Sonny Barger, Head Honcho and anti-hero in chief of the Hell’s Angels has passed away. It only added to his legend that he had been living with throat cancer since the 1980s. Some people are so basically engineered for survival that when they actually give up the ghost it comes as a shock. Now, I am not saying that Barger was a good guy, far from it. The stories – some of them told by the late great Hunter S Thompson, who rode with the Angel’s a while back in 1969 and published his iconic book Hell’s Angels detailing his time with the group, expose sexually abusive, violent and general meatheaded patriarchal behavior.
After all this is a bunch of men who wear leather chaps and hang out exclusively with their ‘brothers’, and a revolving door procession of various hapless women, some with Stockholm syndrome, some with no luck, and some with a penchant for servicing vast numbers of dirty bikers in the hope of becoming an ‘old lady’ – a ‘missus’ and immersing themselves in 1 percenter biker culture. Not my cup of tea, or bottle of Everclear poured into a wineskin and passed around filthy gasping mouths desperate to feel some kind of fucked up.
America is addicted to Her Antiheroes. Cowboys and train thieves, sharp shooters and hobos, bikers and guitar six-string-shooters, addicts and whores and survivors, oh my! It is hardly a mystery: the pioneers who first set foot in the USA had to be a special kind of person. They had to be adventurous, they had to be tough, they had to be the kind of people that would set off to a land where they were not wanted, dig a hole in the ground to live in, hitch up a couple of ponies and go look see what was out there thousands of miles to the west of hard travelling, just for the heck of it.
Such a history makes a culture that is fiercely devoted to freedom, independence and raising Cain, and a whole herd of men who feel as if being someone’s Huckleberry, twirling a gun and dodgin’ the sheriff sounds like a fine way to live a life. John Wesley Harding and the rules of the road demand that no outlaw worth his stolen salt ‘hurt an honest man’ in the words of Dylan, but gang ethics are less about morality and more about honor amongst thieves. The only people that matter are the ones that are ‘in’ the group. Yet American outlaw culture has a long and illustrious history. Barger has passed into folk hero status, his various crimes, alleged crimes and faults blurred by his lifelong devotion to both the outlaw life and to the cause of Freedom, which is righteous in itself.
Annie Oakley, Bill Doolin, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid…Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Crazy Horse, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith: none of these Antiheroes of the great Union were very fond of the law, and by all accounts, nor was Sonny. He only ever did five years in federal prison, convicted in 1988 of conspiracy to kill members of a rival club in Kentucky and blow up their clubhouse. Sonny was no regular Angel, and definitely no choirboy by all accounts.
The founder of The Hell’s Angels toed no man’s line, he lived outside of the law, and though Dylan asserted in JWH, that to ‘live outside the law you must be honest’, Sonny raised a finger to Dylan and that too. Barger was as much a man of the road as Kerouac and the Beats, his mythos is ingrained in blacktop, gasoline, chrome and mountain passes. His poetry was his brutally simple way of living and his devotion to the Club he founded. Barger might not have been a very sympathetic character, but he remains a part of pop culture and has seeped into the folk law of our recent past. Paul Bunyan had his blue bull, Barger made Harley Davidson what it is today. It is all about the journey, about this big wide country full of adventure and danger and legends to be made. Not all heroes are good, or unproblematic, and Sonny is no exception.
In 2008 Barger told an interviewer that ‘I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it.’ He defined his creedo as: ‘don’t be a rat, and sometimes you literally have to fight to be free.’ His was a quintessentially American way of life, and Sonny acknowledged that too. The Hippies might have their Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but Sonny had something more akin to “Freedom and the Art of Staying Free on Two Wheels”.
Freedom has become a dirty word in recent years, unfairly tied to the far right, to society’s refusal to allow bodily autonomy in medical issues, but I guess Sonny was never afraid of a bit of dirt. Back in 2020 he posted a photograph of himself alongside one of his ‘Creedos from the Road’:
My way of life is an American way of life that requires a never-ending devotion to the “idea of” and the “practice of” freedom. Being aware of yourself and looking after your brothers, sisters, and partners means staying vigilant and aware at all times. As much as I’m looking out at the road ahead, I’m tempted to look over my shoulder, back at the legacy I am leaving behind, a legacy of brotherhood, loyalty, fun times, and hell raising. But I can’t and don’t look back. I always look ahead, to the side, but never back.
-Credos from the road- Sonny Barger
Outlaws who walk to the beat of their own drum, who fly their own colors, who abide by their own rules of life might not be palatable, might not even be legal, and I sure as shit would never want to be alone in a room of rabid Hell’s Angels with their reputation of running trains on women and ‘rat packing’ errant men – the act of every single Hell’s Angel piling in when one of their brothers feels that it is time to administer a beating. No one ever fights just one Hell’s Angel, no, you fight them all or nothing. They pile on, as Hunter S Thompson found out to his extreme pain and cost. He was lucky to live.
I have never seen such a bunch of filthy, frightening, gleaming Harley-mounted 1 percenter gangster outlaws in my life, and I have seen some things out there on the road. They, and Sonny are a Bay Area product. Occasionally they are seen riding, zipping through town in a roar of panhead engines and gasoline, fleet and mysterious, wild and with the scent of the promises of extreme violence permeating the marine air around them. The legend stays intact.
Dr. Johnson once wrote that “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” HST was of the opinion that this was a large part of the allure of being part of this grizzled brotherhood. After all, a life devoted to dehumanizing others who are not part of your tight knit band of brothers you can rely on, has been part of gang/tribe/clan mentality since the dawn of time, Sonny just worked out how to capitalize on it. The Hell’s Angels brand is iconic, valuable and solid, and that is all down to one man and his clear vision of freedom.
The outlaw is as American as apple pie and the 4th of July. The outlaws straddle the border of being dangerous to others and themselves, whilst also being the catalyst for positive change and ensuring that the lawful good of this world doesn’t get big ideas and start encroaching upon the freedoms that we are all due, simply by our status as human beings. When big government needs taking down a peg or two, when the moral majority starts to impose its current ideas and mores upon a wider group who have no interest in their brand of religion or morality, when the artists need to make space to think and speak and write and create, when the world starts to lock down, the Outlaws, the Sonny Bargers of this world are the only ones of us keeping the world true to the basic and desirable premise of Freedom.
I am a San Francisco girl, not by birth, but by choice. This is the best place in the entire world. I look outside today at typical San Francisco fog. SF is going old school for Barger, sending him out in a haze of cold summer weather, mist and the quietude that only the fog can draw down on the city. There is something different about today, something more silent and still and peaceful. I am not sure if we are in the eye of the storm or if Sonny passing onto the next stage of existence has shocked the Bay into a mournful stillness at losing a great American anti hero.
Sonny went out, at the age of 83, declaring he had lived a long and good life full of good things. He did it his way, though I have no doubts such maudlin introspection was not a Barger habit. Keeping us all dishonest, keeping us free, keeping us on our toes and riding off into the sunset down the 101 doing a cool, steady 101mph, no helmet, no cares, no fucks given, no laws, no restraints, no man or woman owning them or their ride through life.
I hope the afterlife gives you the freedom you are used to, Sonny. If I can say nothing else, at least you lived free, and man, do I dig that!
Sonny Barger: October 8, 1938- June 29th, 2022