Sonny Barger, founder of the original Oakland, California, chapter of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, died of liver cancer in his home in California on June 29 at 83 years old.
If you know who Barger is, you may be surprised that he was still alive in 2022 and died quietly at home, rather than in some drunken knife fight. Born October 8, 1938 in Modesto, California, Sonny Barger founded arguably one of the most notorious and well-known biker gangs in America at just 19 years old. While not the founder of the original gang at large (the Hell’s Angels were founded in 1948 in Fontana, California) Barger was known for turning the Hell’s Angels lifestyle into an iconic piece of America’s counterculture.
Barger hung out with the likes of beat poet Allen Ginsberg (who wrote a poem about the experience) and author Ken Kesey. And if you’ve ever been an edgy journalism student (and who hasn’t?) you’ve probably read at least something from Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. The magazine The Nation sent the “gonzo” journalist, now infamous in his own right, to write about the gang. A single article turned into a year spent embedded with the Angels. Thinking he had been totally accepted and under Barger’s protection, Thompson couldn’t predict the severe stomping that would end his time following the Hell’s Angels. From the book:
“Sweet Jesus … what happened?” I wondered. How many fights and whippings and other rotten dystopian craziness had I seen since I started covering the Angels for The Nation last year? That was in 1965 — a lifetime ago. For nearly a year I had witnessed a blizzard of stompings and chain whippings, the grunts and screams of drunken gang rapes, the warp of mind-bending drugs, the shattering rumble of straight pipes. Violence and doom were everywhere. Right out in front, showcased like their stripped-down bikes and the goddamn “One Percenter” badges they wore on their vests. But their high-octane rage was never directed at me! At least not seriously. I had been allowed on The Inside. Sonny Barger — the King, the Pontiff of their Perpetual Pestilence — had given me the OK.
I had been taking pictures of a few Angels as they partied around Lake Sonoma during their Labor Day run. Nothing serious. Just shots for the record. A few Angels I didn’t know grumbled a thin subtle menace about it, but nothing to make me nervous. Problems were always handled directly; the delivery of justice swift and brutal. I had no reason to assume some mild resentment would turn violent. But then I saw an Angel beating his wife along the shoreline. Or was it his dog? Did it really matter? Whatever it was, I protested, and it was exactly the excuse they needed…. If Tiny hadn’t finally intervened, the last Angel would have certainly smashed in my fucking skull with the massive boulder he held high between his goddamn hands.
I pulled into the hospital in Santa Rosa 30 minutes later. Ugly bruises had formed where boots had smashed into my chest and arms. I was worried a rib had been broken and that my eye was destroyed.
Barger, to put it mildly, was about as nice a guy as his fellow “card-carrying felons.” He was there for one of the events commonly cited as one of the defining moments that the free-love era was over: The day a member of his Hell’s Angels chapter stabbed a pistol-wielding teenager Meredith Hunter to death at a Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, Calif in 1969. The band had hired the Hell’s Angels as security, of all things. The entire event was record for the documentary Give Me Shelter.
Barger claimed in his own bestselling Autobiography, Hell’s Angel — The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, that the Stones purposefully whipped the crowd up. From the Washington Post:
Mr. Barger accused Stones guitarist Keith Richards of delaying the band’s performance to work up the crowd. He claimed that he pressed a pistol to Richards’s ribs and ordered him to start playing immediately.
Richards complied, but the crowd, including Hunter, kept swarming toward the stage, according to Mr. Barger. Hunter fired a single shot, winging a Hells Angel, Mr. Barger said. Other Angels quickly subdued Hunter, punching and kicking him. One Angel was charged with fatally stabbing him but was acquitted after claiming self-defense.
He sold hard drugs for decades and did time on weapons charges. In 1988, he served five years in a federal penitentiary for conspiracy to murder. He also published two books of fiction centered around biker life and spent years turning the Hell’s Angel into a brand, as the Post points out:
Mr. Barger’s rough and anarchic manner belied a disciplined entrepreneurial streak. He promoted his renegade brand, carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed T-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses and California wines. He registered trademarks on club logos and designs, and retained an intellectual property rights lawyer to sue poachers, a frequent occurrence.
To give the Angels a little gloss, he initiated periodic charity drives for children’s toys and clothes.
“He’s smart and he’s crafty, and he has a kind of wild animal cunning,” author Hunter S. Thompson told The Washington Post in 2000.
Barger remained an Angel until the end, though he stepped down from leadership in 1998. He ran a motorcycle repair shop in his retirement years, and took up both yoga and high-powered import bikes over the Harley Davidsons normally favored by the club.
Barger may have cultivated a counterculture, criminal mystique for the media, but make no mistake, he and his fellow Angels were often the purveyors of violence, sexual assault and other criminal misdeeds, and innocent people suffered for it. My own dad was robbed at gun point and left tied up in his empty apartment by a bunch of Hell’s Angels when he was living in Long Beach, California in the 1970s. Broke, he was forced to join the Navy, a fate he would wish on absolutely no one.