Talking to John Hall
Now living in central Pennsylvania, former Pagan Chief John Hall has spent the last decade honing his memories into a vivid account of life inside what the FBI once called "the most violent criminal organization in America." PW spoke with Hall last week about his new book Riding on the Edge: A Motorcycle Outlaw's Tale.
What motivated you to write Riding on the Edge?
"A while back I was talking to a friend who'd been at the Reading Eagle. I suggested to him, it was around Memorial Day of 1997, that it was the 30th anniversary of the Pagans' first run through Reading as a pack. He told me they'd been trying to keep the Pagans out of the papers but that we hadn't heard about them for a while. So I wrote an 800-word piece about it that night. Soon I got a letter from somebody who remembered it all and loved reliving it. Well, here I was, an outlaw who just happened to have the skills to put it all together."
If I were in your shoes, I'd be worried that some bad people would think I was a rat.
"Most of the people I wrote about are dead, and I'm not ratting anybody out. Besides, you don't get to be chapter president of a motorcycle gang by being afraid of anybody."
Is it unusual for a former motorcycle-gang chapter president to be able to write?
"I went to jail in 1969 and while I was in there they asked me if I wanted to go to college. So I went to Penn State and earned degrees in French and German comparative literature, a master's and almost got a PhD in history. While I was in grad school, I found out that I was a functional illiterate. You can't bullshit your way to a degree or, later, to an English-instructor's job. But yeah, I'm as amazed as anybody else at what I've been able to pull off."
In the excerpt we're using, you reference swastikas and use other ethnic slurs. Were the Pagans white supremacists? Are you?
"No. Make that a resounding no. Near the end of the book, you'll see how the Pagans actually teamed up with black inmates in prison to take on the white supremacists that the warden had been worried about. I think the question becomes irrelevant after reading about that. Plus, in 1968, the Reading club allowed a black/Puerto Rican member to join, and this was a time where a black or a Puerto Rican couldn't get into a country club. Look at the posters for Roger Korman's Wild Angels; he dotted the "i" in "Wild" with a swastika. I'm not really sure about the root of why the gangs used those symbols, but I think it was more of a shock thing."
Have you ever seen what you consider to be an accurate portrayal of the motorcycle gang life?
"No. In 1966, '67, '68, we'd go to the movies and I remember seeing Jack Nicholson [advertised in Easy Rider]. Everybody was all excited, but I walked away saying, 'That wasn't real.' It was on the West Coast, not in Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania was not a sunshine state. I mean, look around today: You have college kids running around in raccoon coats these days. It's like we're the last cowboys on the ranch. I'm amazed by how much the times have changed. You can't even go out and wreck a bar anymore!"
"Society is much more complex. There's more law enforcement. The way it used to be, you'd go to wedding or a bar, and two men would get in argument, go outside in the parking lot and settle it. If you knock your opponent down, you let him stand up, and if he can't stand up, he's had enough. Guys would be punching each other in the face for 10, 15 minutes and that would be that. But nowadays the police would be pulling up with the whole SWAT team. I guess I still have that old Western cowboy, or steel mill-town mentality. Or maybe I'm just being nostalgic."
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