Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
Hunter S. Thompson
Though he’ll be remembered, loved or loathed for the self-invented, arguably semi-moronic, genre of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson was as singular a writer as any other originally herded under the banner of New Journalism . This volume demonstrates why.
The book is infamous and this is not my first time reading it. But my perspective is a lot different now than when I was in my 20s. Then, I wanted to understand the origins of a writer whose work I loved by reading the earliest stuff I could find. Now, I just wanted to see if it held up better than his more famous titles.
The short answer is, it does.
The book is a tour de force and could easily be submitted as an ethnographic study of outlaw biker subculture. In many ways it reminded me of a more recent ‘serious’ ethnographic study of urban outlaw subculture, Phillipe Bourgois‘ In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in el Barrio.
In both books the author essentially moves in with his subjects and immerses himself in their culture. In both cases, he brings the family. And in both cases I found myself wondering to what lengths some people will go to the get the story or data.
It’s a toss-up whether crack lords or biker thugs present a greater existential threat. Especially when physical violence, gunfire and the occasional act of arson are entered into as casually as dropping by the local 7-11. Call me names, but I draw the line at putting other people in harm’s way. HST shared none of my qualms.
Thompson begins his sojourn with the Hell’s Angels in 1964, just after they’ve earned national notoriety for an event that didn’t really happen–at least not as reported in the media. That would be their Labor Day run to Monterrey at which a couple of underage (or not) girls were raped (or not) and a bit of a riot ensued (or did not).
Anyone looking for early evidence of ‘fake news‘ will find rich pickings here. Thompson does a fairly thorough job of showing just how much hysteria editors can whip up when they don’t put effort into reporting anything more than political documents.
In this case, the document in question is the California Attorney General’s report on the Angels. It’s a salacious piece of work that combines years and years of incidents into a fabulist tale of two-cylinder four-stroke V-twin mayhem wreaked upon undeserving citizens.
That report exaggerated both the size of the Angels and their destructive force. Oddly, for a product of the AG’s office, actual arrest, indictment and conviction figures are minimized. Whenever Thompson tries to match up what’s been reported with actual activity in the criminal justice system there’s a large discrepancy.
That’s not to say these hopped-up grandsons of Peck are, well, angels. Far from it. They are the dispossessed and explaining their presence in prosperous post-war America is a challenge.
Thompson gives it his all. He tries the popular culture route. (Cowboys and drifters, as presented by Hollywood.) He tries anthropology crossed with literature. (I can think of no better way to describe what Thompson does with Nelson Algren‘s Linkhorns and his own Kentucky-bred Scots-Irish heritage.) He tries sociology, wielding anomie like a cudgel.
Overall, the result of all that is about what you’d expect. Honestly, though, if you’re looking to combine motorcycles and confrontational attitudes with social science you should be reading C. Wright Mills, not Hunter S. Thompson.
What Thompson gives you is the up-close experience of being with the Oakland chapter of the Angels, under-groomed menace on wheels, ever on the cusp of an explosion. All those consultants penning bromide-laden books about leadership really should consider profiling Sonny Barger. Keeping this ragtag group intact and always one step ahead of annihilation by the authorities is a management feat for the ages.
I’m not doing a good job conveying the reality of this group of miscreants bearing names like Tiny, Frenchy and Mouldy Marvin. Better to give you a taste of the book itself. Here’s an excerpt describing the roles women play in Angels’ culture from the chapter on the 1965 Fourth of July run to Bass Lake:
Unlike wolves, old ladies don’t mate for life, and sometimes not even for a month. Many are legally married, with several children, and exist entirely apart from the general promiscuity. Others are borderline cases who simply change their minds now and then…They switch loyalties without losing rank, establishing just as firm a relationship with one Angel as they previously had with another.
These can be very shifting sands. Like beauty and honesty, promiscuity is in the eye of the beholder–at least among the Angels. An old lady who changes her mind once too often, or perhaps only once, will find herself reclassified as a mama, which means she is common property.”
Tell me, after reading that, if you really don’t understand why a typical middle class family man might fear for the safety of his wife and daugheters?
As with good social science, Thompson analyzes what he sees in ways that still seem relevant. It’s not hard to envision some article on hardcore Trump supporters saying something like this:
“The difference between student radicals [think AOC Democrats] and the Hell’s Angels [think hardcore Trump supporters] is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. Their only common ground is their disdain for the present, or the status quo.”
(p. 249, comments in brackets added)
There’s a lot more here. Ken Kesey. The Acid Tests, with a band playing that might be the Grateful Dead. Allen Ginsberg and the students at UC Berkeley. Even the first appearance–in a list of celebrity names–of Raoul Duke, later made famous as Thompson’salter ego. It’s one swell mosaic of the Bay area coming to the boil it would reach a year or so later.
It would be wrong, I think, to treat this as a period piece or just long-form journalism. I don’t agree with all Thompson’s conclusions. But he lays out a pretty convincing case for the notion that disaffection and feeling stiffed to the point of dropping out are problems that have been with us for a very long time.
Then again, I’ve been saying for years that we’ve been fighting the battles of the 60s since the 60s and both sides have lied to themselves about what really happened then. Like anyone else, though, I’m not beyond confirmation bias and it’s possible this is just another story about another time and place.