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    "Born to be Mild:" The Changing Significance of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

    Richard Webb

    The annual swap meet in Keene, New Hampshire, had always been one of my favorites. It was good to get there early, while the air was still crisp and the sunlight filtered through the pine trees. In the early hours, tattooed men and women in faded Levis and black t-shirts unload vans and pick-up trucks, spreading out an assortment of Harley-Davidson motorcycle parts and accessories on blankets or folding tables, while ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd tapes crank out of ghetto blasters. There was usually someone selling handcrafted leather saddlebags, vests, and chaps for a fraction of what the retail stores and catalogs charged, but affordable used motorcycles and hard-to-find bike parts dominated the marketplace. I almost always managed to unload a couple of hundred dollars worth of old fenders and gas tanks, rocker boxes and clutch plates, headlight buckets and carburetors. Bargaining and haggling were always expected; sometimes it would take a whole day of offers and refusals before a good deal could be made. One year, I bought a brand new set of Delkron engine cases for $400.00 and a stock four-speed transmission for $200.00. You could get Polish sausage, onion rings, and big cups of Budweiser to tide you over while you waited for your turn with the tattoo artist, and for a buck a swing you could whack away at some pitiful little Honda or Suzuki rice burner with a sledge hammer until it was reduced it to rubble. This was called fun

    The Keene swap meet was one of several New England biker rendezvous, and over the years people got used to seeing each other there. Keene was one of the two places that Tramp and I could usually count on running into each other during the course of the year, and it was something we always looked forward to. Tramp was a huge, good-natured kind of guy, who rode around the countryside on a puke green '69 FLH. We always had a good time when we got together, smoking a joint or doing a line and catching up on each other's travels, travesties, trials and tribulations. Tramp was a welder, and I was an electrician, and I remember thinking that part of the camaraderie of the swap meet circuit had to do with the working-class lifestyle that most of us, it seemed, had in common.

    Late one Saturday afternoon, several years ago, I finished loading leftover parts into my pickup truck, and wandered over to where Tramp was fuming and cussing and stomping on his kickstarter in a futile attempt to get his motor running. He reached behind the air cleaner and snapped the carburetor's choke lever closed, then, holding onto the handlebars and with his left foot on the kickstarter pedal, he raised his right leg high and out behind himself, then swung it forcefully down and forward in order to help drive the kicker arm as violently through its arc as possible. The motor barked as it backfired, and I popped the top on a can of beer before handing it over to him. We turned as eight or nine riders in new leather jackets swung their legs over shiny new Evolution-series big twins, watched as they fingered their electric starter buttons, and listened as their motorcycles burbled quickly to life. At the time, I thought there was something cheesy about the look of this new generation of Harley-Davidson motors, and also that there was something funny about the men and women who had climbed into their saddles--not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. It occurred to me later that it was the fact that they were much cleaner and better groomed than most of my friends and I. Tramp had an annoyed look on his face.

    "This fuckin' swap meet sucked, man," he complained to me. "Buncha yuppie wannabes in their fuckin' fringy jackets, bikes all lookin' the same, like they rolled offa some Jap assembly line. What the fuck is the world comin' to?"

    I knew exactly what he was getting at.

    "Yeah," I said. "Didja notice, there was about ten booths selling nothin' but t-shirts and bandannas and crap? What's up with that? And the big shops and dealers seem to be taking over, crowding out all the privateers--like me--who got nothin' but used parts to sell."

    "Harley-Davidson went and got fashionable," Tramp said, contemptuously. He had pulled the spark plugs out of his motor, and was standing there buffing the electrodes with a small wire brush. "I bet none of those dickheads ever work on their own bikes, and they probably wouldn't know a clutch basket from a fuckin' fruit basket." He replaced the spark plugs, pumped the kickstarter pedal fairly mildly a couple of times, then turned the ignition switch on and kicked once again for all he was worth. The puke-green dresser rumbled, coughed once, and then settled into the classic, irregular beat of the 45-degree V-twin that made Milwaukee famous.

