The Rough Rider : Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Hell’s Angel Sonny Barger is just a regular guy. Unless you cross him.
Draped above the door of Ralph (Sonny) Barger’s little brown house on Golf Links Road is a cheerful cardboard banner with wreaths and holly and the words “Merry Christmas.” A nearby window sports a foot-high, stained-glass, winged death’s skull.
Such are the contrasts in a Hell’s Angel’s life these days.
Last month, more than 700 supporters showed up at a party to celebrate Barger getting off two years’ parole--after the most famous Angel served four years in federal prison for his role in a nationwide conspiracy to blow up a rival club.
Among the partiers was U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), who told a Bay Area reporter that the days when bikers were synonymous with trouble are past. “These clubs are much different now,” he said. “They’re very respectable.”
But the Angels’ role in society has never been that simple, as Campbell learned from the swirl of controversy back in Colorado that followed his remarks.
For one thing, Angels keep getting caught up in the sort of headlines that tend to raise respectable eyebrows:
On June 28, the vice president of a Rockford, Ill., club--which law officers say is merging with the Angels--was slain in his motorcycle shop; on Sept. 25, two bikers were killed and eight injured in a wild gunfight between Angels and a rival club at an Upstate New York raceway; on Nov. 7, bombs exploded at the Chicago and Rockford headquarters of the Angels-affiliated club.
Another thing: While Barger, 56, dismisses the club’s notoriety for crime and violence as exaggerated, and characterizes incidents back East as something that could happen to anyone--"Catholics probably commit more crimes than we ever thought of, probably politicians commit more crimes"--he’s clearly not keen on being lumped in with your run-of-the-mill “citizen.”
Barger lives with Sharon, his wife of 21 years, in a house near the Oakland Zoo that he bought in the mid-'60s. His repair and parts shop, Sonny Barger’s Oakland Custom Motorcycles, is a few miles away in a scruffier nook of the city, where beauty parlors, coin laundries and auto repair shops coexist with a smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants.
Barger’s demeanor is relaxed, his manner polite, almost patrician, as he sits in his office, leaning back in a swivel chair draped with a black leather jacket emblazoned “Hell’s Angels M/C.”
From the shop he looks across the street to an Oakland landmark of sorts, a two-story building whose door is emblazoned with a bright brass skull with a winged headdress--the Angels’ copyrighted emblem. A brick wall sports a brass plate reading, “Clubhouse of the Oakland Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, founded on April 1, 1957, by Sonny Barger and others.”
Barger shrugs off the notion that he is a charismatic leader. If he inspires loyalty, he says, it’s because of his basic philosophy: “I treat everyone exactly the way I want to be treated. If they treat me good, I treat them better. If they treat me bad, I treat ‘em worse.”
Barger’s hair is close-cropped now, his face evenly tanned, his body compact from a daily workout and regular jogging. The blue tattoos decorating his arms have gone fuzzy with age. By appearances, most of the hard edges have softened from the young Barger shown in a poster-sized photo on the wall: tangled, shoulder-length hair, goat-like beard, tongue poking out in maniacal defiance.
Barger achieved the rank of outlaw legend in the ‘60s, as events and biker films conspired to mythologize the group. Even then, the club played an off-kilter role in the culture. During the Vietnam era, the Angels earned a national reputation for roughing up anti-war demonstrators--proof of their patriotism, Angels said.
Hell’s Angels did embrace one ‘60s convention, though. By the ‘70s, law enforcers say, the sale of illegal drugs, especially methamphetamine, made the club increasingly rich and ruthless.
“You’ll notice,” Barger says, “I was never in my life busted with methamphetamine. Ever. You’ll also notice I spent most of the ‘70s in prison.”
He doesn’t deny, though, that drugs had an effect. “I’m certain I went to prison because I used cocaine. . . . I don’t know exactly how to explain it, other than that you do a lot of stupid things you wouldn’t do if you weren’t loaded.”
As for the business side, he says: “I sold a few drugs myself, but I never made the multimillions they claim. If I did, I sure wouldn’t be here working today. . . . As for anybody else, I’d rather let them speak for themselves.”
In 1983, doctors removed Barger’s cancerous larynx. To speak, he touches a small patch on his neck. His voice is a gentle growl.
The Angels belief system, he says, isn’t complicated: “I just believe we have a right to do anything we want to do as long as we’re not hurting anyone else, and if anyone tries to stop us, we have a right to step on them.”
That doesn’t happen often, Barger says, at least not to the mainstream citizens who fear the club: “99% of the violence Hell’s Angels have been charged with was against other people in the same social and economic class we’re in. . . .”
