Hell's Angel: An Interview with Sonny Barger
Interview by John Strausbaugh & Don Gilbert
In 1957, when 18-year-old Ralph "Sonny" Barger and some friends started a Hell's Angels club in Oakland, CA, they were unaware at first that there were already Hell's Angels clubs elsewhere in the state. In short order those disparate groups knit together, and though he claims he's just a member in good standing, Barger is clearly the preeminent figure of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club/Corporation, the man who grabbed the reins of a loose group of California-based hellraising clubs and transformed them into an organization that's been compared to both a crack paramilitary outfit and a Fortune 500 company.
Although Sonny maintains he's had a lot of fun in his 40-plus years as an Angel, you can lose sight of that reading the book. Hell's Angel has plenty of fun and funny moments, but it does make it clear that Barger's had a hard guy's hard life, full of fistfights and gun fights and knife fights, friends who died young and club members who turned traitor, fierce cocaine rages in the 70s, almost constant battles with law enforcement for decades, years of extremely complicated court cases (murder raps, kidnapping charges, drug charges, income tax evasion, a massive and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convict the club on RICO racketeering charges in the late 70s), years behind bars (beginning with a six-month stint in 1964 and ending with five years served in federal prison 1987-'92; the book includes his rap sheet as a helpful addendum), the death of his first wife (of three) and his own battle with cancer of the larynx at the age of 44, in 1982, the surgery for which left him with an airhole in his neck and a voice that's a painful, raspy whisper alternately likened to Vito Corleone and the Tasmanian Devil.
Now approaching 62, Sonny Barger still looks like he was sculpted out of iron; is still putting thousands of miles a year on his bike; has the friendly, polite but absolutely no-bullshit demeanor of a man who's comfortable in the knowledge that if you transgress far enough with him he may simply have to fuck you up, no questions, no apologies. Like other mature Angels, he projects an equilibrium zone of guarded peace/potential action that must be what it felt like to hang with the samurai. He's also a family man, living in the desert outside Phoenix, AZ, where he moved a year and a half ago after doing time in a federal prison there and deciding he liked it enough to relocate. He lives with his third wife, Noel, and his 10-year-old stepdaughter Sarrah, to whom he dedicated the book, and is just now opening a new motorcycle shop.
If they make the long-discussed movie, he says, he wants Jim Carrey to play him. It'd be the challenge of Carrey's career.
We met last week with Sonny and Steve Bonge, photographer and a member of the NYC chapter, at the Angels' E. 3rd St. clubhouse.
Why did you write the book?
The main reason I wrote the book was 'cause a lot of people in the club asked me to. I never ever wanted to write a book. I always said I would never do it...
How was working with the Zimmerman twins?
That was really nice, 'cause they lived in Oakland and nobody had to fly anywhere. I would go over their house, we'd record. It was really convenient. And they were nice guys to work with... They had me tell them a lot. They asked specific questions. How it ended up?I don't know how they do it, but they did it.
Did it get to be fun?
No, it got to be really, really boring.
I love what you say about Harleys in the book.
Junk. If I wasn't a Hell's Angel I wouldn't ride one... We made Harley-Davidson. I don't care what anybody says. In the 50s and 60s they wouldn't even let us in Harley-Davidson dealerships, 'cause we stripped them down and chopped them. In the 70s they started taking pictures of our bikes and building theirs like that. And now every yuppie in the world is driving one.
I also loved your version of what happened at Altamont. [...Richards walked over to me after finishing "Love in Vain" and told me the band wasn't going to play anymore until we stopped the violence. "Either these cats cool it, man, or we don't play," he announced to the crowd. I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead. He played like a motherfucker.]
Keith Richards already denies it happened. Of course. He's supposed to. But all you have to do is realize, he stood up there and said, "If the violence don't stop, I'm not playing no more." The violence got worse and he continued to play. (shrugs and smiles)
The thing is, everybody loves them. They sing really really well. That don't make them nice guys. They were goddamned jerks as far as I was concerned. There's nothing more I can say about it. They're prima donnas. They take advantage of their public. They come over here to the United States, they wanted to act like they were tough. They seen what tough was like, they went home with their tail between their legs. And they're never gonna get over it.
One of the things that I got out of the book was that life's been kind of a pain in the ass for you. All the fights with other clubs, the constant hassles from the cops and feds, all the years in jail...