    "Whadda ya gonna do," I laughed, as he high-fived me in farewell. "At least Harley-Davidson looks like it's gonna survive; for a while there, things were lookin' pretty bleak. See you next year?"

    Tramp, still looking a little mad, didn't answer as he rode away. And I never made it back to Keene again.

    Over the past several years, I've given a lot of thought to Tramp's evaluation of the changes occurring within the biker culture. Long-time Harley riders, like Tramp, are traditionalists, of a sort, and I often hear them object both to the appearance of the expensive, new, factory-stock motorcycles, and to their riders, whose clothing, grooming, speech, and demeanor are inconsistent with the well-established cultural norms of the "hard-core" Harley biker. Many seem to agree that the urban professionals and sophisticates which largely make up the "new breed" of Harley-Davidson owners lack an essential degree of commitment to the "biker lifestyle" and therefore cannot be considered "real" bikers.

    Although the new motors have rapidly gained acceptance among the great majority of enthusiasts, tension still often emerges whenever working-class traditionalists encounter, or even talk about, the new breed of Harley-Davidson owners. This was such a big change from what I was accustomed to seeing whenever Harley riders got together that I began recording snippets from conversations, collecting newspaper and magazine stories, conducting open-ended interviews, and reflecting upon the changing appearance and increasing popularity of all things Harley. I have been fortunate, as an academic previously steeped in the culture of the Harley traditionalist, in the sense that a broad selection of Harley-Davidsion owners have willingly discussed their opinions and experiences with me. I have learned a great deal, not only from long-term acquaintances, but from many new friends of the sort stereotyped and vilified by my old friend Tramp. In this brief essay, I present a thematic analysis of the discourse--the speech or talk--of some of the many people I have encountered during my investigation. More specifically, I have chosen to focus upon the prevalent--nearly universal--theme of freedom in the talk of Harley-Davidson owners from across a wide range of walks of life. The choice is somewhat arbitrary--I could as easily have chosen to discuss nostalgia, or machismo, for instance, both of which are also widely recurring and equally fascinating themes--but I decided to feature freedom alone in the interest of brevity and, in accordance with the intentions of the program planner, in the belief that it may lend itself most readily to wide-ranging discussion among program participants.

    Cast of Characters

    Before proceeding to an examination of the rhetoric of freedom in "biker" discourse, I believe it may be worthwhile to provide a bit of information about those whose words make up the substance of the discussion. The following individuals agreed to participate in loosely structured, tape recorded interviews, and the following descriptions attempt to provide at least a suggestion of the diversity of social and cultural positions occupied by Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners:

    John is a welder, machinist, and metal fabricator; he is 56 years old. He built and rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles for over 20 years, manufacturing many of his own parts by hand. His crowning achievement, a 96 cu. in. Panhead, was once the featured centerfold in Hot Cycle magazine. In many respects, John represents the stereotypical outlaw biker. He has long hair, a beard, tattoos, and a barrel chest. He often rides more than 1500 miles in a month. He recently completed his second term in prison for narcotics sales. After blowing up his motor for the third time in two years, he decided to sell all of his Harley-Davidson parts and to purchase a Japanese sport bike. This decision, he explained, also entails a deliberate rejection of the popularity of Harley-Davidson motorcycles among upscale, law-abiding citizens.

    Dave is a 39-year-old automotive mechanic, and a Harley "traditionalist." Actually, to refer to Dave as a "mechanic" invites misinterpretation: He works for a nationally recognized automotive racing team, building competition race cars and high-performance street automobiles. He builds his own custom motorcycles, which currently include a 74 cu. in. show-winning Sportster, and a 109 cu. in Shovelhead composed almost entirely of exotic materials and hand-made components.

    Art, at 42 years of age, is half-owner and shop foreman of a company which manufactures food canning machinery. During his early and mid twenties, he was involved to some extent with the outlaw biker culture, but sold his first Harley following the birth of his son. He is a skilled machinist but, as a successful businessman, is no longer directly dependent upon this skill. His motorcycle, an immaculate and tastefully accessorized 1991 "Heritage Softail Classic", is ridden less than 2000 miles annually.

