Once Aryan Skynet Goes Live It Doesn't Matter Who Pulled The Switch
The late Mick Farren, in addition to leaving behind a respectable catalogue of confrontational sixties-seventies British psych and proto-punk, was the author of several science-fiction novels as well as assorted non-fiction including an interesting item titled The Black Leather Jacket. This short book is a work of pop-cultural anthropology and an engaging excavation of the social history of a garment that like no other would zipper the union of dangerousness and hip mystique.
Among Farren’s many thought-provoking observations is the curious circumstance that the black leather jacket would be adopted during its postwar heyday by both police and delinquent youth – figures operating on opposite sides of the law and conventional mores. “There doesn’t seem to be any argument that there’s something more going on with the black leather jacket than just a simple, utilitarian garment,” Farren begins his most intriguing digression.
Divorced from sociology and culture, it doesn’t look like much more: waist length, unobtrusive collar, sleeves, a couple of zips, some studs, maybe a buckle or two, ideal protection from the weather for motorcyclists, aviators, anyone with a taste for the rugged outdoors or the wild blue yonder. On the surface, the black leather jacket ought to have a positive and wholesome reputation. In its straightforward form, it has no frills or flounces, no titillating, peek-a-boo slits or anything else custom designed to facilitate crime, violence or psycho-sexual freaky-deaky. By rights, it should be a yeoman garment with no hidden significance. But it isn’t.
This inescapable fact leaves us just two basic alternatives. On one hand, we must assume that there’s something in the make-up of various kinds of bullies, sociopaths, rock musicians and policemen which gives rise to an overwhelming urge to clothe the top halves of their bodies in shiny black leather. This, however, hardly seems logical. The sweep is simply too great, for the story of the black leather jacket spans almost a century and stretches geographically the long way around, from Australian surf punks to the LA Police Department. This has to be more than just a shared taste. If we abandon this argument, though, it leads us into somewhat strange territory. We have to conjecture that the garment is somehow able to invest the wearer with a certain power and maybe even bring out the aggression for which people in black leather jackets are significantly famous. Are we faced with the possibility that we may be dealing with actual twentieth-century magic? […]
In this context, it becomes much easier to think of the black leather jacket in the context of […] a solid and potentially powerful totem.1
Farren makes clear that in using the word “magic” it is not his intention to evoke the concept “in strictly medieval, ‘eye of newt’ terms.”
However, there is a close connection between medieval and modern magic – and it is embodied in the black leather jacket. The parallel between the leather jacket and the armour of the Middle Ages is neither so far-fetched nor romantically fanciful as it might at first appear. Sure, in my case it was an adolescent fantasy, but there was at least a slight factual basis. For a start, a leather jacket does afford a good measure of physical protection. Any motorcyclist sliding along the highway having just dropped his bike will attest to this, as will the experienced bar-room brawler, who is well aware that leather is a great deal better protection against knives, brass knuckles, broken bottles, chains and straight-edge razors than seersucker. Armour has always been something that demanded to be taken seriously. […] A man in armour really was an individual with whom you didn’t mess. At the sight of a man in armour, the patched and threadbare peasant was very well advised to make himself scarce, to hide in the bushes until the human tank had gone by.
It doesn’t really matter whether the character in the armour is a crusader in chain mail or a Hell’s Angel in a bike jacket. A set of basic principles apply to both. The armour confers both a purpose and an identity. The man in armour is flaunting his power. He might not be out looking for trouble but at least he was well prepared for the eventuality. This has to be part of the obvious appeal to adolescents. […]
Both leather and plate armour easily transcend a simple display of identity. A bowling shirt is a display of identity but it hardly evokes any particular fear or inspires awe. The armoured knight and the biker in the leather jacket were and are something a little different. Both put such an emphasis on communicating the idea of power and potential aggression that their garments quickly become a very personal fetish for the wearer. The knight adorns and decorates it to make himself seem even more dashing and dangerous. Medieval armour was decked out with any manner of religious symbols, ladies’ favours, good luck charms and fanciful decoration. […]
The decoration of armour and the accompanying shield were part of the complicated system of heraldry. The heraldic quartering of the knight’s shield and the cloth surcoat that was frequently worn over the armour clearly stated the fighting man’s allegiances […] In rather ironic parallel, the motorcycle gangs of the modern world also have a kind of surcoat in the familiar sawn-off denim jacket that’s worn over the basic black leather. It too carries all manner of formalised information regarding its wearer. It proclaims to the world the name of the club with which he rides and his position in that club’s hierarchy, while the degree of unpleasantness of the club logo – death’s heads, demons and eagles have always been big with bike clubs – provides a gauge of the collective badness to which they aspire. […]
To the vast majority of the general public, the most disturbing part of motorcycle display – and the punk rock display in the late seventies – was the adoption of Nazi regalia. The usual rationalisation for this, in both cases, is a statement to the effect that they didn’t actually embrace the philosophy or want to set up death camps [sic] but only used Nazi symbols as something to administer the ultimate shock to the surface-dwelling citizens. The Iron Crosses, the swastikas and the Wehrmacht helmets however, bring us right back into the realm of twentieth century magic. The swastika goes to the very roots of Indo-European symbolism. All the way, almost to prehistory, it has been associated with the sun, fertility and good luck. This was a swastika, though, in which the right-angle arms of its crooked cross pointed in an anti-clockwise direction. When, in the 1920s, Joseph Goebbels commissioned the Nazis’ basic house style, the cross was reversed. Its arms now pointed clockwise. Whether this was a deliberate act or merely an ill-omened oversight […] the result was the same. This flip-over also reversed the mystic connotations of this historically potent sign. Instead of sun, fertility and good luck, it now represented the diametric opposite. According to the fundamentals of folklore and magic, it stood for darkness, death and absolute evil. All of which were horribly apt, considering the glazed, lockstep brutality that followed the Nazi banners. Sad to say, the Nazis play an uncomfortably major role in any history of the black leather jacket.2
With regard to the alleged sorcery of reversing the swastika, Farren is lying in order to make a poetic point, as just a few seconds’ searching of the internet will confirm. The clockwise swastika, like the counter-clockwise, dates to antiquity, and can be found, for example, on an ancient Macedonian helmet3 or on silver coins discovered in what is today non-Aryan Pakistan4.
Farren devotes a chapter of his book to the German influence on the development of the leather jacket. Notwithstanding the cultural appropriation of the likes of the Black Panthers, Richard Roundtree, Lou Reed, and Henry Winkler, the black leather jacket, more than the universal swastika, constitutes a distinctly European innovation and magic as well as a hip expression of a peculiar strain of implicit whiteness. Rock that hide with pride.