Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

by Hunter S. Thompson
(1966)
   In spring 1965 hunter s. thompson began an association with the notorious motorcycle gang known as the Hell’s Angels. He maintained close relations with integral members and factions of the group for slightly more than a year, gaining an insider’s perspective on the Angels’ daily activities as well as their group dynamics, motivations, and collective ethos. Thompson began his association to research the national phenomenon of the Angels for a magazine article in The Nation. Once the article was published, however, he was inundated with requests for a more complete, book-length account of his experiences. The resulting Hell’s Angels became Thompson’s first book and one of the best examples of his trademark “gonzo journalism” methodology. For Thompson, gonzo journalism entails not objective, detached reporting but rather becoming intimately involved with the subject being reported. In fact, the reporter’s involvement with the subject becomes equally what the story is about as the subject itself. Hell’s Angels is a remarkable record of the gang’s history up to and including the mid-1960s and provides trenchant insights into their cultural significance, but the book is no less a story of Thompson’s personal interaction with the Angels and how that relationship impacted him and the Angels themselves. In some ways the book can be seen as the inspiration for michael mcclure’s work on Freewheelin’ Frank: Secretary of the Angels, as Told to Michael McClure by Frank Reynolds (Grove 1967), but Thompson’s story is a much more indepth sociological study than the one Freewheelin’ Frank provided for McClure.
   Although prominent in national headlines for much of the mid-1960s, the Hell’s Angels were famously secretive about their inner workings and distrustful of all outsiders. By virtue of being candid in his intentions, being completely nonjudgmental, and willing to meet the Angels on their own terms, Thompson was quickly adopted as a virtual honorary member. Thompson relates many minor discussions and encounters with various important members and spends about a third of the book reporting his account of his participation in the July 4, 1965, gathering at Bass Lake near Yosemite National Park in California. Thompson uses his account of this gathering to portray the Angels as they actually are in contrast to their maligned national image. Throughout the book Thompson never attempts to suggest that the Angels are entirely innocent, benevolent, or beyond reproach; in fact, part of their reputation as dangerous, lawless, and merciless thugs is well deserved. But he also goes to great lengths to show that they in no way live up to the public hysteria that accompanies the Angels wherever they go. He dissects many of the major news stories that were directed toward the Angels during the 1960s and proves the outrageous accusations contained therein to be almost universally without merit. However, Thompson also shows that the Angels media frenzy is a phenomenon that the group—in part, at least—embraces and encourages.
   Prior to this period, the Angels were a barely existing, loosely organized group with little sense of self-identity or purpose. Once the national media turned their focus toward the Angels, their membership swelled, and they were galvanized by their new reputation as infamous and dangerous criminals. To conservative Americans, the Angels became a force tantamount to the barbaric Huns (as they were often described), wreaking destruction on everything in their path. The Angels welcomed publicity of any kind but were especially receptive to the kind of attention lavished on them by radical political factions and the liberal intelligentsia, who portrayed them as antiestablishment heroes. Toward the end of Thompson’s association, the Angels were welcomed into the San Francisco Beat circle that included ken kesey, allen ginsberg, and neal cassady. Gang members were almost always to be found at Kesey’s perpetually on-going parties; however, their presence ultimately created an atmosphere of uneasiness. Thompson writes that although radically antiestablishment, the Angels are essentially archconservative in their political leanings and vehemently denounce the viewpoints that are held by most Berkeley liberals. This tenuous alliance ultimately ended when the Angels attacked an antiwar demonstration. Thompson explains the Angels phenomenon entirely as a media creation and one that he himself played a large role in creating. Once their public image was fixed, the Angels both reveled in their newfound celebrity and fought against the way they were portrayed. In the end, Thompson painted an almost tragic picture of a group that was swept up and transformed by forces beyond its control. When they were revealed to be neither the demonic thugs nor the iconoclastic heroes that others wanted them to be, the cultural spotlight quickly turned away, and the Angels were left once again to search for their own purpose and identity. Ultimately, Thompson suggests, this is their very dilemma: What gives them identity and purpose is exactly their lack of and inability ever to find identity and purpose. Thompson quotes one member on his dislike of being called a loser: “Yeah, I guess I am, but you’re looking at one loser who’s going to make a hell of a scene on the way out.” After a year in their midst, nothing came closer for Thompson to epitomizing the negative essence of who the Angels are and what their purpose is.
 Bibliography
■ Carroll, E. Jean. Hunter: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Dutton, 1993.
■ McKeen, William. Hunter S. Thompson. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
■ Perry, Paul. Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 1992.
■ Thompson, Hunter S. The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967 (The Fear and Loathing Letter, Volume One). Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
■ Whitmer, Peter O. When the Going Gets Weird: The Twisted Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson. New York: Hyperion, 1993.
   Luther Riedel

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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