Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 4)

Posted in R.I.P., HST on September 17th, 2005 by bill
smhst4.jpg "I'd like to do a book on people who play polo and give me a lot of free booze. I got tired of living in that Hell's Angels world...and fooling around in a lot of crummy bars." —HST, 1968 The Gonzo era began in earnest with an article called "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," which Dr. Thompson wrote for Scanlan's Monthly in 1970. If you've never read it, I encourage you to do so right now; it's a funny and quick read, only about 14 pages. Here's a link if you need one (you're probably going to want to print it out; or better yet, just get a copy of The Great Shark Hunt). In the years since his sojourn in the Haight-Ashbury, the Doctor had talked football with Richard Nixon, then almost accidentally blown up Nixon's plane while lighting a cigarette; been beaten and thrown through a plate glass window by Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic convention; and masterminded the "Freak Power" campaign of Joe Edwards, who came within a few votes of becoming mayor of Aspen, where Thompson had settled after leaving California. Encouraged by Edwards' showing, Thompson decided to run for sheriff of Aspen on a Freak Power ticket. Here are some excerpts from his platform: 1) Sod all the streets at once. Rip up all city streets with jackhammers and use the junkasphalt (after melting) to create a huge parking and auto-storage lot on the outskirts of town.... All public movement would be by foot and a fleet of bicycles, maintained by the city police force. 2) Change the name "Aspen," by public referendum, to "Fat City." This would prevent greedheads, land-rapers and other human jackals from capitalizing on the name "Aspen." Thus, Snowmass-at-Aspen — recently sold to Kaiser/Aetna of Oakland — would become "Snowmass-at-Fat City." And the main advantage here is that changing the name of the town would have no major effect on the town itself, or on those people who came here because it's a good place to live. What effect the name change might have on those who came here to buy low, sell high and move on is fairly obvious...and eminently desirable. These swine should be fucked, broken and driven across the land. 3) Drug Sales must be controlled. My first act as Sheriff will be to install, on the courthouse lawn, a bastinado platform and a set of stocks — in order to punish dishonest dope dealers in a proper public fashion.... It will be the general philosophy of the Sheriff's office that no drug worth taking should be sold for money. Non-profit sales will be viewed as borderline cases, and judged on their merits. But all sales for money-profit will be punished severely. This approach, we feel, will establish a unique and very human ambiance in the Aspen (or Fat City) drug culture. 4) Hunting and fishing should be forbidden to all non-residents, with the exception of those who can obtain the signed endorsement of a resident — who will then be legally responsible for any violation or abuse committed by the non-resident he has "signed for." Fines will be heavy and the general policy will be Merciless Prosecution of All Offenders. 5) The Sheriff and his Deputies should never be armed in public. Every urban riot, shoot-out and blood-bath (involving guns) in recent memory has been set off by some trigger-happy cop in a fear frenzy. And no cop in Aspen has had to use a gun for so many years that I feel safe in offering a $12 cash reward to anybody who can recall such an incident in writing. (Box K-3, Aspen.) Under normal circumstances a pistol-grip Mace-bomb, such as the MK-V made by General Ordnance, is more than enough to quickly wilt any violence-problem that is likely to emerge in Aspen. And anything the MK-V can't handle would require reinforcements which case the response would be geared at all times to Massive Retaliation: a brutal attack with guns, bombs, pepper-foggers, wolverines and all other weapons deemed necessary to restore the civic peace. 6) It will be the policy of the Sheriff's office savagely to harass all those engaged in any form of land-rape. This will be done by acting, with utmost dispatch, on any and all righteous complaints. My first act in office — after setting up the machinery for punishing dope-dealers — will be to establish a Research Bureau to provide facts on which any citizen can file a Writ of Seizure, a Writ of Stoppage, a Writ of Fear, of Horror...yes...even a Writ of Assumption...against any greedhead who has managed to get around our antiquated laws and set up a tar-vat, scum-drain or gravel-pit. These writs will be pursued with overweening zeal...and always within the letter of the law. Selah.

