Draped above the door of Ralph (Sonny) Barger's little brown house on Golf Links Road is a cheerful cardboard banner with wreaths and holly and the words "Merry Christmas." A nearby window sports a foot-high, stained-glass, winged death's skull.
Such are the contrasts in a Hell's Angel's life these days.
Last month, more than 700 supporters showed up at a party to celebrate Barger getting off two years' parole--after the most famous Angel served four years in federal prison for his role in a nationwide conspiracy to blow up a rival club.
Among the partiers was U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (D-Colo.), who told a Bay Area reporter that the days when bikers were synonymous with trouble are past. "These clubs are much different now," he said. "They're very respectable."
But the Angels' role in society has never been that simple, as Campbell learned from the swirl of controversy back in Colorado that followed his remarks.
For one thing, Angels keep getting caught up in the sort of headlines that tend to raise respectable eyebrows:
On June 28, the vice president of a Rockford, Ill., club--which law officers say is merging with the Angels--was slain in his motorcycle shop; on Sept. 25, two bikers were killed and eight injured in a wild gunfight between Angels and a rival club at an Upstate New York raceway; on Nov. 7, bombs exploded at the Chicago and Rockford headquarters of the Angels-affiliated club.
Another thing: While Barger, 56, dismisses the club's notoriety for crime and violence as exaggerated, and characterizes incidents back East as something that could happen to anyone--"Catholics probably commit more crimes than we ever thought of, probably politicians commit more crimes"--he's clearly not keen on being lumped in with your run-of-the-mill "citizen."
Barger lives with Sharon, his wife of 21 years, in a house near the Oakland Zoo that he bought in the mid-'60s. His repair and parts shop, Sonny Barger's Oakland Custom Motorcycles, is a few miles away in a scruffier nook of the city, where beauty parlors, coin laundries and auto repair shops coexist with a smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants.
Barger's demeanor is relaxed, his manner polite, almost patrician, as he sits in his office, leaning back in a swivel chair draped with a black leather jacket emblazoned "Hell's Angels M/C."
From the shop he looks across the street to an Oakland landmark of sorts, a two-story building whose door is emblazoned with a bright brass skull with a winged headdress--the Angels' copyrighted emblem. A brick wall sports a brass plate reading, "Clubhouse of the Oakland Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, founded on April 1, 1957, by Sonny Barger and others."
Barger shrugs off the notion that he is a charismatic leader. If he inspires loyalty, he says, it's because of his basic philosophy: "I treat everyone exactly the way I want to be treated. If they treat me good, I treat them better. If they treat me bad, I treat 'em worse."
Barger's hair is close-cropped now, his face evenly tanned, his body compact from a daily workout and regular jogging. The blue tattoos decorating his arms have gone fuzzy with age. By appearances, most of the hard edges have softened from the young Barger shown in a poster-sized photo on the wall: tangled, shoulder-length hair, goat-like beard, tongue poking out in maniacal defiance.
Barger achieved the rank of outlaw legend in the '60s, as events and biker films conspired to mythologize the group. Even then, the club played an off-kilter role in the culture. During the Vietnam era, the Angels earned a national reputation for roughing up anti-war demonstrators--proof of their patriotism, Angels said.
Hell's Angels did embrace one '60s convention, though. By the '70s, law enforcers say, the sale of illegal drugs, especially methamphetamine, made the club increasingly rich and ruthless.
"You'll notice," Barger says, "I was never in my life busted with methamphetamine. Ever. You'll also notice I spent most of the '70s in prison."
He doesn't deny, though, that drugs had an effect. "I'm certain I went to prison because I used cocaine. . . . I don't know exactly how to explain it, other than that you do a lot of stupid things you wouldn't do if you weren't loaded."
As for the business side, he says: "I sold a few drugs myself, but I never made the multimillions they claim. If I did, I sure wouldn't be here working today. . . . As for anybody else, I'd rather let them speak for themselves."
In 1983, doctors removed Barger's cancerous larynx. To speak, he touches a small patch on his neck. His voice is a gentle growl.
The Angels belief system, he says, isn't complicated: "I just believe we have a right to do anything we want to do as long as we're not hurting anyone else, and if anyone tries to stop us, we have a right to step on them."