Peter Fonda, maybe the last living icon of the 60s idealism he never let go of, is dead at 79. Lung cancer. The 60s officially died with the Manson murders in August, 1969 but the ideal of free spirits taking the cathartic road to find and immerse in the unknown remained in the background with Peter. He is best known for his paean to “On the road” (Jack Kerouac, 1957) riding custom motorcycles instead of cars. It’s said that vision from motorcycle riding is the closest thing to flying.
“Easy Rider (1969). Two hippies riding custom bikes accumulate a cash stash from a drug deal (Phil Spector) in Southern California, then ride cross-country searching for spiritual truth. On their journey, they experience unexpected bigotry from small-town America and also meet with other travelers, all seeking alternative lifestyles. After a “bad trip” in New Orleans, the two counterculture bikers discover there is no peace and love anywhere in America.
The custom bike Peter rode was a highly modified 1942 Harley-Davidson Police Special. There were actually two made. One for the progress of the film and another to be trashed at the end. The trashed bike was restored and is now on display somewhere in California. The street version disappeared, presumed stolen and now resides in someone’s living room somewhere. It has never been found and probably never will be.
Watching “Easy Rider” is not much of a fun experience anymore. It’s so horribly dated. Virtually all of it ceased to exist many years ago, the film remaining as a hallmark in vintage memorabilia museums somewhere. I have a full size poster, signed by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson hanging on my den wall. I also have an original “Captain America” leather bike jacket with the full size American flag on the back. You can get the jacket still but not the one with the flag. I wear it out on the road now and then. It always generates remarks. (I have included stock photos of both, as I don’t have actual photos of mine at the moment).
“Easy Rider” was not Fonda’s first reach into filmdom (Generated by the family name). He had somewhat limited success starring in other similar films, most notably “The Wild Angels” (1966) directed by Roger Corman. Wild Angels began the biker forum that persisted into the 70s and introduced the “Hell’s Angels” to film. Wild Angels was a pretty crummy second or third-rate film full of gratuitous sex, violence and notably Harley-Davidson motorcycles (ridden by real Hell’s Angels). The Angels were pointed out as authentically “free spirits”, ignoring convention; riding around all day enjoying whatever came. In fact, dealing with the Angels was a risky proposition as they impossible to control, had virtually no respect for anything or anyone and would start fights for virtually no reason.
There have been books written and documentary films produced about the Angels and they are an interesting culture. Perhaps the best was written by Hunter S. Thompson in 1967: Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. Here is a representative clip from that volume:
“They were a bunch of overgrown adolescents,
stuck in their religious mind-set as a way of life.
They defined themselves by their opposition to
any and everything. The strength of their
antagonism was the source of their faith, and
like all holy wars, their greatest enemies and
their greatest source of bloodshed was from
within, battles against rival competing for
bottom of the barrel status.”
The Angels are still around, still wearing their “colors” but not much noticed any more than any other drug dealing gang in Southern California. Peter Fonda never lost his interest in immersing into what remained of the counterculture, even far after it passed into obsolescence. Peter is maybe the last of the true 60s riders into the unknown, never finding more than appearing for a few minutes on a Harley as a guest star in “Wild Hogs” (2007):
“Why do you think I don’t wear the colors, Jack?
Why do you think I ride alone? ‘Cause you don’t
know about it anymore. I think you all oughta get
back on your bikes and go out and ride the highway
until you remember what riding’s all about”.
I suppose his indomitable spirit is out there somewhere doing exactly that.
Peter Henry Fonda (1940 – 2019)