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Requiem for an Easy Rider

Countercultural style is a form of political resistance.

Jeremy Russell

Issue #54, March 2001

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves to be like other people.
— Arthur Schopenhauer

There is a scene in Easy Rider when Jack Nicholson, stoned out of his mind both in the movie and, it was later revealed, in reality, remarks that people in America talk a great deal about individual freedoms, but when they see a free person "it's gonna scare 'em."

"Well, not running scared," replies Billy (Dennis Hopper).

"No," says Nicholson, who plays an ACLU lawyer in the film, "it makes 'em dangerous." And his point is proved later that night in spades when his character has his head beaten in. The attackers are played, without irony, by some locals — one of them was even the town sheriff — who were asked to play themselves in the movie. These guys were more than happy to caricature their hatred on camera, rattling off an endless stream of sickening insults at the "long-hairs." Later their ilk would be heard clapping in Southern movie theaters when the film's main characters, two 'freaks' from the late-60s L.A. drug scene played by Hopper and Peter Fonda, are murdered by a pair of backwoods cretins (also played by non-actors, volunteers selected from among the Louisiana locals).

Nicholson's assessment that their freedom is what generates the enmity they experience is quite poetic and even rings true. However, the question of their freedom is almost a side issue to the real concerns of the provincial thugs, who are most strongly triggered by their outlandish costuming and the fact that the characters are strangers, out-of-towners. My experience growing up in backwoods Idaho tells me that if Hopper's and Fonda's characters had been represented as clean-cut, they most likely would have been ignored. Locals, with a history in the area and family or friends to look out for them, might still have been harassed for such outfits, but the chances of serious assault would have been diminished.


If their appearance trumps their stranger status, it is not because it signifies freedom, but because it signals that they belong to a recognizable counterculture. In fact, Nicholson's poetic freedom speech can be understood as an endorsement of the values of that counterculture. It appropriates the popular American ideal of freedom to advertise the so-called freewheeling lifestyle. Patrick Henry's nationalist cry, "Give me liberty or give me death," takes on a very different meaning in the context of Easy Rider. The hippie characters' conception of freedom leads to their shocking appearance and to their choice to be drifters, and hence strangers. They are empowering themselves through symbols that tweak the noses of the establishment. Their looks, especially Peter Fonda's American flag chopper and leather jacket, are as much a 'fuck you' as any middle finger.

They call their style "freedom," but more so it is a kind of semiotic warfare, wherein they reveal their rejection of the values of society through dress-up. Dick Hebdige skillfully outlined the parameters of this type of symbolic struggle in his 1979 book of cultural criticism Subculture: The Meaning of Style. He concluded that the voluntary assumption of outcast status is a means for the disempowered to obliquely challenge through style the cultural hegemony which oppresses them. "Subcultures," he wrote, and here I would substitute the word counterculture, because I don't think he meant to include runners or comic book collectors, "are therefore expressive forms but what they express is, in the last instance, a fundamental tension between those in power and those condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives." Countercultural style is a form of political resistance.

Easy Rider is both a glamorization of the '60s counterculture and a cautionary tale about it. In the film Requiem for a Dream, released last October, we see much the same story, but without the same ambivalence. The glamour is gone. Requiem's central characters are also big city drug dealers who want personal liberty, but they have no idealistic notions about freedom, and they are unremarkably dressed. They just want to keep doing drugs and making bucks. Although they are part of a recognized subculture of drug users and addicts, their subculture is underground. In fact, the underground is itself a defined countercultural space, and no group is deeper underground than those who rebel in mind only — which is where this group is happiest.

For these agitators, their countercultural cred comes from illicit and powerful substances instead of satorial symbols. A scene in Requiem perfectly illustrates this strategy of rebellion, and its power and its limitations. The main characters are sitting at a food counter talking about their plans to sell drugs when a policeman comes up. Harry (Jared Leto) suddenly steals the policeman's pistol from its holster and then he and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) play catch with the gun. This scenario is then revealed as a drug-induced hallucination when the food server asks Harry if he wants anything else. He wakes from his nod, shrinks from the suspicious gaze of the policeman, and he and Tyrone flee.

requiem for a dream Later, they are forced into the black market drug economy by their growing addictions and lack of legitimate work. As in Easy Rider, they buy their freedom by selling drugs. This freedom, however, proves even more elusory for them than it did for Easy Rider's protagonists, when the supply of dope dries up unexpectedly.

The conclusion of Requiem, when contrasted with the climax of Easy Rider, reveals both the invisibility of the drug subculture and the extent to which it has upset the forces of decency. When normal-looking Harry and Tyrone stop in at an unnamed city on their way from New York to Florida to score, they are at first greeted as normal people. It isn't until Harry reveals the gangrenous track marks in his left arm that the repulsed doctor identifies him as an addict (that he has rightly assessed the situation we know by his surreptitious removal of some nearby vials of morphine) and retreats to phone the police. From that moment on society moves in on the two druggies; Tyrone, a black man, is reduced to slavery on a prison chain gang and Harry is refused medical attention for his wound until it becomes so severe that he has to have his arm amputated. In short, the authorities systematically set out to destroy their lives. They are not killed, as are Easy Rider's dynamic duo, but death would seem a mercy in the face of the fate society seems to have in store for them.

