HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS
Now Bonnie and Clyde are the
Day & Night --
Nobody was raped at Willow Cove. The lack of strange broads drove most of the outlaws to drunken despair, and by the time I decided to sleep that night there wasn't a sober human being in the camp. More than half of the fifty or so outlaws still standing around the bonfire had lost all contact with reality. Some just stood like zombies and stared vacantly at the flames. Others would brood for a while, then suddenly begin shouting gibberish, which echoed across the lake like the screaming of many loons. Now and then a cherry bomb would go off in the fire, blasting sparks and embers in all directions.
Before I went under, I made sure to lock the car doors and roll the windows up far enough so that nobody could reach in. The Angels are hell on people who pass out at parties, and one of their proudest traditions is the sleepless first night of any run. Several times when I was looking for somebody I was told, "He's hiding to crash." For a while I thought the term had something to do with an overdose of brain-ticklers -- the maddened victim having slunk off in the woods like a sick animal, to ride out his delirium without disturbing the others. But crashing means nothing more sinister than going on the nod, either from booze or simple fatigue. When this happens -- if the unfortunate has not found a safe hiding place -- the others will immediately begin tormenting him. The most common penalty for crashing is the urine shower; those still on their feet gather quietly around the sleeper and soak him from head to foot. Other penalties are more sophisticated. Mouldy Marvin is widely admired for his work on crashers. He once wired Terry the Tramp to an electrical outlet, then soaked his Levis with beer and plugged him in. Jimmy from Oakland, one of the quieter Angels, recalls crashing on a run to Sacramento and being set on fire. "The bastards painted my glasses black, wrote all over me with lipstick and then burned me," he says with a grin. Magoo once woke up at a party to find himself handcuffed, clamped in leg irons, and two burning matchbooks in his lap. "I begged somebody to piss on me," he said. "Man, I was on fire!"
As dawn approached, there were less than twenty moving bodies in the camp. One of the Jokers I'd been talking to earlier had become fascinated with the word "shunt." It caught his ear when I referred to them having been "shunted off" to a bad campsite. He repeated the word with a grin, then went off to play with it for a while. Several hours later I heard him urge another Joker: "Say, man, let's go into town and shunt somebody." By four in the morning the word had grown like a tumor in his consciousness and he wandered around the fire, button-holing people and asking, "What would you do if I said I was gonna shunt you?" Or "Say, man, can you lend me some shunt until morning? I'm hurtin." Then he would laugh distractedly and stagger off toward the remains of the beer mountain, which by that time was built almost entirely of empties. Now and then one of the outlaws, unable to find a full can, would fly into a rage and start kicking the empties in all directions until somebody came to help him. And behind all the other sounds, as always, was the revving and booming of motorcycle engines. Some of the Angels would sit on their bikes for a while, letting them idle, then kill the engine and move out again to socialize. It seemed to give them new energy, like a battery charge. The last sound I heard that night was the peaceful idling of a hog right next to the car.
The next morning I woke up to the same noise, but this time it was deafening. Apparently some enemy had crept in during the night and screwed every one of the carburetor adjustments, causing them all to need retuning. There was a big crowd by the still-smoking bonfire, and in the middle of it I could see Barger talking to a bald little man who seemed to have the St. Vitus dance. He was a reporter from the Los Angeles Times and he was very much on edge, even though there were several deputies in camp. He was writhing and sweating like a man who'd burst into a cannibal fort to ask for the chief's daughter. He introduced himself as Jerry Cohen. Just as he started to explain what he wanted, Tiny rushed up to Barger, threw his arms around him and planted a sloppy wet kiss on his mouth. This is a guaranteed square-jolter, and the Angels are gleefully aware of the reaction it gets. "They can't stand it," says Terry. "It blows their minds every time -- especially the tongue bit." The sight of a photographer invariably whips the Angels into a kissing frenzy, but I have never seen them do it among themselves, when there was nobody around to shock. There is an element of something besides showbiz to it and in serious moments now and then one of the Angels will explain it as "just one of the ways we let the world know we're brothers."
