Biker Life



Washington Post Article On Sonny Barger

The legendary Hell's Angels leader is 61 now. And the truth is, he doesn't even like Harleys. (Paul F. Gero - for The Washington Post)

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 9, 2000

PHOENIX With his Harley growling between his legs, Sonny Barger, the legendary leader of the Hell's Angels, zooms into the parking lot of a suburban strip mall in Tempe, Ariz. He's not looking for some grungy biker bar, but an upscale bookstore called Changing Hands. He's got a girl on the back of his bike, but she's no motorcycle mama, she's his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Sarrah. She hops down from the Harley and then Barger parks it. As he climbs off, five fans swarm around him, snapping his picture. He smiles for the cameras, hugs an Angel buddy, then lumbers into the bookstore.
The place is packed and nearly everybody is clutching copies of Barger's best-selling autobiography, "Hell's Angel." A PR lady escorts him into a back room where two TV crews and a radio reporter are waiting to interview him. When Barger first caught the media's eye, back in the mid-'60s, he was the handsome, charismatic president of the Angels' Oakland chapter and unofficial leader of the whole motley crew. Now the old outlaw is 61, his face burnished to a leathery brown by five decades of riding into the wind--and four years of basking in the desert sun at a federal prison in Arizona, doing time for conspiring to blow up the clubhouse of a rival biker gang.
He's wearing cowboy boots, brown jeans and a sleeveless black leather jacket with the infamous Hell's Angels winged-skull symbol on the back. That logo is copyrighted now, so anybody who wears it without permission is not only liable to be beaten senseless by Angels but also to be sued for trademark infringement by their corporate attorney.
When the TV cameras start rolling, Barger explains that he wrote his book to clear up misinformation about the Angels. "We're not as bad as the police say," he explains. "You treat us good, we treat you better. You treat us bad, we mess you over."
Since doctors removed his cigarette-ravaged vocal cords nearly 20 years ago, Barger speaks by holding his thumb over a white patch on his neck and vibrating a muscle in his throat. The result is a rasp reminiscent of Marlon Brando in "The Godfather."
After finishing the interviews, Barger sits at a table, dons his reading glasses and starts signing books. Behind him sit three local Angels, one of whom cheerfully snaps pictures of folks who want to be photographed with "the Chief."
Nearly 300 people are lined up for the outlaw's autograph. It's not your average bookstore crowd. There are lots of black leather jackets and Harley-Davidson T-shirts, and much of the visible flesh is illustrated with baroque tattoos. They wait patiently in line, thumbing through Barger's book, which recently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. It's not exactly Shakespeare but it has some classic moments. There's an account of his first date with his future second wife, Sharon, a former beauty queen. They smoke dope at a party, then zoom off to buy guns from an ex-con, then race to an Angel's house where Sonny saves a woman who has OD'd on barbiturates by shooting her up with speed. "Par for the course," he writes, "one gun buy and an overdose."
And there's the part where Sonny and his fellow Angels catch the guys who were foolish enough to steal Barger's bike: "We bullwhipped them and beat them with spiked dog collars, broke their fingers with ball-peen hammers." But the most controversial part of the book comes when Barger utters the biker equivalent of blasphemy: He denounces Harleys. "In terms of pure workmanship, personally I don't like Harleys," he writes. "I ride them because I'm in the club and that's the image, but if I could I would seriously consider riding a Honda ST1100 or a BMW. . . . Japanese bikes today are so much cheaper and better built."
That statement is, one biker magazine suggested, "as shocking as Hugh Hefner advocating celibacy." But none of the folks waiting for Barger's autograph are bothered by any of this. To them, he's an American hero. "He embodies what it means to be an American--the freedom to do what you want," says Loren McKinny, 36, an EMT with a shaved head and a tattoo of barbed wire circling a biceps.
"He stood up for what he believed in," says D.J. Hayes, a 16-year-old in a crew cut. "And he didn't take any crap." And what did Barger believe in?
"He believed in not taking any crap from anybody."
T-Shirts and Key Chains

