Interview by Studs Terkel
The interview with Hunter S. Thompson occured shortly after the release of Thompson’s book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. The book chronicles the almost two years Thompson spent in the mid-60s living and drinking with members of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, up and down the California coast.
The Animated Transcript
Studs Terkel was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who interviewed thousands of everyday Americans and international notables during his career.
It’s like the motorcycle anybody who has any kind of sensuality in them at all would get a tremendous boot out of just what the Angels call “screwing it on”, just getting a big bike and just running it flat out as fast as it will go. I used to take it out at night on the Coast Highway, just drunk out of my mind, ride it for 20 and 30 miles in just short pants and a t-shirt. It’s a beautiful feeling.
I recognize it as an illusion and a fantasy. but for somebody who has nothing else to go back to, this is maybe one of the happiest minutes of his life. You can imagine if that’s true, just how powerful he’d feel if he could give you one of these in the head with a karate … It’s not a chop. It’s a head snap. The angels, a lot of the angels are big on karate.
Hunter Thompson, our guest, is a new kind of journalist. The journalist who is not detached, who becomes involved and in fact he was almost an honorary member, or a dishonored member of the the Oakland Hells Angels. You were with them for about a year or so?
About a year, yeah. They claim, the Angels anyway, claim that they don’t look for trouble. They just try to live peaceful lives and be left alone but on the other hand they go out and put themselves into situations deliberately and constantly, that are either going to humiliate somebody else or cause them to avoid humiliation by fighting.
You speak of foul fighting. They stomp someone. You were stomped. In which there’s the questions of rules involved here, just beating… violence for the sake of violence.
Well they have a rule: it’s bylaw either number 10 or 11. It says, “When an Angel punches a non-Angel all other Angels will participate.” So I was a victim of bylaw number 10 or 11. I should have known that, it’s a lapse of caution. All during this stomping I could see the guy who had originally teed off on me that just out of nowhere with no warning circling around with a rock about… must have weighed about 20 pounds, I tried to keep my eyes on him because I didn’t want to have my skull fractured.
Your observations are more than about the Angels. They’re about our society, and it’s since World War Two pretty much, isn’t it, this phenomenon has come to be?
I think the Angels came out of World War Two. This whole kind of alienated, violent, subculture of people wandering around looking for either an opportunity, or if not an opportunity then vengeance for not getting an opportunity. They get to be 30 and suddenly they wake up one morning and they realize there are no more chances. It’s all gone. It makes them meaner. They want to get back at the people who put them in this terrible, this dead end, tunnel.
Now who are these people they want to get back at?
They don’t know. It’s kind of “they”, paranoid. It’s you, it’s me, it’s whoever might come too close to them on the highway, a car. It’s somebody that makes a remark in a bar to them. They call them the citizens. Anybody who looks respectable and looks like he isn’t doomed, like he has some kind of option or money or a home, all the things they don’t have.
What do you see for us, for everything?
Christ, it’s bad. I’m not very optimistic. I think one of the most important things is to recognize that we do have this mounting violence in us and then to find the reasons.
Once you find that it’s like curing a boil. If people insist on saying, “I am a very gentle person and only these little bad gang of hoodlums over there is ugly and mean,” then it’s just putting off the recognition that the same venom that the Angels are spewing around in public, a lot of people are just keeping bottled up in private. I think this technological, the science of obsolescence, or the fact that people are becoming obsolete. The people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reason for it, so the venom builds up much quicker. It feeds on their ignorance.
Until you recognize what’s happening, what makes you do these wild things … Christ, I used to throw beer bottles into bar mirrors and stuff like that and get stomped, always. I can’t remember ever winning a fight. I don’t do it anymore because I’ve finally caught on to what was happening. Until you recognize it, it’s like an albatross around your neck. I learned a lot about myself just writing about the Angels. I was seeing a very ugly side of myself a lot of times. I’m much more conscious of the kind of anger that lurks everywhere. I don’t do any… I keep my mouth shut now. I’ve turned into a professional coward.
I wouldn’t just call Hells Angels in Oakland the only violent part of our society. I think Lyndon Johnson would be a good Hells Angel, mentally, obviously not….. The Angels reflect not only the lower segments of the society but the higher, where violence takes a much more sophisticated and respectable form.
More Interview outtakes
“It takes a while to cultivate that kind of bitterness, where when somebody calls you ‘a dirty bum’ you don’t look in the mirror and think, ‘well maybe I should wash my face,’ you go out and rub scum on you and get dirtier. Then you go back in and punch him and break a bottle and stick it in his gut. …
“They like to throw it back in your face and say, ‘Yes, here I am, a dirty bum. I’m even dirtier than you thought and I’m also going to punish you for calling me that and making me that, too.'”
“When they get together in big mobs they’re very hard to handle. The police treat them very gently…. They try to get together in as large a band as they can so the police know it’s not just a matter of grabbing somebody by the ear and leading him into the traffic court. They might cause a riot. Of course, it’s not just the police. In a small town the people who live there, like a town of 10 or 20,000, get excited and terrified and they arm themselves and stand around in bands on street corners with guns and knives and clubs because they really believe that the Angels are going to come in and decimate the town.”
The Battle at Bass Lake
“When I got there and found the locals all armed, probably a hundred of them just forming a human wall in front of this shopping center, I wasn’t sure who to be afraid of, whether the Angels were going to hit me with chain whips from behind or the locals from in front, or where to turn my back, or anything. The locals were armed. They’d hired private gunmen and people with hunting knives and long sticks. The Angels bring out this kind of violence in other people by confronting it. They confront them.”
The Hell’s Angels Uniform
“Angels bring out this violence in other people because they are dressed adversely, bearded, long hair, earring in ear perhaps, a swastika helmet or a Confederate flag, which some of the locals would like very much. Something occurred to me. They bring something out.”
Thompson’s First Ride
In 1965, a young Hunter Thompson was given an assignment by The Nation magazine to write about the Hells Angels.
Thompson’s article was a success and led to an offer to write a book about the motorcycle club. He spent a year living, drinking and riding with the Oakland and San Francisco chapters of the club until he wore out his welcome and was on the receiving end of a ‘stomping’ when he allegedly reproached one of the members for beating his wife.
“It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer. On my way back to San Francisco, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!
― Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
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