The third season of the FX Network’s most successful show just debuted.
It is called Sons of Anarchy and last year’s conclusion featured 4.3 million viewers rooting for an outlaw motorcycle club. Maybe that is the best thing about this show. Maybe there is more. I am still sort of glancing at the television out of the corner of my eye as I write this so not even I yet know.
Hey! Is that Long Beach or San Pedro?
The club in the show is poetically inspired by the Hells Angels who are, apparently, not yet famous enough. The Sons’ fiercest enemies are called the Mayans but when you hear Mayans you are supposed to think Mongols. Some of the motorcycle extras who work on the show are actually Vagos. I cannot begin to guess how many of those 4.3 million viewers know that Loki is the Norse god of mischief.
I am pretty sure that most of the people who will read this do not give a damn about the Byzantine subtleties of the outlaw world. Most people will read this because they can’t get enough of the show. A month from now or a year from now they will surf around and eventually they will stumble upon this. Most of you – believe me I know – simply yearn to get your outlaw on and you call the show SAMCRO.
The rest of you need to know that SAMCRO is the acronym for the “Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals” and that is the name of the mother charter for this club. It is the charter to which the lead actors all belong. The Sons of Anarchy call them “charters” in the manner of the Angels, not “chapters” like almost everybody else.
Welcome SAMCRO visitors! Please wait patiently while the people who do not watch your show catch up.
Sons of Anarchy is produced by an interesting man named Kurt Sutter and is based on an idea for a show by John Linson. Linson has great Hollywood connections and a deep admiration for the Angels. The show stars Ron Perlman as the Vietnam Vet, Charlie Hunnam as the sexy beast and Sutter’s wife, Katey Sagal, as the GILF with a heart of stone.
SOA is a soap opera, heavily marbled with poignant musical interludes, but it is sold as an inside look at what it is really like to be an outlaw biker. The show hit the air less than two months after Dave Burgess was framed on a child porn charge; the same summer John McCain showed up at the Buffalo Chip to campaign and pledged to carry Sarah Palin to Washington on the back of his bike; the summer of the celebrity of Doc Cavazos; about the time Mark Papa Guardado died in a street fight in San Francisco; and, a month before Manual Vincent Hitman Martin was assassinated on the Glendale Freeway at the conclusion of Operation Black Rain. So naturally, the first season of SOA chose to shoehorn its characters into a reworking of Hamlet.
That reimagining of Hamlet seemed grandiose then. Two years later, a week after Mama Sarah Palin explained her mispronunciation of repudiate as refudiate by comparing herself to Hamlet’s original author – that Shakespeare guy – Sutter’s artistic choice seems almost reasonable.
Well, Do You Punk
At the time of the show’s premiere, certain stupid, cynical and unimportant people speculated that SOA became a version of Hamlet for the same reason that Apocalypse Now became a retelling of Heart of Darkness: Because Sutter didn’t know any more about the outlaw world than Francis Ford Coppola knew about Vietnam. And this led to the facile conclusion that SAMCRO was approximately as much about one percenters as the Air Force is about whales. I must admit I was one of those stupid, cynical and unimportant people. The overwhelming consensus is that I was wrong.
Many people have labored to correct me. Just last month a correspondent deeply committed to the SAMCRO cult reprimanded me for all the mean things I have said about the show so far: You know, things like Sutter matters less than a fly that crawled up under my balls and died this one time in the Sierras; or “I would rather watch The Terror of Tiny Town, the musical western with the all midget cast that is usually considered to be the worst movie ever made;” or the show is “…sort of like if the Jonas Brothers covered ‘Ain’t Nutt’n But A G Thing’ as an homage to Compton;” or “Perlman walks like he shit his pants and he looks like he can smell it.” Mean, things like that.
“Rebel you act like you are an authority in this shit, but if you were to talk like this around some people you would be likely to get a .45 ACP hollow point between your eyes,” the SAMCRO cultist counseled me. “Don’t be such a douche. Remember this. I’ll see you around and you won’t see me. I only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky all the time.”