It is an unnerving way to be greeted. One night after I'd known the Angels for many months I walked into the Hyde Inn in San Francisco and joined a cluster at the bar. While I was reaching in my pocket for some beer money I was nearly knocked off my feet by a flying body that wrapped itself around me before I could see who it was. Everything went black, and my first thought was that they'd finally turned on me and it was all over: then I felt the hairy kiss and heard the laughter. Ronnie, the Oakland secretary, seemed offended that I hadn't caught him in mid-air, as he'd expected, and returned the kiss heartily. It was a serious social error and further proof to the outlaws that I was only about half bright. They considered me a slow learner, a borderline case with only splinters of real potential. My first plunge into folly was getting a limey bike, an insult that I only partially redeemed by destroying it in a high-speed crash and laying my head open. The wreck gave me a kind of minimum status that lasted until I blew the kissing act. After that they treated me with a gentle sort of detachment, as if I were somebody's little brother with an incurable disease -- "Let the poor fool have his way; God knows, it's the least we can do for him." 
They treated the Los Angeles Times man the same way, but he never seemed to get over the feeling that somebody was going to sneak up behind him and scramble his brains with a tire iron. It was a very funny scene. I was hoping Cohen would utter something like, "President Barger, I presume?" But he was too nervous. He'd been talking to the cops, and his mind was full of atrocity stories; probably he was even then composing the article somebody else would write on his demise: "... the reporter struggled, but to no avail. The drug-crazed cyclists quickly hacked him into quarters, which they put on a spit. Their orgiastic cries floated across the water ... he is survived by ..."
The odd truth is that Cohen left Bass Lake with one of the longest and straightest interviews Barger has ever given anybody. The boss Angel was in rare spirits that morning. The sun was warm, his people were secure, and whatever he'd got hold of the night before had obviously been good for him. Cohen's demeanor was anything but hostile. Most reporters either patronize the outlaws or ask such pointed, opinionated questions that they would do just as well to get their answers from the Lynch report. One night in Oakland I watched a man from one of the East Bay papers make both mistakes at once. He came in to the El Adobe and immediately asked to buy some marijuana. Then, before they could decide whether he was a poison toad or a narco agent, he pulled out some grass of his own and offered it around. This didn't work either, although it might have broken the ice if he'd rolled a joint for himself. Then he offered to buy a round of beers, talking constantly in bop jargon. The Angels tolerated him for a while, but after several beers he began asking questions about Hitler and gang rapes and sodomy. Finally Sonny told him he had thirty seconds to get his ass out of sight and if he showed up again they would work on his head with a chain.
Another journalist was eighty-sixed for being too sympathetic. "There's somethin creepy about that guy," Barger told me. "He's either a cop or he's crazy -- and if it's neither one of those then he's usin us for somethin we don't know nothin about." Which proved to be true. His relationship with the Angels went from uneasy to critical, and the last time I talked to him, he said that they were after him for real. He was so worried that he'd bought a .357 Magnum revolver. "You're damn right I'm scared," he said. "If they come around here I'll shoot to kill."' This seemed to satisfy the Angels. "The nutty sonofabitch was lookin for a scare," said one. "Maybe it'll straighten him out."
Cohen made none of these mistakes. He asked very short general questions and then stood quietly, sweating and shuffling, while his tape recorder gathered up the answers. I could almost hear the song when Barger led off with, "We Angels live in our own world. We just want to be left alone to be individualists."
Here are some of the other jewels that Cohen collected that morning, nearly all from Barger:
Actually we're conformists. To be an Angel, you have to conform to the rules of our society, and the Angels' rules are the toughest anywhere ... Our bikes are first with us. We can do things with bikes that nobody else can. They can try but they can't. An Angel can tear a [hog] down and put it back together in two hours. Who else can? ... This stuff [the Nazi insignia and headgear] -- that's just to shock people, to let em know we're individualists, to let em know we're Angels ... There'd be no trouble if we was left alone. The only violence is when people go after us. Couple of Angels will go into a bar and a few guys gettin drunked up will start a fight, but we get blamed for it. Our two guys will put em down. Any two Angels can take on any other five guys ... You got to want to be an Angel. We don't just take anybody in. We watch em. We got to know they'll stick to our rules ...
Barger talked steadily for nearly an hour, fully aware that he was being taped and photographed. In that respect it was the end of an era, for soon afterward he realized that the wisdom he dispensed and the poses he struck for the cameras were worth money, and by the time the article appeared, his expansive mood had turned to gall.
The rest of the stay at Bass Lake was relatively peaceful. Many of the Angels spent Sunday afternoon at the beer market, performing for an overflow crowd of tourists. They poured beer on each other, exchanged lewd chatter with the citizens and had a fine time keeping everybody on edge. Old men bought beer for them, middle-aged women called out insulting questions and the cash register clanged merrily.
