Sonny Barger was a bad man
By Dave Schwartz with Michelle Mills
Photos by Keith Durflinger

Ralph "Sonny" Barger was a bad man.  More than a decade in the state and federal penitentiary systems stand tribute to a lifestyle filled with indiscretions. And, as Barger and so many others have learned, you can't escape your past. But then he isn't trying to. With his first book, "Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club," Barger, the founder of the Hell's Angels, has embraced his past and rather than trying to hide behind the political correctness of the day, he has chosen to tell his story in his words with no apologies.  The result is a white-knuckle ride through the life and times of a man who would've beat you as quickly as shake your hand.  But along the way, Barger became more than just a bad man from Oakland. With the help of his book, he has emerged a cultural icon celebrated by riders and non-riders alike.  A man romanticized for not being afraid to make his own way, to be his own man and say what's on his mind.

Joining me for this interview is DaBelly editor Michelle Mills.

As we settled into our seats, Barger begins to make small talk, "I read everywhere that I moved away to Arizona and retired.  Actually, I put more miles a year on my bike now than before I moved to Arizona."

With book signings all across the United States and a couple of trips to Europe, Barger managed to put more than 61,000 miles on his bike last year.  The success of his first book has kept him busy, but seeing an opportunity to poke a little fun at his reputation, I had to comment, "Yes but you're not driving around kicking ass any more!"

With his quick wit and a smile, Barger shot back, "I try not to!"

Maybe that's Barger's retirement, not from the bike, but from the battles.  At 61, life hasn't slowed for him, it has more likely mellowed.  And although his reputation is larger than life, Barger isn't a big man nor does he seem mean.  His voice suffers the effects of throat cancer, yet he still retains his infectious smile and a grandfatherly persona.

Barger says, "I like to have a good time.  I don't like to be in a bad mood."

I asked Barger about the evolution that has taken place in the Harley Davidson lifestyle.  Once filled with lost souls that roamed the highways of America making the moral majority tremble, bike clubs have slowly morphed in social status.  It's no longer uncommon to find the affluent professional clad in leather.  And with this rise in rank, came demand and naturally the expense of purchasing a new Harley.  The obvious joke is that it's gotten so a "dirtbag" can't afford a new bike anymore!

"The more people that ride motorcycles, the better," Barger declares. "The more upper class people who ride, the better because sometimes the cops get a little worried about stopping you just for 'general principles.'  If you've done something wrong, they have a right to stop you."

As is often the case, with the positive comes a little negative, the popularity of riding a Hog has led to shortages of new machines.

"The people who ride have definitely helped the industry," Barger continues.  "But it used to be that we bought motorcycles to ride. People buy Harley's now to own.  They don't say 'I ride a Harley' they say 'I own a Harley'.  When the new ones come out, people put money down on them, pick them up and never ride them. Later they put them on sale for $5,000 more than they paid."

At this point, my partner Michelle nudged her way close to a topic for which Barger has long been famous.  She asked about his bikes.

Barger says, "At the present time I own a Road King.  I rode an RT for 15 years, but they don't make them any more, so."

And then it happens.  "I'm a Triumph chick," Michelle blurts out.

Barger just sat and stared at her.  With a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, he stared.

"What?!?  I can't help it, I'm British!" she giggled. "I understand that you're not a big fan of Harleys, if you weren't going to ride a Harley what would you ride?

Shaking his head Barger replies, "I would probably ride a BMW or a Honda ST 1100.  The Harleys are getting better every year, but they're still junk.  I mean I bought my wife a brand new 2000 Dyna Glide Sport and it goes into a speed wobble at 85 and I've done everything that I can do to get it out.  I'm a good mechanic, I've followed their directions, we took it their shop, they've done work and it still wobbles on her. The factory tells us to change the shocks.  Now why should we buy a brand new motorcycle?"

Barger continues to relate how Harley Davidson explained that his wife's bike had been set up for someone his size, not her small frame. Then he laughs as he relates how the bike still gets a speed wobble even when he rides it, only a higher speed.

Based on the success of his first book, Barger has been tasked to write another.  He has already told his life story, where can he go from here?

"This is a collection of motorcycle stories," Barger explains.  "It has nothing to do with the club, although they were submitted by club members.  We went on the Internet and said that if anyone had interesting stories they like, that they should write us.  Well, they did and we took them and put them in my words.  Some of these are my stories, but others are just something that people sit around bars and talk about and tell about different people."

So in some cases, could the tales be just urban legend?

"It's actually fiction based on fact," Barger clarifies.

Never one to sit still, Barger also has a movie coming out.  The FOX production is set to detail his life story with its release scheduled for 2003.

"It's a result of the first book," says Barger.  "It's about my autobiography.  The script was supposed to be done in December, but September 11th set everything back.  So now if everything goes the best it could, we're looking at pre-production in March or April."

This of course leads to Hollywood talk.  Who do you want to play you we ask.

Somewhat uncomfortable with the question Barger replies, "I haven't got any idea.  That's Hollywood stuff, you know?  They know who's the draw and who's not.  And when I go to the movies, if Jim Carry or Jackie Chan isn't in it, I don't go!  I like funny movies.  I've got enough... you know, I'm Arnold Schwarzenegger in real life!"

Poking fun Michelle asks, "How about Brad Pitt?  Or is he too pretty?"

"He would be good I hear.  But I mean I really don't know who he is," Barger admits.

"He's too pretty," Michelle and I agree.

"Oh, that wouldn't hurt," Barger smiles.

Other than motorcycles, what is your greatest passion in life?

"Shit, I don't know.  I can't have guns any more!  Prior to becoming a felon, I had a lot of guns and for a few years after becoming a felon, I had a lot of guns too," jokes Barger. "And then they changed the law, now if you're a felon you can't own a gun.  But that's what I like about Arizona, everyone carries a gun in Arizona."

Do you like where your life has led you?  Do you like where you are today?

"Yes.  I think my main regret is that I smoked cigarettes, now I talk like this, and it injures my life a little bit," Barger confides.  "I still do everything, but I can't do it as well as I did.  And I'm really sorry that I became a felon and lost my right to own a gun.  But I think smoking is my worst regret."

What kind of hobbies do you have?  Do you like to gardening or fishing or...

"I hate to fish!" Barger bursts and then, with all the pride of a grandfather, he goes on, "I ride horses.  I own a Quarter horse.  Do you want to see my horse?"  He gets out his wallet and shows us a photo of a perky bluish gray horse looking over a fence. "Her name is Oksana Blue. She is named after that Russian ice skater (Oksana Baiul)."

During the interview a fan approaches.  A lost name from 30 years past, but they speak like they saw each other only yesterday, reliving a time when the woman and her boyfriend lived a life on the road with Barger. She is obviously flustered, but he patiently allows her to say all that is on her mind interrupting just once to say he remembers.

With a simple smile he has made her day.  By validating her memories, he lends credibility to a checkered past.  Her parting words bring to light a good point and with eyes filled with gratitude she says, "You're a legend Sonny."

Unintentionally eloquent there is really no other way to phrase it.  I ask Barger if he is comfortable with his role.  He pauses to consider the question and then smiles.

"I think so."

For more information go to www.sonnybarger.com 

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