American Legend Sonny Barger celebrate his 80. Birthday26 min read
Sonny Barger – a man whose name is known worldwide. Hells Angel for over 60 years, president of the charter in Oakland, main character in movies, books and the Hells Angels. In the States it is called “American Legend”. A few years ago, author Jens Fuge was the only German journalist to have the rare opportunity to visit Sonny in his home in Arizona. His reportage appeared in 2014 in the book “Hell ride through Arizona” (available at www.backroad-diaries.de).
When I first entered Sonny Barger’s bedroom I immediatley thought of Hunter S. Thompson. He described the most famous Hells Angel as follows: “… he was the coolest in the Club, lightning-fast and bad-ass when the shit hit the fan. Alternately he would be fanatic, a philosopher, rowdy, smart mediator and final conciliator.” All of this was running through my head; all the stories, rumors, the images of this mysterious and hermetic brotherhood circulated. Demonized and prejudiced, wild and untamed, definitely unapproachable and repelling. And now I found myself standing in the bedroom of one of the most popular and famous members of the Angels, known by the world as the founder and leader of the most notorious MC on earth.
We drove into the yard of his little ranch. Behind us 160 miles of blistering heat and roadway. That morning we had started out in Tucson. It weren’t the wee hours of morning, though. This was due to Johnny Angel. The big old men of the Hells Angels had celebrated one of his legendary red-wine-parties and I guess I need not say how it turned out?! Accordingly, breakfast in the Hotel took much longer than we had expected and we didn’t get started until Johnny’s personal Prospect had placed and strapped Johnny’s crutch on the mighty Victory motorcycle.
He was already waiting for us on his lawn, exposed to the relentless sun. He raised his hand as we rolled past him and parked our bikes on the unpaved ground on a shady spot. Maxx and Sonny welcomed each other in Angels‘ manner by patting each other on the shoulder. I was welcomed with a handshake. We went into the house because it was high noon and the heat was almost unbearable. Once we had passed the door, we directly entered the living room, a spacious and open room dominated by a big semicircular sofa stood in the middle of the room. In what seemed to be a wooden wall unit rising up to the left and right of the TV-set, there were some books on the shelves, framed pictures and other odds and ends – an old violin, a red plastic box with “Coca Cola” printed on it, some bottles with and without content and presents from all over the world.
Souvenirs and reverences, which had been presented to the “chief” from every continent. A wooden snake twined around the TV-Set and in front of it were several Deathhead patches. Above the TV hung a painting showing Sonny‘s face beside an artfully designed skull. Curiously enough, he had his eyes closed and showed a smile. The painting was a present of the German Hells Angels and he seemed to like it, otherwise he would not have put it up there for everyone to see.
On the other side of the room stood a black concert grand, which was hardly visible due to masses of pictures and other stuff towered on top of it. Above all, there was a huge motorcycle made of rattan, the same material the other furniture and shelves were made of. In front of it were framed pictures stood very close together, so you could hardly see their objects. They were placed on a cloth blanket with long twisted tassels at the end. A wooden triangle with the Stars and Stripes was placed on the cover of the grand piano. The rest of the room was stuffed with riding equipment: there were saddles of different designs and styles mounted on iron scaffolds. A big framed picture showing three horsemen on the floor leaned against the wall and there were sculptures of other horsemen and horses. A Coca Cola promo sign and an ancient wooden case with likewise ancient Coca Cola bottles were placed in front of the grand concert. Also, some kind of old corking machine was placed there. In front of the obviously unused fireplace were antique oil lamps; right beside them stood a black vase looking like an urn with Sonny‘s name and a Deathhead on it. Hannah and Freedom, the Bargers’ dogs, did not leave Sonny‘s side, not even when we walked on through the house having a look at the kitchen or the study. Everywhere you could see the nicest photographs and other exhibits. For example, there was a showcase in the kitchen with big panes, in which countless little presents were piled up: Rings, pins, small boxes, patches, stickers, old brochures – all showing the Deathhead. I hardly had the time to take a look at everything while the guided tour continued. And all of a sudden I was standing in Sonny‘s bedroom. Not that it was something like an extraordinary room. Not at all. Nevertheless, I felt kind of awkward standing in such an intimate area. After all, this was the place where the most famous biker of the world put his head to rest. Here in the States people shrug off things like that, or at least they did it in Barger‘s home. In the kitchen Sonny offered me something to drink, cool water. We sat outside on the porch and started chatting about growing older. There and then I conducted my first interview with Ralph Barger. Thoughtfully, he had strapped the wind chimes together, so that the big tubes would not disturb my recordings.
