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The Attack Was an Awful Shock ( Times Magazine)
am 3. September 2014
Thompson got the idea to write about the Hell's Angels from Carey McWilliams of The Nation, the book became a turning point in his career and catapulted him to an icon of the counterculture. Researching the cycle boys had inherent dangers because Thompson wanted to submerge himself in the action, trying to understand the gang's perspective of live - if they had one. As they normally steered way clear of the media, he was lucky to meet police reporter Birney Jarvis of the San Francisco Chronicle who introduced Thompson to the biker gang. As Jarvis was also an ex-vice president and lifetime member of the Hell's Angels, this was a golden contact. The story began for Thompson in a San Francisco dive, but from there it became unpredictable and he personally spiraled into the growing violence - until he pushed his luck too far. The book is flush with exciting tales and full-size characters, some of them unbelievable in a novel of the 1960s (first published 1966). The book is action-packed right to the end when the Angels meet the resistence of hired private gunmen, country toughs, a giddy chamber of commerce capacity crowd of bystanders, vigilantes, and fired-up cops.
Thompson not only goes behind the scenes when the outlaw cycle boys roll in hordes to their annual 4th of July outing, but back through the drama when the danger was born and presents a picture of menace, terror, depraved hoodlums roaming the California highways on stripped down Harley-Davidsons. They were far from teenagers of the homey urban gang, but adults and could strike anywhere in the state, and most remarkably: they didn't fear the police. For almost a year, he accompanied the Angels and held his ground, drinking at their bars, exchanging home visits, recording their brutalities, viewing their sexual caprices and became generally converted to their motorcycle mystique. He was so intrigued, that he feared to becoming slowly absorbed by the cycle boys however that feeling ended when a group of Angels knocked him to the ground and stomped him.
How could it happen that a gang of local motorcyclists developed into a national threat, with storm warnings going up all across the country at the mere rumor of their approach? Thompson comes to the conclusion, which is an interesting sociological comment, that much is based on the puculiar propaganda powers of the press. He is supporting his experience with official reports, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts and comes to the disturbing conclusion that almost everything printed about the Angels is pure fiction: born of a national rape mania, the rumble take-over of a small town story-hungry editors pushed the Angels to a pinnacle of nation-wide attention and public protest.
As Thompson points out in his dissection of fact vs. fiction, the reports were misleading or as he puts it "incredible swill." And he launches a beautiful attack on the "New York Press Establishment" i.e., Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. The phenomenal aspect of this press was that the Angels started believing the image. They trekked to the movies to see themselves portrayed on film by Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin in The Wild Ones. They got dirtier, tougher, meaner and for a while even had a public relations man to promote their madness into some sizable cash. What Mr. Thompson tries to say is that the Angels, while not angels, are not as bad as believed. They are "mutants," a bit more misfit but actually not too dissimilar from the local fraternity on rampage. Regardless, they have the sort of repellent fascination that may find a large readership.
This book is - even more so today - a broad comment on the modern tendency to combine violence and sensationalism to achieve higher profits in the media. It is also one of the first examples of an imbedded writer-in-residence, that became famous under the label "gonzo" journalism. Thompson had his story pat when it mattered and perfected it. Following the success of Hells Angels, Thompson was a hot item and very much in demand a number of well-known magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, Esquire and the like. During the late 1960s and early 70s, Thompson also delivered in-depth reporting about the hippies of San Francisco, despising a culture that tended to forget the political beliefs of the New Left and the artistic core of the Beats. Instead they began to settle down as new agers oozing a more relaxed state of mind. After all Richard Nixon was officially ex-president not a crook and the frantic evacuation of Saigon was superimposed by the threat of killer bees.