In July of this year the town of Hollister once again staged their Hollister Independence Rally, a commemoration of sorts of the shenanigans that occurred there over the 4th of July in 1947. We all know the story. A gathering of motorcyclists in town for the Gypsy Tour races got rowdy at the time, of that there’s no doubt. But they weren’t nearly as rowdy as the sensation-hungry yellow journalists of those paranoid times made them out to be in breathless reportage that characterized the occurrence as nothing less than an invasion of a sleepy burg by hordes of two-wheeled vulgarians and juvenile delinquents.
In the ensuing years the town did their damnedest to distance themselves from that notoriety, but the story stuck in the public imagination nonetheless, and that over-the-top account of the event was further sensationalized and became the stuff of cultural lore with the release of the classic Brando film, The Wild One, in 1953. And the town continued to fret about their reputation. Until, that is, they got a whiff of the big biker buck windfall that the 50th anniversary observance brought in 1997. Around that time, Hollister happily donned the self-anointed mantle of “The birthplace of the American biker,” and they proclaimed it with banners around town and splashed it on promotional materials of every description.
But was it? Was Hollister really all that?
The case for that claim can obviously be made, but it’s not a totally convincing one, particularly in light of the 50th anniversary in July of this year of what I would contend is the rightful owner of that vaunted title.
That episode in 1966 concerned a thuggish pack invading Mecca whose promotional blurb menaced, “Their creed is violence. Their god is hate.”
And I’m not talking about the Islamic State, though you can be forgiven for jumping to that conclusion. I’m talking about the Wild Angels—or, rather, the ultra-violent, hyper-sexual, psychedelicized drive-in fodder of that title that was filmed in three weeks in Mecca, California. It was the outré creation of the then-little-known Roger Corman and his assistant, Peter Bogdanovich. It was also the debut film appearance of a likewise little-known actor named Peter Fonda, as well as Bruce Dern and Nancy Sinatra (and, believe it or not, Penny Marshall).
The protagonist—if not exactly the hero—of the movie is Fonda in the role of “Heavenly Blues”—a none too subtle reference to the morning glory flower whose seeds possess some non-too-shabby psychedelic properties (though that allusion was doubtless lost on all but the very hippest and highest druggies of the era).
The plot of the flick concerns a stolen bike, a gang beatdown of the culprits, a run-in with the law, a stolen cop bike, Bruce Dern (a.k.a. Loser) getting shot out of the saddle of it. A kidnapping of Loser from the hospital. A dead Loser. A funeral service taken over by the Wild Angels with an attendant orgy of sex and violence. A trussed-up preacher in a swastika-draped coffin. A dead Loser propped against a wall with a joint in his mouth. Random rape and assorted other outrages. And then a biker cortege to the cemetery. Townsfolk in an uproar and more cops.
Or at least that’s how Heavenly Blues would describe it in his memorable soliloquy in the church when the preacher asks him what it is they want:
“We want to be free. We want to be free to do what we want to do. We want to be free to ride. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we want to get loaded. And we want to have a good time. And that’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna have a good time. We’re gonna have a party.”
Both panned by some critics as “a brutal little picture” and “an embarrassment” with “an inept cast,” and lauded by other critics as a “realistic leather jacket delinquency yarn with plenty of shock value” and “the best work to date of the newest cinema auteur,” The Wild Angels became a box office smash, and not only opened that year’s Venice Film Festival, but was nominated for its top award. Originally produced for $350,000, it went on to reap over $200 million in proceeds.
As a result of that reception, but more as a result of being the right flick at the right time for the right audience and for the legitimacy of the insurgent New Wave of American cinema, The Wild Angels spawned an avalanche of biker movies over the next few years: Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Glory Stompers, The Born Losers, She Devils on Wheels, The Mini-Skirt Mob, Naked Under Leather and The Savage Seven to name but a few. That explosive genre also served to give broad exposure to a host of rising talents. Besides Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Nancy Sinatra, there were Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson, Diane Ladd, Marianne Faithfull, Harry Dean Stanton, and even Casey Kasem. (And, of course, Penny Marshall, who went on to act in “And Then Came Bronson” in 1969.)
It was an entirely new genre of cinema, and despite the proliferation of the breed, The Wild Angels remained the uncontested best and most influential of the lot, and even the most cursory examination of what our culture looks like today reveals an eerie resemblance to the essential elements of the film. The same cannot be said for The Wild One.
The final line of the movie is delivered by a disillusioned Heavenly Blues who has by now decided to leave the life and go it alone as his club departs the cemetery, sirens wailing in the background. He says simply and fatalistically, “There’s nowhere to go.”
But perhaps there is. Anybody up for an annual biker Hajj to Mecca?
It’s all right here in the diaries.