I really don‘t want to rake up things that you have been asked at least 500 times before: I am interested in your life here and now, how you are doing and what keeps you busy every day.
What‘s important is that I‘m not the spokesperson of the Hells Angels. The Club is my life, and I don‘t do politics anymore, nor do I lay down any rules.
How do I have to imagine a normal day in the life of Sonny Barger?
First of all: My life has slowed down. Now even more, because I recently [spring 2012, the author] had another operation. Normally, I get up at five in the morning, enjoy a cup of coffee and then go to my horses to feed them. Then I clean up the horse stable because you avoid flies by removing horse manure. After that is done, I go to the gym at around half past seven. That is normally the way it goes, but due to the operations I underwent lately, going to the gym hasn’t been possible. Then I do my workout for about one and half hours five days a week. After that I return to the house and enjoy breakfast. I like to have a protein drink for breakfast. I like to drink my breakfast, so to say. Then I saddle my horse and go for a ride for an hour or so. Not every day, however, but on several days in the week. And later I go for a ride on my bike. At about 9 pm I go to bed, so I can get up at about five o’clock. Except when there is a club meeting, motorcycle trips or parties. But even then I get up at five o‘clock. At the most, I take a short siesta. I’m turning 75 this year. I beat cancer in the 80s, when I was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, and last year the doctors removed my prostate, which had been stricken by cancer, too. And now it looks like I am free of cancer – again! At about 5 pm I watch some TV. Then I feed the horses again, move them around and let them run for a while. In summer, when it gets really hot, I leave them in the stable where they’ve some shade, and during the night I let them out in the arena so they can run around. In winter it is just the other way round. It is always a to and fro.
Looks like you love animals a lot.
Yes, I love them. I love to play with dogs. Unfortunately, my Rottweiler died recently. He made 13 years, after all. His name was Renfield. Do you know Dracula’s laboratory partner, Renfield? He used to eat flies. My Rottweiler used to do that, too. That’s why I gave him that name. He was a rescue dog. The dogs I have now are called Hannah and Freedom. Freedom is a stray. And Freedom was given to us, but they found him on the freeway and we changed his name to Freedom … Hannah is our German Shepard. She‘s with us about a year, now. We don‘t buy any puppies, my wife and I would rather save dogs.
What about the horses? It’s a hobby that you started recently, isn’t it?
About 15 years ago, I started to learn to ride when I was 60, I won‘t mention her name, but I had married a woman who used to have horses. It was a shitty marriage, very bad. However, after the divorce I kept the horses. From the first moment riding was great fun. It is more difficult than riding a motorcycle, man, because you’ve got to make the horse do what you want – a horse has got brains, too! Our horses are both 13 years old. My horse is called Smokey. That is due to its color, it looks like deer or buck skin. I got it when it was four years old. Zorana‘s horse is called Goose. He has a gray and white speckled pattern, almost like a graylag goose. It’s about eight years now, that we have Goose.
So the beloved motorcycles are in competition with the horses. What do you like more? Riding motorcycles or horses?
I ride the motorcycle and love horses at the same time. I could do both things everyday. If I had the choice, it would be riding the motorcycle. Zorana and I both ride a Victory. First, I had a 2008 Vision and now I have a black Cross Country. Zorana rides a 2010 Cross Country. The first month she had that bike, she rode 7,000 miles. We packed our bikes and rode towards Idaho and after that down the coast, all the way to LA. All this within the first month, that Zorana got her new bike! She wanted to test the new one by all means. She loves to ride out with me.
So now you’ve got plenty of time to ride the motorcycle?
I cannot say that I ride more or less compared to former times. My Victory was 2.5 years old and already had 90,000 miles on the meter. And if I were younger and healthier, the meter would show at least 150,000 miles. Oh, I love to ride the bike. Wait a moment, when I used to ride to California into the Bay Area, which sometimes happened three or four times a month, we rode there for one day and returned the same day right afterwards. So we covered a distance of 1,000 miles a day. However, I can still make 800 miles a day..
Horses and motorcycles seem to be OK. What are the things you don‘t like that much?
I hate driving the car. When I think back, I have driven my pickup maybe five times in the last five years. Everything I do, I do on the bike. And if we take the pickup, my wife is behind the wheel. We live in Arizona and on average ride the bike 360 days per year. Here it is so beautiful … The other day, when I drove the pickup myself, I backed up in order to load something and hit a tree. When I was younger, I used to drive the car more often. Shortly before I went to the military I had my own car. After the military I bought myself a motorcycle. I was seventeen, then. When I had enough money, I bought myself a car. But when I was broke, I sold it again. However, I never sold a bike for the money. Ever since I was 18, I have had a bike. Except for the time I spent in prison. The day I went to prison I sold my motorcycle. And the same day I got out I bought a motorcycle.
