The following is an excerpt from The Secret Life of Bikers by Jerry Langton, available May 15.
After moving to a new town for construction work, Mitch went to a gym to work out. On his ﬁrst visit, he was approached by a “large, tattooed guy”—it should be noted that Mitch is also a large, tattooed guy—who offered to spot for him. The two started working out together and, after about six weeks, the guy, Ben, invited him to a bar he hung out at.
Mitch was delighted to see a lineup of Harleys outside as he too liked riding. Inside, he was even more impressed. Ben and his friends never paid for any drinks and always seemed to be having a great time. They were all friendly to him, patting him on the back, shaking his hand, laughing at his jokes and making sure he always had a full beer.
“I didn’t even know they were Bandidos then,” he told me. He thought they were “just guys who liked to have a good time.” He enjoyed himself so much that he ended up returning to the bar week after week. He found out the guys were Bandidos, but it didn’t bother him. “I thought they were cool,” he said. “And I never saw them break any laws or anything—just little stuff, like anyone would do.”
Before long, there was talk of Mitch riding with the Bandidos. He went on a couple of runs with them, riding in the back. They teased him about his Kawasaki and said he’d have to trade it for a Harley if he ever wanted to get serious.
He admired them, and he didn’t see much difference between the way they lived and how he wanted to live. He was, however, “creeped out” by how much they knew about him—like his parents’ names and what school he went to.
It was only after weeks of partying and riding with the Bandidos that Ben told him he could become a hangaround, conditional on his changing his motorcycle. While that title meant that the club recognized him as an acceptable candidate for potential membership and that the individual members of the club would back him up in a ﬁght, it also meant that the club owed him nothing else, that he was not a representative of the club and that he could not speak for, or even of, the club to others. It also meant that he was forbidden to associate with any other club without the Bandidos’ approval.
Mitch agreed and started shopping for a used Harley.
You can’t just apply to be a 1-percenter biker. The ofﬁcial statement from the Hells Angels is “If you have to ask, you probably will not understand the answer.” Though awkwardly worded, its meaning is clear—you can’t just join a biker club. And all the other big clubs say basically the same thing.
It’s an understatement to say that the clubs are extremely picky about who they accept for membership. The ofﬁcial word is that the clubs are looking for just the right kind of people without much more in the way of speciﬁcs, while law enforcement says that because such clubs are involved in so much illegal activity, they live in constant fear that sensitive information will be leaked and want only those candidates who won’t spill their secrets.
No successful 1-percenter club has ever accepted candidates who approached them for membership. But new bikers have to come from somewhere, of course, so clubs actively recruit men they think check all of their boxes.
Often, that means clubs will lean heavily on relatives and old friends, but they also reach out into the community for new recruits. Three criteria stand out in an ideal recruit: the ability to take care of himself in a ﬁght, the ability to make himself, or the club, money and the ability to keep his mouth shut.
Typically, clubs will go to gyms, especially those that feature mixed martial arts, to ﬁnd guys they know can ﬁght. Similarly, they might look at bodybuilders, wrestlers, men recently discharged from the military, doormen and bouncers from nightclubs and strip joints, and men with careers in personal security and experience serving as bodyguards. Those are all guys who are usually valuable to have around in a scrap.
Jail can be a fertile recruiting ground, as imprisoned bikers frequently make connections and alliances behind bars. And it’s very easy to assess a man’s ﬁghting ability, or his reputation as a ﬁghter at least, in prison.
Clubs also prize guys who have successful businesses, especially if they deal in cash or provide a service considered valuable to the club. That means that clubs go out of their way to recruit tattoo artists, gun shop owners and employees, strip joint and nightclub owners, talent agents (especially those who handle strippers), importers and exporters, motorcycle mechanics and people who work with leather. Cash-intensive businesses, of course, provide an excellent way to launder money. And they’d never admit it, but the big clubs also target pimps, drug dealers, marijuana growers and meth cooks.
