An original Hell's Angel explains why the group turned into a bunch of assholes
These days, to be legit counterculture one might casually mention they don’t have a Facebook account or proudly champion some kind of dominance in a polyamorous relationship.
Seventy years ago, it was different. To be considered rebellious in 1948, some people got seductive tattoos and joined the Hell’s Angels.
Yet before the infamous biker gang was known for killing concert goers at a Rolling Stones show, or shooting sprees in Las Vegas, or pimping, or drug trafficking, or even killing each other, they were just a group of WWII and Korean War vets who wanted to stay connected. It was their version of social media. And many of the ol’ timers, who watched the ‘fellowship’ evolve into the gang of outlaws it is now, want to go back to that … or something a little closer to that, anyway.
“The ‘gang’ actually all got bikes because [motorcycles] were so cheap after the war and there was a surplus,” explains Sammy “StealShot” Shuster, 73, and an early member of the group. He’s sitting across from me, eating a $7 gourmet taco. He’s still branded from chin to toe with menacing tattoos: like a BDSM Betty Boop with a spiked neck collar, and more knives and guns than a Texas flea market.
“We were always counterculture, but we were mainly anti-war advocates during Vietnam and were trying to actually change the world,“ he goes on to say. “We weren’t trying to be such scary fucks!”
Hearing that, a woman within earshot at the next table gasps. Without noticing, StealShot begins to break it down from the beginning. “Even the name, ‘Hell’s Angels,’ people think it’s Satanic or something, but it ain’t. It’s actually a nod to the badass flying squadrons back in WWII who all had names like that.”
History tells us, however, a slightly different version of the name than the one the original bikers are trying to set straight. Until recently, the Hell’s Angels itself had been telling and retelling the story that the original biker gang was made of misfits vets — the drunkards, gamblers, and womanizers — who still flew successful missions and beat the Japs while drunk and smelling like last night’s whore.
“Naw, that wasn’t who we were,” StealShot says, rolling his eyes. “The military wouldn’t have tolerated that kind of shit and let the guys fly. Airmen were pretty respectable and dedicated … at least for military standards,” he chuckles.
This respectable expectation is even reflected in the groups motto: “Might in Flight.”
The way StealShot explains it, Hell’s Angels comes from the name of a single plane in the 303rd that flew about 25 successful missions. That plane's name was inspired by a Howard Hughes movie from 1927, in which the fictitious WWI squad was named "Hell's Angels" — and wasn’t even in the Pacific Theater, it was an anti-Nazi, European squadron. But those anti-Nazi roots aren’t comfortable for many of today’s generation of the Hell’s Angels, explains StealShot.
When the initial charters began to spring up throughout cities across California, they had little to do with each other. It wasn’t until a charter was requested in Aukland, New Zealand, in 1957 (awarded in 1961) that the California groups mobilized in a cooperative effort to set some standards and policies. “My older brother was in those meetings — I was 12 but my brother ‘let me’ steal his bike; I learned to drive on a bike,” he says with a hint of younger brother mischief. It's then StealShot got his nickname from his older brother, who teased him when he got his patch because he basically "stole his own shot."
“When I was finally old enough to join, it was the ‘60s and we were a big part of the anti-war, counterculture movement, especially in California. We rode in marches in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco with hippies and peace marchers. Man, I was so into the Merry Pranksters, Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones,” the 73 –year-old says with whispy fondness, “Those were the last of the good days.”
By the end of the ‘60s, he says the anger and romance of taking counterculture to another level took hold of the group’s vision. “Altamont in ‘69 was about the time I realized the group wasn’t what we planned in ‘57.” The counterculture music festival let the world witness a new, violent, anti-culture Hell’s Angels in action.
Around that same time, Hunter S. Thompson was starting his career with the help of the now notorious gang. For his book, “Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs,” he spent a year living with the club.
Thompson lived the lifestyle, rode motorcycles with them. Glorified the lifestyle. Yet when Thompson tried to stop a man from beating his wife, he ended up on the receiving end of a beatdown of his own. Thompson’s patch was promptly removed in agonizing fashion. The gang accused him of exploiting them for personal gain and wanted a share of the profits.
The book was a huge success. Thompson paid the group nothing.
Becoming a member of today’s Hell’s Angels isn’t as easy as Thompson made it out to be, however. It certainly isn’t as easy as it was in the ‘50s either, says StealShot. Membership is a process that can take up to a few years to achieve — if you even make it that far.
To start, a valid motorcycle license is necessary, and owning a Harley Davidson motorcycle over 750cc is a standard, not an option. You must also have a personality that is cohesive with the rest of the club (read: violent or criminal). You cannot have been accused of child molestation (criminals often have this one moral line in common). And you can’t have ever applied to become a police officer or prison guard (okay, two moral lines).
Then the process moves to “getting patched” — meaning you’ve earned your official Hell’s Angels cut-off jacket with the death head logo emblazoned on the back. This requires a full, unanimous vote from the charter, a fitting democracy. The vote only comes after several years of being a "hang around" and graduating to a "prospect."
Members are then encouraged to earn other patches such as the Nazi-style SS lightning bolts with the words “Filthy Few.” This patch is awarded to members that already have or are willing to commit murder for the club.
Another patch that is known as the “Dequiallo” patch, worn by those that have met law enforcement with violence while being placed under arrest. And there are other, secretive patches, which members sport to show their dedication to the club and the things they’ve accomplished.
Those are all traditions that cropped up long after StealShot was a part of the organization, an evolution he says is almost unrecognizable. “It’s nothing like in my day, nothing at all,” he says, pushing the rest of his gourmet tacos aside in disgust at the situation.
In the decades since the early ‘60s, the path taken by the Hell’s Angels has been a difficult one for some early members to witness. Even today, StealShot tries to put the experience into perspective for not only himself, but for others to understand just a little better.
“It’s like having a kid. You want that kid to grow up and be something, do things to help the world; you want the kid to be successful and do some justice to the name you gave him … and he just grows up to be an asshole.”