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Johnny come lately

New owner Peter Lago looks to re-establish Hollister’s Johnny’s Bar & Grill as a touchstone of American biker culture

BIKER LORE Johnny’s Bar and Grill in Hollister is a landmark in the biker community and new owner Peter Lago its custodian. Photo: Robert Eliason

It goes back decades, this love affair between Peter Lago and motorcycles.
He was just an awestruck child when his uncle pulled him atop a Honda Gold Wing, mystified at how such a monstrous machine could be balanced at a stoplight with just one foot. At 8 years old, he was given a chance by a family friend to kickstart a Harley. The recoil almost flipped him over the handlebars.
His first bike was a busted Sears & Roebuck model that he retrofitted with a lawn mower engine and a centrifugal clutch. He kept welding the frame back together every time it broke. At 14, he found an abandoned Suzuki GSX-R racer bike in the desert near where he grew up in Las Vegas. He reported it to the police. The bike’s original owner had already collected his insurance money, so he just gave the teenager the title. Young Peter spent six months rebuilding it. The first time he got it out on the road, he was popped. “You take that thing home and don’t ever let me catch you on it again,” the cop told him. “Or I’m taking away the bike and taking you to jail.”
As an adult, Lago has crossed the universe of motorcycle brands—Harley, Kawasaki, Honda, Husqvarna, BSA, Norton. He’ll tell you about his old 1974 Harley Shovelhead, complete with the high handlebars known as “ape hangers,” with all the nostalgic warmth of Willie Nelson warbling “To All The Girls I Loved Before.”
It’s a bit weird that all this matters when taking the measure of one of Hollister’s newest downtown business owners because Lago is selling beer, not motorcycles.
But it does matter. It’s not like learning that, say, your new dentist is a huge NBA fan. It matters because Lago is assuming a unique position among all other beer salesmen in town, in California, maybe even in the world.
Lago is the new owner of Johnny’s.
You don’t even have to step foot into Johnny’s Bar & Grill to know that it’s more than just another dive bar. Marlon Brando lets you know that. Brando, in his cabbie’s hat and leather jacket, is the bar’s symbol and mascot. He’s also the reference point to the bar’s status as sacred ground in the history of the American biker.
For many, Johnny’s is Hollister’s signature business, as central to the city’s self-image as garlic is to Gilroy’s. Locals will tell you that the place was the site of an infamous Fourth of July dust-up back in 1947 between a few rowdy motorcycle riders probably enjoying a bit too much of the freedom to which they felt entitled after winning World War II. The incident was, by all accounts, exaggerated and sensationalized in a Life magazine article, and that article turned into the 1953 film “The Wild One,” in which Brando sneered his way into cinematic legend.
As well known as it is in Hollister, Johnny’s also exerts a kind of gravitational pull outside of town, sometimes well outside of town. As the bar’s new owner reports, a few weeks ago, five men from Sweden showed up at Johnny’s, having flown their bikes across the Atlantic Ocean and ridden them across the American continent just to see the place immortalized as perhaps the most well-known biker bar outside Sturgis, South Dakota. “Motorcyclists from all over the world, this place is in their heads,” said Lago. “It’s literally world famous.”
Lago himself exists in a space somewhere between newcomer and oldtimer. He is the new guy in town, having moved to Hollister earlier this year after living on the Hawaiian island of Maui for the past 17 years. But, since 2003, he has visited Hollister each summer to help Johnny’s with security and other concerns during the annual Hollister Independence Rally during the July Fourth holiday weekend.
Lago approaches Johnny’s as a biker, and someone long steeped in biker lore. “Even before I started coming here, this was a spot always on my bucket list for places to visit,” he said. Because of the 1947 incident—legend has it that one particularly frisky patron rolled his chopper through the bar—and the Brando movie, Johnny’s has attained a reputation that makes it a quasi-historical site. Lago gets that. “This bar and its history needs a custodian.”
The bar’s name is a reference to its original owner, Johnny Matalich, but it was also the name of Brando’s character in “The Wild One.” The 1953 film is both a touchstone of biker culture and a powerful myth that many contemporary bikers feel needs to be exploded. It was “The Wild One” that first introduced the image of lawless marauding biker gangs into the cultural imagination where it burrowed deeply and, even more than 60 years later, remains hard to shake. That image both attracted a criminal element to motorcycles and alienated law-abiding motorcycle enthusiasts. It also created a Hollywood-fueled romanticism of the biker as defiant and misunderstood outsider.
Peter Lago finds himself in the position to correct some of that history and rehabilitate the image of the biker. To that end, he plans on creating a “history wall” at Johnny’s, a coherent display of photos and press clippings that he hopes will put some needed perspective on the 1947 incident in Hollister, the media’s shaping of that narrative, and the movie that came out of it.
Lago has for years been interested in the history of the motorcycle clubs that sprouted up after World War II, and feels that “The Wild One” gave those clubs a bad name. “There are a lot of parallels to a kind of ‘Reefer Madness’ paranoia that was built up around bikers to paint them in a bad light,” he said, referencing the famously lurid 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film.
Lago bought Johnny’s from former owner Cherisse Tyson for a lot of reasons: a commitment to be closer to his aging parents in Las Vegas, the need to heal from a divorce that unmoored him from his life in Maui, a desire to run his own business after a lifetime of other ventures including construction, audio engineering, event logistics and firearms instruction. But high on that list, he said, is to restore the biker’s good name in American folklore.
The 20-year-old Hollister Independence Rally will not take place in 2018, at least not officially, though Lago will have Johnny’s ready to welcome anyone who wants to gather informally for a Fourth celebration. He does, however, harbor hopes that Hollister can get back on board with the rally in 2019, with his help. He said that a non-profit organization is now in place to bring together other community non-profits who might benefit from a summertime rally. And, he is bringing a wealth of experience in producing events as he has done in Hawaii with rock concerts featuring Elton John, the Eagles, Stevie Wonder, Bon Jovi and others.
The biker, he said, is no longer something to fear. “These people (who have attended the Hollister rally) have six-figure incomes. They’re coming in from the Bay Area on $30,000 bikes. They want to come in, spend some money and go home safely. This is not ‘The Wild One.’ This is not ‘Reefer Madness.’ We need to get those ideas out of our heads.”
Ultimately, the world might be a better place, in the world according to Lago, if more people could have the motorcycle experience. “With a motorcycle, it’s not necessarily all about adrenaline. It’s really about connecting with the land and the environment, and flowing through it. It feels like flying. Sometimes you actually lose the sensation that you’re traveling in a vehicle, that there’s a mechanical thing underneath you. There’s a thing that motorcyclists do, they wave at each other. And that’s a sign of solidarity that acknowledges your need for freedom and the risk that you take that enables you to follow (that freedom).”
What could be more American than that?