    These are great days for Sonny Barger. After 43 years as an Angel and 13 years in various prisons, he has emerged as an outlaw folk hero, the modern equivalent of Wild West characters like Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy.
Better yet, he has managed to cash in on his fame. Not only is his book a bestseller, with 75,000 copies in print, but he's got his own Web site ( that hawks his merchandise. There are T-shirts, ball caps, tube tops and key chains, all of them bearing the slogan "Sonny Barger: An American Legend." And there's a line of condiments--Sonny Barger's Kickstartin' Cajun Salsa and Sonny Barger's Kickstartin' Hellfire Sauce.
For art lovers, there's a limited edition of 500 photographic prints of Sonny in his heyday in the '60s, signed by Barger and photographer Gene Anthony, which sell for $350 apiece. "Have a Legendary Rebel in Your Home!" the ads urge. There's also a limited edition of 3,000 steel sculptures of Barger, which sell for $130 to $300.
The sculptures are the brainchild of Jack Lupertino, a 55-year-old biker and friend of Barger, who saw a sculpture of Albert Einstein riding a bicycle and promptly commissioned the sculptor to do Barger on a Harley.
"It was a tribute," Lupertino says. "I just love the man. He stands up for what I believe in. He's a man. He doesn't let people step on him."
Barger seems a tad embarrassed by all this merchandising. "You can probably blame it on my [second] ex-wife--she started selling 'Free Sonny Barger' T-shirts when I was in prison," he says. "You have to do all these little things to make a living. The Angels are really not the drug criminal millionaires that the DEA claims."
These days, Barger's main business is a motorcycle repair shop in Phoenix, where he moved a couple of years ago after spending most of his life in Oakland.
"I was in prison just down the road here," he says. "I did four years there and I liked the weather so I moved here."
He lives in a little white house with his third wife, Noel, 33, a quarter horse breeder; his stepdaughter, Sarrah; and three cats and two dogs. Outside, they've got five horses and a cactus garden that Barger planted beneath a flagpole that flies the Stars and Stripes. He still rides with the Angels, he says, but he no longer holds a leadership position. His life is less exciting now than it was back in the days when he was biking, brawling, snorting coke and selling heroin. "I get up in the morning," he says. "I feed the horses. I clean the stalls. Then I go to work."
But he's not complaining. He's thrilled to be alive. He never expected to make it to 61. "I never thought I'd last to be 21," he says, smiling. "That's why I say every day is the best day of my life."
"He's mellowed out a little bit," says Noel. "He's more laid-back, happier. His old friends say they've never seen the Chief looking happier."
A Natural Leader

    Ralph "Sonny" Barger grew up hard.
His mother took off with a Trailways bus driver when Sonny was 4 months old and never came back. His stepmother ran off, too, stealing everything she could carry, including the family encyclopedia.
His father spent his days unloading ships and his nights drinking booze. He took Sonny to the bars, where the kid learned to swear by listening to a foulmouthed parrot in an Oakland dive called Jungle Jim's.
Sonny hated school. He got kicked out several times for fighting teachers, then he dropped out at 16, forged a birth certificate and joined the Army in 1955. He liked military life, but when the brass learned about the birth certificate they booted him out. He returned to Oakland, worked in a Chevy plant and a potato chip factory, and longed for adventure. He bought a motorcycle and joined a bike club called the Oakland Panthers. But they were just weekend riders and he wanted something more.
"I needed a second family," he wrote. "I wanted a group less interested in a wife and 2.5 kids . . . and more interested in riding, drag-racing and raising hell."
So he and a few buddies started their own club and called it Hell's Angels. Later they learned that there were other Hell's Angels clubs around California. A natural leader, Barger helped them unite and expand across the country and, later, the world. He was a tough, handsome little guy and a charismatic natural leader.
"He gave the orders and the others carried them out," recalls Hunter S. Thompson, who rode with the Angels for a year in the mid-'60s to research his book "Hell's Angels." "He's smart and he's crafty and he has a kind of wild animal cunning. He was clearly the most competent person around."
Under Barger's leadership, the Angels became infamous '60s icons. They'd roar into some small California town by the hundreds, dressed to shock the squares--greasy denim jackets, Nazi regalia, long hair, beards streaked with green dye. They'd get drunk and stoned and, inevitably, start brawling with some local stud who would quickly learn, to his sorrow, that when you fight one Angel, you fight them all.
The Angels reveled in their outlaw image and the media eagerly played along.
"The way we were depicted," Barger writes, "we were Vikings on acid, raping our way across sunny California on motorcycles forged in the furnaces of Hell."
That depiction was cartoonish but not entirely inaccurate. The Angels tended to be thugs with long, colorful arrest records--for assault or theft or dope dealing--and a tendency to settle disputes with fists or chains or guns.
In 1965, Barger concocted a stunt designed to improve their image. He and the Angels attacked an anti-war protest in Berkeley and started bashing heads. Later, Barger held a press conference to announce that he'd sent President Johnson a telegram volunteering the Angels for Vietnam duty as a "crack group of trained guerrillas." Not surprisingly, LBJ declined the offer.
Hoping to patch up relations between the Angels and the hippies, novelist and LSD guru Ken Kesey invited Barger and the Angels to drop by his place in La Honda, Calif., to drop acid. It was a gutsy move--"like bringing a Coca-Cola bottle full of nitro to a party," Kesey says--but it worked. Tripping, the Angels were as peaceful as puppies. And Kesey came away impressed with Barger's charisma.
"He had that look in his eyes that says you can't scare him with death," he says. "You realize that in a confrontation, he's willing to die and you aren't."
But the informal Angels-hippie alliance, forged in LSD, didn't last. It ended in 1969, when the Angels--hired to provide security at the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont--beat fans with pool cues and stabbed a gun-toting young black man to death.

