HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS
We began to see that the Hell's
Angels were assuming a mythical
character. They had become folk
heroes -- vicarious exemplars of
behavior most youth could only
fantasize (unless swept away in
mob activity), and legendary
champions who would come to
the rescue of the oppressed and
persecuted. An older motorcyclist, witnessing police harassment of his fellows at a town
outside Prince George's County,
was heard to remark, "Just wait
till the Angels hear about this
when they come in tomorrow --
they'll tear this place apart."
I smashed his face. He got wise.
He called me a punk. He must
have been stupid.
Of all their habits and predilections that society finds alarming, the outlaws' disregard for the time-honored concept of an eye for an eye is the one that frightens people most. The Hell's Angels try not to do anything halfway, and outcasts who deal in extremes are bound to cause trouble, whether they mean to or not. This, along with a belief in total retaliation for any offense or insult, is what makes the Angels such a problem for police and so morbidly fascinating to the general public. Their claim that they don't start trouble is probably true more often than not, but their idea of provocation is dangerously broad, and one of their main difficulties is that almost nobody else seems to understand it. Yet they have a very simple rule of thumb; in any argument a fellow Angel is always right. To disagree with a Hell's Angel is to be wrong -- and to persist in being wrong is an open challenge.
Despite everything psychiatrists and Freudian castrators have to say about the Angels, they are tough, mean and potentially dangerous as packs of wild boar. The moment a fight begins, any leather fetishes or inadequacy feelings are entirely beside the point, as anyone who has ever tangled with them will sadly testify. When you get in an argument with a group of outlaw motorcyclists, your chances of emerging unmaimed depend on the number of heavy-handed allies you can muster in the time it takes to smash a beer bottle. In this league, sportsmanship is for old liberals and young fools.
Many of their "assault victims" are people who have seen too many Western movies; they are victims of the John Wayne complex, which causes them to start swinging the moment they sense any insult. This is relatively safe in some areas of society, but in saloons frequented by outlaw motorcyclists it is the worst kind of folly. "They're always looking for somebody to challenge them," said a San Francisco policeman. "And once you're involved with them, it's all or nothing. A stranger who doesn't want anything to do with them, if one of the bums says something to his woman, he can't take offense or he'll have to fight four or five Angels, not just the one. People should understand this."
One of the Frisco Angels explained it without any frills: "Our motto, man, is 'All on One and One on All.' You mess with an Angel and you've got twenty-five of them on your neck. I mean, they'll break you but good, baby."
The outlaws take the "all on one" concept so seriously that it is written into the club charter as Bylaw Number 10: "When an Angel punches a non-Angel, all other Angels will participate."
The outlaws never know, from one moment to the next, when they might have to grapple with some foe bent on humiliating the colors. Here is a hazy, yet fairly instructive account of a clash with an ex-Angel named Phil and his XKE Jaguar. For several hours prior to the incident, Phil had been drinking and arguing in a roadhouse with a half dozen members of the Oakland chapter. Finally they told him to leave or be stomped. Phil went outside, backed his car off about fifty yards from the row of bikes at the curb, then plowed into them like a bulldozer, breaking the leg of one Angel who tried to get his bike out of the way. This is how the Lynch report told it:
On November 4, 1961, a San Francisco resident driving through Rodeo, possibly under the influence of alcohol, struck a motorcycle belonging to a Hell's Angel parked outside a bar. A group of Angels pursued the vehicle, pulled the driver from the car and attempted to demolish the rather expensive vehicle. The bartender claimed he had seen nothing, but a cocktail waitress in the bar furnished identification to the officers concerning some of those responsible for the assault. The next day it was reported to officers that a member of the Hell's Angels gang had threatened the life of this waitress as well as another woman waitress. A male witness who definitely identified five participants in the assault, including the president of the Vallejo Hell's Angels and the Vallejo "Road Rats" [since absorbed by Angels], advised officers that because of his fear of retaliation by club members he would refuse to testify to the facts he had previously furnished.
Motorcycles are knocked over by cars every day all over the nation, but when the incident involves outlaw motorcyclists it's something else again. Instead of settling the thing with an exchange of insurance information or, at the very worst, an argument with a few blows, the Hell's Angels stomped the driver (a former member) and "attempted to demolish the vehicle." I asked one of them whether the police exaggerated this aspect, and he said no, they had done the natural thing: smashed headlights, kicked in doors, broken windows and torn various components off the engine.
