By Allison Fagan/El Inde
Bruce with his customized Harley in 2004.
I met Bruce on a late September afternoon at Black Crown Coffee.
I sat in a booth next to the window, looking out on the outdoor patio. The afternoon sun peeked through, beams of light decorating the space. I wore my curly hair untied, headphones playing Phoebe Bridgers’ music, a patterned bandana tied around my waist, and paint-splattered jean shorts.
I’d been climbing a mountain of work for hours. Next to me, a couple of motorcycle gangsters chatted around a table that didn’t seem fit for their intimidating size.
They all wore leather jackets, leather gloves with the fingers cut out, long hair braided back, and sunglasses that obscured their eyes, with only a pool of black visible.
Typically a motorcycle gang would have me turning in the opposite direction. I knew nothing of that world, and men like that intimidated the hell out of me, but something caught my eye. A patch, “Sober Riders MC.” That seemed like an oxymoron. When I thought of motorcycle gangs my mind tended to wander to Hell’s Angels type of gang: dudes with a bad attitude, crime, and lots of drinking and partying. Since when were motorcycle riders sober?
Curiosity took hold of me, and before I knew it I was walking outside to the lion’s den.
“Hey, I’m so sorry to interrupt,” I tumble out, all the men’s smiles drop, “I’m a journalist and I noticed you guys had that Sober insignia on the back of your jackets—”
“The patch,” an older man corrected. His white hair was in a tight braid on the back of his head. His mouth sat in a fixed tight line and he had wrinkles and marks that spoke of a history I was unaware of.
“Yes that,” I say. “Could I interview one of you guys about this?”
Initially none of them looked interested, a few laughed, but the intimidating older man stood up and obliged my request.
“I’ll meet you inside,” he said.
With sweaty palms clutching the pen and paper I completely forgot I brought out, I ran back inside.
I quickly learned that day that this was a man named Bruce, and that Bruce and I did not have very much in common.
For one, we take our coffee completely differently. Everytime we met, and we met a few times, Bruce drank a hot black Americano, and I usually drink an iced oat milk latte variation.
For another, where I was a young, nervous 21-year-old journalist wistfully waiting for an adventure to spring on me in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona, Bruce was a retired 73-year-old, and had already done it all. Growing up, Bruce lived in multiple states including California, Nevada, Missouri, Texas and Alaska, thanks to his somewhat nomadic parents; from there he had traveled the world as a Commander and Bandmaster for the United States military, and roamed land, sea, and sky by either plane, motorcycle, or boat.
At first, he seemed a little uncomfortable to tell me about his motorcycle club.
“The Sober Riders Motorcycle Club is a traditional motorcycle club made up of men and women involved in twelve step recovery programs,” Bruce recited. It sounded like he had said this exact phrase dozens of times. And as one of the mentors for prospective Sober Riders MC members, this probably was something he said dozens of times.
“The patch cannot be purchased, bartered, or otherwise obtained,” Bruce told me, referring to the one on his back, which was made up of a red triangle within a winged wheel. “It has to be earned over time with the club. You have to ask yourself, ‘How bad do you want to wear this patch?’”
Bruce himself was a recovering alcoholic of 29 years.
“In the disease of addiction, the substance was the solution to dealing with life as it was, and that made life tolerable. I would be dead without [AlcoholicsAnonymous].”
As part of the eleventh tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bruce had promised to always
maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and films, as the program is “one of attraction
rather than promotion.” Hence why he preferred to be called just Bruce.
He was being a little reserved about his information. Part of it was because there were certain club secrets he would remember he did not want me to share with the public, and the other part was I realized ‘motorcycle club’ Bruce was a professional, and I wanted to meet whoever regular Bruce was.
“I’m trying to condense what I teach in a number of classes in 30 minutes,” Bruce said, his hand held his forehead, eyes closed and his brows furrowed in concentration.
Eventually as an aside, he mentioned he was a musician.
“Wait, wait,” I paused Bruce, “You’re a musician?” He nodded.
