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Sonny Barger
LONDON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Sonny Barger is on a highway to hell and that's just the way he likes it.

The legendary Hell's Angels patriarch, who helped found the motorcycle club almost 50 years ago, has battled cancer and heart disease as fiercely as the law, but has no intention of allowing age to mellow him -- or giving up the free-wheeling lifestyle he loves.

"I'm not going to change. I'm not going to slow down. Riding a motorcycle is just about the most fun thing in the universe," 64-year-old Barger told Reuters during a visit to a Hell's Angels clubhouse in London's East End.

"Hell, most guys would love to retire to have this kind of life so I don't need to retire. Plus I just bought a new bike last week."

The grizzled, tattooed Californian is the kind of rough, tough, unrepentant hard man that country and western songs are written about.

His reputation as grand-daddy of the world's 50,000 Hell's Angels has spread far beyond the biker community, attracting both hero-worshippers and detractors on the way.

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Barger said he was constantly being asked to tell his stories about the Angels' history, particularly during the 1950s and 60s when their hell-raising exploits shocked "straight America" and branded them as outlaws.

"But probably the question that I get asked the most is what happened at Altamont," he said in reference to an infamous Rolling Stones concert near San Francisco in 1969 when the Angels' provided security in return for a few kegs of beer.

During the concert, which started after the crowd was kept waiting for hours, a fight broke out and an Angel stabbed a man to death. The band decided to pull the plug.

"Keith Richards told me the band wasn't going to play anymore until we stopped the violence. I stood next to him and stuck my pistol in his side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead. He played."

The writer Hunter S. Thompson was among those celebrities who sought him out in the 60s, intrigued by the bikers' outlaw life.

Thompson hung out with Barger's Oakland chapter before writing a best-selling book about the Angels -- which Barger still angrily dismisses as an "inaccurate piece of junk."

"A lot of the myths about the Hell's Angels came from that book and stayed around for years," he said.

"(Thompson) was a pain in the butt. He ended up getting beaten up and sent down the road."

Barger makes no concession to age or illness, brushing off cancer and a heart attack with a wave of his hand.

His leathery tanned skin is testament to the 40,000 miles (64,370 km) he puts on the clock of his Harley Davidson Road King every year and the time spent outdoors working on his small Arizona property.

Reared by his older sister after his mother ran off with a bus driver and his father drowned his sorrows in drink, Barger joined the U.S. army at 16 after forging his birth certificate.

"I learned things in the army that I found interesting. Like how to take weapons apart."

He was kicked out with an honourable discharge in 1956 when his deception was discovered and soon developed a hankering for another type of uniform -- that of the wild leather-jacketed bikers who were just beginning to band together in clubs.

One such fledging group was the Oakland Hell's Angels. Barger swiftly became leader of the pack and helped oversee the formation of independent chapters around the U.S and abroad.

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He is now regarded as the unofficial leader of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club worldwide and wears his distinctive Death's Head patch on his leather jacket with pride.

"We're stronger, we're bigger than ever and I can see another 50 years coming.

"The motorcycles are the best thing about the club. But the brotherhood is a great thing too. We take care of each other."

Barger's autobiography was an international best seller when it was published in 2000 and launched him into a new globetrotting career as a celebrity author, signing books and making personal appearances.

A second book, of biker stories, was published this year and two more are in the pipeline. A movie about his life is in the works and Sonny Barger Premium Lager is on liquor store shelves.

Courteous and polite in person, it is easy to forget that the "loveable rogue" -- as one fan described him -- is a criminal with a long record for violent assaults, kidnapping, firearms offences and conspiracy.

But Barger shrugs off any questions about his past and says he has only one regret in a life filled with battles, jail, drugs and divorce.

"If I had to do it all again, I probably wouldn't smoke," he said with a short laugh, speaking through a hole in his windpipe after his larynx was removed during cancer surgery 20 years ago.

"People have misconceptions about things they don't know about and a lot of people don't know a lot about us. The biggest misconception is that we are a criminal organization."

Barger said the club had a strong code of honour and its members abided by strict rules, which he was reluctant to reveal.

But his book lists them as including no stealing from other members, no messing around with another member's "old lady," no spiking the club's alcohol with dope and, more tellingly, no throwing ammunition onto live bonfires.

Barger's stories do little to quash any prejudices about the Angels. His books are packed with tales of battles with the law, murders, violent assaults, drugs, booze and general mayhem.

One story recounts the theft of his beloved hand built bike "Sweet Cocaine" in 1968. The culprits, prospects for a rival club, were rounded up and punished.

"One at a time we bull-whipped them and beat them with spiked dog collars and broke their fingers with hammers.

"Moral of the story -- don't get caught stealing a Hell's Angels bike, especially if he is the president."

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