Outlaw Biker #160
Larger Than Life: The Sonny Barger
Ralph “Sonny” Barger is an icon of the 60s who managed to
stay relevant into the 21st century. Although Barger didn’t found
the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club he has come to personify the Hell’s
Angels and what they’re about. After meeting Barger and interviewing
him twice I’ve found Barger and the Angel’s are foremost about
loyalty and family. That might seem out of character with a group of guys
often associated with beer, brawls and loud Harley Davidson motorcycles,
but that’s how I’ve come to see the Angels. That’s why
I was fascinated with Barger’s latest book, “Freedom; Credos
from the Road,” published by William Morrow. The book’s promoters
say Freedom is about Sonny Barger’s principles, what he lives by.
Admittedly, after decades of bare-knuckle fights, high speed adventures,
the solitude of prison and throat cancer I’d like to know what its
is that drives this man.
Barger has written a few books including Hell's Angel: The Life and Times
of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, and the novel Dead
in Five Heartbeats. He lives in Arizona where he’s active in a local
chapter of the Hell’s Angels and is a master mechanic. In Freedom
Barger answers what his publicists call the soul-searching, bottom line
questions; what is his philosophy of life and his views about America:
What’s worth living for, dying for, what’s the definition
of individual freedom?
Paul DeRienzo: Why did you decide to write this book, Freedom?
Sonny Barger: Seriously?
SB: That’s how I make a living.
PD: You’re a survivor?
SB: I’m 66-years old and I’m still alive. I’ve had cancer,
I’ve had a heart attack and I’ve had accidents, you know,
I’m still here so something must be going right. People ask questions
about certain things because I have survived so long
PD: How have you survived a tough life? Living life to it fullest could
SB: You asking a question that’s impossible to answer. I’m
not a deeply religious person and I don’t really know if there’s
a God or not and at the present time I don’t really even care, but
something out there has got to control something. Because people can put
a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger and live and someone else can
slip on the curb and die. I don’t think you can kill yourself until
it’s your time.
PD: Does that have something to do with what you say in Freedom about
having no reverse gear? Motorcycles don’t have a reverse gear. You
don’t look back to the past -- you look ahead to the future.
SB: Maybe I made that a little too strong about no reverse gear. If you
have a motorcycle with a sidecar you could have a reverse gear, but of
course I’ve never had one.
PD: Did you know that the Altamont case had been finally closed? (The
Altamont Raceway in California was the site of a 1969 concert that was
billed as the West Coast Woodstock and was featured in the film Gimme
Shelter. Hell’s Angels members including Sonny Barger had been hired
to provide security by the concert promoters. )
SB: After 35-years they finally did close it. The prosecutor ruled that
Alan (Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro) who was charged with the case originally
and was found not guilty was the lone assailant. Rumors that there was
another assailant were false and it was a justifiable homicide. The guy
that got killed (Meredith Hunter) had a gun and was pointing it at the
crowd. We’ve always said he (Hunter) shot it. The police don’t
want to say that and they still haven’t admitted that he shot it.
However, he did have it.
(A California sheriff said in May that investigators prompted by the victim’s
family used “slowed down film” of the incident showing Hunter
brandished a gun as the Rolling Stones were playing before Passaro jumped
in and stabbed him to death. Police said they saw no other assailants
and closed the case. Passaro died in 1985.)
PD: At the time were the Angel’s blamed?
SB: The newspapers, the TV people, the cops, everybody who could exploit
us on it. We’re easy to exploit. But, when you’ve got the
film right there of the guy pulling out a gun and pointing it, whether
shooting it or not, and somebody stabs him. Come on pull out a gun in
a crowd of 400,000 people? I’ve always said that’s committing
PD: In Freedom you say very few make it to the top by being ordinary.
In your book you have the terms, “kick ass,” don’t back
down,” “use your anger,” “wear leather,”
look strong,” anger is a tool,” “fight back,”
they seem to add up to a point. What is that point?
