Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 1)

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So I took a couple of days off to reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and I lost all my momentum. It’s like Dr. Thompson said to Charles Perry:

I just don’t know what happened, I lost the momentum, it was just like a train on greased rails, I’ve been taking speed to get the momentum back, I haven’t slept in three days, I haven’t changed my clothes, I think my feet are rotting.

Well, it’s sort of like that, except without the speed. I never got into that stuff, thank Jeebus. But I did try to emulate Dr. Thompson in other ways, which was a mistake a lot of us made after reading Fear and Loathing. If ever there were a book that should be emblazoned with the words “Don’t try this at home,” this is it. (Or maybe The 120 Days of Sodom; but you take my point.)

I don’t blame the Doctor for making us want to take drugs, abuse rental cars, and skip out on hotel bills. He never encouraged us to try this stuff, although he did make it seem like so much goddamn fun that it was hard to resist. Every Thompson fan, I’m sure, has a story about some crazy thing they never would have done if they weren’t under the influence of Fear and Loathing.

On the one hand, if he encouraged us to Question Authority a little, so much the better. On the other hand, it was hard to know where to stop. This was true for the Doctor himself as well; when Fear and Loathing became a huge hit, he became a celebrity, but his public image was that of Raoul Duke, his character in the book. And Duke of course was Thompson, but a grotesque and exaggerated version created for literary purposes. People loved this character, this “monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger” who did whatever he wanted and got away with it. And so Dr. Thompson seemed to feel compelled to play this character, at least in public, for the rest of his life.

His friends say that in private he was very different, a gentle and thoughtful man, and I believe it — just like all the wildest comedians turn out to be quiet depressives in real life. You can see a little of this split in the recently released documentary Breakfast with Hunter, for instance in a scene where Thompson is on his way to visit Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone. Off-camera, Thompson has secured a bouquet of flowers for Wenner, of whom he was apparently quite fond. But once the camera is rolling, he exchanges the flowers for a fire extinguisher and blasts Wenner, who tries to be a good sport but is clearly annoyed.

Over time the public Hunter Thompson became a caricature of himself, drunk and mumbling rather than wired and fierce. In Breakfast with Hunter you’d hardly ever know what he’s saying if the filmmaker hadn’t courteously provided subtitles, and he is never seen without a glass of whiskey in his hand. It makes for an interesting comparison with some footage taken over 30 years ago that appears on the bonus disc of the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas movie. In the older film, the Doctor drawls but is comprehensible and articulate — though the whiskey again is omnipresent.

This kind of thing, combined with the Doctor’s suicide, provide ample fodder for those who wish to see his life as a tragedy — The Genius Who Pissed Away His Talent on Booze and Dope. And you can certainly make a case for this viewpoint; for a very well-reasoned and well-written treatment, read this story on popmatters.com. But the truth, I think, is more complicated.

For one thing, however you want to look at it, Hunter Thompson produced more and better work in his life than the rest of us ever will. Sure, his early stuff was better, but isn’t that true of just about every artist — and especially every rock star, which is what Hunter really was? He certainly had enough fun for ten lifetimes. And we have no proof that he killed himself in a moment of alcoholic despair; you can just as well argue that he carefully reasoned out that it was time to go. 67 years is a long time for a guy who never expected to make it to 30.

In Breakfast with Hunter there’s a scene where he pulls out a polaroid of himself sitting alone in a hotel room, and he looks like the saddest and loneliest man on Earth. On the other hand, we also see him working with a couple of editors on a rewrite of The Rum Diary, and he is completely alert and focused, despite taking frequent breaks to pull on his hash pipe.

So I think it’s misguided to view Dr. Thompson as either tragic or heroic. He was a complex human being with a light and a dark side, just like everybody.

But at the same time, there’s no doubt he would have been more productive — and probably happier — had he gotten off the stuff. Apparently he thought about it; in Rolling Stone‘s HST memorial issue, Timothy Ferris says,

Hunter occasionally talked to me about stopping drinking. He said that he had thought about joining AA but that you had to admit that you had done something wrong to join AA and he didn’t feel that he had ever done anything wrong.

Loose talk for someone who claimed to understand karma; but it was his life, his karma, his problem. The ones who really suffered were those who tried to imitate the Doctor’s lifestyle and were not blessed with “the constitution of a hammerhead shark.” They were the ones who risked damaging themselves beyond repair.

Again, I don’t feel that Hunter deserves censure for what people did in imitation of him, any more than Al Pacino is responsible for all the idiots who run around thinking they’re Tony Montana, or it’s Lou Reed’s fault if somebody heard “Heroin” and decided to try it. Caveat emptor, for sure. But he himself seemed to feel a sense of responsibility toward his fans. There’s another scene in Breakfast with Hunter where he frets openly about the effect the Fear and Loathing movie is going to have on the public:

Laila Nabulsi: It’s just a movie.

HST: Tell that to the mother of some kid who’s stabbed in the back by some dope fiend out of Vegas, and blames it on this book.

And there’s an especially telling moment earlier in the film, where an earnest young man comes up to him at a bookstore signing, gushing about what a big fan he is and how much he loves Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter’s response is uncharacteristically sober: “Be careful about trying this stuff.”

That’s probably what they should put on the Doctor’s tombstone, if there’s going to be one: “Be careful about trying this stuff.” If Nancy Reagan had half a brain, that would have been her slogan, instead of “Just Say No.” For the curious, the adventurous, and the easily bored, “Just Say No” never cut it; better advice would be “Be careful,” “Call if you need help,” and it never hurts to throw in “I love you.” But that’s another discussion for another time.

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