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Easy Rider at 50

A relook at the cinema classic on motorcycling lifestyle and freedom

by Blue Miller, 100% Biker Magazine, England
9/20/2019


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On 4th September 1969, a film was released in the United Kingdom that would have more effect on our little world of custom motorcycling than any other. It was, of course, Easy Rider.

 

Almost exactly fifty years later, it still resonates with us, although its language and ethos may have dated over those five decades. But, with hindsight, was it really as revolutionary as history has made it out to be?

 

Well, yes. Yes, it was, and on a number of levels. For a start, it was the first film to show bikers and hippies getting along, respecting each other’s value and being essentially on the same side. There had been biker ‘flicks’ before Easy Rider but, in the main, they showed bikers to either be violent outliers or simply forming their own societies which weren’t actually so far removed in structure from mainstream life.

 

 
 

If you are one of the few people who’ve never seen Easy Rider, here’s the swiftest of all synopses. Two guys do a big drug deal in LA and then set out across country in search of spiritual truth. Along the way they meet hippies and ranchers who are good and small town locals who are bad. The guy who hooks up with them gets killed. They get to New Orleans and take acid. They head out east and are shot by rednecks in a truck.

 

But that’s putting it in the simplest of terms. The message of Easy Rider is how tough it is live outside the mainstream and how infuriated and angered the members of that mainstream will become if you try to throw off those shackles. Every character in Easy Rider who attempts to pursue their version of freedom comes to grief – the two main protagonists, Wyatt and Billy; George the alcoholic lawyer working for the American Civil Liberties Union; the members of the commune where Wyatt and Billy stay. Far from being a safe alternative haven, when they visit the commune they find it is being destroyed by people freeloading, while it’s pointed out that the crops these ‘city people’ have planted will fail. Again, there’s that idea that you can’t defy society’s norms – city people have no place trying to make their way in the countryside. Wyatt and Billy sleep under the stars not because they have some dreamy idea of freedom, but because even low rent motels won’t give them a room. It’s Jack Nicholson as George who sums up the whole premise of the film when he says; “What you represent to them is freedom. ’Course don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are.”

 

 
 

But the film itself represented a move away from the studio system which had dominated the film industry for decades. It was incredibly rare for independent filmmakers to have a chance to create a movie – or certainly one that would be shown in mainstream cinemas – away from the control of a major studio. Yet it was that very studio system which actually inspired Peter Fonda with the idea of Easy Rider. While promoting Roger Corman’s film The Trip in 1967, Fonda listened to a speech by Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America as he addressed Canadian theatre owners. Valenti asserted that Hollywood should stop making films that contained sex, violence and drugs and produce more family movies like Doctor Doolittle. Fonda went back to his hotel room, mused on Valenti’s words and decided to make a film which contained a lot of sex, violence and drugs. He’d even throw in motorcycles. There and then, in the early hours of the morning, he rang Dennis Hopper. Hopper agreed to star in and direct the movie and the rest is history.

 

Well, not quite. Nothing about the making of Easy Rider was easy. Ask any of the main five protagonists – Fonda, Hopper, Nicholson, writer Terry Southern, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs – and they would each have a different version of events (and you can’t ask them as all except Jack Nicholson, are now dead, making a definitive story impossible). Far from being the companionable friends portrayed on screen, Fonda and Hopper fought constantly during filming and, indeed, afterwards. When Hopper died in 2010, Fonda was barred from his funeral. They would argue for years over who had actually written the film, both cutting Terry Southern – who had contributed much of the writing – out of the picture.

 

Unusually for a major motion picture, much of the dialogue was adlibbed. To 21st century eyes, much of it now seems desperately old-fashioned and cliched, but it was Jack Nicholson’s ability to take an idea and the barebones of a script and spin it into a monologue that really brought Easy Rider together and, even today, makes it relevant. Surprisingly, he is on the screen for just seventeen minutes of the film’s ninety-five minute running time.

