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Hunter S. Thompson discusses his book "Hell's Angels" ; part 2

BROADCAST: 1967 | DURATION: 00:19:05


As a result of writing his book, "Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," Hunter S. Thompson said he's become calmer and not so quick to react, in case a fight starts. Thompson believes the reason for the rise in violence is due to pent up anger and hostility. A clip of a former prize fighter describing how he threatens people to repay their debts is played.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Hunter S. Thompson Who could actually, well for even less than that. I don't know what percentage who could hold up a book and say, Look they wrote a book about me. Because like Falkner is saying, I made my mark on the wall. Kilroy was here.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Hunter S. Thompson And now they have this. It's a monument to them. I suppose it's my fault, but that wasn't my concern. I was just asked to write a truthful book and I tried to write how it was.

Studs Terkel But they were also becoming celebrated thanks to the weeklies and thanks to--.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh yeah, they were celebrities long before I got a hold of this.

Studs Terkel Yes, but they, as a result of which you have a funny, to me very funny, when Sonny Barger was asked his opinions: What do you think of Vietnam? What do you think of Civil Rights? This is the point, he's a celebrity.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Like a used car dealer mentioned often in a column becomes celebrity. What do you think of.

Hunter S. Thompson Well, like the mad bomber in New York, the Boston Strangler. It's that sort of thing.

Studs Terkel Therefore they're asked their opinions about the world.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh yes, of course. It doesn't matter whether they have any sense or not.

Studs Terkel Let's hear, let's hear, if we could hear my friend. He's sort of a ex-prize fighter, as he said he took an oath before God, though I'm an agnostic, he says, I took an oath before the high court never do an honest day's work in my life, to take money away from the unqualified dilettantes earn it through nepotism. And they're all unqualified. Because they need us. And they, and here he's talking. We can hear him.

Studs' Friend [new tape starts] It's guys like me in my element. They do want to ostracize us from our society. We're [unintelligible], but they want to give us a job. To find a place in the sun for myself or my brother or people like myself or my element, we have to fight for it. Now they don't like this. Yet they're the same people who read fiction and believe it. So why shouldn't we take it from them? Legally with a semi-muscle. The greatest thing is the semi-muscle. It can get you killed. But if you work it right, there's nothing stronger in the world.

Studs Terkel You used the marvelous phrase, you didn't say muscle, you said semi-muscle.

Studs' Friend Semi-muscle!

Studs Terkel Which makes it legal?

Studs' Friend Legal, sure. You put that fear in them that they will help them. Here's a here's a good example. They're usually in debt with someone. Someone owns them money. They're extremely fond of someone. Someone's cutting in on their girl. Their wife was an infidelititist. There are all kinds of conditions. They're afraid. Everybody's scared.

Studs Terkel So, what do you do then? You find out what their weakness.

Studs' Friend Exactly, and I give them the security that they don't have. As an example, if their wife was an infidelitist, I muscle the guy that she's making love with. I run him off. If somebody owns him money I go collect the money. If he owns somebody money, somebody's after him, I chase him away. See?

Studs Terkel So now this guy is in your debt?

Studs' Friend Not only in debt to me, he's, the truth of the matter is he's probably he's probably made the biggest mistake of his life. He should have really paid him because now I've got him for the rest of his life. I'll always nudge him for some currency or another. I'm always going to.

Studs Terkel So you're the guy who either muscled this guy off his wife or in one way or another saved his ego. Is that it?

Studs' Friend Exactly. And there are so many people so insecure that it's absolutely amazing. You just can't imagine, just can't imagine how many insecure people we have in this country. Everybody's scared of something.

Studs Terkel Are you scared of something?

Studs' Friend Absolutely nothing. I'm an agnostic to begin with.

Studs Terkel [Laughs]Nothing frightens you?

Studs' Friend Nothing [else?]. Not a thing frightened me.

Studs Terkel Let's go back to this. How do you know? How do you meet these people. You know--.

