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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