In '64 this ex-Hell's Angel, Bernie Jarvis1, a reporter for the Chronicle, took me out to a transmission shop in South San Francisco, and introduced me to them.
I was a little edgy in the box shop . . . I was surrounded by clearly vicious hoodlums who were getting kind of a kick out of me being brought in there, wing-tipped shoes and a Madras sports coat and tie.
Jarvis really helped. I would have gotten to know them eventually, but he made it much easier. I got to know the San Francisco Angels, then through them I got to know the Oakland Angels, and then when the Nation piece came out, the word got around that I was all right. Not all of them read it, but enough of them did so they were okay. That was my credential for going back to write the book.
. . .
I wrote the Nation piece in about a month. I didn't intend to put that much into it. I just got kind of fascinated by the weirdness of it . . . but all of a sudden . . . I got about six book offers all at once, in the mail. (My phone had been taken out because I hadn't paid the bill.) I was astounded. I didn't know what the hell had happened. . . . The Nation piece was the equivalent of an outline for a book, so they said, "Can you write a book on this?" And only a fool would have said no.2
In 1965, after a long shift as the South American correspondent for the National Observer, a position that had established his journalistic credentials, Hunter S. Thompson was approached by Carey McWilliams (of The Nation) with an idea for a story about the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. Newsweek and Time, along with a number of dailies (including The New York Times), had recently published stories about the Hell's Angels following a sensationalized incident dubbed the "Monterey Rape," an Angel's Labor Day party at which two women were allegedly raped (charges were later dropped, apparently for good reason). These stories were little beyond distillations of a report released by the Attorney General of California (a report that was no more than the compilation of questionnaires filled out by police officers who had almost no first-hand experience with the Hell's Angels) combined with wild and unverified rumors, and Thompson's (and McWilliam's) intent was for a story that dealt honestly with the Angels. The article only earned Thompson $100 (quite a bit less than his stories for the National Observer), but won him an audience that the earlier journal never had.
Ballentine quickly offered Thompson a $6,000 advance to write a Hell's Angels book, with a bonus of $1,500 for signing. It was Thompson's first book contract, and would be his first published book (he had previously written two novels). Thompson signed, and spent the bonus on a new BSA Lightning Rocket, the fastest bike he could find. He rode with the Angels for roughly a year, during which he destroyed his motorcycle and then waited for it to be rebuilt (and for his wounds to heal). He attended their parties, their "runs," and was evicted from his home at least once as a result of his relationship with the Angels. "By the middle of summer," he says, "I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell's Angels or being slowly absorbed by them. I found myself spending two or three days each week in Angel bars, in their homes, and on runs and parties. In the beginning I kept them out of my own world, but after several months my friends grew accustomed to finding Hell's Angels in my apartment at any hour of the day or night."3
Later, it was Thompson who introduced the Angels to Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassidy (the remnants of The Beat), and to LSD, the Berkeley culture, and on and on (See: "First Party at Ken Kesey with Angels" and "To the Angels" by Ginsberg, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe). There's a cliché that comes from quantum physics about how one can never observe a reaction without influencing it—Thompson would be very comfortable with this idea. It's not popular these days, this subjectivization of Journalism (capital-"J" and all) that Tom Wolfe called the New Journalism (and which has been demoted to the term literary journalism, at least around here), but Thompson's brand of reporting presumes this existence of the first-person. He didn't invent it (see George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, along with many of Orwell's early works, for an idea of how Thompson developed his approach), but he certainly presents a compelling argument for its effectiveness.
Thompson's relationship with the Hell's Angels was effectively severed on Labor Day of 1966, when Thompson was beaten by "four or five Angels who seemed to feel [he] was taking advantage of
them."4 He was struck from behind, then knocked down and stomped and beaten.
Surrounded by Angels, the only thing that saved him (he says) was that he was pulled to his feet by a
friendly Angel named Tiny. None of his attackers were Angels he'd known well, but, driving away with a broken
rib and a bruised and swollen face, Thompson was a little soured to the whole Hell's Angels organization.
By this time, he'd already completed the book, and his account of the "stomping" served as a fitting postscript when Hell's Angels went to press later that year.
Most [Angels] are puzzled and insulted to hear that "normal people" consider them horrible. They get angry when they read about how filthy they are, but instead of shoplifting some deodorant, they strive to become even filthier. . . . This kind of exaggeration is the backbone of their style. . . . Every Angel recruit comes to his initiation wearing a new pair of Levis and a matching jacket with the sleeves cut off and a spotless emblem on the back. The ceremony varies from one chapter to another but the main feature is always the defiling of the initiate's new uniform. A bucket of dung and urine will be collected during the meeting, then poured on the newcomer's head in a solemn baptismal. Or he will take off his clothes and stand naked while the bucket of slop is poured over them and the others stomp it in.
