Watson On: Simpler Times




Amidst the myriad of books, magazines and films about motorcycles from the 1960s, for me there is one collection of photographs, which was taken for LIFE Magazine, that better define for me that era of motorcycling better than anything else.

I like Ray’s pictures because they perfectly reflect perhaps a simpler time in the U.S. when all you needed was a motorcycle, built by yourself, a full tank of gas and an open road to just go out there and ride.

In the spring of 1965, LIFE Magazine photographer Bill Ray and writer Joe Bride spent a month with the California Berdoo chapter of the Hells Angels with the intention of showing what it was truly like for some people who chose to live and in some cases sleep on their motorcycle.  Back then bikes and motorcycles clubs were regarded with a great deal of suspicion by the authorities and the public who seriously thought they (the riders) were dangerous and a potentially a serious threat to decent U.S. society.

Watson On: Simpler Times

Ray and Bride’s work was never published in LIFE Magazine, perhaps because at the time it was considered by the publishers to be just too inflammatory and so unfathomable to LIFE Magazine’s millions of readers they might as well have pictured aliens from outer space rather than hairy young men on motorcycles. According to the writer Bride the reason was because LIFE Magazine’s editor George Hunt didn’t want to run a piece on  “those smelly bastards.”

But, I find it interesting that Ray’s pictures pre-dates – by almost two years – Hunter Thompson’s best selling book Hell’s Angels, where Hunter writes what he experienced when he rode and lived with the club. For me though Ray’s photographs capture far better what it really was like to ride with a motorcycle on the fringes of society in California during the 1960s.

Watson On: Simpler Times

I have no doubt, when looking at these images, I am seeing them through rose-tinted glasses.  I know nothing about motorcycle clubs, or the people who choose to ride with them, but for me there is definitely something that Ray caught almost 50 years ago that speaks volumes about freedom, the open road and a genuine love of riding motorcycles.

For years these images were forgotten until LIFE Magazine rediscovered them and decided to publish a selection on its web site. The magazine also got back in touch with Ray who told them what it was like to be around the Hells Angels and their motorcycles.

Watson On: Simpler Times

Ray said: “This was a new breed of rebel. They didn’t have jobs, of course. They absolutely despised everything that most Americans value and strive for — stability, security. They rode their bikes, hung out in bars for days at a time, fought with anyone who messed with them. They were self-contained, with their own set of rules, their own code of behavior. It was extraordinary to be around.

“There’s a romance to the idea of the biker on the open road,” said Ray. “It’s similar to the romance that people attach to cowboys and the West which, of course, is totally out of proportion to the reality of riding fences and punching cows. But there’s something impressive about those Harley-Davidsons and bikers heading down the highway.

“You see the myth played out in movies, like Easy Rider, which came out a few years after I photographed the Angels. You know, the trail never ends for the cowboy, and the open road never ends for the Angels. They just ride. Where they’re going hardly matters. It’s not an easy life, but it’s what they choose. It’s theirs. And everyone else can get out of the way or go to hell.”

Before the critics come out and start accusing me of supporting outlaw motorcycle clubs and their alleged illegal activities because I am writing about these photographs, I am doing nothing of the sort.

I believe Ray’s images perfectly capture an important cultural moment during a turbulent time of change in America. I appreciate Ray’s work in 1965 and am just glad that he was there to record a time when riding a motorcycle was a lot less complicated than it is today.

See The Full LIFE Magazine Photo Series Here

  • Nemosufu Namecheck

    Really good article Ezekiel! Pics were fantastic – I always wonder what life would have been like for those guys.

    Those groups were so powerful in image that they may have ruined the publics optic of a motorcyclist in the U.S. to this day. Thoughts?

    • MichaelEhrgott

      Yeah when I tell people I ride a motorcycle I know they immediately picture black leather and harleys instead of aerostitch spacesuits and adv bikes. Lol

      • zedro

        And we all know it’s the Spacemen that are the true modern motorcycling rebels. Patches are for conformists.

      • Piglet2010

        I generally use my lid with furry lynx ears while wearing my hi-viz yellow Roadcrafter and riding my Honda Deauville – about the only thing I could do to be farther away from the MC/biker image would be to ride a maxi-scooter (but then people have asked me if the Deauville is a scooter!).

