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Why Hells Angels Is Hunter S. Thompson's Masterpiece

by Lucas Morton
22 October 2013 59 Comments

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.

More…

The World’s Greatest Cover Letter By Hunter S.Thompson

Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson

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.

 

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

ad 11:48 am, 18-Mar-2012

at the start of the book he's going on about how crusty these guys are, and how the dirtyness of their jackets shows how long they've been hell's angels. i think it's got a lot to do with the drug taking!

ad 12:03 pm, 18-Mar-2012

also i'd be much interested to know what the 'beourgeouis terms' are he uses. i can't remember any, they would have prob gone over my head anyway, and it sounds something interesting i'd want to know. cheers.

Ian Hough 5:00 pm, 18-Mar-2012

Read this book a long time ago, but still remember its perfect incongruous simplicity, like a vicious head-stomping at some Disney-esque beauty spot. Personally I'm waiting for "Prince Jellyfish" to be published. What galls me is that Johnny Depp probably already has the thumbs-up to do the movie.

OLD 1960S ANGEL 6:17 pm, 18-Mar-2012

I wish they would make a good movie based on this book. I was around back then when Hunter hanging around the club and was gathering info for this book and I was with the Frisco HA back then. im 72 years old now. I liked him even though he was a bit of a wimp.

Romance Glory And Brawn 8:06 pm, 18-Mar-2012

Sonny Barger and Johnny Angel Palomar are the only two active Hells Angels still alive from back then. they both are still alive and well living in the Phoenix Arizona area and are still members of the Hells Angels MC Cave Creek Charter Arizona. Sonny and Johnny no longer ride Harley Davidson motorcycles they both ride Victory motorcycles now. Sonny hates Harley Davidsons and he now has his own website and facebook page. boy how times have changed since back then. Sonny works out everyday and stays in good shape and rides horses on his small ranch in Arizona and writes books himself now.

Carl_Lazlo_Esq 8:35 pm, 18-Mar-2012

Hey OLD 1960s ANGEL - that's a hell of a cool story you could weave. As for a movie - no, not possible. The book is too intricate and besides, what director would have the balls.....? They'd only make a mess of it. I love this book, I love the whole H.S.T. 'brief'. He's sadly missed. No one can hold a candle to this day. Damn!

REDLINED 8:49 pm, 18-Mar-2012

Hollywood Movie Director Tony Scott is making a movie based on Hells Angels leader Sonny Bargers book about his life called Hells Angel. the book came out 2002. Sonny Barger now plays Lenny the Pimp on the biker TV show SOA Sons Of Anarchy.

Mayshy 9:06 pm, 18-Mar-2012

I would have preferred to read 800 words of 'Old 1960s Angel' and his review of Hells Angels.

Ian Hough 11:47 pm, 18-Mar-2012

Did Sonny finally hate Harleys cuz of all them dentists and doctors who ride 'em at weekends? I bet neither HST or those doctors would manage such perfectly spelled/punctuated comments as those I've read here by blokes in their 70s. I'm not calling bullshit, but juss sayin'.....

REDLINED 12:43 am, 19-Mar-2012

Sonny Barger has hated Harleys for many many years. the only reason he rode them is because he had to ride HD bikes because the HA require its members to ride an American made motorcycle and there were no other American made bikes to ride until Victory bikes came around a few years ago. so when that happened Sonny bought his first Victory Vision bike from California bike builder Arlen Ness who sold them at is bike shop. in the USA doctors and dentist who ride bikes on the weekend are called RUBs = Rich Urban Bikers or Yuppie Weekend Warriors who are going threw an over 50 yrs old midlife crisis.

REDLINED 2:01 am, 19-Mar-2012

Sonny Barger will be celebrating his 55th year anniversary as a member of the Hells Angels MC on April 8th 2012 with a Bike Run starting at the Steel Horse Saloon in Phoenix Arizona USA.

Carl_Lazlo_Esq 3:30 pm, 19-Mar-2012

What I'd like to read, is Sonny's take on H.S.T.'s time with the HA's. Now that would be cool! Anyone got a link to Sonny? Shit, I'd even do the interview myself if I could.

me 5:06 pm, 19-Mar-2012

hunter thompson is a lsoer that ended up gettin stompec by the HA & totally embarASSED by the HA ... do you research, until u no wha ur talkin about keep ur pie hole closed

Carl_Lazlo_Esq 5:31 pm, 19-Mar-2012

A succinct and well constructed argument there from 'me'. Can I advise some lessons in keyboard, spelling and punctuation for yourself? Keyboard warrior that you are....