SB: If you lie down and let somebody kick you, you’re never going
to get nowhere. You have to stand up. It’s not like being out there
and being a bully and just jumping on everybody because you want to do
it or because you’re able to do it, but you can’t lie down
when people come on to use you, you have to stand up for your rights too.
PD: What’s the difference between legitimately standing up for your
rights and a bully?
SB: Sometimes it’s sort of hard to figure out, because we end up
in our organization being a bully every now and again too. But, standing
up for your rights is when somebody is trying to take away from you what’s
yours or trying to hurt what’s yours and you stand up and defend
yourself. Being a bully is the guy that’s doing that.
PD: What’s your stand on drugs and getting high?
SB: I don’t think drugs should be illegal. I’m not an advocate
of everybody running out and using drugs, but I think the drug wars are
not working, there’s millions and millions of dollars being spent
on the drug war that we’re never going to win. We’ve got thousands
and thousands of people in jail on minor drug violations and they really
don’t need to be in jail. They’re people whose lives are ruined.
If drugs were legal there would be a lot less people using them.
PD: Tobacco is addictive; alcohol is addictive.
SB: I don’t smoke. I smoked for 35, 40 years. It was legal. I was
addicted, but I thought I just liked it. I seriously did not know that
I was addicted. We have 450,000 people a year die from smoke related problems.
What percentage of people die of drugs? Nowhere near that. Probably the
same thing with alcohol and that’s legal.
PD: Last summer I was out west and I noticed folks riding to places like
Sturgis with their bikes in trailers.
SB: That’s the difference between motorcycle riders and people who
own motorcycles. Years ago we brought motorcycles to ride them -- today
people buy motorcycles to own them. We got all these white-collar professionals,
doctors, lawyers, and people like that riding motorcycles. We’ve
got people, who spend $90,000 for these tricked out choppers. They ride
them to the bar on Friday night and put them in the back of their truck
and take them to events. But they own motorcycles to own them; they don’t
own motorcycles to ride them. That’s the difference between hardcore
motorcycle riders and people who own motorcycles. Some people ride’em
and some people trailer’em.
[The average Harley-Davidson owner makes $80,000-year according to the
company. A trailer can cost $25-35,000 and FedEx has a service that ships
bikes to Sturgis for up to $1500 each.]
PD: Do you ever watch that TV-show Orange County Choppers?
SB: I love that kid Mikey and I don’t want to knock anybody’s
product, but I wouldn’t own one. Here at BikeWeek in Arizona, thousands
and thousands of people come to the Phoenix area to attend Bike Week.
Every motorcycle that you see broke down on the side of the road is a
motorcycle that somebody tried to ride instead of trailering.
PD: What’s the difference?
SB: A lot of people want to belong to something that they can’t
devote full time to. That doesn’t make a person a bad person. If
you own a motorcycle and you like riding them but you don’t have
the time to ride to Sturgis well, trailer it there. I got no problem with
PD: So despite the different philosophy there isn’t a conflict?
SB: Come on! If everybody was like me wouldn’t it be a boring world?
I think what I do in the motorcycle world is the best thing in the world
to do, but I could be wrong. That’s the one thing that people don’t
understand. I’ve been in the club for 48-years, I’ve been
riding motorcycles for 50-years, but if I ever found something that I
thought I would like better I would certainly be doing it.
PD: Have you taken any lengthy rides lately?
SB: Yes, I go all over the place. I’m going to Reno to get married,
then the following Friday I’m taking off for Hollister, then when
we get back from Hollister I’ll be in Branson, Missouri and then
we’ll be heading to Sturgis.
PD: What do you want people to take away from the book?
SB: I hope people buy it and enjoy reading it and they get something out
of it, if they get one thing out of the 50 chapters that’s great.
People ask why did you write that book. I wrote that book to make money,
I wrote that book so I don’t have to go to the motorcycle shop everyday
and get my hands greasy anymore and I hope that people enjoy it.
Paul DeRienzo is New York based writer who has written many articles on
the counter-culture. His two-wheeler experience is limited to pedal power,
but he did drive through Sturgis, SD last year.