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Sonny Barger
"There is no international leader of the Hell's Angels and there never has been."
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Monday, 14 August, 2000, 12:00 GMT 13:00 UK
Born to raise Hell
Sonny Barger graphic
He has attempted murder, hangs out with racists and claims he once threatened to shoot a Rolling Stone. Now, one of the most notorious Hell's Angels has detailed the sleazy side of his life in a new book. By BBC News Online's Chris Summers

After years of drug abuse, brawling and motorbike crashes, it would be unrealistic to find Ralph "Sonny" Barger a picture of health.

But despite his gravelly voice - the legacy of a laryngectomy which removed a cancerous growth in his throat 19 years ago - the 62-year-old former President of the Oakland, California chapter of the Hell's Angels is no cause for pity and has no plans to slow down.

Barger has convictions for attempted murder, possession of narcotics with intent to sell and assault with a deadly weapon.

Law-enforcement agencies in the United States believe he is the international president of the Angels and claim they are one of the leading organised crime groups in the US. The Angels have also been accused of masterminding drug dealing operations in Europe, especially Scandinavia.

The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it

Sonny Barger
In the UK to promote his autobiography, Barger denies this and told BBC News Online: "It's FBI propaganda. It's just like the stuff they said after Waco."

He said the Angels were no more a criminal organisation than the Branch Davidians.

Two years ago he moved to Arizona with his third wife, Noel, and his young daughter. Sarrah, but he still rides Harley-Davidsons and subscribes 100% to the Hell's Angels' philosophy.

Barger, who used to own a Harley-Davidson called Sweet Cocaine, believes all drugs should be legalised and says: "Why shouldn't they, after all they let you smoke cigarettes and they kill 400,000 people a year in the US?"

Three regrets

But he admits to having regrets in life.

"If I had my life over again I wouldn't smoke, I'd take less cocaine and I'd try not to lose my right to own a gun [in the US a convicted felon automatically loses this 'birthright']," he says.

Sonny Barger
Sonny Barger had an operation to remove a throat cancer
Barger had a tough childhood in working-class Oakland - his mother abandoned the family when he was very young and his father was a chronic alcoholic who left him in the care of his elder sister Shirley much of the time.

But he says: "I only realised in the last five years, when people told me about it, how hard it was. At the time I had a great time."

His main motivation for joining the Angels was to ride motorbikes and hang out with like-minded people who knew how to "party".

The first Hell's Angels club was formed in 1948 - the name derives from a World War II USAF bomber squadron - but Barger only joined in the late 1950s, when he helped form the Oakland chapter.

He became the most prominent member in California, coined the use of the Death's Head logo, and was one of those responsible for security at the infamous Rolling Stones concert in Altamont in 1969.

A black fan, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by Angels as the gig descended into violence.

In his book Barger claims Keith Richards threatened to walk off the stage unless the Hell's Angels "cool it" and he says he stuck a pistol in the guitarist's ribs and ordered him to play...or else.

'Stones to blame'

Barger dodges the blame, claiming the Stones delayed their entrance unnecessarily.

"They agitated the crowd, had the stage built too low, and then used us to keep the whole thing boiling. They got exactly what they wanted - a dark, scary environment to play Sympathy for the Devil."

Post Altamont, the Angels were widely condemned for being racist. To this day they have no black members.

But Barger says: "The club, as a whole, is not racist but we probably have enough racist members that no black guy is going to get in it."

Hell's Angels form a two-wheeled procession along the A2 in Kent
There are thousands of Hell's Angels members in UK
He says Oakland is home to one of the largest black biker gangs, the Dragons, and points out: "They don't have any white members, but nobody calls them prejudiced."

The fact is that to be accepted as an Angel you have to be voted in unanimously by the existing members and as Barger says: "You're always going to have someone who says no."

By the same token, there are no female Hell's Angels.

Women are welcome in clubhouses and on runs but only on the basis of being wives or girlfriends, known as "old ladies".

We are male chauvinist pigs as far as women are concerned but we have a right to be because we want to be

Sonny Barger
"We are male chauvinist pigs as far as women are concerned but we have a right to be because we want to be,"says Barger.

In the 1960s Hunter S Thompson, the writer who penned Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, hung out with the Oakland chapter for a time, gaining a reputation with them as a "weeny and a coward".

He later wrote a book about the experience which Barger claims was "exaggerated junk".

'Growing all the time'

Thompson was later beaten up by one of the Oakland Angels and Barger says: "Hunter S Thompson and the Stones are both very good at what they do, but that doesn't mean they're nice people."

He is also surprisingly dismissive of Harley-Davidsons.

"Everybody in the club rides Harleys but they would all admit they were a piece of junk, in terms of machinery."

He says the engineering on Japanese bikes is far superior, but riding Harleys is part tradition, part patriotism and partly due to the fact they produce that famous "grumble" and more low-end torque.

Everybody in the club rides Harleys but they would all admit they were a piece of junk, in terms of machinery

Sonny Barger
Despite moving to Arizona, Barger has no plans to hang up his motorbike boots or his Hell's Angel patch.

"It's virgin territory. We've got five brand new chapters there.

"It's not just about the bikes - they want to belong. They're looking for brotherhood, friendship and loyalty," he says.

  • Hell's Angel, The Life And Times of Ralph "Sonny" Barger is published by Fourth Estate.

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    10 Mar 00 | Europe
    Lived fast, died young
    07 May 99 | Europe
    Belgium clips Angels' wings
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