“We like to know when we’re being taped.” So says Sonny Barger, legendary leader of the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels back in their cross-country riding, brawling, gang-banging, B-movie inciting heyday. We’re about to tuck into cheeseburgers at the Roadhouse Cafe, adjacent to the Harley-Davidson shop in Durham (“It’s got all the food groups,” says Barger of the cheeseburger). After countless punch-ups, a bout with the big “C” that cost him his vocal chords, and getting swiped on his bike by a woman going 70 mph, road grub seems to be doing the 62-year-old Barger right–he looks tanned and rested. When asked, half-seriously, if he’s going to smash the tape recorder, he and Bobby, the Winston-Salem chapter Hell’s Angel who’s with him, laugh easily; they’re having fun. The tape recorder stays on.
Traveling on a Harley with faux bullet-hole stickers on the gas tank (he’s got a sense of humor), Barger was in town to promote the paperback release of his book, Hell’s Angels. The slim tome details the origins of the California Angels, from their nascent days as a group of restless army vets, through The Wild One years, to the feared chain-wielding outlaws depicted in countless ’60s exploitation flicks, to the international organization it is today. Barger, who speaks by vibrating a muscle in his throat and holding his thumb over his windpipe, gave no readings, but signed books at The Regulator Bookshop last Friday night and at Durham Harley-Davidson the following afternoon–a glorious fall day that brought out a good showing of N.C. Angels and other cyclists.
The book touches on Barger’s less-than-idyllic childhood; his mother left the family when Barger was four months old, leaving him with an older sister and a “functioning alcoholic” father who did blue-collar jobs. Barger’s first Frisco runs were on a red Schwinn bicycle, when the pre-teen would take the ferry across the Bay and ride the streets, “seeing how the rich people lived.” After a short army stint, where he learned to respect discipline and order, he returned to civilian life, just as motorcycle culture was beginning to define itself–a world in which Barger, as head of the feared and respected Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels, proved himself a force to be reckoned with.
As chronicled in the book, the Angels’ mythos is interwoven into America’s emerging counter-culture: Its music, its drug scene (Angels controlled most of California’s ’60s acid trafficking, especially the Owsley product, in San Francisco’s Haight district) and the look–long, wild hair, beards, leather and shades. The Angels were in the middle of it all. They partied with The Grateful Dead, hung out with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and enjoyed the respect of “outlaw” country entertainers like Johnny Paycheck and Waylon and Willie.
And there are surprises: Barger says he’d be riding a Japanese bike if he weren’t an Angel. “I’ve had a problem with Harley all my life, and Harley’s had a problem with me,” he says. “You have to remember: In the ’50s and ’60s, the dealers didn’t even want us to come in their shops. Now they’re making motorcycles like we used to ride.”
Barger, in his day, was Angel numero uno–the figurehead of the club, the target of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) laws that landed him in Folsum for five years. But over lunch, he seems an agreeable, reasonable sort, the kind of guy you feel comfortable asking, “So, did the club ever have a contract out on The Stones?” (“If we wanted to kill them, they’d be dead,” he says with finality.) Barger, who was sidestage at Altamont when the Angels beat a man to death with pool cues to the strains of “Sympathy for the Devil,” contends that The Stones caused an already bad situation to escalate out of control. “Those guys sing pretty good but they’re fuckin’ assholes,” he says. “I mean, they’re total jerks. They wanted to get the crowd agitated.”
And though he’s mellowed some, he’s still outspoken, still trying to right what he sees as the public’s–and the law’s–misconceptions of his club. He’s still pissed at Roger Corman for pretending to use “real” Hell’s Angels for his film The Wild Angels, starring Peter Fonda, whom Barger calls a fake: “He’s not a biker” he says.
And what of Easy Rider? “It was not, and is not, a motorcycle movie; it’s a movie about two drug dealers who cross the United States on motorcycles,” he says. “The only thing that made that a biker movie is that they killed the asshole [Fonda] at the end.”
He’s equally candid about “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson. “You gotta give the guy credit!” Barger says of Thompson, who, he insists, wanted to get beat up as a publicity stunt for his Hell’s Angels tell-all. “I saw him recently on TV. They did a documentary on the club on the History Channel,” Barger says. “He’s so drugged out, I don’t think he could write his name, let alone another book.”
Since ’98, Barger has lived in Phoenix, Ariz., the site of one of his last incarcerations. (He’s logged 21 arrests in all, with 13 years spent behind bars.) Besides owning Cave Creek Cycles, a full-service Harley-Davidson shop, Barger enjoys riding horses (he proudly pulls out a picture of his mare, “Oksana Blue”) and has a 12-year-old stepdaughter, Sarrah, who’s starting to ride motorcycles. No longer sporting the pumped-up physique of his weightlifting prison days, Barger now concentrates on merchandising himself and the Angels legend: There’s a film in the works based on the book, with Tony Scott directing and Anthony Zuiker (TV’s C.S.I.) working on the adaptation. (When asked who he’d like to play him in the film, Barger professes to only watch comedies, but adds that his wife, Noel, put in a vote for Vin Diesel.) There’s also a Sonny Barger website where you can buy anything from leather-bound special editions of the book to Barger-endorsed sauces and condiments, medallions, busts and more. And there’s another book in the works, Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free, a collection of biker stories.
To this day, Barger doesn’t understand the law’s official take on his “club.” Of course, the book freely admits that some Angels were out of control, and there are a couple brief descriptions of torture–smashing fingers with ball peen hammers and the like–just to remind you that, after all, these are the Hell’s Angels. Their eye-for-an-eye, whoop-ass ethic–an Angel could be kicked out of the club for not “defending his patch”–as well as their penchant for partying, meant that many of the most infamous Angles (guys like Doug the Thug, Terry the Tramp and McGoo) never got to see old age.
But even today–though Hell’s Angels members are more likely to be doing a benefit run as taking small towns prisoner–the club is still under surveillance. Now that the highways are crowded with weekend motorcycle clubs, including groups of retirees, what does Barger think of America’s embrace of motorcycle culture?
“Well, they want to be us on Saturday night. If I wasn’t a Hell’s Angel … and I rode a motorcycle, I’d want to be one.” (After all, they’re just a club, not a gang. “We don’t use the ‘g’ word,” Barger adds.)
“The L.A. police department puts up these big billboards and they say, ‘Join the biggest gang in the world, the L.A. Police Department,’” he says. “Now they’re a gang. We’re a motorcycle club.”
To see Barger and several of the more famous Oakland club members in their heyday, check out the films Hells Angels 69 and Hells Angels on Wheels, or the documentary, Hells Angels Forever.