HELL'S ANGEL - THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SONNY BARGER AND THE HELL'S ANGELS MOTORCYCLE CLUB -
RALPH 'SONNY' BARGER
Sonny Barger? What a lovely bloke. Of course, I'd never say that to his face as that's probably the last thing the King of the Hell's Angels wants to be told. But really. On reading his autobiography as ghost written by Keith and Kent Zimmerman (who also wrote John Lydon's autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) Barger comes across as the kind of bloke you'd like as a friend. Especially if you were in a fight. Which - actually - explains a lot: 'The Angels never changed. Everybody around them changed. Every time we wanted them to act in a certain way, every time the Left wanted them to act as tribunes of the working class, every time the hipsters wanted them to act like hippies, every time the drug cultures wanted to see them as allies, they flunked the test.' - Professor Donald Cosentino, from a 1999 documentary about the Hell's Angels.
Everyone wanted to have Sonny Barger and the Angels as their friends but very few succeeded. The Rolling Stones at Altamont, of course, failed spectacularly.
According to Barger, the Hell's Angels is an elite men's club, and I guess it is. There are certainly no women members, at least. They're also not Nazis, no matter that they once wore swastikas, Iron Crosses and other Nazi war gear. It was for effect, essentially. It was, according to Barger to 'piss people off big-time, which is what we were all about anyway, so we figured, why not?' And I can understand this. Some of the early Punks sported swastika armbands as well for exactly the same reason though that particular fetish was soon dumped. And the same for the Angels. Because of their German charters, they no longer wear anything sporting a swastika or SS lightning bolts because it's illegal in Germany.
The Hell's Angels are an apolitical organization as well, says Barger, but with this I have my doubts. They were doing so well and I was believing what Barger was writing but then they went and spoilt it all by attacking an anti-Vietnam stop-the-draft demonstration. Again according to Barger, Jerry Rubin and all the other 'left-wing peace creeps' were disrespecting America and the Angels wanted to make it clear to them all where they stood on the war: 'We dug it,' Barger tells us.
The peace demonstrators, according to the Angels were 'despicable', 'un-American', 'irresponsible' and 'traitors'. American soldiers fighting in Vietnam were heroes and following the attack upon the demonstration so too were the Angels: 'Little kids came up to us and wanted to touch us, pensioners wanted to shake our hands, and a lot more women wanted to fuck us.'
Inspired by their new-found adulation Barger even wrote to President Lyndon Johnson offering to volunteer the Angels for behind-the-line 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.'
Fortunately for the Viet Cong the offer couldn't be accepted as most of the Angels were card-carrying felons so couldn't be allowed to join the Army.
And then the Sixties kicked in fully and with it the Angels' public image was cemented. According to Barger, there was a big difference between the hippies in San Francisco and the anti-war radicals in Berkeley, and whilst the Angels' relationship with Jerry Rubin et al was somewhat strained, there were no such problems with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters lot. In fact, it was like one big happy family having one big happy party. Neal Cassidy, Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia - they all loved Sonny Barger and Sonny Barger loved them. As for Hunter S Thompson and Peter Fonda, the less said about them the better.
It was Altamont, however, that probably sealed the Hell's Angels' reputation and Barger's take on the event is an interesting one. He let's us know, for instance, that it was actually Emmett Grogan's idea to use the Angels as security. You'd have thought Grogan would have known better but then saying that, you'd have thought the Rolling Stones and their management would have known better too?
Barger tells us the Stones were trying to stage their own Woodstock but they were on a whole other trip to all the other bands at that time and were dealing with forces they really had little control over, one of those forces being the Angels.
We're told that during their set at Altamont, Keith Richards went up to Barger and told him the band wasn't going to play any more until the Angels stopped attacking members of the audience: "Either these cats cool it, man, or we don't play," Richards tells him. So Barger, standing next to Richards on the stage sticks his pistol into Richards' side and tells him to start playing his guitar or he was dead. Subsequently, Richards plays 'like a motherfucker.'
So with this anecdote Barger informs us that he had a gun on him at Altamont. We also know his fellow Angels were armed with pool queues, billy clubs, baseball bats and knives. We also know that Meredith Hunter, the guy murdered at Altamont, was also armed with a gun. So how many other people at Altamont were armed? Which begs the question, how many people went to Woodstock armed with guns? It being America it may well have been a fair few? Who knows? Or was it just Altamont? The point being: who goes to a concert armed with guns, knives, baseball bats and pool queues anyway? And why would you?
Were the Stones blissfully unaware of these ingredients in the mix? If they anticipated thousands of people coming to Altamont, why was the stage only three-feet high? If they had known violence was in the air (as evidenced by if nothing else one of the members of Jefferson Airplane being knocked out by an Angel earlier in the day) why did the Stones sit in their trailers until finally deciding to come on stage only once night had arrived, by which time the crowd was agitated, drugged, drunk and a just a little crazy having been in the sun all day?
Barger tells us that Meredith Hunter pulled out a huge black gun and rushed the stage so the Angels bravely moved quickly toward him so as to incapacitate him - Angels style. They were, after all, the security. Barger also tells us that Hunter shot a Hell's Angel but because the Angel was a fugitive at the time, they couldn't take him to a doctor. It was only a flesh wound anyway. It was lucky that Hunter didn't shoot even more people, says Barger, including the Stones.
For all this, the Angels took the blame.
"Flower people ain't a bit better than the worst of us," Barger declared on a radio phone-in show the next night "It's about time everybody started realizing that... I didn't fucking like what happened there. I didn't go there to fight. I went there to have a good time and sit on the fucking stage. And that Mick Jagger, he put it all on the Angels. He used us for dupes. As far as I'm concerned, we were the biggest suckers for that idiot that I could ever see."
Barger finishes off by telling us 'All that shit about Altamont being the end of an era was a bunch of intellectual crap. The death of Aquarius. Bullshit, it was the end of nothing.'
Sonny Barger is a living legend but he's also a bit of an enigma even after having given us his autobiography. And it seems that just because someone can be violent it doesn't mean they cannot also be a lovely bloke. And funny with it: 'Skip (a fellow Hell's Angel) called up the Oakland clubhouse pretending to sound all freaked out. He claimed he had been taken prisoner by a bunch of women. "I've been kidnapped," he yelled into the phone "and they're fucking the shit out of me. And they want a ransom, man!" Yeah, right.'
And then consider this from him where he's talking about his time at Folsom prison: 'I actually found murderers to be okay people.' Either Barger's going for comic effect, he's being serious, or he's simply cultivating his personal public image. Or maybe all three? Whatever.
Sonny Barger, against all odds is still with us, alive and kicking. And he's even on Facebook. Maybe I should send him a friend request? Maybe we all should?