Hell’s Angels (1966) Hunter S. Thompson

Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson originally began as the article “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders.” It is an offbeat look into the shady world of the most famous outlaw biker gang of all time. A gang which were defined by Harley Davidsons, long hair, beards, swastikas and a penchant for violence and getting loaded.  Adhering to his own brand of Gonzo journalism, Hunter spent a year with the Angels in full sight gaining vivid insight into their life and what makes them tick. The book starts of at first with Hunter giving a brief outline of the Angel’s lifestyle, meeting various members of the group in a relaxed social atmosphere and offering insights into a few individual lives.

Far from being the weary outsider that The Hell’s Angels rising notoriety acquired and to who they quickly became suspicious of, Thompson was a semi-active member of the group, he would welcome them to his apartment at all hours of the day and night much to his neighbours dismay and eventually leading to him being evicted.

“One of the worst incidents of that era caused no complaints at all: this was a sort of good-natured firepower demonstration, which occured one Sunday morning about three-thirty. For reasons that were never made clear, I blew out my back windows with five blasts of a 12 gauge shotgun, followed moments later by six rounds from a .44 Magnum. It was a prolonged outburst of heavy firing, drunken laughter, and crashing glass. Yet the neighbors reacted with total silence.”

The writing style is somewhat unorthodox such as the use of slang, drug terminology and slightly bourgeois terms which are contrasted starkly. There are two overt references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the book, the first describing a shop owner who chose not to entertain the Angels’ custom as looking out across the sound mournfully and the death of Mother Miles stating that “This was not going to be any Jay Gatsby funeral”  because The Angels would be attending en masse. According to an interview with Johnny Depp, Thompson once typed out ‘The Great Gatsby’  in its entirety on his typewriter to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s words and this idea is certainly manifested in the usage of obtuse phrases in Thompson’s writing.

At times during the piece Thompson comes down firmly on the side of the Angels, picking through newspaper reports with gross exaggerations which garner his ire. For example the number of arrests on a given weekend is given in eight separate publications ranging from 30 to hundreds yet Thompson states that the actual figure is 32 with none of the members actually being Hell’s Angels contrary to the eye-grabbing headline.

“Newsweek … unaccountably said the report accused the Hell’s Angels of homosexuality, whereas the report said just the opposite. Time leaped into the fray with a flurry of blood, booze and semen-flecked wordage that amounted, in the end, to a classic of supercharged hokum: “Drug-induced stupors… no act is too degrading… swap girls, drugs and motorcycles with equal abandon… stealing forays… then ride off again to seek some new nadir in sordid behavior…”

The book features notable cameos from Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and is laudable in its painstaking description of the Angels wild drug taking adventures. The Angels took everything in excess whether it be beer, wine, pills, weed, LSD, or their obsessive dedication to their bikes.

The book is put together in a singular way, it would be described as being epistolary if it were fiction, but it is not. A collection of articles, quotations from poems, police reports, film and literature recall Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Thompson would often run what he had written past The Angels as not to offend however there is a volta after the Ginsberg speech in which Thompson speaks of the Angels in less than flattering terms denouncing them as ‘mutants’, ‘prototypes’ and ‘toads’ a far cry from the early romanticising of The Angels that we get from the early part of the book.  This Thompson states is because he has become disillusioned with them, that they have started to believe their own hype. Thompson ends on the opinion that the Angels are not outlaws as they would have us believe but natural born losers who have nothing to gain from society and as a result nothing to lose.

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One Response to “Hell’s Angels (1966) Hunter S. Thompson”

  1. Lucas Morton Says:

    “If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else.”

    http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/619/the-art-of-journalism-no-1-hunter-s-thompson

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