The Hells Angels are the defining brand of the outlaw world. All due respect to the Mongols, Bandidos, Outlaws, Pagans, Sons of Silence, Vagos, Warlocks and Vietnam Vets. All due respect to everybody who is not on this list.
No offense. But, today, most people who look at bikers from the outside use “Hells Angels” as a synecdoche -as a kind of poetic device that describes something very large by naming only one little detail. For example, it might take “three hands” to herd “100 head” of cattle. Or, to cite another example, I have heard gatherings of bikers from a dozen clubs and from no club described by a breathless, blonde TV reporter as a hundred “Hells Angels.”
Outlaws And Criminals
The Hells Angels have come to epitomize the American outlaw mindset in the same way that the New York Mafia epitomizes organized crime. Cops think the point of being an outlaw is to be a criminal but really the two avocations overlap only coincidentally.
It is a grand dream to be an outlaw. The outlaw has roots that run 1,500 years deep in the western experience. To be an outlaw is to search for one’s moment as Beowulf searched for his moment. To be an outlaw is to be, all at once, a Viking, Robin Hood, to be a medieval rutter (or routier like Chaucer’s Knight), to be Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Boone, Jesse James and John Dillinger.
Mere criminals do not dream. Criminals only want the money.
Hunter Tells A Story
The Hells Angels became the official American outlaws about 40 years ago. They naively staggered into the limelight and fairly quickly learned which was their best side and how to be in front of a camera and turn away from a camera all at once. Decades before marketing managers started flaunting the term branding, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club understood that it was a brand, and trademarked its patch and jealously began to guard its name.
The catalyst for this, as you must know, was the club’s encounter with Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson hung around with the Oakland charter for about a year. And anyone who knows anything about him can understand how he hit it off with the Oakland HA.
Thompson was an alcoholic agitator who liked to pull nasty practical jokes. He was just the sort of orphan who gets adopted by a motorcycle club. And, he was a pretty average reporter who leaned heavily on one literary device to cover up his journalistic inadequacies.
Hunter Finds A Style
Early on, Thompson discovered what all reporters discover-that what happens to a reporter while he is trying to get a story is often more interesting than the story he has gone out to get. Thereafter, Thompson became a proponent of what is called the “first person piece.”
The story Thompson got when he looked at the Hells Angels was pretty unspectacular. He was supposed to investigate the guys who had allegedly gang-raped two teenage girls in 1964. Then one thing led to another.
What Hunter Found
In its February, 1967 review, the New York Times reported that Thompson had discovered that “the Angels were not so much drop-outs from society as total misfits, or unfits-emotionally, intellectually and educationally unfit to achieve the rewards, such as they are, that the contemporary social order offers.”
Almost everything everyone was saying about the Angels was, “to a large extent untrue” because at the time the United States was under the influence of “a national rape mania” and a “need for mythic villains; and the press has been more than willing to satisfy both.”
In fact, the Times told the world, “the life of a Hell’s (sic) Angel is pathetically mundane.”
The story Thompson found, in another words, was “Not Much Here.” But since nobody would pay him to write that he made himself into an interesting character in an interesting circumstance and then he wrote about that.
In that same first review, the Times remarked that a novel by Thompson “is reported on the way.” But from then until the day he blew his brains out in February, 2005 the promised novel never arrived. And, in the end Thompson never really had much to say except, “Look at me! I’m stoned! And, I can throw up on my shoes!”
What stuck to the Angels after Thompson’s book was not their “pathetic” mundanity but their “mythic” villainy. And, that only happened because of the story Hunter Thompson decided to tell: That he was an intrepid reporter in the mold of Richard Harding Davis who had gone off on an expedition to…oh, I don’t know…the Congo, Mongolia or the dark side of the moon and come back with a riveting tale.
An article later in 1967 in the New York Times described hanging around with the Angels as, “a world most of us would never dare encounter.” And, by 1968 Hunter S. Thompson had become (like Luke Skywalker) one of Joseph Campbell’s mythic heroes: A man who travels to hell and returns to tell us all a story about the journey that none of us is quite smart enough to appreciate until it is too late for the hero.
Not surprisingly, the Angels seemed to enjoy being larger than life-although all the police attention must have been a drag.
The 1960s officially ended with a Hells Angels prospect stabbing a very tall black man in a pimp hat who was waving a gun. And, this happened on camera, at a Stones concert in Altamont, CA. The prospect was arrested and charged with murder, of course. And, he was acquitted. But about then the public reputation of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club as a heartless band of Caligulan psychopaths was set in cement.