Everybody says that. I read a review and they're talking about what a miserable childhood I had. You know, I thought I was the happiest kid in the world. My father drank. So what? He loved me and he took care of me. I didn't have a mother but I had 15 mothers on the block. I had a bicycle, I had motor scooters. With my kid now, I give her $20 and she's broke in 15 minutes. I got a quarter a week back then, but I bought everything I wanted with it. And somehow, whoever that reviewer was missed the point. Just because I didn't have a million dollars and my father drank didn't mean that I was unhappy or had a bad childhood. Although I've been to prison and although I've had a lot of court fights, I've had a very happy life. And here I am going on 62 years old and still alive. Can you believe that?
From the book I got the impression that your introduction to the club was kind of a happy accident.
Very much so. We didn't have any idea there was a Hell's Angels around. Boots [an original member] had a Sacramento Hell's Angel patch. We changed that to Nomads on the bottom, and then changed Nomads to Oakland within a year and became Hell's Angels. Then we ran into Hell's Angels [from San Bernadino]. Then we decided we better make it where nobody can do this again, so we started getting a little more rules and a little more together, and it evolved into [what it is] today.
You're widely credited with giving the club its structure and rules.
I think that I've been?like on the History Channel, by cops and historians and everybody?given a little more credit than I deserve. But I'm more than willing to accept it. I did have something to do with it. I won't say I had everything to do with it. There's been a lot of people made the club what it is. I'm really glad to have been a part of it, but I didn't do it all by myself.
It sounds like nothing like that had happened before.
Well, you gotta remember back then there probably wasn't 50 of us in the state. (We were only in California.) I guess you could say we went from a very loose-knit organization into a very tight organization, and expanded worldwide.
The book describes a history of wars between the Angels and various other clubs. Why do the different clubs have to be hostile with one another?
I think for a long time everybody wanted to be considered what is the number-one club. I'm a Hell's Angel, of course I'm going to say we're the number-one club. Somebody else in another club, they're gonna say they are. But I think finally now that we're in 2000 everybody realizes that if the Hell's Angels were wiped off the face of the earth today, everybody would say, "Oh, those guys are acting like Hell's Angels." Everybody's sort of come to an agreement. We stated in the book, we started out as a fun-lovin' motorcycle club liking to ride, fight and drink beer?have a good time, you know. We got into a little drugs, we got into a little bit of criminality. Not everybody, but some of us, including myself. We done a lot of things. But in the 40 years I've been in the club we've gone full circle. We're back riding motorcycles, fist-fighting, drinking and having a lot of fun.
In the book you describe the 70s as your gangster period, when you were doing too much cocaine and getting into criminal activities.
In the very very late 60s, '69 and into the early 70s, I ran into cocaine. Now, I'd never used drugs. Didn't even really like to smoke marijuana. Regardless of whether anybody wants to believe it or not, my marijuana beef [a six-month jail term for possession in 1964] was my old lady's and I just rode it for her. I got into cocaine. I got loaded for a couple of years. Never saw a straight day. And I got into a little bit of trouble. I went to prison in '72. I've never used it since. You know, Betty Ford can go to the hospital and say, "I'm sorry." I went to prison, I ain't gonna say I'm sorry. I had a good time.
If your period of criminality was really only in the 70s, as you write, and you finished serving your time almost 10 years ago, why is the government still hostile?
They have a list, the federal prosecutors, and if your name's on it, if they can convict you and put you away it's a step up the ladder for them. I've been told my name's on that list. Also, they make a living off of us?the DEA, the ATF, the FBI. They've got people whose sole job it is... You can say what you want about all the guns in the country, all the drugs, all the crime in the country, but we all know 400,000 people a year die of cigarette-related deaths. How many people died of drugs, guns, automobile accidents? You add them all together it doesn't come anywhere near that. Yet they let me smoke and get cancer, and they put me in jail for having drugs. What's going on? The government don't care. It's all about money and job security.
Do they consider the club a criminal organization? That was the point of the RICO trial [in '79-'80], right?
We were found not guilty of that. I was the first person in the history of the law to get a not guilty [verdict in a RICO trial].
You gotta love a book with a chapter titled "RICO My Ass." Why do you think Giuliani paraded around wearing that confiscated Hell's Angel patch that time?