Well yes, punk. Now that you bring it up, as a matter of fact I do feel lucky. All the time. With every breath. But I see your point. Possibly I was out of line. I should give Sons of Anarchy another look to see if it has changed or I have changed. And, oh just in passing, isn’t this dark corner of niche market, new media journalism kind of interesting in a sordid sort of way? Okay, well maybe not really.
Oh look! Gemma just tried to geld some guy!
But while we are flirting with journalism an interesting question about SAMCRO remains unanswered from two years ago. Why is Sutter doing this show? Why not a show about writers? Why not a show about making a show about outlaw bikers? Or, about the nutty but lovable, gun toting fans who adore the show? Why not a show about Air Force commandos who save whales? Why a show about bikers?
“Vicarious badassary,” Sutter explains. “I’m just a shy, fat kid from Jersey who always wanted to be a badass and have brothers who would stand up for me. Most of my work…has always spun a tale of the dangerous antihero whom we love and fear. That’s what I want to be.”
Sutter is a respectful and intelligent man who intends for his television show to be an “homage” to modern outlaws. “Yes, I’m a Hollywood guy and I’ve not lived the life,” he says. “But, the entertainment and literary landscape would be very boring if writers only wrote about the worlds they live in…. I know I take a lot of creative license…. At the end of the day it’s a soap opera and I need conflict, humor and drama. I know a good percentage of the biker community balk at the show and think it’s bullshit.”
I think it is wonderful of Sutter to say this. At least he knows.
What Real Journalism Looks Like
Regrettably, the humanoids who sell the show to the good citizens still do not. The actors may or may not know.
Who can tell with actors? Do actors ever know the difference between fantasy and reality? What is reality, anyway?
Over Labor Day weekend the El Lay Times ran two feature articles and produced a video about the show in advance of tonight’s historic event. The marketing theme this year, as it has been every year, is credibility. The show is promoted as a real life look at what it is really like to be a dangerous biker and that verisimilitude is enhanced, the sheeple are told, because the actors really are dangerous bikers.
This may not have been literally true two years ago, an angular blonde employee of the Times named Susan Carpenter tacitly acknowledges. But since the show became a sensation the actors have, “blurred the line between the riders they play on TV and the riders they’ve actually become in real life…. So you guys are winning like, major credibility points here.” I find myself oddly attracted to Carpenter as she gushes at these actors seductively. She conducts her interview while seated at a table in the SAMCRO “clubhouse.”
I imagine her spread eagled, glassy eyed and glistening upon the table. I imagine us all reaching into a hat and drawing out slips of paper. Each slip of paper has a number written on it. I am number one.
Carpenter also learns that all the SAMCRO patch holders now know how to ride a motorcycle. Isn’t that fantastic? They go out in little packs and clock a buck on the freeway. I don’t know if they do this splitting lanes on the 105 but I have learned that they get tickets and talk smack at other riders on Pacific Coast Highway. One of them once went over the high side. These guys, I am told, are the real deal. And the show is the real deal the marketers insist even if Sutter does not. Between the production and the peddling an alchemy occurs which turns this solder into gold. It is real. This is how things are. This is your life, Bugger Butch.
Bugger Butch is number fourteen.
Fuck Sturgis! Let’s Ride To Ireland!
So naturally, this year, some fraction of this true life motorcycle drama will be set in Ireland. Because the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club is an organized, hierarchically structured, criminal enterprise. Because that is how real motorcycle clubs roll and the ATF – let us call their lead investigator Madonna the Midget – has not yet noticed this. This is the way the world works.
Oh look! Now there is a drive-by shooting at a funeral. The shooters also off a cop. I believe the shooters are supposed to be Mayans. One of them falls out of a van. Now Jax beatsthe guy’s face into the pavement. Why do all the cops just stand there and watch?
