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HELL'S ANGELS -- A STRANGE AND TERRIBLE SAGA OF THE OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE GANGS

Chapter 5

He wore black denim trousers
and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket
with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up cycle
that took off like a gun,
That fool was the terror of
Highway 101
-- Juke box hit of the late 1950s

The California climate is perfect for bikes, as well as surfboards, convertibles, swimming pools and abulia. Most cyclists are harmless weekend types, no more dangerous than skiers or skin-divers. But ever since the end of World War II the West Coast has been plagued by gangs of young wild men on motorcycles, roaming the highways in groups of ten to thirty and stopping whenever they get thirsty or road-cramped to suck up some beer and make noise. The hellbroth of publicity in 1965 made the phenomenon seem brand new, but even in the ranks of the Hell's Angels there are those who insist that the outlaw scene went over the hump in the mid-fifties, when the original faces began drifting off to marriage and mortgages and time payments.

The whole thing was born, they say, in the late 1940s, when most ex-GIs wanted to get back to an orderly pattern: college, marriage, a job, children -- all the peaceful extras that come with a sense of security. But not everybody felt that way. Like the drifters who rode west after Appomattox, there were thousands of veterans in 1945 who flatly rejected the idea of going back to their prewar pattern. They didn't want order, but privacy,  and time to figure things out. It was a nervous, downhill feeling, a mean kind of Angst that always comes out of wars ... a compressed sense of time on the outer limits of fatalism. They wanted more action, and one of the ways to look for it was on a big motorcycle. By 1947 the state was alive with bikes, nearly all of them powerful American-made irons from Harley-Davidson and Indian. [1]

Two dozen gleaming, stripped-down Harleys filled the parking lot of a bar called the El Adobe. The Angels were shouting, laughing and drinking beer -- paying no attention to two teenaged boys who stood on the fringe of the crowd, looking scared. Finally one of the boys spoke to a lean, bearded outlaw named Gut: "We like your bikes, man. They're really sharp." Gut glanced at him, then at the bikes. "I'm glad you like them," he said. "They're all we have."
-- September 1965

The Hell's Angels of the sixties are not keenly interested in their origins or spiritual ancestors. "Those guys aren't around any more," Barger told me. But some were, although in 1965 it wasn't easy to locate them. Some were dead, others were in prison and those who'd gone straight were inclined to avoid publicity. One of the few I managed to locate was Preetam Bobo. I found him on a Saturday afternoon in the Sausalito Yacht Harbor, across the Bay from San Francisco, getting his forty-foot sloop in shape for a one-way cruise to the Caribbean. His crew for the trip, he said, would consist of his sixteen-year-old son, two seaworthy Hell's Angels and his striking blond British girl friend, who was stretched out on the deck in a blue bikini. Preetam is one of only two lifetime members of the Frisco Angels chapter. The other, Frank, retired from the outlaw world after seven years as Frisco president and is now surfing in the South Pacific. Frank is the George Washington of Angeldom; his name is mentioned with  reverence, among the other chapters as well as Frisco. "He was the best president we ever had," they say. "He held us together and he was good for us." Frank had class, and he set many styles -- from the gold earring to the purple-dyed beard to the clip-on nose ring that he wore whenever he had the right audience. All during his reign, from 1955 to '62, he held a steady job as a respected cameraman, but he needed more action than any job could provide. For this he had the Angels, a vehicle for his humor and fantasies, a sop for any aggressions and an occasional chance to bust out of the workaday murk like some kind of saber-rattling golem and lay at least a small jolt on people he had no other way of reaching. Frank was so completely hip that he went down to Hollywood and bought the blue and yellow striped sweatshirt that Lee Marvin wore in The Wild One. Frank wore it ragged, and not only for runs and parties. When he felt the Angels were being persecuted beyond the norm he would make an appearance in the police chief's office, wearing his Holllywood sweatshirt and demanding justice. If that didn't get results, he would go to the American Civil Liberties Union -- a step that Oakland's Barger has flatly ruled out because of its "Communist" implications. Unlike Barger, Frank had a wry sense of humor and a very sophisticated instinct for self-preservation. In seven years at the head of what was the biggest and wildest of all the Hell's Angels chapters, then and now, he was never arrested and never had an intramural fight. Even the Angels find his record amazing. Preetam had to win his vice-presidency by fighting seven Angels in the space of one week --three in one night -- and whipping them all to sore pulps. But that was Bobo's gig; before the Hell's Angels came into his life he was one of San Francisco's more promising middleweight boxers, and it was no feat for him to put down a half dozen unsuspecting tavern brawlers. Later, when he became a karate expert, he happily destroyed a new generation of challengers.

