Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Sonny Checks In - A Preliminary Retrospective

Sonny Checks In - A Preliminary Retrospective  

To Waiting on the Angels - The Long Cool Summer of '65 Revisited 


Ralph Sonny Barger sat back in the bar booth, an empty shot glass in front of him on the table, a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer not far from the other. He was sitting alone on one side of the booth across from three others – Conway Twitty, Billy the undercover biker from Somers Point and the undercover Ohio cop who had infiltrated the Ohio Hell’s Angels and first warned the Ocean City PD that the Hell’s Angels were going to return and retaliate in full force on Labor Day.

Twitty knew Barger, a fan, and was trying to mediate a non-violent solution to the situation when Billy asked Barger why he did what he did and why he had to make an even bigger issue of it.

Barger took a drag from his cigarette, exhailed a big cloud of smoke, took a swig of beer and said, “You have to know me and who I am to understand what this is all about.”

Barger went quiet for a moment and then began again: “I was nine years old when the original 1947 Hollister motorcycle fracas went down. What started out as a sanctioned American Motorcycle Association racing competition quickly got out of hand when riders from early outlaw clubs like the Pissed Off Bastards and the BoozeFighters got drunk and rowdy, racing through towns streets, running traffic lights. This was supposed to be your typical annual AMA national gathering, just like the dozens they’d staged before. But it all went wrong as hell. Raucous biker riders were getting busted for lewd behavior, public drunkenness, and indecent exposure. To hear some of my older friends, you’d think the Hollister incident was America’s first taste of hell on wheels. Looking back, it probably was.”

“The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, hit the screen in ’54, while I was in high school. The movie was a big hit, based on what took place in Hollister, California, July 4, 1947. An article written by Frank Rooney in Harper’s Magazine in 1951 inspired it. The impact the movie made was apparently strong, the BoozeFighters disbanded after it became a hit, claiming that, thanks to the movie, bike riders now had irreparably bad reputations.”

“When I saw The Wild One, Lee Marvin instantly became my hero. Lee’s character, Chino, was my man. Marlon Brando as Johnny was the bully. His boys rode Triumphs and BSAs and wore uniforms. Lee’s attitude was ‘If you fuck with me, I’ll hit back.’ Lee and his boys were riding fucked-up Harleys and Indians. I certainly saw more of Chino in me than Johnny. I still do.”

“After the Hollister incident cut deep into the AMA’s creed, they labeled rowdy, outlaw motorcyclists the ‘one-percenters.’ According to AMA propaganda, one percent of motorcycle riders were the outlaw clubs giving bike riding a bad name while the other ninety-nine percent were good old-fashioned, ass-kissing, law-abiding citizens. Since then we proudly adopted the name that the AMA shoved on us, the One-Percenters.”

“I get asked a lot about initiations, and there sure have been some wild speculations in this area. I’ll give you one example: to become a Hell’s Angel you have to kill someone. To become a Hell’s Angel, there never has been any initiation rite outside of serving as a prospect. As a prospect, you ‘re basically a gopher for the club, you’re there before meetings to make sure the clubhouse is set up with the tables and chairs, make sure there’s coffee and food at the Oms. When events are over, you clean up the clubhouse, a role that continues until you are no longer the newest member. But prospects can also be the rowdiest of the bunch, with the most to prove. They also seem to have the most fun.”

“The Hell’s Angels is a club that tries to exist with as few rules as possible, including there are meetings once a week at a predetermined time and place, there will be a two dollar fine for missing a meeting without a valid reason, girls will not sit in on meetings unless it is a special occasion, there will be no fighting among club members, a fine of five dollars will result for each party involved, no using dope during a meeting, no drug burns,no spiking the club’s booze, no throwing live ammo into bon fires, no messing with another member’s wife, no stealing among members, prospects must be brought up for a vote by a member, there will be a fifteen dollar initiation fee for all new members. Club will furnish patch, which remains club property. New members must be voted in. Two ‘no’ votes equal a rejection. One ‘no’ vote must be explained. Anyone kicked out of the club cannot get back in.” 

