Now it is all just echoes: The echo of the motorcycle club; the echo of the working class hero; the echo of America; the echo of when we never had a doubt; the echo of when we never lost a war, we were always right and we could do anything we could imagine. No wonder Harley-Davidson got rich selling nostalgia.
Once, we could even tell our boss to go to hell and walk down the street and get another job. Once, no one asked you why you wanted some particular, crappy job:
“So what makes you want to pursue a career in telemarketing?”
“Well, you know, I’m broke. And, your ad was at the top of the page.”
Once, nobody asked you why you owned a motorcycle. Once it was natural to ride with a club. Once, they never actually came out and asked you, “Are you ready to die for this club?”
Pagans Version 1.0
Riding on the Edge, a new book by John Hall, is an unusually engaging piece of work about once upon a time in the Pagans Motorcycle Club. Like most engaging writing, what Hall has to say may or may not be all literally true. The important thing is that most of it sounds true. Parts of it are too good not to be true.
Hall rode with the Pagans in 1967 and 1968, just when the club was patching over a dozen or so other clubs. The book is about the historical moment when the super-power motorcycle clubs like the Pagans were born. During that moment Hall was a chapter president with the club on Long Island.
Most of all, Hall has written a book about how hard it was to get arrested in the late 1960s. He recalls a time when it was almost normal for young, working class men to work with their hands all week and then get sloppy drunk, fight, flaunt the law, offend convention, test their mortality and have meaningless, anonymous sex every weekend. It could never happen now. Which is only one of the reasons why it still sounds like fun.
Come On People Let’s Love One Another
The summer of 1967 is generally remembered, when it is remembered, as “The Summer of Love,” the golden age of hippies. Hall’s book is about the golden age of outlaw bikers. Neither golden age lasted much longer than a minute.
And even in that haloed moment, Hall writes, there were outlaws who had begun to think farther ahead than next Friday night. Men at the far end of their twenties or even their early thirties who:
“…believed that the club could endure and evolve into a brotherhood of middle-aged men united around a common set of interests that included motorcycles. Men who could have wives and kids and camps and boats, and not throw it all away for the sake of wrecking some bar. Of course, some of the guys…thought that we could just as well rip off our one-percent patches and join an AMA club….”
And, of course that is exactly what happened. And, the once merely trivial act of wrecking a bar is exactly what landed Hall in prison.
After prison, Hall never returned to the club but he did lead an interesting life and he obviously developed an admiration for books. Riding on the edge is liberally spiced with quotations from literary sources that range from Herman Hesse, Jack London and Joseph Goebbels to The Norse Edda.
So, it is not farfetched to guess that Hall was trying to write the Beowulf of outlaw bikers. Apparently, he worked on Riding on the Edge for about ten years. He had thirty years to consider his youth before that. By his own account he is an autodidact, a self-educated man, and so it is also not far-fetched to imagine that this is not the Beowulf of outlaws only because Beowulf was the one great book on the great, big list of great books that Hall happened to miss.
Beowulf begins, in loose but not inaccurate translation:
Sit down and shut up! You should know what knife fighters like us did once!
You should know who led us and how bold we were!
You should remember who led us! Like Shoot Shaving,
the packs he led and the taverns he wrecked!
Even people all the way over in Sweden were afraid of him!
Hall’s Shoot Shaving, or Scyld Scefing as the big brains like to spell it, is an outlaw named Sweet William Parker who was a close friend of Hall’s and a leader of the Pagans during their late 60s expansion. It probably will not spoil the book for you to learn that Parker does not make it to the final page. Because it is in Parker’s memory that Hall has imagined his book.
In his summing up Hall writes:
“I wondered how many of those jailed Pagans who were drinking beer…even knew who Sweet William Parker was…. All the newspaper articles mentioned was that Long Island was Pagan country, but none of them explained why. The answer was buried in a grave in Pinelawn National Cemetery With Sweet William Parker, who, along with other now-dead brothers, created an American folk legend that will endure forever.”
Then And Now
One of the wonders of our day, Hall notices, is that middle-aged men no longer want to go to country-clubs “dressed like Johnny Carson.” Now they want to ride custom choppers dressed like 1960s outlaws. Maybe they miss what they once had. Maybe they miss what they missed.
It does not matter either way. It is still all gone. We are no longer what we were. None of us, individually or collectively. The best we can hope for is what we might yet be.
All that has ever been left of the past is echoes. But, that does not make the echo John Hall sings any less startling and clear.