 

 
 

Equally surprisingly, he wasn’t first choice for the role of George Hanson. Rip Torn had been earmarked at first for that character, but backed out of the project when Dennis Hopper pulled a knife on him and made racist remarks about Texans during preproduction. (That incident would come back to bite Hopper who, in 1994, went on The Jay Leno Show and related the anecdote as if Torn had been the one to pull the knife. Rip Torn sued for defamation of character and won almost $1 million in damages.) It was felt that Nicholson couldn’t do a Texan accent, but it’s now difficult to imagine any other actor in the role.

 

Another first for Easy Rider was its soundtrack. Up until then, soundtracks had been written specifically for films (perhaps the exception being 1967’s The Graduate, and although that used existing Simon and Garfunkel tracks, Paul Simon also wrote fresh material for the movie), but Easy Rider put together a collection of ‘found’ songs which not only provided a commentary on the action, but stood up as an album apart from the film. Just one song, The Ballad of Easy Rider, was written for the film by Roger McGuinn of The Byrds with lines from one Bob Dylan. Fonda had asked Dylan to write the film’s theme song, but on finding that the two heroes are killed at the end, Dylan refused, instead scribbling the lines ‘The river flows, it flows to the sea/Wherever that river goes, that's where I want to be/Flow, river, flow’ on a napkin and telling Fonda to give it to McGuinn. When Dylan saw a private screening of Easy Rider and found he had been credited as co-writer of the theme song, he insisted that his name be removed from both the credits and any future releases of the song.

 

Part of the reason that, until then, soundtracks had been written for films had as much to do with money as creating the right atmosphere for the action on screen. Licensing individual songs was costly and a logistical nightmare – in fact, the music for Easy Rider cost twice as much as the film did to shoot. In the long run that wasn’t too much of a problem: Easy Rider cost under half a million dollars to make. It would take over $50 million at the box office.

 

 
 

But, of course, at this distance, the most important thing about Easy Rider to us is the bikes. Wyatt’s Captain America bike with its alarming rake and Stars and Stripes petrol tank is probably the most instantly recognisable motorcycle in the world. Even people who have never seen the film know it. No other bike on screen – not Steve McQueen’s Triumph in The Great Escape, not Arnold Schwarznegger’s Harley Fat Boy in The Terminator, not even Marlon Brando’s Triumph Thunderbird in The Wild One – can come close. But, for many years, like so many things about this movie, the very story behind the two motorcycles was cloaked in mystery.

 

That four Harley-Davidson Hydra Glides were bought from the Los Angeles Police Department (for around $500) because Harley-Davidson itself didn’t fancy being associated with the film and so refused the request for some bikes has been a long-established fact. But, for years, no-one seemed to question who had actually built the two choppers (Fonda’s bike was more radical simply because he was a more experienced rider than Hopper). If anyone thought about it, they probably assumed that Fonda had built them as he did strongly hint, and he certainly did little to disabuse anyone of that notion for some time.

 

Had any of the bikes actually survived, then maybe more questions might have been asked soon. But three of the bikes were stolen and the fourth crashed (presenting something of a problem when the campfire scene was filmed, which is why you don’t see the bikes in the background when you should). And here we disappear down another rabbit hole. Fonda said that he gave the crashed bike to Dan Haggerty (better known as TV character Grizzly Adams) who completely rebuilt it and sold it to the National Motorcycle Museum in Iowa. However, the museum apparently sold its Easy Rider bike in 2013 and says that the one currently on display is not the crashed Pan and their motorcycle is one of several built afterwards as promotional props.

 

 

Over the years, several ‘real’ Captain America bikes have surfaced, the waters muddied by the fact that Haggerty certified a few as the genuine article. In 2014, a bike claimed to be the last remaining motorcycle from the film and the one originally displayed in the National Motorcycle Museum was sold at auction for $1.35 million by movie memorabilia collector, Michael Eisenberg. It was authenticated by Haggerty (in spite of the fact that he admitted he’d authenticated a different Captain America bike years before) and by a letter from Fonda too, although he was to change his tune with the approach of the auction, saying “there is a big stinkin rat someplace in here” (forgetting that he too had vertified bikes as the bona fide item). Then, in direct contrast to the worldwide interest there had been before the sale, the auction result was quietly cancelled and the bike remains, apparently, unsold.

