Anarchistic to archaic - Hunter S. Thompson's 'Hell's Angels'
Words: Scott Blackburn Photos: Bill Ray
Composed to: Green Day - Dookie
First published in 1966, Hunter S. Thompson's 'Hell's Angels' would be a marker in his career and provide an insight into a rougher, often glorified aspect of American motorcycle culture. Thompson spent almost a year in the company of the California Angles, tagging along for the ride and recording everything he could. In the process he would form his own style of journalism, get beaten bloody and take a whole bunch of drugs.
As you start reading Thompson leads you in with the Angel's Labour Day run, interspersed with clippings and quotes, giving both sides of the outlaws' reputation at once. As the book wanders on you find yourself just taken along, with Thompson spending time divulging assorted little details. Reading these though is almost just passive, you don't realise you've spent 5 minutes reading about the specifics of LSD usage until you've finished.
This highly personal and detailed style of journalism is what earned Thompson his name, it's what we now know as 'Gonzo Journalism.' The same style would follow him through to books such as 'Fear and Loathing...'. In terms of the view that Thompson presents of the Angels, he remains decidedly unbiased, not refraining from some of the darker sides but also showing media sensationalism to be just that.
In the opening pages of the book there is printed a quote from François Villon:
In my own country I am in a far off land,
I am strong but have no force or power,
I win all yet remain a loser.
At break of day I lie down and have a great fear,
Perhaps conveniently, this almost sums up the overarching image of the Angels that Thompson presents. They weren't 'Sons of Anarchy'-esque anarchists fighting some noble battle against the state, they were just lost, forgotten by a society that had moved on and left them behind. While the bikers definitely weren't 'good guys' they were definitely subject to an disproportionate degree of media attention and...inflated storytelling, is probably the best phrase.
The Angels themselves had a mixed view on the book when it was published, evidently not fans of the way they'd been portrayed as being something of a relic. Thompson unfortunately ended his time with them on a sour note, as he lays out in the post-script, although in an interview with both Thompson and an Angel shortly afterwards the main issue that they seemed to have was that Thompson hadn't given them the two kegs of beer he'd promised. Then again he did just get beaten silly trying to stop an Angel hitting his old lady so he reckoned they were even.
Anyone looking for a light read or some defined storyline even won't find too much to like about 'Hell's Angels', but if you're looking for a book that'll hold your attention and give you something to think about it might be of a little more interest. Thompson's wandering, enticing style of writing is an experience to be recommended. That goes for those in and out of motorcycle culture, though undeniably those on the inside will get something extra out of the read. Pages 321-323 will probably be particularly worth a note for those people.