In Easy Rider it was the drugs that were invisible — the cops don't even find their stash of marijuana when they are incarcerated for parading without a license — while their outlandish symbolic clothing got them in trouble. In Requiem it is the rebellion itself that is invisible. Together the two bookend the range of stylistic countercultural expression, from the outrageous to the deeply underground.

In Subculture, Hebdige notes that the emergence of youth subcultures has "in spectacular fashion signaled the breakdown of consensus in the post-war period" without addressing why that should be the case. Why for instance haven't those same energies been diverted into unions, socialist movements or hardcore politicking? Certainly all of those would have had at least as much impact on the lives of the participants, and probably more. What explains the attraction of subcultures? Of course, there is not any one explanation for this phenomenon, but certain similarities between Easy Rider and Requiem for a Dream illustrate two crucial aspects.

First, both films break ground in their representation of the subcultures. No film before Easy Rider, and few since, have come closer to representing the appeal and dilemma of the countercultural movement of the '60s. And no film that I've seen has ever represented the broad range of effects of drugs, both positive and extremely negative, as well as Requiem for a Dream. These films represent the success of drug subcultures in stretching out their fingers into the mainstream. And especially in the case of Easy Rider, these films reveal that mass communication is a key component in the perpetuation and spread of flashy subcultures.

It is also important to note that both films are "road" films in which the protagonists start from major cities and set off across the U.S. Easy Rider's protagonists, Billy and Wyatt, are L.A. hippies; Requiem's antiheros, Harry and Tyrone, are New York junkies. And all of them might have been better off if they'd stayed put. Most drug and style subcultures are urban phenomena, the city provides the anonymity necessary to generate the fear that holds them together. In a smaller community, the members of a subculture — all four of them — would be known by name, background and parentage. They would therefore be much easier to dismiss as harmless. The horror stories that always seem to spring up around a drug or style subculture are easier to believe, and carry more weight, if the members of it are total strangers to the surrounding society.

Strangers in the United States are more often viewed with suspicion than welcomed. American laws have argued for the last century that a person need only have a "reasonable" belief that he is menaced with deadly force in order to justifiably respond with deadly force. Under such a rule a man in Louisiana (the same state where Easy Rider's characters met their fate) was acquitted after he fatally shot an unarmed Japanese exchange student who came to his door looking for a Halloween party, and that was in 1993. Furthermore, the decision to join an aggressive subculture is more than a decision to be a mere stranger, it is the choice to be an in-your-face "weirdo." Both Easy Rider and Requiem for a Dream illustrate that once an individual or group falls into the "weirdo" category they're seen as miscreants (instead of neutral strangers, or even ambassadors). In fact, they may intentionally disguise themselves as miscreants to attack the prejudices in the hegemonic culture. It is a potent and attractive form of rebellion precisely for this reason.

Unfortunately, the last thirty years have in general shown the bankruptcy of this kind of rebellion. The most that has been gained from it is the acceptance for a certain type of weirdo. Patti Smith's "Rock n' Roll Nigger" evolves into Marilyn Manson's "Rock n' Roll Nigger" without much progress being made in terms of real lives. Hebdige put it this way: "Subcultural deviance is simultaneously rendered 'explicable' and meaningless in the classrooms, courts and media at the same time as the 'secret' objects of subcultural style are put on display in every high street record shop and chain-store boutique." A fact which effectively forces those who hope, through counter cultural rebellion, to create real change to adopt new, yet equally symbolic, poses — and start the process again. In many ways, most of a counterculture's impact is limited to style.

This failure of countercultures was laid out succinctly in a Village Voice review of Tom Frank's new book One Market Under God: "Moreover, as the dotcom generation has roared into boardrooms over the yuppie corpses in Brooks Brothers suits, they have brazenly kept their Easy Rider lifestyles. It is now almost impossible to distinguish the counterculture from the power elite." If the power elite now looks like the counterculture, it's important to remember that it is not. In fact, in many ways those who Hebdige would say are "condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives," the very people who countercultures attempt to benefit the most, have it much more difficult today than they did in the fifties. Unions have been broken, pay has not kept up with inflation, the flourishing of temp work means less benefits, and longer hours are common for young professionals no matter if they dress like Peter Fonda or not. Counterculture exchanges real power for symbolic power and hence gains only symbolic victories.

Jeremy Russell is a freelance writer. He publishes articles, reviews, essays and stories in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, New York Press, Urban View, Spark-online, and Cyber Age Adventures, as well as Bad Subjects.

Copyright © 2001 by Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.