Studs' Friend By reputation.

Studs Terkel They they, they must have money, is that right?

Studs' Friend Yes. But by reputation. And it's amazing. I've got some good publicity as a prize fighter in the newspapers and I've gotten some bad publicity in the newspapers also. Now people believe what they read. But I can't stop every pedestrian on the street and tell them my side of the story. It's always a two side of a story, Studs, there's always a two-way street. Along as with these people who think this way, it's a one-way street with them. So leave them to think that way. My brother was in trouble recently, I'll give you good example. All the newspapers had him on the front page. He was on television. He was scared. I says, You fool you'll go out and raise all the money in the world. He came back in a week he's you know I raised 14000. I says you can make it 28! Why 14? Double it. People want to help people, especially tough guys. They need you. They believe-- [new tape ends].

Studs Terkel There's a line, they need. And he spoke of his brother, held a handkerchief over his face, accused of being a juice man. He's, you fool you've been on television you're a celebrity now! And thus we come to the Hell's Angels.

Hunter S. Thompson What was he accused of?

Studs Terkel Hmm?

Hunter S. Thompson What was he accused of?

Studs Terkel Oh, of being a juice man or something or other. But 'til we come back to Hell's Angels again. Now they became celebrities.

Hunter S. Thompson You know--

Studs Terkel Isn't this, isn't this the part?

Hunter S. Thompson Well that's what he what he says is true there. This guy is operating on a much more sophisticated level, and just from listening to him talk you can tell that he is a lot sharper and more sophisticated than a lot of the Angels and, almost all of them. But probably, well quite a few of the Angels graduate into this kind of white tie, kind of hoodlum underworld. And they're, they don't go back around the Angels because they were these sophisticated criminals, the hardcore [cons].

Studs Terkel So now they become also in a sense a bit more respectable too; criminal but respectable.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh yeah. They they, people don't dump on them anymore. People aren't calling them scurvy bums, "Get this garbage out of here" when they go into a bar. You know at the same time they're operating on the same ethic like police really. Same sort of thing. A fiendish, sadist, you know will be locked up if he's a member of the Hell's Angels. But if he's on the Los Angeles police force he will be given medallions and flowers to wear.

Studs Terkel So again we have this, a fusion of the two: the respectable and the non-respectable, but the violence in both. Again the the the the phenomenon of Bass Lake. The parable was there: balance of terror. The vigilantes on one, side Hell's Angels on the other. Both equally violent.

Hunter S. Thompson And there wasn't much difference in the violence quotient there. Except that, as I pointed out in the book that what the respectable sort of mountain country tourists weren't aware of was that the Angels, almost all of them have, you know anywhere from 10 to 20 years of burning anger kind of built up in them. So that when they get in the fight isn't the matter winning the fight; it's a matter of crippling and hurting you know, whoever they're fighting with, but they're not really after that one person. They're avenging 20 years of insults and what they consider deprivation and bad news for them.

Studs Terkel Twenty years of all this frustration and joylessness in a technological society in which man becomes less, and a guy without education as many you say, are construction workers, mechanics. Some have better jobs but basically they're they're out.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, but then by being celebrities, they're given a status and then by, at the same time a power because it's it's like, well, Sonny Liston, who for until Ca-- until Clay took him apart was viewed as a sort of a human atom bomb; you know no one would get in the ring with him. I saw that second Patterson-Liston fight in Las Vegas.

Studs Terkel The Clay-Liston fight?

Hunter S. Thompson No the Patterson-Liston.

Studs Terkel Oh the Patterson-Liston.

Hunter S. Thompson That was when Patterson was really at the peak of his myth, and it was obvious to everybody around that here was, well, people, you know the sports writers are writing that he was going to be champ for the next 15 years. Nobody could touch him and suddenly boom [snaps], you know, gone.

Studs Terkel The myth is shattered.

Hunter S. Thompson And that he was just created. He was a creature of publicity really.

