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

Even the world's most influential Hell's Angel isn't really free to do as he pleases. If he were, Barger would ride a Japanese motorcycle, or maybe a BMW. He bitches about Harley-Davidsons: Overpriced. Unreliable. Poor performance. Jesse Ventura sold his after Barger was quoted saying it was time to buy a Honda. "We really missed the boat not switching over to the Japanese models when they began building bigger bikes," he writes. "I'll usually say, 'Fuck Harley-Davidson.' Someday, we'll be smart enough to walk away."

"I ride one because I'm a Hell's Angel," Barger says in an interview in Springfield, Ill., the day before his arrival in St. Louis. But, Sonny, you say in your book that Hell's Angels can ride any brand they want. "Yeah, I know, but you gonna tell these guys you're not going to ride a Harley?" Barger growls. A dozen Angels surround him inside a Barnes & Noble while strains of Mozart waft and shoppers sip lattes. "I mean, are you going to show up here on a BMW?" he asks.

Barger, who founded the Oakland chapter in 1957, no longer holds a formal office in the club and often refers to himself simply as a member in good standing. Fritz Clapp, his business manager, who doubles as counsel for the Angels, prefers the term "president emeritus." "Other members, no matter how old they are, no matter how long they've been members, hold him in the highest esteem and regard because they recognize it was his own personal charisma and so on that made the club what it is today," Clapp says. "Anything important, they ask what he thinks about it." The awe spreads well beyond the Angels. "In the biker world, this is the equivalent of a papal tour," adds Clapp. "There are going to be people who literally want to kiss his ring."

Sonny Barger
Jennifer Silverberg
Sonny Barger

In St. Louis, the Angels show up nearly an hour early and run a tight ship. Joby, the de facto head of operations, tells fellow Angels where to place chairs and makes sure there's enough space for Barger's posse. When it's time for Sonny to sign, 10 club members accompany him from Duff's to Left Bank Books. They take over the store, with one Angel posted at the door and the others surrounding Barger, who sits in the children's section. Spectators, including store owner Leibman, are kept at a safe distance -- the only people allowed within 10 feet of Barger are Angels, a bookstore employee and the person for whom he's signing a book.

To be sure, the Hell's Angels are not for everyone. Barger's appearance caused some consternation at Left Bank, which was founded as a bookstore dedicated to nonviolence, human rights and other Aquarian ideals. Barger has been arrested at least 21 times, and not for demonstrating to save the rainforest. In addition to conspiracy to commit murder, he has been convicted of assault with intent to kill, false imprisonment and numerous drug charges, including possession of heroin with intent to sell. In his book, Barger recalls his gun's accidentally discharging during a barroom fight and hitting a man in the head. "The first shot had been an accident, but since the motherfucker was already shot in the head, I bent him over the pool table and shot him again," Barger writes. He also says he pulled a gun on Keith Richards at Altamont when the guitarist threatened to stop playing if the Angels didn't cool it. "He played like a motherfucker," Barger says.

Leibman admits there's no way to reconcile his store's pacifist values with the Angels' reputation for violence, but the decision to invite Barger wasn't his. Store employees vote before inviting any controversial author. Henry Kissinger didn't pass muster last year. Barger, it was decided, is an important cultural icon who deserves the chance to meet his fans. And the book is good, a quick, entertaining read. Greening says employees read passages aloud in the days before Barger's visit. "I was laughing hysterically," she admits.

Leibman confesses he was afraid rival clubs would show up and cause trouble, but he has nothing but praise for the Angels as the party ends. A few walk up and thank him for the beer. "To be truthful, these guys were total gentlemen from the beginning of this event," Leibman says. "Very cordial. Very polite."

As they pull away, Leibman stands on the storefront sidewalk bathed in exhaust fumes, his hands in the air as he applauds.

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