on 18 December 2011
I first bought a 1967 copy of this book in the seventies, which is now falling to bits. So in order to read it for the six or seventh time I ordered a new copy. If you are happy to read it on the understanding that it is a very one sided version of events from Hunter S Thompson - it is a great read. You get a real feel and appreciation of what life amongst the original sixties Hells Angels must have been like, written by a clever and interesting writer in Thompson.
For a balanced and I would guess more accurate view of events you need go no further than original Angel - Sonny Barger's autobiography, in which references are made to Thompsons book, and from reading both - interesting comparisons and view points can be made.
For an acid tripping, drug and booze fuelled crazy view of the Hells Angels, and the best of all in my opinion has to be 'Freewhweelin Frank' by an early Frisco member Frank Reynolds. A great read, mainly I think because Frank comes across as wild, stoned and crazy as most of us imagine these guys were back then,
Hunter S Thompson depicts the rise of the phenomenon known as Hell's Angels from the early 1950s, when they were epitomised as lonely, misunderstood rebels in the film The Wild Ones, with a young Marlon Brando playing the lead, to the mid 1960s when their favourite occupation, according to the media, was terrorizing isolated backwoods American townships by getting drunk and running amok amongst the worthy citizens. Though this did happen occasionally, the `runs' of the gangs were usually more apt to involve violence amongst the groups themselves than towards outsiders. The whole ethos of the Hell's Angels and associated gangs such as the Booze Fighters and Satan's Slaves, to name just two, was to avoid getting slammed in jail. Since they rarely had jobs, incarceration involved expensive Bond Bails, which could tie up their finances for years. Yet this ran counter to their whole way of life, which was antithetical to society's norms. A mass of contradictions occurs when trying to figure out what they really stood for.
Thompson's account is a sobering one. The media talked up even minor incidents so that a whole set of assumptions applied to anyone on a trademark Harley Davidson bike. It became `known' that they were given to rapes and gangbangs, but it emerges from the statistics that there have been very few successful convictions for rape in the history of the motorcycle gang's activities. The explanation given is that they don't need to rape since a coterie of girls known as Mamas accompany them on their `runs' and are available for anyone. In any case, by the 1960s many Hell's Angels were married, with families, and wives came on the `runs' too. The female hierarchies are fascinating - wives had the power and the protection, anyone else was fair game.
Thompson liked these guys, and although this was written before he got his name for "Gonzo journalism", his partisanship is obvious right up until the very last section of the book, when he recounts how he was suddenly turned on by a gang of Hell's Angels in a bar and beaten bloody. Maybe they just got fed up of their pet journalist?
Much of the detail of their history is frankly depressing. Individually, too there is not much to distinguish them from the clichés they have embraced. Over the years they have evolved rather cleaner habits - and now there is even a Hell's Angels Chapter in Windsor, UK. What would our own dear Queen have to say?
on 26 March 2010
Hunter S. lives on a dangerous tightrope trying to stay factual and alive in his expose` of life with the big 81. (8=H and 1=A) Get it? This virtually historical book is both an insight into the Angels and Hunter Thompson's mindset.
The fact that he only gets beaten up once and actually survived the experience is a testimony to his intelligence and blind luck. By taking on the role of a neutral observer, he flatters Sonny Berger and Co into giving him access to the Angels' lifestyle which few people would either risk or want. The overall impression that this book leaves in the mind is not of the Angel's apparent lust for destruction, but of the change in social values between the 70s and now. One thing that has not changed is the desire to be free of Society's constraints and this is still embodied in the motorcycle fraternity. Buy a bike, learn to handle it and hit the road.
Hunter S. illustrates the total nihilism of the Angels' lifestyle during this era of American recent history, with much to admire and also despise. There is no relevence to the present day Angels, who are smarter and more organized. Check out the Bulldog Bash if you want to see a few close-up. To sum-up: read the book and be amazed at Hunter S. Thompsons guts (stupidity?).
Steve. LW NC.
on 25 February 2004
An interesting historical account of one side of 60's American Society which still remains hidden territory to this day.
Hells Angels is a well written, informative and entertaining book documenting the history of, and the author's involvement with the Hells Angels. It illustrates the conflicting views of the Angels, society, press and authorities of the mid 60's. Though the accuracy of the account is still limited to that of an outside observer, so readers may wish to also read the leader of the Oakland Hells Angels own account : Sonny S. Barger's 'Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club' to get an insider viewpoint. The two books provide an interesting contrast in views.
Never-the-less 'Hells Angels' remains a rich and involving read which, once started, is difficult to put down - a must for all who are even mildly interested in Biker culture.
Written at a time when the psychology of gangs was an amnesia, Thompson took
Merton's anomie theory and gets to grips with some big sociological and psychological themes. A force akin to Howard Becker in moving under the skin of the social pretence and he makes it entertaining.
The first section is how the "cult" was created. Formed from the usual moral panic, over the state of the young, that older people froth about constantly. He also digs deeper into the substrata and shows how in 1947, large groups of disaffected GI's rode around in an existential aimlessness. Nowadays there are things called the "Warrior Programme" to assist former soldiers make the transition from bayoneting and flamethrowing Japanese and German males, to settling down into suburbia. Following World War Two, there was support to make an economic transition but not a psychological shift, that came later after Vietname.
The GI Bill, provided a passport to a free college education and people were given a lift up to move to the suburbs. Psychologically the american male was left to his own devices.
Stretch it all back to pre war child rearing practices; something Hunter does not touch upon, this provides the clue to the hard mutha ridden heroes, riddled with PTSD and looking for an avenue outwards, an escape. Of course these soliders produced kids, along with the displaced southern Okies, Arkies and the rest of the south, forced to migrate into a depression.