But running a political campaign, especially one designed to outrage the local power structure, is a lot of pressure; so Thompson decided, as a way of blowing off steam, to return to his native state of Kentucky to cover the Derby. (This is very similar to the circumstances that led to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — which we will get to soon enough....) Although it began as a kind of vacation, the Derby story had a major impact on Thompson's career in a couple of ways. One is that it was the first time he worked with artist Ralph Steadman, whose visual style — grotesque exaggeration that conveys essential truths — was the perfect complement to the Doctor's writing. The other had to do with how the article was put together. In his book Fear and Loathing, Paul Perry describes it thusly:

At the end of Derby week, Scanlan's brought Hunter and Steadman to New York to put together the story. Steadman had a sketchbook full of caricatures and the worst hangover he'd ever had. Having lost his colors and drawing pencils, he borrowed lipstick and eye shadow from the wife of the managing editor and, using them, completed seven drawings in two days. The editors put Hunter up in the Royalton Hotel and told him to produce, but nothing happened. Copyboys and secretaries made frequent trips to the room to gather pages, but they left empty-handed. Managing editor Don Goddard came to the room and had a heart-to-heart talk with Hunter. "We need something, now don't we?" he said, his English calm hiding his desperation. "We can't publish empty pages, can we?" For two days nothing came out. As Hunter later described it, this was "a terminal writer's block." On the third day, he soaked in a hot bathtub and took counsel from a quart of White Horse Scotch that he drank straight from the bottle. He thought about the idle presses and his friend [Warren] Hinckle waiting in San Francisco for something to slap on those twelve empty pages in the front of the magazine. Finally, he ripped a few pages out of his notebook and handed them to a copyboy who was waiting to deliver them to the New York office. Then he turned on the TV and waited for an editor to call and scream a torrent of abuse. Instead the copyboy came back and said they wanted more. Hunter read his notes and tore out more pages. A little while later, Hinckle called from San Francisco. He had received the telecopied pages from New York and he loved them. Send more. Hunter edited his notes and handed them to the copyboy, who ran them to Goddard, who reshuffled the order of some of the material and sent it to San Francisco. "I was full of grief and shame," Hunter told a reporter from High Times magazine. "This time I made it, but in what I considered to be the foulest and cheapest way.... I slunk back to Colorado and said oh fuck, when it comes out I'm going to take a tremendous beating from a lot of people." The piece, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved," was published in June 1970. Immediately Hunter started getting letters and phone calls of congratulation on a piece well done. One of those letters came from Bill Cardoza, editor of the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, who considered the piece a breakthrough in journalism. "Forget all this shit you've been writing, this it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling." This was the first time the word "Gonzo" was used in reference to Hunter's work.

In the end, Thompson did not become sheriff; but he did discover a new approach to writing that would soon bear fruit in a major way.

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 3)

Posted in R.I.P., HST on September 13th, 2005 by bill
0,1020,438958,00.jpg The success of Hell's Angels gave Dr. Thompson credibility in the world of mainstream journalism and led to an assignment from The New York Times Magazine to write about the growing hippie scene in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The resulting article, called "The 'Hashbury' Is the Capital of the Hippies," begins as a piece of very straight journalism. At times the Doctor sounds like one of the so-called counterculture experts he would later mock:

The word "hip" translates roughly as "wise" or "tuned-in." A hippy is somebody who "knows" what's really happening, and who adjusts or grooves with it.
Although there's no way of telling how much of that is due to some stiff-necked editor at the Times. But as you read on, you can see that Thompson really has taken the time to understand what is going on in hippie culture, and is doing his best to explain it to a mainstream audience. He does an exemplary job of examining the then-new hippie phenomenon without being either judgmental or sentimental; but in the end he finds that his ability to deliver the story is hamstrung by a unique set of difficulties.

A journalist dealing with heads is caught in a strange dilemma. The only way to write honestly about the scene is to be a part of it. If there is one quick truism about psychedelic drugs, it is that anyone who tries to write about them without firsthand experience is a fool and a fraud. Yet to write from experience is an admission of felonious guilt; it is also a potential betrayal of people whose only "crime" is the smoking of a weed that grows wild all over the world but the possession of which, in California, carries a minimum sentence of two years in prison for a second offense and a minimum of five years for a third. So, despite the fact that the whole journalism industry is full of unregenerate heads — just as many journalists were hard drinkers during Prohibition — it is not very likely that the frank, documented truth about the psychedelic underworld, for good or ill, will be illuminated anytime soon in the public prints.