 

Oh, and then there’s the story that Dennis Hopper actually took one of the four bikes home and buried it on his ranch in Nevada where it was dug up by a contractor building a pool who gave what he thought to be junk parts to his son who built a bike… No-one has ever come forward to admit to stealing the three bikes from the film set. The statute of limitations has long passed on that crime, so tell us what happened to them! It’s very likely they were broken up and parted out immediately. Someone out there could be riding around on a bike with apart from one of the Easy Rider machines and as much of a valid claim to owning a real Easy Rider bike as some of those motorcycles which Dan Haggerty validated. And so it goes on and probably always will.

 

But back to the important matter of who actually built the film bikes. Even that throws up several versions of the truth. It’s only in recent years that it’s come to light that the bikes were the work of two African-American builders, their names lost – possibly deliberately – from the history of Easy Rider.

 

Clifford ‘Soney’ Vaughs was a black activist who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and became a documentary film maker. In an echo of Easy Rider, he was fired at by men in a pickup truck as he rode his Knucklehead chop through Arkansas in 1964 and was also arrested on several occasions while protesting at civil rights events. But he also built bikes (he was featured in Ed Roth’s legendary Choppers Magazine in 1967) and it was that combination of motorcycles and filmmaking that brought him into the orbit of Fonda and Hopper. He worked briefly on the set of Easy Rider, along with mechanic Larry Marcus, and was responsible for the building of the infamous bikes, although, not entirely… Another African-American, Ben Hardy bought the first two police Harleys at auction (although Fonda always said it was him), and Hardy built the two original motorcycles to Vaughs’ design while it seems likely that Vaughns constructed the other pair.

 

 

With the bikes handed over, these guys effectively disappeared. Vaughs had sued for severance pay after being fired and both he and Larry Marcus were paid $333, provided they signed a document agreeing that their names would not appear on the final credits. Not only were their names not mentioned on those credits, but their role (and that of Ben Hardy) in the creation of two of the most famous movie props of all time was completely obliterated. It wasn’t until 2006 that Cliff Vaughs was publicly credited for the first time as the creator of the Easy Rider choppers by Jesse James in his television series, The History of the Chopper. Sadly, that recognition came way too late for Ben Hardy who had died fifteen years before.

 

But what this film and two uncredited African-Americans did was to popularise choppers. Custom bikes had been around for years but suddenly here they were, in glorious Technicolor on the big screen, in spectacular riding shots created by Laszlo Kovacs (there are, I think, seven riding sequences in the film – Hopper had insisted on filming more than twenty!). Even if you hate the film, even if you think it’s all waffly hippie crap, you cannot deny the glory of those riding sequences that just make you want to sell everything, buy a bike and go riding across America. Not having too much in the way of vast scenic landscapes in this country, people could still emulate their screen heroes by building choppers (or, as Blackjack points out on page 91, making something inherently dangerous given the access to engineering for many and the limitation of parts available in the late 1960s and early ’70s!).

 

Would the chopper scene have become so big without Easy Rider? Yes, it probably would have done. By 1969, people had been building choppers in the United States for years. After all, millions of soldiers had been trained during the Second World War in engineering, welding and mechanics. They wanted excitement and, in an era when there was a huge post-war surplus of engines and materials, they had the wherewithal to build what they wanted and that was something lighter, faster and more fun to ride than the standard Harley stocker. As Triumph sent thousands of motorcycles to the US, those bikes too were cut up and transformed.

 

 
 

Two years before Easy Rider was released, Tom McMullen had started his infamous company AEE Choppers and had already built bikes like the Corvair Trike, while up in San Francisco a young man called Arlen Ness was already making a name for himself with his builds. Choppers Magazine started in 1967 too, Street Chopper in 1969 and Easyriders in 1970. It was all out there, but it’s arguable that two Panheads ridden by actors kickstarted the chopper scene into an international movement and for that, if nothing else, we should celebrate the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider. 

 

 

EASY RIDER TRIVIA

 

·       In the film, the cocaine was powdered sugar (the budget wouldn’t run to the real stuff), the LSD was, according to Fonda ‘half an aspirin’, but the marijuana was all real!

 

·       80 hours of footage was shot. After Hopper took six months over editing, Henry Jaglom was brought in to cut it down to an hour and thirty five minutes while Hopper was sent to New Mexico on holiday, unaware of what was happening. Furious at the time, Hopper later admitted they did a good job.

