Several years ago I worked in a large newsstand. We stocked almost every kind of paperback, newspaper and magazine, from New Directions to the Midnighter. Being a young and still romantic product of the 1960’s, I imagined that working in such a place would be an “interesting” experience. And besides, I loved books.

After a couple of months this love of the printed word disappeared. Every frozen morning I opened the store and I would find myself groggily staring at the rows of novels, cookbooks, cellophane-wrapped pornography, pot boiler histories, comics, and popular magazines. I always felt an urge on those mornings to set fire to the building, cross the street, and watch it all, Faulkner and Spillane, Proust and Playboy, go up in righteous smoke. I suppose that working with something that was once merely a pleasure creates a different perspective.


My boss was part of the problem. He was a hunchback named Bud. His employees, who like myself were students at the university, called him “Sidewinder” because he walked with a crab-like, lateral motion. He never smiled. He always complained, and he was obsessed with the idea that someone, somewhere, was cheating him in some way.

In fact, Bud hated books too. They were a commodity that he could never dispose of fast enough. He sat all day in a roach-infested office pounding at an adding machine, trying to figure out how much he lost on last month’s shipment of Barth and how much he was going to make on this month’s load of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He could never get ahead, at least in his own paranoid terms, so he blamed the books, magazines and newspapers.

It was about a month after I started working for Bud that I began to notice certain regular customers. Bud made sure that his clerks kept an eye on everyone in the store. One woman, expensively dressed, arrived in a Cadillac every Tuesday. She would usually steal about five dollars worth of magazines and then, with an admirable display of arrogance, walk out as if nothing had happened. Bud sent her husband a bill at the end of each month. Another regular, a tall, softly fat man in this thirties, came in on the last Sunday of every month and bought about $150 worth of pornography. Bud told me to keep a special eye on him, as he had once been caught masturbating in the back of the store. The fat man was too good a customer to lose, so whenever he came in I had to make sure that he didn’t “forget himself” (as Bud would say). Once I rang up an order for the fat man for five boxes of novels with titles like I’m Coming Daddy and Ten Inch Stud. He was sweating and his hands were shaking as he paid me.

Another of our regulars was a lesbian who claimed that she was the first person in Columbia to get the latest monthly issue of Easy Riders. She walked like John Wayne, dangled a Camel from the corner of her mouth, wore her hair in the feminine equivalent of a flat-top, and rode a big Harley-Davidson. Once as I was ringing up her purchase, I asked her what she found so interesting in Easy Riders, as I thought it was just another motorcycle magazine. She looked at me as if I were an animal who had somehow been given the power of speech, threw her cigarette on the floor, grabbed the magazine, and walked out. It was then that I became interested in Easy Riders and other, similar publications. For want of a better name, I call them special interest magazines for those who live vicariously.


Special interest magazines of this type were once a rarity confined to the fringes of the publishing world. Normally, special interest magazines may cater to anyone from model airplane builders to wrestling fans. In other words, most such publications deal with a particular activity. The other, and newer, type of special interest magazine is devoted to a life style. Until the late 1960’s they were directed toward minority groups (Jive, Ebony, and Hep) or to a particular political ideology (The New Masses, American Mercury and The National Review). Today, however, magazines exist, and flourish, which are exclusively concerned with social groups. The older special interest publications could be read by people outside of the group with some degree of comprehension and identification. Magazines like Easy Riders, High Times (dope smokers), or Soldier of Fortune (mercenaries) deny the validity or admit outright hostility toward the kind of world that exists beyond their pages or the daydreams of their readers.

Easy Riders calls itself “Entertainment for Adult Bikers.” What this means is that Easy Riders is for motorcycle gangs and those who would like to be in motorcycle gangs. The image that is maintained from issue to issue is that of good-natured, free wheeling nihilism. Easy Riders is in no way responsible for the creation of this image; rather it feeds upon the fantasy of its readers. The personification of this image is, of course, the long-haired, violent, sexually irresistible biker. The biker is a rebel, continually flaunting all the standards of straight society, and constantly harrassed for having the courage to live, as the editors of Easy Riders put it, “in the wind.” Recently there have been a series of articles about the encroaching powers of “Big Brother.” This power is exhibited through state helmet laws which are, according to Easy Riders, the most obvious infringement on individual rights in America today.

Yet despite the occasional editorializing over the repressive nature of contemporary society, Easy Riders is primarily concerned with how its readership sees itself. For this reason biker language is used exclusively throughout the magazine. Articles and stories in the June (1977) issue were titled: “Whatever Happened to Ass-Kickin’ Biker Music?”, “Man, This Bitch Is Bent!,” “A Scooter That Could Be Rated X,” and “Man, This Shit Is Past!” The last article is an appeal for an end to gang warfare.

The language in Easy Riders is most important in relating the connection between sexual powers and the motorcycle. Each issue presents one, and often several, pictorial layouts of customized motorcycles (always Harley Davidsons) draped with nude women. The commentary with each layout belabors the obvious point of the pictures. A recent example accompanied a series of color photographs of a young girl lounging in various postures on a Harley-Davidson 1000.

