Whiskey Joe, American Biker (R.I.P.)

I met him only once. My friend went to visit his old neighbour and dragged me along. All I knew was that Whiskey Joe had been a biker a long time ago. With this scant information and mildly intrigued by his exotic nickname, I prepared to meet a drunken outlaw. The prospect of spending time with him did not really appeal to me that much.

However, the person who met us at the door was completely different from anything I had imagined:  a man who was sharp, funny, charismatic. On the wall — an old faded photo of bikes and young men and I had a hard time identifying Whiskey Joe.  The style was very ‘Easy Rider’. From the living room we went to the garage. He joked, laughed, and listened. The focus however, was clearly on his beloved bikes which he showed us with undisguised pride.  Here Whiskey Joe came into his element, this is where he felt at home. We left after an hour —  never to return.  Soon after that visit Whiskey Joe passed away.

The thing is, fleeting encounters like this are all too easily forgotten. The life or death details of a less than casual acquaintance generally do not matter much. But the news of his death touched me. More so, it still affects me. So why the pain? After all, I hardly knew the man. I had learned that he’d served in the army, and then became a biker. I hope he was a better father than husband — three marriages, a dozen children. At some point he had worked in construction, which destroyed his lungs and eventually cost him his life. That he had built a plane with his own hands, then flew the damn thing!

I think that in part the sense of loss I feel has to do with his charisma and that unexpected, indelibly good impression he made on me during our brief encounter. But it is not only that. To me Whiskey Joe is part of something bigger, something I’d like to call an American legend. This is the legend of the free, independent ‘Easy Riders’, touching in their naïve desire for freedom and independence. And so the death of Whiskey Joe is not just the death of a man, but also the death of a part of the captivating legend of the American Easy Rider. A fading legend, like the faded picture of young Whiskey Joe with his biker friends. I wonder how many of them are still alive today. Are the old bikes and faded photos all that remain?

Rest in peace, Whiskey Joe.

Aleksandr Skorobogatov: press and reviews on the books

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