Thursday, September 2, 2010


I can imagine few journalists working outside of motorcycle-industry 'rags', who have been as intimately connected to motorcycling as Hunter S. Thompson.  The legendary writer invented a whole genre of reportage, 'Gonzo journalism', diving into his subject matter with such passion as to become a central figure in his own narrative.  Writers before Thompson had lived with and identified with their subject matter, as he did in 'Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs' (Random House, 1966), but few admitted to and chronicled what exactly that meant - sex with designated 'mamas', Bacchic revelry around campfires and in seedy clubhouses, shooting and fighting.  If you haven't read 'Hell's Angels', I highly recommend it, for while the club may have changed dramatically over the years, Thompson humanizes club members and lays out a sociopolitical context for their 'outsider' stance, and to his credit, never apologizes for or glosses over the worst of their behavior, or buys into their Romantic self image.

Thompson was a motorcyclist from his teens, as shown in the top photo from ca. 1963, on his stripped-down 1948 Triumph, a true California special.  He had at least some affinity as a rider with the wild, bearded Outlaws who came to the attention of the press and the California Attorney General (Thomas C. Lynch - perfect name).  Lynch submitted an official report on the gang in '65, blowing their influence, crime statistics, and numbers all out of proportion, perpetuating the image of a Bogeyman on two wheels, summoned dybbuk-like by Life magazine in their 1947 article on the Hollister 'riots', which formed the basis for the film 'The Wild One'.  (For an education on this event, with witness interviews, click here)
                                       (Photos by Hunter S. Thompson )

 Lynch's report created another wave of popular mistrust of motorcyclists, and Thompson, living in San Francisco at the time (with a wife and child no less), spent two weeks visiting and interviewing HA gang members to get the 'real story', after gaining an introduction from ex-HA Birney Jarvis, a police reporter from the SF Chronicle.  He quickly discredited Lynch's report, which claimed '233 active HA members in San Francisco alone' - Thompson found 11.  It was a brave bit of reporting, not only to spend time with a gang who thoroughly distrusted journalists, but as well to throw all the rubbish, exaggeration, and fearmongering printed about the Hell's Angels right back at the Authorities and lapdog media.  Thompson's article, 'The Motorcycle Gangs', was printed in The Nation in May 1965, and offers came immediately from publishers who wanted Thompson to expand the story.

Hunter S. Thompson spent the following year with the Angels, who fully participated in the project, recording lengthy interviews.  Thompson's fair reporting in The Nation, combined with his riding skills, a measure of fearless crankiness, and a taste for bending his mind, earned the respect of the club.  He also allowed club members to review drafts of the book for accuracy - probably a wise move, given their propensity for violence.  Thus, his visits, interviews, and ultimately the book, were fully sanctioned by the club.  That he was savagely 'stomped' at the end of his book is the stuff of legend, although he later admitted that those who beat him weren't HAs with whom he had spent time.  Enjoy this sensationalizing television interview from shortly after the event (and you thought Jerry Springer et al were a novelty - this is 1966!):

The resultant book was a sales success, even though Thompson botched his book tour with continual drunkenness and erratic behavior.  His writing career blossomed, and he continued to follow 'outsider' stories of drug use in the Haight-Ashbury district, and the media circus following political candidates.
In 1970, a 'small' assignment for Sports Illustrated (photographs of the Mint 400 motorcycle race with a 250-word caption), metastasized into a drug-fueled 2,500 word rant on his depraved Las Vegas trip with attorney Oscar Acosta (below)

While the magazine 'aggressively rejected' (!) his piece, Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner liked what he read and commissioned a lengthy article, which appeared in two parts.  'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (Random House, 1971) grew out of the articles, and in the midst of the druggy haze, a lot of hilarious writing about motorcycles is included.  Here's a sample:
                         (Thompson also began a long collaboration with illustrator Ralph Steadman)

"Well," he said, "as your attorney I advise you to buy a motorcycle. How else can you cover a thing like this righteously?"
"No way," I said. "Where can we get hold of a Vincent Black Shadow?"
"Whats that?"
"A fantastic bike," I said. "The new model is something like two thousand cubic inches, developing two hundred brake-horsepower at four thousand revolutions per minute on a magnesium frame with two styrofoam seats and a total curb weight of exactly two hundred pounds."
"That sounds about right for this gig," he said.
"It is," I assured him. "The fucker's not much for turning, but it's pure hell on the straightaway. It'll outrun the F-111 until takeoff."
"Takeoff?" he said. "Can we handle that much torque?"
"Absolutely," I said. "I'll call New York for some cash." 

And in 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72' (Random House, 1973):

After Miami the calendar shows a bit of rest on the political front -- but not for me: I have to come back out to California and ride that goddamn fiendish Vincent Black Shadow again, for the road tests. The original plan was to deal with the beast in my off-hours during the California primary coverage, but serious problems developed.
Ten days before the election -- with McGovern apparently so far ahead that most of the press people were looking for ways to avoid covering the final week -- I drove out to Ventura, a satellite town just north of L.A. in the San Fernando Valley, to pick up the bugger and use it to cover the rest of the primary. Greg Jackson, an ABC correspondent who used to race motorcycles, went along with me. We were both curious about this machine. Chris Bunche, editor of Choppers magazine, said it was so fast and terrible that it made the extremely fast Honda 750 seem like a harmless toy.
This proved to be absolutely true. I rode a factory-demo Honda for a while, just to get the feel of being back on a serious road-runner again . . . and it seemed just fine: very quick, very powerful, very easy in the hands, one-touch electric starter. A very civilized machine, in all, and I might even be tempted to buy one if I didn't have the same gut distaste for Hondas that the American Honda management has for Rolling Stone. They don't like the image. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," they say -- but according to a letter from American Honda to the Rolling Stone ad manager, none of these nicest people have much stomach for a magazine like the Stone.
Which is probably just as well; because if you're a safe, happy, nice, young Republican you probably don't want to read about things like dope, rock music and politics anyway. You want to stick with Time, and for weekend recreation do a bit of the laid-back street-cruising on your big fast Honda 750. . . maybe burn a Sportster or a Triumph here or there, just for the fun of it: But nothing serious, because when you start that kind of thing you don't meet many nice people.
Jesus! Another tangent, and right up front, this time -- the whole lead, in fact, completely fucked.

His most legendary piece of motorcycle writing, though, on par in my opinion with T.E. Lawrence's extract from 'The Mint', is from an article in Cycle World, March 1995;   'The Song of the Sausage Creature' (read the entire piece here):

Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph café racer. And include some license plates, so he'll think it's a streetbike. He's queer for anything fast.
Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as "the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine." I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid.... I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler, and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Café Racer.

Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and balanced and torqued that you can do 90 mph in fifth through a 35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast -- it is extremely quick and responsive, and it will do amazing things.... It is a little like riding the original Vincent Black Shadow, which would outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the takeoff runway, but at the end, the F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.
There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old Vincents and the new breed of superbikes. If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet that went sideways and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time. It was impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across railroad tracks on the 900SP. The bike did it easily with the grace of a fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking, goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone a lot further.
Maybe this is the new Café Racer macho. My bike is so much faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?
That is the attitude of the New Age superbike freak, and I am one of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than a superbike will. A fool couldn't ride the Vincent Black Shadow more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and it will always be bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone they will carve, "IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME." 

Thompson may have been light on technical data (surely for effect), but his adrenalized style really suits the experience of that special cocktail of Speed; half gonna-die danger, half gotta-live thrill.