HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS
These punks with their cycles
and their Nazi trappings have it
in for the world -- and for everyone in it. They're a menace, a
damned serious menace that's
growing bigger every year.
They worship their motorcycles.
They take them inside their
homes at night. They sleep on
grease-caked beds, but their
bikes are spotless.
The farther the Angels roam from their own turf, the more likely they are to cause panic. A group of them seen on a highway for the first time is offensive to every normal notion of what is supposed to be happening in this country; it is bizarre to the point of seeming like a bad hallucination ... and this is the context in which the term "outlaw" makes real sense. To see a lone Angel screaming through traffic -- defying all rules, limits and patterns -- is to understand the motorcycle as an instrument of anarchy, a tool of defiance and even a weapon. A Hell's Angel on foot can look pretty foolish. Their sloppy histrionics and inane conversations can be interesting for a few hours, but beyond the initial strangeness, their everyday scene is as tedious and depressing as a costume ball for demented children. There is something pathetic about a bunch of men gathering every night in the same bar, taking themselves very seriously in their ratty uniforms, with nothing to look forward to but the chance of a fight or a round of head jobs from some drunken charwoman.
But there is nothing pathetic about the sight of an Angel on his bike. The whole -- man and machine together -- is far more than the sum of its parts. His motorcycle is the one thing in life he has absolutely mastered. It is his only valid status symbol, his equalizer, and he pampers it the same way a busty Hollywood starlet pampers her body. Without it, he is no better than a punk on a street corner. And he knows it. The Angels are not articulate about many things, but they bring a lover's inspiration to the subject of bikes. Sonny Barger, a man not given to sentimental rambling, once defined the word "love" as "the feelin you get when you like somethin as much as your motorcycle. Yeah, I guess you could say that was love."
The fact that many Angels have virtually created their bikes out of stolen, bartered or custom-made parts only half explains the intense attachment they have for them. You've got to see an outlaw straddle his hog and start jumping on the starter pedal to fully appreciate what it means. It is like seeing a thirsty man find water. His face changes; his whole bearing radiates confidence and authority. He sits there for a moment with the big machine rumbling between his legs, and then he blasts off ... sometimes in a cool, muted kind of way, and sometimes with a roaring wheelstand that rattles nearby windows -- but always with style, with elan. And by cutting out in the grand manner at the end of each barroom night, he leaves the others with the best possible image of himself. Each Angel is a mirror in the mutual admiration society. They reflect and reassure each other, in strength and weakness, folly and triumph ... and each night at closing time they cut out with a flourish: the juke box wails a Norman Luboff tune, the bar lights dim, and Shane thunders off drunkenly into the moonlight.
Whether the Hell's Angels are real motorcycle artists or not is hard to say. With the exception of a few drag meets, the outlaws are barred from all sanctioned competition, so there are no performance charts to go on.  Their bikes are entirely different from racing and scrambles machines, and even from other road bikes. The Angels tell tales of wiping out professionals in impromptu showdowns ... but there are also stories about outlaws on souped-up hogs being humiliated by lightweight Ducatis.
Perhaps the stories are true, perhaps not, but either way the argument is still moot. Motorcycles are designed for specific purposes: cross-country, racing, cruising or just hopping around the neighborhood. They will all run. and so will dogs and horses, but nobody breeds horses to hunt possums, or enters dogs in the Kentucky Derby. Bike manufacturers have been trying for decades to make a genuine all-purpose model, but so far nobody has.
There is no valid comparison between riding in dirt or competition, and riding a bike in traffic, day in and day out, on city streets and highways. Different skills are involved, and different kinds of reflexes. Some of the fastest racing bikes have no brakes, which would mean instant death in traffic -- yet many professional riders say highways are far more dangerous than any race track.
Dirt riders feel the same way: few even bother to license their bikes for the street. Don McGuire, a veteran scrambles rider and full-time motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, insists that only a madman or a masochist would ride a bike in traffic. "Look at it this way," he says. "In any kind of race we're all going the same way and we all know what we're doing. Nobody has to worry about nuts or drunks or old ladies coming out of blind alleys. It makes a hell of a difference; you can concentrate on your own motor and keep it under control. We get injuries now and then, but broken bones are about the worst of it, and damn few people get killed.
