The Bikeriders: Is Sonny Inspired by a Real Biker? Is Dead Devils California an Actual Motorcycle Club?

In Jeff Nichols’ ‘The Bikeriders,‘ the Vandals‘ picnic is interrupted by the arrival of a newcomer named Sonny, a biker donning the colors of the Dead Devils California Club on his jacket. Sporting a wild look, the man seeks out Johnny, the president of the Vandals, trying to avail the hospitality of the group after arriving from California to join them. Sonny’s eccentric appearance catches everyone’s eye as he becomes a regular part of the crew, adding a rogue element to the already intriguing group of individuals in the biker gang. Sonny and his association with the Dead Devils have significant connections to reality, like most of the bikers in the narrative, who are based on real-life figures!

Sonny: The Outsider Who Found Home in Chicago

Sonny, also known as Funny Sonny in ‘The Bikeriders,’ is based on a real biker who joined the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Chicago. Jeff Nichols’ film is based on a 1968 photo book by Danny Lyon, in which the author details how Sonny had a wild, untamed nature and took his bike-riding venture very seriously. He joined the Outlaws after being introduced to them by a man named James the Third, hearing that they were organizing a picnic. He showed up at the picnic ready to avail himself of the hospitality of the biker group and to pay his dues to Johnny when necessary.

“And I heard about this picnic, they were gonna have a picnic here last year. I was invited to go as a guest. So I went down there on my bike and I rode in there — this was out at Starved Rock, they had their picnic out at Starved Rock. And we went out there and it was groovy, it really was. I tell you, it was a kids’ picnic; it started out to be a kids’ picnic, you see, and I didn’t know it was strictly a kids’ picnic. They just said it was an Outlaw picnic,” Sonny told Danny, as per the latter’s photo book. “So I had some money in my pocket, so I went up and offered Johnny five dollars. Cause I was a guest there, but I gave Johnny five bucks for any kind of food I would be eatin’ there or any booze I’d be drinking. Because I was not really an Outlaw,” he added.

Sonny was inspired to join the Outlaws after he encountered a rider from the group during one of his drunken stupors. Inebriated, he saw the man lift off from a hill, not realizing it was a cliff until it was too late. “So he’s comin’ up the hill, and he’s goin’ good, he’s lookin’ good, he’s comin’ up like crazy… but he doesn’t realize something,” he told Danny. “His bike is headed in the wrong direction, he’s headed for a cliff. And he jumps on and gives the gas and over the cliff he goes, messed his whole bike, and he’s gone. He never came back,” the biker added.

Sonny had a reputation for pushing the boundaries during his stay with the Outlaws. In one of Danny Lyon’s photographs, ‘Corky and Funny Sonny, Chicago, USA, 1965,’ Sonny kisses another Outlaw, Corky, almost as a dare in front of the photographer. Lyon told A Rabbit’s Foot, “They were just goofing around, showing off to me, a photographer.” The biker also made money from a stint for the 1969 movie, ‘Easy Rider,’ for which he was hired to sit outside the theater on his bike as a means of promoting the film’s rebellious biker aesthetic.

The Real-Life Counterpart of Dead Devils California

According to ‘The Bikeriders,’ Sonny joins the Vandals after a stint with the California-based biker gang Dead Devils California, whose emblem he adorns on his jacket during the picnic scene. In reality, Funny Sonny was a member of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) before he attached himself to the Outlaws. He had emblems of the Angels alongside the Outlaws put on in his house in Wheaton. “So my house that I had out in Wheaton, I just turned it into a party house. I had murals on the wall, I had the Outlaws’ emblem on the wall, the Angels’ emblem on the wall, my Disciples’ emblem painted on the wall,” he told Danny.

Hells Angels is a motorcycle club founded in 1948 in Fontana, California. The club expanded its operations and broadened its influence by opening chapters in other cities during the 50s before eventually going international by having members in New Zealand. The gang is recognized as one of many outlaw motorcycle groups by the higher authorities, which also includes the Outlaws, Sonny’s second club. Today, HAMC is classified as a criminal organization by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. The group is the largest outlaw motorcycle club in the world, with 6,000 members registered in 467 charters in 59 countries.

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