Bushy mustaches and long hair, eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a body covered in black clothing, a roaring engine and a tire that kicks up dust, a leather jacket and winged skulls on the back. All these elements add up to paint a very clear image: that of a biker, one of those who ride with his gang through the streets and highways of the United States. Although this stereotype is already well known worldwide —and even inspired series such as the well-known Sons of Anarchy—, bikers started with something. More precisely, with someone: Sonny Barger, founder of the mythical Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and visible face of the motorcycle gang for several years. Today, at 83 years of age, the pilot, writer, actor, ex-convict and many other thingsHe passed away after losing his battle with cancer.
“If you are reading this message, then you will know that I am gone… Please know that I passed away peacefully after a brief battle with cancer ,” reads the post that was published today on his official Facebook. “Although I had a public personality for decades, I mainly enjoyed special time with my brothers from the club, my family and close friends,” the publication added.
His former lawyer, Fritz Clapp, confirmed the death and said the cause was liver cancer. In addition, a few years ago the biker was battling prostate cancer and since 1982 he had been dealing with throat cancer , for which they had to remove his vocal cords and, because of that, he was forced to use an electronic device to be able to speak.
A life of many excesses and few limits
Sonny Barger was born under the name of Ralph Hubert Barger in 1938. The son of a mother who disappeared four months after his birth and a father who spent most of his nights in bars, he was troubled from a young age. As the Washington Post recalls , Barger learned to steal before he was 10 years old, while he specialized in the bad words he heard from a parrot. He smoked his first marijuana cigarette at 14, dropped out of high school at 16 and joined the army on a fake birth certificate.
He left very little behind: his father, who had been abandoned again, his grandmother, a strict Pentecostalist whom he always rejected, and schools where he was constantly suspended for disrespecting and even hitting his teachers. In the army he didn’t last either because they found out about his fake certificate , so he started making ends meet with all kinds of jobs: janitor, pipe threader, potato chip assembly line worker.
Until in 1956 he met the Oakland Panthers, a motorcycle gang. He did not last his stay in the group —it was only one year—, but his love for that lifestyle did. And in 1957 he founded the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (“The Angels of Hell”), the group that would define him for the rest of his life. Equipped with a Harley-Davidson and a leather jacket with a winged skull, Barger began to live by a new principle: “Discover your limits by exceeding them.”
He did not lack any drug: he was addicted to cocaine, sold heroin in the ’60s and ’70s and was accused of running a giant methamphetamine operation. Alcohol was never in short supply and neither were cigarettes: he was not surprised by throat cancer after smoking three packs of Camel a day for thirty years.
His gang was one of the most recognizable in the United States, and inspired fear in those who crossed them . For years they were a symbol of terror for many Americans, a banner of countercultural life. Barger acted as a de facto spokesman for the Hells Angels, defending his lifestyle on the fringes of law and order.
It was a noisy, frequently lawless brotherhood, bound together, in no particular order, by machismo, tattoos, the winged death’s head insignia, alcohol, drugs, rides to nowhere on thundering Harleys- Davidson and the craving for unrestrained freedom found in the great outdoors of the freeway.
Crime and violence were common among the gang. ” We were card-carrying criminals,” Barger acknowledged. Over time, the authorities investigated them for crimes such as drug sales, conspiracy to murder members of another club, possession of firearms, arms trafficking, money laundering, and arson , among others. To give the Angels a little shine, he started regular charity drives for children’s toys and clothing.
Barger spent a total of eight years in prison , spread over different times and for different crimes. In the long run, he valued them: “ To become a real man you must first join the army and then spend time in jail ”, he advised in his autobiography.
One of the episodes the Hell’s Angels are most remembered for is the 1969 Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California . The gang was hired to do the security of the event , making a barrier with their motorcycles and a protection with their threats. The drugs made many in attendance want to jump onstage, and the Angels used their fists and guns to dissuade.
The excitement at the event was such that Barger got angry at the Rolling Stones for delaying his departure and pumping up the crowd. The gang leader put a gun to the ribs of Stones guitarist Keith Richards , ordering him to start immediately. The music started and a woman, Meredith Hunter, fired a shot, so the angels rushed at her and one of them stabbed her to death.
The legacy left by Sonny Barger
Despite his lifestyle without limits, consequences or remorse, Barger knew how to exploit the commercial vein that the bikers generated. He was a technical consultant for motorcycle movies and appeared in several—including “Hells Angels on Wheels” (1967), starring Jack Nicholson. He was also a star of “Sons of Anarchy,” the popular biker series .
promoted its renegade brand, carefully marketing Hell’s Angels-themed T-shirts, yo-yos, sunglasses, and California wines. He registered trademarks on club logos and designs, and hired an intellectual property rights attorney to sue poachers, something that happens frequently.
He was also a writer: he published two novels, “Dead in 5 Heartbeats” (2003) and “6 Chambers, 1 Bullet” (2006), the books “Freedom: Credos From the Road” (2005) and “Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free” (2002), and together with the writer Darwin Holmstrom he released “Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling” (2010). “Hell’s Angel — The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club”, his autobiography, was the most successful book of all.
Love knocked on his door four times: His first wife, Elsie George, died in 1967 during a self-induced abortion. His marriages to Sharon Gruhlke and Beth Noel Black ended in divorce. He married his fourth wife, Zorana Katzakian, in 2005 .
In 1998, he moved from Oakland to suburban Phoenix, leaving his official Hells Angels duties but remaining a rank-and-file member. He ran a motorcycle repair shop and mellowed into suburban life , doing yoga and lifting weights, a hobby he picked up in prison. He continued to travel the open road, thousands of miles a year, eventually professing a preference for high-powered Hondas and BMWs over traditional Harleys.
“I have lived a long and good life, full of adventures. And I’ve had the privilege of being part of an amazing club,” Barger posted. He left with a single message for anyone who likes the life of a biker: ” Stay loyal, stay free and always value honor “.