Sonny Barger and Hell’s Angels

23 Sep

Book Cover Hell's AngelSonny's autographHells Angel Bodyguard Sonny signing a book Sonny Barger Sonny & Door Magazine

During the 20 years that I was a rock and religion journalist I did well over a hundred interviews with everyone from rock icons like Bo Diddley to members of the legendary intellectual hippie comedy quartet the Firesign Theater. Many of them were published in one of three publications that I worked for, The Wittenburg Door, Blues Review/Blueswax or Folkwax. However, there were some interviews that were never published for various reasons, like the magazine or ezine ceased publication. So I decided to publish them on my blog. I want to start with Sonny Barger the president emeritus of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels. Back in 2000 when I interviewed him it was during a signing of his then just published autobiography. Since then he’s written and published another 5 books and is celebrating his 75th birthday on October 13, 2014. All the information about Sonny can be found on his website located at:

Happy Birthday Sonny.

August 26, 2000

Ralph β€œSonny” Barger helped start the Oakland, California Chapter of the β€œHells Angels” motorcycle club back in 1957. He and the other wild bikers that he rode with decided on the name β€œHells Angels”, from a patch that Don Reeves, A.K.A. Boots found. By 1958 Barger took over as President. His administration both consolidated and expanded the club by absorbing, dismantling, or driving rival clubs out of the state. At the same time the Angels were granting prospect charters to existing clubs, as far away as Australia. By the mid 1960s Sonny was the #1 Hells Angel of the world’s largest outlaw motorcycle club. He hung out with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead. He was present at historic war protest rallies in Berkley, where he and other Angels beat up protestors. Barger has been charged with murder, kidnapping, income tax evasion, gun possession, drug possession, and conspiracy. He’s served 13 years in prison, and he co-wrote a book with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, a British bestseller team. The autobiography bears the title β€œHell’s Angel” (The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club), published by William Morrow / Harper Collins.

Mr. Barger was doing book signings over the weekend at two Borders book stores in the Portland, Oregon area. Since I was the staff photographer for the Wittenburg Door magazine (Pretty Much The World’s Only Religious Satire Publication), which the store carried, I decided to try to get an interview with Sonny. I called Borders and gained permission to enter the store on Saturday with my camera gear and to plead my case when Sonny arrived. By the time I got there the parking lot was cordoned into two sections, one for motorcycles and the other for cars. The bike section was nearly full. By the time Barger arrived with his entourage there was a line outside the front door. After being introduced to Sonny by the store manager I gave him a copy of the magazine and asked about doing an interview with him. He told me that he would give me a 10 minute interview after everyone had their books signed, and I could take all the photos I wanted while I waited.

During the next 2 hours a non-stop line made up of everyone from hard core bikers to middle-aged housewives purchased anywhere from a single copy to a stack of Sonny’s books, and he signed each one, posed for photos and politely conversed with everyone. He advised one pre-teen girl not to smoke, and pointed to the gauze covering the hole in his throat, where his vocal cords were removed. He speaks without any mechanical aids, so his voice is hoarse and raspy. His bodyguards were from the Washington State and Arizona Chapters, since there aren’t any β€œHell’s Angels” chapters in Oregon. According to Barger, after the Hell’s Angels ran the Gypsy Jokers out of California, they gave them the state of Oregon. After the last person left I was directed to the table that Sonny was sitting at. After we shook hands I asked him if he would sign my book, which he did, I took a few pictures of him holding it.

BOB GERSZTYN: Thanks for agreeing to do the interview Sonny, I just interviewed Mickey Hart, from the Grateful Dead a few weeks ago.

RALPH β€œSONNY” BARGER: Okay, I know Mickey. The only thing is this, let me tell you first, we don’t make fun of our club. We don’t joke about it. If you’re gonna do a satire it’s probably better we don’t do it, because we just don’t joke about our club. You know what I mean?

BOB: Yes, I understand what you mean, but I’m not going to satirize the Hell’s Angels. The interviews are dead serious.

SONNY: Okay. I just wanted to make it plain that we don’t do that. We have too many people dead and in jail for sticking up for the club name when it was made fun of in an article.

BOB: There would be nothing insulting, we guarantee. In fact we’ll even include what you just said in the interview so we can start off with the right understanding right up front.

SONNY: They had me booked to do a program called Politically Incorrect. I went down there, but after talking to those guys I walked out. What they wanted me to do was really stupid.

BOB: The magazine has interviewed everyone from Billy Graham to Anton LaVey.

SONNY: Gee, I haven’t heard that guys name since the 70s.

BOB: Anton LaVey?

SONNY: Is he still around?

BOB: No, he died. In fact, another journalist did a postmortem interview with him. Now what I’d like to talk to you about today is the place that God, religion, or anything of a spiritual nature may have in your life. This would be both within the context of your involvement with the Hell’s Angels and in your personal life.