    Gene, a 50-year-old graphic artist, describes himself as the "farthest thing" from an outlaw biker. His white-collar occupation, expensive suburban home, and refined communication style appear to support the claim. He pays a professional mechanic to service his 1989 "Heritage Softail Classic", which is luxuriously ornamented with fur, fringe, and chrome. In good weather, he rides between 1500 and 2000 miles per month.

    Dan rather closely approximates the "yuppie biker" stereotype. A 31-year-old sales manager who rides a 1991 Sportster, Dan is clean-cut and courteous, and explicitly identified himself as a business professional, not a cultural renegade. During our conversation, he expressed a strong desire to change and improve the image of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and their riders by providing a positive personal example.

    Bob, a 47-year-old self-employed insurance agent, recently sold his 1989 "Low Rider." During the two years he owned it, he rode it only 1500 miles, and chose to pay a professional mechanic to perform necessary service. He is quite professional and conservative in appearance and opinion, an apparent model of honesty, industry, and morality. Although, like John, he now owns a Japanese-made motorcycle, he provides an interesting counterpart to John in most other respects. In particular, he based his decision to sell his Harley on the grounds that bikers are generally a crude and offensive lot, embracing an excessive and potentially destructive commitment to a lifestyle revolving around what he regards as nothing more than a grown-up toy.


    Harley-Davidson's well-known 1970's advertising campaign presented its product as "The Great American Freedom Machine." This is interesting when you stop to consider that, with just a little shift in the way you frame things, the same could be said of handguns, or the printing press. On the surface level, the Harley owners I talked to agreed that the experience of riding provides a liberating sense of personal power and mobility. But on a deeper level, as you'll see in a moment, the various riders seem to employ subtly different interpretations of the word freedom. These different meanings can be sifted and sorted in several ways, depending once again upon the way you choose to frame the things they say. In other words, although the Harley-Davidson motorcycle may be some kind of a symbol of freedom, distinct individual perspectives produce contrasting interpretations of how and why the motorcycle as a symbol worked the way it did.

    Freedom as a Generic Category.

    I asked each person if he felt that his motorcycle "symbolized" anything and, if it did, what that might be. Their responses were almost uniformly immediate and explicit:

    Gene: Freedom. To me, it symbolizes a form of freedom.

    John: Freedom.

    Dave: Well, it might symbolize freedom of the road. You're not caged in, you're just riding in the wind. I don't know, the biggest thing it might just symbolize is freedom.

    Bob: I think it symbolizes, uhh, the, freedom.

    Dan: It is freedom. It's just the freedom of the ride. It's my freedom of choice of a vehicle that I would like to ride.

    Although they used the same word, how freedom is symbolized by the Harley-Davidson motorcycle is less self-evident. The simplest explanation is suggested by Dave, who notes the absence of physical confinement distinguishing motorcycles from other forms of motorized transportation. In the lexicon of the hard-core Harley rider, automobiles are "cages" and their drivers are "cagers." Bikers are out of the cage and in the wind. Regardless of brand, motorcyclists everywhere have to accept--and the majority seem to relish--the freedom from enclosure or confinement; for many, it defines the experience and provides the bottom-line reason for owning a motorcycle in the first place. Bikers talk about seeing and smelling things they'd never even notice in a car, about feelings of total focus or "oneness" with the road and the motorcycle, and about a kind of raw, primitive, vital awareness of life coming from exposure to sun, wind, dirt, rain, and constant physical risk.

    Contrasting Interpretations of Freedom

    All the owners claimed that riding a Harley-Davidson provided an escape from the stresses of daily life and encroaching maturity, although the nature of the stress and the function of the motorcycle were interpreted somewhat differently. Underlying these differences are apparently incommensurate views of the world, in which what constitutes reality and fantasy for each group is actually inverted in the perspective of the other.

