An angel at my table

Masculinity may be in crisis throughout the western world, but nobody's dared tell Sonny Barger about it. At 61, the biker Godfather stays true to, er, traditional values
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The Independent Online

I am meeting Sonny Barger - the "American Legend" commonly regarded as the patriarch of all Hell's Angels, and immortalised by Hunter S Thompson as the "Maximum Leader" - at the British Hell's Angels headquarters in east London. This means taking a right off the Hackney Road, past the Mecca Bingo Hall, and then you can't miss it, because there are lots of Hell's Angels hanging about outside, and you can't easily miss Hell's Angels. They are seriously and menacingly big: big bikes, big buckled belts, big beards, big beer bellies, big biceps, big black boots and everything else beginning with "b" apart, perhaps, from "bathed".

I am meeting Sonny Barger - the "American Legend" commonly regarded as the patriarch of all Hell's Angels, and immortalised by Hunter S Thompson as the "Maximum Leader" - at the British Hell's Angels headquarters in east London. This means taking a right off the Hackney Road, past the Mecca Bingo Hall, and then you can't miss it, because there are lots of Hell's Angels hanging about outside, and you can't easily miss Hell's Angels. They are seriously and menacingly big: big bikes, big buckled belts, big beards, big beer bellies, big biceps, big black boots and everything else beginning with "b" apart, perhaps, from "bathed".

Still, I refuse to be intimidated. "Don't mess with me boys," I say as I go in. "Look at this." I show them one of my own biceps which, after years of pumping Hello! and OK! and TV Quick, is almost the size of a pea. "Ohh, scary," says one. "It's all right," I reassure him. "I'm not in the mood for a fight today." Relief all round, I think.

Inside I go. The place is full of more Hell's Angels - with names like "Animal" and "Hoover" - and all in their "colours", their leather waistcoats with those sewn-on patches of death heads and winged skulls. "Come in," they say. "We don't bite. Well, at least not until 4pm. Ha! Ha!"

Sonny is over here to promote his book, Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and The Hell's Angel Motorcycle Club, and, so far today, it hasn't gone especially well. Sonny, apparently, threw out the last interviewer. "He asked some really stupid questions," says the PR. "Like, what do you think about while you are beating someone up?"

"Oops," I say.

"Yeah," Sonny later says. "I dangled him from the window until he gave me the tape."

"Nice," I say. "Bravo!"

Truly, you just don't mess with these people, who are still best known for what? For beating up Hunter S Thompson after he spent a year with them for his classic, 1967 book on the Hell's Angel lifestyle? ("I was clubbed from behind... then swarmed in a general flail.")

Or is it for Altamont? That is, Altamont, California,1969 when the Angels stabbed a man to death during a free Rolling Stones concert. It was The Stones' fault, says Sonny now. They came on deliberately late. They wanted a crazed crowd, and that's what they got. He doesn't have much time for The Stones - "a bunch of sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas". The Stones even wanted to stop playing, but Sonny talked Keith Richard out of it. "I stood next to him and stuck my pistol into his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead."

Or, then again, perhaps it's for the gang-bangs. The gang-bangs? Yup, they happened, but, says Sonny, "for a certain kind of chick, it was an honour... some women who saw us riding down the road weren't terrified or repulsed. They wanted to be part of it". I'm not sure this goes for the ones who later filed rape charges, but there you have it.

I am taken in to meet Sonny, whom everyone calls "Chief". I am never left alone with him. There is always at least one Angel listening in. "We're brothers," one of them explains. "We look after each other. We're family." Surprisingly, Sonny, now 61, is not that big. He is, even, quite small, although what there is of him is all hard, mean muscle. He is like a pit bull. He doesn't have a big beard. How come, I ask. "It went grey," he replies. "Haven't you heard of Grecian 2000?" I ask. "Or Fade Out for Men?"

Hoover, who is huge, takes a sharp intake of breath. But Sonny is OK about it. Sonny says: "When we're done, we're gonna wrestle." I say I've had worse propositions. He says: "That wasn't a proposition. That was a threat." I show him my biceps, and he laughs. It's the fear, probably.

Truly, Sonny is quite spooky, and the spookiest thing about him is his voice. Eighteen years ago, after being diagnosed with throat cancer (after a 30-year, three-packs-of-Camels-a-day habit) he had his vocal chords removed. The doctors sewed his windpipe to his neck, punched a hole in it, and installed a plastic valve through which he breathes. To speak, he has to press on a white surgical patch, which covers the hole, and vibrate the muscles in his throat. He says he is used to it. "I don't even think about speaking without using my hands." It gives him a slow, harsh, chilling rasp, like that of the devil when he first possesses Linda Blair in the Exorcist. When the cancer was diagnosed, he was given two weeks to live. Was that frightening?

"No."

"Do you believe in God?"

"Absolutely not."

"Is there anything you're frightened of?"

"Nothing that I know of."

"Not the dentist, then?"

"I don't go to the dentist. I had all my teeth knocked out when I came off my bike at 18. I've had false teeth longer than you've been alive."

He says that when he was given just two weeks to live, he thought about using the time left to kill everyone he hated. He adds that it's lucky he didn't. "Eighteen years later, I'd still be in San Quentin, on death row." The other Angels laugh appreciatively.

