Mon Mar 17, 2008
By Tim Gaynor
CAVE CREEK, Ariz (Reuters) - Sonny Barger spends as much time these
days on his horse as his hog.
Dressed in a battered Stetson hat, blue jeans and cowboy boots with
chrome spurs, the legendary Hells Angels patriarch forever identified
with the motorcycle club that turns 60 on Monday, keeps a small ranch
"If I learn to ride a horse like I can ride a motorcycle, the rodeo
had better watch out," quipped Barger, relaxing on the desert plot
where he keeps two customized Harley Davidson "hog" bikes and several horses.
Barger, as tanned as boot leather from his outdoor life in the desert
Southwest, is the most famous member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle
Club, which was founded in San Bernardino, California, on March 17, 1948.
His reputation as the two-fisted granddaddy of the world's oldest,
largest and most notorious motorcycle club, has spread far beyond the
biker community, attracting both hero worshipers and detractors on the way.
Now in his seventieth year, he has become the best-selling author of
five books, including two novels. His autobiography is due to be made
into a movie later this year, he says.
While the grizzled veteran no longer holds any formal position in the
Hells Angels, he still rides with the local Cave Creek Charter in
Arizona, clocking up 25,000 miles (40,000 km) a year, around half of
what he used to ride.
"I wouldn't say I've mellowed, but I've changed with time," he says,
looking back on a lifetime spent first around motorcycles, and now
shared with horses. "Everybody does."
FIGHT TO BE FREE
Barger was suspended from school for slapping a teacher. He enlisted
in the U.S. Army at 16 after forging his birth certificate.
He was kicked out with an honorable discharge in 1956 when his
deception was discovered and was drawn to the oil-stained world of
the so-called "one-percenters" -- a term coined by the American
Motorcycle Association to describe the tiny minority of bikers they
"I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it," he says,
explaining the credo of loyalty and rugged individualism he once
expressed as "don't be a rat, and sometimes you literally have to
fight to be free."
Trading his first motorcycle, an Indian, for a Harley Davidson --
widely known as "hogs" for the firm's one-time pig mascot -- he
swiftly became leader of the Hells Angels Oakland charter and oversaw
the formation of independent charters, or branches, across the United
States and then worldwide.
Their hell-raising activities shocked "straight" America in the
1960s, when among other exploits, Barger offered the services of club
members to President Lyndon B. Johnson as a "crack group of trained
guerrillas" to drop behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War. His offer
was turned down flat.
In another notorious incident, he forced the Rolling Stones to play
at gunpoint in 1969 at Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, after
the band had threatened to pull the plug on a concert when an
18-year-old man was stabbed to death by a member of the club.
An FBI agent recently said in a documentary that bad blood from the
incident lingered for years, and the Hells Angels later plotted to
kill Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
"I have no recollection of it ever happening, and why it showed up 35
years later, I don't know," Barger says.
THE LAST OF THE FEW
Courteous and affable in person, Barger has a long history of charges
for crimes including violent assaults, kidnapping, firearms offenses
He first came to Arizona in the 1980s to serve time in a federal
jail, just a few miles from his current home north of Phoenix, from
where he sent a picture of himself soaking up the winter sunshine to
the prosecutor who jailed him.
He decided to move to the desert state a decade ago, to be with his
then-wife, who introduced him to horses.
The move allowed him to reconnect with an interest in the American
West, where he discovered an affinity between the leather-clad world
of bikers and cowboys.
"We both want the government to leave us alone," he says.
The tattooed Californian says the American quarter horses he now
breeds share something with the motorcycles he loves.
"They are an American breed, like the Harley Davidson," he says.
"They're just a lot of fun, like 1,200-1,400 pound (544-635 kg) dogs."
Now, with the Hells Angels turning 60 on Monday in an increasingly
regulated world, he sees less room for the kind of rugged American
individualism he sees exemplified by cowboys and bikers.
"We're the last of the free Americans in the United States," he says.
"There's very few of us left."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)