Studs Terkel We come back again to the mass media; talked about Time, Life, Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post. The mass media and the creatures they create. And if they create these creatures therefore they who do the creation are guiltless. Hell's Angels as you say is just a gypsy, part of a gypsy tradition, nothing to do with our society. And you come back again and again in the book and prove it's very much part of the fabric of our society, [dates?] since World War II.

Hunter S. Thompson I think it is. And after writing this book I'm much more conscious of it now. I'm much more conscious of the kind of lur-- anger that lurks everywhere. Chicago L.A.. Almost any urban situation. I used to get in a lot of kind of brawls in bars. You know good fun type things, you know that everybody would get up and have a drink afterwards. Well I don't do any--, you know I keep my mouth shut now. I've turned into a professional coward.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Professional coward?

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, because there's too many really mean angry people out there.

Studs Terkel Yes, it's.

Hunter S. Thompson Who are wandering around. I'm not. You know I don't, I'm not looking for somebody, to just to mash somebody's head and get back at the world. But after this, and especially going, well, in conjunction with this I somehow got mixed up in a lot of karate classes, karate people. Wow, talk about seething vengeance. The Angels, a lot of the Angels are big on karate because it's like the motorcycle. Here's a powerful thing that you can get and it's safe. You know, you, carrying a gun is not safe for anybody with a criminal record or is likely to get stopped. But it's, well karate is really booming on the West Coast.

Studs Terkel That's interesting they're probably booming here too.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah.

Studs Terkel This is interesting, the karate classes and the chop that can kill a man of course.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh yeah, well, it's much harder to learn than that. You know I've gone through just enough of it to know that it isn't a matter going in and learning a secret chop. Mainly it's a matter of conditioning. But the Angels see it as a, as something that they can have, you know, to give them even more power over the squares and citizens. Like the bike. The bike is, there's no question. Like anybody who has any kind of sensuality in them at all would be a tremendous [Buddha?] this you know, what the Angels call screwing it on, getting a big bike and just running it flat out as fast as it'll go. I used to take it out at night on the coast highway. Just drunk got of my mind. Rode it for 20 and 30 miles in just short pants and a tee shirt. It's a beautiful feeling.

Hunter S. Thompson Power. power and freedom too I supp-- Remember the kid at the beginning you heard Chick that young boy--.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah.

Studs Terkel At the beginning? Freedom, he said. Yeah.

Hunter S. Thompson [unintelligible] on that, yeah. Yeah, it, it's, I recognize it as an illusion and a fantasy. I enjoy it, but I sort of know where I am when I'm doing it. But for somebody who has nothing else to go back to, this is maybe one of the happiest minutes of his life. And you can imagine if that, if that's true just how powerful he'd feel if he could give you one of these you know, kind of [karate chop vocal effect]

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Hunter S. Thompson In the in the head with a karate, it's not a chop it's a head snap.

Studs Terkel So you'll have that physical power with your fist with karate or with the motorcycle.

Hunter S. Thompson It's like carrying a gun.

Studs Terkel And inside you is this tremendous joylessness and frustration of--.

Hunter S. Thompson Wanting--.

Studs Terkel Being he loser.

Hunter S. Thompson Wanting to get even.

Studs Terkel So the combination is pretty lethal is it not,in our, in our society.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh, Christ. It is.

Studs Terkel And you say that you find it more and more. Now, you see that--.

Hunter S. Thompson Or maybe I'm just more aware of it. I'm not sure whether I'm I'm seeing more ['cause?] after a year of drinking in taverns in Oakland, you really see a different side; at least for me it's a different side of the world. Everybody's mean. People come in and they leave their bars in the guns; these aren't Hell's Angels.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Hunter S. Thompson I mean, what am I saying? They leave their guns in the bars. You got in my head. People are coming--.

Hunter S. Thompson These are not Hell's Angels?

Hunter S. Thompson No they're just, they're people who look like, you know they're wearing blue cashmere--.

Studs Terkel Ah hah.

