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God Rides a Harley in the Land of the Free

[This is the text of a lecture delivered by Ian Johnston in a series of public lectures sponsored by the Liberal Studies department at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University), Wednesday, February 19, 1997. The essay was revised slightly on May 1, 2000.  This text is in the public domain, released June 1999].


As many of you may know, I spend most of my time lecturing in Liberal Studies about fairly inconsequential topics: What is the good life and the just society? Is science just another myth? Is God really dead? And so on. Tonight by contrast I want to direct our attention at some really important questions which have been plaguing me for a number of years, essential considerations which go right to the heart of the meaning of life: Why do I like Western movies and what's been happening to them? Why is so much modern popular music dominated by guitar players? How come all these aging middle-class businessmen are purchasing Harley-Davidson machines? And, finally, how do we account for the immense popularity of American football on this continent and the almost total lack of interest anywhere else in the world?

I take it the urgency of these questions is self-evident.  If any of you watched the Super Bowl from New Orleans last month, you will clearly recognize from the half time show at America's premier sporting event the importance of trying to understand why all those bikers dressed in black leather were revving around the Astroturf to the music of ZZ Top and filling the stadium with exhaust fumes.

But even if you didn't see that amazing spectacle you will surely agree that these issues are central to the very survival of our culture and that any attempt to answer them must be applauded for its ambition. That, I take it, is one of the major purposes of this lecture series--a chance for solemn thinkers to take a chance with lofty speculations on vitally important subjects (that's the polite way of putting it; others may be tempted to reach for analogies from the barnyard). Certainly that is my reason for accepting the invitation from Anne Leavitt (who really didn't give me much of a choice in the matter), even if that means that I am by necessity going to be engaging in all sorts of questionable generalizations and sweeping summary critiques of big cultural issues.

Before addressing the questions directly, I'd like to mention the origin of my interest in these matters, an itch which stems from my adolescent experience of growing up in North American as a teenage immigrant in the early and mid-1950's. When I first arrived here, my grandfather, a tireless booster of all things North American, set out to impress me with my new home by insisting that I inspect all the magnificently huge buildings in Toronto, Montreal, New York, wherever he could find anything larger than St. Paul's Cathedral.

Well, I was impressed, I suppose. But what really blew my mind was not the buildings, impressive as they might be, but the way we got to them: those roads, trains, the amazing V-8 cars, cruising on forever through an endless landscape in such ease and with such power that my memories of tooling around the back lanes of Sussex in a battered old Austin seemed puny by comparison. Yes, I fell in love. And the relationship was definitely sealed a few years later when, as a callow teenager I "borrowed" by grandfather's Chrysler New Yorker for a spin up the Barrie Highway, with the Everley Brothers singing "Dream, Dream, Dream." When I put my foot to the floor at 50 miles per hour on my way up to higher illegal numbers and burned rubber, the squeal of the tires seemed to me a cry of ecstasy that reached all the way up to Mount Olympus.

What happened then was the discovery of something I later learned, in my academic training, of considerable importance, something which, it has been argued, is a particularly important contribution of the United States to the rest of the world--the invention of a new form of the good life, quite at odds with my very British training.  I refer to what has been called for a long time now the development of the American Adam, the living embodiment of the possibilities of this amazing continent.

My understanding of this figure was firmly in place long before I recognized it, because I grew up in the hey day of the last great celebration of this Adamic figure: the 1950's, the era of the massive two tons of steel, V-8, three-on-the-tree, Detroit masterpiece, of the upsurge of rock 'n' roll and the domination of our popular musical consciousness by the electric guitar, of the Pullman railway car, still a favored means of transportation before it was killed by the air bus, the hey day of Western shows on television and from Hollywood, and the start of the tremendous growth in the popular consciousness of professional football.

All of this washed over me like a lovely bath of adrenaline--irresistibly fascinating and yet also vaguely perplexing. It seemed such a long way from the culture which dominated my earlier life, the severe social conditioning of the English private school. And I've never lost my mixed feelings: a sense of wonder at the liberating energies of an amazing ideal, combined with a sense of serious concern at the crassness, the naiveté, and the social paradoxes at the heart of the matter. So for me, living in Canada, where I had a ring-side seat on the theatre of this amazing vision of life, has turned out to be particularly suitable. I can travel whenever I want in the world's most exotic country just a few miles to the south, but I do not have to live there and thus address the paradoxes directly in my daily political and social life.

What I would like to do today is, by way of addressing those questions I listed at the start, to seek to explain, in a somewhat more academic manner than the indulgent confessions I have just laid on the table, some of the historical and social reasons for what I stumbled upon as a callow adolescent. I want, first, to establish quickly and cursorily some large generalizations and then, second, to explore how these speculations may help to illuminate some of the features of the popular culture all around us.