Another instructive clash occurred soon after the Monterey incident, when the outlaws were still feeling tough. It began as an everyday act of revenge, but it didn't come off. Perhaps for this reason, the police report was unusually restrained:
On September 19, 1964, a large group of Hell's Angels and Satan's Slaves converged on a bar in South Gate (Los Angeles County), parking their motorcycles and cars in the street in such a fashion as to block one half of the roadway. They told officers that three members of the club had recently been asked to stay out of the bar and that they had come to tear it down. Upon their approach the bar owner locked the doors and turned off the lights and no entrance was made, but the group did demolish a cement block fence. On arrival of the police, members of the clubs were lying on the sidewalk and in the street. They were asked to leave the city, which they did reluctantly. As they left, several were heard to say that they would be back and tear down the bar.
In all, it was a pretty quiet outrage, and except for the demolition of a fence, it went into the books as a routine victory for law and order. It was also a good example of the total-retaliation ethic: when you're asked to stay out of a bar you don't just punch the owner -- you come back with your army and tear the place down, destroy the whole edifice and everything it stands for. No compromise. If a man gets wise, mash his face. If a woman snubs you, rape her. This is the thinking, if not the reality, behind the whole Hell's Angels act. It is also the aspect of the story that gets to the editors of news magazines. The combined testimony of 104 police departments is proof enough that the outlaws are unable to enforce their savage codes on any level of society but their own ... and yet the white-collar, button-down world is obviously alarmed to hear that these codes exist at all. Which they do, and they are also adhered to, as noted in the concluding paragraphs of the California Attorney General's report:
The group seeks to exploit the so-called "gangsters code" of group loyalty and threats to persons who might appear in court against them. There have been instances of Hell's Angels punishing witnesses by physical assault. In the event the witness or victim is female, the women associates of the Angels seem willing to participate in threats to discourage testimony. A practical problem seen in various cases is that both victims and witnesses generally exist in the same environment as do the Hell's Angels. While gang rapes and forced sex perversions may have occurred, the victims and witnesses frequently are not of the higher social strata and thus are vulnerable to the mores of "saloon society." It is believed that the only feasible approach to the solution of this problem is for investigating officers to recognize it and take all steps possible to protect witnesses both before and after trial.
Not many members of saloon society will find consolation in these words. The Angels and their allies bear grudges much longer than police feel it's necessary to protect witnesses, and cops have a tendency to lose interest in a prosecution witness about five minutes after the jury comes in with a verdict. No bartender who has caused the arrest of an Angel will ever feel anything but panic at the sound of motorcycle engines in the street and the clumping of leather boot heels coming toward his door. The Angels don't willfully trace their enemies from one place to another, but they spend so much of their time in bars that they are likely to turn up thirsty almost anywhere. And once an enemy is located, the word goes out fast on the network. It takes only two or three Angels, and no more than five minutes, to wreck a bar and put a man in the hospital. Chances are, they won't be arrested ... but even if they are, the damage is already done.
An intended victim -- such as the bar owner in South Gate, who suffered only the loss of a fence in the first attack -- will always know that his place has a certain distinction: it is marked, and as long as the Hell's Angels or Satan's Slaves exist, there is a chance that some of them will come back to finish the job.
The outlaw hierarchy is always in flux, but the spirit is no different now than in 1950, when the first Angel chapter was formed in the long shadow of the Booze Fighters. The root definition remains the same: a dangerous hoodlum on a big, fast motorcycle. And California has been breeding them for years. Many are independents, indistinguishable from any Hell's Angel except for the lettering on their backs -- "No Club" or "Lone Wolf" or sometimes just "Fuck You." Perhaps five hundred or so, definitely less than a thousand, belong to clubs like the Gypsy Jokers, Nightriders, Comancheros, Presidents and Satan's Slaves. About a hundred and fifty -- as of 1966 -- form the outlaw elite, the Hell's Angels.
The only consistent difference between the Hell's Angels and the other outlaw clubs is that the Angels are more extreme. Most of the others are part-time outlaws, but the Angels play the role seven days a week: they wear their colors at home, on the street and sometimes even to work; they ride their bikes to the neighborhood grocery for a quart of milk. An Angel without his colors feels naked and vulnerable -- like a knight without his armor.
A Sacramento cop once asked a five-foot-five, 135-pound Angel, "What's the big attraction?"
"Nobody bugs me as long as I'm flying the colors," he replied.
