After Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels, was published, his publicity junket led to some bizarre and downright blood-boiling TV
Hunter S. Thompson was not the famous gonzo journalist in September 1966 when his first book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs was published. He was a journeyman freelancer who’d logged time at newspapers in the Caribbean and had a few pieces published in Ramparts, Esquire, and New York Times, while working on a novel in his spare time.
He was so obscure, in fact, that he was able to appear as a contestant on the TV quiz show To Tell The Truth, just after Hell’s Angels was published:
Hell’s Angels “made” Thompson but it came at a price. He spent two years, off and on, hanging out with the Oakland chapter of the infamous motorcycle club. Like the Angels, Thompson thought of himself as an outlaw (thus, the “outlaw” in his book’s subtitle). He earned his insider access with the notoriously tightknit Angels through persistence and his own appreciation for behavior that straight society was repulsed or terrified by. And, let’s face it, he also showed a great deal of courage, being an outsider to a gang some of whose members were prone to violence.
So, when his book was published, and then garnered mass media attention, Thompson was caught off guard. Up to that point, he had existed on the margins of the writing profession, and now he was caught in the glare of the floodlights, like the proverbial deer on a distant stretch of highway. His biographer Douglas Brinkley noted, “Thompson had bungled his Hell’s Angels book tour by appearing on TV and radio shows either drunk or tongue-tied.”This clip, from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program filmed in Toronto in March 1967, features a more tongue-tied Thompson. Looking like victim of a three-day bender, Thompson was interviewed by a portly television host, who blindsided him with a surprise visit from a Hell’s Angel named Clifford “Skip” Workman.
Workman rode his chopper into the studio and around the stage and then strutted out in front of the cameras, where he immediately berated Thompson’s book as “sixty percent cheap trash” and accused the author of welching on a deal to provide the Oakland club with two kegs of beer. The studio audience roars its approval, at this point, creating a surreal vibe to the proceedings. Was it collective Stockholm Syndrome? Were they so terrified of the “biker” that they gravitated to his side? Decide for yourself:
It is true that Thompson’s relations with the Angels had soured a bit—largely the result of a serious beating he received from the gang’s members toward the end of his tenure with them, a beating bad enough to send him to the hospital—but he was on generally good terms with some of the Angels, including and most importantly, Terry the Tramp and Sonny Barger. Also, despite what Workman claimed, Thompson’s book was a fair and honest account of the motorcycle club, at least as fair and honest as an outsider could make it. It was not the exploitative hatchet job most journalists in 1966-67 would have written and which Workman accused him of writing. (There’s a reason why Hell’s Angels is still in print and still the definitive account).
Nonetheless, some of the Angels, like Workman, resented Thompson’s apparent success. After all, the book became a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. And yet, as Thompson wrote Paul Krassner in October 1967, the “profit” of his book sales by then amounted to only $1,900. So the encounter on the TV show took on an even more bitter subtext when Workman—who Thompson did not recognize even after two years of contact with the Oakland club—accused him of ripping the Angels off. Despite being stunned by the blind-side attack, Thompson tried to supply his side of the beating story. That is, members of the biker gang beat him up after he tried to intercede to keep an Angel (“Junkie George”) from brutally beating his wife.
The shocking thing about this revelation is NOT the fact that a member of the Hell’s Angels was physically abusing, if not criminally assaulting, a woman in 1966. It was that the studio audience was laughing hysterically at the description of the scene. Workman said, “If a guy wants to beat his wife and their dog bites him, that’s between the three of them.”
When Workman later said, “To keep a woman in line you gotta beat ‘em like a rug once in a while,” the studio audience—the most straight-looking bunch of goobers imaginable—roared with laughter and applause.
Even now, in 2018, such blatant barbarism is enough to make one’s blood boil. No wonder Thompson echoed Kurtz’s final words from Heart of Darkness in his book: “Exterminate the brutes.”And, yes, that was Joan Baez in the audience of this show. She had been an earlier guest on the CBC TV show. You can see her at 4:20 of the video.
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