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Excerpt: 'Ancient Gonzo Wisdom'

Note: Editor's footnotes have been omitted.

ABC News-February 20, 1967

Interview with reporter about Hell's Angels

Reporter: You spent over a year with the Hell's Angels. What kind of an impression did you come out with of certain individuals?

HST: It gives them recognition, a sense of companionship, group loyalty, and power. They get together and they can frighten people who might ordinarily frighten them. Especially now, since the California Attorney General did an official report on them, they've gotten a massive amount of attention and national publicity. They made the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, movies, this book . . . There would be no other way for these people to do this without going out and doing something like "The Boston Strangler" or "The Mad Bomber." It's an easy way to get what they can't get in the square world. It's a whole subculture of dropouts and washouts and people who just can't make it in this automated technological society.

Reporter: How would you describe a typical Hell's Angels party?

HST: It varies from big ones-the runs-to the continuing round of beer parties here and there. On a run, they might get 150 to 200 bikes to anywhere up to 300 in a state park somewhere. They park them in a big ring around a massive bonfire, sometimes 215 feet tall. And they'd buy about, oh, 100 dollars worth of beer just as a starter for the afternoon. They'll drink hundreds of dollars worth of beer in a matter of two or three days. They've actually cleaned out a whole town's beer supplies. At the same time, they're taking amphetamine pills . . .

Reporter: LSD?

HST: Well, that comes a little later. They start off with pills. Barbiturates and amphetamines, mixing them all together, then beer, then the wine starts, and later on there will be some LSD. Everything gets mixed in all together.

Reporter: Mr. Thompson, what does your book attempt?

HST: I just try to liken them to the other people-people like the Hell's Angels who don't wear the colors, like I say. There are thousands of losers and thugs, muggers and petty criminals, who would like to have this kind of attention but don't.

Reporter: To summarize, how would you explain a Hell's Angel?

HST: Well, he's between 20 and 40, though more likely around late 20s. He'd be a high school dropout. He'd have a minor police record with a lot of arrests and few convictions but not anything serious. Maybe a year or so in jail a few times for a small things. He'd be a motorcycle freak, a sort of lifetime bike rider. That would get him into the Hell's Angels. After that, he becomes sort of a creature of the club. And it gets more and more bizarre. His police record will start piling up because he's much more obvious.

Reporter: You spent at least a year knowing them and living with them. What was your most vivid impressions of them?

HST: Vivid impressions? Well, visually, there's no sight I can think of that compares to these Labor Day runs when they got several hundred of bikes out on the road.

Reporter: What is a "run" exactly?

HST: A run is just a sort of gigantic picnic or outing. They'd gather in one spot in the city then go to some sort of vacation in the mountains or the beach, or somewhere all together for a great big three-or four-day party. That's when they really frighten people because they're all together and they dress in the wildest way they can. They're all drunk out of their minds and eating pills. It's like an army of Huns has moved into your town.

They don't necessarily go to destroy the place, but they work themselves into such a frenzy, and there are so many of them. Of course, the townspeople are all worried and frightened and carrying weapons and locking up their doors and locking up their daughters in the basement. That sort of thing. It creates a very tense situation. The slightest thing can blow into a riot or an attack, and the police can't really handle two or three hundred of them running wild without a lot of reinforcements.

Reporter: Sometimes, in your book, I almost get the impression you're saying that their notoriety is overstated.

HST: Yeah. The Hell's Angels themselves aren't as dangerous or are not nearly as much of a mess as they seem to be. But if you just drop it at that and go on to say "They're not so dangerous, go on and ignore them," then you missed the whole point I was getting at about the Hell's Angels being thousands of other losers just by some other name. I'm much more aware of it now after all this sort of thing. I see Hell's Angels everywhere and they don't wear colors. Even as far as Chicago.

Reporter: Are these kind of people hopeless? I mean after observing them for a year and you say they can't make it in this automated society, is it a hopeless cause?

HST: Well they're hopeless as long as they decide to stay Hell's Angels and hopeless in the sense that you're talking about. They're not hopeless with themselves as long as they insist on being that obvious as a Hell's Angel. Why would you hire somebody with a gold earring and shoulder-length hair, stinking of old grease and slime with a police record two feet long? They're not really eligible for good jobs. Now, if they decided to quit this, you know, and shave . . .

Reporter: Do many decide to quit?

HST: Yeah. I'm not sure what the percentage would be. There are three ways to stop being a Hell's Angel: One is to die, and a lot of them do that; one is to go to prison, and a lot do that; the other is to quit. I guess it would be about more quit than go to prison and more go to prison than die. But those are the three exits they can make.

Reporter: Is it difficult to quit? Are there reprisals from the group if you do?

HST: Hmm . . . It depends on why you quit. Sometimes there are. And it depends on when you quit. It gets harder and harder as you get older because you've built up more of a police record and your friends become more of an in group, outlaw thing. I remember one of them saying he'd like to quit but he didn't have friends anywhere else. He didn't know how.

Reporter: What usually motivated a man to just quit?

HST: It depends on how intelligent he is. If he joins at 21 or something and if he has sense, and quite a few of them have enough sense to understand their situation. They don't understand how to handle it, but those who have a sense of options begin to realize that as they approach 30, they're losing all their options. It gets harder to get a job; it gets hard to find new friends, harder to do almost anything. So once past 30 it sort of confirms that it's either jail, a broad crash on a bike, or being shot by somebody. Younger ones quit.

From the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom: Interviews with Hunter S. Thompson edited by Anita Thompson. Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Press (www.dacapopress.com), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009.

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Hunter S. Thompson