“I am a professional musician first, that happens to ride motorcycles,” Bruce said. As fascinating as the history of motorcycle clubs was, Bruce as a person, an individual, interested me more. We agreed to meet on another day, starting fresh.
“Let’s start off with the basics,” I said on our second meeting. “When were you born?”
“November 30th, 1948.”
My eyes widened and I started to laugh, Bruce gave me an incredulous look.
“That’s my birthday too,” I finally said. I whipped out my driver’s license and showed him. And for the first time I heard Bruce howl.
By either cosmic intervention or pure coincidence, the last day of the autumn month connected us.
And although Bruce was 52 years my senior, he still valued his Zodiac sign just as much as I did.
According to Cosmopolitan magazine, Sagittarians are lively, passionate, smart, philosophical, and are born travelers, adventurers, explorers, and free spirits.
“I’m a Sag through and through. Everything I’ve read about being Sagittarius essentially sums me up to a T.”
Bruce definitely fits the adventurer category. Besides his travels in his youth, his military service during and after the Vietnam War allowed him to get around.
“In 1966 I graduated high school, and in October that year I enlisted in the Navy,” Bruce said. “I hated the my job in the Navy. I did it until I could get out of it, I really just wanted to play music.”
Eventually when his Navy enlistment was up, he found himself back in the military in 1973 as a military musician and eventually became an Army Bandmaster, the commander of bands representing the United States. This time was different, however, he was doing what he loved.
“We did not only the required military commitments, but we did concerts for the public, and occasionally we would play embassy functions,” Bruce described. “I loved it, it felt like we were representing the United States in good will.”
According to Bruce, sometimes locals would travel for miles just to hear his band play. The music was compelling, moving, and welcoming to all.
As a bandmaster, Bruce went on tour all across Central and South America, as well as Korea. His favorite? Panama.
“Love the tropics. The weather was perfect—putting on a long sleeve shirt was considered ‘dressing up’ for the evening, it was just ideal. It was paradise.”
Bruce described a scene where during the 1983-1984 dry season at Fort Amador in Panama, he and his band performed at a gazebo for a World War II memorial concert. All around there was a great well of manicured lushness; palm trees, bush, and a grass expanse as a breeze flew through attendees’ and their picnic blankets, all waiting to listen to the concert.
He had a far away look in his eyes as he told me. The smell of a salty breeze, the whoosh of ocean waves, the rustle of palm tree leaves snuffed out the coffee grinder and bean scent that surrounded us. Dreamy did not seem befitting for an aging man clad in leather, and yet he made me feel like I was right there with him.
After his time in the military, he later described his return to college at the Jacksonville State University of Jacksonville, Alabama for a graduate degree in music, his limited time as a high school band teacher in Anniston, Alabama from 1995 to 1997, and eventually joining a road band in 1998 at 50 years old.
He traveled the country, going from bar to bar to do his next gig.
“I ended up staying in some ratholes and some of the places I stayed could be unfit for human habitation. It was kind of a gritty way to live, everybody hears stories of what it’s like and stories don’t do it justice: the good of it, or the bad of it,” Bruce said.
When I spoke to Bruce, I felt like he had everything I wanted. A career he loved and used to travel with, freedom, and quite a bit of parties in his lifetime. But as we were discussing his band tour I realized for once I had something my whole life that he never had: a home.
“[A] home and a house are two different things, but the way I use my home today represents a place of peace, serenity and comfort,” Bruce said. “A house was just a place to park your stuff and you just learn how to function and get the job done in spite of not having another place. Had I experienced [a home] prior to going on the road, I may not have gone.”
For me, a home was all I had. It was not just a structure holding all my things and a place to rest my head at night, it was my home. Something I cherished. For the first time I did not envy Bruce.
But the home he refers to now, the one he finally built after all these years, is the one he found with his wife, Tina.
“Before I met Tina, this thing I’d been singing for my whole life, having a loving relationship, I never thought I’d have that and I was accepting of that.”