The Angels considered him a valuable hatchet man. "A punchout artist is good to have around," said one, "but he has to cool it around his buddies. Some guys get boozed up and just start teeing off on people."

Until his departure Bobo was the homed toad of waterfront literary bars. His colleagues were not eager to drink with him, and for good reason. He was not a comfortable man to get drunk with. Once, in a fit of pique, he lashed out with a karate chop and cracked a four-inch-thick marble bench in the Hall of Justice. Even the police were leery of him. He ran a karate school and enjoyed "death battles," a karate version of the no-limit, bare-knuckle boxing matches of the John L. Sullivan era. It is not necessary for one of the combatants to die, but the fight will continue until one of them can't stand up, for whatever reason ... and if the reason happens to be death, then the prearranged understanding, among both fighters and carefully screened spectators, is that the death is accidental. [2] Unfortunately, Hobo accepted a spur-of-the-moment death challenge from a visiting Jap on a night when a San Francisco society columnist and several of her friends had come to see him about the possibility of an offbeat feature. The result was a nightmare of blood, fierce screaming and panic in the gallery. Nobody was killed, but it was a very crude show, and soon afterward Preetam Bobo's name was removed from the rolls of licensed karate instructors.

It was only then, after exhausting all other means of demoralizing the public, that he turned seriously to writing. Several years earlier he had given up bikes "because of the stigma." After a long stint as a motorcycle messenger he stumbled on the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and thought it necessary to publish his own views. He could, however, only on the condition that he move through the streets of the world in conventional fashion. "I felt like a whore," he says, "but I told the editor I'd play it straight. Hell, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a delivery boy."

Preetam Bobo is a study in something, but I was never sure what to call it. He is a walking monument to everything the Hell's Angels would like to stand for, but which few of them do. Preetam is the Compleat Outlaw, and he somehow makes it work. Like Frank, he went through his whole activist period without ever being arrested. "All it takes is the sense to be quiet around cops," he says. "Whenever we had trouble with the law I just drifted off to the side and kept my mouth shut. If a cop ever asked me a question I'd answer politely and say 'sir.' In those situations, man, a cop appreciates somebody calling him 'sir.' It's the smart thing to do, that's all. And besides, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than going to jail."

Bobo was a motorcyclist long before he was a Hell's Angel. He remembers one night when he passed the corner of Leavenworth and Market in downtown San Francisco and saw a bunch of bikes outside a pool hall called Antones. He stopped to say hello, and soon afterward he was part of a loosely knit group of riders who called themselves, half jokingly, the Market Street Commandos. Motorcycles were comparatively rare in the early 1950s, and people who rode them were happy to find company. "You could go by there any hour of the day or night," Preetam recalls, "and there'd always be at least ten bikes out in front. Sometimes on weekends there'd be fifty or sixty. It was a police problem even then. Businessmen were complaining that the bikes kept customers from parking in front of their stores."

The Market Street Commandos drifted on, without much action, for about a year. Then, in early 1954, The  Wild One came to town, and things changed. "We went up to the Fox Theater on Market Street," said Preetam. "There were about fifty of us, with jugs of wine and our black leather jackets ... We sat up there in the balcony and smoked cigars and drank wine and cheered like bastards. We could all see ourselves right there on the screen. We were all Marlon Brando. I guess I must have seen it four or five times."

