Hell’s Angels: The Precursor of Gonzo

*The following is the first in a series of columns by Beatdom editor, David S. Wills, concerning the mix of fact and fiction in the work of Hunter S. Thompson. 

Hells-Angels

Hunter S Thompson began writing at a young age, imitating his heroes and honing his own style. He worked as a journalist, got in trouble, travelled the world, got fired, made friends, made enemies, failed at writing novels, and then wrote Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. It began as an article written for The Nation, May 17th 1965, entitled ‘Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders,’ and it was considered the first honest portrayal of the Hell’s Angels in any major publication.[1] The article drew praise and book offers, and Thompson was persuaded by Random House to spend the next year living with the Hell’s Angels, writing about their lives. The result was the book that made Thompson’s name.

Although it was ‘a world most of us would never dare encounter,’[2] Thompson careened into the realm of the Hell’s Angels with unnatural vigour. Where others would have been afraid of men who were renowned for their violence, Thompson brought them into his home, with Sandy and Juan hiding in the bedroom, warning them that he ‘didn’t go much for fist-fighting but preferred to settle his beefs with a double-barrelled 12-gauge shotgun.’[3] He introduced himself to the Hell’s Angels through an Angel/reporter, Birney Jarvis, who worked for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thompson immediately set down his objective, to determine the truth behind the myth: ‘I heard some bad things about you. Are they true?’[4]

That was his aim: to determine, and report, the truth about the most feared motorcycle gang in America. The resulting article drew enough praise to earn him a book deal, and the book confirmed Thompson as a major American writer, allowing him to go on and write the rest of his bibliography.

 

It’s easy to see in Hell’s Angels the origins of Gonzo, and one might argue that it is indeed a Gonzo text. However, it was a well researched and brilliant demonstration of New Journalism more anything one could label a literary genre unto itself. It’s clear to see in the book the presence of the reporter as a part of the story, but far more obviously as a device than a protagonist.

Thompson appears as the ‘I’ in the article, but doesn’t focus on his actions. Rather, he is an observer, playing the role of a reporter, watching and hanging back, collecting notes and conducting interviews with the subjects of the text. In the book he was far more involved in the action, giving the reader someone sensible to relate to, when alienated by the depravity of the bikers. The result is a carefully observed act of journalism that reads like journalism, only with the hallmarks of Gonzo dropped in here and there…

For example, we have the use of cuttings, clippings and references to other texts and sources of information concerning the subject, which are dropped in to make the book not only a journalism-prose hybrid, but throwing in an element of cultural criticism, giving a greater impression of society’s perception of the Hell’s Angels. In the book, Thompson takes these sources and attempts, through real reporting, to deny or confirm them, thus getting at the truth behind the angels. Included are police reports and both truthful and fallacious media accounts, which shine a critical light on society’s role in creating the image of the Hell’s Angels. Thompson is providing the reader with a cross-section of America and its opinions, while giving an insider’s view, providing an accurate all-round depiction of the subject of his work.

Therefore, we clearly have a book that leans far more towards hard-fact reporting than Gonzo’s ambiguity. Nonetheless, there are elements of fantasy, of wishful thinking, and the application of a collective voice for the Hell’s Angels, whereby the statements of several members would be spoken by one imaginary speaker. And with these features, the book’s journalistic integrity becomes somewhat more debatable.

An example of something that is hard to prove or disprove, but which shows Thompson’s tendency towards misrepresentation of the facts in order to get at the truth, would be in the fantastic violence of the book. It is easy to believe that the Hell’s Angels were violent; the evidence is irrefutable. But merely stating this fact is not enough. Thompson’s portrayal of violence is cartoon-like. In order to convey the lack of care with which members shed or drew blood, the beatings were over-the-top and unbelievable, with badly victims getting up and walking away. Indeed, part of the fear of the gang was in the fact that ‘they inhabit a world in which violence is as common as spilled beer.’[5] In chapter twenty-one, a ‘black Golith’ is beaten horrifically by the Hell’s Angels, but keeps getting up. The whole fight is theatrical and yet it gets across an accurate impression of the disregard they had for brutality. Perhaps these ridiculous fight scenes are the equivalent of Thompson’s collective voice technique, with several events condensed into one for the sake of the narrative.