The Historical Background

American, as we all know, defined itself politically as an Enlightenment experiment--a new nation based on the highest hopes of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, and so on. As such it was to exemplify the best hopes for rational, progressive, liberal reforms, fusing these with the older divine mission to found God's city on the hill, where there was to be no taxation without representation.  The American Enlightenment political project was to have a sharp ideological edge, a fusion of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Jehovah. In short, America was to develop the ideal modern liberal capitalist community under God, in whom we trust.

At the same time, many people came to America in the subsequent decades for intensely personal reasons, sharing neither the communal ideals nor the religious convictions of the founding fathers or their immediate ancestors. What they wanted was a chance to realize themselves, to fulfill the Romantic imperative to the self-created life (or at least to get rich quickly, which, in many cases, meant much the same thing).

This, of course, created in America, as in Europe, something of a paradox. How could the Enlightenment ideals for social justice--resting as they did on a sense of duty, equality, public service, education, and so on--reconcile themselves with the romantic ideals of self-creation, individualism, and freedom? After all, isn't society, in itself, a restriction on personal freedom?

To judge from a number of very famous English poems, the paradox generally proved too strong for many Romantic imaginations in that part of the world, as they faced the need to acknowledge that the world around them was simply too dreary and resistant, the traditions too strong, and their imaginations ultimately too limited in their powers to reenergize themselves in order to carry out a successful imposition of one's own visions on the world. Hence, the 19th century European tradition of the transformation from youthful exuberance and imaginative excitement to prayers for a repose that ever is the same and the Stygian gloom of Victorian poets moaning about the mists of Avalon and how much better it would be to exist as a dead Scholar Gypsy than a living English intellectual.

In America, however, the paradox was resolved (or, if you prefer, painted over) with the creation of a new hero, the so-called American Adam, both a fully realized, independent individual, embodying the Romantic ideal of no concessions to the demands of a conforming civilization and yet, at the same time, the friend of that civilization, often aiding it and furthering its progressive imperatives, not from any carefully worked out political vision, but simply because he wanted to--he was a nice guy. The American Adam, in other words, served to unify symbolically the potentially divisive ideals working in the development of the country.

The genesis of this figure is commonly associated with the spread of America westward and with some very specific literary works (especially in high cultural works like Huckleberry Finn and Walden and in countless popular tales arising from the frontier). I have no wish to trace that genesis, interesting though that may be. But I would like (at the risk of imposing a priori generalizations on the business) to suggest some of the characteristics of the composite hero which emerged from this tradition. This figure, I want to suggest, is basically the answer to those question I posed at the start of this lecture.

My aim here is to offer up a fairly standard summary of this new role model--emphasizing his major characteristics (as these have been defined by 19th century American culture) and then apply some of those generalizations to activities we see going on all around us. My contention is that this figure is still very much alive, long, long after the social-historical conditions out of which he arose have passed away. So here, for starters, is a sense of what this new hero is all about:

The American Adam stands quite alone in the world--and this by choice not by accident. He is, in Emerson's words, the "simple genuine self against the whole world," without a distinct past, without ancestors, without tradition, without a home, without lasting friends, without a community. Unlike his Biblical namesake, the American Adam answers to no traditional faith, no system of moral absolutes; he carries with him no divine prohibitions. He is "less a product of God's handiwork than a creature of his own making, at once self-propelled and self-reliant." He answers only to his conception of himself, even when he is put into a world that does not live up to those expectations. Thus, he exists, not as a good or a bad person, but as an enormous potential for something new, something which will transcend conventional notions of goodness and badness. He has no hidden agendas--for he is an integrated and innocent simplicity, bringing into the world no baggage except his uncontaminated individual self and his readiness to meet experience personally.

The guarantee of the American Adam's separateness, of his ability to resist social contamination, the maintainer of his purity, of his ability constantly to recreate himself, is his constant motion. In fact, like Huck Finn or countless heroes of the westerns or rock 'n' roll, he lives primarily for the motion itself, not for motion as a means to a particular destination (unlike other famous travelers like, say, Odysseus, or Robinson Crusoe, or Chaucer's pilgrims, he has no home and no destination). His motion is on the edge of civilization, in that magical area known as the frontier, the space into which civilization is about to advance, but which is still uncivilized enough so that the wildness of nature and the wild creatures who live in it have not given it up. While this Adam may make contact with civilization (like Huck's visits to the towns along the Mississippi or Thoreau's visits to Concord), he defines himself by his sense that he does not belong to the town--it is only a temporary stopping place. He has no set plan for his travels (he is no tourist)--motion is more important than direction or destination.

Given this sense of himself, The American Adam has a unique relationship to time. Since he has no past and does not associate himself with any community which has a history, since he has defined himself by the rejection of both, he has no historical identity. His life thus amounts to a moment-by-moment encounter between himself and the world, each one independent of the others. And he brings no sense of history--either his community's or his own--to the next experience.