"But the highways! Christ, here you are, moving along in traffic about sixty-five, right there at the speed limit, and it's all you can do to keep out of people's way. If the road's a little wet -- even damp from the fog -- you're in trouble no matter what happens. Slow down, and they'll come right up on your tail or muscle you out of the lane. Speed up to get some room, and some geek hits his brakes right in front of you -- God knows why, but they do it all the time.
"One little thing like that and you're into the meat grinder. The minute you hit the brakes you'll start losing it; bikes don't drift like cars. And once you go down, you'll be lucky if you only get run over twice."
During 1965 more than a thousand people died in the United States as a result of motorcycle accidents. Automobiles killed nearly fifty times that many, but the growing number of bike deaths caused the American Medical Association to label motorcycles "a serious health hazard in our communities." The Hell's Angels lose an average of four members a year on the road, but considering the way most of them ride, a 4 percent annual mortality rate is a towering tribute to their skill. A Harley 74 is probably the only motorcycle that can cause real damage to a car, and a hard-running Angel can intimidate traffic as severely as a speeding torpedo. The outlaws are experts with hogs, and in their own narrow world, on their own terms, they can outride just about anybody.
In the late 1950s, before the Angels became so notorious, Pete, from the Frisco chapter, was one of the top drag racers in northern California. He was sponsored by the local Harley-Davidson dealer and collected a roomful of trophies. Not only did he wear his Hell's Angels colors in the races, but he rode his competition bike out to the track, packing his pretty blond wife on the fender pad behind him. Other dragsters brought their bikes on trailers, handling them like Ming vases.
"Pete could really make a bike go," one of the Angels recalls. "It was really classy the way he'd go out and win. When he got to the track, man, he'd just change his spark plugs and go out -- high handlebars and all -- and wipe out them drag irons."
In the early sixties Pete retired from the Angels, feeling he'd had enough. Shortly after his thirtieth birthday he moved his wife and two children to a small town in the Sierras, where he tried to settle down as a peaceful country mechanic. His retirement lasted about two years and might have been longer if the Angels had not become famous. But the lure of publicity and new action was too much. By early 1965 Pete was back in town, toasting his old buddies, shedding his family and hustling around for parts to build a new bike.
Like most of the other Angels, he regards the factory product only in terms of potential -- a bundle of good raw material, but hardly a machine that any man with class would want to call his own. 
The outlaws tend to see their bikes as personal monuments, created in their own image, however abstract, and they develop an affection for them that is hard for outsiders to understand. It seems like a pose, or even a perversion -- and maybe it is, but to bike freaks it is very real. Anybody who has ever owned one of the beasts will always be a little bit queer for them. Not the little bikes, but the big expensive temperamental bastards, the ones that respond to the accelerator like a bucking horse to a whip, that will stand up in the air and run fifteen yards on one wheel; scorching the pavement with a fiery blast from the chrome tailpipes. The little bikes may be fun, like the industry people say, but Volkswagens are fun too, and so are BB guns. Big bikes, Ferraris and .44 Magnum revolvers are something beyond fun; they are man-made machines so powerful and efficient in their own realms that they challenge a man's ability to control them, to push them to the limits of their design and possibilities. This is one of the pillars of the Big Bike mystique that looms so large in the life of every Hell's Angel. Or as they say: "That's where it's at, man. That's where it lives."
