Riders on the Storm by Greg Benson

Brand Illusion: Harley's Angels
Art issues. Nov/Dec 2001

At the end of the war – WWII – a lot of American men came home with a new vision of just how bad life could get. While most of the population fled to the suburbs and Organization man anonymity (those that landed jobs anyway), a segment decided to take the spiraling anarchic experiences of Prohibition, the Depression, and the campaigns through Europe and the South Pacific (and, as the news sank in, the liberation of the camps) to the next level.

Thinking globally and acting locally, taking the brutal coercion of war as the constantly visible endpoint of any social negotiation, they continued to behave by the pared-down, existentialist rules of trench warfare: They had seen a lot worse than anything the Great Satan’s domestic wing could dish out. Many of them had lived, some for years, in a kill-or-be-killed culture, scavenging for food and shelter, surviving — no thanks to the brass — by their wits and the skin of their teeth. Now, they were expected to step into the antiseptic, paranoid sit-com of postwar Americana, a grotesque, emasculated, management-heavy, frozen-pea confabulation being dished up as that for which they had so bravely fought? Sorry, Charley. Instead, men congregated in nervous, anarchic packs. Some of them found, in the surplus of war-issue Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a perfect vehicle for their deep restlessness.

Cheap and unregulated, the Harley of the late nineteen forties was at a peak of utilitarian engineering. The company had garnered official government praise for the quality of their wartime production, and its side-valve WLA was a rugged, easily repaired, mechanical warhorse— planned obsolescence and strict manufacturing codes for street legality being things of the future. Easily repaired meant easily modified, as well, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Demobilized in California, and not particularly eager either to return to their parents’ Midwestern farms or to study painting on the GI Bill, the ex-soldiers ranged across the state on their bikes, regrouped and unprecedentedly mobile, looking for ways to keep the adrenaline rushing.

This dispersed energy came to a head in 1947, in Hollister, a small California community known as the garlic basket of the nation. Locals were puzzled and frightened when their annual Fourth of July motorbike scramble drew a staggering 4,000 participants from across the state. The bikers basically took over the town: sleeping in the park, guzzling beer at Johnnie’s bar (and everywhere else), fighting, pissing in the gutters, pitching woo with the Miss Garlic Queen contestants, and racing up and down Main Street at breakneck speed. Fifty men were arrested for drunkenness or brawling or indecent exposure, and the rest moved on. A journalist-come-lately from the San Francisco Chronicle smelled a story and concocted a more outrageous version of the weekend’s events, posing a woozy straggler — a member of the Oakland area motorcycle club called “The Booze Fighters” — on his Harley Knucklehead in front of the litter-strewn Johnnie’s. The wire services gleefully picked up the story; the posed snapshot made the cover of LIFE, and a new American mythology was born.

Still, it took seven years for the seed of the “motor¬cycle outlaw” that had been planted in the American collective unconscious to erupt in pop culture as The Wild One . Though the Actor’s Studio would deny it, Marion Brando’s performance in the movie as bike-gang leader Johnny seared his screen presence into the contemporary pop canon far more than did his institutionally celebrated role as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire . The archetype of the black-leather-clad, misunderstood, faintly androgynous, anti-authoritarian, deep-but-inarticulate, postadolescent male on a motorcycle is among the most important icons of American lore, and it cemented Brando’s near-mythical status for the rest of his checkered career. Indeed, not only Brando, but a core group of pop-culture luminaries — James Dean, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed, as well countless lesser talents — owe most of their ongoing iconic significance to their association with biker aesthetics. While the shiny shiny leather and insolent posture count for much, the potency of this icon derives from its reference to that throbbing, snarling robot monster between the protagonists’ legs, and the machine’s ability to transport its master, plus one passenger, to the Shining Land.

