Sonny Barger - Hell's Angel

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By Jeremy Miles

You certainly know it when Sonny Barger hits town. He arrives with a phalanx of VERY heavy looking Hells Angels. Perhaps what you’d expect from a man who, during a lifetime of hell-raising, has earned a reputation as the toughest biker of them all. 

But things are not always what they seem. For a start the Angels were striding, not into some bad downtown bar in the USA, but straight through the middle of Borders bookstore in genteel Bournemouth. What’s more the store manager wasn’t hiding in his office or calling the police….he was beaming happily. “Hey isn’t this great,” he said eyeing the row of heavy-duty bikers lined up in the street outside.

For these days Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger - the most feared and charismatic of the American Hell’s Angels is a published and big-selling author. This man, who as president of the legendary Angel’s Oakland chapter in the 1960s got more column inches than the rest of the counter culture put together, turns out to be a curiously agreeable guy.

He was visiting Bournemouth as part of an international promotional tour marking the publication of his new book Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free published hot on the heels of his of his autobiographical best seller Hell’s Angel - The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells angels Motorcycle Club.

That volume is described with some accuracy on its own front cover as a collection of “hell-raising motorcycle stories”. Spirited tales of close scrapes, tough calls, sometime fatal encounters and powerful, loyal friendships. Open its pages and you are soon in the company of Ed ‘Animal’ Cargill, Repo Jim, Loaded Linda and a whole cast of larger than life characters that you probably wouldn’t want as neighbours. Even Steve McQueen and David Crosby get a look in.

Sonny Barger at 64 has seen it all. In his hey-day he partied with Ken Kesey, befriended Neal Cassidy, scared the living daylights out of the Rolling Stones and drove the San Francisco Police Department to distraction. He describes The Hell’s Angels which he helped found in 1957 as: “A very select brotherhood who will fight and die for each other, no matter what the cause.” Many have fallen along the way. These days Sonny wears the battered-by-life look of an old warrior - a survivor. 

We  meet in a small office at the back of the bookshop. A couple of distinctly nasty looking Angels stand guard, his attorney Fritz Clapp is in attendance too, keeping a keen ear out for anything that could spell trouble. 

Outside the open door his ‘brothers’ hold court. From their cheery conversation they could be attending a cocktail party except they’re drinking coffee, coke and mineral water and wearing Angels patches and wary looks.

Sonny turns out to be an attentive interviewee. Talking isn’t easy for him. A laryngectomy following throat cancer robbed him of his voice. He now rasps at you through a hole in his throat. He may sound like Marlon Brando inThe Godfather but he speaks with some eloquence. This is perhaps surprising. One doesn’t necessarily associate a reputation for violent retribution with a sharp intellect.

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But Sonny is a strange individual. He’s always been ready to take control in whatever way is necessary. His view on Altamont  - the now legendary free concert given by The Rolling Stones in Northern California in 1969 - for instance is pretty damn scary. The received wisdom is that the Angels, brought in by the band to provide security,  were responsible for all kinds of chaos including at least one fatal stabbing. Barger absolutely denies this. Laying blame on the Rolling Stones themselves accusing them of rampant egomania and keeping the fans waiting for hours and hours raising the tension.   

In his book he describes how as violence erupted, Keith Richards, surveying the Angels, announced from the stage “Either these cats cool it, man, or we don’t play.” 

Sonny says: “I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead. He played like a motherfucker.” Yep, I suppose you would. If nothing else it’s a  fairly good indication of how uncompromising Sonny Barger can be.

Some years later I heard a different version from Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, also on stage that night. He described how Altamont, which was meant to be so utterly positive, descended into a nightmare of drugs and violence and ended with a fan – Meredith Hunter – being stabbed to death in front of the stage.  Somewhere along the way the naive notion that this free concert was part of an empowering gift to the fans had warped into the stark reality that Altamont was a badly organised concert in a cold, miserable, mud-spattered speedway arena. 

Worse still it had turned into a seething pit of malcontent - a deadly cocktail of fear, paranoia and bad-acid. A stake through the heart of the hippy dream. The horror of the festival was the subject of the documentary Gimme Shelter by the film-makers David and Albert Maysles.