Tina and Bruce met at a bar while he was on tour with his road band, and she could not be more than his polar opposite. Tina has no interest in bikes, no interest in going out and partying, and has a love for taking care of the home they share together.
“You won’t see her at my gigs probably, she’s not really into that kind of thing.”
And yet, they make it work. Every time he spoke about Tina I saw a glow in his eyes. I could not help but smile that this woman made this intimidating biker guy grin like a fool in love.
Initially there was a lot I did not understand about Bruce, but after our coffee conversations I realized that he was human just like me. And Bruce existed beyond the pigeon hole I had put him in.
We kept in touch. We must have met four to five times, always back at Black Crown. After one of our last meetings he invited me to a gig, a three-man performance at the bar and restaurant The Landing.
“Don’t feel like you need to, but you know if it’s something you want to do–”
“I want to,” I interrupted.
“Well alright then.”
I brought my childhood best friend Jordyn, and me and Bruce’s other birthday twin, my actual twin, Brooke. The three of us walked in right as the band was about to begin their set, parked right by the door.
Bruce and I saw each other immediately, him nodding to me in greeting, I waved enthusiastically.
We sat ourselves at a table closer to the back.The small space was packed, and I picked the seat best suited for seeing him perform. The restaurant was peppered with reminders of the ocean and sailing, walls covered with anchors and yacht wheels. Television screens displayed the football game of the night.
The music was relaxed; although it was mostly older tunes, it fit the venue. The crooning voice of the lead singer mixed with the fun drums and smooth strings of Bruce’s bass took me to a beach.
The crowd was primarily older people looking for a dance, with some kids celebrating a birthday party and occasionally running past, giggling.
And dance they did. Women and men that had to be no younger than 60 rocked out in front of the band, drinks in hand, occasionally spilling liquid here and there. They seemed so wild and free, something I was more accustomed to seeing with people my age.
The band was treated as a member of the bar space. Parked right by the door of the bar, people were walking back and forth past the performers. In some circles this could be viewed as disrespectful, but here I felt like it showed how comfortable everyone was around each other. Dancers were right up next to the instrumentalists, shoulders and hips shaking easily as if they were in their 20s again. The women’s hair was unbound, either twirled by themselves or their male dance partners.
It felt like this was what music was supposed to be. Not something to spectate from a distance, but something to be enjoyed in conjunction with everyone else. If the music was the ocean, the listeners were the boat, and the dancers its sail.
As someone who was never involved with the making of music, simply a spectator listening to it, I was more familiar with music either being the sole focus of a performance or the background elevator tune, so to see the performers and audience together as equals was something I did not expect.
“When I got back [from Naval service] I was doing singles and cocktail hours, that kind of thing. I realized early on that I really enjoyed ensemble playing,” Bruce told me once at Black Crown, when we’d first met. Music that was free, and not tied to some Hollywood label or used as a pawn to get to the top. “[I like] laying it out in a band, and that holds true today. I like the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts; you have the chance to get together to make magic happen.”
Bruce played bass for the band, but also did back up vocals, and an occasional solo.
Not being a musician myself, it was difficult to tell what level his bass skills were at. His voice was a different story.
“My earliest instrument of my voice, I was always pushed to be better, become more, and the more you get the more that you’re not yet there and somewhere along the line I became okay with who I was. I like to think I’m competent, but I’m okay that I’m not a great musician,” Bruce told me at Black Crown.
Like the bass he played, his voice was deep, sounding like it came from the barrel of his being. Perhaps not every note was perfect, but he layered it with enough honey and had enough spirit behind it that it did not matter. The voice came from a person that lived, and that was beautiful in itself.
Eventually Bruce stepped over to our table and I introduced my family. We had a friendly conversation, before he had to return to his show, and we followed, joining the older dancers. And for the first time I realized this was the adventure Bruce had been talking about. I was in my hometown still having so much to explore, but right here as I came out of my shell and laughed and boogied with strangers I would never see again, I became an adventurer.
As Bruce had said to me during one of our conversations over coffee, “Be a noun, not a verb.”