Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Words by Maggie Gulasey | Photos by James Minchin
Twice in my short life I have found myself immersed in the potent butterflies of love, doused with nervousness, excitement, and a fleck of fear—but not for another person. Rather, it’s been for the extraordinary and profoundly authentic passions in life that have illuminated my simple existence.
My first love affair came to fruition when I encountered live music at a young age. Some astute individuals sang, “When you fall in love, you know you are done.” Though lacking the talent for mastering an instrument, I eagerly devoured the music, and I indeed knew I was done; music was forever going to be a part of my lifeblood, even if that meant supporting the melodic experts from the business or the avid-fan side of things.
The second time my heart was kidnapped occurred the moment I first rode a motorcycle. Nothing can match how those two wheels make me feel. I truly came alive with the world at my side, experiencing life in a unique and more gratifying way aboard my beautiful vintage two-stroke.
Both music and my motorcycle enable a mental departure from the tedious rigors that often swallow daily life, allowing me to recall and enjoy the simple magic this world grants. Once in a blue moon my two lovers delightfully harmonize, creating a motorcycle and rock ‘n’ roll utopia. I have found this elusive nirvana in the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
Since 1998, Robert Levon Been, Peter Hayes and, later, Leah Shapiro have been composing intelligent, honest, and soulful atmospheric vibrations. Their music makes me want to fall in love, fight, dance, or ride my RD400 while it blasts in my ears. After watching the 1953 classic The Wild One, directed by László Benedek and starring Marlon Brando, Been and Hayes derived their name from the gang led by Johnny Strabler, called “Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.”
The band had to grow into the name a bit. Been recalls thorny moments during their early gigs: “The first couple of tours were little bars we would play, and different motorcycle clubs would come and they would invade the space and were really intense and aggressive. There were no physical altercations, but it was kind of a ‘Who are you to call yourself a motorcycle club when you are just a little pissy three-person rock band?’ They mostly just wanted to make sure we knew the history of the name and had some respect for it. Once we proved we know where it comes from and we are not just cashing in on the fad of that, then we would buy them a drink and hang out, and all they really want is just a good time. We ended up making strange friends along the way that way. We fell in love with riding later, and we have not really wanted to play it up too much. It is more of a meditative, spiritual, personal thing. It’s the one time you can kind of find that space of your own, and it should be. Sacred is probably too big of a word, but it’s just something personal of your own, which is probably different for each person. It is nice having it be just that and learning that motorcycling is not the clichés you think it is about.”
For nearly 20 years, BRMC has played all around the world, performing at various festivals and on long, arduous tours. In the midst of these concerts, when time allows, the band might sneak in an excursion. Their art has enabled them to ride in Africa, Cambodia, New Zealand, and Japan, to name just a few.
Been says, “You have a short amount of time to extract something out of this magical place that you might never be back to in your whole life. So you can truck around in a taxi or by foot, but all of a sudden when you are outside of a screen—car, glass, iPhone, or a TV screen—you are a part of the scenery and environment versus protected in a bubble. It is a sense of freedom to explore wherever your mind wanders; it is a gift when you can get away with it. You reach these places where you just stop and wander off into the forest and realize where you are and then hop back on and go again. We generally keep it to ourselves. It has been our own little thing we will do whenever we can steal some time. It was great discovering that a lot of countries are pretty lax about requiring a driver’s license. You can just show up, put a few bucks down, and take a bike. That was how I learned to ride. It was in Portugal, and I did not even have a license, and I learned that way.”
During one of their sparse gaps between shows, the band can finally enjoy a jaunt on their personal bikes at home. As vintage motorcycle admirers and owners, Hayes and Been know all too well the love-hate relationship that often accompanies them. Hayes reveals, “I had a Sportster for a while and broke the clutch on that and was looking for another one, and a friend was selling a CB550. It just so happened that I took it for a test ride and the clutch cable broke, and it was so fucking quick to fix; I was sold. I was used to working on old cars, and it is kind of like an old car.”
