's about it. Easy Rider was a big hit with the general public. The Wild One was a big hit with bikers.
The Easy Rider movie is an example of Hollywood exploiting the times, high times at that. This flick had very little to do with the Harleys involved, unlike Route 66, Then Came Bronson and The Wild One---all of which celebrated the motorvatin' machines on wheels. They also inspired. So much so, that they caused life to imitate art, in a great many young people. Like me, and maybe you? In closing, I wanted to include this sidebar, not because it's on-topic, but just because it's fun:
Recently, my son Mike had a DNA test done for fun. Here are the results that were returned to him: Half of Mike's DNA shows east Asian DNA going back several hundred years, half shows European DNA extending back hundreds of years, and 2.8% Neanderthal. Make of that what you will. What it means to me is, I can star in a Geico commercial. Later.