A thorough, academic cultural history of the motorcycle and its riders since the second world war.
McBee (History/Texas Tech Univ.; Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure Among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States, 2000) has done his homework—and then some. He appears to have read every article, every letter to the editor of every general interest and motorcycle magazine published in decades, and he’s studied the relevant films (The Wild One, Easy Rider, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and others), novels, essays, TV shows, and popular music. The author deals with issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and politics, showing how they have affected (and been affected by) the motorcycle world. He teaches us about Harleys, choppers, and the imports (Honda, Kawasaki, and others), and he even delves into some linguistic history, writing about the origins of the words “honky” and “greaser.” McBee analyzes motorcyclists’ move to the political right, a move animated in part by their battles against required protective helmets. He reports that the infamous 1988 “Willie Horton” political ad got a preview at a biker gathering before being released to the general public. Among the most interesting sections are those dealing with the changing biker image and attire, the rise of middle-class recreational bikers, and McBee’s ongoing analyses of a general public fear of bikers. He offers surprisingly little about some notorious events—e.g., the 1969 Altamont violence at the Rolling Stone concert—although he does make certain we know that Meredith Hunter, a black man the Hells Angels killed that day, was clearly carrying a firearm. McBee’s text is academic in tone, texture, and organization. There are introductions, conclusions, and summaries—these are features of every chapter—and his text features thick paragraphs, lots of quotations, and an engaged but impersonal voice.
A dynamite subject whose explosions are somewhat muted by the generally dispassionate tenor of the text.