“I can only stay a minute, bro,” came a soft growl.
Funny Sonny had come to see me in the hospital.
I had just had the first of what would be a series of three brain surgeries. Given the life I'd led and the crap I'd put into my body, it didn’t surprise me that I'd ended up with a brain tumor.
But this is not my story.
Funny Sonny visited me in the hospital every day. He didn’t stay for too long or for too short a time. Just long enough to show me that I mattered and that he cared. Every thing was personal and meaningful to Sonny and there was no time in his day for casual conversation. That was our point of connection, his and mine. We didn't suffer fools.
Every day mattered to Sonny.
Sonny would practice what he would say and do for all of the important events in his life. Planning a wedding, for example, was a job that Sonny did meticulously. Sonny was married nine times before his death in 2010 - or at least that was the last I’d heard. Sonny went to work on important meetings, and he executed his plans with care. Think about Luca Brasi practicing his speech to Don Corleone in The Godfather. That was Sonny. He put that kind of effort and care into everything he said and did.
Every day and every meeting was like a piece of history to him. A history to be revered in some ways, feared in others – because Sonny took his role in Hell’s Angels history seriously. Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead once said, and I'm paraphrasing here: “You never met people so up front about who they are than the Hell's Angels. If you saw them from a block away, you'd know to cross the street. How up front is that? To put yourself out there to be seen from a distance as dangerous.”
Funny Sonny was a dues paying, patch wearing, Hell’s Angel back in the day. And Funny Sonny was my friend. Decades after the Hell’s Angels had booted him out, Sonny still conducted himself in a way that showed his dedication and respect for the club. Sonny, as I said, had character. He was genuine. You knew exactly what you were getting from him, and he was completely honest about who he was.
In those days, people might let a perfect stranger into their home, make him coffee, sign documents with him, and give him their life savings - all because the guy came in wearing a suit and tie. But, the suit wasn’t an honest reflection of who the guy was. It was only part of his disguise.
Sonny was a biker, and he drove a Harley. He didn’t wear a disguise, and neither did I. We accepted each other as such - unconditionally. It was clear that there was a line, and we knew that either one of us would willingly kill or die to protect the other if that line was ever crossed.
Now, I wasn’t a biker myself, but you have to understand something about a Harley. It's not a motorcycle. People diminish its significance by referring to it as merely a product or a logo or a brand. A Harley transcends the manifest. When you’re on the road, there’s something about the song of the engine that is in sync with the vibration of the electromagnetic currents that cover the earth. When you're on a Harley, you're aware of your place on the planet. A Harley connects you to who you are and why you're here. You belong, and you know the reason for your existence. Hence the motto: Live To Ride, Ride To Live.
And if you break a clutch cable on a Harley you can repair it with the speedometer cable from a Ford. You can't do that with a Honda.
A Honda is a motorcycle.
Sonny and I first met on July 3rd, 1979.
I was on the air at KZOK FM in Seattle, and I answered the request line that afternoon:
“Hang on a second, bro. The cops are here," said the voice on the telephone.
I held on.
Then, a gravelly voice full of whisky came back on the line and asked:
“Can you play Gimme Shelter and Magic Bus? We wanna get the party started. Turn up some tunes!”
Now, this was debauchery at a level that mirrored my own. I always invited the cops to my parties. They were gonna show up anyway.
“Who is this?” I asked.
“My name's Funny Sonny. I used to be in the Hell’s Angels. Hey, what're you doing for the fourth of July?”
As it happened, I was hosting a party at my home on Alki Beach in West Seattle and took the opportunity to invite Sonny to stop by for a formal introduction.
In those days, it was expected and altogether acceptable to start celebrating on the third of July, and to wind down the party sometime around the fifth or sixth. Yep, that was normal. We even had an on-air promotion to support our party habits. The KZOK Party Patrol would go to people’s houses and bring records, t-shirts, and stickers. We went to some pretty suspect places.
On July 5th, Funny Sonny and a colorful assortment of bikers with names like Pork Chop, Mississippi Charlie, Crazy Richard, Freaky Fred, Bear, and Doc – together with their old ladies and an appropriate number of choppers - lined up in front of my beach house for the party. Lost weekends were regularly scheduled features at my house in those days. So, as expected, my fourth of July party was still in progress.
Sonny, obviously disappointed at our meeting, was expecting the 6’5” voice he'd heard on the radio, not the reality of my 5’6” self. Still, ours was a bond that transcended the physical dimension.
With one look into each other’s eyes, we knew we were brothers.
I once asked Mississippi Charlie why Richard was referred to as “Crazy Richard.”
“Because of the way he killed that guy,” Charlie answered matter-of-factly.
His answer echoed in my head like a bad movie soundtrack.
I let the subject drop. I never picked it up again.
But I did torture my imagination with scenarios that would do justice to what guys named Mississippi Charlie, Pork Chop and Freaky Fred would call “crazy.”
I mean, is there a code of conduct to which I am not privy? I always guessed that once you’d made the choice to go ahead and kill a guy that rules were kinda out the window.
