They told me, if I could sit on the stage so nobody climbed over me, I could drink beer till the show was over.
Gimme Shelter

Hells Angels are the Kleenex of biker gangs. Sure, there are the Mongols, the Outlaws, the Warlocks, the Diablos, the Cool Ranch Doritos. But all of those gangs take up relatively little space in the collective imagination. And one of those gangs isn’t even a gang. It’s a corn chip!

Anyway, the Angels’ ubiquity in popular culture means that when anyone anywhere thinks of roving gangs of motorcycle-riding degenerates, they think of the Angels. Hunter Thompson, Altamont, Sonny Barger and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test placed the gang at the forefront of that fashion trend known as the 60s. And as Atticus Finch quipped, “Even bellbottoms need a lawyer.”

So it was that the New York Times banged out an extra-long feature on the gang and their litigious ways over the long weekend.

That last sentence was the closest I could get the words “gang” and “bang” together. Let’s see if I have better luck later in this post….

The Times piece does a good job of capturing what the Hells Angels are today. Namely, a strange mix of hell-raising and brand-managing. Crucial to the management of the Angels’ brand is a lawyer. Some mohawked cat named Fritz:

Fritz Clapp, a 67-year-old lawyer with a bright red mohawk, practices intellectual property law. Years ago, his clients were “small-time businesses that nobody had ever heard of.” Then he found something bigger. Today, Mr. Clapp, an eloquent and irreverent man known to wear a purple fez during negotiations with other lawyers, represents the interests of a group not commonly associated with intellectual property: the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. His main role is not as a bulldog criminal defense counsel for the notorious group but as a civilized advocate in its relentless battle to protect its many registered trademarks.

First rule of negotiations: make the pie bigger for everyone. Second rule: wear a purple fez.

The Times article goes on to detail just how Fritz got involved with the Angels. It all began with a lawsuit against Marvel Comics. Here, the Times gives the Clapp curriculum vitae since that lawsuit:

Safeguarding the club’s trademarks has been Mr. Clapp’s job ever since. He is counsel for the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation, a nonprofit established in California in 1970 that owns and protects the club’s intellectual property. The corporation, which has board members, is controlled by the hundreds of chapters that make up the Hells Angels club.

“Part of the strategy is to bring shock-and-awe cases and to shine a bright light on them in federal court and the media,” said Mr. Clapp, who graduated from the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. “The intent is not just to punish the infringers but to educate the public that the Hells Angels marques are well guarded and not generic and that they must not be infringed upon.”

The McGeorge graduate not only has a red mohawk, but also lives in a motor home. That’s like a home, but instead of a home, it’s a van. Did I mention his website? It looks, for all the world, like a Geocities page from 1998. It advertises Clapp as the “Lawyer From Hell” and features a video in which the attorney emerges from down by the river (where his van is?) and stares into the camera. Wordless, the film evokes cinema’s earliest pioneers. Or your grandfather trying to figure out Skype.

Clapp’s work for the Angels perfectly captures the uneasy position the gang plays in current culture. Like Agassi hawking cameras in the 1990s, the Hells Angels are attempting to commodify rebelliousness. No more difficult a paradox to perpetuate, I suppose, than maintaining a gang of freaky individualists.

And if you are inclined to believe the Hells Angels are a weird fit in today’s culture, Sonny Barger serves as a sort of synecdoche for the gang. In a deposition about some douchey-sounding clothing brand, Barger sounds off:

Asked about the number 81, Mr. Barger said, “We don’t let anybody use it but us.” He added, “Eighty-one is Hells Angels.”

He said if he encountered someone wearing clothing with an unofficial 81, he would wrest it from the person on the spot. “I wouldn’t ask them, I’d take it.”

Later in the deposition, he said: “I would say, ‘Why do you have that?’ and he would probably say, ‘I support 81.’ And I would say, ‘That isn’t an 81 shirt.’

“And then I would say, ‘Look, we can do this two ways. You can give me the shirt and I’ll give you a legitimate one.’ Or if the guy says, ‘Hey, none of your business where I got it,’” Mr. Barger continued, “I’d beat him up and take it.”

Sonny Barger was a bad man. Now, he’s old and spends an inordinate amount of time arguing about t-shirts. This is the way the gang ends. Not with a bang but a lawsuit.

Despite Outlaw Image, Hells Angels Sue Often [New York Times]


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