Sonny Barger


Hellraising outlaw biker rebel Sonny Barger has died aged 83. A troublemaker in his youth, he learned to swear from a parrot at a bar, dropped out of school after frequently skirmishing with classmates and teachers, and was honourably discharged from the Army for faking his birth certificate. He was drawn to a clique of fellow former Army rabblerousers who were heavily into motorcycles. The allure of being “one percenters” – the small slice of the US population to live recklessly, not the rich sods that control America – was irresistible, and with Barger at the forefront, the Hells Angels were born.

The violence of the Hells Angels quickly became stuff of legend, aided by the fascination of counterculture figures like Hunter S. Thompson. Barger used his role as the club’s face to be as diplomatic as the leader of a gang of violent motorcyclists could be. He shrewdly was absent from some of their attacks on anti-Nam protestors, instead using his spokesman role to offer Lyndon Johnson Hells Angels bodyguard protection (LBJ declined). He similarly distanced himself from the worst of the violence at the infamous Rolling Stones-headlined Altamont Free Concert, where the Hells Angels served as security and killed a crowd member in a drunken scuffle. However he did hold Keith Richards at gunpoint when the Stones were hesitant to start their act amidst the rioting. Barger’s death threat got the Stones to perform, even though I thought Keith Richards had to be mortal for that to be effective…

After Altamont, Barger continued to do what he could to soften the Hells Angels image, partaking in charity fundraisers and insisting that the Angels’ most nefarious days were over to give cover to the group’s prolific, ongoing drug dealing. Or their plots to attack rival gangs and Mick Jagger. Et cetera. Though Barger was initially able to evade prison time via unreliable witnesses, his Teflon luck eventually ran out and he would spend 13 years total in multiple jails, which he scoffed off as “not much, considering all the fun I’ve had.” He reemerged from the slammer as the outlaw biking elder statesman, writing his autobiography and multiple books on biker culture and appearing in a few episodes of Sons of Anarchy. He was a unique hit for counterculture theme Peace, Drugs, and Death.

Sonny Barger
8 October 1938 – 29 June 2022, aged 83
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