“It’s like this; every baseball player wants to be a Yankee, and every biker wants to be a Hell’s Angel. . .” – Steve Earle
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter–bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.”
— Stephen Crane
From The Black Riders
There is a dense mythology that surrounds the Hells Angels. They are mythic–they are barbarians, pirates of the road, killers, bangers and bastards. They are are all of these things, and none of these things at once. The Hells Angels are a beast unto themselves.
One can watch Gimme Shelter and be rightly horrified by the actions of the California Angels, and then one can pull alongside the double-file, miles-long line of Harley Davidsons packed with toys for kids every year and, oddly, be touched by the actions of the Hells Angels. A woman I know in London recently wrote me and said that where she lived, the Angels were more likely involved in charity works than any real criminality. They are the most well-known of motorcycle clubs; the first to be designated as an”outlaw motorcycle gang” by the American Motorcycle Association.
Any reporting or historical information regarding the Angels is bound to be rife with errors and half-truths–even the stories they’ve written about themselves; in fact, especially the stories they’ve written about themselves. they’ve always known not to rat themselves out with inflated braggadocio and to protect themselves from the man.
When they thought Hunter S. Thompson resorted to a little too much embroidering in his fascinating, if flawed, Hells Angels, they warned him. When it persisted, they stomped the shit out of him. The Angels felt like Thompson fictionalized and revealed a bit too much.
Honor. Respect. Loyalty. These are the code words of the Angels, and to be deficient in any one of these traits disqualifies you from the possibility of membership among their number.
The Hells Angels are named for a Bomber squad in WWII some of the original members came from. A bunch of Air Force combat veterans returned from the war only to find themselves without jobs in the aviation field for which they’d been trained. It seems, in many cases, the returning vets’ hearing loss was a mitigating factor in their inability to any longer perform these jobs. Some, disillusioned by this, bought big American motorcycles and leather boots and made nomadic runs between San Bernadino and Oakland in search of day jobs and fun. The only motorcycle club that pre-dates the Angels is the Booze Fighters, another group of Air Force vets who wanted little to do with the Angels, whom they sensed were a different, more outlaw, breed.
The Booze Fighters are whom the gang in The Wild Ones are based upon, particularly Lee Marvin’s role, “Chino,” who is based on a real-life biker named Wino Willie. After The Wild Ones, both the Angels and the Boozefighters became legendary presences in Southern California, spawning a culture of non-conformity that inspired everyone from other bike clubs to the beatniks.
The leader of the Hells Angels, for as long as I’ve been alive and aware of them, has been Sonny Barger. Barger, a native of Modesto, California, with a long history of delinquency has been the leader of the Angels since 1957. He has remarkable charisma and is resolutely patriotic. Barger once wrote then-President Nixon a letter informing him of the Angels willingness to go and “finish” the Viet Nam war for America. He and fifty Hells Angels.
He also tangled with anti-war protesters, whom he despised for their lack of patriotism. There are some very telling Sonny Barger quotes. Here are a few of them:
“Treat me good, I’ll treat you better; treat me bad, I’ll treat you worse.”
“The greatest thing that I have learned is probably the simplest thing any of us can learn: I am who I am.”
“My most basic credo is: I never said freedom was cheap. And it ain’t. Never will be .It’s been the highest priced and most precious commodity in my life.”
(Referring to Keith Richards during the Altamont Concert in December 1969.) “I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead.”
“If I ever get too old to ride my motorcycle and have pretty girls, I’d rather just rob a bank and go back to prison.”
It is also a credit to Barger’s stewardship of the Angels that he has led them effectively through their decades-long blood feud with the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang formed right here in Illinois in 1936. The Outlaws, for years, did all they could to keep the Angels from opening a Chicago chapter, which inevitably happened in 1994, despite the Outlaws’ president, at the time, blowing up their clubhouse on Grand Avenue. The Angels came here, patched-over the Hells Henchmen and there has been a Chicago chapter of the Angels ever since.
It is very hard to know what to believe of the Hells Angels. Those who hate them will tell you they are savages and animals. Those who revere them will tell you they are the last generation of American men who truly own themselves. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I do know the the Angels are the original “One-Percenters”–the one percent that doesn’t fit in and doesn’t care to and, in this cookie-cutter world of conformity, there is no small amount of grace in that.
I’ve known a few Angels over the years, or I should say, I’ve met a few. Except to each other, maybe,they are unknowable. They remain our nomads. . .a culture of men who wish to belong to nothing except themselves and each other.