Monday, 26 October 2009

A Strange and Terrible Saga

Hells AngelsThat’s the sub-title of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels. Originally published in 1966, I probably first read it in the late 60s when I was enamoured of such celluloid heavyweights as The Wild Angels (I desperately wanted to be like Peter Fonda if for no other reason than to bag Nancy Sinatra!) and thought listening to Blues Theme by Davie Allan and the Arrows at ear-drum-imploding volumes on my stereo turntable was the ultimate musical experience. A practice, incidentally, that nearly ended up with me being kicked out of residence. Through the window. By the other guys on the floor who didn’t share my cultural aesthetic.

Seeing that clip now I cringe, but to paraphrase George Lucas, that was in a different time in a place far, far away – a  sentiment surely shared by Fonda, Sinatra, et al as they look back at their early careers.

However, back to the book.

Still in print, I recently came across a copy of Thompson’s Hell’s Angels on the shelf at the local Chapters so I thought I’d give it a re-read, for old time’s sake as it were. And I’m glad I did.
While very dated, the book is actually quite a good read. It takes the reader back to a simpler time in America when a gathering of a few dozen bikers made the national news, when  being a member of a motorcycle “gang” was more about riding, partying, fighting, and drinking – all hard, and not necessarily in that order – than being part of an organised criminal enterprise, and when a six-pack could be had for under $1!

Thompson’s narrative of his time with the Angels (about a year) is both entertaining and informative. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of individuals and their strengths – or more commonly their weaknesses. He doesn’t try to make them heroes, nor does he try to excuse their behaviour. He simply reports. But what’s most interesting is his take on the Angels’ transition from being a few dozen rowdy California-based bikers and petty criminals to national status, a transition he attributes primarily to the media at the time. Life, Time, Newsweek all played a part, as did the daily newspapers and the popular men’s magazine’s,  in making the Angels bigger than life and a whole lot more threatening to the general public than warranted. While boosting the egos of the outlaw leaders the publicity likely accelerated the clubs growth and helped fuel the eastward expansion beyond the California border.

In the 40+ years since Hell’s Angels was written much has changed but many of Thompson’s observations still ring true today. The mass media still thrives on sensationalism at the frequent expense of the truth. Politicians and police forces at all levels still manipulate events to their (and their budget’s) advantage. Perception is made to be reality. And fear sells.

A worthy addition to any bookshelf of American motorcycle history or pop culture of the 60’s.


  1. gosh, where have i been?!?... im sorry canajun. interesting book. i typically avoid "patch" reads, but you make it sound interesting. i'll check it out. thanks canajun.

  2. I read the book and found it interesting. I realize that not everything is completely true. It is like the old saying "preception is reality." So, to some it is real.

    Good read.

  3. Thomas - Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.


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