SONNY: With me it’s very simple. I’m not religious. I don’t believe in God per se. I feel something’s happening and I don’t know what, and I really don’t even care. But people can put a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger and live and other people can fall down at 10 MPH and die. So I personally don’t believe that you can make it happen until it’s your time. However, you can mess yourself up really bad and wish you had died by trying, but unless it’s your time it isn’t going to happen. What causes that I don’t know and I don’t care. When it’s my time they’ll tell me. I’ve had a heart attack, I’ve had cancer, I’ve been hit by a pick up truck and I’m still here. Other people fall down on the sidewalk and die. You know what I mean?

BOB: Yes.

SONNY: There’s something there that says when it’s your time, but I don’t know what it is. I don’t even care what it is.

BOB: Was there ever a time that you attended church, even as a child?

SONNY: When I was a child I used to have to go to Sunday School at an Episcopalian church.

BOB: I take it you don’t attend anymore. At what point did you quit going?

SONNY: When I got old enough to turn the corner the other way when my Dad wasn’t looking.

BOB: How old were you then?

SONNY: Probably 7 or 8.

BOB: How about psychedelic drug experiences? Did you ever have any spiritual trips?

SONNY: I had out of body experiences on mescaline. I was sitting in my front room on mescaline and all of a sudden I realized that I was looking down at everything instead of looking out straight. I looked up to see what was looking down and my brain was on the rafter looking down at the conversation.

BOB: Did any of these experiences prompt you to contemplate things like God or open the door to any sort of spiritual thoughts?


BOB: Let’s look at the moral code of the Hell’s Angels organization for a moment. People who are involved in Judeo-Christian faiths will use the 10 Commandments as a guideline. Is there an equivalent to this for Hell’s Angels?

SONNY: Well yeah, our thing is we treat everybody the way we want to be treated. Then if they don’t treat us back that way, sometimes they’re very sorry.

BOB: I see.

SONNY: But the 10 commandments are basically a good example. We don’t lie to each other, we don’t steal from each other, and we don’t fool around with each other’s wives. You know what I mean?

BOB: Yes.

SONNY: We live a very moral life when you get right down to it, within ourselves.

BOB: That’s with the club members?


BOB: So then anybody outside of the club is fair game?

SONNY: They get treated the way they treat us. I mean there’s always the exception. Maybe one time out of a thousand some guy might get beat up or treated bad that don’t have it coming, but normally I think I can say in all honesty, I’ve never hurt anybody in my life that wasn’t trying to hurt me or mine.

BOB: In your book you have a story about the first time that you were arrested in a motorcycle incident. It was after a party and you tried to drive your motorcycle home drunk. You cracked up into some guy’s parked car, and when he came out and was concerned about your condition, you blamed him for the accident because of where he parked his car, and beat him up.

SONNY: No, I didn’t beat him up. I tried to but I could hardly even get up.

BOB: You’ve recovered from a heart attack, throat cancer, and being broadsided on your motorcycle going 70 MPH by a pickup truck. Have any of these life-shattering events ever prompted you to think about your mortality?

SONNY: No, it just wasn’t my time.

BOB: So it just goes back to what you’ve already said.

SONNY: Exactly.

BOB: You were in the middle of some of the greatest turbulence and nation changing historical events of 20th century America. How would you describe the 1960s in a nutshell.

SONNY: I don’t know? That’s very hard to sum up, but it was like the sixties were just a good time. They’ll never happen again. Nobody in the world will let happen what happened in the sixties happen again. I was a very fortunate person. It would be nice if I was only 25 or 30 years old again, but I lived through some really good times.

BOB: Do you think what happened in the 60s produced a better world today?

SONNY: I’m not sure how to answer that, but I think every life experience makes you better.
BOB: Do you think that the way people thought changed because of the 60s.

SONNY: Oh, I’m sure it did. Yeah.

BOB: From what you’re saying it seems that you just took one day at a time.

SONNY: Everyday of my life has been one day at a time.


One Response to “Sonny Barger and Hell’s Angels”

  1. Scott Barnes July 12, 2015 at 9:58 AM #

    I was a former member of the now defunct and corrupt infamous BET unit, aka Biker Enforcement Team. It started in San Diego i testified at two RICO cases on the Hells Angels. I told the truth that this cover police unit was corrupt and lying to entrap Sonny and the club. Later I was asked by the HA’s to appear in there Movie “Hells Angel’s Forever” with Bo Diddley, Johnny Paycheck, Jerry Garcia, Willie Nelson and several chapters of the Hells Angels. When i was at the trials in SF, I had the opportunity to return to Sonny Barger his late father’s Bible in a redwood book, white leather bound bible.

    It was given to me by his aunt Newell at my church.

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