Sonny Barger “ There’s more cops committing crimes than Hells Angels.”

Lee Heidhues 7.4.2022

My next door neighbor was familiar with Sonny Barger.

She spoke with me about him this afternoon and told me Sonny was a very family oriented guy.  

Rough and tumble as he may have been, Sonny always had a good time playing with the kids in the backyard of his Oakland home.

The obits for Sonny tell only part of the story.

Excerpted from The New York Times 7.1.2022

“They say we’re organized crime, but if you took every Hells Angel on the face of the Earth and got rid of them you wouldn’t drop the crime rate in the world one-tenth of one percent,” he said in a 2000 interview for Heads magazine. “We’re a little drop in the bucket. There’s more cops committing crimes than Hells Angels.”

But he never regretted his life choices.

“One of the things that has always amazed me about reporters during my whole life,” he told The Los Angeles Times, “99 percent 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.”

Sonny Barger, who as the charismatic face of the Hells Angels grew the hard-charging motorcycle club from its roots in the San Francisco area into a global phenomenon, in the process making it an emblem of West Coast rebellion — and, federal authorities said, criminal enterprise — died on Wednesday at his home outside Oakland, Calif. He was 83.

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Sonny Barger in younger days

His former lawyer and business manager, Fritz Clapp, said the cause was liver cancer.

The Hells Angels were both a defining part of the postwar counterculture and a sharp deviation from it. While the beats, hippies, yippies, diggers and other groups skewed far to the left and generally eschewed violence, the Angels reveled in attacking antiwar protesters, warring with rival clubs and targeting enemies for revenge killings.

By the time Mr. Barger (the name is pronounced with a hard “G”) solidified his position as the de facto leader of the club’s various chapters, in the mid-1960s, those idiosyncrasies had already made them something of a legend, helped along by a long list of writers who found their story — and Mr. Barger’s allure — irresistible.

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 Hells Angels founder Ralph “Sonny” Barger and his wife Sharon are shown after his release on $100,000 bond in San Francisco, Aug. 1, 1980.


“In any gathering of Hell’s Angels,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga” (1967), “there is no doubt who is running the show: Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, the Maximum leader, a six-foot, 170-pound warehouseman from East Oakland, the coolest head in the lot, and a tough, quick-thinking dealer when any action starts. By turns he is a fanatic, a philosopher, a brawler, a shrewd compromiser and a final arbitrator.”

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An older Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger with one of his books
Mr. Barger was always careful to distance himself from much of the club’s more extreme ventures into criminality, cultivating an image that was at once hard-core and media savvy.

He wasn’t there, for example, in 1965 when a group of Hells Angels in Berkeley, Calif., assaulted marchers who were protesting the Vietnam War, though he verbally attacked the antiwar movement at a news conference soon after — and volunteered to take a squad of bikers behind North Vietnamese lines.

He was likewise uninvolved in the violence that broke out between Hells Angels and audience members at a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, on Dec. 6, 1969. The Rolling Stones, who were headlining, had hired Mr. Barger and the Hells Angels to provide security, but several Angels ended up beating audience members with pool cues and stabbing one person, Meredith Hunter, to death.

A few days later, Mr. Barger called into a radio station to provide his side of the story.

He said he had been sitting on the edge of the stage drinking beer during the Stones’ set and had not participated in the fighting, but he defended his fellow club members’ action as self-defense against what he characterized as drug-addled hippies intent on wrecking their bikes. (He did, however, later admit to pulling a gun on Keith Richards when the band was late getting started.)

Clip from documentary Gimme Shelter – Interview with Sonny Barger following Altamont concert

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