"I just don't know what it is." I think we probably stand for what the majority of people would like to be. But they just, you know -- maybe not what they would like to be, but maybe they have a vision of at least once, they'd like to just get on a motorcycle and roar down the street and somebody would sneer at them and they'd punch them in the nose."

Sonny, you are 41 years old. You cannot go around punching people's lights out just because they gouged the finish on your Harley.

"You can if they laugh about it after they do it."

Why?

"Why?"

The voice is increduious.

That's my motorcycle."

Aging, mustached, big-shouldered, quiet, they rose one by one in the San Francisco Federal courtroom to present themselves.

Ralph Hubert Barger Jr., AKA "Sonny," certified American outlaw, enduring god of biker mythology, the face wide and weathered by prison and the wind.

Albert Lee Perryman, AKA "Big Al," bearded, ponytailed, a tattoo up both massive arms, ponderous belly sagging over his blue jeans.

John Thomas Palomer, AKA "Johnny Angel," AKA "Johnny A," shiny black hair tangled loose down his broad back. Richard Glenn Motley, AKA "Rick the Bat," balding and scrubbed and stocky inside his blue patterned shirt. The illuminated ceiling arched high over their heads and from across the room the jurors watched them stand and sit, stand and sit, stand and sit.

Sam Conti, the presideing U.S. District Court Judge, ordered a photograph made of the defendants' seating area.

Sonny Barger hid his head behind a binder.

"Take that down," Conti said.

Barger took it down and turned his head away.

"Face forward," Conti said.

"I don't want my picture taken," Barger said, voice low.

The camera flashed.

"Well you've just gotten your picture taken," Conti said.

"Great," Barger said. "Take it home with you."

And that was how the curtain rose on The United States of America v. Ralph Hubert Barger Jr. et al in the single biggest effort in federal history to put away leaders of the world's most famous motorcycle club. "Motorcycle club" is the government's term, as well as the Angels'; it appears numerous times, with its odd Sunday outing jolliness, in the federal grand jury indictment that charges 32 Hell's Angels members and associates with felonies collectively and individually that go on for 45 neatly typewritten pages.

Among the accusations against various of the 32 are charges of manufacturing and distribution methamphetamine; of conspiring to kill, assault, use false identification, intimidate, wiretap, bribe, and in general using "any means necessary to ensure the conspiracy's continuing existence and success."

They are accused, based on crimes and alleged crimes that go back as far as 1971, of violating a federal statute called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was adopted nine years ago to give prosecutors what was supposed to be a new tool for dismantling organized crime. Ralph Hubert Barger is described as having "told witnesses that he has murdered at least eight to 10 people" and Sergey "Sir Gay" Walton is described as having "recently told another individual, "The Feds can have the other 49 states -- California is mine.'"

They are accused, in short, of having matured from exuberant, unwashed brawlers to great big grown-up hoods. Comes the Revolution

"This is in essence taking his whole life, everything that he's ever done," says Frank Mangan, the slight blond San Jose attorney who is defending Sonny Barger, "and everything bad 31 people have ever done, and throwing it all out in front of a jury. If they don't get him on this case, maybe they'll leave him alone."

There are 18 defendants (not every one named in the indictment has been located), 18 defense attorneys, four federal prosecutors, 12 jurors, four alternate jurors, and a bulletproof, plexiglass enclosed courtroom -- specially remodeled at a cost of $15,000 -- to hold them all. There are three tires of crowded desks for the defendants and their attorneys. Nameplates label the defendants, like guests at a dinner party. MUSICK. STAFANSON. SOLANO. BARGER. There are looseleaf black binders containing the defendants' photographs and blank papers for notes, so the jurors can keep things straight. And in the spectator area behind the plexiglass, elbow to elbow with the wives and girl friends and curious passers-by, shaggy bearded men with tattooed arms and sleeveless death's head vests sit grim, muttering, watching.

"I can tell you why they want to get rid of the Hell's Angels, what I think," Barger says.

He is smoking a cigarette, and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit with green rubber thongs. It is early evening in the San Francisco county jail, where Sonny Barger is being held on $1 million bail.

"First of all we're a virtual army. We're all across the country, and now we're in foreign countries also. And they have no idea how many of us there are . . . We have money, many allies that are outlaw bikers that are not Hell's Angels, that would probably do anything we asked them to, if something happened."

Something like what?