“She digs men and their machines — and she showed it by purring and cooing and sliding around on the scooters . . . and there’s nothin’ that goes with a scooter better than a young nympho bitch who’s got it all together.”

This manipulation of sex and mechanical power extends into the fiction and advertising in Easy Riders. The short stories, all written by people with names like Spider, Falcon and Tex, usually portray a lone biker who lays a couple of attractive women, bashes a bad guy (cop, loud-mouth straight) and then rides away. The world outside the motorcycle gang is treated with ignorance, derision and fear. One story in the May (1977) issue is about a biker who also happens to be a world-famous big game hunter. He is accosted in a bar by an English butler, who takes him to a mansion in Beverly Hills, where the hero meets a beautiful, but spoiled, rich girl. The “rich bitch,” as she is referred to, wants the hero to bring back an Abominable Snowman so that she can have sexual relations with it. She offers the biker $50,000, and in the meantime falls under the spell of his virile sexuality, presumably using him for a substitute until Big Foot arrives.

Naturally, no Abominable Snowman is produced. Instead, one of the hero’s friends dresses in a gorilla costume and goes to the mansion to service the “rich bitch.” The hero collects his money and treats all of his “brothers” to a good time.

The advertisements, and at least fifty per cent of each issue is devoted to advertising, are in part for motorcycle accessories, such as extension bars, custom frames, and front disc brake kits. Most ads, however, are for the kind of decorations and clothing favored by bikers. One such ad shows a woman’s breast and stomach and a belt buckle embossed with a swastika and winged wheels. In the latest (July, 1977) issue there is a full page devoted to the sale of Bad Ass Biker Boots (“All leather, steel-toed”). A nude girl caresses the toe of a boot, and in a smaller insert the boot is jammed into a blue-jeaned crotch.

The editors of Easy Riders are shrewd enough to realize that those who read their magazine sentimentalize their lives, while at the same time pretending to be tough-minded, hedonistic rebels. This sentimentality is most obvious in a testimonial column called “A Tribute to Lost Brothers.”

“A Tribute to Lost Brothers” is composed of memorial messages sent by the friends of bikers who ran afoul of the police, traffic or each other. A couple of samples reveal much about the life-style that is honored in Easy Riders.

“In memory of Edward (Vindictive) Miles, one hell of a biker. Ride on. No more gas stops forever. Joey Vincuillo. San Berdoo”


“To Peggy. The greatest old lady in the world. Snuffed by heartless punks. Revenge. Gone but not forgotten. From Scorpio. Pagans. N.Y.C.”

Easy Riders also runs a sexual advice column (which doesn’t bear quoting), a prison pen-pal exchange (“Inside lookin’ out is a bummer. I’m goin’ nuts”), a horoscope page, and vividly colored paintings that romanticize motorcycle life (reproductions may be ordered from the magazine). Easy Riders is of a better than average production quality, being printed on slick paper and well illustrated, and has a fairly wide national readership. It is a prosperous magazine, considering the fact that it is aimed ostensibly at a very small percentage of the public.

It is obvious then, that Easy Riders, like other special interest magazines, could not exist if it were not for the continued affluence of its readers and advertisers. It would be untrue to assume that most people who read Easy Riders are Hell’s Angels, or even members of motorcycle gangs. I have seen everyone from high school girls to policemen buy it. In short, its success is mostly due to those who would like to ride powerful motorcycles, whip people with chains, subject their bodies to bizarre combinations of drugs and lead brutal sex lives. Like most of us, they live at least half of their lives in a fantasy world. What is disturbing about a magazine like Easy Riders is the type of fantasy which is indulged. In The Day of the Locust Nathanael West suggests that the trivialization of dreams can lead to the apocalypse. West was writing about the Hollywood of the 1930’s, yet television and publications like Easy Riders carry this trivialization even further. Modes of behavior which fifteen years ago were confined to a very small number of social misfits and outcasts are now marketed for consumption in much the same way as the upper middle class dream of material security and respectability was sold through the now defunct mainstream magazines like Life, Colliers and Look.


If Easy Riders is disturbing, Soldier of Fortune is frightening. It calls itself the “Journal of Professional Adventurers,” which is a romantic euphemism for mercenary. Soldier of Fortune has separate editors for combat pistol craft, automatic weapons, martial arts, sniping, counter-sniping, paramedic operations, Africa, Latin America, and terrorism. While the general tone of Easy Riders is sometimes good natured and self-deprecatory, that of Soldier of Fortune is cold-blooded and serious.

The editors of Soldier of Fortune believe that Western civilization is on the edge of extinction and that the “Merc” is the only bulwark against a rising tide of Communists, Asiatics, Africans, and Cubans. Just as the dominant figure in Easy Riders is the macho motorcycle rider, Soldier of Fortune peddles the masculine merc image: beret, strong-jaw, battle dress, and sunglass-hidden eyes. The mercenary is portrayed as the modern knight errant, whose soldierly skills separate him from the flabby, permissive society he defends.