The Commandos were still in the grip of The Wild One when the second new wave hit -- in the person of the wild prophet Rocky, the messiah, bringing the word from the Southland. Ten years later Birney Jarvis, a San Francisco Chronicle police reporter and former Hell's Angel, described the moment of truth in an article: [3]

One hot summer day in 1954, a swarthily handsome devil, sporting a pointed beard and a derby, broadslid his Harley-Davidson to a screeching halt at a motorcycle hangout in San Francisco.

His faded blue Levi jacket, the sleeves roughly hacked off with a knife, was emblazoned with the leering  winged death's-head that has become so well known to California lawmen.

You could see the sweat-stained armpits of his checkered shirt as he wrestled the four-foot-high handlebars  into position. With a flick of his wrist he blasted the afternoon quiet of a Sunday on Market Street.

He laid his bike over on the kickstand, polished the glistening chrome of his "XA" spring forks -- four inches longer than stock --with a ragged handkerchief. He looked around him, nonchalantly wiping his greasy hands on his oil-crusted jeans.

This was Rocky. Nobody cared what his last name was because he was "classical" and he was a Hell's Angel from down Berdoo way.

Thirty cyclists with polished boots and neatly barbered hair had watched his arrival, not without suspicion because he was, at that time, a stranger and all of them had been riding pals for a long time ... The welcoming committee was prime for membership in the Hell's Angels. Although completely square compared to the latter-day Angels, the street corner gang had had constant brushes with the law ... Rocky was elected president of the new branch of the Hell's Angels because he could really ride and because he had style.

"He could spin donuts on that hog with his feet on the pegs, and man, he was a wiggy cat," a member of the Angels recalled. The cyclists found a seamstress who could duplicate Rocky's sinister emblem and it wasn't long before nearly 40 Angels were roaring out of San Francisco. The neat "Hell's Angels-Frisco" surrounding the grinning skull with wings cost $7.50 and was ordinarily sewn on a Levi jacket. The white background of the red lettering soon became spotted with grime-and blood-from the many barroom battles that ensued.

"Listen, man, those beefs ain't our fault," said a battle-scarred veteran of beer-hall punchouts. "We'd go into a bar and someone'd mouth off or try to move in on our chicks and then we'd fight. What else could you do?"

Police reports kept pouring in as the Angels were forced to move from one hangout to another. A hangout -- usually an all-night restaurant or a pool hall -- would last about a week, until complaints of noisy or  rowdy behavior brought the law.

"We chased those bike bums off Market Street because they were having drag races right through the traffic. A lot of them were stealing motorcycles and we'd check them all out," said Terrible Ted, a motorcycle policeman who once called several of the Hell's Angels his friends.

"We called that bike heat Terrible Ted because he really was bad, man. Why, he'd ride like a nut to catch us and then he'd throw the book at us." [4]

"It got so I had to go to work just so's I could pay off my tickets and stay out of the slammer," said an Angel who lost his license to drive four times because of his driving record.

One humorous incident connected with the Hell's Angels insignia several years ago is still a source of amusement to the hard-riding cycle gang.

An Angel known as "the Mute" was stopped for speeding by a policeman near the beach in Santa Cruz one Sunday afternoon. The Mute was proudly displaying his colors on a ragged Levi jacket. "Take that off," the patrolman jotted down on a notepad politely offered by the Mute, who was deaf and dumb.

The Mute stripped off his Levi jacket, exposing another Angel decal on his leather jacket. "Take that off, too," the irate patrolman ordered, again using the Mute's notepad and pencil. And under the leather jacket was a wool shirt -- also emblazoned with the club colors. "Off with it," the officer scribbled angrily. Under the shirt was an undershirt. It too had been stenciled with the club insignia. "Okay, wise guy, take that off too," the nonplussed patrolman wrote.

With a smirk, the Mute removed his undershirt, and puffing out his chest, brought into full view the Hell's Angels' grinning death's-head, which had been tattooed on his body. The policeman threw up his hands in disgust, handed the Mute a ticket and sped off in his patrol car. But the Mute had the last laugh. He was prepared to go all the way. His trousers and shorts were also stenciled.

