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Studying the Harley-Davidson Tribesmen

Omni: How can a person bond with a motorcycle?

Wolf: A biker has learned to find both meaning and pleasure in the man-machine relationship. He uses his motorcycle to create peak emotional experiences that are worth living for. Wee Albert says when he gets to the plant in the morning he locks his colors — his Rebel patch on a jacket or jean vest — in his locker. “Then I do what I’m told for the next eight to ten hours. I repair fittings and replace pipe. Clayton calls it, ‘turd herding.’ But when that shift’s over, fuck it! I ride away. I do what I want to do. I say what I want. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the real me.” For guys like Wee Albert, free time spent as a biker involves spiritual rebirth. It provides sanctuary for his identity.

Omni: And the Harley is essential to that sanctuary?

Wolf: Voodoo said it best: “It’s my bike. It’s my dream. There’s little else that’s important to me.”

Omni: As you pointed out, a traditional anthropologist studies the Maori tribesmen, for example. But here you’re studying white people from North America.

Wolf: They’re Harley tribesmen! As a matter of fact, there’s an outlaw club called the Tribesmen. Maybe I should’ve studied them! All the groups I’m interested in — including street gangs — are voluntary associations. Any male has the potential of joining an outlaw motorcycle club. All he has to do is go through the preliminary rituals of having a bike, being a biker, and having a particular attitude. That’s what the striking process is about. Most clubs take a full three years for the striking process. They’re in no hurry. During that period they can watch an individual to see what kinds of social adjustments he’s able to make, whether he’s committed, how he reacts in different situations. It’s not sufficient to just take someone off the street and say, “Well, he rides a Harley-Davidson; he’s chopped the bike.”

Omni: So when I go to see a bad movie where, say, Brian Bosworth playing the tough cop who infiltrates the outlaw bike club, appears at the bar and just shows he’s good with his dukes, and the club says, “Okay, you’re with us” — that doesn’t happen?

Wolf: Of course not! Being able to fight is a quality that could be useful, but it’s like a cannon. Can it be controlled? Will he use it under the right circumstances? Will he be responsible for his misactions? A Rebel must not use his colors just for an ego trip. We had an individual named Jesse striking for the Rebels. Someone in the bar would accidentally bump into him and say, “Gee, I’m sorry,” and Jesse would take this guy by the neck and stretch his neck muscles out about six inches and slam his fist into him. You don’t need that, because it takes a long time for this club to establish a relationship with the bar owners and bouncers. The club had spent months negotiating with the bar manager to be able to drink there and put their tables together at the corner of the bar, with their backs against the wall so they can watch the rest of the club. And Jesse, who had tremendous martial arts skills and could be an asset under certain circumstances, destroyed all that. They lost the privilege of drinking there, and that was one of their favorite bars.

Omni: Is there a higher value placed on passive toughness — being able to take it?

Wolf: Oh, yeah. Being pulled over by the cops and hassled is part of the territory. So this individual, Jesse, would get lippy with the cop, and it would mean we’d be there for six hours, going through strip searches and three-hour identifications.

Omni: When Kurt Vonnegut went to graduate school in anthropology at the University of Chicago after World War II, he observed that humans were happiest in small tribes and advanced civilization has actually robbed us of that. He viewed many associations as an indirect attempt to get back to this tribal feeling. Is that something driving these bike gangs?

Wolf: Well, they create what Vonnegut said was missing. The larger an organization, the more centralized the control. That takes decision-making away from people. They become isolated from themselves, from others, and from the structures that control them. The clubs act like a leverage against this alienation. The clubs give them personal values, a sense of community and an organization that transcends them. And they’re integrated into the group in much the same sense that a tribe is integrated. Biker image is such a powerful thing for them; it carries over into anything else they do, whether it’s going to McDonald’s or doing the laundry.

Omni: But isn’t it a curious phenomenon to have a group cohesiveness based on loyalty to a particular brand of motorcycle — a loyalty that isn’t reciprocated in any way?

Wolf: The loyalty is used by the Harley-Davidson company. They know it’s a great marketing device. And by retooling the image, they now have this new market, with your Rich Urban Bikers (RUBs). And they never acknowledge the “outlaw” element in it.

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