Back at camp there were moments of tension when the Willow Cove inlet was invaded by three big hydroplanes full of muscle beach types and bikini girls. They weren't necessarily looking for a fight, but "they came on strong," as one of the Angels put it, and for a while it looked as if something bad was building up. The police had made no provisions for staving off an attack by water, and when the hydroplanes arrived there were no deputies in camp. The men on the boats were all in their twenties, wearing bright form-fit trunks with deep tans and short waxed hair that stayed combed even in the water. There were about twenty male specimens, and five or six girls who looked like something off the French Riviera. They tied up the boats to some trees across the inlet from the outlaw camp and began to play around lazily -- diving, tossing the girls around, passing beers back and forth, but ignoring the outlaws completely.
A hundred feet away, on the other side of the inlet, the Hell's Angels lounged in all their grubby splendor. There were no sun tans, bikinis or waterproof watches on that side. The outlaws stood on the rocky beach in jockey shorts, wet Levis and matted beards that made their skin seem pale and moldy. Several were splashing around in the water with their clothes on. Some of the girls wore bras and panties, others rolled up their toreador pants as high as they would go, and a few were swimming in men's T-shirts. It looked like the annual picnic for the graveyard shift at the Never Sweat copper mine in Butte, Montana.
The Angels didn't do much swimming. It doesn't fit their style, and only a few know how. "Shit, I'd sink like a stone if I went out in that water," said one. "I guess I could learn to swim if I wanted to, but what the hell? I wouldn't do it more'n once a year anyhow."
Finally, after some roosterish banter, some of the muscle beach people swam gracefully across the inlet to answer questions the Angels had been yelling about the boats. They wanted to know about the engines, which looked so big that the outlaws couldn't understand why they didn't sink the hulls they were mounted in. One was a 400-horsepower Oldsmobile V-8 with a supercharger. This was the only common language the two groups had, but it served. After a half hour of shop talk and a few shared beers, one of the boat boys offered to take some of the Angels for a spin. They came back laughing excitedly. "Man, that thing did a big wheelie all across the lake," said one. "I couldn't believe it. That thing is outta sight!"
The only other incident of the run occurred on Sunday night, just before the beer market closed at ten. The Angels who'd been there all day were totally drunk when it came time to go, but they insisted on doing it up right. Whenever they exit in a group, drunk or sober, they boom off like a flight of jet fighters leaving a runway -- one at a time, in rapid succession, and with overwhelming noise. The basic idea is that individual launches keep them from running into each other, but the Angels have developed the ritual to the realm of high drama. The order of departure doesn't matter, but the style and rhythm are crucial. They carefully prime their carburetors so the bikes will start on the first kick. An outlaw whose hog won't leap off like a thunderbolt feels a real stigma. It has the same effect as a gun jamming in combat or an actor blowing a key line: "To be or not to be ... quoth the raven."
This is about the way it went at the beer market. A big crowd gathered in the driveway to watch the finale. A photographer rushed around frantically, flashing his strobe light every few seconds. But the Angels were too drunk to carry it off. Some of them flooded their carburetors, then raged and cursed as they jumped repeatedly on the kick starters. Others went careening off simultaneously or veered into the crowd with wild yells. Many were carrying six-packs, which made control even more difficult. Those who'd flooded on the first launch tried to atone for it by screeching off on one wheel, gunning their engines mercilessly to get up a head of steam before springing the clutch. Buck, a massive Joker, crashed into a police car before he got out of first gear and was taken straight to jail, where he spent the next thirty days. Frip from Oakland went flying off the road and hit a tree, breaking his ankle and blocking traffic on the narrow lakeside road.
A large crowd gathered, all wanting to help. The only cop on the scene was a Madera County sheriff's deputy in a paddy wagon, but he claimed to have no authority and refused to call a private ambulance until somebody signed an agreement to pay the bill. This drew jeers and protests from the crowd. The photographer lost his head and began to curse the deputy. One of the four or five Angels on the scene went roaring off toward Willow Cove. Finally the photographer said he'd pay the ambulance bill, and the deputy made the call.
Moments later two helmeted deputies rushed onto the scene, each with a German shepherd on a leash. There was a flurry of yelling and pushing as people tried to get away from the dogs. A siren wailed somewhere down the road, but the police cars couldn't get through the traffic jam. Some cops left their cars and ran toward whatever was happening, waving their clubs and shouting, "Stand back! Stand back!"
