The Mystique of the Motorcycle

Even if you have never ridden on a motorcycle, never even touched one, your beliefs are formed. You know exactly what motorcycles are all about. You've learned from Marlon Brando in "The Wild One."

You admired or despised the tub-thumping exploits of Evel Knievel. You sang along with, a bit too loud, the greatest rock 'n' roll song of all time, "Born to Run" - in which it was possible to want to be either Bruce, telling Wendy she was a tramp like him, or Wendy, wrapping her hands 'round his velvet rims and strapping her hands 'cross his engines.

You thought you had life all figured out, including the corruption of America - well, all of America except you and the other cool people - via the instruction of Peter Fonda in the now-unwatchable "Easy Rider."

If you're geriatric, you once fell for "The Leader of the Pack" (vroom. vroomvroom, vroom). If you're young, you wrapped yourself in the strange, vertiginous animated world of "Akira."

Here is what you know about someone who rides a motorcycle: He - it's always he, unless it's a joke or porn or both - is a rebel, with or without a cause or clue. He is relentlessly American, or wishes relentlessly to be. He's a loner, in city or on open road. He don't talk much. He'll never grow old. If you're female, you know in your heart he'd make a truly great sperm donor and a truly terrible father. If you're male, you wish the previous statement applied to you.

Of course, there are completely degraded versions of the myth: "Cool as Ice," starring Vanilla Ice; "Born to Ride" with John Stamos; something called "She-Devils on Wheels." With any luck, you've never seen any of them.

But the coolest motorcycle moments don't necessarily appear in the most likely places. They're not necessarily in counterculture or underground settings.

For me, the defining version of the bike mystique appears in the most mainstream of contexts. The 1965 movie "The Great Escape" was nothing if not pure '60s Hollywood excess. Big budget, big stars (James Garner, Richard Attenborough, et al.), big concept (huge breakout from Nazi POW camp), bad acting. Sort of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" but serious, with Nazis.

The only cool person in the movie is Steve McQueen, a jaunty, self-possessed American flyboy named Hilts, with a passionate love of three things: freedom, baseball and motorcycle racing. He don't talk much.

When the moment for the big breakout arrives, Hilts - after he heroically helps almost everyone else -- splits in the direction of Switzerland. At his first opportunity, he commandeers a German bike and a German's uniform. Ah, but the Nazis, also on bikes, give chase, up hill and down dale! Hilts is too swift and sure for them, these silly Germans with their goofy Dukakis helmets, their dorky sidecars, always tipping over! How quickly he eludes them!

But they're hot on his tail. Hilts hides behind a convenient barn. There, he strips off the trappings of Nazihood to reveal himself as the American he is, in a true-blue T-shirt (to match his true-blue eyes) and cool khakis, hair defiantly slicked back. Our man guns it cross-country, popping wheelies and leaping fences. With Nazis to the left of him, Nazis to the right, guns blazing, Hilts spins out into a barbed-wire fence, impaled and red-streaked like an American cowboy Christ. Before he's captured, the bloodied Hilts pats his trusty bike -- which, as anyone can see, has been shot through the heart.

Here's another motorcycle mystique moment, this time from television. No, I'm not talking "CHiPs," the corny highway patrol series. A cool biker is by definition not a state employee.

From 1969 to 1970, for just 26 episodes, there was a biker series starring Michael Parks called "Then Came Bronson." According to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, a Bronson cult member, the main character left his job at a newspaper to seek America, thus displaying his rebel spirit. "Bronson" was almost entirely forgettable except for the exceptional pulchritude of Parks, the impossibility of hearing the mumbled dialogue and the remarkable scene that opened every episode.

This opening confirms everything you know about motorcycles and their myths.

Imagine Bronson, gunning his bike at a red light. (Vroom.) Pulled up next to him is a man in a station wagon. Think whipped.

Station wagon: "Hey ... taking a trip?"

Bronson: [Vroom.] "What's that?"

Station wagon: "Taking a trip?"

Bronson: "Yeah."

Station wagon: "Where to?"

Bronson: "Oh, I don't know. Wherever I end up, I guess."

Station wagon: "Pal, I wish I was you."

Bronson: "Really?"

Station wagon: "Yeah."

Bronson: "Well, hang in there." [Vroom.]

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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