. . . it is wrong to regard ourselves so much in a historical light as we do, putting time between God and us; and it is fitter to take account every moment of the existence of the universe as a new Creation, and all as a revelation proceeding each moment from the Divinity to the mind of the observer. (Emerson)

"The Past is," says Melville, "the foe of mankind. . . . In the past is no hope. . . . Those who are solely governed by the past stand still like Lot's wife, crystallized in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking before. . . . The future is the Bible of the free." Thus, the rejection of the past (if necessarily by destructive means), if carried out with purity of heart, is a confirmation of his faith in the future. Hence, a rejection of the past, moment by moment, is essential to his being. Chopping down one's father's English Cherry Tree is a rite of purification, just as is the habit of burning all one's possessions and buildings every generation or two (a Mexican custom Thoreau vigorously applauded: "He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past."). The destruction of the past as a means of emancipating oneself for the journey is a common end to American popular fictions like, say, Rock and Roll High School, Neighbors, or any number of westerns--and it helps (among other things) to explain why the American attitude to violence appears so strange to foreigners, especially to Europeans, for whom the destruction of anything from the past is close to sacrilege..

Unique also is this hero's relationship with space. Space exists for him as something to move through, not in order to communicate with or meditate upon whatever the space may offer, but rather to demonstrate his superiority over it, his ability to move effortlessly through it, answerable to no one but himself. He thus makes no concessions to a changing landscape (changing his clothes for example, or enjoying a nude swim in an inviting river). He is, in a very real sense, indifferent to the landscape. It is essential to him, of course, as a place to move through and as a source of the events which define him or of  food to nourish him, but it brings no mystical sense in itself. No gods whisper from the mountains or the bushes. Without nature, Thoreau would not be able to conduct his experiment, and in nature he can have all sorts of feelings and inner experiences--but it does not lead him to any desire to remain there or for that matter to learn any more about anyone who might live there. Huck Finn likes the Mississippi, but it brings with it no sense of mystery, no sense of a world more important than his own self. He likes to look at the stars and talk about them with Jim, but it's the casual conversation at leisure which matters, not satisfying any curiosity about how the stars might really have originated.

Space thus exists as a vast laboratory for the display of one's chosen self. The greatest American landmarks in the Adam's story are not things like the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone or Niagara Falls. These are merely part of the scenery. The great American landmarks are things like Route 66, Highway 101, the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad, the Mississippi River as a travel route, the Oregon Trail. What makes the motion possible is far more important than anything one might see along the way. In the England I grew up in, one main reason for driving was to visit an interesting rural restaurant or pub (the destination defined the purpose of the motion); in the America I visited, the restaurants serve the highway by which they stand--the fast food joints are designed to interrupt the motion as little as possible. One never has to undertake an adventure to eat on the American road.

In his encounters with the unknown on the frontier, the only encounters which matter, the American Adam relies upon his own inner sense of what is appropriate. He initiates nothing except his own motion, but he is always ready to react quickly and spontaneously. In his innocence, he is above deceit, lies (except concerning his identity), disguise, or any received ideas. He is a great improviser, with no respect for any traditional ways of carrying things out. In many cases, he solves problems personally and often with violence (fists or guns) and always quickly (frequently explosively). The violence becomes an important affirmation of his personal qualities.

He has no basic recreations since those involve others, except the poker game, which, like his life, is structured on a series of short, decisive encounters, usually amongst a group of strangers. The rules are simple, democratic, repetitive, and a test, above all, of one's resolve (rather than of one's wit, eloquence, physical skill)--and any game leads inevitably to a one-on-one confrontation. The end of many encounters is, as we all know, violent.

The American Adam lives in a world dominated by men. He may respect women and be polite to them; he is often ready to help them if they are in need. But they are part of civilization which restricts and is therefore to be avoided. His basic friendship towards women is one of the commonest signs of his general attitude to civilization (which women, above all others, represent, often because of their interest in school and church), but his hesitancy about getting too close to women indicates his desire to stay detached from civilization. Sexuality thus doesn't seem to trouble him, mainly because it doesn't interest him. There is, in other words, no American Eve.

Finally, to end this quick enumeration of the qualities of this figure, the American Adam is not particularly materialistic, at least in the old European sense (derived from Homer and Aristotle) that an essential part of the good life is building up over time an impressive life style filled with fine objects in a fine home. For the American Adam having the right tools is really important, but he needs very few and these must be portable, because he's always on the move. Hence, he is fascinated with modern technology and quick to discard it if it proves cumbersome or a newer and better model comes along (especially the technology of transportation--the idea of building a car or even a house to last a lifetime is very foreign to this Adam's culture). "No," said Whitman, "keep out of mansions. A mansion may be heaven on earth, but you might as well be dead. Strictly avoid mansions. The soul is herself when she is going on foot down the open road." It's no accident that Americans are the world's leaders in miniaturization and in novelty. The invention of the transistor or the silicon chip--indeed, the very process of innovation--is a cultural imperative.