Ian Hough 5:34 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Redlined, do you know about Indian Motorcycles, made in Springfield, Massachusetts, pre-HD? There's a brewery nearby that even brews an IPA named after Indian bikes. I used to know a lot of bikers in New England and am still in touch with a few. I could never understand the tendency to send a new bike off to replace the factory pipes with straight pipes to get that "popping" sound. Why not just buy a real bike, a Triumph or a Norton? Just kiddin'.

gingerprince 5:49 pm, 19-Mar-2012

'me'- troll off somehwere else you single brain cell.

Old 1960s Angel 6:05 pm, 19-Mar-2012

HST got beat up by the HA at a bike run camp out and I was there at that time. as for Sonny Barger he has done many interviews on HST on TV and in print. Sonny did not like HST very much. some guys in the club liked Hunter some did not. Hunter owed the Angels a keg of beer for letting him hang around with us for his book story and he never paid us our keg of beer.

PROUD WHITE INFIDEL 6:10 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Real Bikers and real Hells Angels live in the Sunny Year Round Warm Desert States like California,Arizona and Nevada where the Hells Angels MC were born in the great old USA. anywhere else is a joke. motorcycles were born and made to be rode in sunny warm weather not rain ice snow or cold. DIG IT?

Romance Glory And Brawn 6:18 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Hunter S Thompson got beat by Hells Angels Junkie George for mouthing off to George after George had slapped his old lady and then he George kicked his dog and Hunter didnt like it so George beat up Hunter for not minding his own business after Hunter had said to George only punks slap their women and kick their dogs so George beat him up after that smart comment from Hunter.

Ian Hough 6:23 pm, 19-Mar-2012

I agree on the climate thing, Proud Shite Infidel, but some of these lads are proper bad bastards and ain't fraught o' a li'l ice 'n' snow, ya dig?

FLASH HAMC OAKLAND CALIF 7:22 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Ian Hough you got a big punk ass mouth Pal. come on over to the Hells Angels MC Clubhouse at 4010 Foothill Blvd Oakland California. FLASH ,HELLS ANGELS MC OAKLAND CALIFORNIA.

OUT WEST 7:30 pm, 19-Mar-2012

The HA in London England I have met are nothing like the real 81 guys in California. the London HAs are soft and sissified Britishers compared those those big bad tattooed tan muscular prison bikers from California who started it all. the whole 1%er outlaw biker world started in California in the 1950s not England. England bikers are trying to be like bikers in America. they are not the real thing in Britain. they are copy cats of American biker culture that was born in America years ago.

Susie 7:39 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Riding a motorcycle in ice,snow ,cold or rain does not make a man a proper bad bastard it makes him a leather wearing dumb guy who doesn't have the common sense to stay indoors when its like that outside or move to a warmer climate.

LAS VEGAS NEVADA BIKER 8:30 pm, 19-Mar-2012

When Prince Harry was stationed in Arizona a few months ago he was riding on a rented Harley Davidson motorcycle from Scottsdale Arizona HD shop. he then went and rode on a Hells Angels bike run with Sonny Barger and the local Arizona Hells Angels up to Las Vegas Nevada. it was on the news here in Las Vegas when that happened. Harry was looking real happy and he was a very good bike rider as well.

Garth Leesh Allen 8:38 pm, 19-Mar-2012

Thompson's look at the angels is almost 50 years outdated and is a fantasy according to what they are involved in today. These guys murder and intimidate witnesses, buy off judges and prosecutors, import, process, distribute and sell drugs to our youth, steal, cheat and lie about everything they say, kill and maime any competition that they see as a threat to their international criminal empire. These guys are domestic terrorists and if the international police forces and law inforcement don't have the political legislatures bring in new laws to have them deemed as a criminal organization everywhere then we as good men deserve what is coming to us as idiots....

Ian Hough 9:48 pm, 19-Mar-2012

I said NEW England, not London, England. And I also agreed with SOME of what you said about the climate. Bikers don't ride here in the winter, they're not that dumb, but they ARE dumb enough to ride the interstates w/out helmets, cos it's legal....how do you feel about that? I've not got a big mouth, I'm just talking. Just heading out right now to a Mexican bar for a few cold ones....sun's shining...please don't hate me because I'm beautiful, guys. Indian motorbikes were made BEFORE Harleys though - FACT.

