Underground Lit

The Ephemera of the San Francisco Counter-Culture

by Griffin Nicholson

A standard, Greenleaf-style lurid cover, probably by a staff artist. Interestingly enough, the biker on the front and back covers broadly resembles the description of one of the "specimen" Angels described in chapter 4.

Jan Hudson [George H. Smith], The Sex and Savagery of Hell's Angels and the One Percenters. San Diego: Greenleaf Classics, 1966. Paperback, 160 pgs. With glossary.

The idea for this column came from research I have been doing on San Francisco popular culture in the fifties and sixties. For students of popular culture, established research resources are rarely very helpful: most libraries and academics are uncomfortable with non-scholarly, non-mainstream topics, partly because they lack the time to sift through reams of poor writing and dubious assertions that cannot be verified, and which are rarely (if ever) backed up by what they would recognize as research. This is especially true of the San Francisco counter-culture of the sixties, which generated intense media attention from 1965 to 1970. For those with patience, however, there is a wealth of obscure ephemera to sift through, and some occasional finds-which will be the focus of this column. In general, I will concentrate on works that are not generally known outside of book collecting circles, beginning with a couple of the most obscure titles and in later columns, covering more popular but currently neglected books.

One of the most discussed but least analyzed or understood aspects of the Haight-Ashbury hippie flowering was their championing of the Hell's Angels. An outgrowth of the country's fixation with juvenile delinquency following World War II, which produced a spate of pulp writing and a slew of garish headlines, the mystique of the "outlaw motorcyclist" developed in the national consciousness in the fifties from celebrated incidents in which small California towns such as Hollister, Riverside and Porterville were overrun by rioting motorcyclists for up to a couple of days, and emerged as a full-blown media phenomenon in the mid-sixties. An alleged rape in Monterey involving Hell's Angels produced a California Attorney General's report, and all the associated hand-wringing headlines and sententious editorials that accompanied its release enshrined the Angels and the other 'outlaw' motorcycle groups in the public consciousness. Any study of the Haight invariably turns up the Angels, whose San Francisco chapter had genuine bohemian tendencies, producing a poet - whose autobiography was co-written with Beat poet Michael McClure - and a respected poster artist, whose Angel name was Gut, apparently a former president of the San Bernadino chapter and, later, the manager of the San Francisco heavy metal group Blue Cheer. And, of course, in addition to their association and friendship with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, well documented in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test, the Angels also launched the career of Hunter S. Thompson, whose book Hell's Angels placed him in the forefront of the New Journalism, and possibly precipitated the volume I wish to describe here.

One complaint voiced by the Angels in a variety of forums was that Thompson was the first in a long line of people who profited from their fame, leaving them with nothing but notoriety. In a recent interview, the famed head of the Oakland chapter Sonny Barger, said "Hunter's still making money off that book about us. It's required reading in English 101 in California." A more serious charge was that media depictions, especially in the mid-sixties, were largely false; as one Angel grumbled to Thompson, "why do people publish all these lies about us? Hell, the truth should be bad enough for them." One San Francisco rare book dealer, Red House Books, who counts a number of Angels as clients, notes that even though Thompson's book is labelled as inaccurate by most Angels, it is also still acknowledged as a landmark in writings about them, a shaping force in their mythologization. And it is, unquestionably, the best book on the Angels. But Thompson was not an Angel, and not privy to much of their insular world. When rebuked as an outsider who had no business writing a book on them, Thompson replied, "well, you guys should write one." Two of them did.

[back cover]
The restrained and surprisingly unsensationalistic jacket copy is a fair description of the book.
The first book published on the Angels was by George H. White, who wrote The Sex and Savagery of the Hell's Angels under a pseudonym, Jan Hudson. It represents, in many ways, a number of seminal issues facing pop culture historians. Published by a Southern California firm who at the time was one of the major pornographers in the country, it is a non-fiction work with less prurient matter than most current Harlequin Romances, and though explicit in places - mentioning cunnilingus and rape, for example - it would be difficult to classify any of it as pornographic. In twenty chapters, the author presents a full history of the Angels, set in a variety of historical contexts, tracing the growth of the concept of an 'outlaw' motorcyclist to the formation of the Angels themselves. In a carefully written, journalistic style that makes no apology for the Angels-even less than Thompson-Smith carefully chronicles the Angels and their mythology as it developed in virtually every article, story and movie dealing with them, outlaws, or motorcyclists from 1947 to 1965, when the book was presumably written. Anyone wishing to compile a bibliography of works on the Angels should start here.

There is a definite East Bay emphasis in the book. Other than an occasional mention, almost no San Francisco members appear in the text, and none are listed in the chapter on "A Few Specimen Angels." Nor is the famed Kesey-Angel nexus dealt with in any detail, though the clash between the Angels and the Berkeley peace march - which precipitated that meeting - does receive thorough treatment. To a reader who knows the author is an Angel, however, there is a maddening lack of first person commentary; one presumes that the unattributed parenthetical or elliptical remarks are the author's, but that is presumption only. It is not fine writing, but it is literate, and it is a serious piece of work. How it came to be published is a story that Greenleaf cannot tell, after its sensational closure by the FBI in the early seventies; and Angels are notoriously difficult to track down and interview. But as the first book written on the Angels, and one of the few written by an Angel - and well written at that - it deserves mention in any historiography of the Bay Area counter-culture. As an artifact of the popular culture of the era, it is a fascinating blend of primary and secondary source material. Interested readers should contact Andy Stafford at Red House Books, PO Box 460267, San Francisco, CA, 94146.

Other Underground Lit Columns

Electric Tibet
The Man Who Turned On the World

Back to Enterzone Retrospective

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