Hell's Angels

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Hell's Angels

During the height of their notoriety, the motorcycle gang Hell's Angels made headlines from coast to coast, with stories appearing in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, True, the Nation, and a host of other publications. With their death's-head emblem, outré habits, and the mystique of modern-day Quantrill's raiders, the Angels were tantalizing to the press. In fact, their seedy allure was heightened by the press to such a degree that it spawned a national—and then international—fascination with outlaw motorcyclists. From magazines and books, the Angels' story spread inexorably to movie theaters, and biker movies became so popular that they inspired a rash of films based on the Angels' true-life exploits. Predictably, the fictional amplification of their misdeeds bore only a faint resemblance to the real-life models, increasing their fascination, so much so that the Angels now have charters throughout Europe and beyond.

It all started in California after World War II "when most ex-GIs wanted to get back to an orderly pattern: college, marriage, a job, children—all the peaceful extras that come with a sense of security," wrote Hunter S. Thompson, whose book is perhaps the definitive work on the Angels. But not everybody felt that way: "There were thousands of veterans in 1945 who flatly rejected the idea of going back to their prewar pattern. They wanted more action, and one of the ways to look for it was on a big motorcycle." In California, where the weather is clement year-round and a premium is placed on mobility of all kinds, these young men congregated in groups—adopting names like the Booze Fighters or the Market Street Commandos—regularly making runs to resort towns throughout the state—trips that were always tinged by menace. These were the culprits who tore up the agricultural town of Hollister, California, in 1947, the first motorcycle riot, coverage of which inspired producer Stanley Kramer and actor Marlon Brando to make The Wild One in 1954.

In Fontana, California, a steel town east of Los Angeles, the original Hell's Angels emerged out of the wreckage of an earlier club, the Booze Fighters. They were blue-collar types, scornful of normalcy, and among motorcycle outlaws, the Angels were soon known as the toughest, most obdurate of the motorcycle outlaws—kings of violence and depravity. For fifteen years the San Bernardino Angels were the de facto leaders, bestowing new charters at their whim. But the Berdoo Angels, as they were called, who had a reputation for inspired depravity, persisted in their folly a might too long. They became the victims of massive police harassment—much deserved no doubt—and soon the chapter had been decimated by an exodus to Oakland, known as the promised land to Angels, and by the early 1960s a large concentration of Angels had gathered in the Bay Area.

For all their colorful ways, it took until the mid-1960s for them to come to the attention of the state law enforcement apparatus. The occasion was a Labor Day Run to Monterey which had resulted in allegations of rape, and although the defendants were eventually acquitted, the state attorney general's office was alarmed enough to launch a six-month investigation. Much of the report was unfounded or so prejudiced as to be beyond credulity, and the Angels might have faded back into obscurity were it not for a sole New York Times correspondent in Los Angeles who filed a lurid dispatch. Appearing in the Times gave the bikers credibility. Newsweek and Time weighed in with their own alarums. Other publications followed, and soon the bikers had grown accustomed to the media's presence and were earnestly trying to capitalize on their new-found fame.

The heightened publicity had benefits and drawbacks. The Angels truly enjoyed seeing themselves in print, and their presence acquired a certain amount of hip cachet in bohemian circles throughout the Bay; but police harassment had increased exponentially, and many of the outlaws were summarily dismissed by their employers as a result of the ensuing hysteria. Many of the Angels grew restive over the fact that they had failed to profit from the storm of controversy that had swept over them. And they had become self-conscious. Oakland President Sonny Barger, having grown accustomed to giving well-attended press conferences, took himself seriously enough to attack a peace march in Oakland, the first time the Angels had shown even the faintest interest in politics. The attack and its subsequent notoriety heralded a drop in media interest, but Hollywood was just catching on.

From the philosophical 1969 Easy Rider (not so much a biker film as a paean to the myth of the outlaw biker), arguably the best of the lot, to the outlandish Werewolves on Wheels, the myth of the nefarious yet noble biker was worked through all its possible permutations to varying degrees of success and/or profit. First of the group was The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. Director Roger Corman, always quickest to the draw, had cobbled together a story from elements of the Lynch Report; and in its story of paying tribute to a fallen comrade (based on the death of a Sacramento Angel that January), The Wild Angels came closest to portraying the Angels in their natural state. Yet, the film had an equivocal tone, part denunciation, part hero worship, and it set the standard for the rash of biker films that would follow. The Born Losers, released the following year, concentrated on the Angels' reputation for gang rape, and so was a slightly less sympathetic account. After the Angels' participation in the havoc at Altamont, the Angels' screen persona degenerated further. By the early 1970s, the genre was commonly linked with the occult or Satanism.

Since the coverage of the Hollister motorcycle riot in 1947, the relationship between the media and the bikers has always been symbiotic. The Angels' appeal was archetypal—the vanishing outlaw beset on all sides by an increasingly regimented society. It is arguable that had not the national news media, and then Hollywood, exploited the Angels' very existence, they would have remained a local phenomenon. As it was, Hell's Angels clubs sprang up in Great Britain, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, even in the Soviet Union where Angels rode World War II-era army surplus machines when they rode anything. In 1994, the Angels made news when a rival gang blew up the Swedish Hell's Angels clubhouse near Oslo with hand-launched rockets stolen from a Swedish military base. The Hell's Angels phenomenon was truly international in scope.

As for the California Angels, they persisted at the fringes of society, often making headlines for their role in various drug-smuggling conspiracies, but the threat and the allure were gone. They seemed more like picturesque anachronisms than voracious, threatening marauders. As of the late 1990s, there are magazines devoted to outlaw motorcyclists, and an annual run to Sturgis, North Dakota, is a well-organized, fairly tame event, drawing participants from around the world. But still, when a big Harley piloted by an Angel in cutoff jeans jacket and the ubiquitous death's-head patch pulls past on the freeway, the frisson is palpable, and one can imagine the fear and trepidation such a sight would have inspired back in the summer of 1965.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Lavingne, Yves. Hell's Angels: Into the Abyss. Toronto, Harper, Collins, 1996.

——. Hell's Angels: Taking Care of Business. Toronto, Deneau & Wayne, 1987.

——. Three Can Keep a Secret If Two Are Dead. Toronto, Harper, Collins, 1990.

McClure, Michael. Freewheeling Frank, Secretary of the Angels As Told to Michael McClure. New York, Grove Press, 1967.

Morgan, Raymond C. The Angels Do Not Forget. San Diego, Law and Justice Publishers, 1979.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York, Ballantine, 1966.