Some of the criminal charges leveled against him over the years were justified, Barger concedes. But he argues that prosecutors have pushed for more severe sentences than the charges deserved.
Why? “Because I was found innocent on murder,” he says, referring to a jury’s decision, in 1972, that prosecutors had failed to prove their allegation that Barger killed a man who had sold bad drugs to Angels.
Barger says he has spent a total of “12 or 13 years” in prison--"Not much, considering all the fun I’ve had.
“I think doing time is just part of growing up,” he says. “There’s just certain things you’ve got to do in your life. You’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to go in the Army, you’ve got to go to jail. It all helps you to have a well-rounded life.”
One wall of the group’s clean and orderly clubhouse features framed black-and-white police mug shots of Angels, including Barger, and photos of apparently bad-to-the-bone biker dudes are a dominant decorative motif. Upstairs, surrounding two pool tables, is an array of arcade-style video games that keep members’ kids busy during parties, Barger says. Just inside the door is a rack displaying 15 smoothly sanded ax handles--a backup security system to supplement the video monitors that scan the building’s exterior.
Laden as it is with retro biker memorabilia, the juke joint-style clubhouse, with its wooden bar and feathered skull carvings, could probably be franchised, like a faux-low rent variant of the Hard Rock Cafe. The outlaw chic ambience would likely attract hordes of rich, urban bikers--"Rubbies” to some.
But Barger shakes his head at the suggestion. Sharon Barger does sell T-shirts featuring her husband (“Sonny Barger, American Legend” says the one with flames on the sleeves). And they’ve also started marketing Sonny Barger’s Cajun Style Salsa.
But the only item the club itself sells to the public is an annual calendar, each month featuring a full-color portrait of a different Angel and his bike.
Filmmakers have been trying to persuade Barger to tell his story for 30 years, but he hasn’t cooperated, he says. And the Angels’ rule against non-members wearing their “colors” has complicated things.
But the impasse may be over, Barger adds. Independent producer John Eastman confirms that a screenplay about Barger and the club, researched and written by a 70-year-old woman and approved by the Angels, is likely to enter the pre-production fray next year. The distinction between the club’s reality and the show biz spin, will, presumably, become even more blurred.
Some Angels do successfully meld into the mainstream these days. Jim (Guinea) Colucci, an Angel for 20 years and a partner in Barger’s shop, says he served as president of a Northern California Little League for two years and coached his son’s team (“We went 0-10.”).
No one knew he was an Angel, he says, until the day he showed up for practice on his “Hog.” Even then, the league parents decided not to hold his Angel ties against him. His Moose Lodge brothers were equally understanding when they found out about his other club affiliation, he says.
Barger, on the other hand, participates in charity rides but otherwise prefers to avoid mainstream society.
“It’s not something that appeals to me,” he says. “One of the things that has always amazed me about reporters during my whole life, 99% of them . . . will say, ‘Gee, after talking to you I find that you’re halfway intelligent. You could have been anything you wanted to be!’ They don’t realize, I am what I want to be.”
Although he refuses to say how many Hell’s Angel members there are now, Barger says that the club is going through a growth spurt. To explain the continuing appeal, Barger recalls a conversation he says occurred at a Libertarian convention in Aspen, Colo.
As Barger tells it, a woman asked: “I’d like to know what it feels like to walk into a room and know that every man in that room at some time in his life wished he was you.”
Barger said, “I’m not that sure that’s ever happened.”
She said, “It happened when you just walked into this room a minute ago.”
Barger said, “How do you figure that?”
“At some point in every man’s life,” she said, “there was a situation he was involved in, and he wished he was you so he could have handled it.”
Barger thinks there is truth in that observation. “We are the type of people who handle situations, whatever they are.”
In that sense, he says, the Angels are throwbacks to the Wild West. And the Wild West era was a better time to live, he figures: “I think people treated each other better.”
Barger knows that a lot of people view the Angels not as romantic outlaw heroes, but rather as dangerous bullies from whom they are glad to be protected.
To his way of thinking, though, the government is the bully.
He says he has heard that he was on a list of targets who would put a feather in prosecutors’ caps.
Who else was on the list?
“I don’t know,” he says with a naughty-boy smile. “But I think Gotti might have been. I think anybody who stands out, anybody who’s newsworthy is probably on the list . . . whether they’re a good guy or a bad guy.”
Ask Barger into which of those categories he fits, and he maintains an even stare. “I guess it would depend,” he says, fingers pressed to throat patch, “on who’s looking at it.”