Sonny Barger Interview
Ralph "Sonny" Barger is one of he best known players in the drama of the 60s. Whether hanging out with his good friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, allegedly holding Rolling Stone Keith Richards at gunpoint during the debacle at Altamont or taking on the anti-Vietnam war movement in Oakland, Barger and the Angels were witnesses to the 60s counterculture. Barger also fought the law, sometimes he lost and sometimes he won, like his victory over the federal government in their famous but failed racketeering prosecution against Barger and the Angels.
Although Barger says he didnt start the Angels, he has come to personify the Hells Angels and what they are about. Starting out with a bunch of vets who missed their wartime motorcycle exploits and longed for the camaraderie of the road the Angels have become the most notorious motorcycle club in the world. Their lifestyle has been documented in some of Americas most popular books and movies. Many, even some in law enforcement, have tried to copy the Angels style. But like them or not there is only one Hells Angel Motorcycle Club and only one Sonny Barger. He spoke recently with Paul DeRienzo in front of the East Village headquarters of the clubs New York City chapter.
DeRienzoWhat would you be doing today if you hadnt been a Hells Angel?
BARGERWhen I got out of the army in 56, in the San Francisco area, I lived in Oakland, I had the choice of becoming a beatnik or a motorcycle rider. I fortunately chose motorcycles. Had I become a beatnik, they sort of faded out into the hippies and the hippies sort of faded out, so I probably wouldnt have been anything. I dont know, thats a question theres no real answer to, you can only surmise.
DeRienzoThe 60s were a time of rebellion. Were the Hells Angels rebels?
BARGER I dont think were rebelling against anything. All were doing is trying to live our lives, ride our motorcycles and have fun. When people try to stop us we react to whatever is happening at the time.
DeRienzoAre you retiring or changing your life?
BARGER Im not retiring. I bought a new bike, a new Harley last month and I got 6500 miles on it already. I closed my shop in Glendale, Arizona and Im opening up one in Phoenix. I added a little more into my life by moving to Arizona. Ive got a new wife, Ive got a kid, Ive got five horses, three dogs, three cats. I got a busy life.
DeRienzoWhat are the Hells Angels about? Is it a mens club?
BARGER Its definitely a mens club. Its a fun lovin group of motorcyclists who like to ride around the country. Having fun and doing it with their friends.
DeRienzoHas anyone tried to become the first woman to ride with the Angels?
BARGER We had a woman in Ventura, California that actually was going to try and take us to court and be a member. But, we dont get any money from the government; they cant make us do anything. Even if they could we wouldnt do it.
DeRienzoWhy is it so important to have a mens club?
BARGER Because thats the way we wanted it. And we dont
need no other reason. I was at a Libertarian convention in Aspen, Colorado
and this lady who was married to an ex-cop asked me, "how does it
feels to walk in a room and have every man in that room look at you and
wish he was you?" I said, that Im not really sure that happens,
but that makes me feel good that you think that, but Im not sure
that happens. She said, "Sonny, I guarantee you theres not
a man in this room that hasnt ran into a problem at one time or
another in his lifer where he didnt say if I was Hells Angel
I could take care of that."
DeRienzoYou guys dont back down, It s in your book and its true. That could be a dangerous way of life.
BARGER Theres a lot of us who have died for it.
DeRienzoWhy is it so important not to back down?
BARGER Because thats the kind of people we are. Thats what draws us together. We stick together; we defend each other, to the death if its necessary. Every once in a while we get a rat and its just really too bad. There aint been that many over the fifty years of the club, but they have been. The government sneaking those rats into the club is not going to make me distrust my friends of be disloyal to them. Just I like I did with the rat who put me in prison for five years the last time. If hes a club member Im going to back him right down the line. If it turns out hes an informant and he can set me up and fabricate a crime and put me in jail for it, so be it, Im still a Hells Angel in prison.
DeRienzoWhats your attitude towards drugs?
BARGER I dont feel drugs should be illegal. I dont think people should take drugs every day, but I dont see any difference with people taking drugs like they drink. Take drugs on Saturday night and go to a party and have a good time and have somebody drive you home or whatever it is so you dont hurt anybody else, thats fine. But if you wake up Monday morning and take em again youre a drug addict. But, they should be legal. The government puts people like me and others, in jail for 20 and 40 and hundreds of years for using drugs that they say is really bad but they let us smoke and it kills 400,000 people a year. I was one of em it almost killed. I think everybody should have the choice the same as helmets. You should be able to say whether you want to wear one or not. The government is intervening into our lives a little too much.
DeRienzoWhat do you feel about a hero of mine, Jerry Garcia?
BARGER Jerry Garcia was a very good friend of mine. Jerry and I got along well, Jerry and the club got along well. I love Jerrys 60s music; I didnt like Jerrys 90s music. I would go to a concert and he would get the band to play a song just for me and Id say "Jerry it stinks, you got to go back," and he would get so mad, but he loved us.
DeRienzoYou took LSD in your youth, do you still take it?
BARGER I took a lot of LSD and I wasnt really young, I was in my 30s. I never really liked pot; I never liked whites, which they took before speed. I never liked speed because the smallest amount of speed in the world would keep me up for three days. But I found LSD, I liked LSD and I took it until I didnt want it any more. I took cocaine until I woke up doing life in prison.
DeRienzoWhat was it like the first time you did LSD?
