In his seminal gonzo novel, Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson begins proceedings with the François Villon epigraph: “In my own country I am in a far-off land.” Thereafter, Thompson documents the most radical offshoot of 1960s counterculture: biker gangs, their throbbing engines of discontent, and their highwire lifestyles. With this epigraph that dates back to the 1400s, he reminds us that although counterculture might have had a new name and a cool revamped set of iconographies, it was just a rehashing of a mindset that dates back to a time long before leather-clad loons perused their own lonely highways.
As Villon poeticised centuries ago, a feeling of cultural indifference is nothing new. Thompson’s 1967 novel depicts the hoodlum circus straddled upon growling engines as disillusioned wayfarers looking to recapture ‘kicks’. ‘Kicks’ that they felt had sailed by them like they were pawns in a movie that unspools in drab slow-motion, directed by a nefariously enforced mechanical oppression. What freedom and footing did they have in this world where the chips were loaded, and they were being sent to die in their droves to a war they didn’t care about?
Counterculture was not some uproarious youth movement out for a lark, but rather the manifestation of mass disillusionment and a frustrated stand against the comatose upheaval of apathy and inaction powered by the explosion of pop culture. In other words, it was kids using what they could to shoulder some freedom away from the grind. Two years after Thompson captured the most extreme end of that, a movie would finally come along that captured the essence of the movement and not just touch upon it in a brushstroke.
Up until Easy Rider in 1969, most pictures that tried to capture the zeitgeist failed to encapsulate the nitty-gritty feel of it. As Quentin Tarantino puts it when discussing the movies of the swinging sixties with Kim Gordon, the kids of the counterculture were able to identify Easy Rider as “a movie for us, by people like us.” This evidently wasn’t some old-hat director trying to be hip—it didn’t just have the costume and soundtrack sewn up but encapsulated what it was all about and how people were feeling.
Just as Bob Dylan had said some 14 years earlier when Blackboard Jungle captured the pop culture explosion, ‘This is really great! This is exactly what we’ve been trying to tell people about ourselves!’ Finally, the sagacious youth that he helped to spawn had a film that they could say the same thing about. This wasn’t lost on Tarantino, who calls the movie “the single greatest example of ’60s cinema in every way.” Easy Rider was the moment that “finally a movie and the counterculture hooked up with each other.”
“It captures the ‘60s in a way that is tangible,” Tarantino continues. “If you were trying to describe the ‘60s in terms of movies to someone, you could show them Easy Rider and never have to show them anything else.” The reason it manages this is because Dennis Hopper was working with a sense of creative independence and capturing culture on the wing in the way that the bands who formed the backbone of the movement were.
It was, as Tarantino puts it, “an outlaw” movie, made in the Freewheelin’ style of Hopper’s desire. And because there was a frenzied market out there craving an original voice, it was a huge success. Once more, this mimics the rock ‘n’ roll lifeblood of counterculture—the music was challenging in some ways, and commercially unreliable, but it was because of that that it succeeded. With pop culture, society and art reflected each other—they coalesced. Thus, you didn’t just like Easy Rider, as Tarantino says, “you went out and bought the poster.”