        • MichaelEhrgott

          My favorite thing is when people come up to me and look at my KTM 950 Adv and say “hey what kind of bike is that?”….uhhhh it says KTM 950 Adventure in huge black letters on both sides. Lol.

          • Piglet2010

            They probably think KTM is the model name and not the marque.

        • Send Margaritas

          Way to rebel against self-respect, manhood, and adulthood all at the same time!

    • http://www.rideapart.com/ Nolan Zandi

      Sorry about the confusion! Our guys were travelling cross country and so the Author was accidentally set as Ezekiel. The author is actually Tim Watson! We got nothing but love for Ezekiel, but credit is where credits due.

      • Nemosufu Namecheck

        Roger – break break….Really good article Tim! Pics were fantastic – I always wonder what life would have been like…………..etc.

        • Davidabl2

          I think the Bill Ray pictures give a pretty good picture of what the life would have been like. As do the pictures in “The Bikeriders”

    • Piglet2010

      I hate being associated with “outlaw” biker culture (which is actually very conformist – conform or be beaten out of the club).

  • MrDefo

    And apparently very affectionate with each other, if the second picture with two guys kissing is an indication.

    • tincantroubadour

      just ‘freaking out the squares’

      • Kyle


      • Davidabl2

        In addition it seems to have been considered an infallible way to identify undercover police agents..who wouldn’t do it. Or so it was believed.

  • Joe_Bob_Einstein

    Great Feature Ezekiel.

  • Blake Bryce

    Great write up!

  • Kyle

    I just finished reading Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Hell’s Angels. Interesting to note how the publicity they received helped determiine how they actually acted.

  • Scott Saunders

    I don’t understand what’s “less complicated” about that time. Was it easier for them to find food and gas? Easier to find a place to sleep? You suggest there was more social pressure against them – that doesn’t sound less complicated? I’m sure any of us could give up our job and home and move to the roads. Everything that’s complicated and scary about that now was surely complicated and scary then.

    • RideaTart

      yeah I think the “complicated” thing could be argued either way. It’s less complicated not to wear a helmet. Until you fall. Then it’s more complicated.

  • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

    I see a lot more young folk than you’d ever see in a group of motorcyclists that size today. Everything else seems about the same.

    • Davidabl2

      Not really, they’d just not be on Harleys (kidding)

      • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

        I live in california. I would honestly love to know where that many young motorcyclists, riding any motorcycle, congregate.

        • Davidabl2

          Sportsbike oriented rides and events (check BayAreaRidersForum)
          Or for the motorcycles as seen in Bill Ray’s pictures (some ARE actually the same motorcycles) http://bornfreeshow.blogspot.com
          At this point several THOUSAND riders are expected at this year’s event…

          • http://krtong.com/ Kr Tong

            Barf is almost exclusively a late thirty to fifty year crowd. Great guys though. I know a lot of folks from there. None of which are near my age.

            • Davidabl2

              Hmm they look like youngsters to me. Point taken though. Given how hard-living the HA must have been in Bill Ray’s day they would have to be about 21 to look thirty…unlike the BARF guys :-) Come to think of it though another large group of younger riders WOULD BE those packs of “stuntaz”that take over the freeways from time to time.

        • Davidabl2

          “I live in california. I would honestly love to know where that many young motorcyclists, riding any motorcycle, congregate.”

          ..Another answer to that question would be: Baltimore!


  • Ayabe

    NIce, thanks for sharing

  • Davidabl2

    “I know nothing about motorcycle clubs, or the people who choose to ride with them, but for me there is definitely something that Ray caught almost 50 years ago that speaks volumes about freedom, the open road and a genuine love of riding motorcycles.”

    But Tim, if i remember correctly you wrote an article once for these pages about a 1% percent guy that you know somewhat. Even granted that it’s now 50yrs later than the era depicted by Bill Ray, you probably DO know more about bike club guys than most people do. Even most motorcyclists.

