Outlaw Biker #160

Larger Than Life: The Sonny Barger Interview
Paul DeRienzo

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?

PD: Yeah

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 be dangerous.

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 suicide.

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 that.

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.