By this point you are perhaps being reminded of a number of heroic figures from your own experience of American popular culture. And that would not be any surprise, because this figure, together with the various stories associated with him, has become one of the major shaping icons of popular culture on this continent and, from here, to the whole world. It would not be hard to make a case that the American Adam is America's most popular and most influential export. And it's not hard to understand why: No other figure so easily, democratically, and individually answers the complex challenges of reconciling the desire for a self-created life with the realities of a rule-bound society. We may all recognize that life is more complicated than this figure suggests, but I suspect that most of us find this vision of life immensely congenial.

Having established very quickly some of the major features of this powerful and familiar figure, let me turn at last to the four questions with which I started. The first concerned Western movies.

The Western

It will be clear to you, I think, that the Western movie and novel are major homes of the American Adam. And the reason I like the Western is that I respond happily to the way in which this hero easily reconciles all the difficulties of life in a comfortable allegorical format which people never seem to tire of--a resolution which does not force upon me the need to sort out paradoxical feelings I may have about the demands which my culture is imposing on my liberty or my romantic need for self-creation.

The hero of the Western is always a loner, with no discernible past (he may literally not have a past or  he may have repressed or forgotten it); he has no family nor close personal friends (except his horse, which is invariably a very fine animal). He is always on the move through the frontier, with no particular direction, unless he has temporarily assumed for personal reasons a particular responsibility to assist the move westward by leading some cattle or some people in a particular direction. He never reads, writes, or shows any interest in culture (except occasionally in music). He is always fully dressed in an outfit that never changes, which is very unsuited to almost all sorts of movement except strolling or riding and which permits us to see only his face, with special emphasis on his eyes, which are alert, cool, and cold.

He rides Western style, with a huge heavy saddle, stirrups and spurs, all of which display an indifference to the comfort of the horse, with one hand holding the reins and the other relaxed, ready for action. Even at high speeds on this animal he maintains a reasonably erect posture, displaying above all his command over the animal and his nonchalance.

All his worldly possessions are also on the animal. These include a bed roll and a weapon (pistol and/or rifle, which he never cleans and almost never takes out for practice). No emphasis is placed on changes of clothes, toilet accessories, or soap, except for the ritual of shaving (one of the few reasons for coming into town). He is lean, tall, wide in the shoulder and slim in the hips, with a full head of light colored hair, and he is usually clean shaven (unless he's been through a rough time). He takes his hat off only to greet a lady and often not even then.

This hero's enemies are wild Indians, nasty Easterners or Europeans, bad white frontier types--all those who stand in the way of the spread of civilization westward. He opposes these people because he wants to, not from any ideological or financial motive. As often as not, he decides (again for very personal reasons) to come to the aid of the enfeebled advanced forces of civilization against those who would disturb progress by shooting up settlers, stealing technology (especially guns) for inappropriate uses, or (worst of all) because they interfere with his right to move (e.g., by stealing his horse). His immediate allies are the pioneer homesteaders or the hairy prospectors right on the edge of the frontier. His approach to people is extremely democratic but guarded, for he is a man of few words--making his judgments about people on the basis of the experiences he has with them rather than on anything else (so he can talk on even terms with prostitutes or hostile natives or the town drunk in a way that no one in the community can).

This hero would often prefer not to fight and is often slow to do so (since his basic position in life is to remain detached and uninvolved and moving). But once involved, his weapons of choice are not wit, subterfuge, evasion, or social action; he prefers his fists or his gun or both. Inevitably he squares off for a shoot out, a sudden-death, one-on-one, winner-take-all finale, an event in which he never draws first but which he always wins because he's faster on the draw than his enemy, almost inevitably someone with black untidy hair and, as often as not, a hairy face and a nasty voice.

In many of the most famous celebrations of this figure, there is no awareness of the paradox: that in assisting civilization move westward, in respecting and making way for the womenfolk, the hero is reducing, piece by piece, the territory which makes his life possible. In the same way, there is no awareness of any potential social origins for the conflicts in which the hero partakes--problems exist for the heroic individual to resolve with his own courage, self-reliance, and skill. And the solutions almost always suggest strongly that the answer lies in the quick and effective destruction of the particular individuals who threaten the obviously valuable merits of the community.

This linking of the destructiveness of the shoot out with the moral regeneration of the community helps to explain, in part, the union in the American popular consciousness of violence and social improvement without social reorganization. American society has always been violent. And the centre of that violence was never the west, the setting for the Western, but rather the eastern cities, the home of the readers. The notion that the bad guys can be taken care of by heroic individual violence in the service of the community by loner Adams has for a long time been a particularly effective way of reconciling urban citizens to accept the violence of their own communities and the violent means used to combat it (and helps to explain the extraordinary power of the National Rifle Association). If we want to clean up Dodge City, then Wyatt Earp is much more effective and American than, say, Karl Marx.

Even when the Western movies discovered ironies and complications (e.g., that not all Indians were wild savages, that the march of civilization brought with it moral complexities, that the historical realities of western life was often far from heroic, that all human beings grow older), the result of the American Adam's popularity as often as not subverted any latent or overt political criticism of the existing myth. For example, in High Noon, the noble community of citizens is exposed as a sham, but the hero triumphs thanks to his bride's discovery that the gun is more immediately useful than her Quaker faith when the chips are down. And there's always a new town to move on to. Similarly, in Clint Eastwood'sUnforgiven or Peckinpah's Wild Bunch the strong ironies in the overtly critical stance to the traditional story gets subsumed under the even stronger power of the traditional shoot-out.

