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Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club

Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club

4.5 74
by Ralph (Sonny) Barger, Kent Zimmerman, Keith Zimmerman

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Everything the public thinks it knows about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) comes from law enforcement, Hollywood B-movies, tabloid exposes, or exaggerated "I was there" testimonials. Never before has the story of this uniquely American subculture and the wild, dangerous life of quintessential Angel Ralph "Sonny" Barger been chronicled with such


Everything the public thinks it knows about the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) comes from law enforcement, Hollywood B-movies, tabloid exposes, or exaggerated "I was there" testimonials. Never before has the story of this uniquely American subculture and the wild, dangerous life of quintessential Angel Ralph "Sonny" Barger been chronicled with such hard-hitting honesty and candor--straight from the source. Finally, the Angels' side of the story has been laid out by one of their own.

Hell's Angel provides a fascinating all-access pass to the secret world of the notorious HAMC, recounting the birth of the original Oakland Hell's Angels and the four turbulent, tumultuous decades that followed. It features a cast of colorful fellow "one-percenters" like Terry the Tramp, Charlie Magoo, and all those who rode alongside Barger throughout the years. Hell's Angel also chronicles the way the HAMC revolutionized the look of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle and built what has become a worldwide bike-riding fraternity, a beacon for freedom seekers the world over.

In his own words, Barger recounts his relentless battles against government efforts to destroy the HAMC, explains what happened in the standoff between the Hell's Angels and the 1960s antiwar elite, and tells the real story behind the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Raceway, an epochal moment that came to symbolize the end of the sixties. This epic saga provides insight into the personal life of a charismatic visionary who embodies values uniquely American: personal liberty on the open highway, beating the odds, staying on top, and never backing down. Dozens of photos, including many from privatecollections--as well as images shot by noted photographers--provide added dimensions to this extraordinary tale.

Barger's stories highlight the personal triumphs as well as the rough-and-tumble tragedies of his life: constant battles with law enforcement, incarceration, overcoming throat cancer, love and marriage, and continuing to live the biker life--still crazy after all these years. And Hell's Angel doesn't gloss over heated topics such as violence, drugs, and the strong women who always stood behind Barger and the club. Never simply a story about motorcycles, colorful characters, and high-speed thrills, Hell's Angel is the ultimate outlaw's tale of loyalty and betrayal, subcultures and brotherhood, and the real price of freedom.Visit Sonny Barger's official site

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
July 2000

High on the Hog

No spiking the club's booze with dope.
No throwing live ammunition into bonfires on runs.
Weapons will be shot only between 0600 and 1600 hours.
No messing with another member's wife.

Such are among the rules codified by Ralph "Sonny" Barger for his infamous brotherhood of hogriders. Sonny Barger is no angel; he's a Hell's Angel. In fact, he's one of the founding members and High Priest of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) and has survived four reckless decades of drug abuse, murder, mayhem, incarceration, political clashes, throat cancer, and endless tanks of gasoline to tell his story — finally, for the first time, the real story. In Hell's Angel, Barger reveals with disarming candor the behind-the-scenes history of the most feared and notorious motorcycle club of all time, which he started with his buddies in post-World War II Oakland, California, more than 52 years ago, after scoring his first Harley at the age of 18. As Kerouac and friends were shambling cross-country in a beat-up Buick, Barger and his Angels were burning tread marks in the tar and instilling fear, envy, and wanderlust into the heart of America. In the years since, the Angels have been (or been viewed as) everything from the death of the '60s (following the pivotal Altamont stabbing at a Rolling Stones gig) to the epitome of the wild, freewheeling life on the open road to Reagan-era scapegoats for every crime ever committed.

At last, it's time to set the record straight — and, fresh off an18-stop book"run" from Chicago to L.A. along America's "Main Vein," Route 66, Barger aims to do just that. So get your motor runnin' and head out on the highway.