So the Doctor had a decision to make: To write truthfully about the drug culture he would have to include his own experiences, but to do so was career suicide. (Or at least it appeared so at the time; in the end, he got to have it both ways when magazines like Scanlan's Monthly and Rolling Stone published the drug-fueled dispatches that made him famous.) For a guy like Hunter Thompson, this was really no choice at all. He knew that he was in the middle of something important, and he wasn't about to miss out on it. Here's what he wrote about this era years later, in a famous passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run...but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.... History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" is seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket...booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)...but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt about that.... There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda.... You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning... And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.... So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Pt. 2)

Posted in R.I.P., HST on September 9th, 2005 by bill
crousehst.jpg Reading over Part 1, it occurs to me that what I am attempting is nothing less than a sober reappraisal of Hunter S. Thompson's legacy. Is such a thing necessary? Is it desirable? Is it even possible? Well, never mind; I'm into it now, so there's no sense in quitting. As the Doctor liked to say, buy the ticket, take the ride. * * * The whole thing hinges, I think, on the concept of Gonzo journalism. Was it a brilliant innovation or a flimsy excuse to ignore the established rules of the trade? Did it have an ethos and an objective, or was it merely a platform for fuzzy, drug-induced "insights"? Do we even know, after all this time, what it really was? It's hard to conceive of now, but in his early years Hunter Thompson was a relatively straight journalist, albeit one with an offbeat pedigree and a taste for exotic locales. In The Great Shark Hunt you can read a bunch of stories that he wrote for The National Observer from 1962 through 64. These were mostly filed from places like Peru and Brazil, though there are also travelogue pieces about Thompson's home state of Kentucky and Ketchum, Idaho, where Ernest Hemingway lived the last years of his life. Thompson's prose style is clearly recognizable in these pieces, but they are pretty tame by his standards, mostly sticking to the what, where, when and who of things. Apparently he was conducting his own personal drug experiments at the time — according to a Rolling Stone article by Mikal Gilmore, it was South American coca leaves and speed that caused his hair to fall out before he turned 30 — but this does not find its way into The Work. In the mid-60s Thompson moved to the Bay Area (talk about being in the right place at the right time...). Soon after arriving he accepted an assignment from The Nation to write a story about the Hell's Angels, who were getting a lot of press at the time because of an alleged rape incident in Monterey. However, as Thompson notes in Hell's Angels — the book that grew out of his magazine articles — nobody had told the real story of the Angels yet, because most journalists were too scared to get close enough to write it. And with good reason: The Angels were a closed society hostile toward all outsiders, especially journalists, whom they loathed at least as much as cops — and maybe more. Hunter S. Thompson was the perfect guy to take on this challenge. He was big enough and tough enough not to be frightened of the Angels, and jaded enough not to be seduced by their outlaw mystique. He also understood what was going to be necessary to get the story. Spending a day or a week with the Angels wasn't going to cut it; he would have to become part of their scene, gain their trust, or at least enough of it that they would let him stay around until the job was done. This, I think, is the first glimmer of the Gonzo method: If the truth is hidden from outsiders, the only way to get the story is to become part of it. It is interesting to read Hell's Angels now and see that the first 50 pages or so read a lot like the National Observer articles — filled with Thompsonesque locution and vocabulary, but still within a traditional journalistic framework, and always narrated in the third person. But as the book goes on, the line between the writer and the story starts to blur, and the word "I" starts to crop up a lot:

By the middle of summer I had become so involved in the outlaw scene that I was no longer sure whether I was doing research on the Hell's Angels or slowly being absorbed by them. I found myself spending two or three days each week in Angel bars, in their homes, and on runs and parties. In the beginning I kept them out of my own world, but after several months my friends grew accustomed to finding Hell's Angels in my apartment at any hour of the day or night.