    While i am by no means an expert on them either I’ve sort-of known a few from that era-and a few now. It’d an interesting to ask some graybeard about how it’s changed between then and now. Reading the interviews at the back of Danny lyons photo book “The Bikeriders” gives a pretty good picture of what it may have been like”in the day” As do the early chapters of a autobiographical novel called “Be Not Content” by the late William J. Craddock. The chapters BEFORE he first took LSD and became a hippy ;-)

    • Piglet2010

      This page has quite a bit of information: http://www.rcvsmc.net/

      • Davidabl2

        How much of it is reliable is another question..some of their info comes verbatim-and unattributed-from wikipedia and a lot of the rest comes without any references at all. I remember seeing that site many years ago,and not much has changed there since.

    • Tim Watson

      I would be lying if I said I was an expert. Never ridden with any clubs – been invited a couple of times – but it’s not the life for me. I know a bit about them and have a pal who is a President of a local chapter – but the deal is we never, ever discuss club business. Bikes yes but nothing else. I’m just an ignorant enthusiast.

      • Davidabl2

        Discussing club business is one thing, discussing what you feel about life can be another.. and you learn a whole lot about anybody by just riding somewhere with them. Even without having to ask any questions about anything.

    • Chris La Rose

      Upvote for the Danny Lyons’ reference – love his work

      • Davidabl2

        It’s classic work.

  • zedro

    The modern motorcycle (corporate) gangs seem to use bikes more as a symbol over a true moto lifestyle. I’m sure there are plenty of true die-hards, but for the most part I doubt it’s the spirit of riding that brings them together. You don’t get in because you really like freedom lovin road trips.

  • Reid

    So how long before we get a HD Street 750 review to rag on? lol

  • Dennis Hightower

    Is anyone else getting Frank & Oak banners? Yeesh… but anyway, compare the aesthetic there with Berdoo Hells Angels…

  • http://www.themotorcycleobsession.com/ Chris Cope

    It’s been a while since I read Thompson’s book but if I remember correctly there is reference to the experiences of Ray and Bride, and the fact they had less than kind things to say about the Angels at the time. The overall feeling I got of that life was of a group of guys who were trapped — through ignorance and low socio-economic status — in a cliché life of “freedom” that involved strict allegiance to the erratic whims of others. The true “simpler time” freedom, I think, comes at the very end of the book, after Thompson has been forcefully rejected by the Angels and he rides out into the night, alone, on a BSA.

  • William Connor

    The simplicity of it is the lack of legislation, no extra fees, gas was cheap, beer was cheaper, and love was free and easy. This is the time before AIDS, before drugs were truly bad, and a bar fight started and ended with two guys being friends. Sure it wasn’t all rose colored and perfect. I just like to imagine a time where laws, rules, and taxes were not everyday news.

  • KC

    I’m not so sure those were “simpler times”. It was an era of boldness, for lack of a better word, to break out of (whatever). I don’t see the glory of “Easy Rider” and the mythology it created. Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. Would these images make the same statement if they portrayed a group of riders on standard, unmodified motorcycles, and the riders in riding gear? Doubtful, yet I’m fairly sure it happened. It just wasn’t sensationalized journalism.

  • di0genes

    If you really want to know more, read this book http://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Rebels.html?id=mgNRMZAg8N4C&redir_esc=y. It was written by an anthropology grad student who joined an outlaw gang in the early 70′s as a research project, it is a great read, and unlike, Hunter Thompson’s Hells Angels (also good) somewhat more factual.

    The thing most authors agree on is that post WWII bikers were part of an overall rebellious youth culture, like the beatniks and the hippies, all wanting something different than the perceived stifling lives of their parent, fewer rules, more freedom, escape from boredom. Just watch an old Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie and you will get what this (my) generation wanted no part of :-)

    One of the ‘values’ that all outlaw bikers had in common was they hated cops with a passion. Cops were the antithesis of the freedom loving bikers, cops were sworn to uphold traditional societal values. Cops hated bikers right back for the same reason, bikers representing the opposite of everything cops stood for. Most bikers were not really full time criminals, but not opposed to breaking any law they chose either. The result of the mutual antipathy is a lot of propaganda from the
    police side alluding that bikers, especially HA, are all professional criminals. Ask yourself, if you are serious about being a professional criminal, are you going to wear a sign on your back advertising it? Most so called ‘outlaw’ bike clubs are legally registered societies, unlike say the mafia, who will tell you they don’t exist.

