By Dave Walters
Man, I tell you what. I love this life. I love the history. I love how thick it is. Some Days, certain places, certain people, its like you can just feel it around you. You can feel the greatness of it, the history you are apart of, you can just feel yourself immersed in it. Perhaps, apart from the love felt in the Brotherhood, it is the greatest aspect of the Motorcycle Club world.
When I write, I want you to be able to taste it like a smear of 20W50 left on your fingers. When we talk about legends, stories, or historic places and facts, i want you to feel it like you’re there. I want to be in that garage in 1903, I want to be in Springfield Mass circa 1901 getting yelled at by George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom. I want to see George Eller in Yonkers. I want to be in London in 1901 for the first official Motorcycle Club. I want to see Floyd ripping up that hill, i want to see Wino half drunk ripping onto the track bashing through the gate. I want to see Tiny fighting off those cops to get a piece of the anti-war protesters in Berkeley. I want to be there the moment that famous picture of Cal and Funny Sonny riding 2-up was taken. The different eras that have shaped this culture will always attract me.
What we think about when we think of the explosion in popularity, notoriety, infamy, Brotherhood and Clubs, comes directly from the early and late 60s. So many of the larger Clubs we know today got their start, or even re-birth, in this era. It was a time when we saw a dramatic shift from the more mom and pop racing and field games aspects of the 30s and 40s, to a more secretive and secluded era the 60s would usher in.
Hunter S Thompson, Jim “Flash 1%er” Miteff. Hell, even the Lynch report, all make-up some of the best known writings about bikers from the 60s ( I would say that the Lynch report was the most fiction out of anything ever written on bikers……) Someone i wanted to write about and that i’ve mentioned before, is Danny Lyon. Danny Lyon would write a book most of us have probably heard about, even if you haven’t yet read it. It was called the Bikeriders. It was made up of photographs, writings, and stories from Lyon’s association with the Outlaws Motorcycle Club from 1962 to 1967 including almost 4 years as a full-patched member.
What i like about this, is wondering if Jim Miteff and Lyon ever knew of each other or met? Did they know of each others work? DId Jim even know at this time what his photos would go on to become? Jim’s time around the club starts pretty close to a year after Lyons finishes his project and steps away from the Club to pursue other photographic journalism opportunities. What we’re left with is two guys who covered the beauty of this life like nobody had before them, and really something that is still the standard bearer today. For them to come within such a close time frame of each other, and have never known of each others work is blows my mind. Oh, Speaking of Thompson, Lyon went to him for advice on his project and is quoted in LA magazine as saying “ I didn’t care for Thompson. I didn’t like his response when i asked for advice. He told me not to do it, and wear a helmet. So i joined the club and seldom wore a helmet”.
Danny Lyon was born in 1942 in Brooklyn New York. He would become a photographic journalist in what is called “New Journalism”, which means the photographer becomes immersed in and becomes a part of what he is documenting. After graduating High School in Queens, he went to College at the University of Chicago, graduating in 1962. While he was a student he would become a part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I hope that sounds familiar, if it does, that’s because it was a part of the piece I wrote on Cliff Vaughs of the Chosen Few MC. Hope ya’ll were paying attention haha. Lyon and Cliff Vaughs actually knew of each other and participated in Civil Rights activities together. The famous picture that i posted of Cliff being pulled in about 5 different directions by his legs, shirtless, was taken by Danny Lyon.
Lyon would be present at almost all of the major historical events of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962 he would also publish his first works called “The Movement”. This was a documentary book about the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern United States. After publishing his photographs and stories from his time with the Outlaws MC in ‘68 he would go on to hold many prominent positions for photojournalism departments. He would also publish “Conversations with the Dead” about life in the Texas Department of Corrections in 1971. He says he wanted to show the distressing reality of life in the prison system. This is the theme throughout all of Lyon’s work. He puts you next to the subjects he is covering. He brings a closeness, a sense of candor and respect for them and the universal desire for justice and freedom. When talking about “The Bikeriders”, Lyon says “I wanted to record and glorify the life of the American Biker. People would come up to me and say I thought you were a biker that went to prison, or i thought you were black. These were compliments to me”.
Today Lyons lives in New Mexico and Maine. His work continues to be published and re-published. He is featured in Modern Art museums across the globe and his most recent work includes 4 decades of photos and essays. In 1962 though, he was a young kid, soon to graduate college, finishing up his works on the Civil Rights movement and tinkering with his Triumph TR6 in a garage. He says “ Jack was working on my bike, we were friends, so i said, do you know a Motorcycle Club in the area, I want to do some photos of them. He says I am a member of a club called the Chicago Outlaws, why don’t you come to a meeting. So I go to a meeting, and then I probated to become a member. I loved being a Chicago Outlaw. That was among the happiest experiences of my life”.
Bikeriders would come from Lyon’s experiences riding with the Chicago Outlaws MC from very late 1962 to 1967. Lyon’s time with the club would come during some historic changes not only within his own club, but within the Motorcycle Club world that we know today. Lyon’s probably didn’t have a hand in, and may not even have been present for some of the events, but just within his time he would see the Outlaws MC become an official member of the 1%er Brotherhood of Clubs in 1963. In 1964 he would have been present for the “Gipsy Outlaws” from Milwaukee joining the club along with “Gypsy Outlaws” from Louisville, forming the “Outlaw Nation”. In 1965 he would have learned of the branding of the American Outlaws Association (AOA), and he would have heard the name “Charlie” for the first time. The historic events that Lyon was on the front steps for, are what makes his pictures so timeless. Before his work, much of what was known or seen about Clubs came from B movies, or the press, it came from out West.
Lyon has often said he doesn’t want the Clubs sensationalized the way he feels the “straight press” does. He said words like Gangs, or Cycle Hoods ( common in the 60s and 70s) make him cringe. To him, the life was beautiful. He wrote that he wanted his photographs to be stronger and more truthful than LIFE Magazine. He wanted them to destroy LIFE Magazine. He’ll tell you about the 1966 article in the Chicago Tribune that ran down the “Cork” an Outlaws Clubhouse outside Chicago that the Cops sought to close. He’ll tell you about Grand and Division neon street signs. Andy drinking Hamm’s Longnecks at the “Stoplight” in Cicero or a waitress wearing an “I like Sex” button. He’ll tell you about ‘Cooling his Pipes” which meant getting a drink. He’ll tell you about Johnny, President of the Outlaws (at that time) , describing the huge floral pieces for each members funerals, and the sadness in his voice as he talked about wrecks, or even an unfortunate suicide. Danny can tell you about the races, the field meets, the runs, the people and even the hillclimbs. Regarding the Hillclimbs, read the description of one in Wisconsin, found in his book – “This guy goes over and takes about four good swallows of wine. He gets sick right away. Instant. Pukes it all out. He makes it though. Wipes his mouth off, shows a little class, wipes it on his pants. This was a little Honda guy, helmet, everything. Down the hill he goes. He’s comin up the hill and he’s going good, he’s looking good. He’s coming up like crazy on that Honda. He doesn’t realize though, he’s going the wrong direction. He’s headed for a cliff. He jumps and gives it gas and over the cliff he goes. Messed his whole bike and never came back”…… You know what, that’s a pretty good story to leave it at.
Think about, what Danny Lyon meant to the 60s. The events he was on the frontlines for. The historic shifts in different cultures that he was a part of. I hope you enjoy reading this, and get even a 1/10th of an idea what he must have felt.