The principal business of the Sons of Anarchy organized criminal gang is selling guns – which some stupid, cynical and unimportant people might think would be right up the ATF’s alley. But, probably the ATF is distracted by its nine-year-long prosecution of the Mayans. Anyway, the SOA gang, which seems to claim some part of California and also territory in Oregon – which I believe are on the West Coast – is connected to Ireland because Ireland is where the club buys its guns. Then the SOA organized criminal gang unloads those guns somewhere in America. Maybe they sell Irish guns at gun shows in Arizona. Just like the real biker “gangs” the show means to honor. You know, because guns are so hard to get in this country and so easy to get in Europe. Just as in the real world cocaine is smuggled from its source in Finland to its principal market in Columbia.
Last year, this gun business got Charlie Hunnum’s infant kidnapped. The baby was transported to Ireland where the little innocent soon fell into the hands of a Catholic priest. So to rescue the kid from parochial school and who knows what else the SOA criminal enterprise must travel to Ireland. Because that is how the world works.
Tens And Tens Of Millions
“Sutter wanted to ship the entire cast to Ireland for shooting, but FX vetoed that idea,” another of the Los Angeles Times legion of writers, Scott Collins, reports. The network balked.
Scott Collins draws number 106.
“It’s probably not easy to do really big-canvas, epic things in general, but it’s really hard to do it on a basic-cable budget,” FX president John Landgraf said. Landgraf’s wife, Ally Walker, plays a federal agent on the show. She may have framed Katey Sagal. I am not absolutely sure. And only a cynic would speculate about what her recurring role says about which shows get produced in Hollywood and which do not. “It’s hard for Kurt to be a guy who runs a production that spends tens and tens of millions of dollars and has a lot of accountants and production people around…. I have no doubt there’s a certain amount of pain for Kurt in that process.”
Last year one of the accountants made the mistake of trying to get Sutter to commit to a number. Sutter replied, “Crawl out of my ass and let me do my fucking job.”
“They slapped me with a hostile work environment claim,” Sutter says. “Which I proudly display on my wall next to my ‘Hells Angels Forever’ poster, signed by Sonny.”
“He’s just very honest,” his wife – who may or may not geld guys in real life – explained to the Times. “He just kind of tells it like it is, in his mind. He’s an emotional guy, that’s what I would say.”
Sutter’s honesty extends to the blog he uses to promote SOA – Sutterink. When the Emmy Awards ignored Sons of Anarchy last year Sutter called the voters “lazy sheep.” The post was accompanied by a still photo from the movie The Wild One. The implication was that Sutter more strongly identifies with a biker named Johnny than with his less authentic Hollywood peers. He later apologized but he kept the warning letter from the suits framed on his wall next to the signed poster.
A year and a half ago, when he discovered that an obscure website had given his show a sarcastic review, Sutter stood up to that critic too. “Some old biker dude has decided to slam the show six months after it finished,” he complained. When the old biker dude promised Sutter that this year’s season would get a good review Sutter replied, “Please don’t write me a good review. Write an honest review. I can take it.”
Honestly, Sutter’s defenders have a point. Why single him out?
Practically everything everyone has said about the outlaw world in the last sixty-five years is bullshit. And there is a huge audience for this bullshit. And honestly, forty-five years from now SAMCRO will be regarded as history. “Whether you like it or not,” as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom once famously taunted opponents of gay marriage.
Whether you like it or not, the outlaw slice of the Americana pie is forever flavored by the “Hollister Riot” and by Hunter Thompson’s “definitive” book. Some of you know this. The SAMCRO visitors probably do not.
Attention SAMCRO visitors! Whether you like it or not!
A traveling motorcycle festival called the Gypsy Tour came to Hollister, California on the second Independence Day after the end of the greatest war – the last war America actually won. The tour attracted about a thousand riders. Most of them belonged to motorcycle clubs. And those clubs were not much different than the thousands of other depression era clubs – car clubs, stamp clubs, sewing clubs, political clubs. The clubs were cheap and easy. Nobody prospected. They gave people something to do one night each week and they provided a pre-assembled circle of friends. Some of those clubs, like the Macomb Outlaws Motorcycle Club have evolved and survived to this day.