Not everyone is comfortable with this concept. I had owned a big motorcycle before, and two motor scooters, but only because they'd been cheap and available when I had some money to buy something. There is no place in the mystique for this kind of sloppy pragmatism, and when I told the Angels I was thinking of buying a bike of my own they were eager to help out. The main thing, of course, was to get a Harley-Davidson. They had several to sell, but the newer ones were all hot ... they were also cheap: a $1,500 bike for $400 is hard to turn down, but to ride a stolen bike, you have to know how to explain to a cop why your frame or engine numbers bear no resemblance to the numbers on your license registration. There are ways to carry this off, but the penalty for failure is jail time, and I didn't feel up to it. I tried unsuccessfully to have the Angels find me a cheap, second-hand-and legal-Harley 74, customized in the latest outlaw fashion. Then, like some of the outlaw avant-garde, I decided on the lighter, hotter Harley Sportster. After pressure from the respectable camp, I tried the Triumph Bonneville and even the staid BMW. In the end I narrowed it down to the Sportster, the Bonneville and the BSA Lightning Rocket. All three will run circles around a stock Harley 74, and even the Angel version of the hog -- which is anything but stock -- can't run with the newest and best production models without extensive alterations and a very savvy rider. That I eventually bought the BSA is immaterial; the point is that it took me four weeks of hard asking and thinking, with $1,500 in the balance, to realize that stripped-down Harleys weren't basically superior machines. Later, after riding a few months, I understood that the difference between a Hell's Angel on a hog and a white-collar bike buff on a race-tuned Triumph is not all in the engine. The Angels push their luck to the limit. They take drastic risks with no thought at all. As individuals they have been busted, excluded and defeated in so many ways that they are not about to be polite or careful in the one area where they have an edge.
The special relationship between an Angel and his bike is obvious even to people who know nothing at all about motorcycles. While gathering data for his Saturday Evening Post article, Bill Murray watched a half-hour television documentary made by a Los Angeles station with the hazy cooperation of the Berdoo Angels. One of the four specimens was, in Murray's words: "an almost inarticulate brute behind glass-bottom eyeglasses who was known as Blind Bob. (He spoke fiercely of what would happen to anybody who tried to mess with his girl. 'If she's with me, she's with me,' he said, grinding his jaw.) "
Murray's view of the Angels was wholly contemptuous but he was very much taken with the sight of at least one of the brutes on a hog. "The most vivid moment of the television program," he said, "came when Blind Bob, an inarticulate earthbound slob during the interview, had been shown riding his cycle down the highway. He handled that big powerful machine with consummate ease, steering it casually with one hand, like Valenzuela bringing Kelso to the starting gate, the wind blowing hard into his face, and his mouth set in a tight grin of pure enjoyment. Planted on the back of his hog, this oaf had acquired instant grace ..."
With rare exceptions, the outlaw bike is a Harley 74, a giant of a motorcycle that comes out of the Milwaukee factory weighing seven hundred pounds, but which the Angels strip down to about five hundred. In the argot of the cycle world the Harley is a "hog," and the outlaw bike is a "chopped hog." Basically it is the same machine all motorcycle cops use, but the police bike is an accessory-loaded elephant compared to the lean, customized dynamos the Hell's Angels ride. The resemblance is about the same as that of a factory-equipped Cadillac to a dragster's stripped-down essence of the same car. The Angels refer to standard 74s as "garbage wagons," and Bylaw Number 11 of the charter is a put-down in the grand manner: "An Angel cannot wear the colors while riding on a garbage wagon with a non-Angel." A chopped hog, or "chopper," is little more than a heavy frame, a tiny seat and a massive, 1,200-cubic-centimeter (or 74-cubic-inch) engine. This is nearly twice the size of the engines in the Triumphe Bonneville or the BSA Lightning Rocket, both 650-cubic-centimeter machines capable of 120 to 130 miles an hour. The Honda Super Hawk has a 305-cubic-centimeter engine and a top speed of just under 100. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times once described hogs as "the kind of cycle the German couriers used to run down dogs and chickens -- and people -- in World War II: low brutish machines, with drivers to match."
