Billy Lane Revisited Part 2
We haven't said much about Billy Lane in quite awhile now so I thought I would share my feelings at this point. As most of you know Billy is headed for trial in February unless it is delayed again or a plea bargain is reached. There really has been no news in awhile which is not a surprise. In fact, it has given me a chance to look at the tragedy without a lot of noise.
My emotions are in control and I feel smarter and better informed than in the beginning. I have also had the opportunity to talk with a number of builders who know Billy and I have asked each one of them about the issue. They know Billy better than most anyone so, there opinions carry a lot of weight with me. There are so many who offer an opinion like they are family members when in fact, they may have met him once or twice at shows, shared a drink, read about him, or seen him on TV. They draw conclusions based on very little. They mostly want to hang him or let him go. The emotions run high when it comes to Billy Lane. He was and is a controversial figure who represents different things to different people. I have yet to meet or speak with anyone who is neutral on the subject. People love Billy Lane or they hate him. This is part of the legacy Billy has built and part of what made him rich and elevated him to rock star status. He was on TV all the time. He was in magazines, at an enormous amount of shows, in newspapers and was for many the face of the industry. He was a hard drinking, anti-establishment, talented, outspoken, in your face kind of guy who loved the spot light and took great risks both with his own life and the lives of others. He was the standard for the rebellious, tough talking, womanizing biker that so many fantasize about. He symbolized the freedom seeking, non-conformist, motorcycle guy who many wanted to be.
Remember Be Like Mike in the adds for Michael Jordon? Well, in the motorcycle world it was Be Like Billy. I think that Billy believed the hype. He felt like an outlaw. He thrived on the adulation, he flaunted the law, he rebelled against authority and he thought he could walk on water. I think the se beliefs are what brought Billy down. If you think about it, it was only a matter of time. As the great Indian Larry said you can't live life like that. you just can't When you peel away the hype things become more clear. Who is Billy Lane anyhow? Why does he matter to so many? What has he done to stir the emotions of so many? What has he done for society, what about the men and women in the industry? What has Billy's mess done to them?
I am not about to try and explain Billy in depth. I don't know enough about what got him where he was but I do know something about what got him to where he is. Billy grew up in Florida. He came from a family that no one seems to talk very much about. He went to college and studied engineering. He didn't go to Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, R.P.I. or any one of the first tier engineering schools. He did go to school and he got a degree. His older brother Warren is a motorcycle artist and builder but, he is the antithesis of Billy. He is very private and lives in Miami. He too, is very skilled. Billy got out of school and went to work with/for Warren and then went out on his own. He developed motorcycle parts and holds several patents. He felt strong enough to go out on his own and he did. He started with nothing working out of a very small space. The rest is history.
Choppers INC was born, parts were made and sold, bikes were built and sold but, most importantly a trend began. In the early to mid-nineties the motorcycle industry took off. Baby boomers had some money, wanted some freedom, wanted to recapture their youth so, they started to buy motorcycles. The motorcycle is a symbol of freedom, rebellion, independence, and a feeling that is not new. It started a long time ago. The business had its ups and downs. The icon Harley just about went broke and sold out to amf. Yep, a bowling company. Willy G. and a group bought it back and now, it is one of the true success stories of the last 20 years. The industry was back and by the mid nineties was a rocket waiting to be launched. The boomers had money and a need. They wanted bigger, better, faster, prettier, eye catching machines. The custom and manufactured custom were about to really happen. Big Dog began and a great many of today's builders started to build and make serious custom motorcycles. They also began to make serious money.
Billy Lane, Jesse James, and the Teutels caught the big break. The world of the motorcycle came to TV. There was motorcycle mania, American Chopper and Biker Build-Off. These shows made ordinary people some of whom had premium skills into rock stars. Jesse was well known out in California, the Teutels came from a small town in upstate New York, and Billy and Larry arguably became the face of Biker Build Off. They were on there more than anyone else. Russell may have caught up, Matt too. I'm not sure. Each of them appeared at least 3 times.
Well, in 2002 the Teutels were in a small shop, Billy was largely unknown, Jesse was well known but only in a cult-ish way and the same for Larry. Arlen Ness had been the most successful, well known name and has been at it since Billy was just a baby. Arlen is still considered the Godfather by most. The TV changed things and Billy and the rest became famous, rich, and were in a place they could never have imagined. The industry was white hot and is just now cooling off some.
Billy Lane is a talented, charismatic, symbolic, smart man who rode the wave. What is important to realize is that he didn't invent the cure for cancer, he didn't save the world, he didn't change or create an industry, his innovations were relatively minor, he didn't get a Nobel prize, he didn't save the planet, he isn't Henry Ford, He isn't Carol Shelby, He isn't John Delorean, He isn't John F Kennedy. He is a guy who made a few bucks, presented an image, and stirred some emotions. He is not unlike Michael Landon (little house on the prairie), Buffalo Bob Smith (Howdy Doody), Pinky Lee, John Forsythe, Carol O'connor, or many others that caught a wave and rode it. He's just a guy that most won't remember and who really is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things.
Having said that Billy Lane is a man who at best was driving with a suspended license and hit and killed a man. At worst he is reckless drunk who thought he could walk on water and despite numerous warnings proceeded to drive a vehicle, cross a double yellow line, drive with a suspended license, and take an innocent life. He has hurt the industry and his brothers and sisters. Corporate sponsorships are gone, appearance money is less, and all that I have spoken with say the damage is pretty severe.
Billy Lane should be treated the same as anyone else. If innocent he should be free. If found guilty he should be judged and sentenced just like anyone else. Is Billy Lane a tragic figure? Yes. Is what happened sad? Yes. Is Gerald Morelock gone? Yes. Will history remember? No. It's time for closure and for all of us to move on. I will always be in awe of the charisma Billy has as we have had almost 60,000 people read just about Billy since September and the trial has yet to begin.