News from Hells Angels MC Baltimore
|Headline: One Helluva party: Oakland's Hells Angels turn 50
|Friday - 03/30/2007
|Referrer: The Oakland Tribune
|OAKLAND — There's gonna be one long, asphalt-ripping, straight-pipe-roaring, Helluva party this weekend.
And you are not invited.
It's the 50th birthday of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, home to possibly the most notorious batch of bikers — the not-so good, the definitely bad and the downright ugliest of them all — in the now-worldwide, incorporated and trademarked motorcycle club. (Their attorneys recently sued Walt Disney Co. for trademark infringement in the "Wild Hogs" movie. So watch out.)
Oakland is not the oldest chapter — San Bernardino started it all in 1948, and Oakland emerged in 1957 thanks to its infamous leader, Ralph "Sonny" Barger, who has since become an international icon in his own right, as well as a best-selling author. (He is working on a movie and TV-series deal. "It'll be like 'The Sopranos,' but with motorcycles," he said last week.)
And as time goes by, more and more clubs have been hitting the big 5-0. Now it's Oakland's turn at the golden anniversary. Don't feel youneed to get them anything, though. They won't be offended.
For one thing, they'll be too busy to notice. Starting tonight, there will be a private concert in downtown Oakland, and then pretty much a perpetual motion of private parties at the Oakland clubhouse all weekend long. The Richmond chapter also is joining in to celebrate its 45th anniversary.
So Hells Angels will be arriving from chapters around the state and the
globe, and the gathering could swell to more than several hundred.
Now, these parties won't exactly be fruit punch and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. But Oakland police say — although the club has a long history of clashes with the law — the local chapter has been fairly quiet the past few years, and a peaceful weekend of events is expected. Members of the Hells Angels have cooperated with all permit and security requirements for the parties, police said.
And did we mention you're not invited? Well, you're not. So be advised to stay away, or you might find yourself being quite literally kicked to the curb if you try to crash it.
Party prep was under way Wednesday night at the Hells Angels' fortress-like, brick-facade clubhouse on Foothill Boulevard and 40th Avenue in East Oakland, where the Oakland Tribune was given unprecedented access this week. Various Angels worked like busy bees — busy, burly bees — setting up tents out back and tables inside. They polished wall plaques of the club's famed — and trademarked, of course — death's head logo, a creepy skull with a skid-lid helmet and wings.
"We've been goin' 50 years," said Cisco, current president of the Oakland chapter, a big man in every sense of the word — physically and historically, having been a prominent player in the club for 41 of those 50 years.
This evening, he was seated and holding court at the 20-foot boardroom table next to the fully stocked bar in the club's front room, his well-worn face framed in long, silky, black hair. Cisco scolded some Angels at the bar for being too noisy during the interview. They toned it down, then someone took off on a Harley out front, suspending conversation further. Loud pipes save lives, so they say, but not a civilized chat.
Over the roar, Cisco talked about old times.
"Yeah, when we were in our 20s, we'd go toe-to-toe with the police in fistfights and such. It was almost like fun. One time we'd win, one time they'd win. If we'd win, they'd still track us down and arrest us anyway," he said, chuckling and coughing a wicked cough. "I'm 65 now, and sometimes we'll run into retired cops from those days, and reminisce about our arrests. I never thought I'd say this when I was younger, but there are actually some cops out there that are decent guys."
Cisco grew up near L.A., then came to Oakland in the'60s on a brick masonry job. He saw the Hells Angels, met Sonny Barger and couldn't resist.
"I bought a motorcycle and learned how to ride, how to stay on'em instead of under'em," he said.
Fuzzy, Oakland's vice president, pulled up a chair. He's 61, articulate, big, bald and industrial-strength, resembling Mr. Clean except for a purple beard and tattoos that cannot be scrubbed off even with one of those Mr. Clean Magic Eraser things — and Fuzzy would not like it very much if you tried.
His dad was an Air Force man, and Fuzzy was in the Navy during the Vietnam years, although he was never deployed there. He was an original member of the Hells Angels in New York, and got his nickname back when he had a full beard and guys called him "that Fuzzy Norwegian." It stuck.
Together, Cisco and Fuzzy run a security business for motion picture companies shooting in the Bay Area. And they were very helpful — gracious, even — about sharing Hells Angels lore, opening up like the delicate flowers that they are. Just kidding, guys! Don't hurt me.
"Every member is so different from each other, except in what they were searching for when they came here — respect, acceptance and brotherhood," Cisco said. "It's like family here. I don't know anything else. And I don't regret a thing."
He and Fuzzy were proud to buck the general notion that all Hells Angels are criminals, instead declaring their "nonfelon" status. At least three more guys chimed in with the same statement. Some remained quiet.
"I never started anything," Fuzzy said. "I've finished. But I never started. That's something my dad instilled in me long ago."
Fuzzy, now a grandfather of two who joined the Oakland chapter in 1969, is married to a 33-year-old and they have a 4-month-old son named Thor. Fuzzy's wife brought the baby by the clubhouse later that night, and Fuzzy proudly toted equally bald Thor around in the crook of his massive elbow.
Time for a tour. Cisco instructed Hawaiian John to lead guests around the clubhouse. The place is a cigarette-smoked amalgamation of several buildings acquired through the years — once an old dance studio, a restaurant and a couple of small houses. Upstairs is a game room with two red-felted pool tables and some video games. Walls are covered with photos of Harleys and friends.
"We have birthday parties and baby showers up here," Hawaiian John said.
Baby showers? Surely you jest. Hells Angels with balloons and pink crepe paper?