Besides, Richard was a calm guy compared to the other bikers I had come to know during my association with Funny Sonny. True, Richard carried a leather-wrapped cane made of a ¾ inch steel pipe with a piece of rebar pounded through its center, but he'd had trouble walking since he'd put his bike down a few years earlier. I'd never seen Richard's cane as anything other than a highly durable walking aid.
I never looked at that cane, or at Richard, the same way after that.
The year following our first meeting, I agreed to host one of Sonny’s weddings – his eighth - at my house on the beach. As mentioned, Sonny was a meticulous wedding planner. The food, the booze, the ceremonies - all were planned and laid out with careful attention to every detail. Traditionally, photos taken at weddings focus on the bride, and while there were plenty of those, there were also a slew of photographs of the food table (from different angles), the booze table (from many different angles), and of the chopped Harley-Davidson motorcycles that intimidated passersby (from every imaginable angle).
The night before the wedding, we threw a bachelor party for Sonny. There was a little bar about three miles down the beach from my house where we had all agreed to meet. A group of five or six of us arrived first. Bikers were not always welcome at bars, so we wanted to get a feel for the bar’s atmosphere before committing fully to the venue.
Crazy Richard, Pork Chop, Sonny and myself were the first to arrive. There was a nice buzz about the place and some friendly faces. But, there was one table occupied by what looked like some red shirts from the Varsity Defense Squad at the local university. That was fine by me – except that they'd had a head start on consumption by the time we arrived. To prove themselves, they dropped stupid comments and made their opinions known:
“Biker ... this” and “Biker ... that,” and “I could do (this and that) to a biker.”
All that machismo crap.
We were just ignoring it, not wanting trouble, and taking turns playing video games until the rest of our party arrived.
Finally, Crazy Richard had heard enough.
A backhanded fist sent a nose tackle from Minnesota ass-over-teakettle. Three of his comrades stood up to defend him. Richard picked up a table, lifted it up over his head, pulled it down hard against his skull and split the table in half in one fell swoop. The red shirts looked at all 5’10” of Richard, then at the bigger guys - Pork Chop and Sonny. Apologizing to my friends, the red shirts carried their injured player off the field.
In turn, my friends and I apologized profusely to the bartender for the mess we’d caused, and offered to buy him a new table. The bartender just smiled and said:
“Happens all the time! Not a problem!”
This WAS our kind of venue.
By closing time, there were no fewer than forty bikes lining the curb outside the bar. At the exact moment Sonny exited the bar, a tractor pulling a giant trailer covered with hay and piled to capacity with Christian youth was passing by at a respectable three miles an hour. It was a good, old-fashioned Christian youth hayride. Sonny stood in front of the tractor with big alligator tears rolling down his face, pleading with the driver to let him on the trailer. Sonny had never been on an honest-to-God hayride.
The driver, looking at forty bikers cheering Sonny on, immediately agreed. Since Sonny's bike had never been on a hayride either, both Sonny and his bike were lifted onto the back of the trailer and transported three miles down the beach to my place. The next morning, Sonny tried to solve two puzzles. First, he wondered - how did all that hay get onto his motorcycle? And second - how did we manage to get his motorcycle into my living room? (I myself wondered how we would get the motorcycle OUT of my living room.)
That evening, Sonny married wife number 8. I had to work the graveyard shift, so I could not stay for all of the festivities. By the time I got home, I found people sleeping in every room of the house. In my own bed, I found my girlfriend and an uncharacteristically non-threatening fellow called Hobbit.
One time, just for the sheer joy of it, I brought Funny Sonny, wife number 8, and Freaky Fred to a party in an exclusive neighborhood on Mercer Island near Seattle. The party was thrown by high-ranking members of the advertising community. It wasn’t too long before Sonny started taking off his clothes, revealing the flaming Harley Davidson tattoo that covered his back. Freaky Fred, who was not house broken, pulled off his pants, and then tore off the bar’s counter top. We were asked to leave early in the evening. The allied media in attendance talked about that night for years afterward.
At Sonny's next wedding – the ninth - I was the ring-bearer. Dressed in a floor length leather coat, I rode a child's tricycle up to the bride and groom. Then I fell over and handed the ring to the groom in the style made popular by Henry Gibson on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. Thirty Harleys lined the area around the swimming pool. When Sonny and Carole were pronounced man and wife, the bikes were started in unison and revved up to a thunderous salute - to announce the good news to their god Bacchus.
In the end, a friendship is measured by the hard times, not by the parties.
I was diagnosed with a rather nasty brain tumor which required three surgeries, two of which took place at the Mayo Clinic. After the first surgery, Sonny came by the hospital every day to stand up for me. He didn't stay long, certainly not as long as others did - to the point of discomfort - but he was there every day to make sure that I was making progress. Then, when I went to the Mayo Clinic for my second and third surgeries, Sonny called every day to check up on me. The phone calls weren't long enough to be awkward, just long enough for him to get an update on my progress. He wanted to make sure I knew that he cared.
