Hells Angel Barger shares life with hogs, horses

CAVE CREEK, Ariz Mon Mar 17, 2008 9:20am EDT

Legendary Hell's Angel Ralph ''Sonny'' Barger drinks a cup of coffee during a news conference in Vienna September 3, 2003. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Legendary Hell's Angel Ralph ''Sonny'' Barger drinks a cup of coffee during a news conference in Vienna September 3, 2003.

Credit: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

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CAVE CREEK, Ariz (Reuters) - Sonny Barger spends as much time these days on his horse as his hog.

Dressed in a battered Stetson hat, blue jeans and cowboy boots with chrome spurs, the legendary Hells Angels patriarch forever identified with the motorcycle club that turns 60 on Monday, keeps a small ranch near Phoenix.

"If I learn to ride a horse like I can ride a motorcycle, the rodeo had better watch out," quipped Barger, relaxing on the desert plot where he keeps two customized Harley Davidson "hog" bikes and several horses.

Barger, as tanned as boot leather from his outdoor life in the desert Southwest, is the most famous member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, which was founded in San Bernardino, California, on March 17, 1948.

His reputation as the two-fisted granddaddy of the world's oldest, largest and most notorious motorcycle club, has spread far beyond the biker community, attracting both hero worshipers and detractors on the way.

Now in his seventieth year, he has become the best-selling author of five books, including two novels. His autobiography is due to be made into a movie later this year, he says.

While the grizzled veteran no longer holds any formal position in the Hells Angels, he still rides with the local Cave Creek Charter in Arizona, clocking up 25,000 miles (40,000 km) a year, around half of what he used to ride.

"I wouldn't say I've mellowed, but I've changed with time," he says, looking back on a lifetime spent first around motorcycles, and now shared with horses. "Everybody does."

FIGHT TO BE FREE

Barger was suspended from school for slapping a teacher. He enlisted in the U.S. Army at 16 after forging his birth certificate.

He was kicked out with an honorable discharge in 1956 when his deception was discovered and was drawn to the oil-stained world of the so-called "one-percenters" -- a term coined by the American Motorcycle Association to describe the tiny minority of bikers they deemed troublemakers.

"I wanted to live my life the way I wanted to live it," he says, explaining the credo of loyalty and rugged individualism he once expressed as "don't be a rat, and sometimes you literally have to fight to be free."

Trading his first motorcycle, an Indian, for a Harley Davidson -- widely known as "hogs" for the firm's one-time pig mascot -- he swiftly became leader of the Hells Angels Oakland charter and oversaw the formation of independent charters, or branches, across the United States and then worldwide.

Their hell-raising activities shocked "straight" America in the 1960s, when among other exploits, Barger offered the services of club members to President Lyndon B. Johnson as a "crack group of trained guerrillas" to drop behind enemy lines in the Vietnam War. His offer was turned down flat.

In another notorious incident, he forced the Rolling Stones to play at gunpoint in 1969 at Altamont Speedway, near San Francisco, after the band had threatened to pull the plug on a concert when an 18-year-old man was stabbed to death by a member of the club.

An FBI agent recently said in a documentary that bad blood from the incident lingered for years, and the Hells Angels later plotted to kill Stones frontman Mick Jagger.

"I have no recollection of it ever happening, and why it showed up 35 years later, I don't know," Barger says.

THE LAST OF THE FEW

Courteous and affable in person, Barger has a long history of charges for crimes including violent assaults, kidnapping, firearms offenses and conspiracy.

He first came to Arizona in the 1980s to serve time in a federal jail, just a few miles from his current home north of Phoenix, from where he sent a picture of himself soaking up the winter sunshine to the prosecutor who jailed him.

He decided to move to the desert state a decade ago, to be with his then-wife, who introduced him to horses.

The move allowed him to reconnect with an interest in the American West, where he discovered an affinity between the leather-clad world of bikers and cowboys.

"We both want the government to leave us alone," he says.

The tattooed Californian says the American quarter horses he now breeds share something with the motorcycles he loves.

"They are an American breed, like the Harley Davidson," he says.

"They're just a lot of fun, like 1,200-1,400 pound (544-635 kg) dogs."

Now, with the Hells Angels turning 60 on Monday in an increasingly regulated world, he sees less room for the kind of rugged American individualism he sees exemplified by cowboys and bikers.

"We're the last of the free Americans in the United States," he says. "There's very few of us left."

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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