Sonny Barger Interview
By Paul DeRienzo

 

Ralph "Sonny" Barger is one of he best known players in the drama of the 60s. Whether hanging out with his good friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, allegedly holding Rolling Stone Keith Richards at gunpoint during the debacle at Altamont or taking on the anti-Vietnam war movement in Oakland, Barger and the Angels were witnesses to the 60s counterculture. Barger also fought the law, sometimes he lost and sometimes he won, like his victory over the federal government in their famous but failed racketeering prosecution against Barger and the Angels.

Although Barger says he didn’t start the Angels, he has come to personify the Hell’s Angels and what they are about. Starting out with a bunch of vets who missed their wartime motorcycle exploits and longed for the camaraderie of the road the Angels have become the most notorious motorcycle club in the world. Their lifestyle has been documented in some of America’s most popular books and movies. Many, even some in law enforcement, have tried to copy the Angel’s style. But like them or not there is only one Hell’s Angel Motorcycle Club and only one Sonny Barger. He spoke recently with Paul DeRienzo in front of the East Village headquarters of the clubs New York City chapter.

DeRienzo–What would you be doing today if you hadn’t been a Hell’s Angel?

BARGER–When I got out of the army in ’56, in the San Francisco area, I lived in Oakland, I had the choice of becoming a beatnik or a motorcycle rider. I fortunately chose motorcycles. Had I become a beatnik, they sort of faded out into the hippies and the hippies sort of faded out, so I probably wouldn’t have been anything. I don’t know, that’s a question there’s no real answer to, you can only surmise.

DeRienzo–The 60’s were a time of rebellion. Were the Hell’s Angel’s rebels?

BARGER –I don’t think we’re rebelling against anything. All were doing is trying to live our lives, ride our motorcycles and have fun. When people try to stop us we react to whatever is happening at the time.

DeRienzo–Are you retiring or changing your life?

BARGER –I’m not retiring. I bought a new bike, a new Harley last month and I got 6500 miles on it already. I closed my shop in Glendale, Arizona and I’m opening up one in Phoenix. I added a little more into my life by moving to Arizona. I’ve got a new wife, I’ve got a kid, I’ve got five horses, three dogs, three cats. I got a busy life.

DeRienzo–What are the Hell’s Angels about? Is it a men’s club?

BARGER –It’s definitely a men’s club. It’s a fun lovin’ group of motorcyclists who like to ride around the country. Having fun and doing it with their friends.

DeRienzo–Has anyone tried to become the first woman to ride with the Angels?

BARGER –We had a woman in Ventura, California that actually was going to try and take us to court and be a member. But, we don’t get any money from the government; they can’t make us do anything. Even if they could we wouldn’t do it.

DeRienzo–Why is it so important to have a men’s club?

BARGER –Because that’s the way we wanted it. And we don’t need no other reason. I was at a Libertarian convention in Aspen, Colorado and this lady who was married to an ex-cop asked me, "how does it feels to walk in a room and have every man in that room look at you and wish he was you?" I said, that I’m not really sure that happens, but that makes me feel good that you think that, but I’m not sure that happens. She said, "Sonny, I guarantee you there’s not a man in this room that hasn’t ran into a problem at one time or another in his lifer where he didn’t say if I was Hell’s Angel I could take care of that."

DeRienzo–You guys don’t back down, It’ s in your book and it’s true. That could be a dangerous way of life.

BARGER –There’s a lot of us who have died for it.

DeRienzo–Why is it so important not to back down?

BARGER –Because that’s the kind of people we are. That’s what draws us together. We stick together; we defend each other, to the death if it’s necessary. Every once in a while we get a rat and its just really too bad. There ain’t been that many over the fifty years of the club, but they have been. The government sneaking those rats into the club is not going to make me distrust my friends of be disloyal to them. Just I like I did with the rat who put me in prison for five years the last time. If he’s a club member I’m going to back him right down the line. If it turns out he’s an informant and he can set me up and fabricate a crime and put me in jail for it, so be it, I’m still a Hell’s Angel in prison.

DeRienzo–What’s your attitude towards drugs?

BARGER –I don’t feel drugs should be illegal. I don’t think people should take drugs every day, but I don’t see any difference with people taking drugs like they drink. Take drugs on Saturday night and go to a party and have a good time and have somebody drive you home or whatever it is so you don’t hurt anybody else, that’s fine. But if you wake up Monday morning and take ‘em again you’re a drug addict. But, they should be legal. The government puts people like me and others, in jail for 20 and 40 and hundreds of years for using drugs that they say is really bad but they let us smoke and it kills 400,000 people a year. I was one of ‘em it almost killed. I think everybody should have the choice the same as helmets. You should be able to say whether you want to wear one or not. The government is intervening into our lives a little too much.

DeRienzo–What do you feel about a hero of mine, Jerry Garcia?

BARGER –Jerry Garcia was a very good friend of mine. Jerry and I got along well, Jerry and the club got along well. I love Jerry’s 60s music; I didn’t like Jerry’s 90s music. I would go to a concert and he would get the band to play a song just for me and I’d say "Jerry it stinks, you got to go back," and he would get so mad, but he loved us.

DeRienzo–You took LSD in your youth, do you still take it?

BARGER –I took a lot of LSD and I wasn’t really young, I was in my 30s. I never really liked pot; I never liked whites, which they took before speed. I never liked speed because the smallest amount of speed in the world would keep me up for three days. But I found LSD, I liked LSD and I took it until I didn’t want it any more. I took cocaine until I woke up doing life in prison.

DeRienzo–What was it like the first time you did LSD?

