Sonny Barger, biker outlaw and founder of the Hells Angels, dies at the age of 83


Sonny Barger, biker outlaw and founder of the Hells Angels, dies at the age of 83

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Sonny Barger, the larger-than-life godfather of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, equal parts thug, thug, show-off, rule-breaker and sly huckster of his own outlaw mystique, died June 29 at his California home. He was 83.

A statement on his official Facebook page read: “If you’re reading this message, you’ll know I’m gone. I have requested that this note be released immediately after my death.” His former attorney, Fritz Clapp, confirmed the death and said the cause was liver cancer.

For decades, the burly, muscular Mr. Barger was not only the founder of the original Angels chapter in Oakland, California, in 1957, but decades later he was also the public face of a nationwide counterculture tribe of bearded, denim-clad street warriors, to whom remembered in literature and film – they roar up the open highway and through crossroads towns, shocking locals with their boisterous, often menacing presence.

It was a rowdy, often lawless brotherhood, characterized in no particular order by machismo, tattoos, winged skull and crossbones insignia, booze, dope, trips to nowhere on thundering Harley-Davidson pigs, and a lust for the unfettered freedom found in the great outdoors. bound is road.

“Discover your limits by exceeding them,” urged Mr. Barger.

Woven into Hells Angels history was a tradition of crime and violence – much of it involving Mr. Barger, a fact he boasted about. He once described himself as a member of a gang of “card-carrying felons”.

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

A self-confessed cocaine addict who supported his addiction by selling heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, he served a total of eight years on various drug and firearms charges.

The Hells Angels — a corporate entity with chapters from California to New York — have faced relentless federal investigations into criminal ventures and extortion crimes. In 2013, authorities secured convictions of 16 members and followers in South Carolina on a conspiracy involving drug distribution, gun smuggling, money laundering and arson.

In 1979, Mr. Barger and other leaders hit a similar conspiracy rap accusing them of running a mammoth methamphetamine operation (“Biker’s Coffee”) out of Oakland.

Most notorious in Hells Angles lore was her role in the chaotic 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where a gun-wielding 18-year-old concert-goer, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel — all captured on film in the Documentary “Gimme Shelter” from 1970.

According to Mr. Barger, who was present, the Angels, hired to provide security, fought fans who rushed onto the stage. The drug-laden crowd pushed into the Angels’ security line, damaging some of their bikes, and Angels waded into the crowd, swinging fists and cues.

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

Richards obeyed, but according to Mr. Barger, the crowd, including Hunter, continued to stream towards the stage. Hunter fired a single shot and gave wings to a Hells Angel, Mr. Barger said. Other angels quickly overpowered Hunter, punching and kicking him. An angel was accused of fatally stabbing him but was acquitted after claiming self-defense.

Over the years, Mr. Barger has served as a technical consultant for biker films, appearing in several including Hell’s Angels on Wheels (1967), a low-budget exploitation film starring Jack Nicholson.

For the real Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, he drew inspiration from an earlier film – the 1953 classic The Wild One, in which Marlon Brando plays an oddly sensitive gang leader. Mr. Barger favored Lee Marvin’s more aggressive performance as a biker.

Mr. Barger’s rough and anarchic manner belied a disciplined entrepreneurial streak. He promoted his breakaway brand, carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed T-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses, and California wines. He registered trademarks on club logos and designs and hired an intellectual property attorney to sue poachers, which is a common occurrence.

To add a little sparkle to the angels, he initiated regular charity drives for children’s toys and clothing.

“He’s smart and smart, and he’s got some kind of wildlife cunning,” author Hunter S. Thompson told The Washington Post in 2000. Hunter spent a year with the Angels researching for his seminal book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga “to research” (1966).

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. was born on October 8, 1938 in Modesto, California. His mother ran away with a Trailways bus driver when Sonny was 4 months old. His father, a day laborer who loaded ships and trucks at the Oakland docks, spent his nights and much of his money at waterfront bars and often brought Sonny over.

It was there, according to his autobiography, that Sonny stole pretzels and hard-boiled eggs and learned his first swear words from an obscenely screeching parrot.

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

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

For a time he came under the care of his paternal grandmother, a strict Pentecostal. In short order, he rejected what he called “tongue-whining Holy Rollers,” smoked his first marijuana cigarette at 14, dropped out of high school at 16, and enlisted with a fake birth certificate.

Fourteen months later, the military authorities discovered the ruse and ousted him. At home, he rotated from job to job—janitor, pipe threader, potato chip line worker. “I couldn’t get a handle on this nine-to-five work stuff,” he wrote.

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

Over the next few decades, he grew his one club into a financially sustainable network with thousands of members across 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, fee-paying fraternity with a brisk retail business of club paraphernalia.

Mr. Barger published two novels, Dead in 5 Heartbeats (2003) and 6 Chambers, 1 Bullet (2006), which detail murder and mayhem in the motorcycle world.

His epithet-strewn autobiography became a New York Times bestseller, and two other books, Freedom: Credos From the Road (2005) and Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free (2002), received favorable reviews. Some were co-written with authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman. He co-authored the sixth book with writer Darwin Holmstrom, Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling (2010).

In 1982 he was diagnosed with throat cancer – he had smoked three packs of Camels a day for 30 years – and had his vocal cords removed. He learned to speak through a surgically placed hole in his throat, which gave his voice an eerie croak.

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

In 1998, he moved from Oakland to the suburb of Phoenix, dropping his official duties with the Hells Angels but remaining a mere member. He ran a motorcycle repair shop and relaxed in suburban life, doing yoga and continuing to lift weights, a pastime he picked up in prison.

He continued to ride the open road, thousands of miles a year, eventually declaring that he preferred high-horsepower Hondas and BMWs to the Angels’ traditional Harley choppers.

What has his non-conformist life taught him? “To become a real man,” he advised in his autobiography, “you must first join the army and then spend some time in prison.”

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