Barger's scout party arrived seconds behind the police, but they weren't stopped by the traffic. As they weaved between cars their headlights jerked around crazily, adding a new element of menace to the scene. I caught a glimpse of Barger shoving through the crowd toward the injured Angel. One of the helmeted cops reached out to stop him and was knocked about six feet up the road by Dirty Ed. I saw Ed coming, but I couldn't believe my eyes. The cop must have had the same feeling. Dirty Ed hit him on the run and grabbed the front of his jacket at the same time. The cop looked startled as he reeled backward, trying to swing his club. One of the deputies jumped Ed, and the two had a brief wrestling match before the photographer tried to pull them apart.
Then, for reasons we can only speculate on, the cops seized the photographer instead of the Angel. Two handlers from the Kern County Canine Patrol got him in a double armlock, ignoring his piteous screams, and slammed him repeatedly against a dirt cliff until he lost his voice. He was then put in the paddy wagon. In the meantime Sheriff Baxter had arrived and was trying to calm things down. He found Barger and assured him that an ambulance was coming for his boy. This appeared to solve things, although Sonny and a dozen other Angels stayed until Frip was packed off to a hospital. Dirty Ed lurked quietly in the background, looking dangerous but not making any violent moves. The police ignored him, but Tiny Baxter went over to the paddy wagon and began screaming like a cheetah at the luckless photographer inside, accusing him of trying to set off a riot. "You crazy sonofabitch, I ought to come in there and break your goddamn head!" he yelled, and for a moment I thought he would. All the tension of the weekend was pounding in his voice as he berated the only enemy he could find who didn't have allies. Grabbing Dirty Ed would have been like lighting a fuse, but the photographer was as harmless as a punching bag. He had no army to back him up, to avenge him if anything happened; and to make matters worse, he admitted being a free lancer -- a term most police interpret to mean a bum who can't even get a job. If they'd grabbed me that night I'd have admitted to being an Enforcer for the Opium Tong before saying I was a free-lance writer. Police are always more careful with people who're employed, even by the Tong. The only thing better is a wallet full of high-toned credentials ... membership cards, all kinds of them, covered with filigreed wording and strange codes alluding to firm connections with various Power Combines and seats of influence that no smart cop should cross.
Unfortunately, the photographer had none of these, so he was kept in jail for three days, fined $167 for obstructing justice and released with a warning to keep out of Madera County for the rest of his natural life. Before being taken away, he gave me the keys to his new Sunbeam roadster and said he had $2,000 worth of camera equipment in the trunk. He didn't know me at all, and certainly there was nothing in my scraggy appearance to indicate that I would do anything but sell both the car and the equipment at the first opportunity. But he was not in a solid position; his only alternative was to let the car sit on the road for three days. Luckily, he had picked up two hitchhikers earlier in the day, who said they'd hopped a freight from Los Angeles up to Fresno and then set out by thumb to see what was happening with the Hell's Angels. They agreed to drive the Sunbeam down to Madera, where the photographer was taken for booking. For some reason they followed me right to the jail. They could have fled down any side road. Nobody knew their names or where they might go, and the owner of the car was not in any position to start filing complaints.
At the jail we were told that nobody could speak to the prisoner until his bail had been posted. It was $275 and the only bondsman available refused to touch the case. He said there were too many bums running around loose that weekend. They parked the Sunbeam on the street, and while one went inside to give the keys to the desk sergeant a cop who'd been at the accident drove up and said I was going to be arrested for vagrancy the next time he laid eyes on me.
It didn't seem worth arguing about, so I dropped the hitchhikers on 101 and drove north for about an hour, until I was sure the Madera county line was somewhere behind me. Then I found a back road next to an airport and went to sleep. The next morning I thought about going back to Bass Lake, but I didn't feel like spending the day scrounging beers and listening to the same dull noise.
I ate breakfast with a bunch of farmers in a diner on 101, then drove on to San Francisco. The holiday traffic was slow, but the only real bottleneck was in Tracy, where a large crowd had turned out for a hot-rod show. Somewhere west of Oakland I picked up two boys who said they were running away from a Job Corps camp. They didn't know exactly where they wanted to go, but one of them said he had a cousin up the coast in Ukiah, and they thought they'd go there for a while. I gave them a pack of cigarettes and let them off at a stoplight in Oakland.
