From 1970: Say Easy Rider

This is from the first issue of a two-issue, tabloid-format newsprint magazine Stephen Williamson (no, not the economist) and I published as undergraduates in 1970, and which I long thought had been lost forever. Steve, as it turns out, is — fortunately — more of a packrat than I am, and preserved some copies, so I get to republish it 50 years after its first appearance. I’ve corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise left it as it was, including the abhorrence of contractions which I’ve long since overcome, assorted capitalization and punctuation crimes, and a grating insensitivity to 21st century gender pronoun and racial nomenclature norms, which I’ll just have to live with. We all have a past, no?

If the twentieth century had any essential lesson to teach us, it is this: we are finally on our own. Kings have been dead since the French Revolution. Nietzsche broke the news about God a century ago, and to any perceptive observer it is obvious that the state suffers from a terminal cancer. We are running out of history. What has brought us the concentration camp and the H-Bomb no longer has much to offer us.

For anyone born after 1940, independence is the natural attitude; the illusion of authority has evaporated. Our generation feels free to snicker when the thought police masquerade as destiny, an achievement George Orwell clearly believed to be impossible.  Nevertheless, the baggage of the past has not been as easy to dump as we thought. What began as the Aquarian Age has recently come to look more like a kind of simultaneous rerun of all but the most irrelevant episodes in history. The remnants of the student radical movement have restricted themselves to recovering the nineteenth century millennium, as though they somehow had forgotten that Stalin was the result of the first run-through. People in communes wait patiently for technology and international culture to disappear. What a damn shame it would be if someday their descendents had to fight the Sioux-Blackfoot wars over again!

There is certainly a kink somewhere when a generation with as good an understanding as ours has had of the gap between reality and human perception starts producing astrologers, communists, and subsistence farmers. Given what we know, it makes as much sense as Free Enterprise or the Cold War. I suspect the explanation lies somewhere in the difference between the extent of the possibilities we can see and the amount of personal energy required to realize even the most limited of them. We want a lot, and we can have only a little. Our tendency is to make up the difference by magic. We blame our impotence on a “Power Structure” that is already discredited, and play at revolution. We’re more ready to believe in Tarot cards or the Great Spirit than to live with our natural limitations. We have yet to learn that ending repression does not give anyone supernatural powers, or maintain his innocence.

The issue isn’t whether or not other cultures and ideologies reveal wisdoms ours lack, but whether we’ve picked up on them for the sake of wisdom or for an easy way out of our own troubles. There is quite a difference between learning from the Indians to respect the ecological balance and believing yourself to be the reincarnation of Crazy Horse. Like practicing astrology seriously or advocating guerrilla warfare, living in tepees in the twentieth century United States amounts to schizophrenia, and it’s dangerous. The bombs and concentration camps will remain, and we won’t be able to see enough of the world that produces them to discover where they are coming from. Chances are we won’t be able to understand even the simplest of things that happen to us from one day to the next.

There is good evidence that this is going down already. The illusions of youth culture or hip culture or whatever are almost as strongly defended as the illusions we call the American Dream. Everybody is hip to what the cops did in Chicago, and says so. With considerably less provocation the Hell’s Angels did a lot of the same at Altamont, and no no seems to notice the similarity, let alone the analogy it implies between us and Mayor Daley.

When we don’t notice, people get hurt, just like they did when the Haight went under and acid visionaries were replaced by needle freaks; just like they did when the Weathermen decided they had a right to crack heads, or Charles Manson decided he was Attila the Hun.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper have noticed and they’ve made a fine film about it. I can’t think of a more convincing image of the unpleasantness that can come from parts of the world a man has chosen to ignore than the end of Easy Rider. A lot of people have put it down for being paranoid, but they are missing the point. Of course it’s paranoid — a paranoid dream from beginning to end. That is its strength.

This film, unlike any other I have seen in a long time, openly prefers the psychological reality of experiences to the realistic description of an objective world in which such experiences presumably take place. Nearly everything which happens in Easy Rider is seen as Billy and Wyatt, the two main characters, would see it, and every character except them and possibly their lawyer is as two-dimensional as their understanding of him. I wouldn’t argue that Fonda and Hopper intended to make the film that way, but I would argue that they showed good sense in leaving it that way once it was edited. It sets up the audience beautifully.

Billy and Wyatt are not aware of what is going on around them outside the limits of their perception. Neither is the audience — the film represents Billy and Wyatt’s perception as reality. For those in the audience who belong to our generation the identification is particularly strong. Like Billy and Wyatt, we know that the world is fucked, and that there isn’t much we can do about it. We are on the same trip. Making a big dope deal, buying a beautiful motorcycle, and heading down the road to Mardi Gras appeals to us. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

No one discovers what is wrong with it until Billy and Wyatt do themselves. From the second shotgun blast to the silent end of the film, it breaks in a long wave over both the characters and the audience; the horrible surprise of an intrusion from the world outside the myth both are sharing.

What surprises Billy and Wyatt is that the rednecks really are out to get them. What surprises us is the sudden end to the illusion we are into too deeply to back out of in time. The shock of the last scene isn’t the shock of death, but of its opposite; of waking up. When Billy and Wyatt are murdered our fantasies die with them, and for that moment we are uncomfortably exposed to the reality of the theater around us. Psychologically it is akin to being discovered masturbating. The sadness comes in having to stop too soon, not in having to experience someone else’s death. Our sympathy is for ourselves.

