Sonny Barger, Face of the Hells Angels, Dies at 83
He cultivated the motorcycle club’s outlaw image and was a pivotal figure in its emergence as an emblem of West Coast rebellion in the 1960s.
Sonny Barger, who as the charismatic face of the Hells Angels grew the hard-charging motorcycle club from its roots in the San Francisco area into a global phenomenon, in the process making it an emblem of West Coast rebellion — and, federal authorities said, criminal enterprise — died on Wednesday at his home outside Oakland, Calif. He was 83.
His former lawyer and business manager, Fritz Clapp, said the cause was liver cancer.
Raise your hand if you had that cause of death on your bingo card.
Of course, there’s also Barger’s Hunter S. Thompson connection, as Risen recounted.
“In any gathering of Hell’s Angels,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1967), “there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator.”
Inexplicably, though, Risen failed to mention an essential detail about Thompson’s ride with the Angels, which New York Times book reviewer Leo Litwak noted in 1967.
Hunter Thompson entered this terra incognita [the world of the Hell’s Angels] to become its cartographer. For almost a year, he accompanied the Hell’s Angels on their rallies. He drank at their bars, exchanged home visits, recorded their brutalities, viewed their sexual caprices, became converted to their motorcycle mystique, and was so intrigued, as he puts it, that “I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.” At the conclusion of his year’s tenure the ambiguity of his position was ended when a group of Angels knocked him to the ground and stomped him…
Also absent from Risen’s omituary was this surreal reckoning between Barger and Thompson during a 1967 Canadian Broadcast Corporation talk show.
Barger’s indictment of Thompson’s time with the Hells Angels included the following:
1) Thompson’s book “is 60% cheap trash”
2) “I wanna know why we didn’t get the two kegs of beer you promised us. This guy here, he’s sitting here, he’s making a million dollars, he made it off of us . . . There was nothing about money, nothing about a share in the book – all we wanted was a couple of kegs of beer so we could get drunk – and a copy of the book for each of the Oakland members.’
3) “And when you got your head thumped on, you wrote a letter to Ralph and said seeing I got beat up and I got my head thumped on, I don’t owe you nuthin’.”
CBC host: “Why did they thump him?”
Barger: “Alright, this man here, you got into a man’s personal argument . . . Junkie George was beating his old lady. And Junkie George’s dog bit him. To me this is a personal feud – if a man wants to beat his wife and his dog bites him, that’s between the three of them, right?”
So to recap: Thompson inserted himself into Junkie George’s personal argument and got a (not as bad as he claimed) beating too.
A suitably gonzo obituary would not have omitted all that, right?