Journalist and author Hunter S Thompson is probably one of the most influential journalists in the history of American media. His manic yet insightful writing has undeniably inspired many writers, including Matt Taibbi- the author of The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing.
He’s also one of the most prolific weirdos to ever walk this damned earth. There’s hundreds of stories about Thompson. From his bizarre daily routine of drug use to his campaigning for county sheriff of Aspen, in which he shaved his head bald so that he could refer to his Republican rival as “my long haired opponent” his opponent had a crew cut.
Hunter possesses a legendary status among writers. He’s one of a kind. Too weird to replicate authentically yet too mad to fall into obscurity. So imagine my surprise when reading this book to find out there are people that even Hunter S Thompson thinks are too crazy.
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, follows the year long journey Hunter went on when he received unprecedented access to the motorcycle gang. More specifically, their Oakland chapter.
The book of course focuses on the Hell’s Angels and their strange and erratic subculture, but it also delves into many other topics such as press mania. How respectable media outlets like the New York Times and Time Magazine exaggerated the danger of the Angel’s to the point where their dying fraternity made a revival.
A lot of what we today would associate with the Hell’s Angels, as explained by Hunter, is almost purely hype. They’re not adept criminals, they’re not good drug traffickers or dealers. They don’t go about breaking legs or asking people for protection money. The vast majority of what they do consists of driving around on loud motorcycles, heavy drinking, drug abuse, sexual assault and the occasional bar fight.
They’re no Yakuza, no Mafia- just a bunch of apathetic hicks whose only joy in life is freaking out the general public with their obscenities and grotesque stench. They try and stay clear of trouble. In fact, in the entire book the only motorcyclist who had a gun was Hunter himself.
The author writes about the Angels as if he both loves and despises them. On one page he’ll denounce them as losers, thugs and gang rapists. On the next he’ll defend their thuggery as being exaggerated, breakdown the various rape accusations that were eventually thrown out of court and express how they are admired by the general public.
That’s another one of the strange things the media inadvertently caused; their celebrity nature. While police unfamiliar with the Angels remained vigilant and nervous in their presence, tourists and the general public became infatuated with their image. They asked about their bikes, tattoos and the Nazi iconography that the Angels claim to use ironically.
But unlike other celebrities, the Angels do not live comfortably. In fact their living conditions could be described as abject poverty. They’re persecuted by cops- despite the worst thing they’ve ever been convicted for is minor battery. They’re driven out of towns by angry locals. The only sympathisers they seem to have are the people making profit off the beer they sell to them.
Most Angels work for a living, particularly in the winter months. But they have difficulty finding and keeping good jobs due to the stigma of their fraternity- and it is a fraternity. What the Angels do regularly is no more gross, indecent or sadistic than that of a middle class frat boy. The only difference between the two is that the Angels are poor and smell better.
The Angels hold up a mirror to the society they inhabit. Post World War II the biker gang started out. Predominantly young men who had nothing going for them. Exhausted of working life, family life and modernity. So they seek to liberate themselves by roaming the land with their bikes, getting drunk and high and causing trouble.
Their history with anti-social behaviour dates back two decades, yet the press only caught wind of them in the sixties. Here they would often be slandered as drunkards, satanists, rapists and communists. They were used as tools to keep the American public as afraid as humanly possible during the Red Scare. Used as scapegoats for political campaigns. That is until they beat up some hippies- then of course they became American heroes.
The book is quite dense in its history. Hunter leaves no stone unturned. The only issue I have with the book as a whole is his questionable statements in regards to rape- in which he devotes a long winded chapter in debunking some of the rape accusations that the Angels have faced, all the while detailing a potential rape he himself witnessed at one of their parties. He concludes by essentially stating that “rape is bad” but expressed it in such a convoluted manner that it blurs lines more than it sharpens them.
The end of the book was a little clunky and incoherent as well. The book is not told linearly. It’s a breakdown of intricate histories, quirks of a vile subculture and drunken buffoonery. It’s hard at times to remember all the names and details, as Hunter jumps back and forth between cases. In one chapter he’ll talk about a tense 4th of July weekend he attended with the Angels and in the next he’ll breakdown a riot that the Angels were blamed for three months earlier.
Despite this Thompson offers an insightful and stomach churning critique of the media industry, celebrity and the appeal of outlaw culture in America. The Angels posses the behavioural quirks of a Frat boy and the world view of a 4Chan troll. Their lawless way of life appeals to the angry, the discontent and the bored. It’s a lifestyle befit only for young men whose only real pleasure in life if the sensation they get thundering down the street in a colossal metal steed hiding their insecurities.
Like most of Hunters work, the book is sadly relevant and therefore worth reading.