Fans of the surreal might not agree, but 1966's Hells Angels is a journalistic masterpiece with the doctor at his lucid best. Read it, you'll love it...
I first became aware of Hunter Stockton Thompson some years ago through Johnny Depp’s portrayal of him in Terry Gilliam’s excellent ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, based on HST’s gonzo novel of the same name.
After watching the film I read the original text and then went onto consume his other works. ‘Hell’s Angels’ is the most important in my opinion and it is an ideal introduction for anyone who has often wondered about his work. Originally beginning life as the article “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders”, It is an offbeat look into the shady world of the most famous outlaw biker gang of all time. A gang which were defined by Harley Davidsons, long hair, beards, swastikas and a penchant for violence and getting loaded. The Hells Angels were immortalised on celluloid in “Gimme Shelter” the harrowing documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour which ends in a fatal stabbing involving members of the gang.
HST was often a key character in his own novels, he was a drug-taking, gun-toting, left-wing political activist which to my highly impressionable teenage-mind was a man to be revered and imitated. To quote Thompson himself, “fiction is based on reality unless you’re a fairy-tale artist, you have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you’re writing about before you alter it.” Hunter certainly lived up to his own hype and documented it faithfully, especially in his earlier works.
Thompson wears his influences on his sleeve, at times referencing writers such as Conrad, Kerouac, Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. According to an interview with Johnny Depp, Thompson once typed out ‘The Great Gatsby’ in its entirety on his typewriter to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s words and this idea is certainly manifested in Thompson’s writing. There are two overt references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing in this novel, the first relating to a shop owner who chose not to entertain the Hells Angels’ custom at one of their rallies, he is described as looking out across the sound mournfully in a scene cherry-picked from the ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the death of Mother Miles stating that “This was not going to be any Jay Gatsby funeral” because The Angels would be attending en masse.
Adhering to his own brand of Gonzo journalism, Hunter spent a year with the Angels in full sight gaining vivid insight into their life and what makes them tick.
The book starts off with Hunter giving a brief outline of the Angels lifestyle, meeting various members of the group in a relaxed social atmosphere and offering insights into a few individual lives. Far from being the weary outsider that The Hells Angels rising notoriety acquired and to who they quickly became suspicious of, Thompson was a semi-active member of the group, he would welcome them to his apartment at all hours of the day and night much to his neighbours dismay and eventually leading to him being evicted.
I blew out my back windows with five blasts of a 12 gauge shotgun
“One of the worst incidents of that era caused no complaints at all: this was a sort of good-natured firepower demonstration, which occured one Sunday morning about three-thirty. For reasons that were never made clear, I blew out my back windows with five blasts of a 12 gauge shotgun, followed moments later by six rounds from a .44 Magnum. It was a prolonged outburst of heavy firing, drunken laughter, and crashing glass. Yet the neighbors reacted with total silence.”
The writing style is somewhat unorthodox, the use of slang, drug terminology and slightly bourgeois terms are contrasted starkly. The book is put together in a singular way, a collection of articles, quotations from poems, police reports, film and literature recall the style of Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ or a detective novel where events are pieced together after the fact, though this was not the case here as Thompson sent off the novel as individual articles over the year. Thompson would often run what he had written past The Angels as not to offend them. However there is a change after the Ginsberg speech in which Thompson speaks of the Angels in less than flattering terms denouncing them as ‘mutants’, ‘prototypes’ and ‘toads’ a far cry from the early romanticising of The Angels that we get from the early part of the book. This, Thompson states, is because he has become disillusioned with them, that they have started to believe their own hype. Thompson ends on the opinion that the Angels are not outlaws as they would have us believe but natural born losers who have nothing to gain from society and as a result nothing to lose.
The Angels took everything in excess whether it be beer, wine, pills, weed or LSD
The book features notable cameos from Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and is laudable in its painstaking description of the Angels wild drug taking adventures. The Angels took everything in excess whether it be beer, wine, pills, weed, LSD, or their obsessive dedication to their bikes. And Thompson himself was known for his life-long use of all of the above. According to one article, Hunter would daily consume the following for breakfast, “orange juice, coffee, hash pipe, Dunhill cigarettes, a half-pint tumbler of Chivas Regal on ice and a small black bowl filled with cocaine.”
‘Hell’s Angels’ is Thompson’s most vital work, his first published book and a giant leap from writing various sports articles, propelling him to notoriety and infamy. The book set forth the dogma which he would live fully throughout his life, until his characteristically uncompromising death at the barrel of his own revolver in 2005. Thompson’s contribution to journalism was great, influencing such writers as Rolling Stone’s Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe amongst others including myself.
This novel would appeal to those who share the same interests as The Hells Angels or those that are simply fascinated by the depth of human behaviour, it is written in a way that is simultaneously easy to read, exciting and is undeniably a modern classic. Thompson is at his best when he is angry, whether it be ranting about gun-control, Hippies who lacked the cultural conviction of their earlier counterparts or Richard Nixon, in his writing he was always eloquent, acerbic and right. Thompson’s most endearing quality is his inability to shirk the issue or compromise and this comes across in his writing. He was upfront with the Angels about being a journalist and his straight-talking eventually led to him suffering a stomping at their hands, which rounds off his time as an honorary outlaw.