"He was a way-out mother," the Mute's friends agree.

People are already down on us because we're Hell's Angels. That's why we like to blow their minds. It just more or less burns em, that's all.
-- Zorro

Many of the Angels are graduates of other outlaw clubs ... some of which, like the Booze Fighters, were as numerous and fearsome in their time as the Angels are today. It was the Booze Fighters, not the Hell's Angels, who kicked off the Hollister riot which led to the filming of The Wild One. That was in 1947, when the average Hell's Angel of the 1960s was less than ten years old.

Hollister at that time was a town of about four thousand, a farming community an hour's fast drive south of Oakland, off in the foothills of the Diablo mountain range. Its only claim to fame in 1947 was as the producer of 74 percent of all the garlic consumed in the United States. Hollister was -- and remains, to some extent -- the kind of town that Hollywood showed the world in the film version of East of Eden, a place where the commander of the local American Legion post is by definition a civic leader.

And so it came to pass, on July Fourth of that year, that the citizens of Hollister gathered together for the annual celebration. The traditional Independence Day rites -- flags, bands, baton virgins, etc. -- were scheduled to precede a more contemporary event, the annual motorcycle hill climb and speed tests, which the previous year had drawn contestants from miles around ... valley boys, farmers, small-town mechanics, veterans, just a crowd of decent fellas who happened to ride motorcycles.

The 1947 Hollister hill climb and races also drew contestants from miles around ... many miles, and many contestants. When the sun rose out of the Diablos on that Fourth of July morning the seven-man local police force was nervously sipping coffee after a sleepless night attempting to control something like 3,000 motorcyclists. (The police say 4,000; veteran cyclists say 2,000 -- so 3,000 is probably about right.) It has been established beyond doubt, however, that Hollister filled up with so many bikes that 1,000 more or less didn't make much difference. The mob grew more and more unmanageable; by dusk the whole downtown area was littered with empty, broken beer bottles, and the cyclists were staging drag races up and down Main Street. Drunken fist fights developed into full-scale brawls. Legend has it that the cyclists literally took over the town, defied the police, manhandled local women, looted the taverns and stomped anyone who got in their way. The madness of that weekend got enough headlines to interest an obscure producer named Stanley Kramer and a young actor named Brando. Shortly before her death, in 1966, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper took note of the Hell's Angels menace and traced its origins back through the years to The Wild One. This led her to blame the whole outlaw phenomenon on Kramer, Brando and everyone else in any way connected with the movie. The truth is that The Wild One -- despite an admittedly fictional treatment -- was an inspired piece of film journalism. Instead of institutionalizing common knowledge, in the style of Time, it told a story that was only beginning to happen and which was inevitably influenced by the film. It gave the outlaws a lasting, romance-glazed image of themselves, a coherent reflection that only a very few had been able to find in a mirror, and it quickly became the bike rider's answer to The Sun Also Rises. The image is not valid, but its wide acceptance can hardly be blamed on the movie. The Wild One was careful to distinguish between "good outlaws" and "bad outlaws," but the people who were most influenced chose to identify with Brando instead of Lee Marvin whose role as the villain was a lot more true to life than Brando's portrayal of the confused hero. They saw themselves as modern Robin Hoods ... virile, inarticulate brutes whose good instincts got warped somewhere in the struggle for self-expression and who spent the rest of their violent lives seeking revenge on a world that done them wrong when they were young and defenseless.

Another of Hollywood's contributions to the Hell's Angels lore is the name. The Angels say they are named after a famous World War I bomber squadron that was stationed near Los Angeles and whose personnel raced around the area on motorcycles when they weren't airborne. There are others who say the Angels got their name from a 1930 Jean Harlow movie based on some scriptwriter's idea of an Army Air Corps that may or may not have existed at the time of the First World War. It was called Hell's Angels and no doubt was still being shown in 1950, when the restless veterans who founded the first Angel chapter at Fontana were still trying to decide what to do with themselves. While the name might have originated before any Hell's Angel was born, it was lost in the history of some obscure southern California military base until Hollywood made it famous and also created the image of wild men on motorcycles -- an image that was later adopted and drastically modified by a new breed of outcasts that not even Hollywood could conceive of until they appeared, in the flesh, on California highways.