Hunter S. Thompson Sweaters over kind of work shirts and that sort of thing. And they come in and they, and rather than carry the gun around they'll leave it behind the bar and ask for it when they come in, or they're going to take it somewhere then they bring it back and leave it in the bar. And the waitress or the whoever the bartender can always claim it's his gun and he he has it back there for protection. So this guy if he's an ex-con, he won't be busted on the street for carrying a weapon.

Studs Terkel And so we come to this matter of this violence more and more as part of our society, the, Hunter Thompson has been part of, has seen, has written about, powerfully.

Hunter S. Thompson Well if, I'd like to, you know, make certain that I wouldn't just call the Hell's Angels and Oakland the only violent part of our society. I think Lyndon Johnson is you know, would be a good Hell's Angel. And then mentally, obviously not-- The Angels reflect not only the lower segments of the society but the higher, you know, where violence takes a much more sophisticated and respectable form.

Studs Terkel The only reason I say this, you mention the tavern. There's a Mexican steelworker, very very skilled steelworker. First [helper? tapper?], open hearth; the aristocrat of steel. He used to be a Golden Glove fighter and he spoke, before the war. And he's an idealist, that is he says, I was. Before the war he hit a guy; they had a fight in the tavern. They'd stand up later on have a drink. This time he did it once. That's why he no longer goes to taverns, he said. [So excuse me?] He hit this guy and well this guy was down two strings he suddenly jumped on the guy and stomped him.

Hunter S. Thompson Jumped on the guy he hit?

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Hunter S. Thompson Oh.

Studs Terkel And coming back to this senseless violence that you were talk-- and I ask him, What are they doing? They had no answer and went back to their drink. And since then he's he doesn't go to taverns anymore. They call him chicken or you quoted professional coward. He says.

Hunter S. Thompson Well it's like dogs you know, or sharks. You know a member of a shark pack, or whatever you call them, packs. If if wa--, if one of the sharks gets hurt, the others will turn on him and eat him.

Studs Terkel What conclusion do we come to? You know as, for about an hour or so we're talking with Hunter Thompson. I'm, people probably will see this is a terrifying book. Yes it is. It's also a book that I think insists we look into the mirror. [lighter] It's the nature of the book. The strang-- Even though the subtitle, "The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs," it might be the strange and terrible saga of what may call, might be called the Great Society at this moment.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Random House are the publishers. What conclusion do you come to? There's a postscript at the end where, involving your own being stomped upon, beaten up at the end because you were at the bar too long. They were on pills. What what what do you see now, Hunter Thompson, Hunter S. Thompson. Now the book is finished. Now your experience is ended as a quasi I'm a member of the Angels, Hell's Angels.

Hunter S. Thompson What do, what do I see for the Angels? Or for--.

Studs Terkel What do you see for us?

Hunter S. Thompson Society?

Studs Terkel For everything.

Hunter S. Thompson Well it's, Christ it's bad. I mean its, I don't see much, I'm not very very optimistic but I think one of the most important things is to is to recognize that we do have this [nodding?] violence in us. And then to find the reasons; and once you find that it's like curing a boil, you know. And if if people insist on saying, I am a very gentle person and and only these, you know that little bad gang of hoodlums over there is ugly and mean, then it's just putting off the recognition of that the same venom that that the Angels are screwing around in public other people are just keeping bottled up in private. And the same venom we're spewing all over Vietnam with napalm, that sort of thing. I think if we if we see this violence that's building up in the country, I, I'm not saying it's just starting to build up, I think it's been here all along. But I think this technological kind of the science of obsolescence or the fact that people are becoming obsolete more and more from the lower classes up who don't, who are incapable or not maybe not incapable or less capable of other people who might have some knowledge of you know what's what makes them tick.

Studs Terkel A computer, say.

