Hundreds of Hell’s Angels and other assorted outlaw bikers thundered into Monterey, California, during Labor Day weekend in 1964. After motorcycle gangs laid waste to tiny, rural Hollister on July 4, 1947, Monterey was one of the only places that would take them in such great numbers without a hassle.
Any uneasy truce between square citizens and bikers came to an end, however, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 1964 when “two teen-aged girls were raped by a score of the hell-for-leather cyclists,” according to a United Press International story that ran in the San Mateo Times and several other California papers.
“The girls were sobbing hysterically,” UPI reported. “They told police they had been stripped, raped and subjected to numerous indecencies by a score of youths.”
Four Hell’s Angels were jailed for the multiple rapes, and biker gangs were banned from Monterey altogether by Police Chief Frank Marinello. The rape charges against the Angels were dropped by the end of the month due to “insufficient evidence,” but the ban remained in effect.
“They are no longer welcome here — today or any time in the future,” Marinello said. “Things got beyond toleration.”
This crime and a criticism of the “outrage stories” that it generated in the press are at the beginning of an essay for The Nation titled “The Motorcycle Gangs: Portrait of an Outsider Underground” by Hunter S. Thompson, then a struggling journalist living in the Haight.
“The difference between the Hell’s Angels in the paper and the Hell’s Angels for real is enough to make a man wonder what newsprint is for,” Thompson wrote. “It also raises a question as to who are the real Hell’s Angels.”
And with that, Thompson decided to try and find out by embedding himself with the San Francisco and Oakland chapters of the Hell’s Angels for over a year. The result was his first book, “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.
With “Hell’s Angels,” Thompson took the first-person, participatory journalism that was emerging at the time, spiked it with mescaline and Wild Turkey, and transformed it into something called Gonzo. He also almost lost his life, or at least his teeth, in the process.
“The Hell’s Angels try not to do anything halfway, and anyone who deals in extremes is bound to cause trouble, whether he means to or not,” Thompson wrote in The Nation.
“This, along with a belief in total retaliation for any offense or insult, is what makes the Hell’s Angels unmanageable for the police and morbidly fascinating to the general public,” he continued.
“Their claim that they ‘don’t start trouble’ is probably true more often than not, but their idea of ‘provocation’ is dangerously broad, and their biggest problem is that nobody else seems to understand it.”
After over a year of riding with the Angels, Thompson found himself on the receiving end of this “total retaliation.” Thompson had already finished a draft of the book, and had been away from the Angels for six months when he went on a Labor Day run with them to a beach near Mendocino. This was a bad idea.
Thompson got drunk and stoned with the Angels on the beach, and stuck around when things got ugly — something he avoided while writing the book. An Angel named Junkie George started beating his wife to a pulp on the rocks. When Junkie George laid into his dog as well, Thompson spoke up. That was all it took for several Angels to start pounding on Thompson’s skull and ribs.
“All during this stomping, I could see the guy who had originally teed off on me just out of nowhere, with no warning, circling around with a rock that must’ve weighed about 10 or 20 pounds,” Thompson later recalled during a 1967 interview with Studs Terkel. “I tried to keep my eyes on him because I didn’t want to get my skull fractured.”
Thompson somehow survived the beating, and became a literary icon. After getting knocked around, Thompson never delivered the one or two kegs of beer he promised the Oakland Angels for giving him access to them. Ralph “Sonny” Barger, founder of the Oakland Hell’s Angels, never denied the beating.
“He got beat up by us, but he set that up,” Barger later said. ” He got in an argument with a guy, he caused a fight, he got beat up…”
“I used to throw beer bottles into bar mirrors and stuff like that,” Thompson said of his time with the Hell’s 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 on and on, everywhere.”
Litquake celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Hell’s Angels” with Gonzo: 50 Years of Hunter S. Thompson on Saturday October 8 at 8 p.m. at the Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market Street, San Francisco.