Instead of quoting dozens of individual Angels, Thompson will use one voice to reflect the statements of many. This could be viewed as compromising the reliability of having one source state one fact, but keeps the narrative flowing quickly. We have to assume that Thompson’s familiarity with the group allowed him to mimic their speech and blend statements together, rather than just fabricate what sounded better for the story. Indeed, the collective voice sounds remarkably similar to the individual voices.

 

This, in effect, was what the Hell’s Angels had been saying all along. Here is their version of what happened, as told by several who were there:

‘One girl was white and pregnant, the other was colored, and they were with five colored studs. They hung around our bar–Nick’s Place on Del Monte Avenue–for about three hours Saturday night, drinking and talking with our riders, then they came out to the beach with us–them and their five boyfriends. Everybody was standing around the fire, drinking wine, and some of the guys were talking to them–hustling ‘em, naturally–and soon somebody asked the two chicks if they wanted to be turned on–you know, did they want to smoke some pot? They said yeah, and then they walked off with some of the guys to the dunes. The spade went with a few guys and then she wanted to quit, but the pregnant one was really hot to trot; the first four or five guys she was really dragging into her arms, but after that she cooled off, too. By this time, though, one of their boy friends had got scared and gone for the cops–and that’s all it was.’[6]

 

Another method that is rare to see within a work purporting to be journalism is the author’s evident fascination with Biblical and historical imagery. There are in the text some brilliant uses of Thompson’s trademark literary mechanism: the use of language to imply what facts could not accurately convey.

Hell’s Angels opens with an image, beautifully and terrifyingly presented, of a motorcycle gang menacingly riding through the open roads of America on Labor Day. Thompson uses punctuation to string fragments of an image into one dirty great presentation, as he lists names and places, joining them with over-the-top metaphors and similes, eventually leaving the reader with no doubt of what the Hell’s Angels were all about, and only a page into the book.

 

Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.[7]

 

With descriptions like this threaded into a piece of journalism, which includes serious interviews and reports of events, one can see a more subtle application of Gonzo styling. Surely in objective journalism it is utterly inappropriate to compare a group of men on bikes to historical monsters and suggest that they’re alcoholic rapists… But it’s only a suggestion, and Thompson was planting his seeds of contempt in his own literary fashion. It appeared he was writing a novel about the Hell’s Angels, and weaving truth into it, and above all else, a reader in 1966, familiar with the curse of motorcycle gangs, and looking for an entertaining read, would have been captivated by the description.

And who’s to say that by comparing the Hell’s Angels to Mongols and sex fiends Thompson wasn’t presenting a more accurate depiction than was possible through meticulous study of their habits and actions. Although Thompson at times displays empathy for the bikers, the first page of the book provides the exact same understanding of their being as a methodical reading of the book from start to finish.

Which goes to show that even in the early days of his writing, Thompson had managed to evoke a hatred of a subject through vitriolic language, as well as through a long and hard study, presenting a year of solid research.

The first half of the book took Thompson a long time to write. It was well-researched, anthropological and even scholarly at times. It was the result of countless hours spent in the company of the Hell’s Angels, a process which earned him the reputation of being the expert on the subject, and offers from numerous publications. But the second half of the book was something that brought Thompson closer to Gonzo Journalism. Deadline approached and Thompson didn’t have the book finished. He didn’t want to pay back his advance, so he locked himself in a motel room with drugs, whiskey and his typewriter, and spent one hundred straight hours typing without sleep. It took him four days to write as much has he had in the previous six months, and he considered the latter half of the book superior to the first.[8] The result was the Fourth of July and ‘Midnight on the Coast Highway’ sections, where Thompson becomes the centre of attention. He claims that he wrote the latter part immediately after riding his motorbike down the Coast Highway, ‘face still frozen, dark red and crusted with tears.’[9]

 

Hell’s Angels is significant in the development of Gonzo because it brings Thompson’s writing a step closer to the style that emerged in ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, but it is also important in the history of New Journalism because Thompson set out to write the article, and then the book, partly to correct some of the flaws in the media. He viewed the idea of the Hell’s Angels essentially as a creation of the media, and whether this depiction was accurate or not, it was not fair that it was created by people without any real knowledge of the bikers themselves. Ultimately, the job done by the straight press in reporting the motorcycle gangs was faulty, and another approach was needed: He claimed that, ‘the difference between the Hell’s Angels in the papers and the Hell’s Angels for real is enough to make a man wonder what newsprint is for.’[10]