You wear your Deathhead for all of your life. How does it feel to have spent practically every minute of your life with it – it must have become a part of your body, like your arm or your leg.
I cannot say what it is like without it, what the alternative would be. It is hard to say, because I have never been doing anything else.
How do you feel about getting older? Is it hard to accept that all is transitory in life, when you spent all of it basically untouchable?
Well, we’re not “spring chickens” anymore. I’m gonna be 75 and my wife turns 55. Growing older is pretty fucked up – pretty shitty. I think we should be born old and grow younger. When the time comes, you’ve gained knowledge and experience, you should be earning enough money so you can enjoy your life instead of the other way around. Because, when you have reached the point where you are a grown up and maybe have a nice motorcycle, enough money, a home and a happy marriage, you are too old to really enjoy it. On the other hand, you are never too old to enjoy it, although it is more fun when you are younger. But I don‘t really mind – that‘s just the way it is. The alternative would be to die young. But I like growing old a lot better …
How do the brothers in your club react?
We have our club rides and meetings every week, which I never miss. For example, our USA runs. The 4th of July. Independence Day. The party included. And all the other stuff that I participate in. But I don‘t like talking about the club. You see, I’m not the spokesperson for the club anymore. Hmm… how do I explain it?! I’m over 70 and the Club tolerates me. When you turn 70 or older, you have no idea how a 30-year-old thinks these days. When I was 30, 40 years of age, President of the club, I knew what everybody was thinking. I knew what everybody was doing and what was going on around the globe. Nowadays, I have problems understanding what the hell I’m doing!! So I get on my bike, ride to the meetings, conventions and parties and everybody tolerates me. They say hello and invite me for a drink. That‘s the way it is and it’s cool the way it is.
Have you changed after so many years? Have you become more kindhearted, more just or even spiritual?
When I was young, I used to think that I could handle everything with a fight. I love to box and when there were fights, we used to handle it with boxing. You can‘t do that anymore. I have learned how to negotiate and if that doesn‘t help, I handle the situation by fighting. Given, it is the only solution. However, this happens very, very seldom. When the shit hits the fan, one of my friends takes over and handles the situation before I can even start. But I don‘t like it. As a matter of fact, I don‘t like it at all. But sometimes it happens.
I don‘t think that I have become more amiable than I have been. I have always been cool and relaxed and always enjoyed a relaxed atmosphere. I don‘t like guys with bad manners, I hate people that terrorize others. Those are the ones that I used to beat up. I hate tyrants! Cops are tyrants in my eyes. Tyrants and bullies. That‘s what they have always been. They call us a gang, they want us to be a gang. And that is what we are not! We are a motorcycle club. There was that guy, I think his name was Daryl Gates, he was the police chief of LA. He used to put up billboards, 15 meters high, saying: Become a member of the world‘s biggest gang: Become an LA Cop! So the question obviously is, who the real gangsters are? The cops? Or us? We’ve got a city here, where the cops shoot five people per week! No shit – five people a week! And then there was that police officer who shot an unarmed guy. The guy was mentally handicapped and holding a child in his arms. That was the seventh person on his hit list! Now tell me that he is not a tyrant and a bully. And they justified every single shooting except for the last one. They suspended him and he is awaiting trial. He shot a man, who was holding a child in his arms. The cop said, that he thought the baby was in danger. If the prosecutors had investigated a little more carefully, they would have found out that all the shootings had been unnecessary and unjustified. But he got awards for them!!
How do you feel about friendships? You’ve got a lot of friends in the Club – what is important about a friend?
When you are loyal to the Club, when you don‘t lie – then you are my friend. I am loyal to the Club and I don‘t lie. I also cannot trust you, if you don‘t like animals. Also, when my animals don‘t like you, I know that I can‘t trust you either.
Do you have lots of friends outside the Club?
I have friends outside the Club with whom I am in contact with, …real friends. It is the same thing with them as it is with the guys in the Club. We can sit together, talk, have some drinks and we don‘t have to worry about whether I will take something away from them or they take something from me. We are just friends. I also have friends from my youth with whom I am still in contact with. I also have a sister; no children, though. Many say that I am their father, but this is not true. We always laugh about this.
