Motorcyclist, outlaw and free: Sonny Barger, the legendary founder of the Hells Angels, died

WASHINGTON.- Sonny Barger, the historical godfather of the Hells Angels motorcycle clubtroublemaker, bully, braggart, rule breaker, and cunning huckster of his own outlaw mystique, he died June 29 at his home in California. She was 83 years old.

A statement on his official Facebook page read: “If you are reading this message, you will know that I am gone. I have requested that this note be published immediately after my passing.” His former lawyer, Fritz Clapp, confirmed the death and said the cause was liver cancer.

For decades, the stocky, muscular Barger stood out not only as the founder of the original Hells Angels chapter in Oakland, California, in 1957, but also for decades as the public face of a countercultural national tribe of bearded, jean-clad road warriors remembered in literature and film– Roaring down the open road and through crossroads cities, surprising the locals with their boisterous, often menacing presence.

Hells Angels frontman Barger reads a statement in Oakland in 1965
Hells Angels frontman Barger reads a statement in Oakland in 1965Associated Press

It was a noisy, frequently lawless brotherhood, bound together, in no particular order, by machismo, tattoos, the winged death’s head insignia, alcohol, drugs, walks to nowhere. on thunderous Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the craving for the unrestricted freedom found in the great outdoors. road.

“Discover your limits by exceeding them”Barger urged.

Woven into the history of Hells Angels was a tradition of crime and violencemuch of which involved Barger, a fact he boastfully acknowledged. He once referred to himself as belonging to a gang of “card-carrying criminals”.

He was convicted in 1988 of conspiring to kill members of a rival club in Kentucky and blow up its headquarters, and he served five years in federal prison.

Barger escorted by authorities in 1987
Barger escorted by authorities in 1987Associated Press

A self-confessed cocaine addict who supported his habit by selling heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, he served a total of eight years in prison for a variety of drug and firearms-related charges.

The Hells Angels, as a corporate entity with chapters from California to New York, faced a relentless federal investigation.. In 2013, authorities obtained convictions against 16 members in South Carolina for a conspiracy involving drug distribution, arms trafficking, money laundering and arson.

In 1979, Barger and other leaders became involved in a similar conspiracy in which they were accused of running a giant methamphetamine (“biker cafe”) operation out of Oakland.

The most infamous thing in Hells Angles lore was his role in the chaotic 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where a gun-wielding 18-year-old concertgoer, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel, all captured on film. in the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter.”

During a Rolling Stones performance at Altamont, a member of the Hells Angels, in charge of security, kills a spectator
During a Rolling Stones performance at Altamont, a member of the Hells Angels, in charge of security, kills a spectator

The Angels, hired to provide security, were battling fans coming onto the stage, according to Barger, who was present. The drug-fueled crowd pressed against the Angels’ security line, damaging some of their bikes, and the Angels waded into the crowd swinging fists and cleats.

In his autobiography “Hell’s Angel—The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club”, Barger accused Stones guitarist Keith Richards of delaying the band’s performance to pump up the crowd.. He claimed that he pressed a gun into Richards’ ribs and ordered him to start playing immediately.

Richards complied, but the crowd, including Hunter, continued to swarm the stage, according to Barger. Hunter fired a single shot, flying a Hells Angel, Barger said. Other angels quickly subdued Hunter, punching and kicking him. An angel was accused of fatally stabbing him, but he was acquitted after pleading self-defense of it.

Over the years, Barger has served as technical consultant for biker movies and appeared in several, including “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967), a low-budget exploitation film starring Jack Nicholson.

For the real-life Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, he drew inspiration from an earlier film: the 1953 classic “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando playing an oddly sensitive gang leader. Barger preferred Lee Marvin’s more aggressive performance as a motorcyclist.

Barger’s rough and anarchic manner belied a disciplined business reputation. He promoted his renegade brand, carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed T-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses, and California wines. She registered trademarks on club logos and designs, and hired an intellectual property rights attorney to sue poachers, something that happens frequently.

