A California-born motorcycle gang that helped create a mythology of the outlaw-biker in popular culture, Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the larger-than-life godfather of the Hells Angels, has passed away. He was 83.
In a prepared Facebook message, Barger declared his own demise “after a brief battle with cancer.” “I’ve had a long, fulfilling life full of adventures. And I’ve had the honor of being a member of an incredible club,” he wrote. Where he died wasn’t specified in the post.
For charges ranging from drug trafficking to planning to blow up a rival group’s clubhouse, Barger served several periods in prison.
When he was finally released, he started writing frequently and successfully, bemoaning the fact that while being a criminal, he still had to pay taxes and was unable to vote or own a firearm.
He was a brawler from a dysfunctional family who was born in Modesto in 1938.
He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and enlisted in the Army at age 16 with a fake birth certificate. When his fraud was detected, he was expelled.
After seeing the violent character played by Lee Marvin in the 1953 film “The Wild One,” Barger said that he wanted to join a motorcycle club. He explained that the plan was to “ride a motorcycle, party, and have fun.”
Fontana, where the Hells Angels were first established, was where Barger established the Oakland chapter in April 1957.
As the club’s most well-known and outspoken leader, he was elected national president.
During the Vietnam War, the club developed a reputation for mayhem after tussling with law enforcement and antiwar protesters.
Law enforcement frequently targeted the club, portraying it as a methamphetamine trafficking criminal organization.
The Angels started donning “One-Percenter” patches when a rival motorcycle club mocked them for being the 1% of “evil motorcyclists.”
Barger served as the club’s spokesperson. The club’s ethos blended individualism (“we just want to be left alone”) with strict adherence to gang laws (“the toughest anywhere”), which included silence, loyalty, and an innate willingness to fight for any other member (“any two Angels can take any other five guys”).
Hunter S. Thompson referred to Barger as the “maximum leader” of the Angels in his 1967 book “Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” describing him as a warrior and philosopher with “a steely, contemplative quality” and “instinctive restraint that allows outsiders to feel they can reason with him.” An egocentric fanaticism that has been moderated by eight years in charge of a legion of outcasts, however, also poses a low-key threat.
The Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels to work security during a free concert at Altamont Speedway in the Bay Area in December 1969, an incident that was documented in the documentary “Gimme Shelter.”
Barger expressed his displeasure at concertgoers kicking the Angels’ bikes.
A concertgoer, age 18, was fatally stabbed by an Angels member just yards from the stage. He was exonerated after claiming self-defense.
Barger stated that as violence threatened to interrupt the performance, he placed a revolver into Keith Richards’ ribcage and told the guitarist to continue playing.
Although Barger sneered at the description, some have labeled Altamont a defining event of the decade and the flower-power movement’s death knell.
In 1972, Barger was accused of killing a man who the Angels were purported to have purchased illegal drugs from, but a jury found him not guilty.
He later completed a four-year sentence for heroin-related offenses. In an interview, he stated that he saw incarceration as a necessary component of a well-rounded existence, alongside education and the military.
He said that he had been accused of conspiracy, tax evasion, kidnapping, murder, and possession of a firearm.
Prior to having his vocal cords amputated in the early 1980s due to laryngitic laryngeal cancer, Barger smoked three packs every day.
To protect the gaping wound in his throat, he proceeded to ride while donning a full-face helmet.
He was found guilty of planning to blow up the clubhouse of the Outlaws, a rival motorcycle gang, in the late 1980s. He is under federal law for four years.
In a conversation with The Times, Barger provided the following history of the Hells Angels: “We created the club to have fun together.
We first started having problems in the 1960s. We started engaging in some crime and other bad behavior in the 1970s, and by the 1980s we were all behind bars.
The following sign was displayed at Barger’s workplace and read, “I treat everyone exactly the way I want to be treated. I treat people better if they treat me well. I treat them harsher if they treat me worse.
However, Barger frequently played down the club’s reputation for illegal activity.
According to Barger, Catholics commit more crimes than we previously believed. Perhaps more crimes are committed by politicians.
Barger authored or collaborated on a number of best-selling books, including the autobiography “Hell’s Angel,” which sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Barger provided safety advice to motorcycle riders in “Let’s Ride.” The book cautioned readers to be wary of other drivers’ turn signals and to avoid driving while in a rage, intoxicated, or high.
Barger estimated that his total time in prison was 12 or 13.
Considering all the fun I’ve had, he answered, “Not much.”