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Ridin' High, Livin' Free - A Review

Hell Raising Motorcycle Stories from Ralph "Sonny" Barger of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club

This article is a review of a book called Ridin' High, Livin' Free, written by Ralph "Sonny" Barger with Keith & Kent Zimmerman. This book is available through William Morrow, HarperCollins Publishers.

The book is a follow-up to the best seller, Hell's Angel, but steps away from Sonny's autobiography to bring the reader more about the everyday adventures of being a biker.

Barger's new book is a collection of 38 tales taken from various sources, many known personally by Sonny. The book contains 51 black and white photos illustrating the stories. It's not a book about the Hell's Angels per se but many of the stories touch on their members and almost every tale involves a Harley-Davidson.

More than two years ago, I started a feature on the Motorcycles site called Wild Motorcycle Tales. These tales are submitted by About Motorcycles visitors giving their personal experiences on the road. I have made no attempt to interview the authors or cull additional tales from them as was done for Barger's book. My tales are in the author's own words with some editing. Some even involve the Hell's Angels. Here's a Wild Motorcycle Tale that shows just how ingrained the Hell's Angels are in biker lore:

    "Back in 1973, I had my first bike. It was a new Yamaha. I was out riding one day by myself, when all of a sudden all I could hear was a roar of engines behind me. Two rows of them side by side. As they closed in on me, there was something strange about them. Me on my little 350cc Yamaha and to my surprise, all these bikes behind me were Hell's Angels, so I guess you could say that I rode with the Hell's Angels. It was kind of neat being surrounded by these guys. They nodded their heads at me as they passed me by. It was the thrill of a lifetime." -- Keith Williams (Hell's little angel)

The tales in Barger's book are professionally crafted, graphically presented stories also submitted by real riders. Sonny states that some stories may not be true but isn't that the nature of a good biker story anyway. They include a diverse cast of characters including the Hell's Angels themselves, outlaw and independent riders, various RUBs, citizens and entertainment stars including Steve McQueen, Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard, Janis Joplin, and David Crosby.

Here's a quote that I particularly liked that evokes strong outlaw biker images. It's from the tale entitled, Renton's Cool Sled:

    "With no deference to the downpour, Renton noticed out of the left rearview mirror a strange pair of headlights barreling up in the fast lane, full speed ahead. Maybe it was a frenzied eighteen-wheeler making tracks in time to get home and out of the rain... But as the vehicle drew closer, Renton saw that the lights didn't look quite right for a big rig; they were too low and too far apart. As quickly as those thoughts raced through Renton's mind, the lights approached closer and closer, faster and faster. Renton pulled over to the slow lane to look over and see what the hell was moving so damn fast in this awful weather. He and his old lady saw two rigid-framed choppers pass them, black as the night. The bikes were nearly identical, long wide glide front ends, tall apes, no front fenders, and the loudest straight pipes Renton ever heard. Both men had very long hair and extremely long beards. They had no helmets on, were clad in leather from head to toe, and wore sunglasses in spite of the rain and the dark of night. Renton accelerated the Shovel to catch another look at the two 1%ers who roared past him. A quarter-mile down the road, under the gleam of a billboard light, Renton saw, strapped to both bikes' sissy bars, pump-action shotguns, butts down and barrels sticking up skyward. Just as Renton sped up to catch a better glimpse, both riders kicked ass and took off. They must have been traveling a buck and change as their taillights disappeared into the stormy night as quickly as they had first appeared."

Some titles of tales include: The Missing Years of Steve McQueen, Bay Bridge Discount, Blake's World-Record Whorehouse Jump, The Ghost of Yermo, Sister Teresa, and the Code of the Road.

If you're a Steve McQueen fan, you'll enjoy reading about a different side of the actor you've not heard before as he had to move himself and his huge collection of motorcycles and two airplanes to a special hangar where he and his girl friend lived for two years.

Be prepared for explicit language and straight talking from Barger as he relates tales across the entire spectrum of motorcycling. Prepare to learn about the Peckerwood Pans, Moto Guzzi Ron's ride to the North Pole, the love story of Jane and Randell that ended in gastronomic distress, the story of the Iron Chopper that served in Vietnam and Debbie who had great motorcycle instincts and also knew when to go topless while riding.

Instead of saying, Ride to live, live to ride, Sonny likes to say: Ridin' High, Livin' Free. I think you'll feel the same way after you finish this great collection of biker stories. You'll probably want more or maybe you have a story of your own to tell. Sonny is already soliciting stories for his next book.

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