Been adds, “I got lucky with my first bike, also a Honda CB, because Pete was the most experienced and knew how to put it back together if it fell apart, so I thought that will be good in case of emergency. But our old tour manager had this 1972 Triumph Bonneville that he stripped down and café’d out, and I inherited his mess to some extent. This was really not the right bike to start on, because half of the time or more you are working on it. It just always felt like a high-maintenance girlfriend who was really beautiful, and every time she was nice to you, or running, it’s like you fall in love with her again, but most of the time she is just beating you down and taking all of your money. But it was the seduction of every time it was back; I would think, ‘Oh, I cannot get rid of you, I cannot break up with you.’ The CB is great for daily riding, but the growl of the Triumph, that old engine, kills me every time. I just cannot let go of it. The sound, the feeling.”
Like a lover you simply cannot quit, vintage motorcycles certainly require a high degree of devotion and passion to stay committed—or maybe we are just crazy for continually falling for their mighty allure. Unconditional love must truly prevail, particularly when the rubber side does not stay down. Been and Hayes are not strangers to precarious moments on their motorcycles. Been describes an accident that occurred far from home:
“I totaled a bike on an island in Greece. It was my first time that I really pushed my limits. The problem with the island was you were always zigging and zagging; it never really opened up. But there was this one stretch that I did not even know the island had. I came around this corner and it was as far as the eye could see, and I was like, ‘This is it. This is my moment.’ And I just gunned it. I had the visor open and sunglasses on and a bug flew in right in between my eye and the sunglasses. It was enough of a moment where my hand reached off right when the road started curving, and I did not catch it in time. I had this split-second moment of ‘Do I go for this super-maneuver that might make everything fine, but will kill me if I try? Or should I just make the most out of the wreck?’
“I made the most out of the wreck. It taught me a good lesson. You have to get one under your belt as long as you can walk away.”
Having had his own shaky moments, Hayes recalls, “It was actually awful. I looked left and saw green, hit the gas and then looked a little further left and saw a car was going through a red. I hit the front fender. It was nasty and hurt. It was eight years ago and I still feel it in my elbow.”
The most baffling incidents, though, can happen during the most unremarkable, routine moments. Been remembers, “Two of our friends that we ride with joined us for a coastal trip. It was that thing where we went for a couple of days and it was four boys and everyone is trying to edge each other out, so we were riding a little competitive, a little psycho and mostly dangerous. But when you got home, you were like, ‘Oh my God, we survived so many brushes with death; we ran with the devil for a while.’ And then the next day we hear that our friend who was with us just took a stupid, small left-hand turn in Los Angeles going like 15 miles per hour, and some idiot hit him and he was in the hospital for a month. After all that crazy riding.”
Having a profound passion for something means never quitting despite experiencing setbacks. Having a substantial fervor for music and motorcycles can also mean utilizing one as a tool to enhance the other. For example, Hayes has employed his bike as a therapeutic apparatus to color the words to a song. He admits, “There is a lot of yelling and screaming lyrics into my helmet. Last record I was flying up and down the road every night. Part of it is just primal scream. It is the only way you can really be alone and do it; it is getting out things one way or another on your motorcycle. You are getting out ideas and thoughts. A lot of it is soaking up what is in front of you in a different way than usual.”
However, though music and motorcycles can go together like peas in a pod, Hayes also found that it was helpful to separate the two at times. He mentions, “I honestly saw it as, there is a freedom to the road and being in a band and driving ourselves and all of the messes you get into in those days, that goes hand in hand with motorcycles; you just have more air with a motorcycle when you are doing it. I found a way to put a guitar on the back of a bike at one point in time, but even then it is better to kind of leave the music behind a little bit and just ride.”
We all possess various passions that add an extra oomph to our dreary days and make life worth living. For me, aside from people, music and motorcycles are the things that light my fire. Even more intoxicating is finding an exceptional band that treasures motorcycles in their own yet relatable way. Whether BRMC is telling a story about one of their riding adventures or captivating an audience from the stage, they are doing so drenched in a substantial amount of enthusiasm and love for what they do. Taking some advice from the band, I am going to get on my motorcycle and scream their songs into my helmet while isolated on the open road, because there is nothing in the world that would make me happier in this moment.