As the longtime president of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, Sonny Barger, who has died aged 83, was the epitome of the outlaw biker. It was something he had earned, but also an image he cultivated with charisma and shrewdness, turning Hells Angels into a worldwide brand. Though law enforcement saw the Angels as more of a gang than a club, in the 1960s the media latched on to Barger (pronounced Bar-gurr), selling the outlaw image to the world as a form of countercultural protest that took celluloid form in films such as Easy Rider (1969).
This is not surprising. The postwar image of motorcycle gangs was established by the 1953 movie The Wild One. When Marlon Brando, as the leader of the Black Rebels, is asked what he is rebelling against, he replies, “Whaddaya got?”. Early in his biking career, after having his skull fractured by police, Barger added a “1%” patch to the Angels’ outfit, in response to the head of the American Motorcyclist Association claiming “99% of motorcyclists were law-abiding”.
Law-abiding Barger was not.
In October 1965 some Angels attacked an anti-war demonstration in Berkeley, California; six were arrested. A delegation of Angels and their chief rival motorcycle gang, the Gypsy Jokers, met the activist Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg in front of 1,000 people at San Jose State College to negotiate “clearance” for the November march scheduled for Oakland. That went nowhere, but the day before the march, Barger announced the Angels would stay away out of “patriotic concerns” that anti-American marchers might “provoke violent acts by us … and only produce sympathy for this mob of traitors”. He also sent a telegram to the then president, Lyndon Johnson, offering Hells Angels’ services to provide a “trained group of crack gorillas [sic] to demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of freedom”.
In December 1969 the Angels were hired by the Rolling Stones to provide security at the Altamont free festival. During a brawl between the bikers and the crowd, a black spectator, Meredith Hunter, was knifed to death by an Angel, Alan Passaro. Passaro was acquitted on grounds of self-defence.
Barger claimed the spectators had provoked the violence by damaging the Angels’ bikes; but he also claimed that the crowd had grown restless as the Stones were late and he had held a gun to Keith Richards’ face to get them to start. That claim was revised to using the gun to keep the band playing after the violence, which can be seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, had begun. Many have since argued that the concept of the peace and love, Woodstock 60s ended that day.
Born Ralph Barger Jr in Modesto, California, Sonny grew up in the tough port area of Oakland, where his father, Ralph Sr, was a dock worker. His mother, Kathryn (nee Ritch), ran off with a bus driver when Sonny was four; he was raised by his grandmother and his father, an alcoholic who took his young son with him on crawls through the seamen’s bars.
An indifferent student, Barger quit school at 16 and joined the army. Fourteen months later he was discharged honourably, as he had lied about his age to join without parental permission. Back in Oakland, living between his father’s and his older sister’s family, and doing dock work, he met fellow veterans and in 1956 joined the Oakland Panthers motorcycle club.
A year later he and Don “Boots” Reeves founded the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, using a logo borrowed from a club in Sacramento. The apostrophe you would expect in Hells would not fit on their new patch.
They affiliated with the Angels’ mother chapter in San Bernadino; the clubs unified primarily by their battles with the Jokers. When the overall president was sent to prison in 1958, Sonny, aged 20, replaced him, and moved the mother chapter to Oakland. By now he was being arrested regularly, for marijuana possession or assault with a deadly weapon.
Barger was attracting attention, and in 1966 Hunter S Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, appeared; though it was less “gonzo” than his later work, Barger’s portrayal lent much to Thompson’s own future image. Two years later Barger appeared in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when the author and counterculture figure Ken Kesey invited the Oakland Angels to a party; Kesey introduced the bikers to LSD.
By now, Barger had given up his job as a machinist, and taken advantage of the publicity to work as a technical adviser in exploitation biker movies, beginning with Roger Corman’s Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. In 1967 he was consultant on, and had a cameo part in, Richard Rush’s Hells Angels on Wheels, which starred Jack Nicholson, and graduated to a speaking part as himself in the movie Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969).
These set the scene for Nicholson and Fonda’s acting breakthrough with Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, a romantic portrayal of bikers as countercultural outlaws. And Barger’s dream of patriotic bikers as guerrillas was given life on film in The Losers (1970), where members of the “Devil’s Advocates” take armoured choppers to rescue a CIA agent held in Cambodia.
Despite establishing a relationship with the police that led to the Angels trading weapons for arrested members, Barger’s rap sheet grew. He escaped drug-dealing, kidnapping and murder charges, but was finally convicted in 1973 of possession of heroin and firearms. As he was a former felon, both were illegal. Sentenced to 10 years to life, he served four and a half years at Folsom prison, and reputedly continued to run the Angels from his cell, and to marry his second wife, Sharon, there. His first wife, Elsie Mae (nee George), had died of an embolism in 1967 after a then illegal abortion.
In 1979 Barger was one of 33 people charged with racketeering under federal Rico (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws. Though the outcome of most cases was mistrial, he and Sharon were the only two acquitted outright.
In 1983 Barger contracted throat cancer; his vocal cords were removed and he learned to speak through a vocaliser in his oesophagus. In 1987, he was again arrested on federal conspiracy charges of drug and gun running in California, but found himself on trial in Louisville, Kentucky, accused of supplying explosives to destroy the Outlaws motorcycle gang there in a territorial dispute. He was convicted and served three and a half years of a four-year sentence; he insisted he had been entrapped by the FBI.
Barger withdrew from public leadership of the Angels and by 1998 was living in Arizona. Divorced amicably from Sharon, he married Beth Noel (nee Black). They divorced after a domestic dispute in which she was hospitalised for a broken rib and lacerated spleen. He was convicted of aggravated assault, but he served only eight days in jail.
With warfare between gangs intensifying, in 2002 he tried to organise a peace conference at the Laughlin River Run rally in Nevada, but a battle between Hells Angels and Mongols left three dead, and the conference was cancelled.
He marketed various Sonny Barger items, including his own salsa, and began writing books, including a biography, Hells Angel (2001), written with the twin brothers Keith and Kent Zimmerman. With the Zimmermans, he also wrote a memoir of biker tales and two novels about a biker named Patch Kinkade, one of which, Dead in 5 Heartbeats, was made into a film in 2013 that he produced along with his fourth wife, Zorana (nee Katzakian); they both played bit parts in it. Between 2010 and 2012 he made three appearances on the biker TV drama Sons Of Anarchy.
Zorana and Sonny had married in 2005, the year he wrote Freedom: Credos From the Road, a compendium of his wisdom and guide to life. And in 2010, with Darwin Holmstrom, he produced a guide to safe motorcycling, Let’s Ride, as if he were now fully transformed into one of the 99%.
Zorana survives him.
Sonny (Ralph Hubert) Barger, motorcycle club leader, born 8 October 1938; died 29 June 2022