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The Wild One

RIDIN' HIGH, LIVIN' FREE: Hell-Raising Motorcycle Stories, By Ralph "Sonny" Barger With Keith Zimmerman and Kent Zimmerman, William Morrow: 260 pp., $24.95

April 21, 2002|HERBERT GOLD | Herbert Gold's nonfiction books, "Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth" and "The Magic Will: Stories and Essays of a Decade" have been reissued with new material.

Sonny Barger, founder of the Hells Angels, along with his collaborators, Keith and Kent Zimmerman, authors of last year's memoir, "Hell's Angel," begin this scrappy sequel--a collection of tales both true and possibly partly true--with a story about Richard Charles "Gypsy" Anderson, R.I.P., and of what "put the zap in his head." The zap was put there by the Marlon Brando motorcycle movie, "The Wild One," back in 1954.

I, too, four-eyed novelist and boy husband, saw "The Wild One" under ideal circumstances when I stumbled into a we-never-close triple-feature fleabag movie house on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. After the movie, in the men's room (don't worry), I watched a posse of mini-Brandos admiring themselves and their leather jackets in the mirror. They also wanted to be motorcycle hoods, although they looked more like Sal Mineo than Brando. I just wanted to be a writer.

Besides Sonny, Anderson is the hero of this book, dying of liver and kidney disease after beatings, overdoses and staying up late couldn't kill him. The stories emphasize pride in tattoos, patches, treasured cycles and "rat-packing," which is a form of group (let's not say "gang") battering of someone who commits an act of disrespect or is caught considering such an act. Hells Angels prefer the word "club" to "gang."

When I interviewed Sonny for Rolling Stone magazine a couple of years back--it doesn't seem right to call him Mr. Barger, even in this dignified venue--he expressed ironic detachment from the murders and other distressing incidents that seemed to gather in his presence. He served jail and prison terms for various offenses. He allowed to a history of substance abuse, such as the cigarettes that led to cancer of the larynx, but what about that other stuff? Rumors? A philosophic shrug. People pick on the Angels because that's how people are, but the Angels are really just a kind of, oh, fraternity of like-minded, frequently oppressed lads who ride demufflered motorcycles, as Sonny suggests here, "to clear their heads, feel the wind, and experience freedom." It's the American way, as the American way should be.

Later in "Ridin' High, Livin' Free," Sonny expands on this philosophy by telling the story of movie star fellow traveler, Steve McQueen, who "wanted to break away from the plastic Hollywood lifestyle. He yearned to expand his mind and simplify his life."

He bought motorcycles and airplanes. He fell for a model. They rode together. "He loved the effect beer had on him in the mile-high altitudes of Colorado." He also loved what he called his "vitamin C pills." He was at a "serious spiritual juncture in his life. McQueen craved stability and peace of mind." With the help of his loving new wife, he pursued this goal relentlessly, growing his hair long. "The couple would ride motorcycles, drink beer, shoot guns, and play with the coyotes." At his death, he left a collection of cycles, planes, funky dwellings and knickknacks, although his wife had insisted on a new washer-dryer.

Emphasis on McQueen's expanded mind is significant because it indicates the inner life of these rough boys. They have borrowed a warrior picture of themselves, livin' free and ridin' high, and they play out their lives in roles that can give losers the sense that they are not losers. Sonny was their leader because he was and still is media-savvy, charming and energetic, despite his present infirmities. He has reached the age of nostalgia. His memory is pretty good and his mind is pretty inventive.

He still rides; he retains his street credo. There is a warmth in his tribute to McQueen: "His favorite thing in all the world was to hang out with the boys, chug beer, and check out bikes." Some of the stories and photographs in this book give a sense of being mined from "Hell's Angel." When I asked Sonny about that, he sometimes expanded nicely and sometimes looked puzzled: "Where'd they get that? Maybe from my sister."

It's fun to listen to romantic tales of hell-and-heck-raising by a man now in his mid-60s, settled down in a ranchette near Phoenix, where he served his last sentence in a federal pen, with a pretty young wife who rides, a preteen stepdaughter who also rides, a few heart attacks and a cancer surgery behind him and memories, memories. He raises Old Glory on his flagpole every morning and takes it down at sunset, folding it reverently against his bosom.

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