"No, really, we do," he said.
Downstairs, a faux stone archway with a glaring death's head separates the main bar/boardroom area from "the cage room." Yes, there's a large cage set up in the middle, surrounded by seating booths. It's not totally clear what goes on in there, so we'll just let that one go.
As the evening progressed, brethren from other lands trickled in, arriving for the party. There was much manly hugging with loud slaps on the backs of their leather vests.
"That's F—-'Em Up Chuck from Sonoma County," Cisco said. "He's a decorated war hero from Vietnam, but a very humble guy. And there's the guy from Norway. And — hey! — there's the Switzerland guy!"
"Everybody keeps saying I'm from Switzerland. I'm from Sweden," said Kent from Sweden, who had shipped his motorcycle here for the week. "That's OK, though. I'm just here for the party."
Kent was a middle-aged guy, but many longtime Oakland members are getting a bit, well, mature. Some have white hair and grizzled beards. One was spotted with a cane. They're still tough as a tiger's toenails, though. Plus, there are plenty of young guys to back them up — newer members in their 20s and 30s, who say they were drawn to this legendary brotherhood because of its code of fierce loyalty.
"They're the ones who are gonna keep this going," Cisco said.
No one will reveal numbers of members in the Hells Angels, here or anywhere. But some have estimated more than 2,000 in 22 countries.
Barger himself is pushing 70. The founder of the Oakland chapter lives in Arizona with his wife, their horses (iron and otherwise) and their various cats and dogs. Oddly enough, it's not far from the federal prison where Barger spent three years in the early'90s on charges relating to a reputed plot to kill members of a rival motorcycle club.
He's now a member of the Cave Creek Hells Angels chapter, but he'll be up for the party this weekend. Last week in an exclusive phone interview, Barger talked about his role in the Oakland chapter and in the Hells Angels' global expansion.
"I had an awful lot of help, but I'm willing to accept the credit or the blame, whatever you want to call it," he rasped over the phone, his larynx lost to throat cancer from a decades-long Camel habit.
He agrees many of today's members are "vintage."
"It's sort of like when we were kids, all the old guys had hot rods," Barger said. "Now all the old guys have Harleys."
The Hells Angels name was taken from a World War II American fighter squadron. There's no apostrophe, and here is the reason according to the FAQ section of the club's official Web site:
"(Hell's Angels) would be true if there was only one Hell, but life and history has taught us that there are many versions and forms of Hell."
Then wouldn't it be "Hells'" or "Hells's"? But no matter. How does the Hells Angel punctuate? Any way he wants.
When the Oakland branch formed in 1957, Barger and his friends "were just a bunch of guys wanting to run around and have a good time," he said. "We had no idea there were other Hells Angels in California. One of our guys just had a Hells Angels patch, and we thought it was a cool name. Then when we met up with (the SoCal Hells Angels), we figured we better get this going here as an organization before somebody else did."
Soon, a mounting police presence in the southland drove many Hells Angels north, and Oakland became the center of the Angels' universe.
Through the years, the club alternately has been vilified and romanticized, seen as either a violent, criminal, mafia-like organization, trafficking in drugs, guns and prostitution and exercising its own form of frontier justice, or as a misunderstood slice of American folklore.
There are ongoing federal investigations — raids in some Bay Area clubs (not Oakland) about a year ago. For years, authorities have been trying to prove it all a criminal enterprise — an assertion the Hells Angels constantly head-butt.
"If some of our guys get in trouble individually, that doesn't make us a criminal organization," Barger said. In other words, it's just bad apples. Not the tree.
Books have been written and movies made about the club. In 1966, Hunter S. Thompson published his seminal "Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga," chronicling crude and violent rites and practices in the group. Most Hells Angels dismiss many events. Barger thought Thompson was "a jerk."
And in 2000, Barger himself became a best-selling author with his autobiography, "Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club." He followed that up with some biker-related novels. At the Oakland clubhouse, Cisco and Fuzzy addressed some historic moments in Hells Angels' past — at least moments deemed historic by the cops and the media, they said. To them, they were just everyday events.
There was the time in the'60s when Hells Angels — fiercely pro-troop — clashed with anti-war demonstrators on the Berkeley border, refusing to allow them crossing into Oakland.
"We don't care if you don't like a war, go demonstrate. But you're not supposed to throw stuff and spit at our troops when they get home," Cisco said. He said the Hells Angels even offered to go fight in Vietnam, but no one took them up on it.
Another memorable event was the stabbing death of
18-year-old spectator Meredith Hunter during a brawl at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway. As the story goes, a poor stage set-up had the Hells Angels parking their Harleys down front at the stage. People started messing with their bikes, and a fight broke out. At some point, as people rushed the stage, Hunter is said to have pulled a gun and fired a shot, striking a Hells Angel. He was then beaten and stabbed to death. A Hells Angel was arrested, but later acquitted on self-defense.
"Altamont," Cisco scoffed, lighting up a smoke. "People always say we were paid beer to be the Stones' bodyguards. That's (expletive). And Meredith Hunter wouldn't have gotten killed if he wasn't shooting at us."
Then there was the Laughlin incident. In April 2002, three bikers were killed and at least a dozen people injured in a brawl and shootout between a group of Hells Angels and Mongols, a rival motorcycle club, at Harrah's casino in Laughlin, Nev.
So, other than fighting and defending themselves, what do Hells Angels do all the time?
"We ride, we go get a camp site," Cisco said. "We tell war stories. Try to impress each other. We're just like you and your peers. But we're more fun," he smiled a Grinch-stealing-Christmas smile. "We have better stories."
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