In early September, for the last three years, the FX Network airs a new season of “Sons of Anarchy." The series is about a fictional 1%er motorcycle club whose mother chapter, Sons of Anarchy Redwood Originals (SAMCRO) is based in Northern California. Events happening in the lives of the Sons members occur in Gatling Gun cadence: explosions, murders and general mayhem are every day occurrences.
To say that the series has been successful is a gross understatement. From what I’ve read, Sons of Anarchy is the most successful series produced by the FX Network. Season two’s finale was viewed by an estimated 4.5 million viewers. Cast members make special appearances at motorcycle related events, i.e., Arlen Ness’ 40th Anniversary and Sonny Barger’s 71st Birthday Party.
Wikipedia contains an extensive description of the series including a summary of each season’s reviews by the Boston Globe, New York Times, Variety, Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine. The series has its own web site and several motorcycle magazines have written articles about the series. There’s literally been hundreds of thousands of words written about the series and not one of them (to my knowledge) has voiced any concern about the negative image the Sons of Anarchy casts on motorcycle clubs. Each September I become furious about the way the series portrays bike clubs that wear a three-piece patch, the same layout that I wear and that hundreds of other clubs who enjoy motorcycling and brotherhood wear.
The Sons of Anarchy series portrays life in a motorcycle club to several million viewers and this portrayal is pure fiction; nothing like how a “real” motorcycle club operates. I wonder if the average viewer can separate the entertainment provided in a Sons episode from how they perceive riders who fly their colors on U.S. highways.
The series is great drama, somewhere between Days of Our Lives and the Sopranos on two wheels. Don’t overlook the observation that the plot line is a modernization of Shakespere’s Hamlet; good advice to those wanting to speculate on how the series will wrap up. If you’re so inclined do a Google search or read the Cliff’s Notes version of Hamlet. Enough said!!!
Those of us who ride with a club and wear a patch should have concerns about how the SOA audience associates our lifestyle with what they see in each SOA episode. Do viewers really believe that motorcycle clubs, even outlaw clubs, actually operate the way SAMCRO does? Unfortunately SOA doesn’t have a monopoly on biasing public opinion of MCs. The Discovery Channel’s “Gangland” and NatGeo’s “Outlaw Bikers” have both showcased many of the major 1%ers and the team of Quentin Tarrantino and Larry Bishop have gotten in on the action with their failed attempt (Hell Ride) to claim the “greatest biker movie ever made."
What these “talkies” have in common is a portrayal of club life (violent and criminal) that’s gobbled up by an audience who’s naïve and gullible. Granted, there may be examples of true incidents that these programs either portray (Hell Ride and SOA) or chronicle (Gangland and Outlaw Bikers) but there’s another side to motorcycle clubs, a side that is far more common. The truth about the vast majority of motorcycle clubs is a story that needs to be told by someone who knows and a story that needs to be heard by those who don’t.
I may not have the ultimate qualifications to tell this story but I don’t see anyone else stepping up … so I’m going to give it a go! I belong to a well-established and long-standing motorcycle club. We wear that little “MC” patch on our backs just like the SOA. Like the Sons, we ride motorcycles but the similarities between the club I ride with, the Gypsy MC, and the Sons of Anarchy MC ends there. We are as different as Muslims and Infidels. Granted, the SOA are fictional and the series has only become a success because of the blood, the gore and the anticipation of what will happen next. But trust me, this is not how it works.
I’ve been a committed member of my club for close to ten years; seven of which have been as a chapter president. I respect my colors and I value the relationships I’ve developed with other members. I don’t speak for my club; the views that I express are mine alone and are my inalienable right to share as I see fit. I know that those living within the MC culture, regardless of the club they ride with, have a lot in common.
The most important tenets of club culture never see the light of day in an SOA episode. It is the plot writer’s short sightedness (or perhaps his shrewdness in recognizing that only violence and drama sell) that gives the SOA series its punch and the MC culture a bad rap.
Perhaps the most significant oversight in these dramatic portrayals is the motorcycles themselves. MC culture is focused on the motorcycles and the riders. The motorcycle is an extension of the member and club bikes are certainly not the cookie cutter black Dynas that SOA has established as member standard issue. Only one episode has included a scene where members had a bike up on a rack and were working on it. That’s just not how things work in real life. The bike is important to the member, we talk about our bikes, we modify our bikes, we paint them different colors and, most of all, we ride our bikes to far away places like Daytona and Sturgis.
The furthest we’ve seen SOA members ride is from Charming to Oakland or maybe to Reno. My chapter brothers would grow bored belonging to a Sons of Anarchy chapter that was so obviously “root bound."
Most MC members are riders and all MC members like to ride with their brothers. I’m not talking about blasting down the freeway for three or four exits and then stopping at the next bar; I’m talking about saddling up and riding a few thousand miles together. Like Billy and Wyatt did in Easy Rider, but not as easy.