    Stress Reduction and the Rich, Urban Biker. The preponderance of recent media attention concerning the appearance of rich, urban bikers ("rubbies") as a subculture focuses upon the stresses and anxieties of work and maturity, and the liberating effects of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Perhaps because Dan was the youngest participant in the study, he expressed the greatest awareness of encroaching maturity and was the only one to imply that motorcycling, rather than restoring lost youth, is a young person's activity:

    Dan: For instance, if you look at the commercial on ESPN, you'll see an old man rocking in his rocking chair, and a Harley-Davidson rides by. And the old man says, "I once wanted to own one of those, but I can't." You get the feeling that he couldn't because he was too old. Before you're too old, own a Harley-Davidson. A lot of these kind of marketing advertisements appeal to a lot of people because a lot of people, like my boss, who kind of have this feeling, well, you want to just say you rode it, may have this little something, inner child, so to speak, that wants to ride a Harley-Davidson.

    There is an implication that getting old is accompanied by increased responsibility, loss of a sense of adventure, preoccupation with an image of respectability, and a decrease in physical strength, balance, and reflexes. Each may be interpreted as an intrusion upon personal freedom. Aging and this associated loss of freedom are apparently inevitable, so it is crucial to experience the freedom of motorcycling while the physical body has the capacity to deliver it.

    A related theme mentioned by some Harley owners referred to the need to satisfy the desires of an "inner child." Riding a motorcycle restores the sense of playfulness and adventure exchanged by many for personal security and a luxurious material standard of living, and so provides symbolic escape from the economic, social, and political obligations that underscore that exchange. The implication that upper- and middle-class lifestyles are "gilded cages" secured by psychological and behavioral repression is not an unprecedented idea, but is generally submerged in the ideology of the dominant culture.

    Gene and Art separately expressed this interpretation of freedom through a similar psychiatric metaphor, in which the bike-as-therapist enables them to rediscover the experience of unfettered childhood:

    Gene: When I get on the bike, the world goes away. The bills, you know, the day to day problems and things that you have to deal with just disappear for an hour, or two hours, or six, whatever the length of time that I'm on the bike. You have to pay attention to what you're doing, so for the time that I'm on the bike and out on a ride, it's like therapy. The world goes away, and I come back relaxed. My wife says I'm going through my second childhood. And she's probably right, she is probably right.

    Art: I don't really ride that much anymore. It's kinda more like therapy than anything. It used to be I liked riding, and I liked getting in all kinds of trouble riding, you know? 'Go out and party a lot. But now it's more therapy than anything. A lot of people are into their second childhoods, too. They got the money now, and they can afford a bike, you know? Used to be everybody just wanted a nice Porsche or something. Seems like now all they want is a Harley-Davidson.

    It seems interesting that the liberation of the inner child occurs through the removal of external, physical restraints. Exposure of the body (to the elements, to public scrutiny, to danger) somehow transforms the prison within which the inner child is confined or enclosed. It also seems significant that, for many of the new, upscale Harley aficionados, the cure for feelings of repression follows a major act of consumption, while for the hard-core traditionalists it more often involves an act of creation. Buying a new Harley-Davidson entails a large financial debt (a metaphorical prison), and dependence upon commodities, some social scientists and philosophers argue, shrinks rather than expands inner human resources. The hard-core Harley traditionalists more often construct, rebuild, or restore motorcycles, forms of creation which affirm human imagination and individual skills, and translate work into the language of play. The fact that the therapeutic metaphor appeared explicitly only in the words of the business professionals may suggest that their need for psychic liberation is greater, or is less effectively satisfied by Harley-Davidson ownership, than that of the hard-core traditionalists.

    Gene's suggestion that "the world goes away" is somewhat ironic, since he, like many riders, also suggests that motorcycles bring the world up close, permitting far more intimate contact with sights, sounds, smells, and feelings than automobiles do. For Dan, Art and Gene, however, the world in the wind is the therapeutic world of lost childhood, not the real world of adult problems and obligations.