"Well, maybe like a revolution. Or anything like that. They know we're basically the most probably well-armed people in the United States. We've never took a political stance on anything other than that one time against the V.D.C. (The Vietnam Day Committee, whose 1965 antiwar parade was broken up by Hell's Angels in Oakland), and at that time I thought we were right, but I've done 180 degress on that since . . . and I think that scares the authorities. This untold number of people that really have no fear of dying for what they believe in. And they're armed. And they won't commit themselves to one side or the other. And I think that's were it lies." Hype & Harassment

It has become, of course, The Hell's Angels Case -- despite prosecutors' insistence that they are not out to "get" the Hell's Angels or destroy the club. There are three banks of elevators in the San Francisco federal building, and the only one with its own guards and metal detector is the bank that hits Judge Conti's courtroom on the 19th floor. Defense attorneys keep speaking of freedom of association, of anti-Angel media hype, of police harassment (six months before the indictment, one of the current defense attorneys filed a $3-million damage suit against northern California police and prosecutors, charging "official harassment and intimidation" of Hells Angels). And at the same time there are law enforcement people who will tell you, with some resignation, that nothing -- including mass jailings -- could make these boys clean up their act. "The nicest thing I ever heard anybody say about the Hell's Angles was said to me by the police chief in Cloverdale," says the district attorney in a northern California town where three corpses were found stuffed into a ranch well of a former Angel seven years ago. "He said, 'If you find the Angels at the south end of town, and you give them a police escort to the north end of town they won't kill anybody on the way." Angels are Different

They were bad, at first, the way the Rolling Stones were bad, in those early days of gut-thimping antithesis to the Beatles: smirking, slouching, Simian, but they don't wash their har , mesmerizing in their sheer nastiness. Hell's Angels: Death and Satan. Leather armored brass-knuckle oleo-hair gutter-voice beer-bellied bust-em-up outlaws, roaring downwind with the great wild noise that adulthood was supposed to shake out of you. It was at least symbolically apropos that they begin in the West, latching onto that terror of confinement that has become, in America, an essentially Western myth: no station wagon, home-to-job packaging for these boys. Even now, slapped with an indictment that includes, among its counts, conspiracy to murder and deal in explosives, attorney Mangan summons up the old Marlon Brando image of your passionate nonconformist, raging at routine: "They are not normal citizens," he says. "They have a lot of things in common and they don't like 8-to-5 jobs and they don't like wearing suits and they don't like what I guesss is your average lifestyle."

They formed their motorcycle club in Southern California sometime around 1950, according to what histories exist.It is said that the original group was a collection of ex-World War II bomber pilots, but that is hard to prove: the only certainty by now is that they managed, over the next 20 years, to usher the Harley Davidson into the ranks of rolling national legends. Americans build dreams by instinct around certain sets of wheels, and if Jazz Age boys glided along in a Pierce-Arrow with its discreet upholstery bared to the breeze, the flip side was the biker with the Harley and the beer and the dark leather death's head jacket, menacing. Sonny Barger once told an interviewer that he had been hired by movie people to read motorcycle scripts for accuracy.

They rambled in packs through the western states. You could scan California newspapers for the first few years of the 1960s and find Angels stomping around the headlines almost every month. August 1962: "Guns roared and bottles flew in Niles Canyonearly yesterday, with three Livermore carpenters pitted against about 50 members of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club." September 1964: "A massed array of police on the Monterey Peninusla -- armed for a riot -- ordered 200 "Hell's Angels" motorcyclists out of Monterey County yesterday." November 1964: A 36-year-old widow and mother of seven children said yesterday she had received two telephone calls threatening her life if she signed complaints against '15 or 20' Hell's Angels who allegedly raped her early Saturday."

They wore swastikas and boots and spat fashionably on authority in general, a sort of Nazi-bedecked counterpoint to the summer of love. ("Call it contempt or call it hate," one Angels was quoted as announcing to a local paper, "it's the same thing. I'm not buying what's going on in the public eye, at Altamont, that metaphor for everything gone sour, with Jagger up there prancing "Sympathy for the Devil" into is giddy fascist madness while an 18-year-old black kid named Meredith Hunger got kicked, stomped, and stabbed to death in the center of a small group of irritated Hell's Angels. One Angel was later tried for the murder, but he acquited; the evidence showed Hunter had drawn a gun, and the Angels, after all, had been hired as bodyguards. Swiss Bank Accounts

Robert Dondero, assistant U.S. Attorney: in his opening statement to the jury: "The club changed from a bicycle club, a motorcycle club, at least so far as these defendants are concerned . . . sometime during the period of the early '70s, these varisous defendants began to realize the importance, the Security factor, the ease of engaging in the manufacture, the distribution of methamphetamine . . ."

It is the position of the United States government that various members of the Hell's Angels, action together and using the Angels' name and resources, turned in the last 10 years to drug production and distribution that was efficient, thorough, and, when necessary, violent. These Angels laundered their drug money, the government says, through Bay Area catering businesses (the kind that bring food to factories).

Their financial holdings are so extensive, prosecutors declared in a memo requesting high bail for the defendants, that "enoromous resourses from over 40 known chapters all over the world will be available to the defendants for bond. Additonally, evidence has been gathered that at least the Oakland chapter (12 of the defendants are currently members of the Oakland chapter) maintains bank accounts in Switzerland and that a member from a chapter in England couriers the money from California to Switzerland."