New allegations against some Angels somewhere seem to arise monthly: They murder innocent men, women, children, prospects and disillusioned former members who only want to escape the clutches of these monsters. No woman is safe around them. They do not care about anybody but themselves and they routinely traffic in guns, explosives, women and drugs. They are routinely described as psychopaths.
What Mental Health Professionals Say
This collective diagnosis of psychopathy was recently raised by Dr. Stephanie Wagner, who works as a psychologist at Folsom Prison. “I don’t believe that I have ever recommended a Hells Angel to be released,” she told the authors of a book critical of the club. “I consider them psychopaths.” And, she considers the club to be a “psychopathic organization.” And she has learned that Hells Angels, “don’t have a conscience.”
And Dr Wagner must be right. Because, in the first place, after a mere ten years or so in graduate school she managed to get one of those prestigious state jobs. And, more importantly, unlike her moral inferiors, she gets to live on the spacious side of the bars.
But, I also can’t help concluding that the esteemed Dr. Wagner would also diagnose me as a psychopath if she had the chance. And, what is a psychopath anyway, but yet another way to spell asshole?
What others Say
The list of accusations against the Hells Angels have come from a handful of sources who all made, either literally or imaginatively, the same journey the hero Hunter Thompson made into the dark netherworld of an outlaw motorcycle club.
A former Oakland patch holder named George Wethern wrote a memoir. A police informer named Anthony Tait spied on the club for several years and provided the raw material for several investigative articles.
A Canadian journalist named Yves Levigne has carved out a nice career for himself writing about the Angels. He began by writing about the so-called biker wars in Quebec between the Angels and the Rock Machine and then went from there.
And, I might also add that Levigne does not appear to be nearly so jolly a companion as Hunter Thompson was.
Jay Dobyns Rides
Most recently, three books, and counting, have told of the daring exploits of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent named Jay (Bird) Dobyns. I am sure you have seen Dobyns on television. I am sure you have seen him on a motorcycle, hands reaching up to ape hangers, a carefully ironed bandanna around his head, scowling and tearing down a deserted road at ten or twelve miles an hour.
Dobyns hates motorcycles. They frighten him. Throughout his entire undercover adventure he had his motorcycle towed from bar to bar, swap meet to swap meet, rally and club house. The operation was almost called off when Dobyns learned that the Angels expected him to actually to ride all of 75 miles, in a pack, “surrounded by outlaws,” for the Florence Prison Run.
Dobyns got traction with the club by offering to sell members guns. And, untraceable guns are Eve’s apple to outlaws. When you have a particular world view, you just never know when you might need an untraceable handgun; in the same way that many people went out and bought gas masks after 9/11.
I do not own an untraceable handgun, of course. Of course, I do not. That might not be wrong but it would be illegal. But my father owned a .45 nobody could ever trace. My grandfather had an untraceable gun and before that all guns were untraceable.
Dobyns Stages A Murder
Dobyns talked like a tough guy, ingratiated himself to many outlaws, fooled a few of them and was accepted by most of them. He wanted the Angels to like him and they did. He asked them to like him and they did. Then, he betrayed them. Although, presumably, this betrayal does not make Dobyns a psychopath.
The Dobyns’ investigation, code named Black Biscuit, reached a crescendo when Dobyns actually staged the murder of a Mongol, showed the pictures to his club brothers and, pretty much, said, “Hey! Look what I did. What do you think?”
The Angels, who in case you have lost score, are psychopaths, did not betray Dobyns; who in case you are already confused again, is not a psychopath. And, that fake murder formed the basis for a couple of “conspiracy to murder charges.”
Dobyns Helps You Unleash The Street Warrior Within
Dobyns is now self-employed as a management consultant and motivational speaker who instructs-I guess they must be tough guy accountants and tough guy software salesmen-on “Street Warrior Strategies For Business.” His forthcoming, soon to be bestselling book will be titled, No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. And, judging from the title I am guessing it will follow the familiar tale of an archetypal hero, descending into the nether world where lesser men fear to go, among the strange and terrible, mythically villainous Hells Angels.
And, then he returns, And all he has to show for it is this lousy book deal and some television appearances and these tattoos.
I have yet to read a book-at least a book that was not written by Sonny Barger-that portrays motorcycle outlaws in a favorable way. In fact, the farther away we get from the actual events of Hunter Thompson’s book, the more extreme the condemnation of outlaws becomes.