When he was approached by Carey McWilliams of the Nation, Thompson investigated the Lynch Report, the California Attorney General’s report on motorcycle gangs, and found that not one biker had been interviewed. All the sources were police officers. This, Thompson thought, was entirely unfair. ‘I can’t imagine doing a story without their point of view,’ Thompson said.[11] Thompson also found, after taking the assignment, that some of the facts were wrong. For example, the Lynch Report claimed that the membership of the Hell’s Angels was around four hundred and fifty, whereas Thompson found, after actually consulting the gang, that the number was in fact around one hundred.[12]

It is interesting, then, that in a study of truth and fiction in the work of Hunter S Thompson, we come so early to his contention that the media itself was inherently crooked, and that he was the man to bring the truth to light. But indeed that was his aim, and he clearly believed that the truth could be told through his own artistic methods, as long as the truth was there in the first place:

 

The Hell’s Angels as they exist today were virtually created by Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. The Times is the heavyweight champion of American journalism. On nine stories out of ten the paper lives up to its reputation. Yet the editors make no claim to infallibility, and now and then they will blow the whole duke. It would be senseless to try to list these failures, and besides that the purpose of this harangue is not to nail any one newspaper or magazine – but to point out the potentially massive effect of any story whose basic structure is endorsed and disseminated not only by Time, and Newsweek, but by the hyper-prestigious New York Times. The Times took the Lynch report [the pseudo-objective and vague report of an investigation mounted by California’s ambitious new Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, concerning Hell’s Angels and “other disreputables”] at face value and simply reprinted it in very condensed form. The headline said: CALIFORNIA TAKES STEPS TO CURB TERRORISM OF RUFFIAN CYCLISTS. The bulk of the article was straight enough, but the lead was pure fiction: “A hinterland tavern is invaded by a group of motorcycle hoodlums. They seize a female patron and rape her. Departing, they brandish weapons and threaten bystanders with dire reprisals if they tell what they saw. Authorities have trouble finding a communicative witness, let alone arresting and prosecuting the offenders.” 

 

This incident never occurred. It was created, as a sort of journalistic montage, by the correspondent who distilled the report. But the Times is neither written nor edited by fools, and anyone who has worked on a newspaper for more than two months knows how technical safeguards can be built into even the wildest story, without fear of losing reader impact. What they amount to, basically, is the art of printing a story without taking legal responsibility for it. The word “alleged” is a key to this art. Other keys are “so-and-so said” (or “claimed”), “it was reported” and “according to”. In fourteen short newspaper paragraphs, the Times story contained nine of these qualifiers. The two most crucial had to do with the Hollywood lead and the “alleged gang rape” last Labor Day of two girls, 14 and 15 years old, by five to ten members of the Hell’s Angels gang on the beach at Monterey” (my italics)….The result was a piece of slothful, emotionally biased journalism, a bad hack job that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow or stirred a ripple had it appeared in most American newspapers…but the Times is a heavyweight even when it’s wrong, and the effect of this  article was to put the seal of respectability on a story that was, in fact, a  hysterical, politically motivated accident.[13]

 

Thus we come to understand why Thompson took the job of reporting on the Hell’s Angels, and also why he wrote the way he did. We may question his style of reporting, and how effective it could be at conveying any ‘truth’, but Thompson was no fool, and he knew how writing worked. He knew how journalists made lies sound like truth, and he knew how to convey the essence of ‘truth’ as though it were part of a fictional story, and thus create an ease of understanding between the subject and the reader. The reader may walk away at the end of Hell’s Angels with the same feeling of contempt for the subject as after reading a traditional, objective style report from the mainstream press, but it seems that Thompson’s conscience took a break in knowing that at least he’d gotten the truth in the first place.

Thompson was, thankfully, obsessed with truth. He believed that language was important, and he loved vitriolic, Old Testament style language, but that he should use that language on top of truth, to convey the meaning of what he knew.

 

I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.[14]

 

He loved the power of words, and wished to master them, but only when used in conjunction with truth. He would use his words in letters or conversations with friends, and he would hurt people and be sweet to them, and all of it was out of his devotion to complete honesty, according to Anita Thompson.[15]

In his work he adhered strictly to the truth, too. As he told P.J. O’Rourke, ‘Truth is easier. You can fall back on the truth. You can’t fall back on a story you made up because, by the time [you’ve finished writing it], you’re wondering if it’s good or funny or right.’[16]

What made Thompson and O’Rourke such great literary journalists was their adherence to the truth, and their ability to use language to tell the story. Whereas other journalists would use language to distort the truth or a lie, Thompson and O’Rourke would start with the truth and tell it brilliantly.

