Angel Eyes

The biggest badass of them all, Sonny Barger, recounts in a new memoir the 40-plus years of his life spent with the Hell's Angels

Minutes after the pack of 20-some Hell's Angels and friends has roared away, Lisa Greening braces herself for a visit to Duff's Restaurant across Euclid Avenue. "I told Joby (a club member) that we'd get them beer," Greening tells her partner Barry Leibman, who founded Left Bank Books right about the time of Altamont, the most infamous example of free beer and Angels adding up to no good. "And then I realized ..."

"You were treating everyone to beer?" Leibman asks.

"Yes," she apologizes. "I thought it was just him and Sonny."

Sonny Barger
Jennifer Silverberg
Sonny Barger

"Don't worry about it," Leibman reassures her with a pat on the shoulder. Both wear big smiles. The beer tab is their only worry after a Memorial Day afternoon with legendary club leader Ralph "Sonny" Barger, who drew more than 200 people to Left Bank to get signed copies Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club (William Morrow & Co.).

Barger, who limits himself to a couple of Bud Lights this day, is riding across America on Route 66 to promote his autobiography. Like so many outsiders, he's been through but never stopped in St. Louis before. Now, here he is, right in the middle of the Central West End. The cops have made room for the Angels by reserving parking spaces amid the Volvos, Acuras and SUVs that typically line the streets where quiche and microbrews rule. "This is a nice little area," Barger allows as he sips beer from the bottle in front of Duff's. "Looks like a real money area."

Barger doesn't smile much in the photos that grace his as-told-to book, but he's beaming today. And why shouldn't he? It's the first day since he left Chicago that it hasn't rained. When he's thirsty, someone fetches his beer. There are lots of friends among the dozens of bikers and gawkers who've stopped by to say hello.

Rich Stephens, former offensive lineman for the Oakland Raiders, urges Barger to stop by his spread in Jefferson County. He's got 20 acres, plenty of room for shooting, but Barger declines. As a convicted felon, he says, he's not allowed to handle firearms. The pair recall the good old days when the Angels clubhouse in Oakland was a regular stop for Raiders -- including legends Ken Stabler, Ted Hendricks and John Matuszak -- who drank beer from pitchers, lounged in hot tubs and once saw a guest get stomped for overly aggressive slam-dancing. "A couple of boys took him down," Stephens says. "That's all I'll say."

Motorcycles are a mainstay of Stephens' life, so much so that he turned down an offer from the Rams in 1997 so he could attend a course on Harley-Davidson repair. Barger, who owns a custom-motorcycle shop, built one of his bikes. "I think he's a wonderful person," says Stephens. "All the supplements I got from the locker room, I'd bring them to Sonny's and he'd try them out. He'd say, 'This one's pretty good.'"

At 61, Barger bench-presses 285 pounds, but he has every appearance of a man who's retired to the Sun Belt. A lifelong Californian, Barger moved to Arizona two years ago, not far from the federal penitentiary where he served nearly six years for conspiracy to commit murder. He got married last fall for the third time and lives with his wife (who is nearly 30 years younger than him), stepdaughter and three horses on acreage near Phoenix. He hasn't been arrested since the conspiracy beef in 1987, the longest bust-free stretch of his adult life. A former heroin dealer, he now sells salsa, barbecue sauce, keychains and sculptures of himself over the Internet, not to mention T-shirts, hats, tube tops and, of course, leather-bound copies of his book for $125. His chopper days are long gone. He rides a Harley Road King, a massive touring model complete with hard-shell bags and a nice cushy seat. There's a minivan in the entourage, and Barger is staying in motels, a far cry from the days when Angels never carried gear and flopped in roadside fields. He kicked cocaine in prison, he's never been much of a boozer and he smoked his last cigarette on the way to the operating room during a battle with throat cancer in the early 1980s.

Three packs of unfiltered Camels a day and untold amounts of cocaine in the late '60s and early '70s are Barger's only regrets. "The cigarettes gave me cancer, and the cocaine messed up my heart," he says. Surgeons removed his larynx, and so Barger speaks through a hole in his throat that gives his voice a Marlon Brando rasp less from Apocalypse Now than from The Godfather, which is precisely his role within the world's most notorious outlaw biker club, according to law enforcement.

Barger bristles at the suggestion that he's retired. "I bought a new bike two months ago," he says. "I've got 9,000 miles on it already. And I'm as active as I've ever been, if not more." He says his last fight was about three months ago. "Guy was trying to get in the club and I didn't think he belonged in it," he explains. But it's hard to imagine anyone challenging America's biggest badass over whether someone should be in the Hell's Angels, whose members refer to Barger as "Chief."

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