Mike Gibson takes a look at the customs and culture of local bikers.
By Mike Gibson
SEPTEMBER 22, 1997: On first glance, the Warehouse Tavern on the north end of Oak Ridge looks like some pitiless '90s update of the kind of hell-approved beer jungle depicted in The Wild Ones or Easy Rider or any number of other fanciful celluloid musings on biker culture. A dozen or more hard men in jeans and tightly-braided ponytails and leather and dirty denim line the wooden railing next to the entrance, leaning carelessly forward and sipping longnecks and talking bikes over the asthmatic drone of a huge, leaky air conditioning unit at the far end of the porch.
Just below them are the subjects under review, a row of some 20 onerous black cycles, enormous chrome-and-steel road horses tethered and resting quietly in the seeping languor of a lazy Sunday afternoon sun. Black is the predominant theme, and Harley-Davidson is the brand of choice. But there are some "customs" (custom-built bikes) in the mix, and even a couple of "Jap bikes" (Hondas) and a BMW. And every bike is rife with signature touchesswirls of extra color, personalized saddlebags, studs and conchos on leather seats, tassels on handlebars...
But once any lingering apprehension over the roughneck ambiance and rampant denim swagger has passed, the Warehouse turns into a pretty regular place with a pretty regularand widely divergentclientele. There's 40-year-old Bill Colston, a skinny ex-plumber and Kentucky native who insists his love affair with Harley prompted a split with his first wife more than 20 years ago, or Stephen Woodard, a do-ragged carpenter's apprentice who bought his first Harley-Davidson after a trip to Daytona's Bike Week in 1989.
And there's Steve Dupree, the towering African American engineer-cum-actor who earned local renown with a small part in The People vs. Larry Flynt last year; there's Brian Plumlee, finance manager for a Knoxville Chevy dealer and owner of a hot-running custom job with an airbrushed checkerboard finish.
"You see lots of rough-looking people, but a lot of it's just part of the dress," Plumlee says thickly through a hefty chunk of Skoal. "You've got to have your leathers and your boots and your jeans. It's just the way people like to look."
Warehouse owner Jim Wright says he and some partners founded the bar five or six years ago to help dispel the noxious image bikers and their culture have among the general public and to give those who ride a place to call their own. "Bikers around this area needed somewhere to go," he says, waving his own half-finished Budweiser for emphasis. "And besides, bikers never tear up the bar they drink in."
Wright probably needn't have fretted too much about the lack of acceptance. Nourished in large part by shrewd corporate marketing, sales of street bikessleek sport cycles, luxuriously hefty touring bikes, and sturdy chrome-laden cruisershave been climbing sharply since the late 1980s. Not surprisingly, that trend has also seen street bikes, once thought to be the sole province of marauding urban outlaws, infiltrate all social, economic, and occupational strata.
Sales of Harley-Davidson, the most popular brand of cruiser with more than 40 percent of the market, have grown by about 10 percent every year for the last five years, and local Harley Owners Group president and Knoxville attorney Gary Dawson says club membership has grown by about 3 percent every month over much of the period.
The result is a whole new wave of motorcycle ridersdoctors, lawyers, actors, engineers, salesmen, bankers, computer programmerssaddling up a whole raucous, pricey new wave of bikes, and perhaps even driving them out to suck suds at earthy watering hovels like the Warehouse or the Lucky Lady in Knoxville or the Sundown in Clinton, clad in the same studs-and-leather uniforms that were once hallmarks of the culture's raw blue-collar origins.
"A lot of it is fantasizing; some guy who stands on a tile floor 60 hours a week filling in cavities and putting on braces probably has a fantasy about living a different life," Dawson says, adding with a confessional chuckle, "Besides, the clothing part is fun."
Vicarious nostalgia aside, bikers of all stripes seem to share a love of high-speed locomotion in its most unadulterated form, travel unmitigated by windshields, doors, climate controls, and other suffocating safeguards and stifling creature comforts.
Hard-line bikers regard travel in cars ("cages") with barely restrained contempt; they look with further disdain upon Fair Weather Riders ("FWRs"), fellow bikers who let minor considerations such as temperature and precipitation deter them from the road.