The dividing line between outlaws and the square majority is subject to change at any moment, and many respectable clubs have queered their image overnight. All it takes is a noisy fracas, a police report and a little publicity ... and suddenly they're outlaws. In most cases this leads to the breakup of the club, with a majority of the members feeling hurt and scandalized that such a thing could have happened. But those few responsible for the trouble will no longer be welcome in respectable circles. Technically, they become "independents," but that term is a misnomer because any rider who applies it to himself is already an outlaw anyway. All he lacks is a club to join, and he will sooner or later find one. The motorcycle fraternity is very tight -- on both sides of the law -- and the most extreme viewpoints are represented by the American Motorcycle Association and the Hell's Angels. There is no status in the middle, and people who are serious enough about motorcycles to join an AMA club will not take rejection lightly. Like converts to Communism or Catholicism, Hell's Angels who were once AMA members take their outlaw role more seriously than the others.
The Angels are too personally disorganized to have any clear perspective on the world, but they admire intelligence, and some of their leaders are surprisingly articulate. Chapter presidents have no set term in office, and a strong one, like Barger, will remain unchallenged until he goes to jail, gets killed or finds his own reasons for hanging up the colors. The outlaws are very respectful of power, even if they have to create their own image of it. Despite the anarchic possibilities of the machines they ride and worship, they insist that their main concern in life is "to be a righteous Angel," which requires a loud obedience to the party line. They are intensely aware of belonging, of being able to depend on each other. Because of this, they look down on independents, who usually feel so wretched -- once they've adopted the outlaw frame of reference -- that they will do almost anything to get in a club.
"I don't know why," said an ex-Angel, "but you almost have to join a club. If you don't, you'll never be accepted anywhere. If you don't wear any colors, you're sort of in between -- and you're nothing."
This desperate sense of unity is crucial to the outlaw mystique. If the Hell's Angels are outcasts from society, as they freely admit, then it is all the more necessary that they defend each other from attack by "the others" -- mean squares, enemy gangs or armed agents of the Main Cop. When somebody punches a lone Angel every one of them feels threatened. They are so wrapped up in their own image that they can't conceive of anybody challenging the colors without being fully prepared to take on the whole army.
For many are called, but few are
Since the revelations of the Lynch report the Angels have rejected so many membership bids that one of them said it was "like a plague of locusts." The majority of would-be Angels are independents who suddenly feel the need for fellowship and status ... but in one case the Angels deigned to absorb a whole club: the Question Marks, from Hayward, which became the Hayward chapter of the Hell's Angels. Other charter applications came from as far away as Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and even Quebec ... and when the charters were not forthcoming, a few cycle clubs in the East simply created their own insignia and began calling themselves Hell's Angels. 
As of 1966, the Hell's Angels proper were still confined to California, but if the general response to their publicity is any indicator, they are going to have to expand whether they want to or not. The name isn't copyrighted, but even if it were, the threat of a lawsuit wouldn't be much of a deterrent to any gang of riders who wanted to appropriate it. The Angels' only hope for controlling their image lies in selective expansion, chartering only the biggest and meanest clubs who apply, but only on the condition that they terrorize anybody else in their area who tries to use the name.
The Angels won't have any trouble exporting their name to the East,  but the day-to-day realities of being an outlaw motorcyclist in California are not easily transplantable. Bikes are a sunshine thing; they are dangerous and uncomfortable in rain and snow. A gang of riders in New York, Chicago or Boston could only operate in the far-ranging Hell's Angels style for a few months of the year, while in California the outlaws can move around -- except in the mountains -- any time they get the urge. This factor is reflected in nationwide motorcycle sales: in 1964 New York registered 23,000 bikes, while California had 203,420 -- a roughly ,9-to-l ratio. On the other hand, there were more than twice as many motorcycles in New York in 1964 as there were in 1961, when only 10,000 were registered. 
Using the AMA's one-percenter gimmick, a sociologist could deduce from these figures that by 1970 New York alone will have some 500 potential Hell's Angels ... about five times the size of the group that managed to blitz the national press in 1965 ... and by 1970 every Angel chapter will have a press agent. According to the motorcycle industry, there were nearly 1,500,000 motorcycles registered in the United States in 1965, with an average of 4.1 riders to each licensed bike. (This is a wholly unrealistic figure; 1.5 would be more like it.) By the industry's count, however, it adds up to slightly over 6,000,000 riders, with more than 1,000,000 of these in California. (This too is questionable; not only is it based on the specious figure of 4.1 riders per bike, but by using the word "motorcycle" without any qualifiers, it conjures up the image of California freeways swarming with huge high-powered bikes.)
