HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS
In a prosperous democracy that
is also a society of winners and
losers, any man without an
equalizer or at least the illusion
of one is by definition underprivileged.
They're a bunch of mean-hair
fairies, that's all. They're enough
to make anyone sick.
A Hell's Angel who lived on
Thirty-seventh Street in Sacramento was continually being complained about for making suggestive comments to women who
passed by his house ..."Let's
make it, baby," or "Hey, beautifu1, come sit on Papa's face." A
patrolman, checking on one of
The current boom in lightweight bikes relates to outlaw motorcycles the same way the bogus Hell's Angels Fan Club T-shirts relate to the real Hell's Angels. The 1ittle bikes are fun, handy and relatively safe ... while the big ones are two-wheeled bombs, and the outlaws who ride them would rather walk than be seen on a Honda, Yamaha or Suzuki. Safety and respectability are the last things they want; their machines are dangerous, temperamental and expensive in every way;  there has never been an outlaw who saw his bike as anything but a King Kong equalizer, and there has never been one, either, who had anything but contempt for the idea of good clean fun ... which is one of the reasons they shun even the minimum safety measures that most cyclists take for granted. You will never see a Hell's Angel wearing a crash helmet. Nor do they wear the Brando-Dylan-style "silver-studded phantom" leather jackets, commonly associated with motorcycle hoodlums and "leather fetish cults." This viewpoint is limited to people who know nothing about motorcycles. Heavy leather jackets are standard even for New York's Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club, an executive-level gang whose members include a dentist, a film producer, a psychiatrist and a United Nations official. Ted Develat, the film producer, has lamented the image problem that he and the others run into with their leather jackets. "But if you're practical you have to dress that way," he explained. "If you take a skid, it's a lot cheaper to shred that leather than to scrape off your own skin."
It is also a lot less painful. An eight-inch circle of raw flesh on your back is awkward to live with and slow to heal. Professional motorcycle racers, who have learned the hard way, wear helmets, gloves and full-length leather suits.
But not the Hell's Angels. Anything safe, they want no part of. They'll stoop to wearing shades or weird goggles on the road, but more for show than protection. The Angels don't want anybody to think they're hedging their bets. The leather jackets were in vogue until the mid-fifties, and many of the outlaws sewed their colors on them. But as their reputation grew and the police began closing in, one of the Frisco Angels came up with the idea of removable colors, to be snatched off and hidden in time of stress. This marked the era of the sleeveless denim vest: In the beginning most outlaws wore the colors on top of leather jackets, but in southern California it was too hot for that, so the Berdoo chapter pioneered the idea of wind in the armpits -- no jackets at all -- only colors. The next step, logically, will be the dropping of the Levis, and then the image will be complete -- nothing but boots, beards, vests and bizarre decorations of the genitalia. A few of the older outlaws still wear leather jackets, especially around the Bay Area, where the winters are cold, but they are definitely not the style, and any independent making a pitch for Angel membership would be rejected as "corny and chickenshit" if he showed up in leather.
A mass of Hell's Angels on the road is a sight that no one who ever sees it will forget. Their arrival at a gas station causes panic among attendants. There is simply no way to cope with a caravan of nationally known thugs rolling in, each demanding a gallon or two of gas. One Saturday morning near Oakland I pulled into a service station on Highway 50 and was talking amiably with the attendant about the broiling heat and the general perfidy of machinery ... when the station suddenly filled up with outlaw motorcyclists gunning their engines, yelling, and darting back and forth between the pumps. "Holy Jesus!" said the attendant. His manner became distracted. He forgot how much money l owed him and left me to fill my own radiator while he kept a terrified eye on the outlaws. It was a big, brand-new station, with four attendants, but the combined Hell's Angel-Gypsy Joker contingent was completely in command from the moment they arrived. They pumped their own gas, tossed beer cans back and forth, and rummaged through the racks, looking for fifty-weight motorcycle oil. The five or six motorists at the pumps simply sat in their cars and watched. The attendants moved around cautiously, hoping that none of the outlaws would try to steal something in front of their eyes. Overt theft would call for action, and nobody wanted it. Anyone who has ever dealt with the Angels in a mass will agree that this is one of the worst aspects: at what point do you start protesting minor theft, insult or damage ... at the risk of starting an argument that might end in a bloody fight? Is it cheaper to let a hoodlum caravan get off with ten quarts of oil and five tanks of gasoline unpaid for -- or should a man risk his teeth and his plateglass windows by insisting that the outlaws pay, to the last penny, for everything they leave with? The dilemma is especially bad for an employee. A filling-station attendant faced with a gang of Hell's Angels is like a salaried bank teller faced with an armed holdup man. Should a pump jockey risk a beating any more than a teller should risk his or her life to save a bank's insured money?
