Memorial Day Biker’s Special
I grew up, small for my age, constantly afraid of the big tough Sicilian kids I’d see hanging out on my way to school. My fear was overblown – the worst that ever happened was some kids threw me in a snow bank. What scared me worse than the kids downtown were bikers, namely the Hell’s Angels. I never saw a biker, let alone an Angel, but must have heard some horror tales about them, because I always had an ear half cocked for the roar of them coming to my house, like locusts in August only a thousand times louder, screeching up in a cloud of exhaust, getting off their bikes and sauntering up, grinning, chains in hand, ready to stomp me as I’d heard they did.
Flash forward to the movie Gimme Shelter. I saw my first Hell’s Angels, but instead of wielding chains, it was pool cues. One of the Angels – who looked just as mean as I had imagined – was whacking some poor spaced out hippie on the head, like swatting a swarm of flies, as though he might knock some sense into that acid-addled brain. Then my favorite band Jefferson Airplane was playing, and my hero the sweet voiced Marty Balin tried to stop an Angel from beating someone and got knocked unconscious for his trouble. Finally the scene of Mick Jagger in the editing room, slowing the film repeatedly to watch one of those bikers stabbing a black man to death.
Roll forward to 1972 and my college band is fresh out of school, poised to be the next Beatles, along with ten thousand other bands. Instead of playing Shea Stadium we’re playing mean dives and juke joints and stinky roadhouses. Many of the patrons are some curious breed, half man and half bear, huge, fat and hairy, who drink lots of beer and flail their arms around, occasionally roaring their approval at the band as they dance. Or not, as they don’t dig our peculiar strain of college boy Rock – part lazy Grateful Dead and part Heidegger (half the band is into him, not generally an index of success in the bar band business). We get fired from all the local places and have to search farther for work. Up in Brattleboro Vermont, setting up for a gig at the Village Barn, I finally get who those bear-like dudes are. Our bass player points to a couple of them, then nods out at the Harleys which line the parking lot. “Those guys are the bar owners. Bikers.” We’re playing a biker bar, have been playing for bikers for the last year. I see the owners go over to the pool table, and pick up the cues, and I flash on Gimme Shelter. But the gig goes OK. They don’t love us. The only really bad moment comes around midnight when there’s a flurry of fists at the edge of the dance floor. Whatever it is, it doesn’t involve us. Or pool cues. We get out of there alive, but we’re out of work again.
Now we look farther, down to Connecticut, where some agent books us into Hard Rock bars. These people no longer just ignore us, but actively hate us. Things are going downhill. Our agent gets us a gig in my namesake city, Manchester, CT., in some club in a strip mall. We start the first set with a slow blues, easing our way into the job the way I’ve seen my idols the Dead do. A big ugly guy comes right up to me as I sing, grinning like a hungry alligator (an ugly one, too), and snarls, “Start boogyin’ right now, or I’m gonna kill you.” I don’t doubt it. I turn right around to the band and yell “Honky Tonk Woman, 1,2,3,4” The rest of the night we play every fast song we know, repeating some. There are a lot of big mean looking guys at the bar, who studiously ignore us, except for my tormentor, who occasionally gives me the evil eye to make sure we’re still rocking.
We reach the end of the last set, more relieved than usual to be done working. The big guys for some reason no longer sit at the bar, so we get a drink before heading home. Around last call there’s some kind of excitement, the guys that were at the bar running in from outside then out again. We ordered a last drink, deciding to wait out whatever storm is raging out in the parking lot. It gets louder out there and some cops come in. Our drummer goes over and asks what’s going on. He comes back looking stricken. “What?” “Someone stabbed somebody in the parking lot. He’s dead.”
We get in the van and ride home, me thinking, biker bars are no places for young sensitive college boys to practice their Art. Shortly after, the band breaks up.
Roll forward to the present and I’m living back in Western Massachusetts after 20 years away. Winter mornings we wake up, listening for something, anything. I say, “It’s quiet out there.” My wife says “Too quiet.” But then it’s spring and the birds wake us, and soon there’s the hum of hummingbirds and buzzing of bees.
Spring where we live seems to stir something in the blood of other creatures too. I hear a sound, like a parody of the bees, that same sound that terrified me in my imagination as a youth. Bikers, coming down my road on the first really nice day, fifty, or even a hundred in a long line, in what is clearly some kind of bikers’ Rite of Spring. (Do they have earbuds? I don’t know, but I doubt they’re listening to Stravinsky.)
They’re old. Old, with gray hair trailing down their backs if they still have any at all. Seems all that beer has had the natural consequence, those beer-bellies turned to general fat. Their “old ladies” mostly don’t ride on the back clutching their men, cause the bikes might tip over.
I’m not afraid of them, but ‘til last year I still didn’t like them. You could say at this point that I was prejudiced, something my mama taught me was always wrong. One day I tried to call my long time accountant in Boston, and heard he was “on vacation, on a bike ride. “Where’d he go?” “Western Canada.” I pictured Lance Armstrong and his crew, thought man, that guy must be in shape, he’s almost old as me. When he got back he called me. “How was the trip?” “Great. In fact me and my buddies are riding out your way – we love that road you live on, ride by there about every weekend. Maybe we’ll stop by.” “You?….” Then I got it. Motorbikes. Motorcycles. My accountant is a biker.
He and his buddies came the next weekend, humming up my driveway with a surprisingly restrained roar. Their bikes were not black, evil Harleys, with skull-and-bones decals, but gleaming machines, in blue, cream and rose, with big luggage compartments, things of beauty. And they weren’t wearing colors. Instead they wore nice road jackets. They spoke in whole sentences, too, seemed smart in fact, just the kind of people I like to hang with. As they left I said in completely sincerity, “Hey, come back, any time!”
Bikers are just like you and me. Their ride is just louder.
So if any of you are bikers and you’re out my way, come in and introduce yourselves and I’ll give you a cup of espresso. Just leave those chains and pool cues at home.