    Outlaws as Freedom Fighters. For others, these world views are reversed. The real world is the world of sensory pleasure and physical freedom. Subservience and social restraint are parts of a nightmare world, to be resisted as far as possible. Motorcycles help hard-core bikers enact their rejection of social conventions and their desire to play by rules of their own choosing:

    John:Motorcycles and me probably mean a whole different thing than motorcycles and a legitimate, well, not legitimate but, uh, upstanding, law-abiding citizen.

    RW: What would be the difference?

    John: Well, probably it means freedom to them, too. But it just depends how far they want to take their freedom. I always say, I'm into self-indulgence and I have very little discipline. So, it means that if I want to get up today and do nothing, then I have to be in a lifestyle that will support getting up today and doing nothing. And what will support that kind of lifestyle other than crime? I don't know any other lifestyle that will allow you to do what you want to do whenever you want to do it, unless you have a whole bunch of money and you're good at the stock market.

    John provides a thought-provoking suggestion, that freedom, defined as the ability to do whatever one desires, is the exclusive privilege of the successful criminal or investor; financial independence confers upon both criminals and investors a certain freedom to indulge themselves. John continued, however, by criticizing all bikers who sacrifice personal freedom in order to belong to domineering organizations:

    John:I got offered a membership in the Red and White [i.e., Hell's Angels] and I didn't want to be in that because they would take away my freedom. It always amazed me how all these wild, crazy people that are totally undisciplined would belong to an organization that could tell them when they could ride, how they could ride, and what they could ride. Now how could they call themselves free-thinking and free-spirited people, but yet allow somebody else or another regime to dictate to them? How free are they? How really, truly free are they if they got an organization that tells 'em when they can come and go, and how, what, when, where, and why? But yet at the same time they're supposed to be free spirits and outlaws, you know? They're not. They're just like people that get accepted into these religious sects. They're just being manipulated, just being controlled and manipulated by a different force. And I rebel against all that stuff. Maybe life would have been easier if I would've fit somewhere. But I never did fit anywhere. That's why I didn't become an H-A, that's why I didn't become a H.O.G. [i.e., Harley Owners Group, a corporate-sponsored organization] member, that's why I didn't go over here and ride with these guys, I didn't go over there and ride with those guys, I went over here and rode with me. I did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it, and how I wanted to do it.

    Most outlaw clubs, such as Hell's Angels, have strict, rules and a formal, hierarchical structure. These organizations confound self-evident notions of freedom, insisting that true freedom is to be found through identification with the group. In exchange for obedience to the regulations of the group, club members can count on support when in trouble and retribution when wronged. On the other hand, "upstanding, law-abiding citizens," whose business acumen has given them the disposable income and leisure time necessary to purchase and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles, join respectable clubs like the Harley Owners Group. Suspiciously similar in structure, albeit different in terms of civic responsibility, H.O.G. collects dues, excludes riders of anything other than Harley-Davidson motorcycles, marginalizes the role of women (segregating them within an "auxiliary" organization), and organizes group rides in which members are encouraged to wear club insignia and to ride in formation. Club officers are privileged, decorated, and authorized to establish club itineraries and enforce club regulations. For John, the costs in personal freedom outweigh the alleged benefits of camaraderie in any such organization. Although his original statement appears to equate freedom with financial independence, it also seems to imply adherence to a code of personal behavior which rejects authority of presumably every variety.

    The motorcycle itself is linked on a symbolic level to John's inclination to reject the merits of the high-status, high-income occupations from which he feels excluded. More specifically, it represents rejection of the pressures that would force him into a life of hard labor with minimal social and economic rewards, and the arbitrary restrictions upon free enterprise that, in his case, refuse to allow him to define himself as an unlicensed pharmaceutical retailer:

    John:Now, it's probably not fair to blame Harley-Davidson for me being a drug dealer and spending time in prison because I rode a black Harley and sold drugs. But it all just goes together . . . I mean, I know that you can ride a Harley-Davidson and not sell drugs. I mean, most of the guys that ride Harley-Davidsons don't sell drugs. But that's where me and Harley-Davidsons were at. Selling drugs and riding a black Harley-Davidson and being a gangster all meant the same thing to me. Whether I myself couldn't do anything better than that with it is my problem.