There is nothing on the road -- with the exception of a few sports or racing cars -- that can catch an artfully hopped-up outlaw 74 as long as there's room to "jam it," or "screw it on," and take advantage of the huge engine. Because of its size and basic engineering differences, however, a normally equipped Harley 74 can barely outrun a 305-cubic-centimeter Honda, much less a dual-carburetor Triumph or a BSA. It is not unusual for people who ride these limey bikes to seek opportunities to humiliate a cop on a Harley. But motorcycle cops are wise, they know. Even the California Highway Patrol, in their souped-up Dodges, view a big British bike or an outlaw chopper as an affront to their king-of-the-road image. I was once stopped for speeding by a Highway Patrol car that raced up to within a few feet of my rear fender before I realized I was being followed. The driver hit his siren at the last moment, and naturally I pulled over, somewhat shaken. When I asked him why he'd run up so close behind me, he said, "I thought you might try to swing off at that exit and get away."
I said it had never occurred to me, which was true at the time, although it would now. "Well, it's a good thing you didn't try it," he replied. "The last motorcycle punk who tried to run from me got killed. I kept on his tail until he made a mistake, then I ran right over him."
For $1,300 to $1,400 anybody with a yen for death, racing with police cars can buy a motorcycle that will do 120 miles per hour right off the showroom floor. But to get that kind of performance out of a 74 requires considerable effort and skill. The first step is a drastic alteration of the weight-to-power ratio. The Angels strip their hogs down to the bare essentials, even to the extent of removing the front-wheel brake. The stripping alone makes a big difference, but most outlaw bikes are also power-jumped with hot cams, larger valves and increased bore and stroke. The only extras they carry are the ones required by law: a taillight, rear-view mirror and a hand hold for the passenger. A fanatic can satisfy the mirror requirement by using a tiny dentist's mirror, which is technically legal.
Other modifications include a half-size, custom-designed gas tank, no front fender and a shortened or "bobbed" rear fender that ends at the top of the wheel; very high handlebars and a little seat so low that it looks like leather pad on top of the engine; extended front forks to lengthen the wheelbase and raise the front end; a foot, or "suicide," clutch and a variety of such personal touches as long high-raked mufflers, tiny dual headlights, a bicycle-thin front wheel, tall dagger-designed chrome rails (called "sissy bars") for a passenger hand hold, and every conceivable kind of chrome and flame-paint trim.
A chopper is often a work of art, costing as much as $3,000 to build, not counting labor. From the polished chrome spokes to the perfectly balanced super-light flywheel and the twelve coats of special paint on the gas tank, it is a beautiful, graceful machine and so nearly perfect mechanically that it is hard to conceive of it screaming along some midnight highway in the hands of a drunken hoodlum only moments away from a high-speed crash into a tree or a steel guardrail. This is one of many paradoxes in the Hell's Angels lore. Whatever they lack in personal grooming, they make up for in spades with their bikes ... yet anyone of them might take a bike he has worked on for six months and destroy it in seconds with a maniacal top-speed run at a curve that's a guaranteed bust-out at anything over fifty.
This is called "going over the high side," a nasty experience which one Angel supposedly described like this: "We've all been over the high side, baby. You know what that is? It's when your bike starts sliding when you steam into a curve at seventy or eighty ... She slides toward the high side of the curve, baby, until she hits a curb or a rail or a soft shoulder or whatever's there, and then she flips ... That's what you call making a classic get-off, baby."
One night in the winter of 1965 I took my own bike and a passenger -- over the high side on a rain-slick road just north of Oakland. I went into an obviously dangerous curve at about seventy, the top of my second gear. The wet road prevented leaning it over enough to compensate for the tremendous inertia, and somewhere in the middle of the curve I realized that the rear wheel was no longer following the front one. The bike was going sideways toward a bank of railroad tracks and there was nothing I could do except hang on. For an instant it was very peaceful ... and then it was like being shot off the road by a bazooka, but with no noise. Neither a deer on a hillside nor a man on a battlefield ever hears the shot that kills him, and a man going over the high side on a motorcycle hears the same kind of high-speed silence. There are sparks, as the chromed steel grinds down on the road, an awful jerk when your body starts cartwheeling on the first impact ... and after that, if you're lucky, there is nothing at all until you wake up in some hospital emergency ward with your scalp hanging down in your eyes and a blood-soaked shirt sticking to your chest while official-looking people stare down at you and assure each other that "these crazy bastards won't learn."