That Fourth of July weekend some of the young, recently discharged veterans in the throng got out of hand. Today, the behavior would hardly be noticed. Today, if it was noticed at all, it would probably be analyzed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Some guys got drunk and went giddy on freedom. No bars were actually taken over for burnout contests. No virgins were gang raped. In fact, no windows were actually broken. But authority was disobeyed.
Bikers raced in the streets and ignored the police who told them to stop. The peace was disturbed. Citizens were alarmed that their bucolic town had been invaded by strangers and police were astounded that their authority was ignored. The town’s handful of police called for reinforcements. A couple of California Highway Patrolmen were dispatched to Hollister and the mob ignored them, too.
What seemed to matter at the time was that the depression and the Second World War had broken something in America. Suddenly, strangers felt no shame at barging into someone else’s town and disturbing the peace. They laughed at the moral and symbolic authority of the police. A thousand bikers dared a handful of cops to try to physically restrain them. The police called it a riot. Eventually it became something else.
Reporting The Riot
The event scarcely made the newspapers because there were no newspaper reporters there to see it. But the panic and consternation the police felt did leak to the outside world by two-way radio. An old fashioned radio-scanner in the newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle eavesdropped on the unfolding drama. A night editor at the Chronicle sent a reporter named C. J. Doughty and a photographer named Barney Peterson down to Hollister to see what was going on. It was mostly all over when Doughty and Peterson arrived.
But this was the golden age of print journalism and when an editor told you to go get a story with pix you came back with a story with pix and Barney Peterson did his job. He shot a series of photographs of a fat, drunken man sitting on a motorcycle. The original photos are still in the Chronicle’s morgue and anyone who has ever watched a news photographer stage a shot can still hear Peterson’s voice just by looking at them.
“Can we get the Johnny’s Bar and Grill sign in the frame? Can we stand up some beer bottles around this guy’s feet? More beer bottles. Eddie, drape your jacket over your shoulder. No, no, put it back on. More bottles. Knock them over. Eddie, hold this bottle in your other hand like you’re drinking from two bottles at once. Careful Eddie! Don’t fall down yet!”
The Chronicle never ran any of Peterson’s shots although it will now sell you a print of one of them. You can buy a copy of the photo that ran on page 31 of the July 21, 1947, edition of Life magazine. In that photo the front wheel of the motorcycle and the fat lout’s feet are lapped by a pond of empty beer bottles. The photo accompanied a story about the “Hollister Motorcycle Riots” and the caption under the photo read, “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and his friends terrorize a town.”
The photo and the event it was supposed to represent mortified all of the respectable motorcycling world. These hoodlums who had terrorized this town were not even members of the American Motorcyclist Association which, since 1924, had been the official sanctioning body of American motorcycle clubs; dedicated to “protecting the future of motorcycling, and promoting the motorcycle lifestyle of “freedom on two wheels.” The AMA should not be held responsible for these rascals because it had no authority over them. They were “outlaws” and they represented at most only “one percent” of the motorcycling community.
“Yeah,” the young veterans replied grinning, over and over. “We’re one percenter outlaws. Yeah.”
The drunken oaf in the photo was probably a Tulare Rider named Eddie Davenport and he seems to have simply dropped into this world for a few moments in 1947, existed long enough for Peterson to take his picture and then he vanished. As we all vanish. As most of us are never really here.
But his picture caught a great, rolling wave of fame. A writer named Frank Rooney was inspired by the photo to write a short story called “Cyclists Raid.” It was the original portrayal of outlaw bikers – the source for everything since.