After the final surgery, Sonny came to me in confidence. He invited me to a surprise party that he was throwing for wife number 9 - Carole. In typical Sonny fashion, all the particulars had been planned in advance, with considerable attention to detail. He told me he would pick me up at 2:30pm and that he would be driving the “cage” – which is biker vernacular for a car. The party would start at 3:00pm at the Glynns Cove Tavern.
As we arrived, we approached from a side street, and the first thing I saw was a set of barbecues that Sonny had built out of fifty-five gallon steel drums. He’d sawed them in half, then welded piano hinges along one edge. There was a substantial grill inside and iron legs for support. There were three of them in all, laid out end to end, filled with whole chickens dripping with sweetness.
I entered the rear doors with Sonny to find that all of the tables in the room had been pushed together, draped, and covered with food. I saw thirty or more bikers I knew and all of their old ladies, and when we walked in, the place erupted with cheers and applause.
Sonny, whose speechifying was legendary, handed me a case of beer and said:
“This party is to celebrate a life! That's why this party is for you, Joe Coburn!”
Cheers and bear hugs followed.
I still cry over this particular memory.
By 4:30pm, I needed to take a nap before I went to work, since I was still weak from surgery. Sonny gave me a ride home and dropped me off. I only lived a block away from KOMO radio where I worked in 1981, so when I woke up – five minutes before I was scheduled to be on the air - I dashed out the door, crossed the street into the building that housed the station, grabbed my first newscast from the counter, ran into the studio, opened the microphone, hit the sounder that introduced the news and began reading the top headline:
“A shoot out between rival biker gangs has left two injured. The Glynns Cove Tavern on Seattle's Capitol Hill was the scene of a drive-by style shooting today as…”
I have no idea what the rest of the newscast sounded like. I was on complete automatic pilot. I played a record, and immediately dialed Sonny’s phone number.
Carole answered and told me that Sonny was at a safe house with his Winchester. One of the other guys, Doc, had gotten shot, but he was okay and back at home.
When I finally got a hold of Sonny, he told me what had happened: A couple of guys had showed up to the party. They were wearing colors - motorcycle jackets bearing a club patch on the back. Sonny and Pork Chop greeted the strangers, welcomed them to join the party, and then – in accordance with proper biker etiquette – asked them to remove their “cuts.”
(A cut was a leather vest or an old Levi's jacket, the sleeves of which had been cut off. Often, club patches and badges – or “colors” - were displayed on the cut. These were not unlike military service ribbons, since they often represented something significant and personal to the biker. Sonny had a son of whom he rarely spoke except to say: “This was Scooter's.” That's what he said to me when he gave me Scooter's cut – the one he had worn when he was a baby – as a gift for my first-born son, Rocky.)
The two strangers refused the compromise, and Sonny and Pork Chop were forced to show the two men the sidewalk. A few minutes later, Doc came running. He screamed: “GUNS! EVERYBODY DOWN!” Then, one of the two strangers shot Doc in the back with a .22 rifle. The cops caught the two strangers in their car and threw them in jail - where they would remain for some time to come.
Doc was fine. He was out of methadone anyway, so he welcomed the painkillers he had been given at the emergency room.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
There were the people with whom I’d worked every day who didn't call me once while I was in and out of surgery. There was my family who, apart from my mother, never bothered to welcome me back when I got out of the hospital. There were all of my friends whom, despite the many years we spent together, never said a word to me during that whole frightening episode in my life.
Then, there were thirty bikers and their old ladies who embraced me and took care of me, and made sure I felt loved when I was most in need. And there was Sonny who called or came by every day, and who threw a party celebrating my life. Sonny, for whom I would willingly kill or die to protect, who would willingly kill or die to protect me.
Finally, there was my wife - who asked me to stop seeing Sonny.
I admit that Sonny could be a scary guy. Especially to a Malibu doctor’s daughter from Reed College. Sonny was 6’4” tall, and had curly red hair that went down to his waist. He was covered in tattoos, drank a fifth of vodka every day, and was proud of the fact that his jeans were so filthy, that they could stand up by themselves in the corner of the room.
My wife worried that Sonny would show up with the other bikers, and hang out with us at the house. (He never did – but I suppose he could have.) It was 1986. My wife and I had just had a baby. I agreed with her. The family should come first.
I called Sonny. We cried. We were both crushed.
Sonny refused to see me for the next twenty-four years. I don't blame him one bit.
I just read that Sonny died in July of 2010. I didn't get to say goodbye.
Even in death, Sonny is teaching me what's really important, what makes the best in people, and who to trust. I hope that when I die, I will meet up with Sonny once more. We’ll climb on the back of his cream-colored Harley, and just ride.
Image Credit: Public Domain
Image Description: The really interesting thing about this photo is what it represents. Sonny's left index finger was injured so it always stuck straight out like that, but you can see that his "cut" clearly says Hell's Angels and has the Death's Head logo.
The fellow driving, whose name I've forgotten, is an Outlaw. The Outlaws and the Angels were at war when this picture was shot. Hundreds had died on both sides in a turf war that had spread across the US and Canada.
That's why Sonny looks the way he does. Sonny's saying: "Look at me. Does this shit beat all? I'm riding on a putt with an Outlaw!"
Red and White forever.