Sonny Barger, motorcycle outlaw and founder of Hells Angels, dies aged 83

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Sonny Barger, the larger-than-life godfather of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, equal parts fighter, bully, braggart, rule-breaker and scheming peddler 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 post, you know I’m gone. I requested that this note be posted immediately after my death.” His former attorney, Fritz Clapp, confirmed the death, saying the cause was liver cancer.

For decades, the stocky, muscular Mr. Barger not only founded the original Oakland, California, Angels chapter in 1957, but decades afterward as the public face of a rural counterculture tribe of bearded, denim-clad road warriors commemorated in literature and film – roaring across the open highway and through city intersections, shocking the locals with their dashing, often menacing presence.

It was a rowdy, often lawless fraternity bound, in no particular order, by machismo, tattoos, winged skull insignia, booze, narcotics, rides to nowhere on thundering Harley-Davidson pigs and a lust for the unbridled freedom that roams the clearing. to find. away.

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

Woven into the history of the Hells Angels was a tradition of crime and violence – much of it involving Mr. Barger, a fact he boastfully acknowledged. He once referred to himself as a member of a gang of “card-carrying thugs.”

He was convicted in 1988 of conspiracy to murder members of a rival Kentucky club and blow up their headquarters, serving five years in federal prison.

A well-known cocaine addict who supported his habit of selling heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, he spent a total of eight years in prison on various drug and firearms charges.

The Hells Angels — as a business entity with branches from California to New York — faced relentless federal investigations into criminal enterprises and racketeering offenses. In 2013, authorities received convictions against 16 members and camp followers in South Carolina for conspiracy involving drug distribution, arms smuggling, money laundering and arson.

In 1979, Mr. Barger and other leaders ran a similar conspiracy rap in which they were accused of running a giant methamphetamine (“biker’s coffee”) operation out of Oakland.

Most infamous in Hells Angles lore was their role in the chaotic 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California, where an 18-year-old concertgoer with a gun, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel — all captured on film in the 1970 documentary ‘Gimme Shelter’.

According to Mr Barger, who was in attendance, the Angels, hired to provide security, were fighting fans who rushed onto the stage. The drug-fueled mob pressed against the Angels’ safety line and damaged some of their bicycles, and Angels waded into the crowd with fists and cue swinging.

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

Richards obeyed, but the audience, including Hunter, continued to flock to the stage, according to Mr. Barger. Hunter fired a single shot and winged a Hells Angel, Mr. Barger said. Other angels quickly subdued Hunter by punching and kicking him. An Angel was charged with fatally stabbing him but was acquitted after claiming self-defense.

Over the years, Mr. Barger as a technical advisor to motorcycle films and appeared in several, including “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967), a low-budget exploitation film starring Jack Nicholson.

For the real Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, he took inspiration from an earlier film – the 1953 classic ‘The Wild One’, in which Marlon Brando played a strangely sensitive gang leader. Mr. Barger preferred Lee Marvin’s more aggressive ride as a motorcyclist.

Mr. Barger’s crude and anarchic manner belies a disciplined entrepreneurial spirit. He promoted his renegade brand by carefully marketing Hells Angels-themed t-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses, and California wines. He registered trademarks on club logos and designs and engaged an intellectual property attorney to sue poachers, which is common.

To give the Angels a little sparkle, he started periodic charities for children’s toys and clothing.

“He’s smart and cunning, and he’s got a kind of wildlife cunning,” author Hunter S. Thompson told The Washington Post in 2000. Hunter spent a year with the Angels writing his seminal book “Hell’s 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 4 months old. His father, a day laborer who loaded ships and trucks in Oakland Harbor, spent his nights and much of his money in waterside bars, often taking Sonny with him.

There, according to his autobiography, Sonny tossed pretzels and hard-boiled eggs, learning his first swear words from an obscenity-screaming parrot.

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

He hated school and was repeatedly suspended for beating and hitting his teacher every now and then. “I 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 a short time, he rejected what he called the “tongue-yammering Holy Rollers,” smoked his first marijuana cigarette at age 14, dropped out of high school at age 16, and joined the military with a forged birth certificate.

Fourteen months later, the military authorities discovered the subterfuge and deposed him. Back home he wandered from job to job – janitor, pipe threader, potato chip assembly line worker. “I couldn’t get a handle on this work from nine to five,” he wrote.

He joined his first motorcycle group, the Oakland Panthers, in 1956 and founded the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in Oakland the following year. “I needed a close-knit group of guys who could jump on their bikes, do cross-country if they wanted to, and not follow rules or clocks,” he said.

Over the following decades, his sole club grew 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, almost all-white, dues-paying fraternal order with a brisk retail trade of club paraphernalia.

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

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

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

Mr 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, there is another sister, according to Clapp.

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

He continued to ride on public roads, thousands of miles a year, eventually preferring powerful Hondas and BMWs to the Angels’ traditional Harley choppers.

What did his maverick life teach 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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