Harlequin 10:34 pm, 19-Mar-2012

What a bunch of macho bollocks. Get a grip.

bogfox 10:51 pm, 19-Mar-2012

All Angels are gay.......

HEY GARTH 12:04 am, 20-Mar-2012

Hey Garth you need to go get them evil sinful HAs and get rid of them once and for all and while your at it trying to save the world from evil get the mafia to OK? EX ATF agent Jay Dobyns tried to get rid of the HAs but he failed. read about his failures in his book NO ANGEL by EX ATF AGENT JAY DOBYNS. the HAs will never go away they will be here till the end of mankind. the sun never set on a Hells Angels patch. HELLS ANGELS MC LYNN/SALEN MASSACHUSETTS.

BONGA , KOA PUNA MC HAWAII 12:14 am, 20-Mar-2012

Whats the big deal about Indians being made before Harleys? things like that dont matter to a bike rider. you show respect to the rider and his bike no matter what it is or what he rides. as for what bike came first who cares? I sure dont care. as for wearing or not wearing helmets what a man does with his own head is his own business not mine. dont drink a few cold ones and ride a bike or drive a car. drunk drivers are killers of bikers. as for sunshine I live in sunny warm hawaii where the temp is never below 74 degrees all year long and it stay between 74 and 87 all year long. the sun is out? give me a break Haole aka white boy. BONGA KOA PUNA MC HAWAII.

CRAZED COUNTRY REBEL 12:24 am, 20-Mar-2012

Whats an Indian being made before a Harley Davidson got to do with this story about HST? sounds like Ian is just a bit jealous of Harleys or something like that.

HUNTER RODE A NORTON 12:39 am, 20-Mar-2012

Hunter S Thompson rode a Norton motorcycle when he was riding with the Angels and getting info for this book. I have pictures of him from that time on his Norton motorcycle.

Ian Hough 2:47 am, 20-Mar-2012

Hunter Rose a Norton. Why d'you think he chose that particular bike? The answer is because he had wider connections and knew how to keep up with the more cumbersome Harley Davidson. Another little nugget: On the Shangri-Las song "Leader of the Pack", they used a Triumph, because it was the only bike at the time that could manage that macho low growl. And if we're honest, the only. Apart from Norton. And "baseball card in my bicycle spokes" Harley Davidson. Seriously, I love you guys, would never dare really insult you, because I have respect. I am actually so stoned I can't remember how this started, now...never mind....*hits Submit*

Ian Hough 2:49 am, 20-Mar-2012

So, do you guys have a book to write or what?

loluke 7:51 am, 20-Mar-2012

That Lucas Morton sure is some kinda somethin'.

cutpricethen 10:57 am, 20-Mar-2012

Next... My favorite film : Star Wars and why it is better than Return Of Jedi.. Yawn.

Ian Hough 2:12 pm, 20-Mar-2012

thee filmd dat in press switch cluff ah rekun.

North Shore Surfer 5:58 pm, 20-Mar-2012

I met 2 members of the Hells Angels North Shore Charter from Haleiwa Oahu Hawaii at Sunset Beach one day sitting on their Bikes checking out the sexy women getting tan on the beach and checking out the waves. they both were really polite friendly guys. I then met them again a week later at Pipeline Beach surfing on the waves when I was surfing and they were both really good surfers. I never knew bikers or even Hells Angels surfed but they do and they were good at it to. after all this is Hawaii and 85% of the people here surf so I guess it wasnt that weird after all.

A Friend Of Hunters 6:03 pm, 20-Mar-2012

Hunter owned a Black 1987 Harley Davidson Softail when he died. he was a friend of mine here in Aspen Colorado for the last 37 years.

DUCATI MONSTER 9:10 pm, 20-Mar-2012

THE DUCATI MONSTER bike is the Best Bike on Earth.

Ian Hough 1:21 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Vincent Black Shadow. Adidas Black Shadow. Durex Black Shadow. The trinity of cool.

days gone by. 3:06 pm, 21-Mar-2012

IAN HOUGH is living in the past. I had bikes like that in the 1960s. those days are gone with the winds of time. times change and times move on quit living in the past.

talk is cheap 3:10 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Hey Ian those are great bikes but how many of those type bikes do you actually own and ride everyday? do you ever ride them to Sturgis bike week in South Dakota? or Daytona bike week in florida? or even Laconia NH? or the Redwood Run in Northern California? I think your a fake and a poser.

