Sonny, How We Love Ya

City Museum, monstrous vehicles and a meet-'n'-greet with the Hell's Angels prove that danger can be fun; plus, the socioeconomic impact of bling bling

Sonny Barger and about a hundred Hell's Angels from the bi-state area were in town last week to help the iconic club leader promote his book Ridin' High, Livin' Free: Hell-Raising Motorcycle Stories. The cops -- who this spring cracked down hard on bicyclists protesting the World Agricultural Forum -- sat this one out, so Unreal sent freewheeling freelancer Tom R. Arterburn to infiltrate the group, then had to deprogram him afterward.

Unreal: What's with slicking back what's left of the hair, the wraparound shades and the windburned cheeks? That charismatic felon and his tripe-spewing co-writers didn't get one over on you, did they?

Tom R. Arterburn: What? The Angels are cool! We just sat around Doc's Harley-Davidson and bashed government, law enforcement and import bikes -- harmless, low-key stuff.

What'd you do for research on this one? Flip through back issues of Easy Rider and surf Didn't catch wind of anything on the casino riot in Laughlin, Nevada, that led to three dead bikers, dozens of injuries and a Hell's Angel charged with thirteen felonies, including conspiracy, attempted murder and gang murder? Nothing on the ATF shootout and raids on Barger's clubhouse in Arizona last month that netted a cache of weapons, explosives and a human skeleton?

Sonny says that's just the government setting up him and his brothers again. He said the real Laughlin story is concealed in his yet-to-be-released novel, Dead in Five Heartbeats.

The one packed with incriminating banter about drug trafficking, gangland assassinations and a host of other illegal activity?

He says it's a novel: "fiction."

Jesus! How many beers did you drink with the ol' gang? Is it a real story, or is it fiction? Do we have to worry about him using these book-signings as an all-expenses-paid way of rebuilding the scourge-on-two-wheels of the '60s and '70s, or not?

I didn't want to push him too hard on that. He lost his larynx to throat cancer and just got out of prison not that long ago. And besides, we're not talking about the yuppie biker's answer to Civil War re-enactments and country line-dancing here. These guys are hardcore, and they've got the scars to prove it. By the way, did I mention Sonny's Web site,

Hum Job

The site is constructed as a Hummer H2 enthusiasts' haven, a plethora of praise in honor of General Motors' jumbo military vehicle qua beast-of-the-boulevard that, literally, rules the road in 2003. A closer read of, though, reveals a hilarious pillorying of extravagant wastefulness.

"GM celebrates Hummer's state-of-the-art 1950s engine technology with some of today's hottest stars," reads the headline of "TODAY'S TOP STORY," which tops an article describing a new ad campaign that features Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Dion. Other pages feature road tests ("OFF-ROAD PERFORMANCE: 10 out of 10. Superb traction in marigold beds, easily cleared grocery parking lot bumper stops and most speed bumps. Not as sure on gravel or dirt roads."), an offer for add-ons ("Custom Horn Tones: "Ride of the Valkyries," "Theme from Rocky" and "What a Wonderful World") and a load of bogus charts and polls.

The site was commissioned by the environmental organization the Sierra Club and executed by downtown St. Louis advertising agency The Experiment. "It's not that we're beating up on Hummer drivers or SUV drivers," says Experiment co-owner Paul MacFarlane. "These are people who are buying it because they think they're missing something: 'I'm not macho enough. So with this big hunk of steel, I'll look tough and cool and people will look at me.' I mean, you can walk around with a swastika on your head and people will look at you. So I have compassion, because they feel like they're missing something."

The site obviously owes a debt to the parody newspaper The Onion, inspiration MacFarlane readily acknowledges. "What The Onion learned years ago was that if you tell something preposterous straight, it's funnier. We wanted it on its surface to appear to be an enthusiast's site, and it was just a natural to do that."

The Cirque Comes to Town

Unreal crashed Cirque du Soleil's opening-night afterparty expecting to see Siamese twin dwarves hanging from the ceiling of the City Museum, catching live bats between their toes, but we encountered something even better: free flank steak and Grey Goose vodka.

The question of the night was: Whose liability insurance is higher? The Cirque's, whose performers risk death and dismemberment every night, or Bob Cassilly's, whose barely soldered, 50-foot-high wire cages provide entertainment for the drunken frat boys that prowl through them?

One thing is for sure: Cassilly is Vincent van Gogh to the Cirque's Dennis Rodman. The Lou's skinny white architect is a visionary outsider, while the Cirque's main function nowadays seems to be selling tickets to overweight Midwestern families. Cassilly is the one taking risks and may indeed end up earless -- or at least deeply in debt -- while a Cirque retirement will likely be Rodman-style -- green-haired chillin' in the hot tub.

Not to dis the Cirque; it epitomizes everything that's great about the corporate Las Vegas it now dominates. And at this party, the Cirque did many things right, including hiring Contemporary Productions, whose gorgeous fortune-cookie dispenser had painted-on waves running across her face and can contact Unreal through the RFT office.

Did we mention the flank steak and its sweet brown sauce? And the lack of forks on hand? No matter, greasy hands were optimal for decreased friction when roaring down slides, for licking clean during the Latin jazz band's performance or merely for drunken admiring as they reflected the neon rays of the Ferris wheel.

Bling Bling Ka-Ching

With St. Louis juggernauts Nelly, Murphy Lee and Chingy anchoring the top five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Unreal figured it's time to quit jocking them and figure out what we're getting out of the deal. Because like good parents, we nurtured these boys when they were young and stupid. Now that they're getting rich, it's time to leech.

So we asked Chuck Moul, assistant professor of economics at Washington University, exactly what the local economic impact of these supposed high rollers has been.

Unreal: You've heard of Nelly, right?

Professor Moul: Yes.

Do you own any of his albums?

I do not.

Could you name any of his songs?

He started out with "Country Grammar." I could identify the rest, but I'm not sure I could name them off the top of my head.

Do you know who Chingy is?

I do not know most of the Nelly gang. The spin-off of Nellyville I have not kept up with.

Do you think the average St. Louisan will see an economic benefit from all this hype?

Obviously, it's not like a factory. It's not going to be employing a lot of the local population in manufacturing goods and services. I would say the biggest benefit would be in the form of increased concert opportunities. Additionally, I think that Nelly may prompt people to go out and look for talent [here] where they wouldn't have otherwise considered.

These guys spend their money right hurr, right?

I know that I've seen Nelly and his gang around, and presumably they are spending some of their earnings in the local area, but I'm also confident that they're spending it elsewhere -- I would imagine the coasts.

Do you think Hummer sales will increase?

Well, given that that's such a limited market, you could definitely see a small shift have a very big impact proportionally on that market.

What about bling bling?

I suppose we're talking about jewelry. I would think that that's more of a robust market, so you probably won't see as much of an impact directly, although you may see some of the hangers-on and the wannabes having a bigger impact on it.

How about the underground economy, like marijuana and prostitution? Will your average person be able to see any benefit from that?

I wouldn't even be willing to speculate.

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