 

Perhaps the best known piece of Hunter S Thompson trivia, as the selling point for the Hell’s Angels book and the question asked by every journalist following its publication, is regarding the ‘stomping’ Thompson received after writing the book. In the postscript, he states that on Labor Day, 1966: ‘I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them.’[17]

This section contains dubious information, and really is the centre of the debate regarding truth in Hell’s Angels. The text suggests an entirely unprovoked beating, that started and ended abruptly, and was recalled in a typical Gonzo paragraph of fantasy and hatred: ‘I could see the vicious swine trying to get at me with the stone held in a two-handed Godzilla grip above his head.’[18]

However, Thompson’s later accounts of the event vary, and suggest that perhaps the postscript version was not as accurate as it could have been. In 1987, Thompson told P.J. O’Rourke that the motivation for the attack was money, and that it was not unprovoked:

 

I was showing the Angels the cover and it said $4.95… And the Angels said, ‘Jesus, $4.95!’ What’s our share? We should get half.’ And I said, ‘Come on… It takes a long time to write a book. Nothing – that’s your share.[19]

 

So the beating was apparently about money. However, Thompson has also claimed that it was due to his contention that his BSA motorcycle was superior to a Harley-Davidson: ‘I said my bike was faster than his… and all of a sudden, I got it right in the face, a terrific whack.’[20] Another time he simply stated that he knew it would happen, and that afterwards he remained friends with Sonny Barger, which Barger has always denied.[21] The reality, it would seem, is that Thompson witnessed an Angel called Junkie George slap his girlfriend and then his dog.[22] This is the story that Barger recounted in Hell’s Angel, his autobiography. Thompson apparently told Junkie George that, ‘Only punks slap their old ladies and kick dogs.’[23] This is quite a far cry from the unprovoked stomping by four or five member that Thompson originally claimed. Certainly, this goes beyond the notion of conveying truth through literary methods, and into the realm of simply fabricating a story.

Another problem then arises in discrepancies between the book and Barger’s account, as Barger claims there was only one punch thrown, as a direct result of Thompson’s actions. Thompson drove to hospital and phoned Sandy, photographed his injuries in a mirror, and then spent several days in bed. And all from one apparent punch. According to Barger, the whole thing was exaggerated and Thompson only provoked Junky George to create a marketing point for the book.[24]



[1] Johnson, M.L., The New Journalism: The Underground Press, The Artists of Non-Fiction, and Changes in Established Media, (University of Kansas: Wichita, 1971) p.131

[2] Fremont-Smith, E. ‘Books of the Times; Motorcycle Misfits—Fiction and Fact’ in The New York Times, (Feb. 23, 1967) P.33.

[3] Reference needed

[4] Vetter, C., ‘The Playboy Interview with Hunter S Thompson’, Playboy, November 1974

[5] Thompson, Hell’s Angels p.58

[6] Thompson, ‘Losers and Outsiders’

[7] Thompson, Hell’s Angels, p. 1

[8] Playboy interview

[9] Thompson, Songs of the Doomed, P115

[10] Thompson,  ‘Losers and Outsiders’, Nation, May 17 1965

[11] Thompson, Proud Highway, p. 497

[12] Litwak, L., ‘Hell’s Angels’, New York Times, January 29, 1967

[14] Thompson, Generation of Swine, Author’s Note

[15] Thompson, A., The Gonzo Way: A Celebration of Hunter S Thompson, p.82-83

[16] From Gonzo Way, originally O’Rourke’s 1987 interview – need proper reference

[17] Thompson, Hell’s Angels postscript

[18] Ibid

[19] O’Rourke, P.J., ‘Hunter S Thompson’, Rolling Stone, November 5, 1987, p.232

[20] Playboy interview

[21] Bulger, A., ‘The Hunter S Thompson Interview’, Culture, March 9, 2003

[22] McKeen, Outlaw Journalist, p. 111

[23] Barger, R, Hell’s Angel, (New York: Harper-Collins, 2001) p. 126

[24] Barger interview on his website

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Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom magazine and the author of The Dog Farm. He travels a lot, and is currently working as a professor in China. His latest book is called Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult. You can read more about and by David at his blog, www.davidswills.com or on Tumblr.

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