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Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club
I've always been interested in modern American history, particularly the politics, music, and counterculture of the 60's - Ralph "Sonny" Barger is one of he best known players in that drama. Whether hanging out with his good friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, allegedly holding Rolling Stone Keith Richards at gunpoint during the debacle at Altamont or taking on the anti-Vietnam war movement in Oakland (the Angels beat up protesters at Berkley and went as far as offering their services to the military during the conflict), Barger and the Angels were witnesses to and at the heart of the 60's counterculture. Barger also fought the law, sometimes he lost and sometimes he won, like his victory over the federal government in their famous but failed racketeering (RICO) prosecution against Barger and the Angels.
Although Barger didnít start the Angels, he has come to personify the Hellís Angels and what they are about. Starting out with a bunch of vets who missed their wartime motorcycle exploits and longed for the camaraderie of the road the Angels have become the most notorious motorcycle club in the world. Their lifestyle has been documented in many popular books and films. Many, even some in law enforcement, have tried to copy the Angelís style. But like them or not there is only one Hellís Angel Motorcycle Club and only one Sonny Barger.
When Barger got out of the army in í56, in the San Francisco area, he lived in Oakland, I had the choice of becoming a beatnik or a motorcycle rider. He chose motorcycles. Predictably from a broken home, Barger had a run of mill childhood that included plenty of petty crime and fist fights. His life gets interesting after he leaves the army (honourable discharge, he joined illegally at 16 and was turfed out).
Although the Angels are touted as rebels, Barger didn't think they were rebelling against anything. All they were doing was trying to live their lives, ride their motorcycles and have fun. But when people try to stop them, they react to whatever is happening at the time. More often than not this reaction is violent. Sonny and all the Angels love a good punch up. Whether it's with rival gangs, rival chapters or even members of their own chapter. The Angels creed is all for one, one for all - i.e. if one starts the other jump in, no questions asked. Trouble is (depending on how you view it) they never back down, because thatís the kind of people they are. Thatís what draws them together. They defend each other, to the death if itís necessary. I found it bizarre that Barger preaches brotherhood and unity so much, yet he revels in discussing fighting against each other.
The most interesting part of the book for me is the 60's in San Francisco (though Sonny spent the majority of his life in Oakland). The Angels were really in the spotlight after Hunter S. Thompson book 'Hells Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga'. Barger agreed to let Thomson ride with them after he liked an article Thompson had done on the Angels, though Barger didn't like Hunter S. Thompson as a person. Barger thinks Thompson is probably the greatest writer in the world but when he was with the Angels on a run, they were going to fight the police one day and Thompson locked himself in the trunk of his car. This didn't site well with Barger and other Angels, not to mention the fact that he didnít buy the Angels a keg of beer as he'd promised. Similar scorn is poured on Peter Fonda after the Biker movie 'Wild Angels'. Barger thought both Thompson and Fonda over played the Angels as outlaws, Barger threatened to shoot the writer/director Roger Corman if he didn't give them royalties.
The Angels infamously provided security at the Rolling Stones doomed free concert at Altamont. Barger rubbishes the myth that events there contributed to the so called 'end of the Age of Aquarius'. Barger considered it to be just another day in the life of a Hellís Angel. A guy pulled a gun on them, he got killed and thatís the bottom line. He blames the Stones for building the tension, coming on stage at least 3 hours late. During the concert, brilliantly captured in 'Gimme Shelter' the documentry of the Stones harrowing 69' American tour, Keith Richard shouts in the mike 'if those cats don't stop fighting, we're gonna stop playing' - Barger said he pulled a gun and put it to Richard's gut, he told him 'play or I'll kill you'.
The late 60's and early 70's see Sonny and the Angels gravitate from a gang of lovable rogues to full blown organised crime. Sonny spends the majority of the 70's in prison, accused of murder, drug dealing and other crimes. The Angels were put on trial for RICO. In 1970, American Congress passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, at the time, Congress' goal was to eliminate the ill-affects of organized crime on the nation's economy. Miraculously, the Angels beat the rap, thanks to poor police work and good legal representation. In the 80's Sonny gets and beats cancer of the throat. He was wheeled into the operating theatre smoking a camel, his last one! He later moves frm Oakland to Arizona, he found the dry air benefited his throat and lungs while he was staying their on remand.
Barger still rides and is still very much a member of the Hells Angels. The book can get a bit repitive at times but it's highly enjoyable. I often wonder what sort of life clever sociopaths like Barger would lead if they were raised in different circumstances, military leader perhaps? Hunter S. Thompson likens Barger's reign in the Angels to Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin - though Barger lasted longer than the three of them.
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