Review of Biker
Truth and Myth: How the Original Cowboy of the Road Became the Easy Rider of the Silver Screen
by Bill Osgerby
The Lyons Press 2005 176 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Visually arresting books about motorcycles usually end up on the coffee table, to be gawked at by visitors, but otherwise functioning as handsome paperweights. Not so with Bill Osgerby’s book, Biker, which combines eye-popping visuals with a broad look at world motorcycling.
Osgerby, a cultural historian and long-time biker, traces the mechanical development of the motorcycle and the image of the biker in the movies, in print, and in music. He then surveys the changing views of women in the motorcycle community, both as supposed ornaments and as motorcyclists themselves. While rooted solidly in American and British biker culture the book looks at the global brotherhood of bikers and the history of biker conflict, both between law enforcement and motorcyclists and among bikers themselves.
Osgerby’s book supplies seldom cited historical information, such as the French Connection: around 1894 “a pair of French pioneers, Comte Albert de Dion and his partner Georges Bouton, developed an engine that made the mass production of motorcycles truly possible. Mounted on a tricycle, the Frenchman’s single-cylinder, four-stroke engine had a capacity of around 125 cc. Dion and Bouton successfully licensed production of their engine in England, Germany, Belgium, and the United States.” Also noted are two exiles in France, Russians Michel and Eugene Werner, whose 1901 “new Werner” frame greatly improved stability.
Osgerby notes that “by the 1920s Japan was a rapidly developing industrial power, but its output of motorcycles was virtually nonexistent. … Facing a slump in US sales, Harley shifted its attention eastward, setting up an import operation in Japan that by the mid-1920s was selling more than 2,000 machines a year.”
In examining movie bikers, the usual suspects (The Wild One, Easy Rider) are trotted out, but Osgerby provides novel and fun information about bikers in print and music. From 1955 to 1966 a number of songs featured bikers and their tortured girlfriends, among them The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” the Risers’ “She’s a Bad Motorcycle,” and, lest we forget, The Shangra-Las’ “The Leader of the Pack.”
The immortal contributions to Fifties literature are also noted, among them The Pack, featuring The Psychos, who “rode their midnight gleaming bikes and loved women hard and fast, and with unquenchable lust.”
Other than Kamikaze Biker, Japanese motorcycle culture is often ignored in English language books, but this one examines the bosozoku, or Speed Tribes of Japan. His account of Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s 1976 documentary God Speed You, Black Emperor had me searching the Net (unsuccessfully) for a copy.
As an inquiry into the “biker mystique,” the book inevitably focuses on Harley-Davidson. However, what makes this book an outstanding value is its artful appearance combined with a comprehensive, investigative look at the image of the biker in popular culture. Read it, leave it out on your table for guests, but dip into it from time to time for a renewed sense of our place in global biker culture. Biker is available through amazon.com for a discounted 19.77.