I appreciated how he captured to a great extent the actual motivations and attitudes of outlaw bikers, as well as debunking some of the silly stories that drew from the old Wild One movie. For one example, Hunter accurately describes the small size and influence of the outlaw bikers in the mid-sixties and the apparent view of law enforcement of these bikers, at least in California. The cops were concerned about a bunch of bikers coming into town to rape and pillage. Mostly they just came into town to get high.
Never mind the public conclusions about bikers from Easy Rider. At least that movie didn’t involve motorcycle gangs.
I was also aware of the AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) negative opinions of “outlaw bikers” in general. They called them the “one percenters” to emphasize that most bikers were “the nicest people” to quote a famous advertising slogan. On the other hand, it was a label the Angels wore with pride, often sporting a patch on their trademark, sleeveless denim jackets.
As Thompson states in that book, he was offered several bikes by the Angels. He was worried that the free bike would have stolen parts. Besides that, he was more a Harley Sportster type of guy, and that wouldn’t work with that bike gang that rode exclusively big Harleys. Thompson said he had owned a few scooters prior to his experiences with the Hells Angels, and he ended up purchasing a 1967 BSA Lightning. He also commented on the Japanese bikes of that time and on the Honda Superhawk.
Anyway, he ended up with a BSA, although his adventures with the Angels was usually with him in a car. The book describes one three-day weekend run he participated in. He ended up on the beer runs because he had a car.
After reading and enjoying his book on the Hells Angels I was drawn to his best selling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. I had heard a lot about it, and I wanted to read more of his work. Although it was Hunter’s best selling book, I found it very disappointing. To begin with, part of the book was supposedly about the “Mint 400.“
In some circles, the "Mint 400" is a far, far better thing than the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby Finals all rolled into one. This race attracts a very special breed …”
— Hunter S. Thompson
The Mint 400 was a dessert race during the 60’s and 70’s sponsored by the Las Vegas casino, “The Mint.” It was founded as a PR stunt in 1961 — a two-car death race through 600 miles of Nevada hell-fury to promote, of all dissipative American traditions, a deer hunting contest. The brainchild of the owner of the now-crumbled Mint Hotel by the name of Del Webb, the event was inspired by the famed Baja 1000, and its inaugural running’s success led to dozens of racers attending the second running: a 400-mile loop through the Las Vegas desert open to all sorts of vehicles including bikes.
Desert racing attracts a special breed, indeed. The glitz and glamour that surrounds motorsports like Formula 1 is a long way from the crippling heat and desolate conditions of races like the Mint 400. It takes a unique variety of maniac to welcome a venue that so actively discourages the vital necessities of life, but in the heyday of the Mint 400, it was one of the largest motorsports events in the US, boasting a staggering $100,000 purse by 1975. Competitors came from far and wide, with racers like Steve McQueen lining up alongside Joe Average all vying for the win. The race was pandemonium, bikes and dune buggies flying in reckless disregard to the rules of racing, and nature.
So I was very disappointed when I read the book since about all Hunter described was his frequent comment to bystanders that he was part of the Vincent Black Shadow racing team. Rather than sit outside in the dusty old dust of the race, he spent all the time inside at the bar consuming various strong liquors until he couldn’t stand up. Zero about the race. Didn’t even mention the winners.
Without spoiling the book for those who haven’t read it, part of Thompson’s story is about him abusing all sorts of drugs in expensive hotels rather than really attending the race. The second half of the book is about him abusing all sorts of drugs in expensive hotels while attending a D.A. conference on drugs. The story is sort of a distorted autobiography of his time in Vegas, and it was not appealing to me at all. The truth is it was a combined tale of two visits to L.V. sponsored by various publications to write stories about the events. Somehow this turned into this drug addled exposition on his life style. That’s what “gonzo” journalist means. The writer becomes part — if not the central character — in the tale.
I’m no “drug prude,” and you know I've smoked a lot of grass, O' Lord, I've popped a lot of pills, but I’ve never touched nothin’ that my spirit could kill. Yet I never thought about snorting ether (the gas that puts you to sleep)! I suppose Hunter was making some point, but he failed in my case to make it.
Hunter, meanwhile, seemed to have smoked, ate, dropped, snorted, and otherwise consumed about every drug then extant. It really came across as boring and juvenile. I realize he won critical acclaim for this book, and sort of based his career on its success for the rest of his life, but I didn’t think much of it. (I never saw any of the movies either, but don’t feel that is a great loss.)
His Hells Angels book, however, did leave me with a strong impression of his literary skills. It also convinced me he was a bit of an impossible drunk, and I think history pretty much shows that opinion to be valid.
I have not read any of his other books. After being turned off by F&L NV, I didn’t pick up another of his books, although the ones on politics might be useful in today’s environment. He was no lover of Nixon (to understate the facts), but had little regard for LBJ either.
As a journalist, it does seem he was everywhere there was to be during the revolutionary sixties. He was in Haight Ashbury during the summer of love. He was in South America and the Caribbean. He was in Vietnam at the end. (Not sure what ‘copter ferried him out as Saigon fell.) He worked for dozens of different publications from Rolling Stone to the local shopping market weekly news and jokes. His biggest successes were as a sports reporter. Not really gonzo at all.
As I said, I did enjoy greatly his Hells Angels book. He literally lived with the Angels for over a year and reported pretty clearly and accurately their lifestyle and motivations. Best of all, IMHO, was his descriptions of the Angel’s bikes. Their skill both in maintenance and in riding. Although they seemed perpetually drunk, most of the time they rode in tight precision with expert skills splitting lanes and dodging death, although they didn’t always avoid the grim reaper. One chapter of his book describes a Hells Angels funeral.