In this form the American Adam has become the most popular folk hero of the new world and one of its most potent exports in books, magazines, films, and television shows. Asked to explain his remarkable success with the American public, Henry Kissinger, whose political philosophy was about as un-American as could be, given that his hero was that arch-enemy of the New World innocence, the Machiavellian Metternich, remarked that he had modeled his public image on the cowboy. "Americans," he explained to the Italian interviewer Oriana Fallaci, "like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on horse and nothing else. . . . this cowboy doesn't have to be courageous. All he needs to be is alone, to show others that he rides into town and does everything by himself." Kissinger was probably sufficiently adept at the role to get himself the head honcho's job in the White House, had not his birthplace rendered him ineligible for the job.

At some point in the late 1970's the cowboy hero disappeared from Hollywood and TV. That puzzled and disappointed me. But I'm convinced that that happened not because people had tired of the story, but because they got bored with the horses. With people wandering about on the moon and the universe filling up with metal junk, horses were obviously obsolete, since one cannot do much with a horse by way of customizing it for a high-tech universe--they were obsolete, part of history, and therefore (shameful to say) un-American. So the cowboy hero either emigrated to Italy and rode his horse through the valley of the spaghetti western or moved to LA to become a cop (trading in his equine friend for a Camaro), or else signed up with the Alliance to fight Darth Vader. So we got heroes like Knight Rider or Blue Thunder or Hans Solo--basically westerns with a new and improved method of transportation. Now that our imaginations have been sated with high-tech, it's good to see that the Western has made something of a comeback.

True, there are all sorts of ironic complexities nowadays, but they are not powerful enough to contain the hugely powerful allegorical optimism of the original. And that's probably a good thing, I guess. Because the unironic allegorical basis of the classic Western movie is still a wonderful reminder of a great reconciliation between our conflicting desires for just social living and romantic independence. The reminder may be shallow, naive, and, in essence, a gossamer thin veil over some deep chasms, but it's still enormously attractive, and I still find it emotionally irresistible.

The Electric Guitar, the Heart of Rock 'n' Roll

Now, let me turn to the second question: Why is so much modern popular music dominated by guitar players? The answer to that should by now be quite obvious. We owe it all to Les Paul, the developer of the electric guitar. Once that instrument was perfected, then the American Adam could trade in his horse for an electric axe and set to work in front of a back up rhythm section.

The electric guitar player is the embodiment of the American Adam because he's the only instrumentalist who can easily move and who can dominate his instrument in the same way the cowboy dominates his horse. You have only to compare the stance of the traditional guitar player (seated and cradling his instrument) with the pose of the modern electric guitar player to see the difference. The technology is up to date, placing all sorts of things like volume, reverb, various do wah effects, and so on at the player's disposal, and the cord liberates the player to move around at will or adopt any position he pleases. There are many great rock 'n' rollers who have not been guitar players, but with the instrument stuck in their mouths or locking them into one place, they just cannot capture the image. No wonder Little Richard simply does not qualify for the crown.

So the electric guitar player becomes the embodiment of the Adamic spirit--optimistic, individualistic, fully mobile, mildly rebellious but not anti-social, guiding the spirits of the crowd but not part of it, he serves the greatest of all modern creeds: "Get your ass swinging to the beat and your heart and mind will follow." Here I am swinging my gun, my penis, my guitar, doing my own thing--the instrument is an adjunct to me; I do not serve it."

Rock 'n' roll celebrates, above all else, motion. It's central images are the car and the road: Maybelline, Hot Rod Lincoln, Little Douce Coupe, Daddy's T-Bird, a 69 Cevvy with a 396, Healy Heads and a Hearst on the floor, where you get your kicks on Route 66, cruising through the heart of Saturday night.

So it's all right to burn down the high school, so long as the music is urging you to it. The style of the Ramones demands it. So what if the parents, the police, and the teachers are all shouting their disapproval on the other side of the school yard. We are young Americans, the bravest, the brightest, and the most innocent. Our cremation of the past is a new beginning, and if you don't dig Blitzkrieg Bop, too bad for you. What was good enough for George Washington, is good enough for us.

The curious thing about the violence associated with rock 'n' roll is its innocence. It may occasionally get gross, but it's all good fun Thriller was a great video-full of ghouls, graveyards, and Grand Guignol--all expressions of an energetic imagination, part of being a beautiful adolescent with the fast dancing feet in town. Besides, sorting out the consequences of the past is just too complicated--better to obliterate it. If Colonel Kurtz is too complex to figure out, well, just call for the preemptive napalm strike and crank up the Doors sound track, on the advice of Jim Hendrix: "The best thing you can do, brother, is turn it up as loud as it'll go." That why Elvis was so great: he brought to the front of the stage the handsome, aggressive, rebellious Adamic spirit, but not in a way that threatened the community beyond the concert. No one was politer to reporters than Elvis, no one has presented the spirit of rebellion in a less overtly threatening way and with such a laconic self-deprecating sense of humour. No wonder Ed Sullivan could introduce him to the country as a fine young man. And when his country called, of course, he signed up--something many young Europeans, like John Lennon, found incomprehensible.

