To Hell and back: ‘Sonny’ Barger at the rally

Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, founder of the Oakland Chapter of the

HOLLISTER
– Laying low in the back of the Hell’s Angels booth Friday
afternoon was a biker legend so famous, just his name turns
heads.
HOLLISTER – Laying low in the back of the Hell’s Angels booth Friday afternoon was a biker legend so famous, just his name turns heads.

Ralph “Sonny” Barger has spent the past 47 years, whether behind bars or not, as one of the most well-known leaders of the Hell’s Angel Motorcycle Club and has been called by the federal government “the most powerful and well-known outlaw motorcyclist in the country.”

Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” hit theaters when Barger was still in high school, but he admits the film influenced his decision to follow the outlaw biker lifestyle. He was unaware of Brando’s death when interviewed Friday, however, Barger said he felt more akin to Lee Marvin’s character Chino than Brando’s Johnny.

“My hero was Lee Marvin. Marlon Brando was the bully,” he said.

Barger has been making appearance with the Hell’s Angels at the rally since 1996 and said he always has a good time here, but he’s concerned the party may only last a few more years.

“It seems like it’s getting worse every year,” he said. “The police control is ridiculous, the way the cops treat the people is ridiculous. One of these days the city is going to lose the rally, and we’re going to lose a great party.”

Barger is no stranger to controlling security at events.

In 1969, he and the rest of the Hell’s Angels were acting as security for a free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in the Bay Area when a stabbing occurred. Riots broke out and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards told Barger the band was going to stop performing. Barger handled the situation by sticking his pistol to Richards’ back and saying “start playing your guitar or your dead,” according to his biography “Hell’s Angel The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.”

Since getting out of jail in 1992, Barger has traded his handcuffs for a pen. He’s penned three best-selling books in the past few years, including his biography “The Life and Time of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Club,” which is in the process of being turned into a movie. The original Hell’s Angels were founded in 1948 in San Bernadino, and Barger, along with six others, founded the Oakland chapter in 1957.

“There are people in our club who are rowdy and there are those who aren’t,” he said.

Barger’s calmer lifestyle these days includes riding horses and taking long rides on his Harley near his Arizona home. When asked if the Hell’s Angels have changed over the years, he said “you know that’s something people ask me all the time, and it’s something you can’t put your finger on. We have changed and evolved over time. If we didn’t, the club would die off.”

Throughout the years, more and more biker clubs have been established, some whose member’s professions include doctors, lawyers, firefighters and others. Barger welcomes newcomers and said it’s great to see all the excitement about riding.

“I think it’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve seen doctors and lawyers. Everybody is learning how nice it is to ride. Maybe the cops will harass them instead of us.”

The presence of the Hell’s Angels at the rally isn’t the same as it was years ago. There is a huge difference between the way law enforcement handles situations and the way the club did, Barger said.

“The difference is in our club we treat everyone equally,” he said. “No matter if you’ve been in the club 47 years like me, or if you just joined, we treat each other the same. That’s the difference between us and the cops. We treat everyone equally.”

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