 

·       Imagining the two main characters as modern day cowboys, Fonda named them Wyatt for Wyatt Earp and Billy for Billy the Kid.

 

·       Jack Nicholson was fourth choice for the character of George Hanson – after Rip Torn dropped out (no doubt peeved about his director pulling a knife on him), Bruce Dern was considered, as was Jack Starrett, best known for his role as Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles.

 

·       Peter Fonda’s character is only referred to by the name Wyatt once in the film in the final campfire scene.

 

·       Easy Rider was the favourite film of Charles Manson.

 

·       Bridget Fonda, daughter of Peter, who went on to star in such films as Single White Female, Jackie Brown and Lake Placid, was one of the children in Easy Rider’s commune scene. She was then five years old.

 

·       Toni Basil, one of the prostitutes in the New Orleans scenes, went on to have a massive worldwide pop hit in 1981 with Mickey. Now 75, her latest work was to choreograph Quentin Tarentino’s recent release, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

 

·       In the opening scene, Wyatt rides a Bultaco and Billy a Norton.

 

·       The original title was ‘The Loners’. Peter Fonda, Terry Southern and Cliff Vaugns all separately took credit for the title Easy Rider.

 

·       It was originally intended that the drugs the two main characters pick up in Mexico in the first scene would be marijuana until it was pointed out they couldn’t carry enough for such a big deal on motorcycles. Dennis Hopper vetoed heroin and so it was cocaine. Or powdered sugar (although we think Phil Spector would have noticed at the airport).

 

·       The bridge in the opening credits is the Old Trails Bridge on the California/Arizona border which once carried Route 66 across the Colorado River (the bridge now services a gas pipeline). It’s the same bridge crossed by the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, with Tom Joad played by Peter Fonda’s father, Henry.

 

·       Before Columbia took up the picture, American-International Pictures turned down Easy Rider. Vice President Samuel Z Arkoff would say it was one of the biggest regrets of his life.

 

·       Captain America originally had a suicide shifter, but a hand clutch had to be fitted when Fonda couldn’t get along with it.

 

·       The original ending had Wyatt and Billy buying a yacht in Florida and sailing into the sunset.

 

·       The money to fund the film came from Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider through their creation of 1960 TV programme, The Monkees.

 

·       All three main characters had been in biker films before; Dennis Hopper had starred in The Glory Stompers (1967), Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels (1966) and Jack Nicholson in Hells Angels on Wheels (1967).

 

·       In 2007, Ohio lawyer and producer Phil Pitzer, sued Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider for the sequel rights to Easy Rider and won. His subsequent film, Easy Rider 2: The Ride Home, was released in 2012 and was about Wyatt’s family. Ever seen it? Us, neither, probably because it went straight to DVD.

 

·       The film crew didn’t have permission to shoot in the Catholic cemetery in New Orleans but went ahead anyway. The church was so horrified that no other films have been allowed to shoot there since. Interview With The Vampire (1994) and other subsequent movies had to be filmed in the Protestant Lafayette Cemetery.

 

·       According to Jack Nicholson, he, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda went through 155 joints while filming the campfire scene.

 

·       The scene at the beginning of the film where Wyatt throws his watch on the ground was filmed in Ballarat in Death Valley, California, just a couple of miles from the Barker Ranch where the Manson Family lived and where Charles Manson was arrested. Just a few yards from where the watch landed is an old Dodge Powerwagon which belonged to the Manson family. (It wasn’t, as popular legend has it, Manson’s own vehicle but probably belonged to either Bobby Beausoleil or Tex Watson).

 

·       When Dennis Hopper was asked by Peter Fonda to star in and direct Easy Rider, Hopper was on the point of giving up acting and becoming a teacher.

 

·       The Captain America flag worn on actor Peter Fonda's leather jacket sold for $89,625 in the Music and Entertainment Auction in October 2007, in Dallas, Texas. The patch measures 14.5-inches by 11-inches.

 

·       The pin Wyatt wears on his jacket is an Office of the Secretary of Defense Identification Badge.

