It was a marriage of opposites, the collision of the middle-class rebels of the local music scene and the working-class motorcycle enthusiasts. Each had seen themselves as refugees from polite society, standing in opposition to the enforced consensus of postwar America.
For the bikers, the hippies and musicians were well-liked acquaintances, offering entrée to many of the Angels’ favored pastimes. For the counterculture, the feelings were stronger, with the Hells Angels seen as allies in the battle against middle-class bourgeois mores. The counterculture in the Bay Area had long thought of itself as a kind of outlaw posse, living beyond the law and grateful for the company of all who similarly found themselves at odds with the establishment. It believed itself to be a large-tent party, encompassing anyone and everyone for whom the mainstream made no space.
With the end of the war, the country stood on the cusp of a huge surge in the popularity of motorcycle riding. In 1945, there had been only 198,000 motorcycles registered in the United States. By the early 1950s, there were already 500,000, and within two decades, there would be more than 3 million motorcycles on the roads and highways.
The bikers formed makeshift, ragtag associations. Men interested in motorcycles banded together and gave themselves masculine, grandiose names like the Outlaws. They would gather together to putter with their bikes, ride them on local roads and freeways, and drink beer together. It was mostly a working-class activity, one redolent of axle grease and wrenches, like a fleet of alcohol-fueled mechanics trained to work only on their own roaring two-wheeled beasts.
And California was the place to be a biker. The warm weather allowed for year-round riding, and the new freeways were as hospitable to motorcycles as they were to cars. California had more registered bikes than any other state in the union, so naturally, the first bikers’ rallies took place in the Golden State in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Motorcyclists would gather in no-name towns like Hollister and Riverside, their drunken antics drawing the attention of the local authorities. The bikers were a direct affront to the enforced quiet of the immediate postwar years of Truman and Eisenhower, a time of panic about saboteurs in the midst and threats to the American way of life. The more that way of life was defined and enforced by the establishment, the more disaffected young men like the bikers would push back against any such designations. “What are you rebelling against?” Marlon Brando’s outlaw biker is asked in the genre-defining 1953 biker film The Wild One. “Whaddaya got?” he sneers.
A biker named Vic Bettencourt had gotten stranded in southern California in the late 1940s, and started a bikers’ group while stuck there. It had begun as an offshoot of another biker group, the Pissed Off Bastards. They called themselves the Nomad Hells Angels, soon shortened to the Hells Angels. The names all evoked a certain frame of mind: ornery, vulgar, redolent of low living and bad manners. They were designed to be at odds with polite society, to keep their distance from all that smacked of bourgeois values.
The future leader of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, and de facto chief Angel, Sonny Barger, had grown up reading Western novels by Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour: hardscrabble, unadorned tales of the frontier, of cowboys and Indians, of two-fisted combat and the romance of the road. In high school, he saw The Wild One and was instantly enamored, not of Brando’s Johnny Strabler, but of Lee Marvin’s psychotic Chino. The frontier was closed, the Indians all slaughtered or penned in on reservations, but the open road remained, and the two-wheeled steeds that could ferry him into the future.
When Sonny was sixteen, his beloved older sister Shirley got married and left home, and his father sold the family’s house and moved into a hotel in downtown Oakland. Sonny forged a birth certificate and joined the army. Sonny enjoyed the camaraderie and regimentation of military life, and was disappointed when his commanding officers discovered he was underage and booted him from the service, honorable discharge in hand. He was seventeen years old, a veteran, and uninterested in the workaday world or the cozy domestic life promised by the paragons of American propaganda. He wanted a clan. “I needed a second family,” he would later write. “I wanted a group less interested in a wife and two point five kids in a crackerbox home in Daly City or San Jose and more interested in riding, drag racing, and raising hell.”
Barger met Vic Bettencourt. His organization’s rules reminded Barger favorably of army life, and he joined the Hells Angels. Barger was six feet tall, and a slim 170 pounds, no match for the imposing brutes he associated with. But when Barger spoke, people listened. And the other Angels knew that, in a scrape, he would be the first to enter the fray, whether against a lone, petrified barfly or a passel of armed police officers.
By the late 1950s, the Hells Angels were well known around northern California for rowdy, occasionally deviant behavior. More than anything, the club was defined by its choice of motorcycles. The Hells Angels rode, romanced, and worshipped Harley-Davidsons, and only Harley-Davidsons. They would often buy their Harleys from police auctions, aware though the authorities were not that even bikes deemed to be little more than scrap metal could always be rebuilt. They lovingly restored the bikes and kept them polished to a high sheen. The Angels fetishized their Harleys, “chopping” them to their specifications by cutting off back fenders, switching out the handlebars, and removing the front fenders, then painting them gaudy colors.
Everywhere the Angels went, they attracted the attention of prospective converts to the motorcyclists’ cause. Here was rebellion, here was chaos and noise and life on two rubber wheels.
In 1964 the group first made national headlines, when two members were arrested on rape charges in the beachside town of Monterey. The charges were eventually dismissed, but local newspapers were filled with shocked descriptions of criminal, deviant bikers, their unchecked licentiousness a threat to chaste American womanhood. The outlaw biker became a familiar figure in the American unconscious, feared and envied all at once.Without their knowledge or assent, they became the adopted mascots of a counterculture about which they understood little. They were fêted as folk heroes.