Looking back through the years – what was your best decision in life? And what was your worst; anything you regret?
I believe that I made the best decision of my life at the age of 17. I was kicked out of the Army because I was too young, so I returned to the Bay Area in San Francisco via Oakland. I lived in Oakland in the 50s and there was a group of people called Beatniks. They were very popular and one of them wrote a book titled “On the Road”. That guy was Jack Kerouac. I read this book and made the acquaintance of all these guys like Jack and Neal Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg. They were not friends, but good acquaintances and we often talked to each other. I then needed to make a decision: do I want to be a Beatnik or a Biker? And for 56 years now I have been a biker. And the Beatniks are gone now. So, that was the best decision I have ever made.
And the worst?
That is pretty difficult because, when I think of it, there never were bad decisions or a worst. When I made bad decisions, I changed them. I was never afraid of changing a bad decision. When I do something and I see it‘s wrong, I change it.
Looking back to the beginning of the Club and comparing it with the way it is today: What are the great differences and what is still the same?
That is difficult to explain. Life is completely different compared to then. As I said, I cannot imagine what a 50-year-old thinks let alone a guy at the age of 30. I am just happy that I can ride with them. When the young men have questions, they come to me in case they want my opinion. Lots of guys do that. As a matter of fact, they want to know about the old days, the very beginning. I don‘t try to make the rules and I don‘t insist on it. The young men have their officers, they have their members and I am only a part of the club. I am just a follower. I have been to prison twice and the thing I missed most was to be together with the brothers and my Club. However, it was a very important part of my growing up.
What kind of music do you like?
Fifties and Sixties, Country and Western music. Mostly the old stuff. Today‘s music is nothing for me. The stuff that they call music nowadays is too hard for me. I don‘t even like modern country. I love three chord progressions on the guitar. A simple melody gives me everything.
You workout a lot in the gym. People say you still bench press 200 pounds. Is that true?
Until the age of 50 I bench pressed 250 lbs or more. But after the cancer of the larynx and now after the prostate cancer I can‘t even press 70 kg. Look at how skinny I am now. When I have overcome this shit, I will return to the gym and do my workout. Nowadays, I don‘t work out in order to find out how strong I am, but to stay healthy. There is a big difference. Because you can be very strong without being healthy. I quit smoking. Do you know what COPD is? That means Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. That’s what I got. 30 years after I quit smoking. I used to smoke four packs of Camel a day. As a result, I now have respiratory problems. I can do everything, but I have to do it slowly. There is no more “I’ll take care of that right away!”.
Rumor has it, there is a document from the AMA (American Motorcycle Association), in which they define the “One percent biker” and apparently that document is in your possession.
There is no such document. This rumor was spread in the news and newspapers. The AMA-guys were supposed to be those who ride motorcycle and the Hells Angels represent the one percent who fuck the whole thing up. There is no document proving this statement. It was spread in the news and in the papers. Have you seen “Sons Of Anarchy”? Everybody thinks we are like them. We may have one or two exciting days per year. The rest of the year is like what we were doing right now. We are just like you! However, people don‘t want to know that. They think that we are running around killing people or beating them up. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. That‘s what people want to hear – but we are not so very different from you.
After this emotional outburst we continued and talked about his business. He sells the books he has written. A total of six books. His first book, “Hells Angels”, was translated into 28 languages. Sonny explains: “We do some business. I’ve got a little mail order business and sell my books as well as T-shirts. Zorana takes care of the incoming orders and prints them out. I pack everything together and we send the stuff out. This keeps us busy for a few hours a day. It is not that we earn a lot of money with it. But there are a few other little things and all in all together we can make ends meet.”
Its been two years now that the two of them live on the little ranch. “We have invested a great deal of work and its not even close to finished, yet! We had to make it livable first. I have friends that helped us a lot. Zorana took care of the interior. Friends helped us with the electrics and plumbing. We took care of the rest,” Sonny says. “We cut down 40 trees in order to have room enough for the horses. Come on with me, I‘ll show you, so you can get an idea of what I’m talking about.” The reason for leaving Cave Creek was the growing population density. “We lived on 14th Street. That used to be on the outskirts, but everybody kept saying that it is still Cave Creek. Actually, it was called Desert Hills. Let‘s see if I can explain it.” And then he tells me about the small town of Cave Creek, near Phoenix and that the little village Anthem was built right next to it. The two communities were connected, but there were no street lights and no sidewalks, only gravel roads. You were even allowed to have horses. However, little by little they built about 50,000 houses in the Desert Hills area and Sonny said to his wife that it was time to move. Soon there would be sidewalks and street lamps. By now there are sidewalks and street lamps and both of them have settled in their new home. And just like the old times, there are still a lot of visitors and sometimes it‘s like Grand Central Station there.
