Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Book Report: Soul On Bikes

I don't know about you, but every once in a while I get sick and tired of politics. This happened to me a couple of days ago and I decided to read a book just for fun. Reading for fun? What a concept! The Book I chose was one that's been sitting on my coffee table for six months waiting patiently for the election to be over so I'd have some time. The book is "Soul On Bikes; The East Bay Dragons MC And The Black Biker Set" by Tobie Gene Levingston with Keith and Kent Zimmermann, foreward by Ralph "Sonny" Barger (founder and long-time President of the Oakland Hell's Angels).

I wanted to read this book for a number of reasons. I know a lot about motorcycles and riders, but very little about the black biker scene. The few dealings I've had over the years with black riders and clubs have been positive and downright enjoyable. Also, I actually knew one of the Dragons a buncha years ago. More on that later. Last, but not least, the book was on sale, and I'm a sucker for that.

An enjoyable read with no politics. At last.

This book is basically the life story of Mr. Levingston, from his boyhood in Louisiana through 'til the present. He is now 70 years old and going strong.

The second chapter, about Mr. Levingston's upbringing in northeast Louisiania as a sharecropper, one of twelve children, is worth the price of the book all by itself. One memorable passage tells how the only time he got an afternoon off from plowing to go fishing was the day his mule died while he was at dinner! I've wished for similar.

He moved to Oakland, California as a young man in the mid-fifties and got active in the East Bay scene, forming the Dragons Car Club. They tried a mixed-race policy, but the one white boy in the club was such an asshole that, when he left, they decided to go all-black. After one memorable incident, the Dragons had to lay low for a while and re-emerged some time later as the East Bay Dragons, an all-black, all Harley-Davidson, motorcycle club. No dressers for these guys either. They built and rode choppers, which was unusual for black riders at the time, 1959.
"You could describe us as a premiere, all-American, West Coast, California MC. All black, all Harley. And damned proud on all counts."

These are rough-and-tumble type guys, no shrinking violets. A quote that I am sure even some of us old farts can relate to:
"I don't normally pick fights, but man, if someone pushes me the wrong way, then it's on."

From this point on, the book describes the Dragons' lifestyle, bike runs, their involvement in drag racing, fights, and their relationships with other motorcycle clubs, black (Star Riders MC, Rattlers MC), white (Hell's Angels MC, Gypsy Jokers MC), and indifferent (Chosen Few MC). Also their ups and downs as a club and individuals, and the growth and maturing process over the years that we all go through.

The 1960's in the Bay Area of Northern California was an interesting time, in the sense of the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times", and the Dragons were right in the middle of it. There were hippies and a jazz and rock n' roll scene in San Francisco, the Free Speech and Anti-War student revolution in Berkeley (Berserkley, to some of us), and Outlaw Bikers in Oakland. There were drugs everywhere, which, if you can remember it, fueled all this shit nicely.

The sixties were the high-water mark for California's outlaw bike clubs. There was public fear and loathing of them, completely out of proportion to the threat they actually posed, which is detailed elsewhere as to the over-reaction of the state Attorney General and law enforcement. I won't go into it here. There's about twenty movies you can rent, none of which helped. Or were in any way factual, but that's showbiz. The Dragons were not an outlaw club per se, but since they rode Harley-Davidson choppers and wore cutoff Levi jackets with a flaming big patch on the back, the distinction was lost on the man in the street.

The author recounts an incident when, on a run to L.A., they stopped in some little tank town for gas and were confronted by a mob of armed, angry white men. Something to do with 50 Negro chopper riders at your one-pump gas station, I think. The lady who ran the cafe said she never sold as many burgers as when the Dragons came to town. The Highway Patrol arrived, and defused the incident by clearing US 99 for about fifty miles and telling the Dragons to "Get on the highway and go balls out. You won't be hassled." Good solution. The Dragons liked it, cuz it's fun to go 100mph in formation and not get a ticket. Those days are long gone.

On the societal transformation that was taking place, Mr. Levingston tells about the Dragons' relationship with Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, and their involvement with the growing cultural awareness of the black community. Also, the confusion amongst the (white) public and police that any black man wearing a leather jacket was a Panther ready for a shootout. He describes a traffic stop:
"Look here. It says 'East Bay Dragons'. Don't say nothing about no Panthers."

Later on, the author describes the awful eighties, when cocaine was king, and the effect it had on the black community and the Dragons. He mentions Reagan and the CIA in the same sentence as wondering how the crack got into the black community in the first place.

No politics in this book. Nope. I wouldn't have any of that. No siree, Bob.

I mentioned earlier that I knew one of the Dragons. His name was 'Bags'. In the early eighties I worked at Harley-Davidson of Reno and Bags was a customer. More of a 'friend of the shop' actually. He would come into the service department and shoot the shit, but never had any work done. He was all-Harley, all the way, and an Ace Wrench in his own right. He didn't need us, but we all became friends due to our common interest in Harley-Davidsons. We used to eat lunch sometimes at a really decent BBQ joint that he owned in Sparks. When I got the book, I thumbed through it and, on the very first page that opened, there was Bags' picture. I thought that was cool and set the book down to read later. Six months later, as it turned out. In the book, I learned Bags' real name for the first time: Albert Norman Jr. At the end of the book I also learned that Bags had died in a bike wreck while on his way to Reno for a rally in 1999. Even though I hadn't seen Bags in nearly twenty years, that was a strange feeling.

This is an excellent book, written in a conversational style with considerable black and down-home idiom. I got so into it that I read its 260pp in one sitting, allowing for bathroom breaks and ice tea refills, of course. While it appeals primarily to motorcyclists, there is a strong socio-historical and cultural and anthropological tone to it. I highly recommend it. You can get it from the Big A for less than cover price. It is a worthwhile addition to any thinking person's library and a damn good read. Lotsa pictures, too.

Ride Free, Brother Bags.

1 comment:

BadTux said...

Yeah, finding out that someone you knew died years ago is a funny feeling. Almost makes a guy feel ashamed. A guy who was one of my best friends in college was talking to me about retiring to Mexico. He lived in Louisiana, I live here. I didn't talk to him for another six months, then found out that he'd gone silent key (ham radio for died), just keeled over with a massive heart attack the day after he retired from the State, just a few months after I last talked to him. Goddamn, the universe sucks sometimes.