This icon eventually found a perfect organization to promote it in The Hell’s Angels, a loose-knit, on-again, off-again string of motorcycle clubs that originated in the early nineteen fifties in San Bernardino or Fontana, just east of Los Angeles. It was made up of a slightly younger generation of misfits who had come of age at home, younger brothers (and even sons) of the original cultural misfits who had tasted social ataxia firsthand. This subsequent generation had to orchestrate its own theater of chaos, inevitably over-compensating in the arenas of public spectacle and vehicular extravagance.
The outlaw bikers’ allegiance to Harleys was originally motivated by availability, Harley being the only major American motorcycle manufacturer to survive into the nineteen fifties (and the explosion of Japanese imports still a mere glimmer in Soichiro Honda’s eye), but it was cemented in the war-production honed mechanical flexibility of the machine itself. William Harley and the Brothers Davidson arguably had invented the motorcycle as a distinct entity from the motorized bicycle in 1903 and regularly pioneered subsequent technological innovations for it, including the sprung fork, magneto ignition, mechanical inlet valves, and the chain drive. But it was the distinctive bifurcated v-twin engine that minted the Harley’s visual identity, and determined its characteristic low-riding profile.

The gorgeous EL Knucklehead of 1936 is an early masterpiece of American industrial design, wedding form, function, and streamlined art-deco elegance in a package that undoubtedly haunted Walter Gropius’s Harvard dormitory wet dreams for years to come. The vernacular variations on this stock cycle were to become synonymous with the frontiers of idiosyncratic extravagance afforded by American design, as well as a particularly American form of psychedelic libertarianism whose influence continues in a number of youth subcultures, from Deadheads to posse militias. The “chopped” hog — a stripped down Big-Twin Harley with modifications made to its forks, handlebars, rear suspension, gas tank, and sundry details — is an extremely successful example of a collectively designed public art form redefining a collective cultural ideal. Unfortunately for the Hell’s Angels, such anonymous and poorly documented intellectual property isn’t defended with the same vigor as, say, the songwriting of boy bands, and the outlaws found each of their design innovations regularly appearing in the next generation of factory output. The choppified Harley was chosen as the epitome of American
design for a recent exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but Oakland Hell’s Angels’ President Sonny Barger wasn’t invited to the vernissage. The company itself, however, has gone so far as to file for trademark protection of the distinctive v-twin rumble.

The Hell’s Angels rode a turbulent drug-fueled cultural wave through the nineteen sixties that took them from has-been greasers in the Epoch of Fabian to psychedelic, postapocalyptic, Viking revolutionary warrior daddy-o’s who fucked with anyone who got in their way. From the renewed tabloid interest in their early-sixties’ revels, through their uncharacteristic canonization by the acid underground as models of liberated action, and up until their embarrassingly bourgeois scapegoating in the wake of the violence and murder at Altamont in 1969, the Hell’s Angels received an unprecedented amount of mass-media attention for what was essentially a bunch of rowdy blue-collar hobbyists. The Angels were lumped together with Charles Manson and the Weathermen as just having gone too far. Reeking of urine and motor oil, it was often believed, they roamed the countryside, raping and pillaging. The Harley-Davidson Company, whose market share had been shrinking continually during the nineteen sixties, watched horrified as their increasingly leaky and temperamental machines became linked with these violent avatars of the American id.

Later, William Burroughs took the aesthetic to its logical conclusion in his novel Place of Dead Roads , whose cowboy-gang Wild Fruits rolled in rotting livestock so they could intimidate the Shits with their Stink of Death. But it was Burroughs’s friend Terry Southern, in his role as screenwriter for Easy Rider , who first drove the wedge between the Angels and their machines. Easy Rider’s Captain America, played by Peter Fonda, was the template of the clean-cut college dropout taking the summer off for a road trip/identity crisis on his parents’ dime. The aura of danger that had accumulated around the Angels’ decades of alleged lawlessness now came as a stock accessory with the bike, and the machine became the symbol of freedom itself.

It took the Harley-Davidson Company awhile to recognize this shift, but when they finally did, it resulted in one of the most spectacular corporate recoveries ever, a textbook case of late twentieth-century brand-name marketing. After a series of mergers and structural reconfigurations, Harley-Davidson finally found a friend in Ronald Reagan, who imposed a major tariff on Japanese imports, which resulted in the com¬pany regaining its feet. It bought them enough time to reconsider their approach. Harley-Davidson limited its production, emphasized quality control, and began to nurture and listen to its customers. The most visible result was its Softail series of bikes, designed to trigger nineteen-fifties biker nostalgia, while referring visually to the outlaw choppers with their gang-rape connotations intact, but now tamed. This was a neat bit of semiotic sleight-of-hand, but nothing compared to the grand scale of redirection that was to follow.

