Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Aesthetic of the Hells Angels: Part 1.

These amazing photos of the mid 60s-era Hells Angels in San Bernardino, California were taken by photographer Bill Ray for Life Magazine in 1965.  

Ray followed them on the highway, to dive bars for drunken debaucheries and pow-wows and documented everything from their scowls to goofy grins, glazed eyes, far-away expressions, passionate lip locks, laughter, on-the-fly motorcycle repair, cool boredom, run-ins, peel outs, and arrests.  The Angels and their 'old ladies', as their tough chicks were lovingly dubbed, prided themselves on their nomadic outsider status but still were open enough to allow a pretty straight looking young photographer  to document their intimate goings-on.  But Ray was not only a documentarian/photographer, he lived as an Angel, becoming part of their crew, their joys, their revelry, and even, on one occasion, facing the hazards of Angel life when he was beat up by one member, landing Ray in the hospital.

One of the things I love most about these photos is the distinct mid-60s biker look that reminds me of the 60s girl group scene (a la The Shangri-las) and the burgeoning hippie scene that had barely started by '65.  The Shangri-la's music, for example, is laden with references to 'bad girl' branded chicks, teen runaways, outsider lone-wolf heros, and troubled young men who are all attracted to the sense of freedom symbolized by motorcycles and the cool edge of toughness surrounding them like a black leather jacket.   This iconic motorcycle gang chapter, San Berdoo, started in 1953, and there's no question that the freewheeling, tough motorcycle youth influenced the pack of 50s-60s movies and music referencing their lifestyle and clothing.  In reality, biker gear came about from functionality more than style:  Leather provides resistance against the road to protect your skin when in an accident, boots and gloves are necessary for protection against the tough terrain, black sunglasses for riding toward the sun, and the more hair and beard you have the better for shielding your face from the 60 mph + winds of the highway.   The chicks were low-maintenance while maintaining a signature look:  Bleach blonde or jet black tresses preferred, lots of black and white, ever-present headscarfs took keep their hair out of their face on the road, under the scarf lay bouffants beehives and bangs-- teased and sprayed, slim pegged denim, boyfriend's leather jacket, and black eyeliner shield by dark glasses.  Their looks weren't polished or precious, they sport blemishes and wear food stained, wind chapped jackets without a second thought.  Metal hair clips kept their hairdos in place as much as possible in the high winds and eyebrows were sculpted with a razor on-the-go looking into rear view mirrors.  As the cool, outsider gangs took up this distinctive dress, and were immortalized by movies like The Wild One, speeding like tough gothic gypsies down the highway from town to town, the Angels gained a mystique that even bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles couldn't resist  (the Rolling Stones let them police their Altamont concert, ending in tragedy, and the Beatles let them crash for a month at Apple Offices when they came to England.)  

Although the photos show equally spirited and detached girls and guys, everything wasn't so egalitarian within the Angels.  The Old Ladies were often teen runaways or young 20 somethings that took up with the Angels and rode behind them on the seat from town to town as a member only by association.  The girls were categorized according to their role with the men:  "Old Ladies" were loyal broads that were committed to one member of the gang only... they were viewed as a wife and mother image, property to their specific member of the gang, but the "Mamas" were community property-- they gave themselves freely to any member when and where he chooses, they were considered more like groupies.  Regardless, all these chicks were tough and their appearances were speeding ahead years in front of their real age.  Bill Ray noted in his book that the hard life on the road took a toll on the Angels and their women, but the girls were game for all the fast living being part of the Angels could offer.  Biker gangs were 'kings of the road' and lost girls seeking the thrill of the highway flocked to them.  They took their pick of the bunch and dictated to the girls how it would be when she signed on with the crew.  So, while the girls in the photos look defiant and independent as equal members, within the Angels they were certainly second-class citizens and took their cues from the boys' book of rules.  

While, sadly, the story didn't get published in Life after all, the photo series remains an iconic shoot documenting early Hells Angels and biker culture, and Ray has self-published his book of photos and descriptions which you can find HERE.  


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