The best way to become a biker, I have been told repeatedly, is simply to hang out where bikers do and act like one. If you’re good at it and show an aptitude for the values they hold, they will eventually approach you. Several bikers have told me that the best way to become a 1-percenter is to put on a vest with a 1-percenter patch and ﬁght anyone who tries to take it off you.
Of course, it’s also important that the candidate own and ride a motorcycle. The bikers themselves say that their clubs really are organizations dedicated to riding, while their critics contend that that’s a convenient ﬁction they maintain to prevent them from being busted up by anti-gangster laws. Either way, you can’t be a biker unless you own and operate a bike.
At least in theory. There have been many instances of that rule being fudged. When the Hells Angels created their Niagara Falls chapter, they had to teach several members—including president Gerald “Skinny” Ward—how to ride, and the Quebec Biker War was kicked off when the Hells Angels wrote a note to the leadership of the Rock Machine asking them to stop calling themselves a motorcycle club because (and they were right) only a few of them actually owned motorcycles. Even now, many overseas chapters of the big clubs infuriate domestic leadership by accepting members who ride small motorcycles, even scooters, if they even ride at all.
Although it varies from club to club and nation to nation, most 1-percenter organizations limit their members to Harley-Davidson or, at least, American-made motorcycles. That also includes Indian, a smaller-output manufacturer owned by Polaris Industries, and Victory, which was also owned by Polaris and was discontinued in 2017. That’s been a bit of a problem for many bikers, as all but the most jingoistic motorcycle enthusiasts will agree that all Japanese and some European bikes represent better quality, performance and, especially, value for dollar than Harleys. In 2017, Consumer Reports wrote that over a span of four years, the average failure rate for Harley-Davidson products was more than double that of Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda and nearly double that of Kawasaki. “It’s always been important for Hells Angels to ride American-made machines,” wrote Sonny Barger in his memoir. “In terms of pure workmanship, personally I don’t like Harleys. I ride them because I’m in the club, and that’s the image, but if I could, I would seriously consider riding a Honda ST1100 or a BMW. We really missed the boat not switching over to the Japanese models when they began building bigger bikes. I’ll usually say, fuck Harley-Davidson.” Barger later switched from a Harley-Davidson to a Victory for his primary ride.
In the case of heavily customized motorcycles, some clubs will specify that at least the engine has to have been manufactured in the US.
Some overseas chapters of the big clubs allow their members to ride Triumphs—British bikes that were popular with American bikers in the 1950s and early 1960s and were the type ridden by Marlon Brando in The Wild One—or BMWs.
Japanese and Korean bikes, despite their reputation for durability and performance, are frowned upon by 1-percenters around the world and derisively called “rice,” “rice burners” or “rice rockets.”
Most clubs have a minimum size limit for bikes, measured by their engine displacement. The Outlaws constitution says that they will take bikes with engines as small as 605 cubic centimeters, while Bandidos cut off at 750, the Warlocks at 883 and the Pagan’s at 900. These rules originated in the 1970s when the Harley-Davidson brand hit its lowest point.
The candidate also has to be male. You might see women in cut-off denim vests with patches riding Harleys, but they are not members of the major clubs.
In the 1970s, a few women tried to sue the Hells Angels for denying them membership, but they didn’t get far. Since the Hells Angels are a private club, receive no funding from any government and aren’t ofﬁcially an employer, they can use any criteria they want to accept or deny members. Even if they had been legally compelled to accept women, Hells Angels leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger was quoted as saying, “We wouldn’t do it anyway.”
And the candidate, not surprisingly, has to be an adult. According to the Pagan’s Motorcycle Club constitution, candidates must be eighteen, while other big clubs specify they must be twenty-one. But those numbers are just the bare minimum and are not put to the test very often. Because clubs are looking for candidates they know they can trust and who can potentially help the club in a ﬁght or, and this is increasingly important, ﬁnancially, they aren’t looking for kids as members. Certainly, they wouldn’t want someone who is not old enough to drink legally. Serving alcohol to minors is exactly the kind of legal problem clubs want to avoid. Law enforcement can frequently build bigger cases out of small infractions, and evidence of underage drinking in a clubhouse or member’s home could easily lead to a search warrant.