During my next visit, that was exactly how it was! Sonny Barger was on the move nonstop. Besides his anniversary (56 years of Hells Angels), he celebrated the debut of his film “Dead in 5 Heartbeats”. The promotion had just gone into full power and Sonny as well as Zorana, the Executive Producer (who had played an important part in the production of the film), plunged right into the scenario. The first public showing was to take place in the Silver 8 Cinema on Bell Road in Phoenix. The following week daily shows were planned. And at the end of this week – the Bargers insisted on being present on a daily schedule to some of the shows – Sonny’s 56th anniversary party was on the agenda. A very energetic program for a guy at the age of 75. However, it did not seem to affect him at all. He seemed enthusiastic and game for the ordeal. He was open and friendly to everyone and no one was left out of getting an autograph or a picture with him.
This time I found my way out to the Barger’s home on my own. Last time I had an escort, which wasn‘t necessary this time. We knew each other by now. There was a guard at the gate. He nodded and let me pass without any further questions. About a dozen Harleys were parked in the yard some with bags strapped to the seats. A group of men was sitting offside talking to each other. I headed for the porch, on which I had sat the year before, talking to the landlord. I greeted the group of guys sitting there. There were five of them, two of them Californian Hells Angels, two others had the patch of the Sons of California Club on their back. I asked them, where Sonny was and they said, he was in the house. So I didn‘t hesitate and entered the house through the main entrance. The living room was empty but I could hear voices in the kitchen. I went around the corner and there I saw Zorana sitting with some other girls talking, to each other. They seemed to have a lot of fun; loud laughter filled the room and it seemed as if they were having a ball. At the front side of the table, Sonny was leaning against a kitchen cupboard. Hands in his pockets he and was watching the whole scenery. He stood still, said nothing, with only a faint smile on his face. What a picture!
We said hello and later sat around a big round table. It was a mixed company and we talked about anything and everything. A Californian Angel told us about his experience with the German and US authorities during the entry and departure from the countries. I could have contributed my share of opinions about my German point of view, and if Sonny wouldn‘t have called us for dinner, we probably would have discussed the topic for hours. Every now and then new guests arrived on the yard and bit by bit the ranch filled with people. Inside the house as well as outside. Drinks were served and shortly afterwards the legendary Moonshine-Liquor was savored. You could have it either in green or red color and it tasted sweet. What’s so special about it, you may ask? Well, it’s the high alcohol content. 80%! It goes a long way with Angel History and has been a longtime companion. Johnny Angel told me about it. You could only drink that brew in very small quantities, otherwise the evening would not last very long. I left the place later, I definitely had enough. But when I returned the next day, everybody seemed a little hungover. Zorana told me that the party lasted until nine this morning before everyone went to bed. Everything looked pretty much like the day before, except that there were even more people hanging around on the property. Sonny didn’t seem to mind at all. He sat here, exchanged some words with the guests and when he had enough, he went to the building where his gym was and the books were stored. Sometime later he returned and went to his horses feeding them peppermints.
We met again as soon as all the excitement had setteled. We had dinner together at an Amish restaurant. Sonny sat in the backseat of the pickup while his wife was driving. He does not like to drive himself. He ordered a Salsbury Steak with lots of sauce going along with a Dr. Pepper’s and water without ice. Of course we talked about the movie again and Sonny told us about the good old times, when they used to play parts in the most outrageous biker movies. When I mentioned “The Wild One”, he told me that he considered Marlon Brando a bigmouth, who had only played the part of a biker, whereas Lee Marvin had been a real biker. At least the film had had an influenced generations of young guys, who wanted to be like the bikers in that movie. He nibbled something off his wife’s plate and had the waiter provide a doggy bag for his dogs. He said, above all, they would love the sauce.
Hell Ride through Arizona: At the home of Sonny Barger, on the road with Johnny Angel. Journalist, Harley-Enthusiast and globetrotter Jens Fuge was on the road with the Hells Angels legends. In the first volume of the series Back Road Diaries he goes on a journey of discovery in the American MC-scene. He escorts the oldest Angels to their 56th and 54th anniversary celebrations, watched the premiere of Barger’s film “Dead in Five Heartbeats” and participates in the celebration of a 81er wedding. Thrilling reports, 100 pages, richly illustrated. In english!