BARGER It was really a trip. I put it in my book. What happened was my first wife, we both took some and after about an hour I told her I thought we got burned and I was going to have to find these guys. I went in the bathroom and Im standing over the urinal and theres the shelf there and Im taking a leak and Im looking up. Theres a box of Yogi Bear bubble bath and Yogi Bear jumped off of the box and started chasing a cat around the box that jumped off the box also. I said Elsie come here and she said what. I told her we didnt get burned youll see it in a minute.
DeRienzoDid the Angels have anything to do with breaking Timothy Leary from prison?
BARGER Absolutely not. Timothy Learys group did that. I ended up with Timothy Leary in Folsom prison and Timmy thought it was a really big joke till he ended up in Folsom prison. He knew that he was in the wrong place. He said wait a minute Ill tell you everything you want to know and he started informing on everyone who helped him break out.
DeRienzoInformants, obviously its an issue that concerns you.
BARGER I dont like informants anymore than I like policemen.
DeRienzoWhat is it about cops that you hate?
BARGERThe cops lie, cheat, steal and stick guns in my kids mouths and say theyre going to kill em if we dont tell what they want. They put masks on, they raid our houses and I just dont like people like that. I treat people the way I want to be treated and then I treat them in return the way they treat me. Cops just dont like to be treated that bad.
DeRienzoWhy do they target you and the Angels?
BARGER They say were organized crime, but if you took every Hells Angel on the face of the earth and got rid of them you wouldnt drop the crime rate in the world one tenth of one percent. Were a little drop in the bucket. Theres more cops committing crimes than Hells Angels. They do an awful lot of bad things under the color of law.
DeRienzoA lot of cops are into motorcycles.
BARGER We have all these cops who are riding motorcycles that are dressing like us and were running into them, were having problems with them. I had problems with em in California; theyve had problems with em here in New York. They want to look like Hells Angels, they want to act like Hells Angels, and they carry guns. If they want to act like us, get out in the middle of the street and box us. Dont talk about how theyre going to stop us and give us tickets.
DeRienzo What about the use of Nazi regalia by some Angels?
AThe way it started in America with the Hells Angels was like really funny. I was going to buy a belt; a guy gave me a German belt that his father had brought home from the war. It had a swastika on it and I wore it, somebody said something about it, I made a crack about it being the right way to be. And it just generated. But, look around today you dont see it no more. Not on Hells Angels. You might see it on other motorcyclist but you dont see it on Hells Angels. Remember the Germans who killed our fathers are now our allies and we have hundreds of members in Germany.
DeRienzoWhat do think about Hunter S. Thompson?
BARGER I dont like Hunter S. Thompson as a person. Hes probably the greatest writer in the world. When he was with us on a run, we was going to fight the cops one day and he locked himself in the trunk of his car. That guy aint my friend. Hes not going to help me; hes going to run and leave me there when hes supposed to help us. He also didnt take care of what he was supposed to do. All we told him was buy us a keg of beer and he didnt do it. Hes offered to do it later but we dont want it now. He didnt do it when he was supposed to.
DeRienzoWhat about the beating he got by some Angels?
BARGER-- He got beat up by us, but he set that up. After the book was all done he come around us and said can I go on a run with ya. He got in an argument with a guy, he caused a fight, he got beat up and the cover of the book said "I met. I lived with and I was almost killed by " what a guy. Im glad I didnt have to do that for the cover of my book.
DeRienzoWhat about the Rolling Stones. Altamont is like the hippies big downfall.
BARGER They say that was the end of the Age of Aquarius, but actually to us its just another day in the life of a Hells Angel. A guy pulled a gun on us, he got killed and thats the bottom line. We got movies of him shooting at us, we got movies of him getting killed and nobody went to jail for it. There was a trial, everybody was acquitted.
DeRienzoWhy is respect so important for the Hells Angels?
BARGER Because we treat people the way we want to be treated. When they dont treat us back that way we react. We react to everything. For everything that happens theres a reaction.
DeRienzoLets talk about the racial thing.
BARGER I really dont want to get into a racial thing. Im not a racist, but in Oakland if youre a motorcycle rider and your white you want to join the Hells Angels. If you black you want to join the Dragons. Thats how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We dont have no blacks and they dont have no whites.
DeRienzoCould that change?
BARGER Anything can change, I cant predict the future.
DeRienzoYou have a kid?
BARGER I have an adopted daughter.
DeRienzoTell us about Sonny Barger the family man and father.
BARGER She loves me, but I dont know if Id want to be my kid.
DeRienzoIf she wanted to marry a Hells Angel would you be OK with that?
BARGER Certainly. She has her own motorcycle, shes ten years old and she has a Honda 70 that she rides. She has a horse. She gets to drive my pickup truck around because we live on dirt roads. She drives to the mailbox thats two and a half miles away. But her biggest problem is that she cant roller-skate.
DeRienzoYoure a survivor of cancer. The big c you call it.
BARGER I had a heart attack, I had cancer, I got hit by a pickup truck and the bottom line to me is that Im not religious, but people put guns in their mouths, pull the trigger and live, others fall on the sidewalk and die. I dont think you can make yourself die before whatever it is going to make it happen.
DeRienzoDo you believe in God?
BARGER No. I believe something is happening, Im not sure what it is.
DeRienzo What do you predict for the Angels in the year 2000?
BARGER I dont forecast anything. I take it as it comes. But I know well survive it.
Ralph "Sonny" Barger is author of "Hells Angel The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club" published by Harper Collins and William Morrow.