“The Hell’s Angels are an apolitical organization. But when the peace marchers started in the sixties, there were club members who didn’t like the upper-class antiwar radicals’ attitude toward vets like us, so we decided to express our opinions and take a stand against these left-wing peace creeps and went down and fucked with them.”

“Eight of us moved toward the crowd. We fanned out and made our way forward through the protesters who were milling around and carrying signs. At first, the crowd cheered us. They thought we were there to support them. I felt a rage come over me. I was a vet and I loved my country. I was also pissed at the government that wasn’t going to let us win this stupid war. All of the chanting, signs, and speeches weren’t going to do shit for the troops overseas. What good was this gathering? Something inside me snapped, and I responded the only way I knew how, violently. I grabbed a few college kids at random and roughed them up good.”

“We didn’t hit any women or kids, there were more than enough guys in love beads and madras shirts to push around. Some of the protesters scattered while others fought back. There was no heated discussion or emotional political arguments. Our fists and the end of our boots did our talking. We made it clear to the peaceniks, the cops, and the rest of the country where we stood on the war. We dug it. As a vet, I felt we ought to stick up for America. As long as there’s at least two people on earth, there’s going to be a war. If you can’t settle something peacefully, then fight it out. If you don’t want to participate in the war, fine, but don’t yell chickenshit names and throw blood on the guys forced to go.”

“That got me to thinking, so I sent a telegram to the White House for LBJ, offering the services of the Hell’s Angels to fight in Vietnam.”

“Dear Mr. President.

Oh behalf of myself and my associates, I volunteer a group of loyal Americans for behind-the-lines duty in Vietnam. We feel that a crack group of trained guerrillas could demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of Freedom. We are available for training and duty immediately.

Sincerely,
Ralph Barger,
Oakland, California
President of the Hell’s Angels

“After that the left wanted to have a sit-down. Ken Kesey, the counterculture writer who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest called me. We arranged a meeting at my house, with Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. When the group showed up at my house, before the sit-down, Ginsberg took out his Tibetan silver prayer bells and began to chant a Buddhist prayer in an Eastern lotus position. I knew about Ginsberg and his flakey poetry, but it was still a bit weird seeing a robbed and bearded Jewish man meditating and chanting in MY living room. The first thing on the agenda they wanted to know why we beat their people up. We wanted to know why they wouldn’t let our American military fight the war and protect themselves. The meeting must have worked. They didn’t get beat up at any more demonstrations. That first fistfight proved our point anyway. The beer and drugs then came out and we listened to Bob Dylan’s ‘Gates of Eden’ and ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,’ which was okay even though the guy can’t sing. But I dug that skinny little Joan Baez and I even like her music.”

“In 1965 not only did the Hell’s Angels shake up the left with the VDC demonstrations, but we also rattled the cages of the right-wingers too…California Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, responding to pressure from other politicians, released a report denouncing the Hell’s Angels, claiming we were a menace to society. The sixteen-page report called us ‘disreputable’ and even said you could tell a Hell’s Angel by his patch and his odor. ‘Probably their most universal common denominator,’ said the report, ‘is their generally filthy condition.’”

“Hunter S. Thompson wrote an article in the May 17, 1965 issue of The Nation, about the Hell’s Angels and called it ‘The Motorcycle Gangs, Losers and Outsiders.’ I actually liked the way it was written, even though some of the facts were exaggerated. After the article received a good reaction, Thompson came back to Oakland and hung around the club’s favorite biker bar hangouts until he and I finally met face-to-face. He told me he wanted to ride with the club and me and write a book about us. Since I liked the way he wrote, the Oakland and Frisco chapters let Hunter hang out with the club for a price, two kegs of beer. But as time went by, Hunter turned out to be a real weenie and stone fucking coward. You read about how he walks around his house with his pistols, shooting them out his windows to impress writers who show up to interview him. He’s all show and no go. When he tried to act tough with us, no matter what happened, Hunter Thompson got scared, I ended up not liking him at all, a tall, skinny, typical hillbilly from Kentucky. He was a total fake. When his time came, he got it. He was beaten up by the Hell’s angels so he could say, “I met them. I rode with them, and I was almost killed by the Hell’s Angels.’ He got into some really stupid shit to get beat up.”