“I’m Gar Simpson and this is troop B of the Angeleno Motorcycle Club,” Rooney’s “tall, spare” and “coldly courteous” anti-hero introduced himself. “Like all the others he was dressed in a brown windbreaker, khaki shirt, khaki pants” and “dark calf-length boots.”
“Where do you go after this,” Rooney’s host asked the young pack of frighteningly disciplined veterans.
“What are you interested in mainly?”
“Roads. Naturally, being a motorcycle club – you’d be surprised at the rate we’re expanding – we’d like to have as much of California as possible opened up to us.”
It was a frightening and thoughtful interpretation of the “Hollister Riot.” It might have even been true. It might have been the last true thing written about motorcycle outlaws.
America had sent young men off to conquer the Pacific and conquer Europe. Then they had returned changed and with no other worlds left to conquer they threatened to conquer their own country. Harpers ran the story in the January 1951 issue. It was anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1952 and on the last weekend in 1953 it was released in its theatrical incarnation – as a movie called The Wild One starring a sullen and rebellious actor named Marlon Brando and featuring a very edgy one named Lee Marvin. The anti-hero’s name was changed from Gar to Johnny. And, the movie, as movies always do, distilled Rooney’s story into something entirely different and new. The Wild One became one of three classic films – along with Rebel Without A Cause and Blackboard Jungle – to dramatize the emerging threat of “juvenile delinquency.”
“Hey Johnny,” a puzzled and innocent girl with an obviously pre-atom age mind asks the leader of the pack. “What are you rebelling against?”
And Johnny sneers. “What’ve you got?” It was a line that struck a chord deep in the American soul.
It struck so deep a chord that it seems to still sound in Kurt Sutter’s heart. Johnny the rebellious punk, not Eddie the happy drunk or Gar the lost soldier became the poster boy for outlaw bikers.
The Invention Of Gonzo Super Freak
About a decade later, Hunter Thompson wrote a quasi-novel about motorcycle outlaws called Hell’s Angels. Starting with the title, the book was an obvious compromise between what Thompson saw and what Random House wanted to sell. Thompson’s editor, the now sainted James H. Silberman, insisted that the title must be spelled with an apostrophe on the assumption that the Angels were too stupid to know how to spell their own name. Silberman had edited James Jones, James Baldwin and Thomas Pynchon. At the time he had just edited Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me which begins with the words “I soon must quit the scene” and ends with a postscript explaining that the author had died in a motorcycle accident. Silberman could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.
Meanwhile Thompson, before he met Silberman and mutated into Gonzo Super Freak, had been heavily influenced by the postwar, social novelist Nelson Algren. Early in Hell’s Angels, Thompson describes the outlaws he met as “Linkhorns” after the dope smoking, brawling, white trash family in Algren’s novel A Walk On The Wild Side. Algren thought that book was his masterpiece. He described it as a parable about suffering, compassion and “the human basis of our democracy.” It was a book about what should matter in America – about what was noble in the least of Americans. And, Thompson seems to have intended to write to the same theme when he began his tale about bikers.
“It would not be fair to say that all motorcycle outlaws carry Linkhorn genes,” Thompson explained, “but nobody who has ever spent time among the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hells Angels to work up a very strong sense of déjà vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward ‘outsiders,’ the same extremes of temper and action, and even the same names, sharp faces and long-boned bodies that never look quite natural unless they are leaning on something. Most of the Angels are Anglo-Saxons, but the Linkhorn attitude is contagious. The few outlaws with Mexican or Italian names not only act like the others but somehow look like them. Even Chinese Mel from Frisco and Charley, a young Negro from Oakland, have the Linkhorn gait and mannerisms.”
But Hell’s Angels, of course, turned out not to be about the Hells Angels. It could not be because Thompson never really found much to say except, “Look at me! I can puke on my shoes!” When Thompson looked at the outlaw world he saw a pathetically mundane reflection. He reported that almost everything everyone said about the Hells Angels was, “to a large extent untrue” because the United States was under the influence of “a national rape mania” and a “need for mythic villains; and the press has been more than willing to satisfy both.”
