Bill Ray and the Hells Angels of San Berdoo 1965
“This was a new breed of rebel,” Bill Ray told LIFE.com, recalling his time with the Angels. “They didn’t have jobs, of course. They absolutely despised everything that most Americans value and strive for — stability, security. They rode their bikes, hung out in bars for days at a time, fought with anyone who messed with them. They were self-contained, with their own set of rules, their own code of behavior. It was extraordinary to be around.”
Ray spent some of the time with the Angels on a ride from San Bernardino (about 40 miles east of Los Angeles) to Bakersfield, California, for a major motorcycle rally. The Berdoo-Bakersfield run is a trip of only about 130 miles — but in 1965, it would offer enough moments (both placid and violent) for Ray to paint a rare, revelatory portrait of the world’s most legendary motorcycle club in its early days. The way in which the story came about, meanwhile, was as dramatic and unexpected as Bill Ray’s pictures.
“It was exhilarating being around them, there’s no question about it,” Ray says. “You just never knew what they were going to do. You’re always kind of on edge, because — think about it! — these people have a lot of time to waste. They don’t punch a clock, so they fill the time drinking beer, smoking pot, screwing around. There was always a sense that anything could happen at any minute. Things could go from light-hearted to tense, and from tense to very scary, pretty goddamn quick.”
Ray and Joe Bride spent more than a month with the Angels in the spring of ’65, “mostly on weekends,” Ray remembers, “but the Bakersfield run was around the clock, three days and nights.” In Bakersfield,” remembers Ray, “I slept on the floor of the Blackboard Cafe — the bar that the Angels basically lived in while they were there.”
“There’s a romance to the idea of the biker on the open road,” Ray says. “It’s similar to the romance that people attach to cowboys and the West — which, of course, is totally out of proportion to the reality of riding fences and punching cows. But no doubt, there’s something impressive about these Harley-Davidsons and bikers heading down the highway. You see the myth played out in movies, like Easy Rider, which came out a few years after I photographed the Angels. You know, the trail never ends for the cowboy, and the open road never ends for the Angels. They just ride. Where they’re going hardly matters. It’s not an easy life, but it’s what they choose. It’s theirs. And everyone else can get out of the way or go to hell.”