Beginning at the same time, Harley-Davidson began a massive licensing campaign to secure their already considerable branding of the public imagination. Focusing at first on establishing the Harley’s identification with the titillating outlaw innuendo, the company authorized HD cigarettes, beer, and leather jackets. The public response was surprisingly powerful, and the company began to aggressively pursue merchandising deals and product placement in movies like Terminator 2 or the Superbowl halftime program, all the while reducing their actual advertising budget considerably. As a result, you can now purchase Harley-Davidson playing cards, watches, coffee beans, stickers, train sets, Christmas-tree ornaments, eau de cologne, welcome mats, piggy banks, pool tables, beanie babies, and figurines in pewter or porcelain. There have been three limited-edition leather-clad Harley-Davidson Barbie and Ken dolls, as well as a whole line of Harley-themed fine art, much of which is indistinguishable from the landscape art of Thomas Kincaide, except for the chopped hog in the foreground.

Harley-Davidson Scratch & Win is the most successful lottery promotion ever, selling over 100,000,000 tickets in the United States and Canada since 1998. Harley-Davidson Cafes have opened in Manhattan and Las Vegas. Harley dealerships have been transformed from greasy outlaw hangouts to cluttered boutiques, and the company’s official line of motorclothes has expanded to a $200,000,000 line of couture, including faux-Victorian lingerie for the ladies and pink and blue terrycloth bath sets for the 1’il bikers tykes.

The company has posted record profits every year since 1987, and there is an up-to-two-year waiting period to purchase a bike. Harleys increase in resale value the minute they leave the showroom. The Harley-Davidson name was recently repositioned as one of the top five most recognizable brands in the world, after Coke, McDonalds and Nike, all in spite of the company’s limited advertising and its having only last year surpassed the 200,000 mark in production. Another of the company’s marketing innovations is the Harley Owners Group, or HOG, a string of dealership-centered clubs that go on weekend rides and do high-profile charity work with celebrity bikers like Jay Leno and Billy Joel. Twenty-eight people appeared for the first HOG event in the mid nineteen eighties; today, the group claims close to 500,000 members. In April 2001, Harley-Davidson was elected to the prestigious Marketing Hall of Fame by the New York American Marketing Association, who noted that “Harley-Davidson means an ‘attitude’ toward living that is both uncompromising and rooted in freedom, individualism, and adventure.”

Throughout, Harley-Davidson has managed to detach the dark mythological significance of the outlaw bikers from the scruffy anarchism of its originators and the full-bore freak show of their sixties counterparts. It has successfully transferred this mystique onto patently bourgeois tchotchkes and ludicrously Rotarian good works. The company has been instrumental in transforming rebellion into one of today’s chief cosmetic lifestyle choices, with a predetermined set of incremental steps of understanding and levels of acceptance, all measurable by your commitment to consumption of the brand. And while this is nothing new in the art of advertising, the amorphous values usually ascribed to a product perhaps have never before been rooted in such a negatively perceived or clearly defined subculture.

In Harley-Davidson’s hands, the symbol of freedom finally refers only to its own publicly ratified designation, and not much else. Indeed, the only freedom most Americans want is the freedom to describe themselves as “free.” The only rebellion they want to participate in is the rebellion against hypothetical strictures against declaring yourself to be a rebel. While there are pragmatic reasons for the Harley’s latter-day success, and doubtless ethological explanations for the appeal of shiny black leather, chrome, open-air speeding, and club emblems, the real reason for the deep marketplace penetration of Harley-Davidson is a masterful trompe-l’oeil aesthetic effect: making a powder-blue bib refer to a very particular, narcissistic, postwar masculine angst — or providing a donation to the Jerry Lewis Telethon with a frisson of rape.