There is nothing romantic about a bad crash, and the only solace is the deadening shock that comes with most injuries. My passenger left the bike in a long arc that ended on the railroad tracks and splintered his thigh bone, driving the sharp edges through muscle and flesh and all the way out to the wet gravel. In the hospital they had to wash the dirt off the bone ends before they put his leg back together ... but he said it didn't hurt until the next day, not even when he was lying in the rain and wondering if anybody on the road would call an ambulance to pick us up.
There is not a Hell's Angel riding who hasn't made the emergency-ward scene, and one of the natural results is that their fear of accidents is well tempered by a cavalier kind of disdain for physical injury. Outsiders might call it madness or other, more esoteric names ... but the Angels inhabit a world in which violence is as common as spilled beer, and they live with it as easily as ski bums live with the risk of broken legs. This casual acceptance of bloodletting is a key to the terror they inspire in the squares. Even a small, inept street-fighter has a tremendous advantage over the average middle-class American, who hasn't had a fight since puberty. It is a simple matter of accumulated experience, of having been hit or stomped often enough to forget the ugly panic that nice people associate with a serious fight. A man who has had his nose smashed three times in brawls will risk it again with hardly a thought. No amount of instruction in any lethal art can teach this -- not unless the instructor is a sadist, and even then it would be difficult because the student's experience would be artificially warped and limited.
San Francisco is a big karate town: in 1965 there were roughly seven thousand full-time fee-paying karate students roaming around the Bay Area ... but in any active bar you can hear a story about a bartender who "busted up a guy who tried to pull some karate stuff." It hardly matters how many of the stories are true. The point is valid: the difference between survival and wipe-out in a physical crisis is nearly always a matter of conditioned reflexes. A bartender with scar tissue all over his knuckles will hit faster and harder than a karate-trained novice who has never been bloodied. For the same reason, a Hell's Angel who has been over the high side often enough to joke about it will ride a motorcycle with a style and abandon that comes only with painful experience. 
After being around the Angels for a while I became so accustomed to seeing casts, bandages, slings and lumpy faces that I took them for granted and stopped asking what happened. The good bust-up stories were always common topics anyway, and the bad ones were as dull and predictable as the punchouts on any Late Show. Most of their fights are with outsiders who don't realize what they're getting into. People who know them are keenly aware of the "all on one" ethic, which is not covered by any statute of limitations. An Angel on his own turf is as secure as a Mafia runner in a tough Italian neighborhood.
In spite of this sinister immunity, they occasionally overextend themselves and get badly worked over by people who either don't know the score or choose to disregard it. Even Barger, now in his eighth year as president of the Oakland chapter, admits to having had his nose broken, his jaw busted and his teeth punched out.
But a single bike accident can break a man worse than a dozen disastrous fights. Funny Sonny from Berdoo has a steel plate in his head, a steel rod in one arm, a plastic ankle and a deep scar on his face -- all from crackups. He got his nickname when the other Angels decided the steel plate was having a strange effect on his brain. When the Berdoo Angels made a run to Santa Ana in October 1964, Funny Sonny was a big hit with the citizens. Large crowds gathered to hear his street-corner diatribes against cops, courts and the social structure in general. He was later jailed for a large number of outstanding traffic citations.
1. This is a matter of mutual exclusion. An Angel in mufti could enter any AMA event for the price of a two-dollar Sportsman's Card. This would make him eligible to compete, but it would also make him an applicant for membership in the AMA, which his outlaw brethren would never tolerate. The Hell's Angels charter is very explicit on conflict-of-interest situations. No Angel can be a member of any other motorcycle club or organization. It would be worth a man's colors to hold a card in the AMA.
2. The bike he finally built turned 108 in the quarter mile, in twelve seconds flat.
3. Five Hell's Angels died in fights or crashes in 1964, and three in '65 -- three so far in '66, along with one shot seriously in the stomach and another permanently paralyzed from the neck down, also from a bullet.