“We held a Memorial Day run to hook up with Ken Keseyand his Merry Pranksters again. The Sixties were the best thing that ever happened to the Hell’s Angels. We actually had a lot in common with the hippies.”
“In the beginning days of the Hell’s Angels, we really didn’t travel any great distances. We rarely rode outside of the state of California.”

Newsweek (March 29, 1965): “A roaring swarm of 200 black-jacketed motorcyclists converged on the small, sleepy Southern California town of Porterville. They rampaged through local bars, shouting obscenities. They halted cars, opening their doors, trying to paw female passengers. Some of their booted girlfriends lay down in the middle of the streets and undulated suggestively.”

“As the evening wore on, everybody was partying furiously and having a great time. Motorcyles raced up and down the main street. There were wet T-shirt contests happening on top of the bars in the saloons, and the booze (and drugs) flowed like ice cream and cake at a kiddies’ birthday party. It was fucking heaven. The Hell’s Angels along with the locals and other bikers, were having a wild time.”

“The Porterville chief of police panicked. He felt he and his men were outnumbered, so out went a three-county mutual aid call. In less than an hour, over 250 cops, firemen, highway patrolman (there probably were even some curious forest rangers) swarmed into Porterville. Fire trucks hosed down the main streets and lathered the roads down with soap, making it impossible to race up and down the street anymore. 

Motorcycle riders who tired were then shot off their bikes with powerful water streams. After the first trucks showed up, kids got up on top of the buildings and threw bricks down. We stayed at ground zero. That’s where the real action was.”

“The cops lined up their vehicles and the first trucks and instructed all motorcyclists to leave town in one direction. There were two choices: leave town or get your bike washed over…The Hell’s Angels all met up a couple miles out of town. Pissed off, we pulled our bikes over to assess the whole situation. What the fuck, all we had really done was have a little…fun. Some of the other clubs had decided they had had enough. The party was over…We turned our bikes around and headed back toward Porterville with revenge on our minds. The cops had the main bridge blocked off and we couldn’t get past. So we blocked the OTHER side of the bridge, meaning if the cops wouldn’t let anybody into town, then we sure as fuck weren’t going to let anybody out. The cops threatened to arrest us, and we were ready to fuck ‘em up and fight back. Back and forth, hurling threats, sneer and spit, a true Mexican standoff.”

“Then an officer from the highway patrol came over to talk to us. He had stars on his collar and to this day I’ve never seen so many stars on a CHIP uniform. He came over and wanted to speak to me, Sonny Barger. Was I the man? I was pissed off but calm. I told him the Porterville police still had a few of our guys. All we wanted was to get them back. My deal was this: I’d post twenty-five dollars bail, forfeit it, and then get the hell out of Dodge.”

“We passed the hat, bailed the four guys out, and then all headed back out of town toward the group still waiting for us. We were pretty satisfied with what had gone down. It was getting pretty close to a Sunday sunrise, so everybody started heading out. With 250 cops in the area, they decided to do only what they know how to do and that’s play cop.”

“I got up and stood on the seat of my bike and announced out intention to everyone within ear shot.”

“The Oakland Hell’s Angels are going. Anybody who wants to go with us can go, but when we leave here we’re leaving and not fucking stopping for another fucking ticket. If they stop us, we fight! Anybody who doesn’t want to fight, stay here.”

“We took off as a group slow and easy, but loud, gunning our engines all the way home. It was deafening. If they wanted to stop us then they’d have to catch us, roadblock us, and knock us off our bikes first. Looking back, when I stood on my bike, it was at that moment that the Oakland Hell’s Angels became a force to be reckoned with. We weren’t about to get fucked over. The Oakland chapter assumed a special leadership position within the entire Hell’s Angels club. I learned that when you take a stand against the cops, they know better than to fuck with you.”

“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. Angels 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.”

“Most Hell’s Angels are great riders. A group of Hell’s Angels cruising down the road, riding next to each other and traveling at a speed of over eighty miles an hour is a real sight. It’s something else, a whole other thing, when you’re in the pack riding. It’s fast and dangerous and by God you better be paying attention. Whatever happens to the guy in front of you is going to happen to you….”

