“Patches do not belong to members; they belong to the club (now a corporation). We’ve had a lot of problems with that distinction when informants and rats give over their patches to the cops. When informants turn over, we’ll sue to get the patch back. According to our bylaws, a patch remains club property, but we generally don’t get patches back from rats. Our patch is our symbol, which is why our people fight to the death for them. If you lose one, it’s a big-time dishonor, which is why the cops love to grab them.”–Sonny Barger, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angel’s Motorcycle Club
The flying skull image from the first incarnation of the Hell’s Angels was based on an aviator’s patch from World War II. A lot of the first Hell’s Angels and the Boozefighters were Air Force vets. It is a flying skull with an aviator’s cap and wings. Years later, the bigger design (the ‘Larger Barger’ as it is known) caused no small amount of acrimony between the older San Francisco Angels and the brash new Oakland Angels.
In this culture, the patch and your “colors: are a very serious thing. Your colors are not allowed to touch the ground–ever. The patch is sacrosanct, an article of faith and all that is holy to a Hell’s Angel.
The Angels are not great lovers of rules, but they certainly have them. Anybody jumps an Angel, it is everyone in “One on All and All on One.” Failing to stand up for a brother Angel immediately get you kicked out of the club.
There is also a rule against pulling a patch off of another chapter’s member. “Taking somebody’s patch is a dangerous symbolic gesture. It represents capitulation, defeat. Say somebody in San Jose gets pissed at a Nomad and gets into a fight and beats him up. He can’t take his patch. Any serious offense has to go up to an officer’s meeting and go through the proper channels. Just because a guy can beat me up, doesn’t entitle him to take my patch. If somebody beats me up and takes my patch, I might kill him, even if he’s a member.”
The symbolism of the patch cannot be underestimated. It is the symbol, in their eyes, of being free men and not belonging to the world of wage-slaves and sheep. It was Barger who made the Angels get rid of the swastika and Nazi regalia early on in the seventies. At first the club had Nazi flags just to piss people off–and that it did. Whatever coziness the left worked up for the Hell’s Angels, this kind of imagery dispelled. Barger himself was sensitive to this given his aviator heroes spent no small amount of their tours of duty dropping bombs on Nazis. By the end of the seventies, the Swastikas and double lightning bolts of the Luftwaffe were pretty much gone from the Angel’s vests.
A good deal of the Angels’ appearance is calculated to make one think of pirates, or Vikings or visigoths, meaning they mean to scare you. If they scare you, you’ll leave them the fuck alone. The Hell’s Angels are big fans of being left alone. They are also big fans of the “theater” of the Hell’s Angels. When attending a funeral, they attend en masse. On that day the rest of the world is put on notice. “Don’t fuck around with us today, we’re burying one of ours, and we are not in good humor.”
When other clubs predict that the Angels will not show up at the annual gathering of the tribes which occurs in Sturgis every year? A nation of Hell’s Angels show up from every corner of America; double file, unsmiling and overwhelmingly. . .present.
Barger’s book undoes some of the mythology surrounding Altamont, the disastrous “West Coast Woodstock” that ended in death, disillusionment and signaled the death knell of the love generation of the 1960s. In Barger’s telling, the Rolling Stones themselves were as much responsible for the unrest at the show as the Angels were and his logic makes a lot of sense. The Stones went on several hours late, keeping an already overwhelming, and really drunk and stoned crowd, waiting in the hot sun.
And there were already a lot of shoving and fistfights long before they deigned to come out of their bus and play their show. The crowd was already in a drug induced frenzy and even the most brazen Angels were scared by the size and ferocity of the crowd. This does not forgive the Angels over-reaction and violence, but it adds context to what actually happened.
There are telling spots in the film, Gimme Shelter, where the Stones stop playing and the crowd gets more angry. At one point the camera pans across Mick Jagger’s face and you can tell he is genuinely frightened and, for the first time–perhaps, in his career–he has NO control over his audience and one can’t help but feel that he, at this point, is an unwilling participant in all of this. The truth is Sonny Barger wasn’t in charge at Altamont–the San Francisco Hell’s Angels chapter was.
Even the late Bill Graham, who was NO fan of the Hell’s Angels, put the blame squarely on the Stones for a lot of prima donna behavior; delaying the show, for the unruliness of the crowd.
The more one reads of Sonny Barger’s history, the more one realizes that it is also the codified history of America: drugs, sex, love, hate, shame, fear, and rock and roll whipped into one hellish froth that somehow also reflects a grim prism of the American Experiment.
We would like to think we are better people than the Hell’s Angels. . .sell ourselves the bigger lie that our brutalities and bombings of civilians around the world are somehow a more civilized brand of murder. They are not. At least the Angels do not try to wrap their ugliest deeds in virtue and tell us it is all for the greater good. They know us and they know themselves and, in a large number, thinking as one?
Neither of us is any damn good at all.