Like the Western movie, the spirit of rock 'n' roll seems to be able to withstand all ironic reverberations. If one needs a solution  to life in a New Jersey full of 711 stores and tired old men, to a life which is etching lines around your baby's face so that she sits on the porch of her daddy's house and cries herself to sleep at night, well, climb into the Chevvy and head for the coast, blowing away anyone who gets in the way. The solution to problems which arise from having to grow older is best found in staying forever young. So if you find yourself wishing that you didn't know now what you didn't know then, just keep on rocking and hope for the best.

Of course, when the road runs out at the Pacific and there's no more room, just keep moving up into the clouds, into Fantasy Land of acid, celluloid, Jesus, the cathode ray tube, or outer space (the Last Frontier). Leave philosophical reflections to wimpy British types like the Beatles or U-2 or the Police, because this is America and here "It's not the meat; it's the motion, that makes your baby want to rock."

The Open Road

In 1826 Timothy Flint lamented what would happen when the American Adam reached the coast of California: "Alas! For the moving generation of the day, when the tide of advancing backwoodsmen shall have met the surge of the Pacific. They may then set themselves down and weep for other worlds." He did not have to worry. The other worlds were soon there to greet them, thanks to Hollywood, Disneyland, the Essalen Institute, and the best marijuana grown in the country--all in America's dream factory, Hotel California, where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Anaheim--home again.

The most important export of that dream factory is the illusion that the frontier experience is still available, long after the historical realities that made it possible have disappeared. So the music and the western become essential commodities to sustain the dream--and the harder the dream is to realize in actuality, the more zealous the efforts to maintain the myth.

And one of the best ways to maintain the myth is to attend to your method of transportation, one of the most distinctively new aspects of the Adamic figure. For he loves ultimate transportation machines--huge manifestations of his ability to move nonchalantly through space, making no concessions to the landscape, which, if necessary, must be rearranged to make a certain type of movement possible. What else can explain wonderfully strange things like the Pullman railway car, the 1959 Cadillac, or the fully dressed Harley Davidson chopper. These machines (like the Western saddle) simply throw out any considerations of aerodynamic efficiency, fuel economy, or even traditional aesthetic design. They are expressly built to move the passenger through the landscape effortlessly, so that he can at all times demonstrate his easy, nonchalant superiority over all he passes through. After an absence from America, Henry James, upon his return, called attention to "the great straddling, bellowing railway, the high, heavy, dominant American train that so reverses the relationship of the parties concerned, suggesting somehow that the country exists for the 'cars' which overhand it like a conquering army, and not the cars for the country."

The rider of the Harley chopper strives even to defy the laws of physics and medicine. Ignoring the principle that the stability of a two-wheeled vehicle varies inversely as the distance between the front steering wheel and the centre of gravity, the biker Adam modifies the machine to thrust the steering wheel further and further ahead into space. He arranges himself in a posture that is orthopaedically disastrous, extremely uncomfortable over time, and aerodynamically inefficient. The result enables him to ride through the landscape nonchalantly, demonstrating, like the cowboy riding Western style, that he is not part of what is moving him but its complete master.

So strong is this image that astute marketers of motor cycles throughout the world alter the two things that determine the posture of the rider (the handlebars and the foot pegs) in order to differentiate machines designed for the United State from those designed for Europe. Europeans prefer drop handle bars and foot pegs to the rear of the machine, so that they can lie along the machine, making a more integrated unit (a position best designed for efficient touring at high speeds). Americans prefer the upright handle bars and the forward foot pegs. That's why, to get to the title of this lecture, of course God rides a Harley in North America. And He does not wear a helmet. To do so would be to betray a knowledge of and, even worse, a concern for the laws of gravity, an awareness that his motion might be subject to some form of natural laws greater than himself.

Maybe that's why the American Adam is not particularly interest in Formula One racing, in which thoroughbred machines race around the old European towns. No, he wants a finely tuned production model entered in the greatest American race of all, the Cannonball Run, straight across the continent as fast as you can go, with nothing between you and victory on the Pacific shores but a few thousand state troopers.

It's true that in recent years, communal standards about road safety and the price of gasoline have severely compromised the wonderful Adamic spirit of the transportation machines of the 1950's. Air bags, safety belts, bucket seats, helmets, and a host of other restrictions have taken the edge off one of the great popular manifestations of this wonderful ethos. But as those have eroded and as even rock 'n' roll has so often become something of a repetitive parody of itself, we have had one important Adamic resource to fall back onto. And that's American Football.