The guys in my chapter will ride five to six hundred miles a day and we’ll get to where we’re going by riding gas stop to gas stop … “you never make any miles sittin’ on a bar stool." The friendships and the trust that are built during these rides form the foundation for the brotherhood. We really don’t know if members of the Sons of Anarchy can ride or not. We seldom get to see them in a pack and when we do, they’re riding in a “La-Ti-Da” fashion at forty miles an hour. Contrast this scene with the last time you saw a pack of 1%er’s blasting down the road, thirty miles over the speed limit, splitting lanes, riding handlebar-to-handlebar and nose-to-tail. The sight and sound of this scene makes a pack of SOA look like Club Scouts.
SOA misses this point altogether when it comes to brotherhood. Towards the end of season two the president and sgt. at arms conspire to murder one of their own full patch members. The murder is botched when the sgt. at arms guns down the member’s wife in a case of mistaken identify. The total lack of brotherhood becomes even more magnified when, during the funeral, most of the SOA members seem to know who’s responsible for the murder but do absolutely nothing about it. That little faux pas seems to be totally forgotten as we’ve moved into season three. So far none of the members have ratted out the club by going to the feds (although Jax is now conspiring with ATF Agent Stahl); but even that is a weak endorsement for the expectation of brotherhood any motorcycle club would set as its standard.
The meetings my chapter hold don’t ever include agenda items considering buying bulk military weapons, mass quantities of dope or diversification into the adult video business. Our meetings consider which runs and rallies we’ll attend or how we’ll respond to the latest “call to action” that might require us to write or call our legislators to lobby for our right to wear our colors, modify our motors and exhausts on our bikes and not be subject to HIPPA insurance exemptions because we participate in “high risk” sports activities.
When we ride to other chapters' events we never spend our time fortifying our clubhouse and handing out fully automatic weapons to hold off rival clubs like we saw in an SOA episode in season two. In that episode Jax, the SOA vice president, provokes the Mayans, a rival club, when they meet on the road and lead them, in a high speed chase, directly to the newly patched over SOA clubhouse in the Sierra Mountains. Jax makes it to the clubhouse, and like the siege of the Alamo, the Mexicans (i.e., Mayans MC) open fire. They burn thousands of rounds of ammo without suffering any major casualties. This is pure poppycock!!!
This scene may have been as thrilling as an Indiana Jones movie but it’s hardly believable. Our club events (most are open to the public) are more like family picnics than military engagements. We serve food and beverages, hire bands for entertainment and spend our time talking to members who we might only see a couple of times a year. We’re more interested in the bike they’ve just bought or the motor they’ve hopped up than setting up any of the myriad of “deals” that SOA members seem to always be involved in.
There may be a spark of hope for the Sons of Anarchy series to right the wrongs they’ve committed to the MC community. From time to time I get the impression that Jax, SOA founder, John Teller’s son, is still considering what he’s read in his father’s manuscript during seasons one and two. If you’ll recall, Jax found Pop’s manuscript while digging through a storage unit and subsequently spent a lot of his time sitting on the roof of the clubhouse trying to digest what his father had written. It seems that John Teller, much like Wyatt in Easy Rider, came to the same conclusion: “We blew it." The manuscript was his attempt to leave a record of what had derailed the club and what needed to be done to get it back on track.
Even though Jax burned his copy of the manuscript, Piney gave Jax another copy, and another chance, to do the right thing and put an end to the nonsense that goes on in the Redwood Original chapter. In season three, episode one, Jax is still having second thoughts about the club’s direction … maybe good will triumph over evil, Jax will somehow gain the power to pull Clay and Tig’s patches and turn the SOA MC into a decent and (for the most part) law abiding organization. Yeah, right!!!
It seems, instead, that the entire plot of season three will have SAMCRO chasing all over the world for the Prince’s son. I can understand that the chapter needs their heir back but really, this plot line seems to only serve the purpose of prolonging the series for another year.
True brotherhood does seem to exist in SAMCRO in the form of Piermont “Piney” Winston and his son Harry “Opie." Piney was one of the founding members of the Sons and served with John Teller in Viet Nam. Opie is second-generation SOA and, like his father, exhibits the brotherhood and loyalty expected in an MC. Opie did five years at the gray-bar hotel without ratting out the club or making a deal. In season one Opie attempts to avoid the temptations to engage in SOA criminal activities but soon accepts the dark side when he realizes that working a 40-hour straight job for minimum wage doesn’t bring home the bacon.
Opie stands beside Jax like a true brother and supports the club in spite of the heavy price he’s paid (five years incarceration and his wife’s assassination). Watch Piney and Opie, they are loyal to the club and to John Teller’s vision. I’d be willing to bet their loyalty and brotherhood will become a significant factor when the conflict between President Clay Morrow and stepson and Vice President Jax Teller is finally resolved.
In the meantime, while we’re all waiting for this miracle to happen, real MC life goes on like it always has. We continue to recruit new members, weed out members who have lost interest or don’t participate, or have lost their perspective of the brotherhood we strive to cultivate. We’ll continue to ride our motorcycles and love the life we lead. We’ll continue to fight for our rights as motorcycle enthusiasts by speaking up when we sense pending legislation that will compromise our freedom to ride. We’ll continue to fight for our rights for “equal access” to businesses and events that we are sometimes denied just because we wear a vest that has club patches sewn on the back.
I can only hope that the millions of SOA viewers recognize that the series is entertainment, period, and when they see me riding my bike and wearing my colors they don’t mistake me for the characters they see on Sons of Anarchy.