Washington Post Book World
Deanne Stillman
Barger is no stranger to the fable factory. All his life, as he tells it, he has been misunderstood by the culture that both builds and feeds off his myth. Pegged as a bad boy, he does not shy away from the characterization. He readily talks about his run-ins with cops, Angels who have been killed in fights or bike accidents, years of drug abuse, the toll that it took on the people around him, particularly his second wife who after years of doing speed with him finally left, but not before passing him off to the woman to whom he is now married. He laughs about how the cops are still, and probably forever, on his tail.
Library Journal
In this most intriguing and insightful look into the highly controversial, five-decade-old Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC), Barger chronicles the formation, history, and colorful events that have led to the mystique and outlaw image of this free-thinking organization. In 1957, Barger (a technical consultant on several biker films, including Hell's Angels on Wheels and Hell's Angels '69) formed the Oakland chapter, which would become the foundation and serve as headquarters for the entire club. In his own words, Barger shares stories of pool hall fights, motorcycle runs, the importance of loyalty and honor, and relentless battles against the government efforts to destroy the HAMC. He also tells his side of the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Raceway. The many photos provide additional glimpses into this wild and dangerous American subculture. A most interesting book that is recommended for popular culture collections.--Tim Delaney, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Rolling Stone
“Maybe the baddest man on two wheels.”
Chicago Tribune
“The hombre who gave you motorcycle culture…The biker style that Barger originated remains timeless.”
“Barger paints an engrossing picture of a distinctive subculture that receives precious little literary attention.”
Seattle Times
“Hell’s Angel chieftain Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger has led one interesting, bad-to-the-bone life.”
New Times Los Angeles
“A ripping good read…as gripping a tale as you would expect from the most famous pack of all time.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Barger’s autobiography is about as subtle as a kick in the groin, and that’s what’s so refreshing about it.”
Tulsa World
“Not your ordinary book…A peek at another side of America.”
“One of the best books of the year.”

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Gardners Books
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Muster To Custer

A motorcycle run is a get-together, a moving party. It's a real show of power and solidarity when you're a Hell's Angel. It's being free and getting away from all the bullshit. Angels don't go on runs looking for trouble; we go to ride our bikes and to have a good time together. We are a club.

Most Hell's Angels are great riders. A group of Hell's Angels cruising down the road, riding next to each other and traveling at a speed of over eighty miles an hour, is a real sight. It's something else, a whole other thing, when you're in the pack riding. It's fast and dangerous and by God, you better be paying attention. Whatever happens to the guy in front of you is going to happen to you. It's different from other vehicles. You gotta be alert. Like Fuzzy, an Oakland Angel, once said, "God damn, we do eighty-five or ninety in the rain sometimes. I don't even go that fast in my car!"

When Hell's Angels chapters started getting chartered outside the state of California in the late sixties, that's when we first started our cross-country rides like the USA and World Runs. We'd meet up with the new clubs along the way, and they'd join the run. Man, we used to ride from Oakland to New York on those early rigidframe bikes, and they bounced around so much that if you drove sixty miles in an hour you were making great time. The vibration left you tingling and numb for about an hour after you got off your bike. lf you covered three or four hundred miles in a day you were hauling ass. The other big problem then was that we'd have to find gas stations every forty miles or so, since those old-style bikes with small tanks couldn't make itpast sixty miles. Today, on a Harley FXRT, with their rubber-mounted motors and big gas tanks, you not only get a smoother ride, you can log five or six hundred miles a day on a few tanks of gas without breaking a sweat.

The big differences between the Hell's Angels and the rest of the motorcycle world are our bikes and the way we ride. This is serious business to us. Our bikes are us. We know that. The cops know that, and everybody else should know that too. The law and the road are one. Even today, if the cops know a large group of Hell's Angels is headed somewhere, they'll show up in force, alerting neighboring police forces along the way. This mutual assistance pact they set up has been used against us for as long as I can remember. It's no different today than it was thirty years ago. We keep going and they keep coming around with all their surveillance methods and radio equipment watching us and keeping tabs. We don't look for trouble or have intentions of starting any, but by God, it always seems to be around.

The reactions of law enforcement can depend on where you are. We were on the road tearing through the Texas panhandle and on into Oklahoma. As we approached Oklahoma City, ten or twelve Oklahoma state troopers pulled onto the freeway and escorted us right through the city limits. They didn't even want us stopping for gas.