I must confess that for a long time I was puzzled by the amazing popularity of this game on this continent and its almost total obscurity everywhere else. This is odd, I thought, because it's usually the case that a very popular sport will export itself, will find players and fans elsewhere. But with American Football that doesn't appear to be the case. Immensely popular in the United States, and justly hailed as the national game, it has won no adherents anywhere else, and it is the popular sport least likely ever to make it to the Olympics.

Why was this sport so popular here? I read around a bit. One theory had something to do with football as a homoerotic ritual--all those very tightly clad male rear ends, with every play starting with the lower paid linemen proffering their backsides to the highly paid elite athletes of the backfield. That intrigued me as a possible reason for the popularity, but it didn't explain its confinement to the United States.

Finally I stumbled upon an explanation that made sense: American football is a weekly re-enactment of the Adamic myth of the frontier; its structure is carefully regulated to symbolize the best features of the Adamic myth and thus, in an age when Western movies, rock 'n' roll, and Pullman railway cars are much less in evidence, it has become the chief means of sustaining the faith in the continent's most important icon.  By way of introducing this notion to you, let me make a few features of the case for this interpretation:

The game takes place on a field dominated by lines (no other sport is so geometrically rigid). Yet nature is not essential to it. As often as not it is played on an artificial surface under a dome (unlike many other team sports which have expressly rejected artificial surfaces). The game is played between four groups of people: Offense A vs. Defense B and Offense B versus Defense A. And there must be a winner, if necessary by sudden death (an interesting phrase, come to think about it). The result of every game is thus a victory for the offense, the group whose job it is to move forward, and a defeat for the defense, whose job it is to stop the forward movement.

No game in the history of team sport is so wedded to innovative technology--artificial surfaces, radio communications, medical supplements, special helmets, pads, shoes. In no game is the body beautiful less in evidence. Close ups of the players give us the eyes, but that's about all. Nor is any game more specialized. Entire teams change on the spur of the moment depending on the particular situation. As such, the game is an enormous tributes to the faith of the modern community in the best effects of modern civilization.

The aim of the offensive team is to advance the line into enemy territory, by whatever means it can devise, within the context of a complex set of rules. These require the offense to keep moving forward at a steady rate in a series of violent starts and stops. Every start is precisely fixed in space (the field used to be a grid; now it is a modified grid). The key point in the game, however, is not where you are, but how far you have to get in the next push to maintain the forward drive (e.g., first and ten, second and three, and so on). The only direction of any significance is forward--to lose ground or lose the right to continue moving forward is a grave mistake (and often very expensive).

The relationship to time in football is extraordinary. The game takes places in series of very short, very violent bursts, any one of which may lead to the big payoff. Most of the game is taken up with planning the next move or resting between bursts. The actual time of the action in a football game is extremely short. There is nothing fluid or dynamic about the game (in the sense of a continuing ebb and flow, back and forth, up and down in an uninterrupted game). Whereas in many other team sports, the mark of a good game is that it is relatively uninterrupted, American football is based on a required interruption every few seconds. Like the game of poker, every moment is potentially a winning moment. The players have the right, unheard of in most other team sports, of stopping the game for a Time Out, to regroup, plan.

[Parenthetically, I have a hunch that it is this attitude to time which, among other things, dooms the success of professional soccer in the United States. That game is wonderful to play, but it doesn't have for Americans what they demand from their sports. Among its many deficiencies one of the most glaring is that it often doesn't have a satisfactory ending--the shoot out being a sad substitute for a decisive result, as if the Western movie ended with both parties missing and going home. But soccer is a game in which the frustrations of failing to score a goal always dominates over the elation of a successful goal. American football tries as hard as possible to reverse this arrangement, since the repetitive gratification of success is central to what an American spectator demands from a game].

Moreover, American sports generally are structured on the basis of individual match ups, personal duels.  This is especially the case in baseball, of course, but the metaphor is central to the analysis and understanding of football and basketball, where playing around with individual match ups (made possible by the unlimited substitution) is a major requirement for the coach, just as the isolation shot is essential to the television presentation of the action.  The European notion of a sustained, uninterrupted, dynamic  team effort, with little to no substitution, if introduced, would render this aspect of American games much more difficult to sustain.  In addition, of course, it would seriously lower the intensity of each incident (especially in football and basketball) since players would then have to learn to pace themselves (as soccer players do), and there would be no place for many of the most popular players, enormously strong, huge violent men, many of them technically obese, incapable of playing an entire game without considerable rest from time to time.

This observation prompts the further digressive reflection that the popular American team sports are designed to encourage individual achievement, even in a losing cause.  It is possible in American football, basketball, and baseball for a player to have a very successful game when his team loses (even loses badly) and (what is more important) to take away from that game an impressive array of personal statistics (hits, baskets, tackles, passes caught, runs rushing, steals, strike outs, and so on) so that his personal achievement can then be matched against someone else's.  This is simply not possible in a game like soccer, where the only statistic that matters (or is recorded) is goals, which are few and far between]

The offense in football leaves little room for improvisation, creativity, or the unexpected. What it does require is the precise execution of a well-coordinated team plan, like a military maneuver in which an efficient machine is set in motion by a secret code (the count). The stars of the offense are those who physically advance the ball, but they are totally vulnerable and powerless without the efficient co-operation and successful execution of the well-rehearsed community of team-mates, whose pattern of blocking is much more important than the speed or elusiveness of the ball carriers.

