R.I.P. Sonny Barger, Hells Angels Founder and Security at Fatal Rolling Stones Show Dead at 83

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The post R.I.P. Sonny Barger, Hells Angels Founder and Security at Fatal Rolling Stones Show Dead at 83 appeared first on Consequence.

Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club who provided security at a deadly 1969 festival headlined by The Rolling Stones, has died at the age of 83.

He “passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer,” according to a statement on his official Facebook page.

“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,” the statement read. “I’ve lived a long and good life filled with adventure. And I’ve had the privilege to be part of an amazing club. Although I’ve had a public persona for decades, I’ve mostly enjoyed special time with my club brothers, my family, and close friends. Please know that I passed peacefully after a brief battle with cancer. But also know that in the end, I was surrounded by what really matters: My wife, Zorana, as well as my loved ones.”

Born October 8th, 1938, as Ralph Hubert Barger, Jr., “Sonny” founded the original Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels in 1957. While it may not have been the first — the San Bernardino chapter in 1947 is often credited with that distinction — it was undoubtedly the most influential.

Barger’s gruff charisma, muscular frame, and penchant for gritty bon mots (“Discover your limits by exceeding them”) made him one of the faces of the counterculture movement, even as his entrepreneurial savvy — and willingness to retain an intellectual property rights lawyer — turned HAMC into a financial force. It may have started with branded t-shirts, but soon the Hells Angels name was on everything from yo-yos to wine.

With Barger in attendance, the Hells Angels earned an ignominious place in music history on December 6th, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Approximately 300,000 people came to see the event billed as “Woodstock West,” with The Rolling Stones headlining, and openers including Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to perform right before the Stones, but pulled out mid-festival as the crowd became more violent.

The stage was low to the ground, and HAMC — which had previously provided security services for Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead — was hired to prevent the crowd from reaching the bands. During The Rolling Stones’ set, a member of the Hells Angels stabbed to death a Black man named Meredith Hunter. Reportedly, he tried to take the stage and was rebuffed by several members of HAMC, before returning with a pistol, when Club member Alan Passaro killed him. A jury later found that Passaro had acted in self defense. Three other people accidentally died at the festival.

As Carlos Santana told Rolling Stone after the fact, “There was bad vibes from the beginning. The fights started because the Hells Angels were pushing people around. There was no provocation; the Angels started the whole violence thing and there’s no fucking doubt about that.”

But in his autobiography Hell’s Angel — The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, Barger placed the blame on The Rolling Stones, who he said purposefully delayed their set in order to work up the crowd. Barger even claims to have put a pistol to Keith Richards’ torso and ordered him to begin playing.

Afterwards, few people were willing to hire HAMC as security, but news reports of the tragedy did help elevate the Club’s national profile. Barger worked as a consultant on several motorcycle films, and even booked a small part in Jack Nicholson’s Hells Angels on Wheels. Nearly five decades later, he found a recurring role as Lenny ‘The Pimp’ Janowitz on Sons of Anarchy.

Hunter S. Thompson spent a year with Barger and HAMC working on his book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. In conversation with The Washington Post, he summed up Barger thus: “He’s smart and he’s crafty, and he has a kind of wild animal cunning.”

In his farewell note, Barger told his many fans: “Keep your head up high, stay loyal, remain free, and always value honor.”

R.I.P. Sonny Barger, Hells Angels Founder and Security at Fatal Rolling Stones Show Dead at 83
Wren Graves

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