"There's just something about riding two wheels that's real special," says the Rev. Dave Self, a Blount County minister and self-proclaimed biker evangelist with more than 30 years of riding experience. "To feel that machine vibrating underneath me and hear those headers scream out and that loud chug-a-lug...It feels like it's just me, God, and this machine, and I love it."
But wind-in-your-hair clichés won't explain away all of the strange behavior indigenous to the biker species, like the hidebound brand loyalty of Harley riders, the near-obsession most bikers have for cataloguing component parts, the barely-suppressed belief held by most custom or modified bike owners that their ride is somehow faster and "tricker" than all of the other bikes in the lot.
"You take pride in your bike; it's like a member of the family or a little piece of your personality," says Plumlee. "And there's always something you want to change on it. Before long, you end up with half a garage full of parts that are still perfectly good because you decided you wanted something else."
Socially, bikers are wont to seek out those who share their compulsionsvia biker bars, rallies (huge biker gatherings, a la Daytona's Bike Week), organized road trips, and of course, motorcycle clubs. Clubs run the gamut from dealer-affiliated groups like H.O.G. to small groups of friends to so-called outlaw or 1-percent groups (a la Hell's Angels), so named in the 1950s because they reportedly represented the renegade 1 percent of the biking population which the American Motorcycle Association refused to claim.
Nowadays, pinning down the 1-percenters is a far more difficult proposition, in part because bikers are pretty tight-lipped about their associations; one rider proudly shows off a leather vest laden with dozens of patches from various rallies and causes, but politely requests that a club affiliation emblem not be revealed in this article.
According to Self, who with his meaty, tattooed forearms, dense beard, and shock of unruly brown hair looks like the archetypal outlaw Harley rider, traditional hard-core biker groups still thrive, albeit in a guise that only vaguely resembles the bad-boy biker image of Brando, Marvin, and Fonda.
"There are literally hundreds of different clubs all over the country, and some of them are what I guess you'd call the 1-percenters, the ones who have their own rules and who do things their own way," says Self, who confesses to having spent more than his fair share of time in free-wheeling, hedonistic pursuits before finding salvation and the pulpit.
Unlike the days when Hunter S. Thompson chronicled the adventures of the San Francisco Hell's Angels with their consent and participation, club-affiliated bikers today keep a low profile, leaving their emblems and group colors behind when attending rallies or frequenting bars. Perhaps the only time local chapters of clubs like the Southern Sons or the Outlaws make any overt public gestures is at toy runs for the underprivileged and other motorcycle charity events organized by local bike enthusiasts.
"Secular biking groups have changed from how they were years ago," says Self, although he's careful not to mention the names of specific clubs. "They keep to themselves a lot more. They're more accepting of outsiders. They've changed, just like society has changed."
To some, however, such revelations signify the dilution and decline of a culture, as the '90s biking boom has seen interloping "rubbies" (rich urban bikers) appropriate the fashions and fixations of the working folk who helped make Harley-Davidson one of the most recognized corporate logos in the world.
"Real bikers are a dying breed, and Harleys are a dime a dozen now," Don Wilson says with festering contempt. Owner of Little River Cycles, a combination parts and accessories dealer and vintage motorcycle museum off Highway 321 in Walland, Wilson notes that a host of nascent corporate policiesprohibitive pricing (top-of-the-line Harley cruising bikes now run in excess of $20,000), stringent control of merchandise (with certain exceptions, only licensed dealers can now sell logoed products), crowded waiting lists for purchasing new bikeshave seemingly rendered the world's most popular cruiser a hobbyist's toy rather than the locus of a lifestyle.
"They [Harley] have turned their backs on the people who helped build them," says Wilson. "They're pricing out the working man."
Others, however, point out that the Harley wave seems to be cresting, as sales increases slow and waiting lists grow shorter, and that hard-line bikers now look more favorablyor at least less malevolentlyon once-abhorred (but now more affordable) foreign manufacturers.
As a card-carrying member of cycling's core following, Self, for his part, doesn't worry much about the future of his subculture or the newfound diversity of its devotees. "There's going to be bikes 'til the end of time, and there's going to be bikers 'til the end of time," he says, crinkling his weathered face into a serene smile. "It would be a mean ol' boresome world if all of us were the same."
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