If the Angels had good sense they would only patronize gas stations operated on a lease basis by absentee owners. The difference is easily discernible, in less than a minute's time, to anyone who has ever pumped gas for a living, and many of the outlaws have. But as a group they scorn foresight and rely on a colorful, willful ignorance that brings them now and then to pick on a gas station whose owner works twelve hours a day on the premises, has his life savings tied up in the franchise, and whose body bloats with adrenalin at the prospect of being victimized by a gang of punks. People like this keep revolvers in the cash register, in the tool rack and even -- in rough or robbery-type neighborhoods -- in shoulder holsters under their friendly service jackets. Most of the Angels' gas-station incidents involve proprietors who panic and go into a rage at the very sight of them.
Some people can make the tough act work, but others will blow it badly. The Angels fear these "nuts," as they call them, because they are just as likely to shoot for no reason at all as for the very best of reasons. But God's mercy on a man who pulls a gun on a group of Hell's Angels and then has it taken away. There are some awful stories about this, and in every case the victims could have saved themselves by shooting first and later pleading self- defense. On the Angel scale of values the only thing worse than a fink with a loose or frightened mouth is a loud antagonist who can't follow through. People like this get the full measure of retribution -- the natural attack on any human obstacle, plus the hyped-up heel-grinding contempt for a man who tries and fails to deal with them on their own terms ... or at least what seems to be their own terms, if only by default.
The odd truth is that the Angels have only a wavering respect for their own terms -- or, again, what seems to be their own terms -- and they are generally receptive, in any action beyond their own turf, to people who haven't pre-judged them to the extent of assuming they have to be dealt with violently. They are so much aware of their mad-dog reputation that they take a perverse kind of pleasure in being friendly.
A filling-station owner near the Sierra town of Angels Camp (site of Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County") recalls his first confrontation with the Hell's Angels in tones of fear and wonderment:
"About thirty of them roared into my station one night. They said they needed a place to work on their bikes. I took one look at them and told them the place was theirs, and got the hell out of there in a hurry."
It was a normal enough reaction for a man running a no-help station at night in the mountains -- for even a decision to fight to the death wouldn't have accomplished much against thirty hoodlums. "After an hour or so I finally summoned the courage to go back and see if my place was still standing," he said. "The Angels were just finishing up. I was never so surprised in my whole life. The place was spotless. They had washed every tool they used with gasoline and hung it back exactly where they found it. They even swept the floor. The place was actually cleaner than when they first came in."
Stories like this are common, even among cops. There is the testimony of a bar owner in Porterville: "Sure, they rode their motorcycles into, my place, even tore up the tile doing it. But before they left they paid for every bit of damage, every broken glass. And I never sold so much beer in my life. They're welcome here any time."
Many a groveling merchant has made a buck off the Hell's Angels. All they ask is tribute, and naked fear is a very pure form of it. Any man who tacitly admits to being terrified is safe from them unless he overdoes it ... and this happens, often with covert homosexuals long gone on booze or drugs and unable to control themselves in the presence of so much "rough trade." The outlaws will nearly always give a flip-out a bad time. I recall a party one night when they decided to set an offending Berkeley student on fire. Then, when the host protested, they looped a rope around the victim's ankles and said they were going to drag him away behind a motorcycle. This also caused protests, so they settled for hanging him by one arm from a living-room rafter. After a half hour or so they relented and cut him down, shaking their heads in puzzlement at his stony silence. The wretch hadn't uttered a word throughout the ordeal. He seemed in a daze, and I had a fleeting impression that he'd planned the whole thing. Afterward he went outside and sat on a stump for several hours, saying nothing at all, but trembling now and then like a man coming down from some indescribable peak.
The Angels are great favorites on the sado-masochism circuit, and although motorcycle hoods as a group are consistently accused of deviate leanings, I suspect the issue was stripped to the bony truth one afternoon by a Frisco Angel who said: "Hell yes, I'll take a blow-job any day for ten bucks. Just the other night in some bar downtown I had a queer come up to me with a big tenner ... he laid it on me and said what did I want to drink? I said, 'A double Jack Daniels, baby,' so he told the bartender, 'Two of those for me and my friend,' and then he sat down there on the bar rail and gave me a hell of a blow-job, man, and all I had to do was smile at the bartender and keep cool." He laughed. "Hell, and me with four kids and a broad up front dancing the wig or the wag or something like that with some spade. Shit, man, the day they can call me queer is when I let one of these faggots suck on me for less than a tenner ... Man, I'd go underwater and fuck fish for that kind of money, you just tell me who's payin."
To whatever extent the Hell's Angels may or may not be latent sado-masochists or repressed homosexuals is to me -- after nearly a year in the constant company of outlaw motorcyclists -- almost entirely irrelevant.
