As the longtime president of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, Sonny Barger, who died at the age of 83, was the epitome of the outlaw biker. It was something he had earned, but also an image he cultivated with charisma and shrewdness, making the Hells Angels a global brand. Although law enforcement saw the Angels more as a gang than a club, by the 1960s the media latched onto Barger (pronounced Bar-gurr), selling the outlaw image. to the world as a form of countercultural protest that took the form of celluloid in movies. as Easy Rider (1969).
It’s not surprising. The post-war image of motorcycle gangs was established by the 1953 film The Wild One. When Marlon Brando, as leader of the Black Rebels, is asked what he is rebelling against, he replies, “Whaddaya got?”. Early in his cycling career, after having his skull fractured by police, Barger added a “1%” patch to the Angels’ kit, in response to the head of the American Motorcyclist Association claiming that “99% motorcyclists obeyed the law”.
Law-abiding Barger was not.
In October 1965, angels attacked an anti-war demonstration in Berkeley, California; six were arrested. A delegation of Angels and their main rival biker gang, the Gypsy Jokers, met with activist Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg in front of 1,000 people at San Jose State College to negotiate ‘permission’ for the November march scheduled in Oakland. It came to nothing, but the day before the march, Barger announced that the Angels would stay away out of “patriotic concern” that the anti-American marchers might “provoke violent acts on our part…and produce nothing but sympathy for this host of traitors”. He also sent a telegram to then-President Lyndon Johnson offering the services of the Hells Angels to provide a “crew-trained gorilla band [sic] demoralize the Viet Cong and advance the cause of freedom”.
In December 1969, the Angels were hired by the Rolling Stones to provide security for the free Altamont festival. During a brawl between the bikers and the crowd, a black spectator, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by an angel, Alan Passaro. Passaro was acquitted for self-defense.
Barger claimed that spectators provoked the violence by damaging the Angels’ bikes; but he also claimed that the crowd became restless as the Stones were late and he pointed a gun at Keith Richards’ face to get them started. This claim was revised by using the gun to keep the band playing after the violence began, which can be seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Many have since argued that Woodstock’s ’60s concept of peace and love ended that day.
Born Ralph Barger Jr in Modesto, Calif., Sonny grew up in the tough port area of Oakland, where his father, Ralph Sr, was a dockworker. His mother, Kathryn (née Ritch), ran away 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 crawling through the sailors’ bars.
An indifferent student, Barger left school at 16 and joined the army. Fourteen months later, he was honorably discharged, as he had lied about his age to join without parental permission. Back in Oakland, living with his father and older sister’s family, and working on the docks, he met other 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 Sacramento club. The apostrophe you expect in Hells wouldn’t fit in their new patch.
They affiliated with the Mother Angels Chapter at San Bernadino; the clubs unified primarily through their battles with the Jokers. When the general president was sent to prison in 1958, 20-year-old Sonny replaced him and moved the mother chapter to Oakland. By then he was being regularly arrested, for possession of marijuana 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; although less “gonzo” than his later work, Barger’s portrayal lent much to Thompson’s future image. Two years later, Barger appeared in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test when author and counterculture figure Ken Kesey invited the Oakland Angels to a party; Kesey introduced LSD to bikers.
By then Barger had given up his job as a stagehand and took advantage of the publicity to work as a technical adviser in exploitative biker films, beginning with Roger Corman’s Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. . In 1967 he consulted and had a role in Richard Rush’s Hells Angels on Wheels, which starred Jack Nicholson, and graduated as himself in the film Hell’s Angels ’69 (1969).
These set the stage 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 came to life on film in The Losers (1970), where members of the “Devil’s Advocates” take to armored helicopters to rescue a CIA agent detained in Cambodia.
Despite establishing a relationship with the police that resulted in the Angels trading weapons for arrested members, Barger’s rap sheet grew. He escaped charges of drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder, but was eventually convicted in 1973 of possession of heroin and firearms. Since he was a former criminal, both were illegal. Sentenced to 10 years to life, he served four and a half years in Folsom Prison and is said to have continued to lead the angels from his cell and married his second wife Sharon there. His first wife, Elsie Mae (née 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 the federal Rico laws (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act). Although the outcome of most cases was overturned, he and Sharon were the only two acquitted.
In 1983, Barger contracted throat cancer; his vocal cords were removed and he learned to speak through a vocalizer in his esophagus. In 1987, he was arrested again for federal drug and firearms trafficking conspiracy in California, but found himself on trial in Louisville, Kentucky, charged with supplying explosives to destroy the Outlaws motorcycle gang. in a territorial dispute. He was convicted and served three and a half years of a four-year sentence; he insisted he had been framed by the FBI.
Barger retired from public management of the Angels and, in 1998, was living in Arizona. Amicably divorced from Sharon, he married Beth Noel (née Black). They divorced after a domestic dispute in which she was hospitalized with a broken rib and lacerated spleen. He was convicted of aggravated assault, but only served eight days in jail.
As gang warfare escalated, in 2002 he attempted to organize a peace conference at the Laughlin River Run rally in Nevada, but a battle between the Hells Angels and the Mongols left three people dead and the conference was called off.
He marketed various Sonny Barger items, including his own salsa, and began writing books, including a biography, Hells Angel (2001), written with 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 which he produced with his fourth wife. , Zorana (née Katzakien); they both played small roles in it. Between 2010 and 2012, he made three guest appearances on the TV biker drama Sons Of Anarchy.
Zorana and Sonny were married in 2005, the year he wrote Freedom: Credos From the Road, a collection of his wisdom and his guide to life. And in 2010, with Darwin Holmstrom, he produced a motorcycle safety guide, Let’s Ride, as if he’s now completely transformed into one of the 99%.
Zorana survives him.
Sonny (Ralph Hubert) Barger, leader of a motorcycle club, born October 8, 1938; passed away on June 29, 2022