“All men die, but not all men really live.” The phrase belongs to the autobiography of Sonny Barger, the leader of the Hells Angels, Hell’s Angels, who died this Thursday in California at the age of 83. The saying encapsulates in a few words the essence of the biker gang that became one of the main counterculture movements in the 1960s in the United States and was reproduced throughout the world. The death has been confirmed on Facebook by Barger’s family, who never left the motorcycle. He dedicated his last years to writing about his hectic life full of drugs, sex and rock. “Please know that I have passed away peacefully after a small battle with cancer,” assures the farewell message to half a million of his followers on the social network.
Ralph Sonny Barger assured in his sixth book let’s ride who traveled more than a million kilometers mounted on the saddle of a motorcycle at a rate of 40,000 kilometers per year. At this time, he claims to have had only one accident considered serious. The book is a mixture of an ode to the vehicle that gave it international fame and a practical guide to driving. It was published in one of the last stages of his intense life, when he had left his native California, where he had a biker parts store, to move to the Arizona desert. There he lived with his fourth and last wife, Zorana, one of the few women who was considered a member of the club.
To become a best-selling author in his golden years took many turbulent years that filled his memories with endless anecdotes of the stereotypical bad boy. Barger, born in Northern California, taught himself to ride a motorcycle when he was 11 years old. It was a Cushman scooter made in America. Since then, this veteran of the Second World War tried only to assemble machines manufactured in his country, something that became increasingly difficult in a world more open to international trade.
In 1957 he founded the Hells Angels chapter in Oakland, California. This was inaugurated nine years after the first opened in Fontana, in the same state. He was the national president and spiritual leader of a feared group that forged close relationships among its members and forever transformed one of the most popular subcultures in his country. But the Angels were also linked to various crimes over four decades. Barger was arrested more than 20 times and spent 13 years in prison at different times and charged with various crimes.
In November 1994, for example, he was released from federal prison after spending four years behind bars for organizing the Angels to break up a rival gang. When he was released from prison, 700 bikers celebrated the parole of Sonny, the nickname of a leader who proudly wore tattoos of a dagger on his chest, a cross on his arm and a skull on his back. On his right shoulder he wore the design that swore eternal allegiance to his organization: Hells Angels Oakland.
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The night of December 6, 1969 was one of the darkest for the Angels. That day, the gang members were hired as security at the Altamont concert, which was expected to be the West Coast’s response to Woodstock. It is said that representatives of the Rolling Stones agreed with the bikers in exchange for 500 dollars in beer. The Angels had previously worked, without incident, on concerts for the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, who played that night before the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards ensemble.
The headlines that night were taken by the violence in which the gang was involved, whose job was to guard the scene of an event that brought together 300,000 people. When the Stones sang, fights broke out in the audience. Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old concertgoer, was stabbed to death by a gang member after approaching the platform. The incident was recorded by the Maysles brothers in the documentary Gimme Shelter, where Barger appears rejecting saying that the gang did not have enough preparation to do surveillance work. “I have not been a policeman. And I’m never going to pretend to be,” he said days later in a call to a local radio station.
Barger struggled for several years to combat the gang’s reputation for violence that night. “Catholics have perhaps committed more crimes than we might think, and politicians have committed many more,” he stated in 1994 to Los Angeles Times after being released from prison on parole. Noted Hunter S. Thompson compared the gang to student protesters in the 1960s, paving the way for civil rights in America. “The difference is that the students have rebelled against the past, while that the Angels fight against the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present and the status quo,” the journalist wrote in Hell’s Angels, a document that underlines the bravado and machismo of the organization.
The Angels forever transformed the world’s image, decades later, of one of America’s most striking subcultures. Barger claims in one of his books that Harley-Davidson integrated into its machines many of the observations that club members made of the motorcycle brand. The gang leader appeared, alongside Jack Nicholson, in the 1967 film Hell’s Angels on Wheels, where he played himself. He also had a small role in Sons of Anarchythe television success of FX that gave new fame to this type of associations showing their chiaroscuro.
Sonny was a tough guy to pigeonhole. He got up at 4:30 in the morning to feed his dogs and horses. Afterwards he worked out for three hours, weights and went jogging. At eight in the morning he was already on his motorcycle traveling down some secondary road. Unlike the stereotype of the traditional motorcyclist, he wore a helmet that covered his entire face. This was due to the fact that in 1982 they removed some of his vocal cords after suffering cancer of the larynx, caused by the three packs a day that he smoked in his youth. The operation left him with a voice that is described as a whisper.