We Grow Old
At one point motorcycle outlaws were rootless young men roaring around on bikes and letting off steam. Now we live in a new and improved world where children are forbidden to climb on monkey bars. And letting off steam is seen as a pathology. And a fundamental distrust of cops and other established institutions is equated with treason.
And, the Hells Angels have grown old. Harley riders in general have grown old. The outlaw dream has grown old. The American dream has grown old.
Nevertheless, after all of this, despite all this, the Hells Angels still stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that they are outcasts. Numerous times each year club charters invite the general public to a party of some kind.
Last month in Reno, the Nevada Nomads charter held two annual events: “The Best Breast in the West” and “The Cathouse Run: Don’t be Afraid, You might Get laid.”
And, like all psychopathic celebrations these are terribly edgy events. Even so brave a hero as Jay Dobyns might think twice before participating.
Let Us Go
But please do not worry. I will guide you as we descend into Hell. Just take my hand and keep your mouth shut. I will keep you safe. I will be your Virgil.
The Best Breast in the West is a poker run. And, a poker run is a kind of treasure hunt for guys on Harleys. The Nevada Nomads set up a big booth in the parking lot of Bar USA on South Virginia Street in Reno. The city was crawling with cops but none of them were brave enough to venture here.
The booth was manned by a couple of hang-arounds, a prospect, a real life patch-holder, and a gorgeous blonde in a soft gray dress that rode up her perfect, faultless legs whenever she sat down or bent over.
If you wanted, you could buy souvenirs.
For $25 I get a treasure map, a bingo card and a meal ticket. Everybody calls me “sir” except for the blonde who calls me “honey.”
Among The Yahoos
I have read, of course, that all of this is an elaborate charade to fool me into thinking that the Hells Angels are not really psychopaths. It is really diabolical when you think about it. What better way to hide your essential rottenness than by acting nice?
I have seen an endless parade of banking executives on television in recent days and all of these guys who have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars of other people’s money strike me as psychopaths. But they can’t be. Because none of them are polite. None of them care what I think of them.
So, I must admit that I am one of the “yahoos,” as Yves Levigne call us, who is taken in by the Angels. In general, I do not really have a problem with you until you do something bad to me. It used to be called “live and let live.” I guess now it is a psychopath thing.
I Am Lost
I am lost in Reno. I am lost most places. This is one of the reasons why my life is so interesting. Or annoying. Depending on the day. This is one of the reasons why I put so many miles on a motorcycle. Half the time I am just going to the store and I wind up in Arizona.
I am lost so I make a couple of new friends who seem to know Reno better than I. Call them Quick and Bud. It is usually easy to strike up an acquaintance at one of these events. Psychopaths instinctively recognize their own kind, I suppose.
Anyway, as it turns out, my two new psychopathic pals don’t know Reno very well, after all. There are a lot of one way streets in Reno. And that particular weekend there are a lot of police. And naturally, every time one of sees a cop we go the opposite way. And, sometimes when we see two cops we go two different ways.
I Am Lost In Reno
We must go get our bingo cards punched at four different stripper bars and a recently defunct whore house. I don’t know what the laws are in Reno and I don’t want to rat out any stripper so I will not say what happened where. But let’s just say, in general that the four stripper bars were the Wild Orchid, Fantasy Girls, Diamond Dolls and the Men’s Club.
We had to find these fine establishments and then an HA prospect would punch out a number on our cards. They were all good humored and cordial like the accomplished psychopaths they must have been. Riding around Reno, in the twilight, avoiding the police is thirsty work. Fortunately, each bar served beer.
Also fortunately, one place wouldn’t let us in unless we paid $25, which Quick and Bud and I and several other people all agreed was “bullshit.” So I only had three beers. And, at one of the stops the prospect punched my bingo card twice.
The strippers were particularly friendly at the place on…oh, call it Tacoma street.
I like stripper bars and I like strippers. I don’t spend a lot of time in these places because they always expect me to spend money.
Most of them are just one dark cave after another but some of them are memorable. This place on…Tacoma Street, that’s it, Tacoma Street is memorable.
I wasn’t in the place for a minute when a perky, young woman with feathered hair, somewhere between a weekend weather caster and the college girl next door, confronted me, pulled down her top and shoved a nipple in each of my ears. When I breathed she smelled like sex and perfume and I could feel her heart beating through my lower lip. I had to smile. And when I smiled I felt her breasts ripple over my eyes.
Briefly, I forgot that I was a psychopath, surrounded by psychopaths, and that being a psychopath is a bad thing.