But this team has its stars, and they are not the ones most crucial to its success. Indeed the five interior linemen are usually the least well known and the lowest paid members of the team, even though many astute commentators, like John Madden, readily enough concede that what they do is key to the offense's success. The major star, of course, is the quarterback, not just because he calls the plays and starts them, but because he's often the only one standing at the start of each play, in a position very reminiscent of the cowboy's riding posture.

The offense scores when the ball crosses the last line of the opposition's territory, an imaginary plane reaching from the artificial turf right up to heaven. Once that line is crossed the player can spike the ball (to spike means to take possession of) and celebrate his arrival at the ultimate destination. He has reached the Pacific and completed the Western march successfully. It's no accident that field goal kickers, who so often determine the outcome of a game, are regarded with such contempt. It's not just that many of them have very strange names like Ypremian and run up to the ball in a strange way or take off their shoes to kick. No, the fact that they score from a distance seems, well, somehow wrong.

If the offensive team is a representation of the well oiled machinery of the advancing civilization, then the defense is a representation of the wild creatures of the frontier who stand in the way. Their job is to react to the situation as it unfolds, disrupting the operation of the forces of progressing civilization. Hence defensive players are fundamentally different from offensive players. I remember reading a report of a sports psychologist once who stressed the very different psychological profiles of offensive and defensive football players. The offensive players, he observed, tended to have short hair and anal retentive personalities: neat, obedient, good members of a team. The defensive players were the wild men: long hair, criminal records, outlaw attitudes. The difference used to manifest itself in the way in which the defensive group often had a nickname: the Orange Crush, the Purple Gang, the Steel Curtain, reminiscent of some outlaw bunch out to beat up the homesteaders.

Every player has a certain star quality (although some much more than others). An American football game, particularly an important one, typically starts with a lengthy introduction, in which everyone is reminded of the home town origins and the collegiate past of every starting player. Why should any of this matter? Well, it does. The origin of the players (individually and collectively) is a reminder of the democratic nature of the experience we are about to witness: this game is played between young Americans--black, white, Polish, Italian, Hawaiian. It doesn't matter. In this country they all come from anywhere and are here today to celebrate with us our common vision. Every player brings with him a set of statistics, which the sportscasters can (indeed, must) constantly manipulate to give us a sense of whether he is advancing or retreating in his personal journey. And that's a vital part of the exercise, too, because the aim of the game is to "win"--to turn this experience into an affirmation of my personal spirit. Because the one essential quality of the American Adam is that he must win (even if his team loses, he must shine). No sport is so dominated by a sense of the absolute need to win in order to survive:

 "Life without victory is tasteless. It is possible for a loser to drive a big car, but it is not possible for him to enjoy it. . . . The winner is the only individual who is truly alive. . . . Every time you win, you're reborn; when you lose you die a little. (George Allen)"; "Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat";  "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" (John Wayne, Trouble Along the Way, widely attributed to Vince Lombardi).

So, of course, it makes excellent sense to link the great football game to the icons from rock 'n' roll and the highway. The frontier may have been officially closed in 1890, imported cars may have taken over suburbia, we may yearn for the golden age of early rock, and the Western movie may have turned too often ironic and self-referential, but the spirit must never die, because it's the very essence of the land.

I made the point earlier that all of these manifestations may be seen as hopelessly naive attempts to paper over the social cracks created by racism, crime, drugs, economic injustice, pollution, corrupt political practices, school massacres, and what have you. Yes, indeed, they may. And it's worth asking, as such problems in the neighbourhoods continue to grow, how long the American Adam will remain a shaping force in the popular consciousness.

I have no idea about that. The figure has played and continues to play an important role in the way I think about myself and about the world, even though I am as aware as anyone of its limitations. After all, I saw in the Super Bowl how the exhaust fumes from the Harley machines made it difficult for the football players once the game resumed after the big show. And I'm aware that the demands of the road leave no room for growing up maturely and recognizing the importance of complex and lasting relationships: as Bob Dylan reminds us, "I'm watching the parade of liberty/ But as long as I love you I'm not free." But the appeal is hard to resist, for all the paradoxes at the heart of it--and if that wonderful country to the south of us ever moves beyond this image of itself--and I suppose it will have to do so eventually--it will lose something magical and maniacal. "The pure products of America," the poet William Carlos Williams observed, "go crazy." Perhaps that's because the demands of their major role model are impossible to achieve over an entire lifetime. Vince Lombardi did not disagree (and he, of anyone, ought to know): "Pro football," he claimed, "is for madmen."



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