Of course there were other times when, drunk as skunks and high as mountains, they couldn’t even bring the V-twin beasts to life or, if they could get them to start, rode off in a roar and into a tree … or each other. Yet Hunter exhaustingly describes their personal love affairs and ability with the freedom of two wheels. That’s really the plot of his HA book, the love of freedom.
At one point the Angels meet Ken Kesey (Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and many more … also consumed by this avid reader … your truly) and Allen Ginsberg (I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked). Drug use on a higher plane and anti-war tactics were discussed, but the Angels were much more interested in getting high than exploring the philosophy of conscious expansion. If only the middle class bikers could have connected with the elite class intellectuals of Berkley. Where did H.S.Thompson put his personal view? He didn't say much about that either. Just a journalist telling other's stories.
That part of the tale adds interest to his stories for me. The summer of love (and L.S.D. meets the bar fighting Angels). But then the Angels would have beat the shit out of the intellectuals if nature had taken its normal course. It’s probably best that the Berkley elite and the Bay bad boys ended up going their own separate ways.
But the bottom line … the subtle subplot … the glaring truth of Hunter’s whole book on the outlaw motorcycle gang was about the freedom of their lifestyle and how motorcycles represented, augmented, presented, and made obvious their goal, their desire, their life. It was about freedom.
I was saddened when I learned Hunter had ended his own life, but then, based on what I’d read about him and his personal lifestyle and his books, I’m not surprised he didn’t grow old gracefully.
But I’m not here to bury Hunter, I’m here to praise him. Never visited his “Owl Farm” property during my frequent Aspen sojourns, but I was always aware he had left the California lifestyle described in his earlier works for the Colorado high. Another John Denver crying out from the wilderness on the misdirections of mankind and American life. All we need is love … and drugs … and guns?
Oh, I was impressed with some of his writing, and especially his reporting on motorcycles. He got it. When I first read the following excerpt from near the end of his book, his coda, his summation, his connection. He got it. The reason many (most) ride. Here’s his answer. From the ending of his Hells Angels story is this description of him out for a jaunt on his red BSA.
Months later, when I rarely saw the Angels, I still had the legacy of the big machine — four hundred pounds of chrome and deep red noise to take out on the Coast Highway and cut loose at three in the morning, when all the cops were lurking over on 101. My first crash had wrecked the bike completely and it took several months to have it rebuilt. After that I decided to ride it differently: I would stop pushing my luck on curves, always wear a helmet and try to keep within range of the nearest speed limit … my insurance had already been canceled and my driver’s license was hanging by a thread.
So it was always at night, like a werewolf, that I would take the thing out for an honest run down the coast. I would start in Golden Gate Park, thinking only to run a few long curves to clear my head … but in a matter of minutes I’d be out at the beach with the sound of the engine in my ears, the surf booming up on the sea wall and a fine empty road stretching all the way down to Santa Cruz … not even a gas station in the whole seventy miles; the only public light along the way is an all-night diner down around Rockaway Beach.
There was no helmet on those nights, no speed limit, and no cooling it down on the curves. The momentary freedom of the park was like the one unlucky drink that shoves a wavering alcoholic off the wagon. I would come out of the park near the soccer field and pause for a moment at the stop sign, wondering if I knew anyone parked out there on the midnight humping strip.
Then into first gear, forgetting the cars and letting the beast wind out … thirty-five, forty-five … then into second and wailing through the light at Lincoln Way, not worried about green or red signals, but only some other werewolf loony who might be pulling out, too slowly, to start his own run. Not many of these … and with three lanes on a wide curve, a bike coming hard has plenty of room to get around almost anything … then into third, the boomer gear, pushing seventy-five and the beginning of a wind scream in the ears, a pressure on the eyeballs like diving into water off a high board.
Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind. Taillights far up ahead coming closer, faster, and suddenly — zaaapppp — going past and leaning down for a curve near the zoo, where the road swings out to sea.
The dunes are flatter here, and on windy days sand blows across the highway, piling up in thick drifts as deadly as any oil-slick … instant loss of control, a crashing, cartwheeling slide and maybe one of those two-inch notices in the paper the next day: “An unidentified motorcyclist was killed last night when he failed to negotiate a turn on Highway 1.”
Indeed … but no sand this time, so the lever goes up into fourth, and now there’s no sound except wind. Screw it all the way over, reach through the handlebars to raise the headlight beam, the needle leans down on a hundred, and wind-burned eyeballs strain to see down the centerline, trying to provide a margin for the reflexes.
But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right … and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it … howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica … letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge … The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others — the living — are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between now and Later.
But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.
— Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: A Strange and and Terrible Saga. Random House Publishing Group.
Was Hunter S. Thompson a good writer? Well, you can now decide for yourself. My mind is made up.
P.S. Of course, what’s not to love in a writer who mixes "ellipses"(…) and "dashes" (—) in the same paragraph. (Who else does that? Hadn’t you noticed?)
P.P.S. Did I tell you I also have a red BSA Lightning. I don’t ride by the beach. My destinations are mountains and river canyons. And I don’t ride at night. (Old eyes don’t do as well at night.) But I’ve “Bent forward, far back on the seat, and a rigid grip on the handlebars as the bike starts jumping and wavering in the wind.” Oh yes, Hunter got it. Do you?