Monday morning's newspapers were full of riot stories. The Los Angeles Times ran a king-size, eight-column headline:
HOLIDAY RIOTING -- TEAR GAS, TROOPS QUELL YOUTHS -- FOUR RESORTS IN MIDWEST DISRUPTED BY BATTLES OF CROWDS AND POLICE.
A front-page story in The New York Times said:
YOUTH RIOTS ERUPT IN THREE STATES: 25 HURT, 325 HELD -- OVERNIGHT OUTBREAKS ENGULF FOUR RESORTS. 200 SEIZED IN LAKE GEORGE TURMOIL.
It seemed like the only people who hadn't erupted on the Fourth of July were the Hell's Angels. Both San Francisco papers took note of this. A Chronicle headline said: HELL'S ANGELS FRONT ALL QUIET. But the Examiner gave the screw an extra turn: COPS CLIP WINGS OF ANGELS, MEEK CYCLISTS QUIT MADERA.
The only motorcycle story was a United Press dispatch from Sioux City, Iowa. It was very brief:
A 30-member motorcycle gang called the "Outlaw Club of the Midwest" left this city of 90,500 today after harassing its citizens over the holiday weekend. They blocked traffic, rode on sidewalks and played "hide-and-seek" with squad cars. A spokesman for the gang said they came to Sioux City to "give it a little class."
The Chronicle story on the Angels said police in Madera County were still undecided on what to do about the restraining order. Apparently something had gone haywire, for the order called for the Angels to appear in Madera County Superior Court on July 16 or be permanently barred from the county. "Police feared there might be trouble," said the article, "because the gang threatened to remain in Bass Lake until July 16 or return on that date with reinforcements." County officials were faced with a choice between dismissing the order entirely or hosting another run -- and Barger said they had every intention of going back to argue their case. Needless to say, the order was done away with. It had been a bummer from the start, and not even the cops charged with enforcing it knew what it meant. The final press comment on the Bass Lake Saga appeared in the Examiner, under a small headline: A VICTORY FOR HELL'S ANGELS. It said the order had been dismissed at the request of the district attorney, the same man who'd hatched it two weeks earlier.
In retrospect, there was unanimous agreement that both the press and the police had done a spectacular job. There was massive publicity, a massive police presence and massive beer-drinking to justify all their concern. In a galaxy of nationwide riots and civic upheaval, Bass Lake was a star of peace. There were various explanations, some with ominous overtones. One of these came from a police official who attributed the lack of violence to the fact that "there were almost as many officers as cyclists." He estimated the Bass Lake task force at more than a hundred, all working overtime. 
The Angels had their own explanation. They belittled the idea that the cops had simply outmuscled them. Not at all. By the fact of sheer numbers they had forced both the cops and the citizens to leave them alone. Both sides claimed their own show of force had averted a crisis, and to a certain extent they were both right. But I think the real explanation was more complex.
It was the strange ambivalence of the public sentiment that kept the Bass Lake confrontation so precariously balanced all weekend. It confused the Angels almost as badly as it did the police; they arrived to face a solid front of civic outrage ... and then, for no reason they could hope to understand, they became the weekend's featured act, the main show, wild and randy proof that Bass Lake still knew how to put on a real Fourth of July pageant. The threat of violence was converted to dramatic tension. It put a definite zang in the air. The mood of the crowd was euphoric, even erotic. There were incidents, but not many ... and when it was all over, the most serious offense of the weekend was laid to a photographer from Los Angeles.
If nothing else, the weekend was a monument to free enterprise. It is hard to say what might have happened if the outlaws hadn't been able to buy beer, but the moon-faced man at the tourist market was the visionary who turned the tide. After the first purchase, the Angels were welcome or at least tolerated everywhere except at Williams' store -- which even the vigilantes abandoned when it became apparent that the action was across the lake. Poor Williams was left holding the civic bag; he had taken a gutty stand, his image was all moxie ... and on Monday night, when the Angels were finally gone, he had earned the leisure that enabled him to go out to the lakefront and gaze off in a proud, wistful way, like Gatsby, at the green neon lights of the taverns across the water, where the others were counting their money.
1. I was eventually given to understand that not all of them felt this way.
2. Another interesting commentary on the Bass Lake spectacle came about a month after it was all over. In mid-August the Watts area of Los Angeles burst into massive rioting that lasted for four days. Thirty-four people were killed, hundreds wounded, and property damage amounted to more than $1,000,000. Yet Watts erupted without an inch of pre-riot press coverage, and the Los Angeles police were so unprepared that the National Guard had to be mobilized to bring things under control.