Probably he wanted to wear a dress, too. He was trying to find out where he was at. (smiles)
He makes a better-looking woman than a Hell's Angel. You said you guys like to ride, fight, drink, have a good time. What about the fighting? Why are you guys always fighting?
I think probably because we're men. You get two men together and you're going to have an argument. You just box. That's what happened with us. In the beginning, everybody boxed. All of a sudden, kids started killing each other. Now, I don't understand how that happened, but I have my theories. The government come along and said you can't correct your kid. Spank a kid, we're gonna put you in jail. Today, a kid does something wrong and you go to whap him across the butt with a belt, he looks right square in the eye and says, "You touch me with that and I'm calling the cops." Yet when he gets to be 16 years old, gets a gun and goes out and kills eight people, they want to put the parent in jail. Somebody's got to accept responsibility for that, and I believe it's the government. When I was a child, my grandma washed my mouth out with soap. I'm 61 years old, and when I swear in front of a lady today I excuse myself, because I still taste the soap. When I did something wrong, my grandma took my dad's belt and beat my butt with it.
No matter what people think I am, I'm probably the fairest person they'll ever meet in their life. I treat everybody the way I want to be treated. I treat them the way they treat me. If they treat me good, I'll treat them better. If they treat me bad, I'll fuck 'em. And they gotta realize that. That don't make me a bad guy. I can honestly say and swear on my patch that I have never in my life hurt anybody that I really didn't feel had it coming, because they was either trying to hurt me or my friends. If everybody was like that it'd be real different. It's like living in Arizona, when you're in a bar and people start getting in an argument, everybody realizes the other guy's got a gun. The arguments don't really get too loud.
Do kids give your stepdaughter any problems about being a Hell's Angel's kid?
Well, where we live it's sorta different, because we're out in the desert. Her teachers didn't believe her when she said her father was a Hell's Angel. She took them a manuscript [of the book] and told her teacher, "Here, read this." We gave the teacher a book when we got it. Now the teacher knows. I told the teacher, "After you read this, think about what this kid's gotta go through." That worked out... As far as it being a hardship on her, I don't know. We've had a couple of problems where other kids have pushed her. I've explained to her that you don't ever hit a person first, but if anybody ever puts their hands on you, you hit them right between the eyes. The principal told me there'd be repercussions from that. I said, "Yeah, but it won't be her that's hurting."
The neighbors in Arizona are all good Christians, Baptists, whatever you want to call it. They all go to church. I'm not religious, but they all know I'm a Hell's Angel, they all know I've been to prison, and they all say, "Well, you are paroled, aren't you?" And I say yeah and they say, "Well then, so what?" It's not like California. Arizona is like the real West.
You have a story about her and the cops.
Yeah. At school they always tell her how good cops are, and I tell her how you can't trust them, they lie. She didn't believe that. One day while I was at work Noel went to the mailbox, which is two and a half miles away. For some reason the kid was home from school that day. She was out back riding her horse. She looked over and there was a sheriff car parked in our front yard, with a guy leaning out the window taking pictures. So when Mom got back she told her. She was nine years old. Noel called me at work, I told her to call the sheriff's department. Sheriff's department denied any knowledge of it. I called this guy from the Arizona Republic who had done an article on me, he called the sheriff's department, they denied it. So I called the sheriff's department, they denied it... The next morning, when the lieutenant came on duty he called me. I put him on the speakerphone. The child was standing there. He's telling me, "Mr. Barger, I have nobody who admits to doing this. As far as we're concerned it didn't happen." I said, "I have a nine-year-old daughter who says it did, and I believe her a lot more than I believe any of your officers."... I said [to Sarrah], "You hear what he just said? He's calling you a liar... Now you know why I don't trust cops?" She said, "Yeah." I said [into the phone], "You hear that? Thank you." [And hung up.]
After that a policeman came into the school and was giving them a little seminar on lifting fingerprints and stuff in the auditorium. She told him, "I already know how to do that. Can I leave?" She really didn't like cops anymore. He told her, "Well, Miss Smartypants, if you know how to do it, why don't you just explain it to the class?" She did, step by step. The cop was beaming. He said, "Is your father a policeman?" She said, "No, he's a felon."
Is there anything you would do to change the public image of the club?
Absolutely not. We are what we are. In the book I thanked everybody for making the club what it is today, whatever you think it is. I don't care what you think it is, 'cause I'm happy with it.
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