BARGER –It was really a trip. I put it in my book. What happened was my first wife, we both took some and after about an hour I told her I thought we got burned and I was going to have to find these guys. I went in the bathroom and I’m standing over the urinal and there’s the shelf there and I’m taking a leak and I’m looking up. There’s a box of Yogi Bear bubble bath and Yogi Bear jumped off of the box and started chasing a cat around the box that jumped off the box also. I said Elsie come here and she said what. I told her we didn’t get burned you’ll see it in a minute.

DeRienzo–Did the Angel’s have anything to do with breaking Timothy Leary from prison?

BARGER –Absolutely not. Timothy Leary’s group did that. I ended up with Timothy Leary in Folsom prison and Timmy thought it was a really big joke till he ended up in Folsom prison. He knew that he was in the wrong place. He said wait a minute I’ll tell you everything you want to know and he started informing on everyone who helped him break out.

DeRienzo–Informants, obviously it’s an issue that concerns you.

BARGER –I don’t like informants anymore than I like policemen.

DeRienzo–What is it about cops that you hate?

BARGER–The cops lie, cheat, steal and stick guns in my kids mouths and say they’re going to kill ‘em if we don’t tell what they want. They put masks on, they raid our houses and I just don’t like people like that. I treat people the way I want to be treated and then I treat them in return the way they treat me. Cops just don’t like to be treated that bad.

DeRienzo–Why do they target you and the Angels?

BARGER –They say were organized crime, but if you took every Hell’s Angel on the face of the earth and got rid of them you wouldn’t drop the crime rate in the world one tenth of one percent. We’re a little drop in the bucket. There’s more cops committing crimes than Hell’s Angels. They do an awful lot of bad things under the color of law.

DeRienzo–A lot of cops are into motorcycles.

BARGER –We have all these cops who are riding motorcycles that are dressing like us and were running into them, we’re having problems with them. I had problems with ‘em in California; they’ve had problems with ‘em here in New York. They want to look like Hell’s Angels, they want to act like Hell’s Angels, and they carry guns. If they want to act like us, get out in the middle of the street and box us. Don’t talk about how they’re going to stop us and give us tickets.

DeRienzo– What about the use of Nazi regalia by some Angels?

A–The way it started in America with the Hell’s Angels was like really funny. I was going to buy a belt; a guy gave me a German belt that his father had brought home from the war. It had a swastika on it and I wore it, somebody said something about it, I made a crack about it being the right way to be. And it just generated. But, look around today you don’t see it no more. Not on Hell’s Angels. You might see it on other motorcyclist but you don’t see it on Hell’s Angels. Remember the Germans who killed our fathers are now our allies and we have hundreds of members in Germany.

DeRienzo–What do think about Hunter S. Thompson?

BARGER –I don’t like Hunter S. Thompson as a person. He’s probably the greatest writer in the world. When he was with us on a run, we was going to fight the cops one day and he locked himself in the trunk of his car. That guy ain’t my friend. He’s not going to help me; he’s going to run and leave me there when he’s supposed to help us. He also didn’t take care of what he was supposed to do. All we told him was buy us a keg of beer and he didn’t do it. He’s offered to do it later but we don’t want it now. He didn’t do it when he was supposed to.

DeRienzo–What about the beating he got by some Angels?

BARGER-- He got beat up by us, but he set that up. After the book was all done he come around us and said can I go on a run with ya. He got in an argument with a guy, he caused a fight, he got beat up and the cover of the book said "I met. I lived with and I was almost killed by…" what a guy. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that for the cover of my book.

DeRienzo–What about the Rolling Stones. Altamont is like the hippie’s big downfall.

BARGER –They say that was the end of the Age of Aquarius, but actually to us it’s just another day in the life of a Hell’s Angel. A guy pulled a gun on us, he got killed and that’s the bottom line. We got movies of him shooting at us, we got movies of him getting killed and nobody went to jail for it. There was a trial, everybody was acquitted.

DeRienzo–Why is respect so important for the Hell’s Angels?

BARGER –Because we treat people the way we want to be treated. When they don’t treat us back that way we react. We react to everything. For everything that happens there’s a reaction.

DeRienzo–Let’s talk about the racial thing.

BARGER –I really don’t want to get into a racial thing. I’m not a racist, but in Oakland if you’re a motorcycle rider and your white you want to join the Hell’s Angels. If you black you want to join the Dragons. That’s how it is whether anyone likes it or not. We don’t have no blacks and they don’t have no whites.

DeRienzo–Could that change?

BARGER –Anything can change, I can’t predict the future.

DeRienzo–You have a kid?

BARGER –I have an adopted daughter.

DeRienzo–Tell us about Sonny Barger the family man and father.

BARGER –She loves me, but I don’t know if I’d want to be my kid.

DeRienzo–If she wanted to marry a Hell’s Angel would you be OK with that?

BARGER –Certainly. She has her own motorcycle, she’s ten years old and she has a Honda 70 that she rides. She has a horse. She gets to drive my pickup truck around because we live on dirt roads. She drives to the mailbox that’s two and a half miles away. But her biggest problem is that she can’t roller-skate.

DeRienzo–You’re a survivor of cancer. The big c you call it.

BARGER –I had a heart attack, I had cancer, I got hit by a pickup truck and the bottom line to me is that I’m not religious, but people put guns in their mouths, pull the trigger and live, others fall on the sidewalk and die. I don’t think you can make yourself die before whatever it is going to make it happen.

DeRienzo–Do you believe in God?

BARGER –No. I believe something is happening, I’m not sure what it is.

DeRienzo– What do you predict for the Angels in the year 2000?

BARGER –I don’t forecast anything. I take it as it comes. But I know we’ll survive it.

Ralph "Sonny" Barger is author of "Hell’s Angel The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club" published by Harper Collins and William Morrow.

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