This week when you see large groups of motorcyclists ripping up the Blackfoot and hear the trademark sound of Harley engines booming off canyon walls, slow down, give them a wide berth to pass and reflect on Sonny Barger’s description of a run.
“A motorcycle run is a get-together, a moving party. It’s a real show of power and solidarity when you’re a Hell’s Angel. It’s being free and getting away from all the bullshit. Angel’s don’t go on runs looking for trouble; we go to ride our bikes and to have a good time together. We are a club.”
Spawned in sunny post-war California, the origins of the Hell’s Angels are seemingly diffuse. Made up at first of restless returning vets, dispossessed urban poor, harder edged hippie types, and ’50s-style greasers, they banded together to experience freedom, fraternity and adventure on America’s highways astride big loud bikes at the expense of respectability and comfort. Most of what the public knows about the Hell’s Angels comes from: the hyperbolic reports of the press, who smell a sexy story the moment the throaty rumblings of a hundred Harleys is heard; their own fears/inadequacies; some well-documented outrages; and Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. With the eye of an anthropologist, Thompson chronicled his relationship with the Oakland Angels, including Barger, after he bought a bike and began hanging out with the club on a regular basis. It was during his research that Attorney General Thomas Lynch published a widely publicized, colorful report on the club which exaggerated the group’s behavior, alarmed citizens and quickly transformed the Hell’s Angels from a small fringe group of boozing, brawling bikers to menacing countercultural celebrities. Fame, in the form of congress with the Vietnam Day Committee in Berkeley, Ken Kesey, Alan Ginsberg and the Rolling Stones, would soon follow, but despite their political dabbling, the club’s focus would not change from its avowed purposes of riding and partying.
Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the notorious former president of the Oakland Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) was involved from the beginning, and his book is titled Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. Barger, who will be in town this week for the HAMC annual run, now lives in Arizona. Thirty years of unfiltered Camels have left him without a larynx but his rasping voice powerfully reinforces the way that his biography is inextricably linked to the history of the club. Instead of an index, the book includes a rap sheet which proudly catalogues his 20-plus arrests. But most of all, it is an unapologetic collection of stories about his struggles to live beyond the law like some kind of mechanized ubermensch, which gave him more contact with the police and more time in jails than any 20 citizens. He spoke to us from his home in Arizona.
In your book you talk about the military, jail, and the HAMC as comfortable places where you learned about life. You even say that when you’re too old to ride a motorcycle or hop into bed with a pretty girl, you’d rather go back to prison than to a retirement home. What is it about these environments that you find so comfortable?
Well, you know, in jail if you never been a rat and you been a stand-up guy all your life, then everybody in there treats you good. They’d sit around and listen to your old stories. We’d do that with the older guys, and they got no money and so you buy them cigarettes, and ice cream and you listen and their life is kind of eventful still. … People have a real misconception about convicts. You know, convicts really treat kids and old people really nice, and they are really polite to each other. Because in prison, if you step on somebody’s toe or walk in between them during a conversation, you end up getting killed over something like that, so people are very polite to one another. If people on the outside were half as polite to each other as people in there, there would be a lot less problems.
So everybody could benefit from spending a little time in jail?
Have you ever been to Missoula before?
I don’t recall. I mean, I might have come through there on the way to somewhere else. But, boy, I’ve seen some newspaper articles, about nine or ten of them all about us coming up there. … You know the thing I noticed most in every article they talk about our run to Colorado and—what was it?—five people got beat up, and all five of them admit that they started it, they just didn’t think they should have gotten beat up as bad as they did. But they all admit they started it.
It doesn’t seem like you can pick and choose…
How bad you are gonna get beat up? It goes back to what I was saying earlier. When a guy gets out of jail after doing four or five years, he’s been taught to respect people, not to bump into people, not to interrupt a conversation—in case people are saying something that you’re not supposed to hear. And then he gets out and goes into a bar and somebody spills a drink on him, steps on his shoes, and, excuse the language, tells him to get the fuck out of the way, and then the convict stabs him, and the guy has no idea why he just got stabbed. And the recidivism rate is up.
So you’re saying that if I were in a bar and spilled a drink on a Hell’s Angel and then in sort of a gentlemanly way apologized, then everything would be cool? It would certainly be a lot better than, you know, pushing him out of the way and mother-fucking him.
I understand that the Missoula Police Chief went down and met with some of the Hell’s Angels in California.
Oh, I didn’t know that. I wonder who he met with. Are you sure that he didn’t go to meet with the cops in California?
I’m pretty sure he did meet with someone from the organization. Do you think that the fact that they both spoke and exchanged cell phone numbers bodes well for this year’s run?
Oh definitely, but it really doesn’t matter what he [Lawrenson] says. We’re coming anyway!
What did you think of Hunter Thompson’s book?
He was certainly a very descriptive writer. The problem is that he did not stick to the facts. My biggest problem with him was that when we met him, he was a writer and he had written a couple of articles and this was his first book … and we liked the way he wrote and we told him that he could hang around with us, but when he was done and he got paid he had to buy us a keg of beer. And he didn’t do it.
And a couple of years ago he called up and asked if he could buy it for us now if that was the problem. And I told him you had your chance 20 years ago and we don’t want it now, fuck you…
Did he just misrepresent things in his book?
He says himself that he got off on the wrong foot, never finished the book and the publishing company called him and told him that if they didn’t get the manuscript by Monday morning they were canceling it. And then he got a fifth of whiskey and an ounce of cocaine and wrote the second half of it. … I also think he planned on getting himself beat up, because he knew how bad he would have gotten beat up for what he did, which wasn’t that bad … and he got smart with one of the members and got beat up a little bit. And so then the cover of the book says: “I met, I lived with and I was almost killed by the Hell’s Angels.” Some guys will do anything to sell a book, and at that time, he was one of them.
In your book, you mention that although the club rides them you are not especially fond of Harley Davidsons. If you could have any three non-Harley bikes what would they be?
A big Triumph, a BMW—the big touring bike—or a Honda ST1100. I ride a Harley and I’ll always ride a Harley but I’ll always talk bad about them.
Sort of a love-hate relationship.