    • Piglet2010

      I was under the impression that many who joined the MC’s in the late 1940′s and early 1950′s were looking for a replacement for their military service? Significant similarities – male dominance/female exclusion, unit “cohesion”/shared experience, and delegating difficult decisions to authority/having set rules for most situations. Joining a MC is not for independent thinkers/actors.

      • di0genes

        That may have been true in the 1940′s and 50′s but this was 1965, 15 years after Korea and 20 after WWII, Vietnam did not start until December of that year. Young males join up in groups, that is what they do, have always done, whether boy scouts, football teams or 1 percenter bike clubs, another reason cops hate bikers and bikers hate cops, at one level the police, even the army are just another rival gang.

  • Dennis Newman

    I can’t really comment on what 1% life was about back then, but the things that went on to facilitate 1% lifestyle 20 years ago was not so much pure love of motorcycles. The way you romanticise these guys is absurd. Yes, they love motorcycling but they still were not something to aspire to. The money comes form somewhere to buy the gas and beer, and it wasn’t attained by legal ways. They hurt people, stole things, and sold drugs among other activities.
    The way you seem to pine over this comical hipster fantasy land where it’s you and your chopper and the open road is kinda lame sometimes. I know that sounds rude, and I apologize for that. These guys are an important part of motorcycling history, but haven’t we evolved?
    The ones who really have passion for motorcycles aren’t concerned with authenticity or period correctness. They ride the bike that works, not the one that looks the part. They dress in what gets the job done, not what presents an intimidating image. Covering miles, going places, experiencing the ride.
    This wasn’t a less complicated way to motorcycle, it was a way to intimidate people into leaving you alone.

    • Campisi

      “They hurt people, stole things, and sold drugs among other activities.”

      They later cleaned up their act, donning skinny ties and working for HSBC.

      • Dennis Newman

        Or started general contracting companies and charities, you know.

    • Piglet2010

      “The ones who really have passion for motorcycles aren’t concerned with
      authenticity or period correctness. They ride the bike that works, not
      the one that looks the part. They dress in what gets the job done, not
      what presents an intimidating image. Covering miles, going places,
      experiencing the ride.”

      Bike that works but does not look the part: Honda Deauville.

      Dress in what gets the job done, without an intimidating image: Aerostich Roadcrafter.

      Hmmm… :)

      • nick

        So…you have a Honda Deauville and a Roadcrafter?

        • Piglet2010

          How did you guess? ;)

      • DucMan


  • RideaTart

    Just displaying my ignorance of motorcycling history here, but I’m surprised at how small and light those bikes seem to be. When did it become necessary for “outlaws,” whether real or pretend, to ride 700+ lbs of steel.

    • Davidabl2

      We live in the “supersize this” nation. All Harleys seem to have gained considerable weight in the last 45 years or so ;-)
      Plus pretty much all the bikes in the Bill Ray pictures are somewhat stripped down..

  • Heather McCoy

    Having grown up in California in the 60s, I can relate to a lot of the appeal you’re all waxing so poetic about. I had older brothers who built custom choppers in their bedrooms, raced ‘em on Saturday nights, took off in their steel-toed boots and t-shirts, greased back ponytails and hideously fluffy beards…I’m sure this is the “simpler times” notion you’re referring to, which does seem to be captured in these photographs. However, there should be no waxing poetic when it comes to the Hells Angels. Anyone who was old enough to process a cogent thought at the time knows these people stood for nothing and represented nothing, other than an acceptance of sociopathology as a lifestyle. There were guys like my brothers and there were guys in these gangs. They had about as much in common as the Nazis and the Allies.

    • Davidabl2

      “Outlaws” by definition are pretty much not good people. However there’s an immense gray area between the good guys, the more-or-less good guys v.s. the more-or-less bad guys and the 100% bad guys. With, say, the American and British allies being clearly the good guys/more-or-less good guys and the Nazis being the 100% bad guys.. And of course in WWII their were bad guys like Stalin temporarily on our side,the “good” side. And some of the countries forced into or near the axis camp were actually more-or-less-good guys-like the Finns. Coming back to the MC clubs of the 60′s I think it would be oversimplifying to say that they were 100% bad 100% of the time. And that non-club chopper guys were 100% good 100% of the time..Since there’s always been outlaw aspects to motorcycle culture. Even before Hollister in ’48 and movies like “The Wild One”