These are his "originals," to be worn every day until they rot. . . . It takes a year or two before they get ripe enough to make a man feel he has really made the grade.5
Hell's Angels began as a work of cultural anthropology, a study of who these outcasts, these outlaws, these (as Thompson makes clear many times) losers were, and why and how they got to be that way. Thompson saw the Angels as a symptom of the Great Depression, of World War II, and more importantly as an unavoidable side-effect of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Although Thompson had recently decided to give up journalism in favor of writing fiction (a change he was unable to maintain), this was clearly a five-"W"s assignment, straight reporting with a twist of Journalistic Integrity. This was prior to his invention of Gonzo Journalism (in form as well as name), and would turn out to be Thompson's most conventional book.
This is not to say that his writing is dry or mundane: Hell's Angels is simply the account of an odd and significant phenomenon told by a deeply direct and honest man. The subject, the Hell's Angels, is interesting, titillating, and repulsive—and though Thompson is not titillated or repulsed, the reader quite probably is. The book became very successful, quickly, due in great part to the reputation of the Angels—but it wasn't the Angels who maintained Thompson's popularity once the public interest had passed; it isn't his subject that, thirty-five years later, prompts me to read, own, and write about this book (innumerable works about the Angels and other motorcycle outlaws have certainly been written in the intervening years, some far more up-to-date). The strength of this book, and that of the rest of Thompson's body of work, is his unwavering understanding of the power relationships, honesty (or lack thereof), and motives of those around him. He immediately grasps that he is being lied to or misled, and he also understands why.
Under the anthropological veneer, this book is a critique. It's a critique of police departments that are malevolent, bigoted, and worst of all clueless—Thompson picks apart police statements and statistics, reporting on a riot in New Hampshire (the Angels, at the time, had no chapters outside the state of California) that one mayor suggests was masterminded by a group of Communist Hell's Angels who trained in Mexico and evaded the police by soaking a highway with gasoline and lighting it as they crossed. He dissects a Federal narcotics statement that claims the Angels smuggle marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border (because, of course, customs officials would never be suspicious of longhaired, bearded men on motorcycles) and claims by the California Attorney General that the Angels number in the thousands (there had never been more than 200, according to the Angels themselves, and many of those were no longer active). Thompson presents a critique of a society that would produce these misfits, mostly poor, young, ex-military men. He critiques the Angels themselves, the foolish, fascist losers who agree with the system that created them, who attempt to take clumsy advantage of their new-found infamy, and find eventually that they are the ones being used. But Thompson reserves most of his harshest critiques for his colleagues, for the manipulative, the unsteady, the profiteers and the fools in journalism. Nearly everyone who wrote the story wrote the wrong story, he seems to be saying, and if they didn't know they were wrong, they have no business calling themselves "reporters" in the first place.
With the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right . . . and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it . . . howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica . . . letting off now watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge . . . The Edge . . . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others—the living—are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.
But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.6
Hunter Thompson writes like holy vengeance, he writes apocalyptically (in the true meaning of the word—"revelation" or "truth-telling") and musically, and his words are mostly teeth and gristle. This is a matter of some pride. It is no accident that Thompson often spices his prose with references to Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby, definitive works on their respective topics (descent, and the crumbling American Dream). That both Conrad and Fitzgerald wrote like Banshees as well (this is one word Thompson enjoys using with great specificity, and the definition by Webster 1913 shames me for my inability to better describe Thompson, Fitzgerald, or Conrad: "A supernatural being supposed . . . to warn a family of the speedy death of one of its members, by wailing or singing in a mournful voice under the windows of the house.") shows the kind of grasp Thompson has on his particular purpose in society and literature.
Hell's Angels is loaded with quotations from police officers and Hell's Angels, songs and poetry, philosophy and film. Thompson seems to be trying to remind us that this story is, after all, real. This is journalism. These people that have no place in society do exist in that society nonetheless. Thompson's words are hypnotic, and such reminders are important to ground us in reality. His meditation on "The Edge," which is some of the best writing Thompson has ever done ("Which I wrote," he says, "about twenty minutes after coming back from doing it. . . . I sat and wrote the whole thing, right through, and never changed a word of it."7) could very easily have closed this book, and would have had Thompson not been beaten by the Angels prior to publishing—but the finished book closes instead with savage and meaningless violence. It closes with reality. Thompson has built his reputation on writing smart, cutting, pounding prose, but the fantasy of his art sometimes overtakes his relevance to the moment, the Real. It is this, his first book, that I think most deftly works within the boundaries of our world, rather than his own. He has, in the intervening years, written better articles and books, he has developed and grown as a writer, he has become, in many ways, an icon. But Hell's Angels says more about this society, more directly, than any of his later books.
Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson
263 pages, Copyright © 1966 by Hunter S. Thompson
- Thompson spells the name "Birney Jarvis" in The Proud Highway (page 503)
- Songs of the Doomed, page 107-8
- Hell's Angels, page 45
- Hell's Angels, page 264
- Hell's Angels, page 44-5
- Hell's Angels, page 262-3
- Songs of the Doomed, page 109
All the block quotations in this writeup are Copyright © Hunter S. Thompson.
This writeup is CST Approved.