Michael L. Johnson on Hell's Angels

Page added: 1997
Last updated: 2005

by Christine O.

The new journalism : the underground press, the artists of nonfiction, and changes in established media / by Michael L. Johnson

Wichita ; University of Kansas, c1971.

171 p.

ISBN: 7006-0083-3
Includes bibiliographical references and index.

This book is an exhaustive sampling of some of the major writers of the sixties and early seventies, such as Tom Wolfe, Nicholas Von Hoffman, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Dan Wakefield and (guess!) Hunter S. Thompson as well as the journalistic genres of the time - new journalism, rock journalism (particularly Rolling Stone, underground presses and other non-traditional media outlets.

To my knowledge, later editions of this book do not exist, but it would be interesting to know how Johnson, an English professor and poet, may have felt about gonzo journalism [note: I shall send him a note, as he is on the web]. Very few books on new journalism exist; usually the information comes in essays and biographies of its writers. This book is from my personal collection and information here is provided for personal and educational use.

This excerpt comes from Chapter Five, Other new journalists: the youth and radical scene and the new muckrakers. It runs from page 131 to 133 and covers only Hell's Angels. --Christine O

Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga is a classic example of New Journalistic writing about the people of a particular subculture. Thompson's book has the thoroughness and documentation of Gene Marine's The Black Panthers, but Thompson is personally and stylistically closer to the experiences he reports and is frequently as scintillating and creative a stylist as Tom Wolfe. Thompson was a free-lance novelist and a journalist who had written for several magazines and the New York Herald Tribune when he first became in volved with the Hell's Angels in 1964. Out of that encounter he wrote an article on them, "Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders" (Nation, 17 May 1965, pp.522-26), which was probably the first piece of honest writing abou the Angels done by any known journalist for a major publication. He stayed close to their activities, riding and living with them, for several more months-a total of about a year's time into 1966-until they finally beat him up because they considered him to be using them; then he completed the book.

Thompson's book is an especially significant document of the New Journalism, becasue it came about in large part because of his desire to correct the reportage of the established media, to get close to a way of life and write about it as it really is. The distorted portrait of Hell's Angels which the average American held before him in his living-room chair was, according to Thompson, a creation of the established press of New York City-a portrait which the Angels disastrously tried to live up to:

The Hell's Angels as they exist today were virtually created by Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times. The Times is the heavyweight champion of American journalism. On nine stories out of ten the paper lives up to its reputation. Yet the editors make no claim to infallibility, and now and then they will blow the whole duke. It would be senseless to try to list these failures, and besides that the purpose of this harangue is not to nail any one newspaper or magazine - but to point out the potentially massive effect of any story whose basic structure is endorsed and disseminated not only by Time, and Newsweek, but by the hyper-prestigious New York Times. The Times took the Lynch report [the pseudo-objective and vague report of an investigation mounted by California's ambitious new Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, concerning Hell's Angels and "other disreputables"] at face value and simply reprinted it in very condensed form. The headline said: CALIFORNIA TAKES STEPS TO CURB TERRORISM OF RUFFIAN CYCLISTS. The bulk of the article was straight enough, but the lead was pure fiction: "A hinterland tavern is invaded by a group of motorcycle hoodlums. They seize a female patron and rape her. Departing, they brandish weapons and threaten bystanders with dire reprisals if they tell what they saw. Authorities have trouble finding a communicative witness, let alone arresting and prosecuting the offenders."

This incident never occurred. It was created, as a sort of journalistic montage, by the correspondent who distilled the report. But the Times is neither written nor edited by fools, and anyone who has worked on a newspaper for more than two months knows how technical safeguards can be built into even the wildest story, without fear of losing reader impact. What they amount to, basically, is the art of printing a story without taking legal responsiblity for it. the word "alleged" is a key to this art. other keys are "so-and-so said" (or "claimed"), "it was reported" and "according to". In fourteen short newspaper paragraphs, the Times story contained nine of these qualifiers. The two most crucial had to do with the Hollywood lead and the "alleged gang rape" last Labor Day of two girls, 14 and 15 years old, by five to ten members of the Hell's Angels gang on the beach at Monterey" (my italics)....The result was a piece of slothful, emotionally biased journalism, a bad hack job that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow or stirred a ripple had it appeared in most American newspapers...but the Times is a heavyweight even when it's wrong, and the effect of this article was to put the seal of respectibility on a story that was, in fact, a hysterical, politically motivated accident.

Thus, Thompson set out to find the true story of the Angels, propelled by a desire to find out what was really happening in their world, to experience it as much as possible as they did, and then to write the story in a style true to his sense of the experience.

Thompson uses police reports and fallicious or true news reports as effective documents in his account, and he has genuine talent for using epigraphic material; but, besides those facts and his thoroughness, it is his style that distinguishes the book as reportage and makes it a New Journalistic work of art that reminds one of Wolfe and is probably influenced by him.[Christine here - read Wolfe's The Electirc Kool-Aid Acid Test along with Hell's Angels. Both books cover the same time period, people and events. Both make the other more appreciated by the reader.] Consider, for example, the opening lines:

California, Labor Day weekend...early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and acast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur...The Menace is loose again, the Hell's Angels, the hundred-carat headline, running fast and loud on the early morning freeway, low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the center stripe, missing by inches...like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus, flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your daughter's leg with no quarter asked and none given; show the squares some class, give em a whiff of those kicks they'll never know....(11)

The style is perfectly attuned to the subject matter, and Thompson keeps it true, modulating and adapting it throughout to different situations and different aspects of his reportage. Finally, at the end, after he has been beaten to the extent of spitting blood and is kept awake by the pain of a broken rib, he cannot think of a fitting original epitaph for the story and so recalls Conrad: "The horror! The horror!...Exterminate all the brutes!" His sympathies have come full circle, his experience to completion. His story is about a kind of rough splendor. It is also about meanness and brutality. But he has, at any rate, written of the Angels as they really are and has done them journalistic justice.