”The Edge…There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
Even though he was mostly known for his wild, drug fuelled odyssey Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels was the book that put Hunter S. Thompson on the map. As Loaded put it: ‘The Book that made Thompson’s name” and it’s hard to disagree. It’s a searing, intense, warts and all (over-used book review phrase) look at one of the most notorious groups in the history of American culture. In this book Thompson spends several years riding with the Oakland and San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels and getting to know some of the key member including chapter president Sonny Barger (who had a bit part in Sons of Anarchy, bonus points if you can guess who it was without using google) and the other various misfits and monsters that make up the majority of the Hell’s Angels.
Most people would associate the Hell’s Angels with mayhem and motorcycles, bringing destruction and terror wherever their bikes take them. Whilst those things do ring true, in the book, Hunter sheds light on how a lot of this was due to the over active media crusade against them. Newspapers were quick to headline some horrible act the Angels had committed but when the story was thrown out of court, which happened quite a lot of the time, there would be little to no coverage saying so. That doesn’t mean they were a lovely, misunderstood bunch. They were brutal. Terrible on some occasions, which i will go into later, but a lot of the time they we’re the cultural bogeymen the media fed the American public to keep everyone fearful and terrified.
The main cast of the book are a thoroughly interesting, if somewhat morally corrupt bunch. With nicknames like Little Jesus, Terry the Tramp, Mother Miles, Puff, Mouldy Marvin, Charger Charley the Child Molester etc. it certainly hints at how debauched this motley crew of bikers really is. Sonny Barger (chapter president) is a thoroughly interesting man however. Running a bunch of crazed , leather clad animals is no simple task but Sonny manages it with ease. The fact that every member of the group (close to 500 men) would follow his lead no matter what just shows how respected the man was. I say was, as he is despised and vilified by some of today’s Hell’s Angels groups, possibly due to him recognizing the media infamy of the gang turning into positive coverage and his attempts to capitalize on it (I am not entirely sure about this as it is not covered in the book and i simply do not have the time to google search it). Another Angel who receives a fair amount of page time is the club enforcer, bearded man mountain ‘Tiny’ who was so famous, Allen Ginsberg referenced the monstrous man in a poem he read aimed at the Angels involvement in the anti-Vietnam student rallies the Angels had previously attacked.
It’s worth pointing out that it was not a straightforward transition for Thompson to ride with the Angels and cover them for his newspaper article/book. The Hell’s Angels were, at the time, well known for their vehement opposition to journalists and reporters and would often treat these individuals to a severe ”chain-whipping” (except for photographer Don Mohr, a bike riding badass who was bestowed with the incredibly rare ‘honorary Hell’s Angel’ title). To combat this Thompson sought ‘Frenchy’ an outlaw from the San Francisco chapter, for an interview at one of the Angels frequent haunts (usually places filled with menace and strange body odours). The tension and hostility towards him, describes Thompson, was noticeable from the moment he walked in (possibly due to him wearing a Palm Beach sports coat to meet several members of an outlaw motorcycle gang). After several awkward questions he invited ‘Frenchy’ and other Angels back to his house to ‘party’ and this small act, along with Thompson’s legendary talents with the liquor helped ease him into the group, to the extent where his apartment was often frequented by outlaws, invited or otherwise.
One thing this book does brilliantly is change your opinion of the Hell’s Angels almost with every chapter. You genuinely empathise with the Angels a lot of the time but almost instantly you are reminded of how terrible they can actually be. On the one hand you have the good moments: helping terrified strangers broken down on the motorway, the honour and code they have amongst themselves, their open invitation, thanks to Thompson to Ken Kesey’s Bohemian LSD parties a.k.a. the Hipster Shangri-La, the rather emotionally charged funeral towards the end of the book where the outlaws show unity and ‘class’ burying one of their own. Plus a plethora of others. It also fuels your support when you read about the one sided media bias the Angels are subjected to. Almost every media outlet in the country ran with a front page story about the ‘Bass Lake Rape’ when a pregnant teenage girl was ‘gang raped’ by a group of outlaws which is then proved to be consensual, if somewhat morally horrifying, and when the case is dropped, not one newspaper had it anywhere near the front page. Very few even commented on the case being dismissed.
On the other hand though, we have those horrible moments, some of which are hugely disturbing. Thompson was present for one of those consensual ‘group sessions’ and it is a harrowing turn of events. Really. (And I’ve watched Heartbeat so i know what harrowing is). Racism is briefly spoken of in the book and although there is a strange and surprisingly respectful moment when the outlaws meet an all African American motorcycle crew, the brutal beating of a black gentleman (who they argued was asking for it) is a really hard read and is one that shows how adept the Angels were at being violent in unison and is a shocking and disgusting incident. There is also countless other beatings, thievery, assaults, intense drug abuse etc. Chapter Presidents Sonny’s decision to attack the students protesting the war in Vietnam, after months of LSD based cohabitation with them is another example of how distrustful these guys can be and how easy it is for them to backstab someone not wearing the gangs colours. If those aren’t enough (which they really should be) then the eventual beating that Hunter S. Thompson takes at the hands of the Hell’s Angels in the Postscript should be.
All in all (typical beginning to last paragraph in book review) this is a thoroughly interesting read. I would say it tops Thompson’s Fear and Loathing… as it sheds light on a huge section of American history and deserves the critical acclaim it still enjoys to this day. 50 years on and it still feels like a fresh, it really didn’t feel like it has aged at all. An essential guide to a gang of maniacal, animalistic, debauched yet deeply interesting group. There are several key parts that i haven’t really spoken about, the insane Labor Day runs, the notorious Lynch Report etc. but I haven’t got all day and they are well worth reading if you get the chance . It is also worth pointing out that The Hell’s Angels did not enjoy the book and there is a rather wonderful and thought provoking interview on the internet (oh how far we’ve come) with Hunter S. Thompson and one of the outlaws where they discuss the book and why the angels didn’t like it. I liked it but what do it know. I don’t even like motorbikes.