    In his book, Barger says the Angels acted in self-defense, but he doesn't help his case with his description of how he handled a stoned, half-naked female fan who tried to get to the Stones: "I just walked over to the edge of the stage and kicked her in the head."
By then, Barger was, by his own description, a cocaine addict, supporting his habit by dealing heroin. In the early '70s he was arrested for a drug-related triple murder. He was acquitted of the murder charges but convicted of dope dealing and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
He served five years and got out in 1977. A couple of years later, he and other Angels leaders were busted for allegedly violating the federal racketeering law by running an international methamphetamine cartel. The Angels beat the RICO rap.
But in the late '80s, Barger was back in court, charged with conspiring to blow up the Kentucky clubhouse of a rival gang called the Outlaws. The clubhouse was never bombed but Barger was convicted. He served five years in federal prisons, four of them in Arizona.
When he got out, he was welcomed back to California with a party that drew 5,000 fans and tons of media coverage. The aging outlaw had become a legend.
Biker Dad

    Barger is sitting in his living room, watching himself on his giant-screen TV.
It's a videotape of a book signing he did at a Harley dealership in San Diego. Apparently, Harley vendors don't mind that he mocked their bikes in the book.
"They know they're junk," he explains.
His wife leaves to run some errands. His stepdaughter is sitting on the couch eating cookies. "That's enough cookies," Barger tells Sarrah. "Eat that one and brush your teeth after it. If you're hungry, eat your lunch. No more cookies."
On one wall, a red-and-white Hell's Angels winged skull hangs over the fireplace. On another wall, there's a plaque that the Angels gave Barger on his 40th anniversary in the club: "You have led us and given us the Hell's Angels way and the Hell's Angels beliefs to fight for, to live for and to die for . . . ."
Across the room, Barger's leather jacket, with the Angels insignia on the back, is hung neatly on the back of a chair. An Angel is required to wear the insignia every time he rides his bike, Barger explains.
But Sarrah rats on him, revealing that he's been breaking that rule. "When Dad rides me to school, he takes it off," she says, "so he doesn't offend any of the parents, because it has the word 'Hell' on it."
It's tough to be an Angel when you're a parent.
Sarrah climbs onto his lap, squirms around, then climbs off. She's a slender preteen with long black hair and a bright smile. She's his only kid and he dotes shamelessly on her.
"I'm gonna ride my dirt bike," she says.
"Be careful, sweetheart," Barger tells her. The bike is a little red motor scooter and Barger worries when she rides it. "You wanna take my phone in case you have a problem?"
He takes his cell phone off his belt and hands it to her. "Gimme a kiss," he says.
She kisses him, grabs her helmet and hustles out the door.
He watches her go. "She's a good kid," he says, "and really smart."
What advice, he is asked, would he like to pass on to her?
"I'd tell her, don't smoke cigarettes or take too many drugs," he says.
Too many drugs?
"I don't think drugs should be illegal," he says. "I just don't think you should take them two days in a row." Like most parents, Barger worries about the world his daughter is entering. "I just can't believe how people treat people," he says. "People are just so inhumane to each other. It's a terrible world to grow up in, especially now." Does he have any regrets about his own life?
"Yeah," he says. "Smoking. Too much cocaine. And losing my right to own a gun. I don't think I'd change anything other than that."
What about the violence?
"No," he says. "I don't never do anything but what I feel is necessary."
Sarrah barges back in and plops down on the couch.
"Slow down," Barger tells her. "You were going way too fast. You were going around 25 miles an hour."
She rolls her eyes. "That thing goes 25?" she asks skeptically.
"When you fall, you'll be sorry," he says, but she has already wandered out of the room.
He sighs. "She's got no fear," he says. The old Angel looks worried.

2000 The Washington Post Company