Rider’s Library | Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

A third edition of Hell's Angels by Hunter S. Thomson

A third edition of Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thomson

Motorcycle Library Retro Review

Hell’s Angels, The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, was Hunter S. Thompson’s first commercial and literary success.

Preceded in 1965 by his article about outlaw motorcycle gangs in The Nation, which inspired it, the book came out in 1966.

His research consisted of drinking, riding, and practically living with California’s Hell’s Angels. It was the genesis of what the literary world would come to call Gonzo journalism; a combination of risky research by personal immersion in the subject matter, a caustic sense of humor and razor-sharp writing style.

Thompson vacillates between critical commentary on the Angels and sympathy for them that borders on Stockholm syndrome. In one passage, he’ll describe some transgression in graphic detail, and in the next, he’ll scoff at the content-hungry media that overstated and sensationalized it and excoriates the cops and politicians who never got the facts straight and never made what Thompson says are their trumped-up charges stick.

From Thompson’s point of view, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Angels might complain about their treatment in the press, he points out, but they didn’t discourage the media attention whenever it came their way, even getting to the point of calling press conferences—that were well-attended by the press.

Sensationalism in media coverage that made it into national magazines was basically a substitute for fact-driven journalism. Law enforcement getting it wrong most of the time was a result of politics mixed with incompetence.

In due course, Thompson actually does get around to talking about the motorcycles that form the backdrop and culture of the story, the 74 cubic inch Harley-Davidson choppers that the Angels considered standard equipment and his own BSA, which he describes crashing in graphic detail:

“One night in the winter of 1965, I took my own bike — and a passenger — over the high side on a rain-slick road just north of Oakland. I went into an obviously dangerous curve at about seventy, the top of my second gear.  The wet road prevented leaning it over enough to compensate for the tremendous inertia, and somewhere in the middle of the curve I realized the rear tire was no longer following the front one.  The bike was going sideways toward a bank of railroad tracks and there was nothing I could do except hang on.  For a moment, it was very peaceful…and then it was like being shot off the road by a bazooka, but with no noise.”

Thompson takes us inside the club, the culture and the times; the beginning of the anti-war protest movement on the campus at UC Berkeley, the dust-ups between the Angels and the protesters with the Oakland police taking a laissez-faire attitude. He takes us along on some rides with the Angels, to small towns and the edge of chaos.

In the end, it’s hard to tell who Thompson was down on more — the Angels, the press, the politicians, the cops, or society in general.  He summed it all up: “Far from being freaks, the Hell’s Angels are a logical product of the culture that now claims to be shocked at their existence.”

Hunter S. Thompson, also the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Kingdom of Fear and many other works died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in February 2005 at the age of 67.

Please excuse the ragged condition of the cover of my copy, which is from the third printing in 1967.  It has no doubt served a lot of readers since then, and despite its poor condition, has still gone up a nickel from its original cover price of 95¢; I paid a buck for it.

Book Data:

  • Title: Hell’s Angels the strange and terrible saga of the outlaw motorcycle gangs
  • Author: Hunter S. Thompson
  • Published: 1966
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books, Inc., 101 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10003
  • Library of Congress Number: 66-18327

Note to readers: many of the books that we’ll feature here may be out of print and some may be difficult to find.  That could be half the fun.  The Internet should make the search relatively easy but ironically, none of the books currently scheduled for eventual retro-review for the Rider’s Library section were found with the help of the Internet.  They all were found at book stores, used book stores, antique shops, motorcycle shops, yard sales and so on.

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