Hell’s Angels (1966) Review

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A modern day reincarnation of the James Gang sitting low in the saddle of a steel horse. Gone are the six-shooter Colt .45’s, replaced by chains, tire irons, and any other object that’s main purpose and intent isn’t a weapon, but can be. Gone too are “cowboy hats,” replaced by greasy, unwashed denim and a patch to designate membership and allegiance. Leather jackets are a Hollywood myth brought about by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. If the style is on the scene now, it wasn’t in the mid-60s when Gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was in the inner circle and covering their antics. These new outlaws, the Hell’s Angels, were in their infancy at the time. In 1966’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Thompson covers the group as only he can with a biting wit, brutal honesty, and (perhaps unintended) humor.

Let me begin with the good doctor Thompson before getting between the pages. If you’re looking for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, this isn’t it. There’s no illustrations by Ralph Steadman, or any pictures at all. Hell’s Angels is Thompson’s first book. It’s a fine piece of investigative journalism, but the full blown Gonzo journalism is absent for the most part. The creature appears from time to time, but subdued. The Angels, not Thompson, are the focus.

There’s history in these pages, in a sense, covering several aspects. First and dead center is the creation, formation, and evolution of the Angels up to 1966. Thompson shows the handling by police and politicians of this new “public menace” they had no way to understand. Thompson reproduces articles and sensational headlines and does his work to discredit them and show them for what they are. It seems “fake news” isn’t some new-fangled fad of 2017. There’s a brief bit about Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Berkley “peace movement” towards the end.

As I’ve said before, nonfiction books are difficult to recommend. This time, the author more than the subject will be a reason to read. Are there better books about the Hell’s Angles? I don’t know, but I would think there might be. I’m sure of it, in fact, and seems like a safe bet. If you’re a Thompson fan already and haven’t read Hell’s Angels, why haven’t you? It’s not a bad book, just go in knowing and understanding what it isn’t and you’ll be fine. If you’re new to Thompson’s work and want to see what all the excitement’s about, hold off on Hell’s Angels. Like I said, it’s not a bad book, but you won’t get the full dose of Thompson in his unadulterated Gonzo form.

Copyright © Drew Martin 2017

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