I’m very late to the Easy Rider party. 48 years late to be exact. But better late than never, as the old phrase goes. I watched this counter-culture classic yesterday after my sister rang me in raptures, having also just watched it for the first time. The film affected me quite a bit in a I just-had-a-profound-moment-of-existential-clarity kind of way, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.
Released in 1969 to immediate critical and commercial success, Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as bikers Wyatt and Billy, and follows their cross-country journey from California to Louisiana en-route to the New Orleans Mardi Gras, but really in pursuit of the ‘real America’.
Apart from being blown away by the incredible soundtrack (Jimi Hendrix Experience, Steppenwolf, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane and many more) and the beautiful cinematography, what really struck a chord with me was the film’s scathing, yet poignant indictment on the political and social climate of the time. Nearly 50 years after its release, this movie and what it represents seems more relevant than ever – especially in this troubling era of Trump’s America. I am not an American citizen, but I am a global citizen with an opinion on the current administration and Leader of the Free World.
In Easy Rider, Wyatt and Billy initially find acceptance with a commune of hippies who are trying to live peacefully, and who just want to grow and harvest simple food for their simple tastes. But after riding off with a goodbye and psychedelic substances in their pockets, the two are denigrated and shunned by some of the people they meet along the way. The fact that Wyatt and Billy ride motorcycles, wear different clothes and have long hair, strikes fear into the hearts of many small-town folk who react with violence when faced with them.
There are many groups thriving these days who spew hate about gay people, immigrants, and anything ‘other’ than a white, Christian, all-American way of living. People are scared of what they don’t understand and of what they can’t relate to, and the ‘other’ is something to be feared and destroyed. Make America Great Again! That hideous, 4 word slogan that will come back to haunt us all. We’ll build a wall to keep the ‘other’ out! Surely this sort of hate is at odds with the fierce American idea of freedom. America, the Land of the Free. But freedom with conditions. Freedom if you fit a certain cultural mould and tow the party line.
But maybe it’s not even about politics. It’s about people and how people treat other people. Newtown is a suburb of Sydney which has always been a haven for the ‘alternative’ scene. Goths, Punks, Mods and Rockers, whatever your vibe, you’ll find it in Newtown. There’s live music, street art and it’s generally a wonderful, vibrant place to be. You could walk down the main drag with bright pink hair and spikes sticking out of your face and no one would bat an eyelid. People accept other people for who they are and that’s a great thing. But last year a trans person was brutally bashed in a pub by a group of men who would never normally be caught dead in Newtown. These guys were only there because it was the only place they could buy a drink so late in the night (this speaks to Sydney’s draconian Lock-out-Laws, but that’s a story for another day). I’m making assumptions here, but I bet those thugs are the sort of people who screech about how lucky we are to live in Australia and how the ANZACs fought and died for our freedom, but yet they put someone in hospital for actually exercising their right to that freedom – the freedom to dress and live as they choose. Surely that’s a slap in the face to the ANZACs? Easy Rider reminded me of that awful incident.
The movie also reinforced my view that apathy and ignorance are two of the worlds biggest killers. It’s as important as ever to question, protest, research, not to swallow what the government peddles hook line and sinker, to read and watch alternative media, and not to be fooled by simplistic, 4 word slogans. I think it’s important to critically engage with politics and to care about the world and people around you, but most importantly, to accept people’s differences with grace and humanity. Also, sometimes I fear I’m becoming intellectually atrophied from years of staring at an iPhone reading pointless snippets of information, and completing Buzzfeed quizzes about “which ramen noodle are you?” (I’m chicken btw). But I’ve only got myself to blame for that.
The standout character in Easy Rider for me was the alcoholic lawyer George Hanson, played by the astonishing Jack Nicholson. Billy and Wyatt make pals with George after he helps them get out of jail for ‘parading without a permit’. George’s off-the-wall personality and searingly concise, yet whiskey-soaked insights into politics and society are truly legendary. The following block of dialogue is, in my humble opinion, the core message of the movie.
George Hanson: You know, this used to be a helluva good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.
Billy: Man, everybody got chicken, that’s what happened. Hey, we can’t even get into like, a second-rate hotel, I mean, a second-rate motel, you dig? They think we’re gonna cut their throat or somethin’. They’re scared, man.
George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.
George Hanson: Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.
Billy: Well, it don’t make ’em runnin’ scared.
George Hanson: No, it makes ’em dangerous. Buh, neh! Neh! Neh! Neh! Swamp!
Word. George wins the game. If you haven’t seen this movie then I implore you to check it out. Dennis Hopper, motorbikes, a journey across the USA, Jimi Hendrix, free love and LSD…what’s not to love? This movie will make you want to stick it to ‘the Man’ by jumping on the next flight to L.A, getting a bike and buggering off. You’ll also want to be best friends with Wyatt, Billy and George.
I could wax lyrical about this movie and what it represents all night, espousing fierce opinions on my palm-oil free soapbox, but as Wyatt said to the Stranger on the Highway before leaving the commune, “I’m hip with time, but I gotta go”.