Had that been all there was to Easy Rider, identification with the characters, titillating violence for a minute or two, and then a return to our unexciting lives, it would have compared favorably with Goldfinger or Bullitt, but it wouldn’t have had anything to say. The film is important because Fonda and Hopper enclose within it a comment on both the psychological processes involved in identifying too strongly with a myth, and the dangerous consequences which are in store for one who lives his life inside this myth. The danger is not to be taken literally; it isn’t that the rednecks will shoot us down, although that is one possibility. The danger lies in the destruction of our humanity. Being on our own trip isolates us from one another. When finally no one can recognize the real existence of anyone else, just being alive will be danger enough for all of us.

Fonda and Hopper have left to many clues in Easy Rider for us to miss the point, although none are so obvious that they prevent us from making the emotional identification with Billy and Wyatt that gives the film its power. They are there for us to discover in retrospect. After the film is over it remains to us to separate the myth from the reality; to understand what it is that we’ve felt so deeply.

The first hint of what is really going on in the film is, of course, the title. As Fonda has explained it in interviews, easy rider is Southern slang for a pimp — the only one who doen’t have to pay. Responsibility is the price of freedom, deadness is the price of living in a myth — those are the obvious implications.

Again, it is hard to escape the fact that the road Billy and Wyatt are traveling doesn’t lead where they think it does. Instead of ending in Mardi Gras, it ends in death. A night in jail and the murder of their friend the lawyer were warning enough. There were alternate routes, such as that of the rancher who loaned them his tools and fed them. They were even given outright invitations to try another one. As wrapped up in themselves as they were, they were welcome at the commune, and obviously, to at least the whores in New Orleans, they were attractive. What kept them on the move was not really a quest for freedom — possibly just the opposite.

There are reviewers who have pointed out what appears to be another inconsistency. Although it is Billy and Wyatt who introduce him to pot and give him lectures on the evils of society, the lawyer seems a much more well-rounded character than either of them. Whether or not this was the result of better acting on the part of the man who portrayed him, as reviewers have suggested, is not what is important. His presence in the film serves two purposes. First of all, it shows that Billy and Wyatt’s analysis of society is essentially correct. Society is stultifying, and any man who prizes his self-respect would like to break out of it. Hippies don’t bother the lawyer; he recognizes that they have some good ideas. But he does serve also as a kind of contrast to Billy and Wyatt. He is much more firmly rooted in the world than either of them. He feels no need to style himself “Captain America,” but, as the flying saucer tales shows, he is more creative and alive than the two characters for whom freedom is supposedly a specialty.

There are other indications that Billy and Wyatt have a harder time relating to themselves and others than should be true of free men. Wyatt is rebuffed twice by the leader of the commune — once when they are smoking in the abandoned adobe, and later in the commune when he is trying to ball one of the women. It could happen to anyone, but Wyatt doesn’t understand that. He freaks, just as both of them freak later on acid in the graveyard. Despite the jumbled cutting in the graveyard scene, there is solid evidence that both characters have their share of personal demons.

The key to all these indications that Billy and Wyatt are not what they imagine themselves to be lies in the character of the more introspective of the two, Billy. Wyatt is a kind of Sancho Panza — a man interested only in what he can get. Billy is a little more cautious, a little more aware, and consequently a little more stylized, especially as Fonda plays him. His “we blew it” and the image of the burning bike that intrudes on his thoughts provide the context for not only his withdrawn personality but for all the rest of what happens in Easy Rider as well. He begins bit by bit to become aware of what is wrong, but the film ends before he really gets to the heart of it. The rest of the task in dumped in the lap of the audience, where, in fact, it has lain all along.

For those of us who went to this film just to get stoked up on our own innocence and the evil of rednecks and other oppressors, there are a couple of other scenes that remain to be considered. Neither are acted in the usual sense of the word. The first is hardly more than a couple of seconds long, and appears to have been shot in the streets of New Orleans without any prior planning.

Billy is careening down the street during Mardi Gras with an open bottle in his hand, which, in the spirit of things, he offers to a passing black. The look on that man’s face and his gesture of refusal are enough by themselves to sum up the whole peculiar history of the South. His is the classic double-bind. A drunken white has offered him a drink, a drink which other whites might beat him or worse for accepting. Yet, when he turns it down, he must also keep smiling. Otherwise his refusal might be interpreted as an insult to white generosity, also a dangerous offense. Billy doesn’t understand the black’s behavior and blunders on down the street. He is too busy with his own problems.

The other scene takes place in a southern cafe. All those rednecks trading jokes about how people in their county customarily handle “Yankee queers” were real live rednecks, not actors. They were showing off, of course. The movie people indulged them in a little play-acting, and they enjoyed themselves at it, that’s all. Still, there was no script. Just where in hell did they get that long list of epithets and tortures they were tossing back and forth, I wonder.

At that point in the film everyone should wonder. The boundaries between acting and reality are not clearly drawn in Easy Rider, but neither are they in the world of experience. From the black man’s point of view, there must not seem to have been much difference between the man whose dream prevented him from noticing another’s pain, and one whose dream is to inflict pain. One of the corollaries to the central point made in Easy Rider is that the two dreams lie very close together, and the transition between them is as hard to spot as it is frequent.

If that seems hard to believe, get a copy of the January 21st Rolling Stone and look at the picture of Mick Jagger at Altamont. There he stands, with his high-heeled boots, and his knuckles in his mouth, watching four or five Angels butcher a man on the stage ten feet away. It must have been one hell of a rude awakening for the author of Street FIghting Man, and for the other 300,000 people who were watching, too, for that matter.

It is the same kind of awakening that is previewed for us in Easy Rider, one which awaits every one of us, who, considering ourselves beyond the errors of past times, refuse to pay attention to anything but our own dreams. In the twentieth century, we are all being forced to live outside the law. If there is one thing for us to remember, it is this: to live outside the law, you must be honest. (Anybody can say that.)

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