The Bikeriders: Is Zipco Based on an Actual Biker?

The Vandals in ‘The Bikeriders‘ is formed by a group of eccentric individuals who propagate outlaw culture and lifestyle. The film chronicles the gang’s history through a series of interviews conducted by college photographer Danny Lyon, who documents his experiences with the club’s bikers. One of these biker misfits is Zipco, an alcoholic among the Vandals who offers Lyon several interviews and nuggets about his life. He is a free spirit with stories about the time he set out to serve in the Vietnam War. As in the case of the protagonists, Zipco’s genesis can be traced back to reality as well!

Zipco, a Real Mythical Biker

Zipco in ‘The Bikeriders’ is based on a real biker who was part of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Chicago, the inspiration behind the Vandals. Jeff Nichols conceived the film inspired by Danny Lyon’s eponymous 1968 photo book, which includes his intimate conversations with the biker group between 1963 and 1967. During that period, the photographer met the real Zipco, who hailed from Latvia and had an affinity for alcohol. The peculiar man also adorned himself with a strange helmet that had a World War I German spike. Several dialogues within the film are exact recreations of Lyon’s conversations with the rider. The scene in which the biker recounts his experience with a failed psychological test after volunteering for the Vietnam War is one of them.

When the U.S. Army was drafting soldiers for the Vietnam War, Zipco was over seventeen years old, working on a shrimp boat. He had attended school until the eleventh grade. Even though he was a committed worker, the money he made didn’t last long in his pockets. “Man, I was makin’ 300 bucks a week. I was really rollin’ it in. I was so fucked up, drunk. I was makin’ $350, $400. One month, I made a thousand dollars, man, and I’d just throw it away. I went nuts when I got drunk, you know?” he told Lyon. His efforts to enlist didn’t materialize either, as he was deemed an “undesirable character” with a “schizophrenic personality.”

Nichols talked about the scene and the way Michael Shannon, who plays Zipco, inhabited the staccato presence of the role without betraying any sense of humor. “It came straight out of the book pretty much, straight out of an interview,” the filmmaker told Entertainment Weekly. “And it’s funny, the way he’s telling the story about going to the draft board, and his mom yanked him out of bed to take him down there, and failing all the tests. And right before we filmed it, Mike comes up to me — because we usually don’t talk before he does whatever it is he’s going to do — and he’s like, ‘You think this is pretty funny, don’t you?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, it is kind of funny.’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t think it’s funny at all,'” he added.

Lyon’s book includes interviews and conversations involving Zipco and other members of the Outlaws, specifically Cal. The biker’s legacy is immortalized in the photograph ‘Funny Sonny Packing with Zipco, Milwaukee, in which he is seen riding a bike with another member of the group, Funny Sonny, as his passenger. Several years after the publication of the photo book, in an interview with A Rabbit’s Foot, Lyon elaborated on how he has lost touch with several of the Outlaws, including Zipco. “Most of the bikeriders I knew are dead. Now and then, I hear from their children, often asking about parents that I knew and they didn’t,” the author and documentarian said.

The last known information about Zipco is that he moved to Texas to work on a shrimp boat again after the death of Johnny Davis. While making the film, Nichols even tried to find out what happened to Zipco and others as he was about to depict them in his cinematic narrative. This proved to be challenging as the names of the bikers and their aliases made it difficult to track them down. Additionally, the intervening time span between the book’s release and the film’s production meant that a lot of information was lost. “We did Google searches, he said in the same Entertainment Weekly interview.

“We tried to find people, but we just didn’t have a lot of information. I mean, it’s nearly 60 years ago, and a lot of these people had died. A lot of these people didn’t have names that we knew. How do you find Zipco?” Nichols added. The whereabouts of the real-life counterpart of Shannon’s Zipco remain unknown. However, in ‘The Bikeriders, the fictionalized version of the biker leaves a lasting impression through his eccentricity and never-ending stories.

Read more: The Bikeriders: Is Stoplight Bar a Real Bar in Chicago?