As he notes in the book, just because you are oppressed it does not lead to enlightenment, it just means you have the psychology of the oppressed, driven into the body and mind. The Angels are the kick back from being beaten into violence. Riding around aimlessly on their Harleys and Indians these outsiders caused a furore, because of their adherence to none of the usual moral values being beamed into American homes at the time. They began to coalesce, for securty and attachment. Divorced from their own families, they eventually sought surrogates; the gang.
Violence became the one vehicle of expression, delivered onto a society that failed to understand the psychological anguish, the need not to join in. Hunter takes the story from here, and shows the levels of masculine protest, posturing to hide its vulnerability. The Angels stick to each other, out stomp the others in fraternal blood letting, and eventually most move on to forms of domesticity in middle age. Just like armed robbers, except the families.
Howard Becker take a tick.
The cult was on it knees through police persecution in 1965, when it received its biggest boost...national publicity. This followed the reporting of at least two male members having sex with two under age girls,overseen by a group of men. This caused a national outcry. Hunter downplays this episode and seemingly sides with the protagonists, with the notion the girls were up for it. This is where is goes awry. The national outcry however was equally awry, as these men were perceived as the Hun within, the untamed beasts of a sexual nightmare/daydream.
They became persecuted and idolised by men, as forms of archetypal savages on iron machines. This was the great dichotomy in the American psyche that Hunter portrays vividly. This is where his book ascends. He constrasts the bland nature of American suburbia as a subconscious smother blanket, and sides with these men who live outside the mainstream. It is well written and flows like a stream.
I do not agree with everything that Hunter has to say, that is because he provokes debate. Having known and worked with men who have joined motorcycle gangs there is an existential angst. However it is more a defence than an offence. Although it created a moral outcry, resulting in the mobilisation of the population in thrall of fear and enticement, these outre young and older men managed to garner some form of sexual notoriety. This tapped into a vein of urban beasts carrying off young and middle aged woman into some form of sexual purgatory.
Doubtless acts of violence ensued, particularly from men who were the butt of violence in their childhoods. The trouble is no one took the opportunity to understand, how it all unfolded, as Thompson showed, the academics came out with a glut of Freudian kitsch that failed to understand or engage with the subject. This is one of the key victories of the text, Thompson lived from within. Still an interesting insight, into the 60's mindset and its resonance ding dongs with the present.
on 3 February 2016
Been after this since 1967 ! Fascinating historical stuff as to the origins of the Hells Angels, and the bad press they received at the time. Outlaws they may have been and targets by the police always but toally sensationalised in the then media for monetary gain. Mate of mine (who was a rocker at the time used to read out passages from it when we were apprentices - I was a Mod !!). A definitive story of Angels life style, written accurately by someone who was there. A must read for historical bikers.
on 26 January 2011
Written in 1966 this is a classic work on the Hells Angels phenomenon that emerged out of the 1950s in Northern California. What comes through is the sheer brutality of the Angels whom Thompson chose to describe throughout his narrative as modern day "outlaws" in constant battle with US law enforcement authorities and respectable society, with a total lack of respect for so called morality and social ethics.
Having lived with them for a year Thompson covered every aspect of the Angels' culture: the almost religious worship of their Harleys, the subjugation of their women folk and the gang bangs, drug dealing and brutal violence as well as, from the late 60s onwards, their flirtation with the tune-in-drop-out hippie generation. Its an astonishing piece of gonzo journalism, an example of how to get inside the hearts and minds of the subject.
As a reader and student of 20th century history I came away with the conclusion that the Hells Angels were an inevitable product of a society founded on the principles of self preservation and freedom, yet they also embodied America's dark, dangerous and romantic underbelly.
on 9 May 2011
With brutal, verging on foolhardy, honesty Hunter S Thomson chronicles his extensive dealings with, and observations on, the Hell's Angels. HST forensically examines the myths behind the Angels and strips away the BS to get at the, by turns; prosaic, sordid, shocking, and downright laughable, truth.
Don't buy this expecting to read a novel. This is no novel. There is no formal narrative. The chapters flit about in time, space and subject matter. You have to look at each chapter as a self-contained essay. Some of the passages in this book are straight, well-observed reportage. Some are opinion pieces and some are the hilarious "gonzo" sketches which HST was to become so well known for.
Do buy this book, you will leave it better informed on the subject matter and you will have enjoyed some of the most amusing writing to have come out of America in the 20th Century.
This is a very good examination of the Hell's Angels in the early to mid 1960s, at a time when they started to generate lots of news coverage and concern in the US, to the point at which they had PR representatives and started to charge for interviews.
There are lots of fascinating facts and details. For example the bikes were called 'Choppers' because they were 'chopped' or customised Harleys.
HST managed to get access to the Angels, and even went on some rides with them, and his account is very well written. It's as much a book about the media influence (I'd argue) as about the Angels themselves, and you can see how it helped to build the myth, even though anyone reading it to the end would see Hunter's disillusionment.
My only criticism is that it's a bit too long and rambling, but beyond that it's great.
on 4 December 2012
I'm a little biased, as I love Hunter S Thompson's writing style, but this is a gripping and intersting read all the way through, although it has to be said that there are some definite troughs among the peaks which could have been ironed out with a little more harsh editing. However, that is a minor complaint compared to how great it was to read this. Gave me a new perspective on the Hell's Angels, who I knew very little about before reading this other than that they were big beardy guys who rode Harleys, didn't shower much, and liked to party.
Macktastic Slim gives his stamp of approval to this book ;)