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
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.