The anatomy of that alleged transformationis in part the stuff of this trial: It is expected to last four months, and among the government's witnesses will be 15 or 20 persons described by prosecutors and "insiders." Their names are being withheld, according to the high bail memo, "due to the Hell's Angels prior record of killing and intimidating witnesses."

Sonny Barger: Are you a thug?

"A thug?" Barger looks thoughtful: "Probably a hoodlum. I don't know about a thug."

He leans forward, arms on the visiting room table: "See, the one thing that the police and everybody fail to say, when they charge us with these so-called, uh, what do we call it, heinous crimes against society . . . they refuse to admit that there is more than one society here. You know? There's the lower class element. I guess you would call it, or the criminial society or the people on what you would call the normal society.

"And the majority of people that have been hurt by Hell's Angels, you know -- the majority of people involved in any crime that was against them by a Hell's Angel -- has been somebody in the same element that we're in.

"What I'm saying," Barger says, "is we don't go out and attack society. The only citizens that ever get hurt by us come to us looking for trouble."

Ralph Hubert Barger: born 1938, Modesto, Calif., the son of a railroad worker, raised by his father and grandmother, quit school after the ninth grade, joined the Army in 1955, completed basic training and advanced infantry traiing, discharged hornorably after 13 months. Convicted at various times of narcotices possession, assault with a deadly weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon; in 1973, sent to Folson Prison, where he served 3 1/2 years for possession of herion for sale.

The date of his admission to the Hell's Angels -- April, 1957 -- is tattooed on his right shoulder.

"They just start building things, and building things," he says.

"They tried to paint us as rowdies, you know, we're sort of against society, or whatever, just drink beer and rough guys that didn't get along with anybody. And when that didn't work, it changed to marijuana-smoking, crazed, you know. And when that didn't work then it became drug dealing . . . They need somthing to go after that's visible. And we're a highly visible group." Tattoos & Tombstones

Barger is relaxed, conversational: He has a thick brown mustache, sturdy fingers, lines across his forehead, weightlifter's build. When he talks he tugs softly at his mustache, or laces his fingers across his chest.

His right arm is tattooed with a cross-shaped tombstone marked BARGER -- in memory of his first wife, who died at 24, he has said, from a botched abortion. The left arm's tattoo is a snake around a dagger, deep green."That's my army tattoo, U.S. Infantry," he says. "Dishonor before death." "

What did he think he would be like at 40?

"I never thought I'd live to 40," Barger says. "To me, when I was 20 years old, 40 years old was just an age that, you know, when you got that old you should have been dead."

He had never met a happy 40-year-old?

"Not many," Barger says. "Those I knew that were 40 were all sitting home, coming home from work, eating dinner, and going to bed."

And what precisely makes that so awful?

"Because you didn't have a chance to have any fun."

No fun at all?

"Not the kind of fun I'm talking about. A lack of responsibility.That you can pick up and go, any time you want to go . . .Like if you come home at night and your friend says, 'Well, hell, I'm gonna ride down to L.A. at night,' you want to go, and you just say, 'I can't, I got a wife and two kids I got to support, and I got the house payment I got to make, and blah blah' -- over, 'Okay, let's go!'"

It is suggested that if everybody ran around punching out everybody else, and declining socially defined adulthood, things might fall apart in a fairly major way.

"So what?" Barger says.

"I don't think the Hell's Angels ever envisioned the rest of society behaving the way they do," says Mangan from the other side of the table.

"The authorities in society are the biggest liars," Barger says. "The police department beats people up and kill people all the time, everybody's doing all kinds of things like this at all times, and even though we're a very very very dinky part of the whole, our percentage per amount of people, we probably are involved inless of that than society on the whole. Percentage-wise. They can say what they want to say, but as far as the beaters-up of the poor innocent citizen, the killing of the poor innocent citizen, such as that, the authorities got a way bigger part in it than we do. They're probably the ones that taught us how to be."

Barger stands, at the photographer's request, and leans back against the pale prison wall, arms folded across his chest. "Isn't this defiance or something?" he asks dubiously, and then smiles. Just kidding."

He glances down at his arms.

"This is my favorite way to stand, although my karate instructor really gets mad at me . . . if anybody was going to attack, they would go like that" -- he lunges forward with one hand -- "and block both of your hands."

"Similar to not sitting in a restaurant with your back to the door," says Mangan.

"I think," Barter says slowly, in his low, almost gravelly voice, "that this is probably the most important case that's ever come down in the history of the United States. Because it's a mass criminal trial. And they're not trying anybody for what they did perse. They're trying everybody for what everybody done, even tough the majaority of us have already been to prison for what we done.

"And if that's what's happening, if that's the way they're going to do it from now on, we might as well go to prison," Barger says. "We could have more fun in prison than we can on the streets, if this is what's happening.