In Texas a cop asked me, "Excuse me, partner, but ... why do you and your friends carry those big knives?"

I told him, "Because we're all felons and we can't carry a big gun like you."

Another time in Missouri, fifteen of us were sitting by the side of the road taking a break when a state trooper pulled up, got out of his car, walked up to us, and said, "Mind if I ask a stupid question?"

"Not if you don't mind a stupid answer."

"What are fifteen Hell's Angels from California doing sitting on the side of the road in Missouri?"

"We lost four or five of our people and now we can't figure out where they're at."

The trooper thought for a few seconds. "I just might be able to help you. I could get on my radio and start checking around and help you find them." He radioed around to a bunch of stations and other troopers, and once he located them, he gave us directions on how to meet up with our lost brothers.

On the other side of the coin, there was a cop in Texas who spotted us on a highway outside of Amarillo, got scared, or else thought he was doing his job, and called for reinforcements.They roadblocked the highway in front of us with machine guns.Another time on our way to South Carolina we were stopped and each of us was ID'd.It took over two hours, and all for nothing.Cops can be assholes when they want to be.

The Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club has four or five mandatory runs per year and probably fifteen or twenty parties and smaller runs.If you multiply that by the forty years the Oakland club has been around, that's a lot of motorcycling.But of all the runs, there is one in particular that sticks in my mind, and that was the time we descended on the big annual Black Hills motorcycle run in Sturgis, South Dakota, in 1982.I'll try to describe it as best I can remember it, because in my mind it separated the sheep from the goats.We code-named that run "Muster to Custer."

There was another motorcycle club-whose name I won't mention because it is a big club and we've been at odds with them for years-who in early 1982 had said publicly that the only reason the Hell's Angels didn't go to Sturgis was because they went to Sturgis.

Meet the Author

Ralph "Sonny" Barger is the author of Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club. A master mechanic who has owned and operated his own bike shops, he currently lives in Arizona, where he rides every day.

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Hell's Angel 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 74 reviews.
Elizabeth Daley More than 1 year ago
I brought great joy to hear these stories told the the one and only Sonny! Well writen and true to the facts and open.
Jeremy Tiner More than 1 year ago
If you have any interest at all in the motorcycle club culture this book is a must read. It gives a pesronal insight that is second to none since since it comes from the first in command! You can tell Sonny has a passion for motorcycles as well as his club and brothers. Read this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm about as polar opposite of a Hell's Angel follower as one may be able to be. In fact, motorcycles scare me. However, I love people and learning about people and groups. I found this book to be honest; some books like itis are full of impossible to believe stories and obvious bigger than life egos. Sonny kept to his experience and knowledge...even admitted when he talked about something as 3rd hand knowledge. I can honestly say that while I don't agree with some activities they engage in, i have a new respect for them. I'd bet a paycheck that most Angel's really are good people, trying to pay bills, raise their kids just like most people. Never thought I' d read a book like this but I'm grateful I did. Thanks, Sonny....great job!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Hell's Angel will bring out the outlaw motorcyclist in you. From the first to the last you will feel like Sonny is telling you about his ups and downs throughout his time with the Hell's Angels. You will gain a respect for their brotherhood and devotion for each other. You won't be able to put this book down.**Enjoy**
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally, the REAL story straight from the man himself. A true American legend, Mr. Barger tells his side of what the media never knew...
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally, the real deal from the Godfather of Modern Bikers. After years (decades!)of everybody else trying to tell us about the most well known biker in history, we get the real story from the man himself. This is a very well written book and a great read from the first page to the last. Sonny sets the record straight! READ IT!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a look inside the the 1% world. How else would we know it, if Sonny didn't tell it. We would be left with what Hollywood told us. Very interesting reading and I couldn't put it down.
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SarahF784 More than 1 year ago
I borrowed this book from the library and since I did not have any intention of parting with it, I thought it was a good idea to buy my own copy and now I plan on reading it again. I would love to meet Mr. Barger to tell him how much I enjoy his story and to hear many more!
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