“When Hell’s Angels chapters started getting chartered outside the state of California in the sixties, that’s when we first started our cross-country rides like the USA and World Runs. We’d meet up with the new clubs along the way, and they’d join the run. Man, we used to ride from Oakland to New York on those early rigid-frame bikes, and they bounced around so much that if you drove sixty miles an hour you were making great time. The vibration left you tingling and numb for about an hour after you go off your bike. If you covered three or four hundred miles a day you were hauling ass. The other big problem then was we’d have to find gas stations every forty miles or so, since those old-style bikes with small tanks couldn’t make it past sixty miles.”

“The big difference between the Hell’s Angels and the rest of the motorcycle world are our bikes and the way we ride. This is serious business to us. Our bikes are us. We know that. The cops know that, and everybody else should know that too. The law and the road are one. Even today, if the cops know a large group of Hell’s Angels is headed somewhere, they’ll show up in force, alerting neighboring police forces along the way. This mutual assistance pact they set up had been used against us for as long as I can remember…We keep going and they keep coming around with all their surveillance methods and radio equipment watching us and keeping tabs. We don’t look for trouble or have intentions of starting any, but by God, it always seems to be around.”

“The Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club has four or five mandatory runs per year and probably fifteen or twenty parties and smaller runs….Each member is responsible for his own machine. He has to make sure his bike is in good enough condition to make it there and back on a long run…I’m kind of hyper on preparation, so I’ll go around checking bikes a little before we leave. Sort of like an inspection during my Army days. A lot of guys would get kinda pissed off at me for it, but fuck it, that’s what I liked to do.”

“There’s no serendipity when it comes to the way we ride. You can’t believe the rush you feel in your gut when everybody is kick starting their bikes and we’re ready to go. We have a strict formation in the front of the pack. I always ride front left, and the rest of the officers ride in the front of the pack. Usually the vice president rides front right, because he’s the most ‘legal’ person of our group. He carries the bail money. From that point back, it’s a motherfucking free-for-all drag race, jockeying for position.”

“There’s an art to leading a motorcycle pack because you have to be able to anticipate things like lane changes in traffic, shithead drivers, gas stops, and stopovers on the open road. The Oakland club has a long-ass pack that maybe goes on for half a mile. I can’t just think about whether I can make a lane change myself; I’m responsible for the safety of the rest of the riders. Speed limit is a big thing too. We know we can do eighty-five to ninety on an open freeway, but in some regions if you don’t stay closer to the speed limit you’re gonna really get jacked. Finally, you need to know exactly where you’re going and how many miles you can go, knowing what kind of gas takes the others have. After going about a hundred miles, it’s up to me to decide when everyone can gas up. Before we leave a gas station, one guy is in charge of counting up all the bikes. We don’t want anybody left behind or stranded.”

“When the West Coast members go east, we meet a couple hundred more along the way, which gives us a total of about four hundred ready-to-go Hell’s Angels. Man, this is a fucking army now, and together we are going to ride as one gigantic Hell’s Angels pack. We’re gonna be together on the road, brothers, ‘till the wind stops blowing, the grass stops growin’ and the river stops flowin’.”

“I was riding at the front of the entire pack and felt as if no power could stop us. It was like I became Crazy Horse leading the charge with hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles, all going eighty miles an hour. People in the towns heard the roar of our bikes way before they even see us. The local police just look the other way…mothers grab their babies from their yards and run into their houses. Cars swerve over to the side of the road. But others, like the farmers, take their caps off and put them into their hearts and chests, and the local fire departments salute us.”

“We might die if trouble erupts, but at least we will do it with style and dignity, because we believe in our brotherhood and the backs of our jackets. Why is a run important and significant to me? Because it proves that I belong right where I am, with my club. I don’t have millions of dollars and I’m not on the cover of Time magazine either, but what I have is respect. Respect from those who count on me. After all I am Sonny Barger, a Hell’s Angel.”



From: Hell’s Angel – The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (Harper-Morrow, 2001) By Ralph “Sonny” Barger with Keith and Kent Zimmerman (also authors of Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs with Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten). Ralph Gleason Music Book Award