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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


Hell's Angels

By Hunter S. Thompson
Ballantine Books, 273 pp, 1966

First of all, let me pass along a hard-learned lesson about book-buying. Most of you, undoubtedly, know this, but for those who do not (like me before I bought this book), listen closely. Before you buy a book, always, always, always check the copyright date.

I bought this while browsing at Barnes and Noble. It was paperback, sleek modern cover, and looked interesting. I knew little about the Hell's Angels, and from the summary I learned the author had spent almost a year with the notorious motorcycle gang. Were they really criminals or just misunderstood misfits? I hoped to find out.

It wasn't until I started reading it that I discovered the book was written in 1966. So instead of a modern history, I got a slice-of-life, journalistic account of the Angels as they existed in their infancy. Call it a thirty-some year-old contemporary history.

Anyway, I was right about one thing. The book is interesting, even fascinating at times. The Angels were a strange bunch, and they embraced their strangeness. They thrived off it, reveled in it, and used it to their advantage whenever possible.

They were violent, drug-consuming losers who terrorized small towns by taking over local bars and taverns and fighting and rioting when the mood struck. It took little to set off an Angel, and when one was threatened, they all responded, which usually resulted in a stomping, in which the hapless individual was kicked and bludgeoned to unconsciousness or death. 

However, the media and government officials often exaggerated the Angels' exploits. They filled the public airwaves and newspapers with lurid tales of mass rape and bloody slaughter, tales that were rarely true. For all their bluster and terrifying reputation for violence, the Angels seldom committed heinous crimes. Sure, they stomped people when they felt it was right, and consumed massive quantities of beer, dope, and other drugs, but if you left an Angel alone, he usually left you alone.

Thompson is a fine writer, mixing personal observations with historical information. He got very close to the Angels, which is odd because they didn't like writers. But he paid for it in the end. He got stomped.

Another interesting tidbit. The Angels' president back then, Sonny Barger, lives here in Phoenix, and insists the Angels have left their violent past behind and are now respectable, law-abiding members of society. The police disagree, but the police have been wrong about the Angels before. But the Angels have been known to lie. So what's the truth? Who knows?

This is a fine book, well-written, and a decent history of a tiny segment of American society that is closest to the old outlaw tradition from the days of the Wild West.

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