In context the figures are not so menacing. According to the magazine, Cycle World and the Los Angeles Times, "Accelerated growth of the motorcycle market is centered on the lightweight division which represents 90 percent of me total." What the industry calls a lightweight is a very different animal from a "chopped hog," or Harley 74, and the majority of the little bikes, says Cycle World, "are used for fun, school transportation and trail and desert jaunts by sportsmen." In other words, the formula for sales in today's motorcycle market is: "Less weight and little engine equals 'fun' and respectability." And on this basis the industry predicts (at 4.1 per) a hard core of 8,894,000 motorcyclists in the United States by 1967. Again, the industry's figures are inflated, but considering the booming popularity of two-wheeled transportation, a figure of, say, 6,000,000 for 1967 wouldn't be out of line ... and that of course would mean 60,000 Huns, or the end of the civilized world.
Better to reign in hell than serve
In terms of pure money, the motorcycle industry is a gold mine. One of my recurring nightmares harks back to 1958 ... I have just arrived in New York with a $1,000 cushion, and one crisp afternoon in October, I emerge from the subway station in Times Square ... I dodge several panhandlers, a cluster of junkies, two transvestites and a Jehovah's Witness who talks like Elmer Fudd ... and then, on a narrow part of the sidewalk next to the U.S. Army Recruiting Center, I am buttonholed by an unkempt young Japanese who claims to be one of the Honda brothers ... he is broke and desperate, needing funds for a plane ticket back to Tokyo, and for $894 he offers me his share of the business, signed over, witnessed and wrapped up tight in the presence of any lawyer I care to name ... he shows me his passport and a crumpled batch of motorcycle blueprints; no doubt he is one of the Honda boys ... I listen, smile knowingly and buy my way past him with one silver quarter and a subway token, rejecting my luck with a stupid finality and rushing off to some worthless interview.
Even now any man with the sense to pour piss out of a boot should take all the money he might spend on a new motorcycle and instead buy Honda stock -- or any one of about thirty others, including Harley-Davidson, which despite a stone-age concept of management and technology is still the only American manufacturer of motorcycles. 
The story of Harley-Davidson and the domestic motorcycle market is one of the gloomiest chapters in the history of American free enterprise. At the end of World War II there were less than 200,000 motorcycles registered in the United States, very few of them imports. During the 1950s, while H-D was consolidating its monopoly, bike sales doubled and then tripled. Harley had a gold mine on its hands, until 1962-63, when the import blitz began. By 1964 registrations had jumped to nearly 1,000,000 and lightweight Hondas were selling as fast as Japanese freighters could bring them over the ocean. The H-D brain trust was still pondering this oriental duplicity when they were zapped on the opposite flank by Birmingham Small Arms, Ltd., of England. BSA (which also makes Triumphs) decided to challenge Harley on its own turf and in its own class, despite the price-boosting handicap of a huge protective tariff. By 1965, with registrations already up 50 percent over the previous year, the H-D monopoly was sorely beset on two fronts. The only buyers they could count on were cops and outlaws, while the Japanese were mopping up in the low-price field and BSA was giving them hell on the race track. By 1966, with the bike boom still growing, Harley was down to less than 10 percent of the domestic market and fighting to hold even that.
With all its machinery and thinking geared to 1,- 200-cubic-inch engines, the company has little hope of competing on the light and middleweight markets until at least 1970 ... but they still have plenty of muscle in the heavyweight class, and in 1966 Harleys were winning as many big races as BSAs or Triumphs. This hazy equality has not been maintained, however, in the market place. Most H-D racers are custom-built originals, made to order for some of the best riders in America and with much larger engines than their British competitors. Harley has yet to come up with a production model that can compete with Japanese or European imports -- on the street, the track or in dirt -- in terms of weight, price, handling ability or engine size.
There is surely some powerful lesson in the failure of Harley-Davidson to keep pace with a market they once controlled entirely. It is impossible to conceive of a similar situation in the automobile market. What if Ford, for instance, had been the only American manufacturer of autos at the end of World War II? Could they have lost more than 90 percent of the market by 1965? A monopoly with a strong protective tariff should be in a commanding position even on the Yo-Yo market. How would the Yo-Yo king feel if he were stripped, in less than a decade, of all his customers except Hell's Angels and cops?
2. In August 1966 the Angels officially changed their patch to read "Hell's Angels" on top of the skull, "California" underneath. New chapters in the East and Midwest were expected to be operative by 1967. They would be allowed to wear the traditional patch, but with the name of their own state.
3. Pennsylvania more than doubled its motorcycle registrations between 1964 (35.196) and 1965 (72.055). Other leading bike states are Florida and Illinois, with more than 50,000 each in 1965, including outlaws.
4. According to Forbes magazine (September 15, 1966), Harley-Davidson sales went from $16,000,000 in the fiscal year 1959 to $29,600,000 in 1965. During the same period, American Honda sales jumped from a niggardly $500,000 to $77,000,000 -- and kept booming, in 1966, to $106,000,000.