Certainly, I can see that he is charismatic. Or at least considerably brighter than the rest of the them. ("He's the coolest head in the lot," wrote Hunter, "and his word goes unquestioned. Many of the others could take him in two minutes if it came to a fight, but it never does.") At a recent book-signing, someone overheard one biker saying to another: "I've never been to a book-signing before." To which the other replied: "I've never been to a bookstore before!" I later ask Hoover if he's read Sonny's book. "I tried, but my eyes just kept closing."

I'm not sure I'd recommend it either. OK, it's not without interest, but it is hard to get through, particularly if you are as squeamish as I am. Sonny has spent 13 years in prison, mostly for narcotic and firearm offences. He finished his last stretch (for conspiring to blow up a rival bike club) in 1992. The book reads like a stark catalogue of horrors, matter-of-factly taking in what happened to his first wife Elsie while pregnant ("She tried to abort the child by pumping air into her vagina... it caused an air bubble to enter her bloodstream and she died an agonising death"), through to what happened to the gang who once stupidly nicked Sonny's bike.

"One at a time," he writes, "we bullwhipped them and beat them with spiked dog collars and broke their fingers with ballpeen hammers."

"What's a ballpeen hammer?" I ask.

"It's like a claw-end hammer, only better for breaking people's fingers," says Sonny.

"Are you squeamish about anything?"

"Raw fish. Tried it in Japan. Spat it out."

"Do you ever cry?"

"No."

"Have you ever cried?"

"When I got off a murder charge in 1972, the newspapers said there was a tear in my eye, but I don't recall it."

The most interesting bits are about the Angels as a subculture, and what draws them together. Certainly, they all worship what they see as the great male virtues - pride, strength, combat skills, loyalty, aggression, solidarity, courage, tattoos. Sonny says at one point in the book: "To become a real man, you need to join the army first, and then do some time in jail."

The first time Sonny (and the Angels) properly made the news was in 1965, when they attacked a Vietnam peace demonstration. Peace? How sissyish! Women are not allowed to be Hell's Angels. Why? "Because they should be at home cooking the dinner."

What, I ask, if a gay man wanted to join. Would you have him? "No." Why? "This is a man's club." Still, I suggest, a gay man might have a lot to bring to the party. He might, even, have a lot of Barbra Streisand records to bring to the party. "All the more reason," says Sonny. "I'm a Country and Western man myself."

So, their interpretation of masculinity binds them, as does the fact that, frankly, they all seem to be misfits, or losers, searching for a collective identity. When I ask Sonny if, in writing the book, he learned anything about himself, he says: "Only that my childhood was tough. I didn't know it was tough, until other people read about it, and told me it was."

He was born and brought up in east Oakland, a rough, blue-collar neighbourhood in California. Sonny's mother ran off with a bus driver when Sonny was four months old, and he never saw her again. His father Ralph couldn't keep a job down because he'd get so drunk Saturday and Sunday that he wouldn't turn up on Mondays. Sonny was largely brought up by his older sister, Shirley.

He seems to have been violent from the word go. He only ever went to school to fight. He was continually expelled or suspended, once for hitting a teacher with a baseball bat. At 16, he forged his own birth certificate to get into the army under age. He liked the army. There was the maleness of it, of course, but also, for the first time, he could see that discipline and authority had a point, especially when it came to being taught about "things I found interesting, like how to take weapons apart."

However, when, after 18 months, the forged certificate was discovered, he was discharged without having seen combat. Soon afterwards he bought a motorcycle and started hanging out with the outlaw bikers then drifting around California. In 1957, Sonny formed his own motorcycle club, the Oakland Hell's Angels, and a year later became president, a position he held for three decades. It was Sonny who turned what had been mostly a few big blokes going about on a few big bikes into an almost militaristic organisation, with thousands of members.

He brought in strict membership rules and regulations. No touching the women of other members, no stealing among members, fines for missing meetings, fines for fighting among club members. So it's not that Hell's Angels are lawless, just that the only laws they recognise are their own.

Are your laws better than society's, I asked Sonny. "Yes." Why? "Because they're unbreakable, and they treat everyone fairly." And other laws don't? "No." How's that? "Well, recently, when we were out on a run, the police stopped us because one of the rear lights on one of our bikes was out. Would they have stopped us if we weren't Angels?" I don't quite get the logic of this. I ask him if he's ever done anything that he feels bad about. "I felt bad when I had to put a puppy of mine to sleep recently."

He now lives in Cave Creek, Arizona - where he is a member of the Cave Creek Hell's Angels - with his third wife, Noel, and her 10-year-old daughter, Sarrah. He runs a motorbike repair shop. He loves his wife. "I keep her motorcycle going." He is much taken with Sarrah. He hopes his book will make enough money to send her to a private school. "She's real smart." I wonder if fatherhood has changed him. "Yeah. I have to take the little sucker on the back of my bike wherever I go." No, emotionally. "I just try to treat her good and teach her good values." Which are? "Tell the truth, and never lie, except to the authorities. But it's OK to lie to them, because they lie to us." I ask him what it would mean if he could never ride a bike again. "It would mean I was dead," he replies.

He has to go now. He has a book-signing to get to at Waterstone's. I leave. "Was it alright?" ask the Hell's Angels outside. "We're practically engaged," I say, adding: "OK, he didn't offer me a ride on his Harley, but I did offer him a ride in my Nissan Micra. He seemed quite excited."

'Hell's Angel: the life and times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angel motorcycle club' is published by Fourth Estate, £14.99

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