BIG WAVE SURFER 3:12 pm, 21-Mar-2012

The trinity of cool is being a big wave surfer on the north shoe of Oahu Hawaii. when you ride waves that are 30 to 60 feet in winter you are as cool as it gets.

Zorana Barger 3:26 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Looks like someone hit a nerve with Ian with that comment about Hunter S Thompson riding a 1987 HD Softail. look at how Ian responded back. talk about a guy with an inferiority complex low self esteem insecurity and weak ego.

AGING REBEL 3:38 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Who is this know it all British bike dork that keeps posting on here named Ian Hough? he sounds like a lonely bored loser if you ask me.

Desert Rider 4:24 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Ian seems to have alot of free time to talk about and blab blab blab and yap yap yap about bikes online and comment blogs like this one but does he actually ride or own bikes or does he just sit around all day writing and dreaming about them? where I live itS 81 degrees and sunny an im heading out for a slow roll on my bike in a few minutes.

HARLEY RIDER 4:32 pm, 21-Mar-2012

I have noticed for a long time that alot of British bike lovers are jealous of Harley Davidsons and Harley riders. why is that?

COWBOY , HELLS ANGELS AZ 4:41 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Real Bikers ride bikes they dont sit around writing and bragging about them. COWBOY , HELLS ANGELS MC CAVE CREEK ARIZONA CHARTER.

Ian Hough 5:26 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Guys, guys, guys, why all the bloody daft ganging up here? The Durex Black Shadow is an awesome bike, especially if you're going into the dirt, as it were, and don't want the soilage to be too obvious...plus, all that rubber sheath is totally waterproof. The Adidas Black Shadow was discontinued in 1981, after its scarcity triggered several murders in the ginnels of atrocity. They're making a TV show called Ginnels of Atrocity in the UK, about a biker gang from the early-80s, based loosely on Sons of Anarchy. When I was a kid I owned bikes. Chippers, Choppers, even a tracker I made myself from bits and pieces. I used to insert a lollipop stick into the spokes so it made a loud noise and everyone would look round to see who it was. I believe you guys in the States used to use baseball cards for the same effect, and when you became adults you rode Harleys with those loud popping pipes on them. I've never owned a motorcycle. Are they good? You guys shouldn't gang up on me like this. I was only having a laugh with yi.

Ian Hough 6:39 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Serious question: what do you all think of "Sons of Anarchy"?

koba 7:16 pm, 21-Mar-2012

i thought all the HA with there muscles and tans and leather were, well you know, a little faggy. a 60's gay gang riding around on bikes, trying to compensate for certain lacking things. no i'm not meeting any of you fags to discuss this at whatever shithole you call home either...

Ian Hough 7:38 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Ignore Koba dudes. He's probably one of them doctor bastards. I bet he's a gastro-enterologist with a fucking massive fat boy who loves peeling out the local Dairy Queen to impress the high schoolers. Me, I like a big dirty sticking bloody bush, preferably attached to some beast like Barbara Bush, and I do some tongue donuts on that muthah! So, Sons of Anarchy? What do you think of it?

COWBOY , HELLS ANGELS AZ 9:14 pm, 21-Mar-2012

Most HAs hate SOA and think its lame. but my friend and club brother Hells Angels leader 72 year old Sonny Barger plays Lenny the Pimp on the show and the bikes that they ride on SOA are built by the Hells Angels MC in California. SOA is nothing like living the real 1%er life we just dont live like that in real life. its all a fake tv show about outlaw bikers. most HAs in my chapter dont wear anything leather except the cut or vest we have our HA patch sewed onto. most of us wear black jeans ,flannel loggers shirts and tenny shoes and or camouflage pants. we dont wear alot of leather other than our vest-cuts some of which are black Levi jean vest not leather. we are not big into leather wearing thats for the yuppie rub look not HAs.

Blumphy 12:14 pm, 22-Mar-2012

Would anyone care for a biscuit?

HAPPY ON SOA IS 81 3:48 pm, 24-Mar-2012

David Labrava who plays Happy on the SOA TV show and is a member of the Hells Angels MC in Oakland California.

PoP's 3:01 am, 31-Mar-2012

There is no Hell's Angels chapter in Hawaii dumbass.

R.K 2:54 am, 13-Dec-2013

Well I do have to say after reading some of the comments,and beings around and riding harleys when it was not cool!(like it is today).There are very few people in this world that actully really understand what is means to be totally emersed in the world of harley davidsons and what comes along with it! One aspect that I will leave you with is how many out there build, service, and ride thier own scoot?

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