Although not expressly worded in their constitutions, the major 1-percenter clubs do not admit openly gay men as members. There have been several cases of covertly gay men in these clubs—like Dany Kane and Aimé Simard, members of the Rockers support club and contract killers for two different Hells Angels members—whose orientation has come out after their arrest or death.
After a 1968 murder in the clubhouse of the Satan’s Angels— a Vancouver club that would later become Hells Angels—local police wiretapped their phone. One remark they heard—“We got a new butler”—caused them some alarm. After some investigation, police learned that the “butler” in question was a young man who had been kidnapped by members of the Satan’s Angels and sodomized and tortured for no reason other than they found it entertaining.
As the LGBT community has gained more widespread acceptance and has become more visible, bikers have distanced themselves from it. Most 1-percenters display animosity toward the LGBT community, and some have even taken to disrupting pride marches and other events.
Interestingly, before LGBT rights became a major cultural issue, bikers (and there are records of both Hells Angels and Outlaws doing this) used to have a habit of passionately tongue-kissing each other for “shock value” and to “express brotherhood.” In his 1965 book Hells Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that such kissing “is a guaranteed square-jolter, and the Angels are gleefully aware of the reaction it gets. The sight of a photographer invariably whips the Angels into a kissing frenzy.”
Some years later, things had changed. Chuck Zito wrote in his memoir that he had been part of a group that in 1985 had the authority to set up a chapter in Japan, but he called it off because he saw two men on a street corner holding hands. “In Japanese culture, we were told, that sort of display of affection is perfectly normal, acceptable behavior and is not seen as a reﬂection on one’s sexuality,” he wrote. “Well, that may be, but I have to tell you: there is no way that any Hells Angel is ever going to prance hand-in-hand with another guy. Call it homophobic; call it narrowminded, call it whatever the hell you want to call it. It simply is not going to happen. Case closed. End of story.”
And then there’s the race question, which is a huge deal in the biker community. Over the years, readers have told me that I’m wrong to say that there are no black members of the big 1-percenter clubs, even including the Hells Angels. But if there have been any, I have found no solid evidence of them, just rumors. There have been, however, several notable Americans and Canadians of African descent in the 1-percenter orbit, but never as members of big clubs.
Sometimes, existing clubs with black members will have to expel them when patching over to a bigger club. That happened in 1977 in Hamilton, Ontario. The dominant club at the time was Satan’s Choice, which had three black members, and it frequently referred to itself, tongue in cheek, as the Good-Looking Guys Club. One of the conditions of the patch-over to the Outlaws was that they get rid of those three guys. The expelled bikers started their own club, the Not-So-Good-Looking Guys Club, but it ended when they were convicted of disposing bodies for the local Cosa Nostra boss. Later incarnations of Satan’s Choice were all white, and they patched over to the Hells Angels.
On other occasions, black bikers are simply barred from being members, no matter how qualiﬁed. Haitian-born Greg “Picasso” Wooley beat guys up, allegedly killed people and sold drugs for the Montreal Hells Angels over the years and was a close friend of Maurice “Mom” Boucher—a Hells Angel sometimes referred to as Canada’s Pablo Escobar—but was never a Hells Angel himself. Barred from wearing the winged skull because of his skin color, Wooley instead wore the patch of the Rockers, a support club.
The reality is that the major 1-percenter clubs do not accept black members. In fact, the Hells Angels issued a bylaw in 1986 that simply states, “No n-----s in the club,” and the Outlaws constitution also puts it plainly: “All members must be white.” Undercover US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent Jay Dobyns noted in his memoir many instances of racial bias by the Hells Angels, some as petty as members being greatly offended that the ringtone on his cell phone was a Nelly song.
Jerry Langton is one of Canada’s leading writers on organized crime and the author of several national bestsellers. The Secret Life of Bikers is available on May 15. It is published by HarperCollins.
Sign up for the VICE Canada Newsletter to get the best of VICE Canada delivered to your inbox daily.