The Hells Angels were hardasses with an occasional soft spot for stranded motorists or lone women. Many in the Bay Area had spotted them at the side of the road, pulling out jumper cables to help a stalled car, or escorting a woman home through the empty late-night streets, and been pleasantly surprised by their gallantry. Without their knowledge or assent, they became the adopted mascots of a counterculture about which they understood little. They were fêted as folk heroes, and included in the celebrations of a movement with its sights set on remaking the country in its enlightened, progressive image. Hunter S. Thompson introduced the Angels to Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who gave them their first taste of LSD. Thompson believed that the Hells Angels never understood their new friends, or their affection for bikers. They were just happy to be invited to the party.
Given their dress, their proclivities, and their general anti-authoritarian bent, there was an assumption in the air that the Angels and other outlaw groups were essentially hippies on bikes, but this was imprecise at best. The Hells Angels and other biker groups gladly formed alliances with the cultural wing of the counterculture while furiously rejecting its political beliefs. In that, they were representative of a fractured nation.
“More and more Americans were forthrightly asserting visions of what a truly moral society would look like,” argued Rick Perlstein in his history of the era, Nixonland. “Unfortunately, their visions were irreconcilable.” And frustration over the shared inability to impose that vision led to an increasing comfort with violence. By 1969, the unfulfilled expectations of the New Left had soured many activists on the possibilities of politics. Non-violence was a sham, many believed, and the political process was an extended dodge intended to keep radicals from achieving change. Activist organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society were succeeded by the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, each intent on proving their bona fides through the symbolic embrace of violence.
The violence, though, was not just metaphorical; it was increasingly present in the communities in which Americans found themselves. In May, Berkeley police had dropped tear gas from helicopters onto protesters demanding access to a spit of land belonging to the University of California they had dubbed the People’s Park. Officers there had also shot a student named James Rector to death. Two days before Altamont, Chicago police had killed Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark as they lay asleep in their beds. That week, indictments were handed down against Charles Manson and his followers in the deaths of Sharon Tate and four others in the Hollywood Hills. The state’s repressive powers were matched by those of the increasingly combative left and the restive right.
Much of the media’s attention focused on the splintering of the New Left, but right-wing violence, while often less explicitly ideological, was similarly devoted to delivering a message: that dissent was treason, that contrarian voices would be stifled.The good tunes and free love and weed proffered by the hippies were all very welcome, but the anti-war rallies attended by many of those same hippies were anathema to many of the bikers.
For many Bay Area activists, their first interaction with this new vigilantism had come in October 1965. The Oakland chapter of the Angels, harbingers of a new wave of pro-war, anti-counterculture violence, had broken through police lines and disrupted an anti–Vietnam War rally in Berkeley. They beat protesters mercilessly, calling them traitors and beatniks and tearing down their banners. “Go back to Russia, you fucking Communists!” the bikers shouted at the anti-war protesters. The territorial Angels saw themselves as protecting their city from the influx of Berkeley radicals, and were emboldened by the Oakland police’s deliberate refusal to protect the protesters. The Hells Angels were the white lower-middle class and working class’s spiritual avatars, lashing out physically where the others could only bluster helplessly.
The good tunes and free love and weed proffered by the hippies were all very welcome, but the anti-war rallies attended by many of those same hippies were anathema to many of the bikers. The protesters were cowards, they believed, love-bead-wearing pansies with weak constitutions, physically unfit for the rigors of war. And so the bikers increasingly became identified not as working-class men or veterans, but as a motorized corps intent on dispensing free-floating violence, or at least the impression of same, to their ideological enemies.
No one was badly injured at the Oakland rally, but the day’s events galvanized the Berkeley political set. There were genuine enemies within, intent on establishing their patriotic bona fides at the expense of the counterculture. The Angels eventually issued a statement that they would avoid attending, or being in close proximity to, future antiwar rallies because “our patriotic concern for what these people are doing to our great nation may provoke us to violent acts.” The Angels, inconsistent as ever, were politically apolitical. They chose to stay out of politics because they were too moved by political issues to stay calm. Moreover, the wording of the statement reflected the Hells Angels’ self-image as defenders, not instigators. They would not assault demonstrators, but might nonetheless be provoked to violence by the demonstrators’ outrages.
Much of this burgeoning conservatism came from what the Angels and other groups perceived as a governmental attack on bikers. In 1966, the federal government requested that states write their own laws requiring the use of helmets while riding motorcycles. Many motorcyclists, including the Angels, were aghast at the government’s seeking to regulate their passion, and took an impassioned stance against the proposed helmet laws. America was a land of freedom, they argued, and as proponents of a furious individualism, they refused to be boxed in by bureaucracy. Their anti-regulation campaign dovetailed nicely with the burgeoning conservative movement, which also sought to limit governmental intrusion into private affairs. Moreover, conservatism’s impassioned defense of the war in Vietnam aligned with many bikers’ belief in American exceptionalism and military might. To ride a bike was to be free, and freedom had to be defended at all costs.
Excerpted and adapted from Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, by Saul Austerlitz. Copyright © 2018 Saul Austerlitz. Reprinted with permission Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press.