 

·       Peter Fonda broke three ribs, not from a crash but when pillion Jack Nicholson’s knees gripped him after, as Fonda put it, “the front end got a little squirrely”.

 

·       Many of the riding shots were filmed from a 1968 Chevrolet Impala.

 

·       Cliff Vaugns actually met Peter Fonda first when he was working in the newsroom at TV station KAMC. He was covering Fonda’s arrest for possession of marijuana and the two discovered they had a mutual love of motorcycles.

 

·       In 2012, Peter Fonda wrote to Cliff Vaugns to say, “I apologize profusely for not being more forceful about your role in their existence and their perfect design”, a classic case of too little, too late.

 

·       In the film's final scene, the pick-up truck is never visible on the road except when it is being shown in close-up. As the camera pulls back after Wyatt's bike explodes, it should be driving up the road but it’s nowhere in sight.

 

·       When Wyatt takes off his watch at the beginning of the film it’s an expensive Rolex. By the time it hits the ground it’s mysteriously become a Timex.

 

·       The Pine Breeze Motel where the owner switches on the NO VACANCY sign still exists and looks very much as it did in the film. It’s now an RV park on a dead end section of Route 66 in Bellemont, Arizona.

 

·       The NO VACANCY sign from the Pine Breeze Inn is supposed on display at the Route 66 Roadhouse Bar and Grill just down the road next to the local Harley-Davidson dealership. The only problem is, if you watch the credits to Easy Rider and then look at the sign hanging over the pool tables, you’ll see that it clearly isn’t the same sign!

 

·       If you know anything about the geography of the USA you will know that the route that Wyatt and Billy take jumps from New Mexico to Louisiana, missing out Texas and Oklahoma. Rumour has it that because the crew needed a break from the tyrannical Dennis Hopper and so took a different route to the director. It may also be that Hopper got cold feet about filming in Texas.

 

·       The final scene in which Wyatt and Billy was shot was filmed on North Levee Road (US Route 105), a country road outside Krotz Springs, Louisiana.

 

·       The redneck café scene, after which George is beaten to death, was filmed in Melancon’s Café in Morganza, Louisiana, about thirty miles north-west of Baton Rouge. It was a real business and the film crew had asked for it to be closed so they could shoot there. However, the owner didn’t believe they were for real and opened up anyway, which is how several of the locals were recruited to act in the film.

 

·       For years, the tiny town of Morganza failed to capitalise on its role in the film, hating how its townspeople had been portrayed as rednecks. Around twenty years ago Melancon’s Café was demolished and where the café stood is now an empty lot with the remains of some steps and a plaque on the pavement commemorating the site’s part in Easy Rider – and naming all the locals who took part. They do sometimes put up a plywood facade with a banner on it recreating of the café.

 

·       Despite their disagreements on who wrote Easy Rider, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern shared an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, losing to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 

·       Arnold Hess Jr, a Point Coupee Parish deputy sheriff almost lost his job over the film. One of the Morganza, Louisiana, locals recruited to be in the film, he appeared on screen in his uniform with his Point Coupee Parish patch prominently displayed. Hess swore to his sheriff that he and other townspeople hadn’t realised they would be portrayed as intolerant rednecks and, when he did, he took no further part in the film. He kept his job and still lives in Morganza.

 

·       Dennis Hopper sued Peter Fonda in 1992, claiming he deserved all the credit for the script of Easy Rider, not Fonda. The suit was settled out of court. Then, four years later, Hopper filed a company against Fonda’s company Pando Productions which had made the movie, claiming that when the rights to Easy Rider were sold to Columbia Pictures in 1994, he received only a third of the proceeds and was in fact entitled to over 40 percent. That too was settled out of court. The rift was never healed and when Fonda tried to visit the dying Hopper, Hopper refused to see him and barred him from his funeral.

 

·       Both of Easy Rider’s stars later made car adverts which mimicked the film. In 1998, Dennis Hopper advertised the Ford Cougar in a commercial which featured original footage of Hopper as Billy on the Billy Bike to the tune of Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild. In 2017, Fonda, as the Wyatt character and wearing a copy of his Captain America jacket, made an ad in which he drives away from a biker café in a Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster. The soundtrack is – yes – Born To Be Wild.

 

 

 
 

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