There are literary critics who insist that Ernest Hemingway was a tortured queer and that Mark Twain was haunted to the end of his days by a penchant for interracial buggery. It is a good way to stir up a tempest in the academic quarterlies, but it won't change a word of what either man wrote, nor alter the impact of their work on the world they were writing about. Perhaps Manolete was a hoof fetishist, or suffered from terrible hemorrhoids as a result of long nights in Spanish horn parlors ... but he was a great matador, and it is hard to see how any amount of Freudian theorizing can have the slightest effect on the reality of the thing he did best.
For the same reason, the behavior of the Hell's Angels would not be changed or subdued for a moment if every newspaper in the land denounced them as brutal homosexuals -- even if they were. Significantly, I have never heard anyone who had any personal dealings with them endorse the Freudian viewpoint -- probably because anyone who spends any time with the Angels knows the difference between outlaw motorcyclists and homosexual leather cults. At any bar full of Hell's Angels there will be a row of sleek bikes lined up on the curb outside. At a leather bar there are surrealistic renderings of motorcycles on the wall and perhaps, but not always, one or two huge, accessory-laden Harleys parked outside, complete with windshields, radios and red plastic saddlebags. The difference is as basic as between a professional football player and a rabid fan. One is a performer in a harsh, unique corner of reality; the other is a cultist, a passive worshiper, and occasionally a sloppy emulator of a style that fascinates him because it is so hopelessly remote from the reality he wakes up to every morning.
According to the Lynch report, "While homosexuals seem to be attracted to Hell's Angels, no information received indicates that the Hell's Angels as a group are homosexuals. They seem primarily concerned with heterosexual contacts. Some heterosexual perversions figure in the police reports, but taken in context, they appear to be means of attracting attention, 'being different,' and performed primarily for the shock impact on others. These and other attention-attracting actions are characterized by the Angels as 'showing class.'"
Certainly the Lynch report is not the last word on the Angels, but the nature and bias of the document is such that any available evidence of their homosexual action would have been prominently mentioned. The report makes so many references to cunnilingus that the word fellatio is conspicuous by its absence. No doubt there are Freudian ramifications even in this omission, but again, I think they are mainly beside the point. Any attempt to explain the Hell's Angels as an essentially homosexual phenomenon would be a cop-out, a self-satisfied dismissal of a reality that is as complex and potentially malignant as anything in American society.
The motorcycle is obviously a
sexual symbol. It's what's called
a phallic locomotor symbol. It's
an extension of one's body, a
power between one's legs.
The best-known public link between outlaw cyclists and homosexuality is a film titled Scorpio Rising. It is an underground classic of sorts, created in the early 1960s by a young San Francisco film-maker named Kenneth Anger. He never claimed that Scorpio had anything to do with the Hell's Angels, and most of it was filmed in Brooklyn, with the co-operation of a group of motorcycle buffs so loosely organized that they hadn't even bothered to name themselves. Unlike The Wild One, Anger's creation had no journalistic or documentary intent. It was an art film with a rock-'n'-roll score, a bizarre little comment on twentieth century America, using motorcycles, swastikas and aggressive homosexuality as a new culture trilogy. By the time the Hell's Angels joined the cultural mainstream Anger had made several other films with a strongly homosexual bias, and he seemed offended at the notion that he might be so far behind the times as to turn out anything so banal as a topical documentary.
Nevertheless, Scorpio Rising played in San Francisco in 1964 at a North Beach theater called The Movie, where Anger was living at the time, upstairs, which advertised the film with a sidewalk montage of Hell's Angels newspaper clippings. The implication was so obvious that even the San Francisco Angels made a pilgrimage to check it out. It didn't groove them at all. They weren't angry, but genuinely offended. Their name, they felt, had been put to fraudulent commercial use. "Hell, I liked the film," said Frenchy. "But it didn't have anything to do with us. We all enjoyed it. But then we came outside and saw all those clippings about us, pasted up like advertisements. Man, it was a bummer, it wasn't right. A lot of people got conned, and now we have to listen to all this crap about us being queers. Shit, did you see the way those punks were dressed? And those silly goddamn junkwagon bikes? Man, don't tell me that has any connection with us. You know it doesn't."
Anger seemed to agree, but quietly. There was no need
to spoil a new boom for the film ... and besides, one of
the keenest talents in the homosexual repertoire is the
ability to recognize homosexuality in others, very nearly
without exception. So the phenomenon emerged: the Angels provided the realism that Scorpio lacked. The secret
queer factor gave the press an element of strange whimsy
to mix in with the rape reports, and the outlaws themselves were relegated to new nadirs of sordid fascination.
More than ever before, they were wreathed in an aura of
violent and erotic mystery ... brawling satyrs, ready to
attempt congress with any living thing, and in any orifice.