Then Thompson and Silberman, the consort dancing together or taking turns, turned Hell’s Angels into something sensational that would sell. Big chunks of the book are wonderful lies. The most dramatic of those is that Thompson was the moth who flew too close to the flame; that he lived on the razor’s edge; that he danced with danger for just a few minutes too long and danger made him pay; that even to write about the outlaw world is dangerous.
The Horror, The Horror
Thompson ends his Strange And Terrible Saga Of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by claiming, “On Labor Day 1966, I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them. A minor disagreement suddenly become very serious.”
The Angels tell a different story. Thompson was a flawed man; an alcoholic who liked to play nasty practical jokes; and just the sort of orphan who gets adopted by a motorcycle club. But he kept his distance from them and he lied – which is considered a more terrible sin among motorcycle outlaws than among politicians, publishers or even television producers. Thompson promised the Angels beer and eventually it became obvious that he had lied. It was not the beer that mattered. It was the lie.
Thompson also made sure the Angels knew he didn’t want to become one of them. Then after a year of getting on everybody’s nerves, he interjected himself into a domestic dispute. Whether he was morally right to do so or not is beside the point. Most people know better than to try to rescue a woman from her husband. Thompson, for whatever it reveals about him and however dangerous he actually found the Angels to be, did not.
What happened was that an Angel named “Junkie George” was slapping his wife around. Of course, George should not have beaten his wife. He should have nurtured and treasured her but sometimes in the course of human events men beat their wives. I have never heard why George started hitting his wife. Maybe she confessed to turning tricks. Maybe she confessed to turning tricks and not giving any of the money to him. Maybe she burned the pork chops – again.
Thompson was about ten yards away when Junkie George exploded. George’s dog was closer. The dog took the wife’s side and bit his master. So, then George kicked his dog. Which was precisely the moment when Thompson chose to counsel George that, “Only a punk beats his wife and kicks his dog.”
George punched Thompson and, as is the custom in motorcycle clubs, “three or four” other club brothers were honor bound to punch Thompson, too. “We let them beat him up for a minute,” a witness named Sonny Barger has said, “then we broke it up and told him to get out of here and he left and got in his car.”
The incident was not as good as actually dying in a motorcycle accident as Farina had done but it still provided exactly the dramatically satisfying conclusion Thompson and Silberman had been searching for. “My face looked like it had been jammed into the spokes of a speeding Harley, and the only thing keeping me awake was a broken rib,” Thompson wrote at the conclusion of his book. Then he quoted the most famous line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!”
Barger dismisses that last bit as “malarkey” and deconstructs the memorable image of Thompson’s badly beaten face as “his style of writing.”
So these define the high standards up to which Sons of Anarchy must live: The Wild One and Hunter Thompson. Personally, I think the show deserves at least a C. At least Sutter has not yet started plagiarizing Joseph Conrad.
And that, lamentably, is a nice as the old, biker dude gets. At least until someone arranges for Susan Carpenter to be stripped, scrubbed and brought to his tent.
These poor, empty words, these uninteresting stories, you and everything you think you know, your motorcycle, your patch and your brothers, your scars, tattoos, loves, mistakes and enemies are all a smoke that will soon vanish. As Eddie Davenport vanished. As Junkie George, his old lady and his dog all vanished.
We are all only an insubstantial pageant and already we have begun to fade. Only DVDs live forever. Behold the great, inescapable, all devouring shark’s jaws of history. There can be only one. And of us all, only SAMCRO will survive.
By about the year 2055 Sons of Anarchy will be the definitive source for people who wonder about who you were. Whether you like it or not. So you might as well watch. Whether you like it or not.
Oh! The show is over. It must have ended sometime when I was talking about nothing. I will have to catch the rerun.
The show runs all the time on FX. If you want to know exactly when go the El Lay Times website. They are very good at reporting things like that.