And this makes perfect sense; if you're part of the story, why write in the third person? If Gonzo has a philosophy, this is it: Objectivity is for pussies. If you want to write about something, get inside it and really understand it. Anything else is a cop-out. There are dangers to this way of doing things, of course. For one thing, Thompson ended up getting severely beaten by the Angels when he inadvertently offended them. More to the point, when the Doctor became a celebrity in later years, his involvement would often overwhelm and subsume whatever story he was supposedly covering. But at this early stage it is the perfect marriage of method and subject, enabling him to write about the Hell's Angels with this kind of eloquence and understanding:

The farther the Angels roam from their own turf, the more likely they are to cause panic. A group of them seen on a highway for the first time is offensive to every normal notion of what is supposed to be happening in this country; it is bizarre to the point of seeming like a bad hallucination...and this is the context in which the term "outlaw" makes real sense. To see a lone Angel screaming through traffic — defying all rules, limits and patterns — is to understand the motorcycle as an instrument of anarchy, a tool of defiance and even a weapon. A Hell's Angel on foot can look pretty foolish. Their sloppy histrionics and inane conversations can be interesting for a few hours, but beyond the initial strangeness, their everyday scene is as tedious and depressing as a costume ball for demented children. There is something pathetic about a bunch of grown men gathering every night in the same bar, taking themselves very seriously in their ratty uniforms, with nothing to look forward to but the chance of a fight or a round of head jobs from some drunken charwoman. But there is nothing pathetic about the sight of an Angel on his bike. The whole — man and machine together — is far more than the sum of its parts. His motorcycle is the one thing in his life he has absolutely mastered. It is his only valid status symbol, his equalizer, and he pampers it the same way a busty Hollywood starlet pampers her body. Without it, he is no better than a punk on a street corner. And he knows it. The Angels are not articulate about many things, but they bring a lover's inspiration to the subject of bikes. Sonny Barger, a man not given to sentimental rambling, once defined the word "love" as "the feelin you get when you like something as much as your motorcycle. Yeah, I guess you could say that was love." The fact that many Angels have virtually created their bikes out of stolen, bartered or custom-made parts only half explains the intense attachment they have for them. You've got to see an outlaw straddle his hog and start jumping on the starter pedal to fully appreciate what it means. It is like seeing a thirsty man find water. His face changes; his whole bearing radiates confidence and authority. He sits there for a moment with the big machine rumbling between his legs, and then he blasts off...sometimes in a cool, muted kind of way, and sometimes with a roaring wheelstand that rattles nearby windows — but always with style, with élan. And by cutting out in the grand manner at the end of each barroom night, he leaves the others with the best possible image of himself. Each Angel is a mirror in the mutual admiration society. They reflect and reassure each other, in strength and weakness, folly and triumph...and each night at closing time they cut out with a flourish: the juke box wails a Norman Luboff tune, the bar lights dim, and Shane thunders off drunkenly into the moonlight.

Breakfast with Hunter

Posted in R.I.P., HST on September 5th, 2005 by bill
This Hunter Thompson obsession is almost done with, I swear...just another week, maybe two. I just need to get my momentum back. It's all a question of the right techniques, the right medicines, the right atmospheric conditions...the time is at hand, but it's not here quite yet. In the meantime, I honored the holiday today by having an HST-style breakfast, except without the nudity and the cocaine. In case you're not familiar with the Doctor's Philosophy of Breakfast, here it is in a nutshell:

Breakfast is the only meal of the day that I tend to view with the same kind of traditionalized reverence that most people associate with Lunch and Dinner.
I like to eat breakfast alone, and almost never before noon; anybody with a terminally jangled lifestyle needs at least one psychic anchor every twenty-four hours, and mine is breakfast. In Hong Kong, Dallas or at home — and regardless of whether or not I have been to bed — breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess. The food factor should always be massive: four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crepes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned beef hash with diced chiles, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of Key lime pie, two margaritas, and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.... Right, and there should also be two or three newspapers, all mail and messages, a telephone, a notebook for planning the next twenty-four hours and at least one source of good music.... All of which should be dealt with outside, in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.