How Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider epitomised a sense of delirious ’60s freedom

Aug 28, 2019
Dennis Hopper, left, and Peter Fonda in a scene from the movie 'Easy Rider'. Source: Getty Images

My mother was a great one for pithy little sayings. It didn’t matter what she was talking about, it was remarkable how she could encapsulate quite a lengthy or complex argument into a rhythmic patter of half a dozen or so words. I suppose it was some sort of shorthand for her but one cannot deny that in her terse manner, it conveyed exactly what she wanted to convey.

One little maxim that always impressed, for its graphic description more than anything, was her stern admonition, “Never throw the baby out with the bathwater”. From a very early age, my hyperactive mind would try to imagine the notable scene, which (pardon the pun) gave birth to this figure of speech. Whatever way I looked at it, it never seemed quite nice. Or tasteful, for that matter.

It was hardly any wonder that this figure of speech came back to me recently when my attention had been drawn to another notable death, that of counter-culture icon Peter Fonda. There are those of us who still like to say where they were when JFK was assassinated or Gough Whitlam was sacked, but in my little corner of the 1960s, we like to measure ourselves by how many times we saw the 1969 road epic Easy Rider.

Now there will be some bull**** artists who claim to have seen it possibly 28 times (my mother’s record for watching the filmed version of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier), or the real egotists might say they refused to see it even once. Now I can state, categorically for the record, that I saw it 11 times.

Having grown up in the ’50s, with all its bowing and scraping before Bob Menzies and pop-up toasters and hula-hoops and the rest of that cobwebbed junk, I wouldn’t be Robinson Crusoe in claiming that the ’60s were the breath of fresh air that a huddling little outpost on the other side of the world needed if it were to be anything more than a cowflap on someone else’s boot.

Nothing epitomised that sense of delirious freedom and the throwing off of all the old constraints and constrictions more than Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider. I don’t care that a revisiting of the cult movie through the lens of our glitzy digital present is embarrassing for its naivety, even excruciatingly so, but at the time it represented a repudiation of all the strait-jackets that ‘they’ had been trying to force us into since birth. Or so it seemed.

Thus, when Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson ruminates that while his fellow citizens might proclaim passionately their belief in ‘freedom’, only a fool would take them at their word and try to live it, we knew who ‘they’ were and what they meant. But, ironically, in a very real way we have perversely lived ‘freedom’ for the last 50 years. Which prompts a rather interesting thought.

The world we Baby Boomers grew up in had more to it than facetious references to Bob Menzies, pop-up toasters and hula-hoops; it had a degree of social cohesion that seems unimaginable today. It wasn’t monolithic, by any means, but within the various streams of life and experience that constituted the whole, there was a general sense that life at dusk would be much the same as life at dawn, and life at death would be much like the life we found at birth.

It was, in short, a society where most had their place, more or less, and the big things functioned rather like a powerful river. Always flowing to the sea while only occasionally breaking its banks. Yet, I suppose it was the rejection of an ordered, predictable society that gave Easy Rider its appeal, the appeal of an alluring, crystal-clear pool away from the overpowering mainstream, an eddy where we could lounge back and be ourselves free of all the wagging fingers we’d grown up with. In short, the world of Easy Rider was a world that discovered the idea of ‘me’.

Less than 20 years after Easy Rider, Margaret Thatcher made a remarkable speech in Scotland where she poured scorn on the notion of ‘society’. As far as the Iron Lady was concerned there were only individuals, families and nation-states, so the conclusion one must reach is that to her, loyalty or empathy or sympathy for others beyond our immediate environs is an idea so repugnant that it deserves to be buried in the driest earth we/she can find.

At the time, this speech caused a furore but one thing you can say about Mrs Thatcher is that she definitely told it as it was (to quote that pithy pearl of the ’60s) because wherever I look I see very little loyalty, empathy or sympathy for anyone who does not sit within a framework we are personally familiar with. In other words, if we don’t recognise them they don’t even exist.

Yet I wonder, as the storm clouds of recession and big-power manoeuvring darken our horizons, how will we, as individuals, families and nations, cope with the unknown, if we have no capacity to reach out to, understand and embrace those whose different lives we refuse to accept as being just as legitimate as our own. It’s a scary thought about being on your own in the kind of world that Donald Trump and Xi Jinping seem hell-bent on forcing on us.

I close with the thought that as Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and the execrable Dennis Hopper) roared across Arizona on their Harleys with Steppenwolf blasting in our ears, was their journey far more ambiguous than it seemed at the time? Was theirs a quest for Nirvana on the blacktop but which joined the dots, instead, from pop-up toasters through the Iron Lady to a selfish libertarianism which, ultimately, is freedom for only those who can pay for it. From the discovery of ‘me’ to the ugliness of ME, ME, ME.

Did we, did I, throw the baby out with the bathwater? Time will tell.

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