Among many other things, Sonny Barger was a bonafide legend of the street scene. That’s for damn sure. And they’ll be telling Sonny Barger stories for a long time to come. . . Like most people my age, I first became aware of Barger and the Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones’ Altamont debacle in 1969. Then I read about them in Tom Wolfe’s book about the Acid Tests, and of course in Hunter Thompson’s classic book about the Hell’s Angels.
Oddly, considering how large a presence and legend the Hell’s Angels loom in the history of San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve only actually met a Hell’s Angels once in all my years on the Bay Area street scene (1976-2022 and counting). I always wondered if it was because their presence had waned over the years by the time I got here. Compared with their more legendary exploits in the ’60s. Or if I just ran in different circles than them (I haven’t even driven a car in 45 years, let alone a motorcycle). And aside from a couple of notorious crime stories that popped up in the headlines of the local papers around 1980 — and on ocassion in the years that followed — they mostly seemed to be living a fairly quiet life, or at least mostly beneath the radar of polite society.
The only Hell’s Angel I got to know even a little was this guy — let’s call him Crazy Stuart. He hung out at Hate Camp and People’s Park for awhile. He never wore his colors during the times I knew him — mostly just wore a plain, sleeveless denim vest. And I never saw him ride a bike or hang out with other Angels. But he would ocassionally mention he was an Angel — though it was something he rarely talked about — and I had no reason not to believe him. Crazy Stuart often had a beat-up old street guitar, and would belt out old rock songs with a voice that was a bit ravaged by time, but still soulful, and he could make some bucks busking. Ocassionally he might tell a story or two about some violent encounters he had had in barrooms and pool-halls past. And he had a couple of doozies. But he’d tell the stories simply and matter-a-factly, with no embellishments, as just one of those things that would happen sometimes, just a part of the crazy world that he lived in.
At any rate, I was just thinking about all this today, what with Sonny Barger in the news today.