Hunter S. Thompson Well no because a lot of people have a, are capable of seeing this in them and kind of controlling it, you know. I'm getting to that point now where I don't leap up in a bar and throw a beer bottle across the place and pick up a stool anymore and that sort of thing, or throw a bag of lime into a tavern. But the people who are most affected by this technological obsolescence are the ones least capable of understanding the reasons for it. So the venom builds up much quicker; it feeds on their ignorance. And until we can, actually it's a question of education. Until until you recognize what's happening, you know, what makes you do these wild things - personally I used to throw beer bottles in the bar mirrors and stuff like that and get stomped always. I can't remember ever winning a fight. But I don't I don't do it anymore because I kind of you know, I've finally caught on to what was happening. And I think unless everybody from Johnson on down at least sees it, and once you see it you can either say yes or no: Okay I'm violent, I'm going to be even meaner. Like the guy whose semi-muscle man. But until you recognize it, it's it's like a albatross around your neck.

Studs Terkel So it's come to the question of recognition doesn't it? The shock of recognition or, as Wright Morris puts it, the recognition of shock. He's talking about [Mira Assad]. We come back to Hunter Thompson's book. Just to keep the record straight we know there are young, we know there are a minority of the young. The prophetic minority, Jack Newfield calls them, who think our values must be reassessed, look at it their way [unintelligible].

Hunter S. Thompson No, the Angels don't don't understand that.

Studs Terkel No.

Hunter S. Thompson They wouldn't agree with Newfield at all. You--

Studs Terkel No of course not.

Hunter S. Thompson You can't lump the Angels with the new left.

Studs Terkel Oh, no. No I was saying exactly the opposite. I think we have--

Hunter S. Thompson Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you were--

Studs Terkel No no I meant we have the opposite. You have a minority--

Hunter S. Thompson Oh yeah.

Studs Terkel Of young kids who see something crazy--

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah.

Studs Terkel And cock-eyed and trying their way, and you might say to the other extreme we have the Hell's Angels.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, they're the new right, which is terrifying really, because can imagine if a hundred Angels can cause this much trouble, what 10000 could. And there are 10000 potentials everywhere you look.

Studs Terkel And perhaps just before we say goodbye to Hunter Thompson now, and the book that I suggest, strongly suggest, Hell's Angels. Hunter S. Thompson the writer, Random House the publisher. It's more than a question of quite obviously more than ideology, which in itself might be obsolete, neither left nor right, phrases. But the recognition of what our society is, what it can become both affirmatively and negatively, and the forces at work. But above all, I think Hunter Thompson is telling us take a look in the mirror and recognize ourselves and then perhaps there may be a cure.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah I learned a lot about myself as well about the Angels.

Studs Terkel You learned about yourself you say?

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, I'm much less aggressive and violent than I used to be. It's, I was looking in the mirror in a way. That's one of the reasons the book was so fascinating, why I enjoyed writing it. I was, I was seeing a very ugly side of myself a lot of times. So as I say, I've become a professional coward now. It's easier.

Studs Terkel But perhaps more of a man, too. [unintelligible] recognition.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, I feel better. Yeah, I don't, I don't wake up in the morning wanting to punch somebody. I never really did, but, I was, sometimes I'd wake up in the morning and think all day about something else and then punch somebody at night without realizing I've been thinking about it all day.

Studs Terkel I think one thing Hunter Thompson hasn't said, before we say goodbye now, is that he happens to be a very excellent writer, a marvelous journalist. The very beginning of time about a new kind of journalist is evolving, and I had said, May it's tribe increase. There's a new book by Joan Colebrook is going to be coming out, "A Cross of Lassitude" and Hunter Thompson's book is another example in the [lighter] reportage of Barbara Deming. That's the journalist who is involved and concerned, and thus new insights come. Dazzling insights in contrast to the quote unquote detached journalist.

Hunter S. Thompson The [wire surfer's] journalist.

Studs Terkel Yes. Hunter S. Thompson, thank you very much indeed.

Hunter S. Thompson Yeah, thank you. I've enjoyed it.

Studs Terkel Hell's Angels. Random House.