HELL’S ANGELS
ON THE ROAD

according to Hunter S. Thompson


Terry the Tramp: six feet two inches, 210 pounds, 27 years. He has shoulder-length hair. A big-bellied Hun. His demeanor makes him unemployable on the entire American job-market. Even as a motorbike mechanic. Quote Terry: “Hell, I can make it anywhere, even if I’m a fuck-up.”1 He is arrested for rape at one of the runs (= riding + partying; usually on campgrounds where they are isolated).

Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger is a warehouseman from East Oakland. He owes his nicknames ‘The Prez’ and ‘Daddy’ to his language-skills and quick-thinking ability. Is slightly fanatic though.

Frank is one of the VIPs. He is the “George Washington” of Angeldom (68). Frank reigned from 1955 to 1962. He was idolized due to a lack of worthy successors. Throughout the 60ies they’ve looked up to him and the golden age of Angeldom. (the 60ies were the golden age as far as commercialization and publicity is concerned . . .)

Preetam Bobo used to be a boxer. A pro. Later he became a karate expert. Either way, he has destroyed all his opponents. He is the kind of guy you'd rather not drink with. People who got in his way ended up badly wounded. Eventually, “... Preetam Bobo’s name was removed from the rolls of licensed karate instructors.” (70)

Scraggs is thirty-seven years old, which makes him the oldest Angel riding in 1965. Got a wife and two children of his own.

Tiny is the “Oakland chapter’s sergeant at arms and chief head-knocker” (61). And he is not tiny at all.

Funny Sonny from Berdoo has “a steel plate in his head, a steel rod in one arm, a plastic ankle and a deep scar on his face—all from crackups” (106). A crash is nothing funny or romantic, but in a way it’s the only thing that all the speeding and running amuck amounts to. What else do they want from their lives? They call it “going over the high side” (103). When you ride your bike in a curve at high speed, your bike starts sliding, you hit the shoulder of the road and— . . . the experience that follows can’t be described, but it’s something like standing at heaven’s gate and taking a quick peek at the other side. It gives them the real kick!

Buzzard “is a weird combination of menace, obscenity, elegance and genuine distrust of everything that moves” (130). (He is particularly suspicious of people talking to tape recorders while accompanying bikers on their run.) He makes your flesh crawl. He is a threat to decent citizens. It’s the drugs that are to blame. During the daylight Buzzard is an articulate companion, but at dusk he begins to change and Seconal “affects him in the same general way that a full moon affects a werewolf.” (133)

They all belong to the most notorious American motorcycle-crew America has ever witnessed: the Hell’s Angels. Nothing of that kind has ever existed. A pestilence that spreads from the West to the East of the U.S. The various chapters of the Hell’s Angels consist of motley bands of drinkers, hoodlums, vandals, drug-dealers, gang-fighters and gang-rapists.

 

Hunter S. Thompson does not belong to the Hell’s Angels. He rides a limey-bike (what a faux pas!). He is a writer. He is a literary desperado. He is associated with the outlaws from summer 1965 to winter 1965. He is lots of things. He is a friend and a victim of the Angels and he wrote a book on them. One that has done its share to make them media-stars. Rumor has it that he staged the last scene of his book to dramatize his own career a bit. Like all the New Journalists did. Norman Mailer had a camera-team follow him during the peace-march on the Pentagon when he got arrested. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is not one hundred-percent true either. On the other hand, H. S. Thompson is said to have more street-credibility. Maybe because he is a gun-and-motorcycle aficionado.

The Hell’s Angels myth has its origin in an incident that was actually not initiated by them, but by another misfit-club called the Booze Fighters. In 1947 they kicked off a riot at Hollister—location of the annual 4th-of-July meeting of bikers—which was made into the movie The Wild One starring Marlon Brando.

The legend of the Gonzo-journalist Hunter S. Thompson is highlighted by The Proud Highway. Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, a collection of letters by his majesty himself, edited by Douglas Brinkley. Beginning with his teen years, Thompson has always written letters hoping that they would be published (even as a child he made carbon copies of every letter he wrote) and has thus created a counterculture romance that exceeds the one he depicts in the book The Hell’s Angels. It all began in 1965 when Thompson arrived on the scene with this book and it climaxed with the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Digging deeper in the layers of histories, the thousands of “Linkhorns” (this name is credited to Nelson Algren and his book A Walk on the Wild Side) who made a long trek to the Golden State in the West in the 1930ies can be regarded as the forefathers of the Californian Angels. At least this is the account Hunter S. Thompson provides. A theory that runs as follows: Those immigrants were “white trash” who had come from the worst places of the British Isles when the fertile land along the coast had already been occupied. So they drifted west across the Alleghenies to Kentucky and Tennessee and further west to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Everywhere they arrived the land had already been taken. And drifting became a habit—chasing jobs, not fitting in, and having bad luck too. Finally they hung out in California for some years until the Second World War. Most of them signed up. When the war ended they had turned into genuine Californian citizens looking down on the Pacific Ocean with that vague idea in their mind that this was the end of the road. What else was there to do? To cut a long story short, they mounted their steel-horses to roam the Californian deserts forever, waving their colors in the hot summer-breeze . . .


1) The parenthetic numbers following quotes refer to Hunter S. Thompson, Hell's Angels (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970)

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