  Barger and his wife Sharon, after being released on bail in 1980
Barger and his wife Sharon, after being released on bail in 1980Associated Press

To give the Angels a little shine, he started regular charity drives for children’s toys and clothing.

“He’s smart and cunning, and he has a kind of wild animal cunning”author Hunter S. Thompson told Washington Post in 2000. Hunter spent a year with the Angels doing research for his book Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. (1966).

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born in Modesto, California, on October 8, 1938. His mother ran off with a Trailways bus driver when Sonny was four months old. His father, a day laborer loading boats and trucks on the Oakland docks, spent his nights and much of his money in waterfront bars, often taking Sonny with him.

There, according to his autobiography, Sonny stole pretzels and hard-boiled eggs, and learned his first swear words from an obscenity-squawking parrot.

His father married a second time. Like her first wife, she ran away with everything, including the radio and the family encyclopedia, according to Barger.

barger in 2003
barger in 2003SCOTT OLSON – Getty Images North America

He hated school and was repeatedly suspended for trash talking and occasionally hitting his teacher. “I never liked being told what to do,” he said.

For a time he was under the care of his paternal grandmother, a strict Pentecostalist. She quickly rejected what he called the “talking Holy Rollers,” smoked her first marijuana cigarette at 14, dropped out of high school at 16, and joined the military on a fake birth certificate.

Fourteen months later, the military authorities discovered the subterfuge and expelled him. Back home, he bounced from job to job: janitor, pipe threader, potato chip assembly line worker. “Couldn’t control this nine-to-five job,” he wrote.

barger in 2003
barger in 2003SCOTT OLSON – Getty Images North America

He joined his first motorcycle group, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956 and formed the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in Oakland the following year.. “I needed a tight-knit club of men who could get on their bikes, ride cross country if they wanted and not play by the rules or the clocks,” he said.

During the following decades, turned its one club into a financially sustainable network with thousands of members in the United States, Canada, Europe and elsewhere. Despite its many run-ins with the law, the organization was fundamentally successful: an all-male, virtually all-white, dues-paying fraternal order with a brisk retail trade in club paraphernalia.

Barger published two novels, “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” (2003) and “6 Chambers, 1 Bullet” (2006), detailing the murder and mayhem in the biker world.

His epithet-filled autobiography was a bestseller of the New York Timesand two other books, “Freedom: Creeds From the Road” (2005) and “Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free” (2002), received positive reviews. Some were co-written with writers Keith and Kent Zimmerman. He is co-author of a sixth book, “Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling” (2010), with writer Darwin Holmstrom.

In 1982, he was diagnosed with throat cancer (he had smoked three packs of Camel a day for 30 years) and had his vocal cords removed. He learned to speak through a surgically inserted hole in his throat, which gave his voice a raspy, creepy tone.

Barger signs autographs in 2003
Barger signs autographs in 2003SCOTT OLSON – Getty Images North America

Barger’s first wife, Elsie George, died in 1967 during a self-induced abortion. His marriages to Sharon Gruhlke and Beth Noel Black ended in divorce. He married his fourth wife, Zorana Katzakian, in 2005. In addition to his wife, the survivors include a sister, according to Clapp.

In 1998, he moved from Oakland to suburban Phoenix, leaving his official Hells Angels duties but remaining a rank-and-file member.. He ran a motorcycle repair shop and mellowed into suburban life, doing yoga and lifting weights, a hobby he picked up in prison.

Members of the Swiss chapter of the Hells Angels
Members of the Swiss chapter of the Hells AngelsFABRICE COFFRINI – AFP

He continued to travel the open road, thousands of miles a year, eventually professing a preference for high-powered Hondas and BMWs over traditional Harleys.

What did your non-conformist life teach you? “To become a real man,” he advised in his autobiography, “you must first join the army and then spend time in jail.”

Paul W Valentine

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