A Futile Conversation
“You want a lap dance?”
“Uh….” I am stupid. Maybe you haven’t noticed that yet but I am stupid. Especially with women. The hotter they are the stupider I get. “Uh….”
“C’mon.” Then like a little girl she sings, “You’ll like it.” I wonder, in her entire life, how many men have told her no.
“Ahhhh….” I manage to shake my head sideways.
“If you don’t want a lap dance why did you come here?”
“For the waters.”
She has never seen Casablanca. “Huh? Waters?”
“I must have been misinformed.”
“You’re weird,” she concludes. Then all the girls leave me alone.
Meanwhile, At The Ranch
The final stop is the Old Bridge Ranch -a whorehouse that lost its license under unfortunate circumstances. It was owned by an Angel named Dave Burgess. Then he had a problem with the law.
The Old Bridge is off the Mustang Exit. Yes that Mustang.
It is very dark by now. The exit leads to a Chevron station. I gas up then push off down a very dark road. The road twists right at a stop sign. Into the blackness I go. I can hear a creek off to the left. Call it the River Styx.
Cerberus stops me with a flashlight after another quarter mile. He shines the light in my eyes. He looks a little like John C. Fremont if Fremont had owned a set of weights.
“Need to see my meal ticket?”
He does not reply. He is not so much a watchdog as the Terminator Angel. He stares at me analytically and as he stares I imagine a data base is flashing behind his eyes. The data base holds a photo of every Mongol in North America but it holds no picture of me. “Park just on the other side of the porta-potties.”
The Inner Circle
This is it. This is what Jay Dobyns would call a “harrowing journey to the inner circle of the Hells Angels.” I know this must be the inner circle because I see women and children.
I present my bingo card with the numbers punched out to a table of women. Some of the women are beautiful. The least of them is no worse than plain. One of them holds a template over my card and stares for a long time.
“Did I win?” First prize is a thousand dollars.
She checks again. “No. I’m sorry.” She sounds like she means it.
I buy a beer from another pretty woman. This is the bad thing I can say that the Hells Angels did to me that night. They did not just give me my beer. They made me buy it. “Four dollars.”
“Thanks.” I do have to concede, though, that the beer was cold. I must give them that.
All these wives and girlfriends remind me of a line from Stephan Crane’s The Blue Hotel. “Usually there are from a dozen to forty women involved in every murder….” Maybe the women are the dangerous ones. Maybe, right now, the women are sizing up which one us they want to kill.
A Little Help From My Friends
More riders pull in. Many of them look like the doomed prospector in a depression era western.
Quick and Bud have beaten me to our destination. “We thought you got lost.”
“Nah. I just wander around. Ran away from the police.”
“Did you eat yet?”
“Take up your ticket to that table,” Bud says deliberately. Both Bud and Quick obviously think I must be hopelessly dim and they take it upon themselves not to let me starve. “They’ll give you a plate.”
A sweet little blonde girl is sitting at the table where you turn in your meal tickets.
And, I do know something about how children behave when they are abused. Brutalized children are afraid. This little girl is very confidant, the way all the women seem confidant.
My guess is that this little girl is loved. “My aunt will be back in a minute.”
One of the Angels begins to complain to his wife about why haven’t they served the food yet? “Soon,” she tells him and walks away. Anybody who thinks the Hells Angels are criminal masterminds has never seen the Nevada Nomads trying to get a meal served.
The Angel whose wife is not afraid of him has to boss somebody around. You can see it. He has to make something happen or his head is going to explode. So he calls a prospect on his cell phone. “What are you doing? Get some lights on in this place. It is all dark. It is embarrassing.”
The Angels are eager to be good hosts. Soon a prospect appears with an extension cord and a flood light.
A band plays. I think the band is comprised entirely of Hells Angels patch holders. They are not great. They are also not bad. They seem to be having fun. Other than that, there is not much here.
What Have We Learned
The inner circle of the Hells Angels is ” mundane.”
They are not fascinating like the impeccably dressed predators of the credit card industry. They are just a bunch of guys who maintain their dignity and worth by belonging to a club that people fear.
When I leave I bid the Terminator Angel, the one who looks like a more muscular John C. Fremont, a “good night.” He does not reply. He does not know me. He knows I am not a Mongol.
He knows I am a guest but he is working security. He is not a host. He knows I am not one of them. He knows I have not earned the right to wear a winged death’s head on my back. So there is no reason for him say anything to me at all.
Then I escape. I did all this and I still managed to come back. I have survived.