Bill Borrows: Rebel Yell(ish)
“Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?” THE WILD ONE (1953).
So then Johnny (a young, magnificent, brooding Marlon Brando) goes to pull the object of his attentions towards him. She walks away but the rebel as an icon in American cinema stays put, staring down the camera in an act of bravura defiance. And there he remains, still wearing dark denim drainpipe jeans, a white t-shirt and a black leather biker’s jacket (peaked cap optional) and looking as natural as Joey Ramone in a pair of round shades.
Or rather, that’s how rebels used to look. Times have changed. The wardrobe choice of the rebel is now high street denim (made in a sweatshop in Asia but not so you’d notice), a band or slogan t-shirt (the consumer as mobile billboard poster) and some kind of ironic beard. Obviously, for anti-global demonstrations and riots, the impromptu face-mask and freshly looted JD Sports trainers are optional. But then in the age of CCTV and state-sanctioned erosion of personal liberty, who wants to advertise their refusal to conform.
There are no more policeman like the hapless sheriff Brando had to deal with in The Wild One, a film based on an actual incident which made it into a 1947 edition of Harper’s Magazine. The piece was titled, ‘The Cyclists’ Raid’ and the subsequent film struck such a chord that it was banned in Britain until 1968, the year before its natural successor, Easy Rider, filmed yet again on the back of a motorbike, dragged the rebel in an entirely different direction.
The Wild One inspired James Dean to become a Rebel Without a Cause in 1955 and, two years later, convinced Elvis Presley to make the Jailhouse Rock. In Britain, at roughly the same time, Alan Sillitoe was writing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (published in 1958 to universal acclaim – ‘Brilliant,’ the New Yorker called it. ‘A genuine working class novel’) that established the ‘Angry Young Man’ as the rebel of the age. Arthur Seaton, the protagonist of the book, says: ‘I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not.’ Needless to say, those in a position of power cannot permit rebellion and, in a powerfully symbolic scene, Seaton is badly beaten by a couple of soldiers.
The dictionary defines ‘rebel’ thus: ‘To resist or rise up against a government or authority esp. by force of arms’ or ‘to dissent from an accepted moral code or convention of behaviour’. Which, to be fair, puts the gesture politics of recent years such as boycotting Starbucks exactly in its place. But then came the Sixties. And whether they were rebelling against the military-industrial complex or, at the exhortation of Dr Timothy Leary (called by Richard Nixon ‘the most dangerous man in America’) just tuning in, turning off and dropping out, those that drank the Kool Aid defined the time as the decade when rebellion finally came of age. Of course, they all grew up and sold out but that was only when the reality of financial freedom replaced the loose conceptual idea of political freedom, in the West. That was their prerogative and not something that was an option for the gentleman coming home from the Chinese equivalent of Aldi on 5 June 1989 and finding a line of 18 tanks just about to go into Tiananmen Square. Most people would just go home and tell the wife, ‘You won’t believe what happened on my way home tonight.’ Not him.
Dressed in a decidedly unrevolutionary pair of work trousers and a white shirt, his shopping bag gripped tightly, he stood in the way of a column of tanks and would not let them pass. In fact, he moved into their path whenever necessary and dared them to kill him in front of the trained cameras of the world’s media. One (still unknown) man defied the Chinese government, a ramshackle collection of geriatrics who favour repression rather than any form of democracy and acted out the urgent desires of over one billion people to express themselves, to demonstrate why we evolved into humans. Every other species is either in a zoo or about to become extinct. The thing is, he only went out for a pint of milk.
The authorities retained power and the man rumoured to have been executed, but the business of being a rebel, or rather the appropriation of the rebel motif is 24/7 big business. Ask anyone at Microsoft or Apple or, more to the point, Rebel Sport (‘Australia’s largest sporting goods retailer’)… or visit Miss Rebel online women’s clothing before going to get a pint of unfiltered Bohemian lager from the Tiny Rebel brewing company. What happened to Naomi Klein and No Logo, ‘the book that [supposedly] became a movement’?
To be a rebel is now to accept the primacy of self-expression within the confines of the existing system. It is the selfish desire for freedom recast as pointless gesture politics borrowing from the original generation of post-war rebels but dressed in unthreatening high street clothes. That doesn’t make traditional conformists the new rebels, it just means that there are no real rebels left and the conformists are just as they have been since the 1980s – better dressed, complacent and untroubled by the idea of selling out.
Bill Borrows is a journalist and author. He has been in fights with several celebrities including Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, Hulk Hogan and Derek Hatton but prefers to relax by sewing and studying the history of the Vietnam War.