    John's Harley-Davidson affirmed his difference, not his accordance with social demands. In this cultural struggle, however, the power of the symbol to deliver his freedom was overcome by the superior arsenal of the dominant culture; John was arrested for narcotics offenses, and went to prison--twice. Ironically, in order to protect the more fundamental freedom of physical liberty, John literally had to abandon the Harley-Davidson as a symbol in order to redefine his identity as former--but not current--outlaw: He sold it, and bought a green Kawasaki. Others within the hard-core counterculture manage to modify their behavior--or more ably avoid the police--but some continue to ride only as long as it enhances their sense of freedom.

    Born To Be Mild: The Appeal of the Outlaw Image

    Gene: There are bikers and there are bikers, okay?

    There is something paradoxical about the fact that the new breed of upscale riders seem to exploit the element of indecency associated with the hard-core counterculture, even as they redefine the public image of Harley-Davidson owners through their own more conservative participation and practices. For a number of the well-heeled supporters of the cultural status quo, owning a Harley represents a socially acceptable way to express repressed dissatisfactions with modern life, easing frustrations before they accumulate in personally or culturally destructive proportions. More than a method for producing an adrenaline rush (although very likely tied to it), the motorcycle alleviates tension by permitting these owners to perform a low-level protest against the real or perceived injustices of social existence. Ironically, Harley-Davidson ownership may ultimately lose its upscale appeal as it ceases to represent a kind of renegade critique of wealth and social status.

    For those who exploit the renegade image, the cultural presence of the outlaw biker is essential to the believability of the performance. On the one hand, Harley owners like Dan, Bob, and Gene unequivocally distinguish themselves from outlaws and renegades, while on the other hand, they recognize that part of the thrill of owning a Harley-Davidson results from the fact that a believable impression of toughness and decadence is created because their motorcycles are associated with allegedly real outlaws. Dan does little to dispel co-workers' speculative rumors about his off-the-job social life, and Gene allows himself to get a little "rough around the edges" when he takes his bike out in public.

    As the Harley-Davidson customer base continues to shift toward high-income, middle-aged professionals, that association may become much harder to preserve. Not only will behavioral expectations reflect these demographic changes, but as the hard-core traditionalists find themselves less able to identify with those who come to typify Harley-Davidson owners, some may be inclined to renounce Harley-Davidson motorcycles entirely. When John decided that Harleys had become upper- and middle-class status symbols, their appeal for him was thoroughly dissipated. Dave is building a custom Shovelhead hot rod because "yuppie bikers" all ride Evos. Gene believes that people approach him in parking lots because they want to "touch the tiger," although he himself is just a "pussy cat." Only because tigers exist do pussy cats benefit from such attention.

    Disturbing for members of the hard-core counterculture is the fact that their loyalty and seniority may count for less than the wealth and status of the new customer base. Even worse, hard-core bikers are compelled to acknowledge the benefits of participation by the economically and socially privileged. Only the recent surge in demand for its products among those with the ability to actually purchase one rescued the last American motorcycle manufacturer from impending bankruptcy. "Real bikers" were not flocking to dealer showrooms in sufficient numbers. As a result, its products, marketing strategies, and customer base had to change in order for Harley-Davidson to survive.

    The endorsement of the socially and economically powerful has also improved the public image of Harley-Davidson owners in general. Although there may be some ambivalence concerning the desirability of this change among the hard-core, there is little concerning its inevitability. Those who resent the inclusion of women and professionals retreat to insular social groups little different from the outlaw clubs of the past. But although they represent a decreasing percentage of the Harley ownership community, they also face reduced harassment from community leaders, business owners, and law enforcement officials.

    I told all this to Tramp one day. "Yeah," he said. "I guess so. I still don't like it. What's the good of being a biker if it's just like being a regular citizen?" I answered him the only way a wise man could.