These skills are stressed on almost every page. There is a monthly column on knife-fighting in which readers’ questions are answered. The example below is fairly typical.

“I feel that a knife is a good defense weapon for close-in work. Your book may cover the topic, but where are the best places to strike a knife (4 ⅞-inch blade) in order to do the job quickly, quietly, efficiently?”

Other articles, all written in a technical jargon that makes the act of killing sound like vacuum cleaner directions, are on such subjects as the best way to take care of sentries [“The follow-through (with a knife) is a key element of a successful cut and allows for set-up of the next technique.”], the evaluation of waterproof survival gear, the inferiority of the M-16 infantry rifle to earlier weapons used by the Army (apparently it doesn’t have enough stopping power), and the new Rhodesian R-76 submachine gun.

A number of articles on Rhodesia appear each month. Soldier of Fortune is solidly behind Ian Smith’s Salisbury government, and openly solicits aid in the form of financial contributions, as well as information on service in the Rhodesian army. Besides the articles on weaponry, the unstable situation in Africa merits the next largest amount of attention in the magazine.

The most obvious reason for the commitment to Rhodesia, at least in ideological terms, comes from the anti-communist stance of the editor, Lt. Colonel Robert K. Brown. However, there is also a feeling that Africa merely presents the most likely area of employment for the mercenary. To serve Rhodesia would obviously be a happy combination of principle and professionalism. In fact, the conflict in Rhodesia actually serves to increase the circulation and advertising of Soldier of Fortune as there are several advertisements for T-shirts which bear such inscriptions as “Rhodesia is Ready When You Are,” “Be A Man Among Men: Rhodesian Army,” and “Rhodesia Needs You.”

Other advertisements present a virtual clearing house of weapons and equipment of all sorts, from blowguns and knives, to machine guns and rocket launchers. It would be possible to outfit an entire army from the pages of Soldier of Fortune, as one can also order uniforms (“Camouflage Tiger Stripes!”), helmets, communications gear, survival rations, and electronic spying apparatus.

The advertising department at Soldier of Fortune does more than offer the readers a chance to own all the paraphernalia of the mercenary; it also provides a chance to serve. Besides the opportunity to fight in Rhodesia, the classified pages include such items as the following:

“Help wanted! Adventurers, Soldiers of Fortune — MEN with GUTS! Call the Service Agency . . .”


“Mercenary, SSG, CCN. 7 years Special Forces; 2 combat tours Vietnam; operations and intelligence specialist Europe, 4 years; college major clinical psychology; scuba special investigator; artillery, infantry and guerrilla operations specialist; research and writing experience. Serious offers only . . .”

Virtually all of the ads of the above type mention the Vietnam experience of the applicant. It would seem that a large part of Soldier of Fortune’s readership comes from those who served in Vietnam, and it is easy to see why they would be attracted to this magazine: it continually reinforces the idea that the U.S. military was betrayed in Southeast Asia. Soldier of Fortune is probably one of few publications, outside of the military, that glorifies the experience that the American soldier went through during the Vietnam War.

Many veterans returned to the United States to find that the skills they used overseas were of little benefit to them in civilian life, especially in a nation which seems, in many respects, to condemn them for their service. It is small wonder that so many of them signed up to fight in Angola during the 1975 war, or that Soldier of Fortune has become both their mouthpiece and a vehicle for fantasy. In its pages they can believe themselves to be misunderstood heroes and flamboyant men of action; Errol Flynns crushing the Japs in Burma, John Waynes fighting Indians, or Clint Eastwoods blasting subhuman gangsters with a .44 magnum. Then too, Soldier of Fortune emphasizes the fraternity of the mercenary, the band of brothers who serve for the sake of adventure and because their calling in life requires strength, experience, and endurance, if not to say ruthlessness and brutality.

Indeed, brutality itself becomes a kind of virtue, which in Soldier of Fortune is strangely mixed with romantic references to the French Foreign Legion (of Dien Bien Phu), the British commandos, U.S. Special Forces and the S.S. The rationale for this brutality lies in the notion that the opponents of freedom and individuality, such as communists, are brutal themselves and need to be dealt with on their own terms. This whole aspect of the Soldier of Fortune mentality can be summed up in an advertisement for a T-shirt which bears the slogan: “When You’ve Got ’em by the Balls . . . Their Hearts and Minds Will Follow.”

In both Easy Riders and Soldier of Fortune there is the same overall feeling of paranoia, the same emphasis on violence and power, and the same curious mixture of group identity and the need for individuality. These magazines are but small indicators of a national disease which Joan Didion calls the “atomization of America” — the breakdown of the old standards of national identification that reveals itself in less malevolent fashion through such current social phenomena as singles bars, old people’s retirement villages, and specialty stores (boutiques, waterbed outlets, candle shops, etc.).

The tribalization that began in the America of the 1960’s has, like the music and vague talk of revolution that we associate with that era, become a commodity. We can now, at the 7-Eleven, or a newsstand, buy our most outrageous and destructive dreams, and feel that we really do belong somewhere.