No Room for Mistakes

“But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin and no room for mistakes. It has to be done right . . and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that the fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears… ”

Hunter S. Thompson
Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

 
 

Self-Portraits

 
 

Hell’s Angels began as the article The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders, written by Thompson for the May 17, 1965 issue of The Nation. In March 1965, The Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote to Thompson and offered to pay the journalist for an article on the subject of motorcycle gangs, and the Hells Angels in particular. Thompson took the job and the article, published about a month later, prompted book offers from several publishers interested in the topic.

Thompson spent the next year preparing for the new book in close quarters with the Hells Angels, in particular the San Francisco and Oakland chapters of the club and their president Ralph “Sonny” Barger. Thompson was upfront with the Angels about his role as a journalist, a dangerous move given their marked distrust of reporters from what the club considered to be bad press. Thompson was introduced to the gang by Birney Jarvis, a former club member and then police-beat reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. This introduction, coming from an Angel and reporter, allowed Thompson to get close to the gang in a way others had not been able.

Thompson remained close with the Angels for a year, but ultimately the relationship waned. It ended for good after several members of the gang gave him a savage beating or “stomping” over a remark made by Thompson to an Angel named Junkie George, who was beating his wife.

 
 

Photographs by Hunter S. Thompson

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On the Edge

The only sounds are the wind and the dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it . . . howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica . . . letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge . . . The Edge . . . ”

Hunter S. Thompson

Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs

 
 

Hells Angels

“In my own country I am in a far-off land
I am strong but have no force or power
I win all yet remain a loser
At break of day I say goodnight
When I lie down I have a great fear
Of falling.”

(Translation of François Villon‘s 15th-century poem Ballade du concours de Blois)

Epigraph of Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, by Hunter S. Thompson (1966)

 
 

When Irving Penn photographed a bunch of Hells Angels for Look Magazine in 1968 all the classic Penn elements were there – there was the stark backdrop; the steely monochrome and the naturalism of the sitter’s attitude and expression. Whether or not Penn’s subjects were the rich and the famous or a bunch of hairy bikers he always managed to capture something lasting and resonant about the individuals involved.

The Hells Angels were originally started by American war immigrants, the Bishop family in Fontana, California followed by an amalgamation of former members from different motorcycle clubs. The name “Hell’s Angels” was inspired by the typical naming of American squadrons, or other fighting groups, with a fierce, death-defying title in both World War I and World War II, e.g., the Flying Tigers (American Volunteer Group) in Burma and China fielded three squadrons of P-40s and the third Squadron was called “Hell’s Angels”. In 1930, the Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels displayed extraordinary and dangerous feats of aviation, and it is believed that the World War II groups who used that name based it on the film.

 
 

The name of the Hells Angels motorcycle club has no apostrophe, but in the title and in the text of Thompson’s book a possessive apostrophe was added to the name, rendering it as Hell’s Angels.