“That film perfectly captures the sheer anarchy, chaos and violence and just the lack of control,” Taylor told me. “The Stones, myself included, were a bit naive taking that gig on.”

He admits that when the violence erupted the band feared for their lives. “We were terrified and that’s what made us keep on playing. It wasn’t like a cricket match where we could stop because of the weather or crowd problems.”

He says he did not know at the time that anyone had died. “I remember seeing this guy [Meredith Hunter] in a lime green suit running towards the stage and realised that possibly someone had plunged a knife into his back.

“But actually that may be a reflection, rather than me seeing it at the time. It’s probably based mainly on my memories of watching the rushes of the film with the rest of the band afterwards.”

What he is sure of is that he felt lucky to get out alive. “It was absolute chaos. I remember flying out of there in a helicopter and being really glad it was over.”

For his part Sonny Barger describes the Stones as “a bunch of sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas” and on a total ego-trip. 

 I’m not about to argue. After years in jail for offences that have ranged from possession of narcotics to kidnapping and conspiracy to murder and assault with a deadly weapon, Sonny Barger is not a man that it seems sensible to cross.

In the book he adopts a world-weary approach to the delivery of beatings and punishments but makes it clear that sometimes it just has to be done. He tells a story about the first time he bought LSD. How he took the drug and waited and waited for something to happen. Assuming he’d been ripped off he made a quick visit to the bathroom before going and finding the dealer.

 That’s when he noticed the Yogi Bear bubble bath or more specifically that the Yogi Bear illustration had jumped right off  the box and was chasing a cat around.  Result! One tripping Hells Angel and one dealer who would probably never realise how lucky he was. 

 I’m fascinated that Sonny Barger used Yogi Bear bubble bath but once again decide not to mention it. Not that a little levity in our conversation would have been a problem. Barger insists that he’s no longer an outlaw. That he finally decided that he was never going to spend another night in a prison cell. He is still a Hell’s Angel of course but has now relocated to Cave Creek, Arizona, where he runs a motorcycle business and writes his books.

Sonny seems genuinely surprised that he is still around. He shrugs off suggestions that he was the one guiding lights of the Hell’s Angels. “I didn’t really do it all by myself. I had a lot of help from plenty of different people but I get a lot of the credit because I am one of the guys who has survived from the beginning.”

 He admits that given his time over again, he would have played it different. “ If I’d known I’d have invested in stocks or something. I’d be a multi-millionaire today. But you know things happen for the better, sometimes for the worse.”

 It’s been a tough road and Sonny admits that he has been a violent man in his time but after countless run-ins with the police he says he realised his days of street-fighting were over. The court room was the place to do combat.

“You have to battle them on their own ground, If you don’t, you lose.”

Looking back on his life he stands fiercely by the code of loyalty, brotherhood and comradeship that has been the bedrock of his life with the Angels for more than 40 years.

A legendary fighter - once listed by the FBI as the most powerful and well-known motorcycle outlaw in America - he has, he says, just three regrets, the greatest being that he was a heavy smoker, a three pack a day man.

“That’s why I talk like this,” he says ruefully, pointing at his throat.

He also regrets that because of his criminal record, he is no longer allowed to own a gun and that he’s lost his right to vote.

But all in all Sonny Barger reckons he’s done all right. “I guess you might say I was lucky and now in my old age it’s paying off. I’m making a living and the way I’m making it is way better than going to the garage and working every day. It’s a little bit more money and a whole lot more fun.”

Better still his publishers have now commissioned a third book, this time a novel and Sonny is beside himself with enthusiasm. “You know what, a novel’s the easiest thing because you just take a few events, change them  around a bit and make them all happen and, hey, you’re writing fiction.”

I bid him farewell and walk out into the street thinking ‘I’ve just a creative writing lesson from Sonny Barger.’

*Ridin’ High, Living’ Free and Hell’s Angel are both published by Fourth Estate. 

© Jeremy Miles 2014