Sonny Barger, Figurehead of Hells Angels, Dies at 83

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Sonny Barger, the leather-clad fixture of 1960s counterculture and figurehead of the Hells Angels motorcycle club who was at the notorious Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway, has died. He was 83.

Barger’s death was announced on his Facebook page late Wednesday.

“If you are reading this message, you’ll know that I’m gone. I’ve asked that this note be posted immediately after my passing,” a posting said. “I’ve lived a long and good life filled with adventure. And I’ve had the privilege to be part of an amazing club.”

The post said that “I passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer.”

Learn more A Short History of the Hells Angels

Barger’s former attorney, Fritz Clapp, told The Associated Press that Barger had liver cancer and died Wednesday night at home in Livermore, California. Barger composed the post placed on the Facebook page managed by Barger’s wife, Zorana, he said.

Ralph “Sonny” Barger was a founding member of the Oakland, California, chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957 and was present at its most infamous moment — the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway during which bikers hired as security staff fatally stabbed a concertgoer who pulled a gun on one of their members.

In popular media, the Hells Angels are often portrayed as the darker fringe of the 1960s counterculture. The Hells Angels embrace freedom, drugs, and rock music. But they also support crime and violence.

Barger was the official spokesperson for Hells Angels but he downplayed the outlaw image.

“They say we’re organized crime, but if you took every Hells Angel on the face of the Earth and got rid of them you wouldn’t drop the crime rate in the world one-tenth of one percent,” he said in a 2000 interview for Heads magazine. “We’re a little drop in the bucket. There’s more cops committing crimes than Hells Angels.”

Barger’s own arrest record included charges ranging from drunken driving to attempted murder. According to reports, he spent 13 years in different prisons.

His 1980 acquittal on racketeering and declaration of mistrial for conspiracy to violate racketeering laws were his best experiences.

In 1988 however, Barger was found guilty by a jury of conspiring to violate federal explosives and firearms laws through plots to murder members of another gang. He was sentenced in Phoenix Federal Correctional Institution for a six year term and was freed in 1992.

Barger took advantage of his celebrity status. He wrote three books about his life and philosophy, including a best-selling autobiography, “Hell’s Angel.” A chapter title in one of his books was “Nothing states your position more clearly than a punch in the face.” He also wrote two novels.

Sonny Barger Productions has a website that sells clothes.

Barger was a high school dropout when he turned 16 and enrolled in the Army with a fake birth certificate. After the discovery of his forgery, he was discharged with an honorable disqualification.

The Hells Angels was founded by Barger with his friends. Soon, he discovered that there were many other Hells Angels clubs throughout California. Barger was instrumental in unifying the clubs.

He served as the main character in Hunter Thompson’s 1966 expose “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”

“He’s smart and he’s crafty and he has a kind of wild animal cunning. He was clearly the most competent person around,” Thompson wrote.

Barger claimed that Altamont was killed because the Hells Angels were acting in self-defense. In the end, the club member involved in this incident was cleared. The stabbing was captured by a camera crew filming the documentary “Gimme Shelter.”

Barger was diagnosed with throat cancer after he had undergone a laryngectomy. After that, Barger breathed through his neck via a plastic valve and then covered it to talk.

“Live your life the Sonny Barger way? I don’t recommend it,” he wrote in the opening lines to his 2005 book “Freedom: Credos from the Road.”

— Biographical material compiled by former AP reporter Gary Kane.

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