The concept of the "motorcycle outlaw" was as uniquely American as jazz. Nothing like them had ever existed. In some ways they appeared to be a kind of half-breed anachronism, a human hangover from the era of the Wild West. Yet in other ways they were as new as television. There was absolutely no precedent, in the years after World War II, for large gangs of hoodlums on motorcycles, reveling in violence, worshiping mobility and thinking nothing of riding five hundred miles on a weekend ... to whoop it up with other gangs of cyclists in some country hamlet entirely unprepared to handle even a dozen peaceful tourists. Many picturesque, outback villages got their first taste of tourism not from families driving Fords or Chevrolets, but from clusters of boozing "city boys" on motorcycles.

In retrospect, eyewitness accounts of the Hollister riot seem timid compared to the film. A more accurate comment on the nature of the Hollister "riot" is the fact that a hastily assembled force of only twenty-nine cops had the whole show under control by noon of July 5. By nightfall the main body of cyclists had roared out of town, in the best Time style, to seek new nadirs in sordid behavior. Those who stayed behind did so at the request of the police; their punishment ranged from $25 traffic fines to ninety days in jail for indecent exposure. Of the 6,000 to 8,000 people supposedly involved in the fracas, a total of 50 were treated for injuries at the local hospital. (For a better perspective on motorcycle riots it helps to keep in mind that more than 50,000 Americans die each year as the result of automobile accidents.)

Nobody has ever accused the Hell's Angels of wanton killing, at least not in court ... but it boggles the nerves to consider what might happen if the outlaws were ever deemed legally responsible for even three or four human deaths, by accident or otherwise. Probably every motorcycle rider in California would be jerked off the streets and ground into hamburger.

For a lot of reasons that are often contradictory, the sight and sound of a man on a motorcycle has an unpleasant effect on the vast majority of Americans who drive cars. At one point in the wake of the Hell's Angels uproar a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune [5] did a long article on the motorcycle scene and decided in the course of his research that "there is something about the sight of a passing motorcyclist that tempts many automobile drivers to commit murder."

Nearly everyone who has ridden a bike for any length of time will agree. The highways are crowded with people who drive as if their sole purpose in getting behind the wheel is to avenge every wrong ever done them by man, beast or fate. The only thing that keeps them in line is their own fear of death, jail and lawsuits ... which are much less likely if they can find a motorcycle to challenge, instead of another two-thousand-pound car or a concrete abutment. A motorcyclist has to drive as if everybody else on the road is out to kill him. A few of them are, and many of those who aren't are just as dangerous, because the only thing that can alter their careless, ingrained driving habits is a threat of punishment, either legal or physical, and there is nothing about a motorcycle to threaten any man in a car. [6] A bike is totally vulnerable; its only defense is maneuverability, and every accident situation is potentially fatal, especially on a freeway, where there is no room to fall without being run over almost instantly. Despite these hazards, California -- where freeways are a way of life -- is by long odds the nation's biggest motorcycle market.

_______________

Notes:

1.  Now defunct.

2. Deaths are extremely rare. The combat usually ends when the backers of either man decide the cause is lost.

3.  For Male magazine.

4.  In 1966 Terrible Ted ran a red light in an unmarked police car and collided with a Greyhound bus. The crash killed his wife, destroyed the car and critically injured the patrolman.

5. Now Defunct.

6.  Preetam Bobo tells a story about a man in a "big new car" who forced him off the road on Highway 40 one Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. "The dirty 1ittle bastard kept running up on my taillight," said Preetam, "until finally I just pulled over and stopped. The other guys had seen it, so we decided to teach the bastard a lesson. Man, we swarmed all over him ... We whipped on his hood with chains, tore off his aerial and smashed every window we could reach ... all this at about seventy miles an hour, man.  He didn't even slow down. He was terrified.

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