Saturday, March 17, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs by Hunter S Thompson

1st edition                                 Image via Wikipediaby Imogen Reed

Hunter S Thompson was a publisher’s nightmare. He was so drunk on the tour to promote his book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs he was next to useless, and this erratic performance cost Random House sales.

But it was perhaps this disordered and chaotic side of Thompson’s character that allowed him to get close to his subjects during the writing of the book. Maybe too close.

Yet, through this closeness and acceptance by the outlaw motorcycle gangs he was able to capture a group and a time within a society that was in flux, and less concerned with the National Health system, balance transfer credit cards and the recession and more with the politics of peace.

The book was conceived after the reaction Thompson generated with an article on the Hell’s Angels in 1965, which was published in the The Nation. He was paid just $100 for it. He’d left his job at the National Observer and was flat broke and desperate for work.

The article, entitled The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders created a stir, and elicited so much interest that he used the gangs as the subject of his first book, an experiment in gonzo journalism which was to launch his career.

The Outlaws

In the sixties, The Hell’s Angels of California held a particular fascination for a culture that knew little about them. The ‘outlaw’ was a cultural icon that still resonated with Americans in the West, even in the sixties - a remnant of the secret admiration for rebels and pioneers. Thompson notes:

“… their position as self-proclaimed outlaws elicits a certain popular appeal, however reluctant. That is especially true in the West and even in California where the outlaw tradition is still honored. The unarticulated link between the Hell's Angels and the millions of losers and outsiders who don't wear any colors is the key to their notoriety and the ambivalent reactions they inspire."

In Thompson’s article, people saw a chance to glimpse behind the veil of secrecy that surrounded the closed world of the Hell’s Angels - who were notoriously defensive and suspicious of outsider contact. They were particularly suspicious of newsmen, who they believed presented them in a negative light.

There may have been some truth in this, although the Angels were complicit in this negative view by displaying sufficiently anti-social behaviour to warrant it. They thrived on their ability to intimidate and alienate mainstream society. That was their power. The title of the article summed up neatly the dichotomy at the heart of the matter, however. Thompson made the following point:

“The vast majority of motorcycle outlaws are uneducated, unskilled men between 20 and 30, and most have no credentials except a police record. So at the root of their sad stance is a lot more than a wistful yearning for acceptance in a world they never made; their real motivation is an instinctive certainty as to what the score really is. They are out of the ball game and they know it - and that is their meaning; for unlike most losers in today's society, the Hell's Angels not only know but spitefully proclaim exactly where they stand.”

This sense of disenfranchisement was at the heart of the position the Hell’s Angels took. The 60s, with its simultaneous moral conservatism and the demands for moral freedom producing a confusing cultural double-think, was the perfect time for the Angels to play with expectations and confound them.

Whilst refusing to allow any concession to middle America in terms of conformity, they displayed admirable cohesion, loyalty and morality within their own group. They were what social commentators would today call ‘problematic’.

This refusal to be positioned was what Thompson highlighted in his writing, showing both sides of the story, which had never been done before. Both drawn in and repelled, the reading public couldn’t get enough, and so the book was born.

Living With The Hell’s Angels

Thompson spent a year with the San Bernardino and Oakland chapters of the group, who were surprisingly forthcoming about their closed community. He had a particularly close friendship with Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barker. The underlying violence of the group was never far away, however, driven largely by intense and some would argue mindless group allegiance.

Offense was taken easily, and retribution always swift and out of proportion to the original misdemeanor. It was this reputation for violence, which they accepted as warranted, that created fear and it was an effective tool for keeping society at bay, although some chapters were clearly more violent than others.

Violent End of an Era

Violence, ultimately begets violence, and it was a savage beating from three Hell’s Angels that ended Hunter S Thompson’s association with the outlaws. Convinced he’d insulted one of their members, he was shown no favour.

He defended the group afterwards, blaming it on a rogue element - not the group he had worked with. This demonstrates the extent to which he had been absorbed into the group-think. His own loyalty to the Hell’s Angels was strong. But the party was over and Thompson wisely distanced himself.

The hippies regarded the Hell’s Angels as ‘outlaw brothers of the counterculture’, and the two groups seemed to tolerate each other to a degree. The party really ended after the death of a teenager at the Rolling Stone’s disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival.

But even then arguments were made both for and against the part the Hell’s Angels played in the event that ended the Woodstock era. The teenager was filmed pulling a revolver out of his pocket at the moment he was attacked. Was it murder or self-defense?

As ever, nothing is clear when it comes to the Hell’s Angels, and they refuse to be framed by any social construct the culture tries to pin on them. The power of keeping your identity and culture as a group closed off is clear. Hunter S Thompson succeeded where no-one else could. He left us a book that captures a small but important element of the 60s counterculture and is a truly fascinating read.
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