|Cliff Vaughs ca.1974, on one of his custom-built HD choppers|
|Cliff Vaughs today|
|Cliff Vaughs being dragged by National Guard troops at Cambridge, MD, May 2, 1964. Incredibly, this photo was taken (and c.) by photographer Danny Lyon, whose photo essay of time spent with the Chicago Outlaws MC is documented in his fantastic book 'The Bikeriders'. I look forward to exploring the story of these two 'outlaw' bikers, one black one white, in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.|
"I was working in the News Department at KRLA when Henry Fonda’s son, Peter, was arrested for possession of marijuana. I was mildly amused that so much interest was engendered by the incident, considering the number of citizens detained and incarcerated for smoking “pot".
|Peter Fonda with his father, Henry. It must be the the late 60s; Dad has a paisley shirt.|
He came by a few days later accompanied by Dennis Hopper, whom I hadn’t seen since his performance in “Rebel Without A Cause” with James Dean. We talked and I learned that they [Fonda and Hopper] had been planning to develop a movie that centers on motorcycles. I agreed that the themes of the 'Western' were careworn but an American adventure with the protagonists riding motorcycles instead of horses was apt. We adlibbed a story line: two friends (not quite “bikers”), traveling across America seeking adventure. I offered the name “Easy Rider”, taken from the Mae West performance of “Where Has My Easy Rider Gone”, in the production “She Done Him Wrong”… The title had been an adornment of my house, on the wall; a tapestry with a hidden message sent to me by Susan Mansour, erstwhile friend.
We had several discussions about the project at my home in West Hollywood and agreed that we would have to develop interest in the movie outside my parlor. We were not particularly known well enough to raise interest or financing. Peter and Dennis had a long background in the industry; they would raise the money. I would design and build the motorcycles and develop the visual themes. Captain America and Bucky [Captain America's sidekick], costumes, colors: red-white-blue. I was accorded the title of Associate Producer. We named our company Pando.
|The Captain America comic book, here on a motorcycle with his sidekick, Bucky(c.Marvel)|
There were no African Americans in the film as actors or participants in the production. I didn’t have any contact with the production long after 'ER' was released.
[At that time,] the casualty rates on motorcycle accidents were so high that I asked Peter Fonda for a letter of intent to fund “Not So Easy”, an educational film on how to ride a motorcycle safely. Filmfair financed the film with full support of Harley Davidson. Harley Davidson provided Evel Knievel, who was under contract to them at the time. I had Evel Knievel’s Coliseum jump on film, and a performance by the LAPD motorcycle drill team. Two of my cronies from Hollywood Chosen Few appeared on film: "Rabbit", and “Billy Diamond” (deceased). It was required viewing at judicial traffic school for quite some time.
The [ER] motorcycles were designed and built by me in my back yard. My longtime friend and mentor Mr. Ben Hardy assisted me wholeheartedly. We had met when he taught me how to wire my first motorcycle, a 1947 “knucklehead” in 1961. He had contacts developed over years of repairing motorcycles in his shop on West Florence Ave. Jim Magnera of MC Supply was a valuable asset. He had arranged to act as my agent when Harley Davidson sold me an unnumbered engine (shovel head) which required a new law from the California Legislature. Mr. Magnera was also active in financing the burgeoning black motorcycle enterprise in South Central Los Angeles. Mr. Magnera and Mr.Hardy were instrumental in my relationships with motorcycle specialists in Los Angeles.
|From 'Easy Rider', the 'Captain America' and 'Billy' bikes, built by Cliff Vaughs|
After I had completed the construction of the machines, the registration (pink slip) was in the name of Pando Company. I asked Mr. Hardy to assemble the two disposable motorcycles in his shop. I was simply too busy with the daily task production of 'ER' at the time to complete them at home.
|Ben Hardy on his H-D Panhead|
Mr. Dean Lanza, The Artist: Brilliantly designed my marijuana plant on candy-apple petrol tank. Mr. Larry Hooper, ever a fugitive…the best leather craftsman ever.
Mr. Larry Marcus knows more about tools than anyone.
Mr. Dennis Hopper, Director, underlined my contribution to the production of “Easy Rider”.
There has been a remarkable marketing of “custom motorcycles” since ER.
Items and modifications I worked out with Mr. Hardy et al are now manufactured on a production line. Harley Davidson had “Low Rider“. Innumerable entrepreneurs have made a good living popularizing and promoting the so called “chopper“.
I missed my fifteen minutes of fame…..
Clifford A. Vaughs
Tuesday 29 March, 2011
PS: As an addendum to ER:
The fiery ending is an example of art imitating life. I was riding my "chopper" on the highway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock; pursuing an assignment for SNCC to initiate a school boycott there. I had with me a staff member of the Arkansas Project, a Miss Iris Greenberg. A pickup truck passed us going in the opposite direction; stopped and turned around. They took a shot at us from behind and missed. They didn't pursue us any further...so I lived to tell this tale.
The genesis of Captain America theme may be found in comics of WW II. Captain America had a sidekick named Bucky. Captain America's ride was a motorcycle."
|'Choppers' from May 1969|
“In terms of my own relation with my own motorcycle, it’s the final romantic expression that is left in this country. Obviously the frontier is gone. The cycle is the one thing that you can build from nothing—just a basket, and make something very, very beautiful and really put yourself into it. This goes from a simple question of chrome, to developing new designs, sissy bars, new ways of riding and things like that.”
“Certainly bikes attract a great deal of people who have basically been frustrated in their life. I haven’t been frustrated but I do view my bike as another way of relieving a lot of tension from myself. I have been riding since 1962. I even missed the March on Washington because I was building a chopper. I like my bike and I like Choppers and I’m very concerned about the restrictive legislation that is coming out from most states against the rider. Laws that are trying to keep Choppers off the road, and I think that a Chopper is a typically American expression.”
In “Easy Riders” the cycle is just a vehicle to get around on. It’s like the horse from the old days. What we are basically doing is psychological western. We have two guys who have problems and are into their own bag. They are good friends, they’ve made one big score and are off to Miami to retire. Now in the course of the film a number of things happen to them on their trip. These are things that could happen to a guy if he were driving a car, flying in an airplane or riding on a train—except for the fact that being on a bike—they are more vulnerable to what’s going on.”
|Bikers as modern-day cowboys|
“No Peter and Dennis are very heavy into a lot of cultural things. They are in a position to be very, very socially aware of what’s going on. A lot of bikers just don’t know what’s going on because the whole weight of having to deal with everyday situations or hustling to live precludes any awareness of other problems. I mean, theirs is a hunting and gathering culture. You must remember that most bikers are not in a medium where they can project anything. Even if an average rider went on ”Meet the Press,” he would give the same rap about oppressed bike riders, patriotism, etc.”
He stated that before the film was started he indicated that one of the main things “Easy Riders” should do was break down the whole idea of black and white motorcycle clubs. “Because my investigation showed that white clubs had restrictive clauses and it’s only the blacks that are integrating. The Chosen Few has been integrated for a long period of time.”
|The Chosen Few MC in the late 1960s|
Does Vaughs feel this situation is only confined to the cycle world? Naturally he answers in the negative.
“The cities are still going to burn despite the fact that these black cats stopped to help these white cyclists on the road.”
That baby is reality.'
And a recent addendum, from Peter Fonda himself: after 45 years, in October 2014 Peter gives credit where it has long been due...